Bruce Jenner is no more.
Her name is Caitlyn Jenner now, and the proper pronouns are “she” and “her.” Bruce was an American sports icon for over forty years, but Caitlyn? She’s something else entirely. Caitlyn Jenner is America’s first transgender superstar.
Unlike any of the trans celebrities we’ve seen before, Bruce Jenner was a household name for decades before Caitlyn Jenner introduced herself to the world. As a result, the media attention surrounding Jenner’s coming out has been massive, far exceeding anything we’ve seen in the past. Bruce Jenner was a celebrity sports icon and a reality television star long before anyone knew who Caitlyn was, and that makes a difference. We also must acknowledge that Jenner is white and very wealthy, and that makes a difference too.
Indeed, it’s arguable that Caitlyn Jenner is the trans community’s Ellen Degeneres, Freddie Mercury or Elton John – celebrities with star power and cultural influence so great that they’ve actually inspired lasting change in American culture in the way we think about gay and lesbian people.
Caitlyn Jenner’s celebrity profile puts her essentially in a class by herself, and that carries with it a certain level of danger. Jenner’s life will be closely scrutinized. If she says or does something that reflects badly on herself or on the trans community, everyone will know it. Her life is an open book now, and the potential impact she may have on the popular American cultural and perhaps even political perception of trans people – for good or for ill – is immense. As Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee once wrote, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
How Jenner conducts herself in the public eye going forward can and likely will make a huge difference in how trans people are popularly perceived by mainstream America. Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, and others are winning over younger audiences who are tuned into news and popular culture, but it’s really only Caitlyn Jenner, transitioning at the age of 65, who’s positioned to effectively speak to and impact the population that’s historically been the most resistant to supporting trans equality: senior citizens.
In Caitlyn Jenner, seniors are seeing one of their own take a journey that is too often presented in mainstream media as the exclusive purview of the young and pretty. Jenner teaches older Americans that one need not be less than half the age of most seniors to be an attractive and even sexy trans woman. Jenner can certainly have a positive impact on the segment of Americans trans people most need to win over, but there’s also a darker side to her sudden superstardom.
When Caitlyn was still identifying as Bruce, the media wanted to hear what Bruce had to say, to tell his story. Now, Jenner is facing a problem women of all stripes have to confront every day: She’s being judged and celebrated based on her looks instead of who she is as a person and what she has to offer.
Today, much of the media focus is on the Vanity Fair cover, what she’s wearing, and how she presents herself physically. As Jenner enters public life as a woman, we’ll see reports on which designers she’s wearing, where she’s been seen, who she’s been seen with, what she’s driving, how she’s wearing her hair – but likely much less about who Caitlyn Jenner truly is as a person, beyond the physical trappings of womanhood.
Ultimately, the only person who has any hope of changing that narrative is Caitlyn Jenner herself. Only she has the power to demand that the media who seek to cover her do so in a way that tells her story properly. Only she can insist that media outlets which want an interview present her in a way which reflects well on both herself and the trans community.
As Caitlyn Jenner begins her public life as a woman, she carries with her the hopes and dreams of one of America’s most vilified and persecuted minorities for a better and more equal future. That’s a lot of responsibility to shoulder, even for an Olympic champion. For the sake of all of us who live this life, I hope she’s up to it.
Rebecca Juro (@BeckyJuro) is a freelance journalist, blogger, and Internet radio host of the “Rebecca Juro Show.” Rebecca’s work has appeared in the Huffington Post, The Washington Blade, Gay City News, and The Advocate magazine. Her column “Transforming Gender” appears biweekly in the South Florida Gay News and monthly in Windy City Times.