In 1976, Superman didn’t wear a bold blue jumpsuit embellished with a blocky S. He didn’t double as a journalist for The Daily Planet or take to the clouds with Lois Lane in his chiseled, steely arms. No perfect ebony curls graced his brow.
No — instead, Superman rocked a floppy, chin-length brown mane and a red-and-white singlet. From his neck dangled a dazzling gold medal. And his name was Bruce Jenner.
Fresh off his decathlon victory and accompanying world record at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Jenner returned to the U.S. a national hero. The decathlon, a track and field series of four runs, three jumps and three throws, effectively links its winners with the historically traditional title “World’s Greatest Athlete,” and Jenner proved no exception. His image soon appeared on the coveted facade of the Wheaties breakfast cereal box. The Associated Press dubbed him its male athlete of the year. In 1980, he was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. And in 1982, he posed as a cover boy for Playgirl magazine, solidifying his mainstream hunk status.
Most millennials, however, likely know Jenner as the bumbling father figure of the Kardashian clan on the E! reality TV series “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” Although now separated from family matriarch Kris Jenner, Bruce is once again subject to intense media coverage — but not for an Olympic or reality show-related issue this time.
Tabloid and gossip magazines have long speculated about the reasoning behind Jenner’s increasingly feminine appearance, with many arguing that he is in the process of transitioning to a woman. In early January, In Touch magazine superimposed Jenner’s face on a photo of actress Stephanie Beacham, complete with blush and crimson lipstick. While the editorial discretion behind the cover remains questionable at best, Jenner’s physical transformation has been indisputable. His hair stretches down past his shoulders. His ears are pierced. His nose and eyebrows appear slimmer, his chin more delicate, his lips fuller.
So, when The New York Times reported that the scuttlebutt surrounding Jenner’s gender transition had become legitimate news Feb. 4, few decided to further question its validity.
As the Times noted, US Weekly had paired the assertion concerning Jenner on its cover with the headline “Finally, the Truth,” and People magazine featured a similar cover article on Jenner headlined, “He Is Finally Happy.” TV journalist Diane Sawyer of ABC News has also allegedly scheduled an interview with Jenner for May, and a documentary series about the Olympian’s transformational process is rumored to start airing shortly thereafter.
Jenner’s mother, Esther Jenner, reportedly discussed her son’s upcoming gender transition with the Associated Press on Feb. 4, as well. “I never thought I could be more proud of Bruce (than) in 1976, but I’m more proud of him now,” she said. “It takes a lot of courage to do what he’s doing.”
Indeed, it’s not exactly easy to publicly – or even privately – identify as a transgender individual. As GLAAD, formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, states, “transgender” is an umbrella term for people whose internal, personal gender identity differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender individuals may or may not hormonally or surgically alter their bodies, but identifying as transgender is not dependent upon medical procedures.
According to the Los Angeles Times, 41 percent of people who identify as transgender or gender-nonconforming have attempted suicide sometime in their lives, nearly nine times the national average. Furthermore, as GLAAD reported in 2012, 53 percent of anti-LGBTQ homicides were transgender women. Both organizations indicate that the respective numbers are on the rise.
Our society is woefully far from universally accepting those who do not explicitly identify as heterosexual. But there seems to be supplemental perplexity and animosity toward those who specifically identify as transgender. Why?
In short, we fear ambiguity. Our general mentality is largely black-and-white, and when we cannot find concrete answers, we develop a certain level of fear. Of hostility. Of hate.
Our attitudes must become far more accepting and far less binary. We can certainly understand that people are biologically born either male or female. But what we have most difficulty comprehending is the gray area in between. How do we react if someone was born male and identifies as female, or vice versa? What if they identify as neither male nor female?
Some have argued that Jenner’s coming out is simply a publicity stunt in signature Kardashian-associated fashion. If he is transitioning simply for fame, the move is a bit of an insult to those actually dealing with the difficulties inherent in defining their gender identity. That being said, Jenner’s experience is very likely genuine. Even if he were purely seeking publicity, at least his fame is helping create dialogue around the transgender community and may therefore benefit those dealing with its associated taboos and prejudices.
We don’t necessarily need a Superman. Or a Superwoman. We should realize that those with less externally definable gender identities can be heroes, too.