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What's Bruce Jenner got to do with the price of fish?

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
"The truth is, the Jenner profile was as much about the mainstream media celebrating its own recognition of trans people as ‘a thing’, a phenomenon worthy of coverage, as it was offering any viewer an informed glimpse of our lives. But we are on your radar, now." [Photo: ehpien via flickr]
"The truth is, the Jenner profile was as much about the mainstream media celebrating its own recognition of trans people as ‘a thing’, a phenomenon worthy of coverage, as it was offering any viewer an informed glimpse of our lives. But we are on your radar, now." [Photo: ehpien via flickr]

By Laura Shepherd

Bruce Jenner is trans. If you’ve bought food in a grocery store in the past six months and are literate in English, you will have noticed already the speculation on the pages of all the magazines and tabloids at the checkout, even if it was only out of the corner of your eye. It was a carefully stage-managed event, the actual declaration of what everyone by then already knew. This is how the machine of celebrity is fed. It’s a recession-proof, growth-certain industry, largely because suckers like us are born every minute.

In case you missed the five Ws, Jenner was a US Olympian, winning the gold medal in the decathlon- the Olympics’ emblem of male athleticism - at the 1976 Montreal games. Somewhere along the line, Bruce got mixed up with the Kardashian clan, ended up marrying one of them and appearing on their reality TV series, which is the only reason any of us know Jenner is (still) alive, much less no longer competing in the decathlon. Bruce divorced whichever Kardashian they were married to but still gets to hang with them and appear on the show. The tabloid celebrity press has speculated for months, informed by regular leaks it would seem, that Jenner will transition genders.

Jenner appeared on the American newsmagazine show 20/20 to declare themselves before host Diane Sawyer to be both trans and Republican. This just serves to remind us that just because somebody else is trans, it doesn’t mean I have to like them, or that we are going to be friends. They did not explicitly identify themselves to be binary-identified, however they appear by the nature of their statements to be so.

The pubic revelation will raise awareness among those who have been insulated enough by their own privilege not to have previously noticed (or had to) non-binary or trans people. It would be nice if someone could get around to reminding them of the existence of trans people of colour, or trans people with disabilities, too.

These celebrity revelations, orchestrated to be sensational, invariably end up being rather banal affairs. Vanilla trans – the least threatening kind. You don’t want to take your audience so far out of their comfort zone, they can’t get back when the show is over. After all, you want them to be able to tune in again next week. Jenner’s public reckoning was a lot less cringeworthy than many trans people had feared.

Jenner’s revelation is unlikely to awaken a trans person to their own identity, though I would never say “never”. For some, particularly those who require a countenance of reputed respectability and proven credibility, Jenner’s revelation will help authenticate the existence of trans people. For the more tolerant, it may help to legitimize us.

It’s not going to normalize us. Bruce Jenner does not lead an ordinary life. They are wealthy, famous and somehow economically engaged in such a way that they don’t require any real skill or competence to make millions of dollars a year. They don’t have any real duties. They are paid for being, though not necessarily, as Jenner’s struggle would reveal, for being themselves.

There was Christine Jorgensen, the US GI who stopped off in Denmark on the way back from Korea for a sex change; there was Teri Toye, the 1971 Girl of the Year in Manhattan fashion circles (Andreja Pejic is not the first international trans model); there was Renee Richards, the professional tennis player of the 1970s who was a woman trapped in a man’s body. There’s Chas Bono, the only trans man the average person can name. Now there’s Jenner and no one is sure if transgender is a noun or an adjective.

Celebrity trans people. They are said to raise awareness.

Awareness is not understanding. Indeed, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Most of the common phrases by which the public thinks it knows us trans folks come from misunderstandings fostered by the media’s fascination with a trans celebrity – ‘sex change’, ‘trapped in the wrong body’, the whole litany of tropes, truisms and authoritatively issued misrepresentations.

While there are many people who have earned recognition and fame in their fields who are trans men, or who do not have a binary gender, or whose gender is not static, they never get a gala coming out party thrown on national television. There’s a certain titillation involved in fetishizing the trans woman.

In the end, what awareness is raised is raised on cisgender people’s terms, not trans people’s terms. Such is the sloping field of play in the game of privilege. This is how self-determination is eroded and the lived experience of trans people erased.

Now, cisgender Nova Scotians find themselves in the unfortunate position of having been shown more by the media about the life of a single, famous trans person who lives in California than they have about the many trans, non-binary and genderfluid Nova Scotians who may be their neighbours, their friends, their own children.

The truth is, the Jenner profile was as much about the mainstream media celebrating its own recognition of trans people as ‘a thing’, a phenomenon worthy of coverage, as it was offering any viewer an informed glimpse of our lives. But we are on your radar, now.


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