Plus Ça Change…
The First Heroism of Bruce Jenner, but Not the Last
Back in the 1970s, he was on the cover of every magazine and a sports icon—the greatest athlete in the world. Now his new journey is another kind of heroism.
After months of tittering, gossip-y, speculation, People magazine is reporting that former Olympic decathlete and reality TV star Bruce Jenner has decided to come out as transgender and “will soon be living life as female.”
Their source added that “He is finally happy and his family is accepting of what he’s doing. He’s in such a great space. That’s why it’s the perfect time to do something like this.”
TMZ is jumping into the fray, as well, boasting that it’s been told that “for ‘way more than a year’ Bruce was doing this” and that Jenner “is now far along in the process, has undergone various procedures and psychological counseling, and is ready to show his journey to the world” in an E! Network series.
To be clear, until Jenner makes some sort of announcement or public statement, citing unnamed sources, friends of the family, or even vague quotes from the Kardashians themselves to declare without a doubt that Jenner “is” transgender is wildly premature. As Janet Mock, a transgender rights activist and best-selling author, recently wrote in response to a transphobic cover photo by InTouch magazine, this kind of public shaming and speculation “spreads the misconception that being trans is laughable.”
“It’s this destructive thinking that pushes trans people deeper into isolation, it’s this thinking that leads many to justify the disproportionate violence transwomen of color face, it’s this thinking that convinces a 17-year-old girl that her only option for peace is to jump in front of a truck,” Mock said. “And nothing is wrong—absolutely nothing is wrong or laughable—about being trans. What’s wrong is a magazine aiming to humiliate someone by labeling them a transgender woman as if being trans and being a woman is an insult.”
What’s been forgotten or mentioned merely as a footnote is that long before Jenner was shoehorned into the sitcom-ish role of a bumbling and feckless if well-meaning TV dad, he was considered the greatest athlete in the world—a cultural touchstone on par with LeBron James or Lionel Messi today.
After finishing 10th in the decalthlon at the 1972 Olympics, Jenner embarked on a relentless training regimen in preparation for the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. In an interview with Chris Jones at Esquire, Jenner described his grueling regimen and laser-like focus.
“Jenner had that photograph blown up, and he put it up on the wall in his austere apartment, over his couch. Except that he didn’t center it. He pushed it off to the left, because he was saving a spot for the next photograph, the one that would be taken when he crossed the finish line in triumph in Montreal in 1976,” Jones wrote. “He trained for eight hours a day, every day, for four years, and every night, Jenner came home and looked at that empty space on his wall. ‘I stared at that hole,’ he says, ‘and knew what was going to go there.’”
In 1976, Jenner won the gold in the decathlon, finishing with a then-world record 8,616 points. The image of Jenner crossing the finish line with his arms outstretched in triumph and his long hair flapping in the breeze became iconic, plastered on the front of a box of Wheaties cereal. He met with President Gerald Ford and was on the cover of pretty much every glossy you could find, in publications as wide-ranging in subject and tone as Sports Illustrated, Tiger Beat, and Playgirl.
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Jenner was everywhere, making appearances on Battle of the Network Stars and starring in the campy ode to all the now-laughable aspects of the disco era, Can’t Stop the Music. On the small screen, Jenner was always available for a guest spot on shows like CHiPs, The Fall Guy, Silver Spoons, and Murder, She Wrote.
Basically, Jenner was an American hero, the world’s greatest athlete. But the collective amnesia about his ahtletic exploits isn’t just the insatiable maw that is reality TV gobbling up his former life. It’s been shoved down the memory hole because transgender athletes—sad to say—remain a threat to our collective, preconceived notions of gender. We still define sports stars as being the paragon of masculinity, a heroic ideal meant to be emulated and showered not only with fame and fortune but sexualized adoration, as well.
Think Joe DiMaggio or Wilt Chamberlain. The assumption and part of the reason they’re thought of as male ideals is that jocks get laid a lot (by women). This idealized construct starts to collapse if and when someone like Jenner chooses a different identity or, say, when Jason Collins comes out. The result of this seeming paradox is anger and bigotry, or at best, guffaws and mockery.
A few weeks ago, the thoughtful social scientists at Fox & Friends were chortling about the InTouch cover when Brian Kilmeade inadvertently hit the nail on the head, saying, “OK, I don’t know. I just don’t see him on a Wheaties box again in the future.”
I asked Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation, to explain what’s behind this backlash.
“So much of gender identity in the U.S. is tied to sports,” he said via email. “It starts with the fact that from an early age kids are segregated by sex and by how adults gender-identify them. It continues in terms if how they’re treated and coached. Trans athletes and athletes who refuse to gender-identify find themselves, whether they want to or not, with the heavy and at times dangerous burden of having to represent a challenge to this deeply ingrained way of thinking. Even if they just want to play, their gender construction becomes politicized.”
Athletes who have formerly identified as female face a different kind of prejudice, but it’s part and parcel of the same problem. Women who compete in sports have always been tagged with some form of gender-shaming, going back to the whole construct of “tomboys” and continuing through the sniggering jokes about former Soviet female Olympians with mustaches. A woman who competes in sports is already seen as being “too masculine” or in some way a betrayal of the entire notion of femininity. But even if Title IX and other advances have fought back against this kind of reactionary thinking, the prejudice against transgender athletes remains relatively permissible.
Take Fallon Fox, an MMA fighter that came out as transgender in 2013. As Parker Molloy wrote at VICE Sports, Fox has been ridiculed; what’s more, she has become the subject of hand-wringing editorials that rely on some really shoddy pseudoscience or relapse into revanchist bigotry.
“She wants to be able to fight women in MMA; I say no fucking way,” UFC commenter and ex-Fear Factor host Joe Rogan screeched. “I say if you had a dick at one point in time, you also have all the bone structure that comes with having a dick. You have bigger hands, you have bigger shoulder joints. You’re a fucking man. That’s a man, OK? You can’t have...that’s...I don’t care if you don’t have a dick anymore.”
“More than anything, trans athletes are viewed as a threat as the result of ignorance, plain and simple,” Molloy explained via email. “There's always this argument being put forth by those against trans inclusion in sports that trans women have some inherent advantage in sports over their cisgender (non-trans) counterparts. As every study conducted on the topic has shown, however, this simply isn't the case.”
Yes, it’s certainly possible to see Jenner’s rumored TV show as just another self-marketing effort or cash cow. But if you can’t see the difference between the faux-drama of Kim or Khloe’s latest romantic dalliances and the bravery required of Jenner to make this incredibly difficult personal journey public, knowing that he’ll be a both a tabloid punchline and the subject of serious prejudice, you aren’t paying attention.
This, too, is heroic.