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Bruce Jenner Is The Wrong Poster Boy For Transgender Issues

In this image former Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner is shown on the cover of Wheaties. (General Mills/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
In this image former Olympic decathlete Bruce Jenner is shown on the cover of Wheaties. (General Mills/AP)

Leelah Alcorn might still be with us had her painful gender odyssey attracted the empathetic national attention Diane Sawyer is reportedly about to shower on Bruce Jenner. But the struggles of a 17-year-old transgender girl from rural Ohio could never compete with the call of the carnival barker.

Few knew her name until Leelah, née Joshua, stepped in front of a tractor-trailer on Interstate 71 20 miles outside Cincinnati a few days after Christmas, one of the 41 percent of transgender people who attempt suicide, according to a 2010 report by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. Figures about those, like Leelah, who die by suicide are harder to come by in a society that acknowledges transgender people only when they turn up on a hit Netflix or Amazon series, claim Sonny & Cher as parents or grace the front of a Wheaties cereal box.

It does not diminish Jenner’s personal courage to suggest that a Hollywood self-promoter is exactly the wrong person to represent the struggle for transgender acceptance.

Expect the usual sheen of sanctimony about “shedding light on a pressing social issue” as motivation for Sawyer’s tell-all sit-down with the onetime American Olympian turned bit player in the cultural debasement that is the Kardashian franchise. But, make no mistake, the encounter between the former decathlon champion and the former anchorwoman is a circus in the making with Sawyer in the role of ringmaster, coaxing tales of hormone injections and laser hair removal for an audience less invested in gender equality than in celebrity voyeurism.

It does not diminish Jenner’s personal courage to suggest that a Hollywood self-promoter is exactly the wrong person to represent the struggle for transgender acceptance. The uncharacteristic reticence of the Kardashian clan to answer reporters’ questions about Jenner’s evolving gender identity has less to do with protecting Jenner’s privacy than with preserving what promises to be the major storyline of the 10th season of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” The secrecy surrounding the Sawyer interview is all about building audiences for a network interview and for Jenner’s rumored documentary series for E!

Where is the frantic network or cable competition for the story of the anguished middle school boy trying to negotiate the chasm between his internal gender identity and the sex he was assigned at birth? Or for the story of the teacher at the front of his class, wrestling with the same disconnect in her own life? By defining transgender issues only in the crabbed context of our celebrity culture, the media perpetuates the marginalization of every postal worker, firefighter and bank teller who struggles in the shadows while the spotlight shines on a d-list celebrity who has been cashing in for 40 years on that 1976 Gold Medal.

(Leelah Alcorn/ Facebook)
(Leelah Alcorn/ Facebook)

In 32 states, transgender people can be fired because no law prohibits discrimination based on gender identity. In 2011, 47 percent of respondents to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey reported having lost a job or been denied a promotion because they were transgender or gender non-conforming. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and UCLA Law School's Williams Institute reported a year ago that transgender people who experience family rejection, discrimination, or violence have a much higher risk of attempting suicide. In Kentucky and Utah, in just the last few weeks, lawmakers have filed bills to ban transgender schoolchildren from using the bathrooms of their choice if they do not correspond to their anatomical sex.

“My death needs to mean something," Leelah Alcorn wrote on social media before walking four miles in the predawn darkness from her home in Kings Mills, Ohio, to the highway where she died.

I don’t think her goal was a new reality TV show for Bruce Jenner.

Eileen McNamara Cognoscenti contributor
A Pulitzer Prize-winning former columnist for The Boston Globe, Eileen McNamara is the author of "Eunice, The Kennedy Who Changed the World."

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