News & Opinion


Bruce Jenner’s Audacious Challenge To Republicans: A Trailblazer Takes Flight

The Daily Beast

April 26, 2015

The paparazzi pictures of Bruce Jenner on Sunday tell their own meaningful story.

Just a few days ago he was being photographed, without his knowledge, from a hillside near his home by paparazzi training their telephoto lenses on a figure in a striped dress.

Even when he was photographed out shopping, his head was down as the snappers pursued him, baiting him about transitioning.

But now, as the new pictures show, Jenner is smiling that quizzical smile of his that was much in evidence during Diane Sawyer’s landmark ABC interview with him on Friday.

The message of that smile: I’m no longer hiding, a burden has been lifted. His interview with Sawyer was not just important for what he said, but how he said it: unapologetic, clear, direct, matter-of-fact.

Jenner didn’t speak in the approved language of LGBT pressure groups, his words didn’t accord to the political desires or crib-sheet of activists—and that welcome, from-the-heart honesty was its own most powerful and convincing advertisement.

In laying out his own faltering path to self-realization—carry on calling me a ‘he,’ I’m not sure what happens next, I’m getting there in my own time, this is my favorite little black dress, no, I’m not going to wear a dress on camera, sure, I’ll lobby the Republicans to change their ways—Jenner’s public confessional showed the power of the personal, and how the personal can be the most powerfully political.

Intimate and direct, Jenner’s interview gave the transgender movement its own media-age “Stonewall” moment.

It was less violent, less incendiary than the 1969 riots of course, but it was—in its far quieter way—revolutionary, radical, and game-changing. The explanation of a transgender person’s personal journey has never been so fully told, and in the context of transgender cultural history and present-day legal discrimination.

And the negative reactions? Nothing but a couple of dumb jokes from Bill Maher and Kris Humphries, Kim Kardashian’s doofus-seeming ex, who immediately claimed his one-liner tweet wasn’t intended as a slight on Jenner.

And that—despite people fulminating that this was merely more Kardashian madness, that “who cares, this isn’t news”—has been the extent of the negative response to Jenner so far.

This is a surprise: on Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Jenner is a shuffling, odd figure out of step with the family of glossy drama-queens emoting and contriving angst and conflict around him.

In a stroke, Jenner has become the most fascinating member of the Kardashian circus, and for an interview that was not a circus but an absorbing, sensitive piece of documentary storytelling that shouldn’t have seemed as unique as it was.

The ratings told their own resounding truth: 16.9 million viewers, with just under a million tweets from 403,000 unique authors.

It wasn’t just that Jenner eloquently expressed the story of his life, but that he crossed so many intriguing boundaries when he did so: he talked about his faith, and revealed he was a Republican who would like, keenly, to lobby that party to become more inclusive. He said it in such a folksy, matter-of-fact way it obscured how radical that was.

The much-expected mawkish, syrupy TV confessional turned out to be something livelier and more unexpected. Just as in the brilliant TV show, Transparent, Jenner placed his transition in the context of family, and much-loved children and grandchildren. We saw those children discuss it, chew over it, laugh about it, think about it.

In crossing so many boundaries, and challenging so many preconceptions, the two-hour interview surprised its millions of viewers for its candor and for Jenner’s powerful insistence of the many things he was as a human being.

The interview was so unlike the larky pantomime of Keeping Up With The Kardashians that the snarky crucible of Twitter and TV critics, like the New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley, could focus their light-satirical eyebrow-raising on the fact of Jenner’s political affiliation rather than his transitioning. The gist of everyone’s joke: “Bruce Jenner Comes Out…As a Republican.”

The only appropriately athletic metaphor that comes to mind thinking about Jenner’s remarkable ABC interview on Friday night is of a runner, lapping his competitors, not once but twice, three times maybe, with long, confident strides as they huff, puff, and sweat.

That runner finishes the race, triumphant, with his competitors littered, in broken heaps, on the side of the track as he clips the finish-line tape—and those include not just his critics, but also the supporters from equality organizations he would expect to have on the left.

As Jenner told Sawyer, that touchy-feely left is not his political home—he’s a transgender Republican, calling himself “he” until further notice, and asexual too right now, who’s not willing to play dress-up to titillate viewers. Got that, America? Bruce Jenner is doing this his way.

Jenner’s audacious self-invitation to help the Republican Party change its prejudiced ways came as two significant New York gay businessmen came under fire for holding a “fireside chat” with homophobic, anti-marriage equality Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz.

Ian Reisner and Mati Weiderpass now face the inevitable, and quite rightful, boycott of their gay-focused businesses—their justification that they were “igniting a dialog” striking many as particularly hollow.

Jenner’s blithe political intervention came, significantly, as the Republican Party’s huge, and potentially damaging, LGBT problem has itself come to the fore: somehow figuring that its support from religious conservatives is the thing it must bank, the party stubbornly refuses to match the changing pace of social attitudes.

Changing demographics show this is a self-sabotaging head-in-the-sand approach: voters do not like the notion of minority groups being so overtly targeted for discrimination.

The relatively new cloak of “religious freedom” has already been swiftly exposed as the ruse for yet more discrimination a post-marriage equality era.

Jenner’s interview happened within days of the Supreme Court considering Tuesday whether individual states have a constitutional right to ban same-sex marriage. As the reaction to Jenner showed, Americans are evolving far quicker than the Republican Party around matters of equality for sexual minorities.

The early stages of the Republican presidential nominee process have been marked by questions about whether candidates would attend gay marriages—yes, they would, but they do not agree that the two people participating should be, or deserving of equality. It’s a crazy, contradictory position that can only harm the Republicans—and make them seem absurd, discriminatory, and mean-minded—in the long run. How will they seem if they move to reject, or mock, Bruce Jenner’s overtures?

Jenner may well have the “privilege” and financial security other transgender people do not, as Mara Keisling, the founding executive director of the National Center For Transgender Equality, has written, but that should not lessen the importance of his bravery on Friday night.

Keisling said Jenner’s transition had been transformed into “shameful public spectacle,” and that the high-profile experiences of figures like Jenner and Laverne Cox should not obscure the stories of non-famous transgender people, coming out and facing discrimination and worse in the real world—most powerfully, and tragically emblemized in stories such as that of Ohio teen Leelah Alcorn, who committed suicide in December.

Keisling is right, but neither should the importance and impact of Jenner’s interview be parsed, sliced, and diced. What Jenner proved on Friday night is what LGBT rights hero Harvey Milk so prophetically said in 1978: that coming out is the most powerful thing to do.

Some may say that Jenner’s next move—the story of his transition as told via an upcoming E! reality show, premiering July 26—might become another extension of the lurid Kardashian media circus.

That cannot be pre-judged. Jenner’s interview with Sawyer turned out to be more revelatory and intelligent than many critics pre-imagined. The challenge isn’t Jenner’s now, but the challenge he has set the policymakers and public watching him open his heart. Jenner’s unrehearsed, homily-free honesty wasn’t calculated at winning over Friday night’s TV audience, and it did so for precisely that reason.

Jenner knows that by default, he just became an activist, and he seems willing to assume that mantle, to fight for legal equality and against discrimination for other transgender people.

How will the Republican Party resist him, and not appear anything but ugly and narrow-minded? How effective could he be? Ask that question a few days ago and many would have suppressed a laugh. Now it’s a genuinely intriguing proposition.

From appearing beleaguered and pathetic on a ridiculous reality TV show, Jenner has emerged transformed into a fascinating, unique trailblazer. Right now, he has left everyone else on that running track—on the right and left, the prejudiced conservative and the LGBT activist—scrabbling in the dust.