I wonder if people will look back on this moment in history and say that this was the week when transgender people began to be understood and respected around the world. Caitlyn Jenner has completed her public transformation from “he” to “she,” after a long process of struggle and change that was grounded in personal truth. The event of her self-presentation in Vanity Fair seems comparable to Magic Johnson's 1991 HIV announcement. That event universalized the AIDS epidemic and made it possible for people to see the unfolding tragedy as something that belonged to all of us. Ordinary people began to feel responsibility toward HIV patients of all kinds. They began to see that anyone could be an AIDS victim. The Caitlyn Jenner event focuses our attention on something more positive, but equally universal – namely, self-realization.
I don’t mean to suggest that everyone welcomes this event as a step forward for civilization. Magic Johnson’s revelation also met with resistance at first. People who had believed that HIV could only be contracted by homosexuals refused to accept Magic Johnson as a heterosexual stand-in for themselves. They wanted to preserve the difference – a difference that the virus did not respect. But the fact that it was a beloved sports hero who stepped forward ultimately made a huge difference. People could immediately sympathize. Caitlyn Jenner’s life promises to transform our vision of social responsibility in a similar way. It presents a challenge to society – a challenge to accept the transgender person as the universal human. Something important is happening to our understanding of who we are.
Once again, a sports hero, one of the greatest, points the way to an imagined future. Bruce Jenner was the decathlon champion of the 1976 summer Olympics. He won the title back from the Soviets. An American symbol of masculinity, he was the role model projected on the Wheaties cereal box. But he already harbored a secret that even he could barely acknowledge: he was a she. Wikipedia today already reflects this gender change in the pronoun used in descriptions of Bruce Jenner’s athletic achievements. Now, they were “her” achievements. These feats were the accomplishments of Caitlyn Jenner.
Gender definitions aren’t as fixed as we conventionally believe, and most of us don’t fit easily into one category or another. Gender is almost always a matter of a tension between the hard-to-define feelings of individuals and the constraints of strict cultural standards. Boys grow up under a regime of gender testing. On a daily basis we’re challenged to “prove” our masculinity, to “show” that we are men. Although many of us find that challenge exciting and meaningful, not all boys do. Manhood is an achievement precisely because it is conventional rather than natural. We could argue about what it means to be a man – and even about whether the current concept of masculinity reflects the values we want to promote in our society.
Traditionally, gender definitions promote conformity. But actual people are all over the map when it comes to gendered expression. For every Caitlyn Jenner who wishes to achieve a conventional image of femininity, there are ten thousand Bruce or Caitlyn Jenners who are also uncomfortable with the category of American manhood or womanhood and find that their true desire is somewhere in between the image of the Olympian Jenner and the Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair, somewhere among the hundreds of unknown genders waiting to be defined. What Caitlyn Jenner has perhaps done, through her example, is to help the rest of us to feel freer to own a gender expression that fits our desires. We are all Caitlyn.