When Bruce Jenner revealed to Diane Sawyer what many had already speculated — that the 1976 Olympic champion now publicly identifies as a woman — nearly 17 million people were watching.
It was a groundbreaking event for the athlete turned reality star, and for an estimated 700,000 transgender Americans.
“It’s become a national teachable moment,” said Mara Keisling, executive director for the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Transgender Equality. “Somebody made us realize we weren’t alone.”
During the two-hour interview on ABC’s “20/20,” an initially nervous and teary Jenner told Sawyer, “For all intents and purposes, I am a woman.”
The show scored a 5.2 rating — about four times higher than is typical among viewers in the 18-to-49 age group on a Friday night, according to figures from Nielsen.
On social media, the interview elicited a largely positive reaction. “All of us deserve the right to be loved for who we are. Bravo #BruceJenner,” tweeted Oprah Winfrey. Public figures from Billie Jean King to Lady Gaga posted on Twitter and Facebook to show their support.
Talk show host Montel Williams, a self-proclaimed conservative, voiced his support on Facebook despite heavy criticism from some of his fans. “Don’t like my support of Bruce Jenner or of #lgbt individuals broadly?” he wrote. “No one is forcing you to be here.”
Among those who took issue was talk show host Wendy Williams, who referred to Jenner as a “fame whore” ahead of the Sawyer interview. More than a few negative tweets with religious overtones following the show called Jenner an “abomination.”
Given Jenner’s recent role as the befuddled husband on the reality blockbuster show “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” many in transgender circles and beyond expressed concern that the public coming out would be viewed as a publicity stunt, undermining a recent swell of otherwise-humanizing television dramas and news regarding their community. Jenner also revealed Friday that a docu-series chronicling his life as a transgender woman will premiere on E! on July 26.
Jenner, 65, had been dogged by the paparazzi over the last year, producing photographs that noted the former athlete’s changing appearance, which has included skirts, nail polish and surgically enhanced feminine features.
Dressed in a simple button-down dress shirt, black slacks and deck shoes with white socks, a low-key Jenner took his long hair out of its ponytail early in the interview, a move symbolic of his newfound freedom. Jenner advised Sawyer to refer to him as “he” since he hasn’t yet publicly revealed his female name or completed his transition.
A series of transgender facts, short comments from experts and lessons on pronouns and terminology peppered segments in between the interview.
At least a few of Sawyer’s awkward questions and surprised reactions reflected the larger prevailing confusion about what it means to be transgender.
“Are you gay?” she asked. “No,” Jenner answered patiently, his expression calm. “Sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same thing.”
Acutely aware that his past as a gold-medal-winning Olympian and member of the Kardashian TV clan gave him a rare public platform, Jenner also said he wanted to use the opportunity to shed light on more marginalized corners of the transgender community.
“I appreciate the fact that Bruce Jenner mentioned the disproportional amount of discrimination and violence that is experienced by transgender women of color,” said Johanna Olson, medical director at the Center for Transyouth Health and Development at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. She said she was confident in the interview’s power to “raise national awareness and hopefully break down barriers for the transgender community.”
For a large majority of the American public, the power of pop culture in making sense of complicated, urgent social issues cannot be underestimated.
“Polls show that 9 out of 10 Americans personally know someone who is lesbian, gay or bisexual, but [only] around 8% say they know someone who is transgender,” said Nick Adams, director of programs and transgender media for GLAAD, an LGBT monitoring group that addresses discrimination. “So for 92% of Americans, everything they know about a transgender person they’re learning from the media.”
Yet the recent attention toward the transgender world has presented critical challenges for both the community and the media.
Covering trans issues is a minefield of seemingly new rules and terminology. It’s for this very reason that organizations such as GLAAD publish guidelines on respectful ways to write about the transgender community. For example, under its “terms to avoid,” GLAAD lists “sex change,” “pre-operative” and “post-operative” as problematic. The preferred term is “transition.”
At least one high-profile transgender woman says that the advocacy guidelines and talking points can feel confusing and restrictive, even to her.
Zoey Tur, a freelance reporter for “Inside Edition” who transitioned in the public eye, compared transgender terminology to fibromyalgia diagnoses, in that it often overshadows the issue it’s meant to improve. “If you don’t know what something is,” she said, “you put it in the fibromyalgia box, because it sounds really good and now you know what you’re treating. But it could be all kinds of things.”
Jenner’s reveal comes on the heels of a series of breakthrough moments on television that signal that attitudes toward transgender people had already been shifting.
On network TV, recent transgender storylines on “Glee” and “The Bold and the Beautiful” appear light-years removed from the old variety show model of the cross-dressing comedian. The success of streaming series such as “Orange Is the New Black” and “Transparent” suggest there is an appetite for more nuanced and realistic storylines regarding transgender characters.
At least two network pilots are now in the works starring transgender actors in major roles: the CBS legal drama series “Doubt” with Laverne Cox, and the NBC pilot “The Curse of the Fuentes Women” featuring “Transparent’s” Trace Lysette.
Several cable channels, too, are or will soon air series centered around transgender main characters. Discovery Life’s first original series, “New Girls on the Block,” features six transgender women; TLC’s forthcoming “All That Jazz” is about trans teen YouTube activist Jazz Jennings; and ABC Family’s “Becoming Us” is about a parent’s transition.
“We’re no longer just a punchline for comics, or just limited to that sphere,” said Dana Beyer, a transgender rights advocate and executive director of Gender Rights Maryland. “Stories about us are now of interest to the mainstream media, and not because we’re special but because we’re not just marginalized and ridiculed. We’re actually newsworthy.”
According to a study conducted by GLAAD over the last three years regarding “Trans Images on TV,” transgender roles on scripted television over the last decade have been typically limited to those of psychotic killers or murder victims. The most common profession? Sex worker.
But things are improving, particularly on reality TV, Adams says. “Reality television has been somewhat of a bright spot in terms of incorporation of transgender people because they’re able to be themselves and tell their own stories.”
Former “Grey’s Anatomy” producers Tony Phelan and Joan Rater are excited about the new frontier of transgender issues on mainstream TV.
The couple is behind the CBS pilot “Doubt,” which costars Cox of “Orange Is the New Black” fame.
The actress plays one of three attorneys, Phelan said, “but [her gender] is not the first thing you notice about the character. Sure, it’s part of who she is, but that’s not the only thing that defines her as a person. That’s very true to the transgender people we know.”
One of those people is Rater and Phelan’s son Tom, an actor who also happens to have played the role of a transgender teen on ABC Family’s “The Fosters.” “Our kid is transgender, but our kid is also funny and smart,” Rater said. “It’s one part of who he is.” The couple hope to see more trans actors working in Hollywood. “It’s important to us,” Rater said.
Zoe Dolan is a real-life transgender defense attorney who’s worked on high-profile terrorism cases and was recently part of the team representing Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden. For years she’s been trying, on her own blog and the Huffington Post, to draw attention to many of the issues now being played out on reality TV, scripted dramas and the news media.
“The transgender community makes up a fraction of a fraction of the population,” Dolan said, “but we do what everybody else does, so the challenge for the media and the entertainment industry is to portray that world in all its complexity.”
Still, Dolan says that the acceptance of transgender television characters hasn’t yet translated to broad tolerance for transgender people. “That mask of acceptance has yet to melt down into the epidermal layer and into people’s hearts,” she said. “The way we are considered in our work lives in society is a very different question from how people accept us on a fundamental, interpersonal level. That’s the ultimate test.”
With reporting by Stephen Battaglio and Hailey Branson-Potts.