When Caitlyn Jenner was first emerging from the shell of gold medalist Bruce Jenner, Americans were riveted, voyeuristic – and surprisingly accepting.
So much has changed since then. Hesitant acceptance of transgender people has dissolved into a national furor over bathroom laws. And among liberals, initial enthusiasm for Jenner faded with the discovery that she is a Republican who admired Ted Cruz!
I accompanied Jenner as she visited a Brooklyn school, the Academy for Young Writers, that is in a gritty, working-class neighborhood and that has been a leader in making LGBT students feel welcome. The meeting was a collision of sorts: a wealthy transgender celebrity encountering a group of low-income LGBT teenagers of color, coming from different worlds but sharing anxieties and pain.
The students challenged Jenner, and some had earlier pulled down a photo of Jenner from a wall because they felt she wasn’t doing enough for LGBT people. Jenner spoke with the students for hours, winning them over by airing differences (and taking selfies with them) while also bonding over common concerns – like the North Carolina bathroom law.
“It’s a total misunderstanding of the issue,” Jenner said, arguing that there are already laws to deal with predators and that there have been no reported case of a trans woman ever entering a women’s restroom and abusing anyone.
“There are three Republicans who have been arrested in men’s bathrooms for lewd behavior,” Jenner noted. “So, you know, maybe we should kind of ban the Republicans from going in there!”
The real people to worry about, she said, are trans kids who are struggling with bullying and ostracism. One national study found that 41 percent of trans people surveyed had attempted suicide, 57 percent had experienced family rejection and almost one-fifth had endured homelessness.
“And now the state joins in the bullying and the harassment,” Jenner added. “You will lose lives because of it in our community.”
Some of the students in the room have faced just these challenges. Spencer Washington, a black 17-year-old who was assumed female at birth but has felt male since he was a toddler, once attempted suicide (fortunately, he couldn’t manage a hangman’s knot and cried himself to sleep).
“Let people pee in peace,” Spencer pleaded.
Jenner said she was working “behind the scenes” to address the North Carolina law and criticized Republicans on that issue. But she was unapologetic about being a Republican, saying that she was conservative on economic issues. (For my part, I believe in being accepting not just of transgender people but also of Republicans!)
Less than 1 percent of the population – one rough estimate is perhaps one-third of 1 percent – is transgender, a far smaller share than is gay. Jenner thus puts a face on a category of people prone to be vilified, a group that may be among the most marginalized in America.
“Maybe this is the reason God put me on this earth, to tell my story, to try to make a difference in the world,” Jenner said. “Because this story and this issue – trans, gender identity, nonconforming, whatever it may be – is bigger than what I did back in ‘76 and winning the Games. It’s bigger than breaking world records and doing all that kind of stuff. This is about life. This is about life and death. People destroy their lives over what we all kind of deal with.”
Jenner says that the hardest thing about coming out as a woman was the criticisms from the transgender community, and she acknowledges she had a lot to learn: Until a year ago, she had never met a transgender person. But she says she finally feels authentic about her identity.
“For so many years, little Caitlyn has lived inside,” she said. “And Bruce kind of took over the world, and did his thing. It was time to put him inside and let’s let her live, OK?”
I became interested in these issues after coming across homeless kids struggling with school, drugs, police, sexual abuse and suicide – and disproportionately they were transgender kids who had been rejected by family and society.
That’s what I think the public doesn’t get: Sure, there are complicated issues of which sports team a child should be on, or which shower to use, but those are secondary. The primary concern should be to keep kids safe and alive – and not in crisis each time their bladders fill.
So remember, this isn’t about Jenner, who can look after herself. It’s about the thousands of kids across the country who, on top of all the craziness of adolescence, are also realizing, often to their horror, that their bodies and souls do not align, and that as a result they may face a lifetime as pariahs. We can do better than that.
Let’s listen to Spencer, who says, “I just want to be loved for who I am.”
Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.