Will Bruce Jenner change America’s views on the transgendered?
By Carolyne Zinko and Tony Bravo Published, February 5, 2015
As speculation about former Olympian Bruce Jenner’s alleged plan to make a gender switch reaches a fever pitch — with People and US Weekly magazines citing unconfirmed sources — San Francisco surgeons and transgender patients say that if the news is true, Jenner will need the stamina of a decathlete to adjust to the mental, emotional and physical changes ahead.
That’s because American society is arguably transphobic, as evidenced by the recent InTouch magazine cover picturing Jenner with lipstick and the headline “My Life as a Woman,” other tabloids labeling his feminine appearance as “bizarre,” and sports commentators and TV pundits mocking and making bigoted remarks about the potential changes to come.
“Making the transition is still a very stressful, and at times, difficult process in our society,” said San Francisco plastic surgeon Dr. Scott Mosser. “I think we’re at a turning point where in the next 15, 20 years it will become a much easier process as far as acceptance, but it remains a topic that still scares many people.”
Jenner, a national hero when he won the gold medal in the decathlon in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, has gone from starring on Wheaties cereal boxes to playing emasculated husband to Kris Jenner, matriarch of the Kardashian family, on “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” a reality show on E! network. Her daughters, Kim, Khloe and Kourtney, have also been documented on the long-running show, as well as two spin-off shows. In addition to his stepfamily, Jenner is the father of six biological children with three former wives. (Jenner and the former Mrs. Kardashian divorced last year after 22 years together.)
The breakup occurred about the same time that Jenner’s appearance began to change, his eyebrows becoming thinner, his Adam’s apple noticeably smaller (allegedly the result of a laryngeal shave procedure) his hair longer, and his nails manicured.
Jenner has not made any public statement confirming or denying the speculation. However, a variety of media outlets are reporting that he will appear on a televised interview with ABC anchor Diane Sawyer, and that his transition will be documented in a TV series. Christel Wheeler, an E! network spokeswoman, declined to comment.
One famous San Francisco transgender personality, Starlight Room burlesque star Cassandra Cass, said that if the rumors are true, Jenner will —whether he wants to or not — be held up as the “new face” of the transgender community.
Cass, who was born a boy in Des Moines, Iowa, said she was initially surprised by the speculation about Jenner, but then realized “a lot of it made sense — he was such an overachiever. There are a lot of trans people who are hyper-masculine, and transition later in life.”
Former Navy SEAL and Purple Heart recipient Chris Beck, who became Kristin Beck and wrote the book “Warrior Princess” to document her story, is a notable example.
Cass said that, far from being a negative, the transition of someone as famous as Jenner would be a positive because it would give the transgender community exposure.
“I think he’s going to be a face for the transgender community, just like Laverne Cox on Netflix’s ‘Orange Is the New Black,’” Cass said. “It would give validation to those of us who have transitioned that a transgender person can come from all walks of life.”
Transitioning is difficult enough for those who are not famous, Cass said. If Jenner does make the switch, she predicted, it will be even harder. “The first time he walks out in a dress, he’s got to have a thick skin,” Cass said. “He’ll have to deal with ageism, too. I can only imagine what the reaction will be — people are going to be awful. I think he’s very brave.”
Rebecca Rolfe, executive director for the San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center, declined to comment for this story. “One of the challenges is that he himself has not made a statement,” she said of Jenner. “We’d suggest leaving him and his family in privacy until they’re willing to be public about it.”
When asked what the next steps would be for Jenner if he is transitioning, Mosser, who has seen many transgender patients and writes a blog on transgender plastic surgery issues, was quick to point out that the transgender journey is not a one-size-fits-all experience.
On the physical side, gender reassignment surgery can be one part of the process; other patients opt for hormone treatments and breast surgery, as well as facial feminization.
Dr. Dawn Harbatkin, medical director of the Lyon-Martin Health Center, says that many of center’s patients are making the transition in their 50s and beyond, like Jenner.
Why so late? “There’s more acceptance in the world that allows them to come out now,” Harbatkin said of society’s evolving attitudes. “There’s also more possibility now for good medical care than there would have been if many of these Baby Boomers transitioned in their younger years.”
Jenner’s possible transition won’t be without certain age-related concerns, both physically and psychologically, Harbatkin said.
“Having lived in the public eye or just having lived in the world a particular way, then transitioning later in life can be hard,” he said. “People expect 20-year-olds to be changing in their life; there’s an expectation that people beyond that should know at that point of their life who they are.”
Harbatkin also points out that the toll such transitions take on older bodies is more severe than on younger ones.
“Younger bodies are more resilient,” Harbatkin said, “and with aging people everywhere, there’s a risk for heart disease, cancer, and extra caution needs to be taken when undergoing surgery. While we don’t think there’s a relation to hormone treatment and certain cancers, it is something that continues to be studied.”
Transgender characters are finding a niche in popular culture. In addition to Cox on “Orange Is the New Black,” Amazon’s new series “Transparent” starring Jeffrey Tambor as a father of three who comes out as a woman, won a Golden Globe award last month. Last year, transgender rights activist Janet Mock, a New York Times best-selling author, served as a celebrity marshal of San Francisco Pride.
Harbatkin sees the overall effect of transitioning as a positive one.
“Regardless of the age, coming out in the world as trans, if it’s met with support and love, is a huge improvement to people’s mental health,” Harbatkin said. “Once people begin making the transition, we see a huge improvement in the quality of their lives when they can be their authentic selves.”
Carolyne Zinko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Tony Bravo is the Style section’s Connectivity columnist and writes the Love & Sex blog on www.sfgate.com. E-mail: email@example.com