It’s an odd coincidence that just as Bruce Jenner was announcing to the world, via his 20/20 interview with Diane Sawyer, that he perceives himself as a woman, I was heading for the annual New York conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. This year’s keynote speaker was Jennifer Finney Boylan, whose memoir, She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders, was the first book by an openly transgender American to climb the bestseller lists. Because I was not familiar with Jennifer’s career, I anticipated her appearance at the conference as something of a stunt. As she herself jokes, in this day and age (following well-publicized visits to every major talk show) she’s something of a “professional transsexual.” But she’s also, I learned, a very real writer, who’s been devoted to her craft since (as James Boylan) she completed a graduate degree in English at John Hopkins University in the 1980s. She’s published novels as well as memoirs, and was a much-admired professor at Colby College from 1988 to 2014. (Here's a link to a recording of her highly emotional keynote address.)
When you become a public figure representing a social issue of the moment, your privacy is gone. Jennifer mildly gripes that these days she spends her professional life discussing her “down below” parts. Interviewers “all want to talk about my panties,” rather than her authorial skills. It can’t be avoided. Since she transitioned in 2000 at the age of 40, she’s been a rather unusual-looking woman: very tall, very thin, with a voice that doesn’t seem to belong to either gender. There are other complications: she’s been married to a woman since 1988 and has fathered two sons. Fortunately, she’s got a great sense of humor, as well as a close-knit family, and the role of an activist seems to suit her fine. As Bruce Jenner goes through his awkward post-Kardashian phase, she’ll be cheering him on.
I’ve just viewed an ABC news report on the attention-grabbing Jenner interview. Jenner, of course, moved into the spotlight at the 1976 Olympics, when he won a gold medal in the decathlon and was crowned the world’s finest athlete. Since then he’s tried to make it in Hollywood, first with such lame movies as Can’t Stop the Music (a pseudo-biopic about the Village People) and more recently on reality TV’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians. It’s doubtless challenging for him to transition while in the public eye, but at the same time he’s able to do a great deal of good for others in his predicament. One ABC newscaster mentioned that only 8% of us actually know someone who’s transgender. His colleague summed up Jenner’s contribution: “In a sense, we all know someone now.” Jenner’s fame, in other words, helps others who question their gender identity feel that they’re not alone.
Hollywood celebrities sometimes seem rather pointless in the great scheme of things. They wear great clothes; they make lots of money—so what? But because of their fame, they’re in a position to do much good in the world. Rock Hudson’s admission that he was dying of AIDS put a face on a terrible epidemic. The plight of Christopher Reeve drew attention to spinal cord injuries; Michael J. Fox made the world take heed of Parkinson’s disease. Angelina Jolie’s willing to speak openly of her double mastectomy may help save the lives of other women who, like her, are coping with a BRCA1 gene mutation that almost guarantees breast cancer. So now it’s Bruce Jenner -- superathlete, actor, honorary Kardashian -- who can use his own private woes to educate the rest of us. I wish him (or her) well.