You'd have to be a sad, wretched person to exploit a gender transition for TV ratings. And having watched these Kardashian people compromise their lives and dignity for the cameras — and the accompanying riches — I'll acknowledge an initial concern that Bruce Jenner was using an ultra-sensitive issue to feed the collective megalomania.
Was he coming out as transgender only to keep up with the Kardashians, a way of furthering the mindless empire built by Kris, Kim, Khloe, Kourtney, Kanye, Rob, Lamar and the others? Was he so lost in this parallel universe that he'd surrender to the media splash, knowing the E! channel would swoop in with a documentary focused solely on Bruce for a change? Doesn't reality TV have those artificial, intoxicating effects?
Today, after watching his conversation with ABC's Diane Sawyer, I am relieved to conclude that Jenner is a brave and inspiring soul who is using his profile to help the world rather than insult it. He was silent for decades about his innermost feelings — he identifies as a woman, likes dressing as a woman and “for all intents and purposes” is a woman — because, like millions who are gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender, he was confused and fearful. It's terrifying enough for anyone to come out, let alone a well-known personality once viewed as the planet's greatest athlete back when an Olympic decathlon victory represented a gold standard of masculinity, back when Americans embraced sporting triumphs over the Soviet Union as symbols of Cold War superiority.
The new path he has chosen, at 65, is a far mightier victory for humankind. Tempted himself to commit suicide years ago, when his visit to a surgeon for Adam's apple reduction surgery was spotted by Kardashian-fueled paparazzi, Jenner will spend the rest of his days trying to ease the pain of others.
“I would like to think that we can save some lives here,” said Jenner, his hair flipped down over his shoulders. “I have a feeling this is my cause in life. This is why God put me on this Earth, to deal with this issue.
“My whole life has been getting me ready for this. It's not just the last few years, as they've been treating me as a joke.”
It was important to hear Jenner concede his reality-TV experience as a folly. Never mind the masses. The people he aims to help must know this is not a publicity stunt, that Jenner agreed with Sawyer when she characterized the Kardashian show as “a shameless selling of everything,” which pretty much summarizes it. “Yeah, I know. But what I am doing is going to do some good, and we're going to change the world. I really firmly believe that,” he said. “And if the whole Kardashian show and reality television gave me that foothold into that world, to be able to go out there and really do something good, I'm all for it. I've got no problem with that. Understand?”
Understood. He even found irony in keeping his secret quiet on the set for hundreds of episodes. “I had the story,” said Jenner, laughing. “The entire run, I kept thinking to myself, 'Oh, my god.' This whole thing, the one real, true story in the family was the one I was hiding and nobody knew it. The one thing that could really make a difference in people's lives was right in my soul, and I could not tell the story.”
Now, he will. If his contributions lead to fewer stereotypes, less ignorance and more inclusiveness, maybe it won't come as such a shock to some people the next time a so-called macho athlete wants to wear a dress. Or, as Jenner said, “have my nail polish on long enough that it actually chips off.” Decades before he was a vague figure on a goofy TV show and, consequently, a social-media target, Jenner was the male every other male wanted to be — on a Wheaties box, a sex symbol posing for Playgirl magazine and a global celebrity after mastering a two-day event in which the human body is tested in every athletic way (100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400-meter dash, 110-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500-meter run).
Imagine how society would have reacted if Jenner, experiencing the tug of femininity as he was winning gold in Montreal, had come out then. How would he tell Hollywood, which was pursuing him for entertainment roles, that he wanted to wear his mother's and sister's dresses since he was a boy? How would he tell Madison Avenue, which has marketed him everywhere? How would he tell his wife at the time? “Do you have any idea what I've been going through my entire life?” Jenner said. “People look at me differently. They see me as this macho male. But my heart and my soul and everything that I do in life, it is part of me. That female side is part of me.
“I just can't pull the curtain anymore, OK? I built a nice little life. Again, Bruce lives a lie. She is not a lie. I can't do it anymore.”
Another year brings another landmark moment in society, with sports again serving as a vehicle for attempted progress. In 2014, we watched two men circumvent a history of Neanderthal attitudes and publicly change the worlds of pro football and basketball. We heard a defensive end from the University of Missouri ask to be viewed as “Michael Sam, the football player, instead of Michael Sam, the gay football player.” And we saw Jason Collins enter an NBA game to a warm ovation, becoming the league's first openly gay player. When athletes exhibit the courage to come out, dress in a locker room with straight teammates and bear the insensitive burden of a profession that can be cruel to the ears, it is a victory. And it will lead to a day, let's hope, when an athlete's sexuality doesn't dominate a news cycle.
But we are not there yet.
Not even close.
Sam was released by the St. Louis Rams and Dallas Cowboys and remains an unsigned free agent. Former NFL defensive end Marcus Spears, who played for the Cowboys, said the reason Sam doesn't have work is because he came out. “You know why they are staying away from him: I really feel like his lifestyle is a reason why he's not on a football team,” Spears told the SEC Network. “Everybody wants to sugarcoat it and talk about how he can't cut it as a player. He's good enough to play in the NFL.”
Since Sam's announcement, no NFL player or NFL-level college player has publicly come out. Since Collins' announcement, no NBA player or NBA-level college player has publicly come out. Derrick Gordon, a guard at the University of Massachusetts, became the first openly gay player in NCAA Division I men's basketball, but he decided last month to transfer. He has yet to announce a landing spot.
There's no better time for Bruce Jenner to begin his most important life's work. More than 40 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide. The world needs to hear from him in a reality-TV program that, at long last, has substantial meaning.
“I'm saying goodbye to people's perception of me and who I am,” he said. “I'm not saying goodbye to me, because this has always been me.
“I'm not stuck in anybody's body. It's just who I am as a human being.”
Gold medal and all.