The term “transgender” has been an intricate part of my vocabulary since I decided to become a feminist studies major at the end of my sophomore year in college.
While many of my friends and disassociated peers thought this meant I studied how to hate men all day, it meant I delved into the many sections, stereotypes and societal secrets that dance in and out of “normal” life.
Gender was my particular area of interest. In layman’s terms, I quickly learned "gender" referred to the concept of boy/girl, while sex referred to anatomical layout for a male/female.
Gender was, more or less, a set of roles and expectations created, constructed and perpetuated by society; sex was simply what existed (or didn’t) between our legs.
The other 59 feminist studies students and I felt confident and comfortable discussing transgender topics (yes, there is more than one) by the time we graduated.
Thanks to Bruce Jenner using his fame, privilege and personal struggle, there are now millions who might join in on that conversation, as well.
This isn’t publicity in the sense of gaining sympathy. This is publicity in its finest form: educating.
As a society, we are so scared to be part of a non-conformed existence, we cannot even bear to question the issues that scare us the most.
Bruce addressed this in his interview with Diane Sawyer, citing incidences when family members had caught him in women’s clothing. Instead of asking him about it outright, they sat on the secret.
We don’t know what to do with transgender because we don’t know transgender. We don’t ask; we don’t tell. We laugh, assume, hide and shove it under the rug. We do not talk openly.
But, now, maybe we can start.
One of the great distinctions Bruce made in his interview is his identification as a woman is gender-based. You know the pink, fuzzy blankets that newborn girls are wrapped in? This is a gender norm. Pink equals girl; vagina equals female.
Bruce’s feelings and interest in clothing, expression and physicality are gender adaptations. We all want to know if this makes him gay, lesbian, sexually-confused or anything else along those lines.
But, his focus is not on sex; it’s on gender.
Imagine asking a 4-year-old girl holding a basketball if she plans on sleeping with women because she is breaking gender norms.
The two concepts wrongfully go hand in hand in our naïve society's cohesive mind, but Bruce Jenner is helping to ease the conversation away from gender and sex being interchangeable.
The former Olympic champion is setting a fantastic example for young individuals questioning their “normal” everywhere, but there was another hero in the interview who is the true role model we need to start mimicking: Bruce’s mother.
In a teary-eyed, genuine display of love, Bruce’s (might I add, conservative) mother said she thought watching him step on the podium to receive the gold medal was the proudest moment she could ever have in regards to her son.
After he decided to unleash his age-old secret, however, she changed her mind and said she has come to see his recent honest display as her proudest moment.
This is how we change the conversation about transgender. This is how we start preventing suicide, depression and bullying.
The fear about identifying as transgender exists in relation to others’ reactions, especially of those to whom we are closest.
How is Bruce changing the conversation about all of this? He’s allowing us to learn, along with his family.
Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles and whoever else has a family member who is testing gender boundaries: You all need to nod your heads and talk about it: Yes, it’s okay to wear men’s or women’s clothing. Yes, some people may laugh. Yes, I love you. Yes, I’m proud of you.
Ask questions; voice concerns without saying no; feel protective; feel scared, but talk about it.
The minute we shut down our youngest protégés who have the power to change our society’s perception and understanding of equality, we go backward.
When we tell our children, friends, or siblings it is unacceptable to dress a certain way, ask certain questions or play with certain toys, we are giving the green light to live a life full of insecurity and secrecy.
We are halting conversation; we are squashing the human right to the pursuit of happiness. We are breeding insecurity and inferiority.
How does the average American deal with those feelings? Substance abuse, violence and suicide.
Let’s get smarter, not quieter.
Bruce Jenner is privileged. He is wealthy, has a supportive family and has access to tell his story the way he wants it to be told. He has access to hormones, surgerical procedures and mental health experts to whom many others do not have access.
He gets the opportunity to explain things in full.
I can’t think of a better, more positive way to use that privilege than to allow America to start having the right conversation about identifying as transgender.
Hats off, Bruce Jenner. Hats off.