About five minutes into a compelling interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC on Friday night, Bruce Jenner unfurled his ponytail and let his flowing locks hang down. A symbolic and dramatic gesture. More than two years after tabloids first began speculating about his gender identity issues, the former Olympic decathlon champion confirmed he is transitioning to a woman. There was no need to wear the hair up anymore. The time for artifice was over.
“For all intents and purposes, I am a woman,” said Jenner in that rarest of events in American television, a programme that actually delivered on the weeks of breathless hype preceding it. “My brain is much more female than it is male. That’s what my soul is. Bruce lives a lie. She is not a lie.”
Although he referred again and again to his female self as she, Jenner stated that, for the moment, he would prefer people to use the male pronoun when discussing him. That Americans must now consider and discuss these loaded grammatical issues sums up the positive impact his revelation can have on the lives of others in similar positions.
The troubled tale of somebody who has struggled with gender for most of his own life, this was poignant, candid and courageous stuff. From discovering an inexplicable urge to put on his sister’s dresses at the age of nine in Tarrytown, New York to undergoing female hormone treatment in the 1980s that gave him 36b breasts, Jenner revealed a tortured, private life far removed from his public persona.
“People look at me differently,” he told Sawyer. “They see this macho male, but this female side is part of me, it’s who I am. I was not genetically born that way, and so now I have all the male parts and all that kind of stuff so in a lot of ways we’re different but we still identify as female. My whole life has been getting me ready for this.”
The entirety of his life is exactly why this is such a seismic moment in American culture. Long before gaining 21st century fame as the hapless father cum walking punchline in Keeping up with the Kardashians, Jenner's feats at the Montreal Olympics earned him the unofficial title of "world's best athlete". The All-American hero stared down at shoppers from cereal boxes (a peculiarly American version of the sporting pantheon), made the cover of Playgirl magazine, and auditioned for the role of Superman that eventually went to Christopher Reeve.
If it’s precisely because of who he used to be rather than who he is that this story resonates, it turns out he was somebody a lot different than we ever imagined. The beaming figure on the podium in Montreal was already worried about his “beard” slipping now that retirement from athletics loomed. The motivational speaker who wowed a thousand corporate conferences used to retreat to his hotel room and swap his power suit for a dress.
“It’s not that I’m trying to dress up as a woman,” said Jenner. “It’s that I’ve spent my whole life dressing up as a man.”
In the usual way of American television productions, the reveal was an elongated affair but, in this case, ABC used the two-hours wisely. At times, the programme almost had the feel of a public service announcement, bringing valuable information about the plight of a put-upon minority who only very recently became part of the national conversation. The advance publicity described this as “America’s transgender moment”. With phrases like “genitals don’t equal gender” being bandied about as Jenner explained he was not gay, it certainly lived up to that billing.
“Sexuality is who you are personally attracted to, who turns you on, male or female,” he said. “Gender identity has to do with who you are as a person, your soul, and who you identify with inside.”
Sense of humour
While he periodically teared up during the conversation, Jenner also cautioned that people retain their sense of humour about his situation. At one point, he brought Sawyer into his closet to show off his favourite black dress and confessed that his (former) step-daughter Kim Kardashian has started proffering fashion advice, warning him, "You gotta rock it baby, you gotta look good if you're doing this!"
It turns out that Kardashian’s husband Kanye West played a key part in her coming to terms with Jenner’s decision.
“Kim told me a story,” said Jenner. “They were talking about it. And Kanye says to Kim, ‘Look, I can be married to the most beautiful woman in the world. And I am. I can have the most beautiful little daughter in the world. I have that. But I’m nothing if I can’t be me, if I can’t be true to myself.’”
Predictably, there have been darker moments in this narrative too. He confessed to not being fair to his three ex-wives about this issue, and, pointedly, Kris Kardashian, the last of them, refused to comment for the show. Also, following particularly harsh treatment by the paparazzi after surgery to have his Adam's apple shaved, Jenner even contemplated suicide.
“I was in this hall right here, walking up and down, back and forth, all night long, heart pounding,” he said of his mental state that night. “And I thought, wouldn’t the easiest thing be right now - and I can see where people get to that - to just go in the room, I’ve got a gun and boom! The pain’s over, you know, go to a better place. And I thought, I can’t do something like that, I mean, I wanna know how this story ends.”
By the time the 40th anniversary of Jenner’s gold comes around next year, he will have completed his transition and taken the female name he’s jealously keeping to himself for now. In Montreal that summer long ago, Americans fell in love with an unknown decathlete because of the bravery, determination and resilience he displayed over the course of two days. Over the course of two hours last night, they witnessed a lot, lot more of the same.