When Vanity Fair debuted its June cover earlier this week, the public saw a beautiful woman of a certain age gazing back out at them. She had smooth, luminous skin, artfully tousled brown hair, and the wry, wary smile of a woman who has seen it all, and is still ready for whatever might come next. She was unfamiliar, but an air of nostalgia seemed to suffuse the frame: not because she looked like someone you used to know, but because she radiated an old-Hollywood quality, a combination of resilience and fragility, that reminded one of the days of Gene Tierney and Rita Hayworth—The days, as some still will tell you, when men were men and women were women.
Those days are over, if they ever existed at all. The woman on the cover was new to the world, but not so new that those who saw her for the first time did not know her story, or had even failed to decide, in advance, what they thought of it. The woman’s name is Caitlyn Jenner, and until a few days ago much of the world knew her as Bruce: father, husband, reality TV star and Olympic hero, the face you could find on both the Wheaties box and in the blurry TMZ-circulated video that proclaimed “Bruce Jenner is flattening his Adam’s apple,” and all but announced an upcoming gender reassignment long before Bruce made the story public. Bruce had been famous, and now Caitlyn was famous, too.
The question that has emerged in the days since Caitlyn’s public debut, however, is how much this story has to do not just with Caitlyn’s transformation, but with a far more universal change: Will Caitlyn Jenner help America to have the candid, thoughtful, and open-minded conversation about gender and trans rights that we have put off for so long, and to the detriment—and at times the grave and unforgivable harm—of so many?
Despite the throwback, meet-me-at-Musso-&-Frank glamor that hangs around Jenner, it is still 2015: Everyone not only has an opinion, but can share it with the world instantaneously. After her cover’s debut, Caitlyn’s family publicly rallied around her. Her stepdaughter Kim Kardashian West tweeted “Caitlyn Jenner for Vanity Fair… How beautiful! Be happy, be proud, live life YOUR way!”
Perhaps the most shocking thing about the cover story, and in fact the entire narrative of Caitlyn’s transition, was the lack of controversy it inspired. There were the usual voices of umbrage and dissension, and those who vocally insisted on their right to address a woman as “him,” but they were drowned out by a veritable ticker tape parade across mainstream America. Caitlyn’s story was not a scandal. It was a fairy tale.
But as the first flush of excitement over Caitlyn’s cover story faded, many commentators were calling for more attention to the rest of the iceberg of trans issues, and even raising objects about the cover itself. “Let me get this right,” Gwen Ifill tweeted: “Asserting one's femininity means posing in a low cut swimsuit. OK. Got it.”Times, bemoaneddescribed
The story was a victory, but couldn’t it somehow be more of a victory? Couldn’t Caitlyn successfully lay claim to her female identity while also deflecting the male gaze while also celebrating her non-binary queerness while also forcing attention away from herself and onto the plights of more disturbing transgender people?
All these arguments were and are valid, and crucial to the broader conversation we must have. Yet they also piled on top of each other so quickly that it soon became difficult to remember why we had started talking about it at all. For those who see Caitlyn Jenner’s story, and her cover shoot, as not too-little-late but too-much-too-soon, having time and space to contemplate one simple image, rather than having their thoughts drowned out by a snowballing debate about gender and all the issues related to it (the entire world, more or less), is crucial. The trick of conversation in the Internet age is accommodating the slow pace of others while still moving forward in the vanguard.
Caitlyn Jenner didn’t start the conversation about what it means to be a transgender person in America, and those who remember its earlier versions will not recall so rosy a narrative. America’s first transgender star was probably Christine Jorgensen, who made headline news in 1952 for having undergone sex reassignment surgery in Denmark (“EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY,” the New York Daily News proclaimed.) She introduced the concept of transgender identity to countless people who had doubtless never dreamed such a thing was possible—or who had felt the same fear, discomfort, and unhappiness she described, but could not imagine that there was someone else out there like them. She made national headlines, saw a movie made about her life, and was greeted by a crush of reporters as soon as her plane touched down at Idlewild.
“Christine, are you happy to be home?” one journalist asked.
“Yes, of course,” she said, laughing shyly, and seeming just a little overwhelmed by the attention. “What American wouldn’t be?”
Christine Jorgensen became a celebrity, but she could never be just an ordinary American: She had rocketed to fame at the moment of her transformation, and would always be known for transforming, and not for the identity she underwent such a transformation for. The transgender people who both enjoyed and endured a similar fame in the coming decade would often be relegated to the same category: known not as people, but as freaks. Sometimes they were lovable, or even inspiring, but more often than not they were pathetic, like Chris Sarandon in Dog Day Afternoon, or menacingly perverted, like Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge, or downright murderous, like Ted Levine in The Silence of the Lambs. Psycho’s Norman Bates may not have been transgender, but the film’s implication was clear: Imagining oneself into another gender identity was synonymous not just with madness, but with evil.
Caitlyn Jenner is different. As an Olympian, Jenner was proof that an American could do the impossible, rising from a dismal tenth-place finish at the 1972 Games, snatching the title away from the USSR, and making his country proud even in a time of recession and anxiety. In Bruce’s own words, “The Decathlon is a big, high brick wall that nobody is ever going to be able to climb. It’s cold and heartless. It has no mercy. … Nobody ever beats the Decathlon.” But Bruce did. The people who cheered for Bruce Jenner as he crossed the finish line in Montréal nearly 40 years ago may have a harder time dismissing the victory Caitlyn Jenner has just won if they didn’t know her for having once been an all-American boy, a national poster child for strength, determination, and physical splendor.
That these qualities were masculine is an idea many people still take for granted—and yet, by tuning out the mounting debate surrounding the image and looking at what it really shows us, one can see that these qualities are there in the photo, too. You don’t need to know the history or vocabulary or theory surrounding transgender identity to recognize the same qualities in Caitlyn that you may have once loved in Bruce: grace, fortitude, a willingness to be vulnerable, to risk defeat, and to demonstrate to the world that the impossible is possible. In times like this, we may resort so often to the word “beautiful” simply because our vocabularies are not rich enough to fully express how a woman like Caitlyn Jenner makes us feel.
For some people, the idea of calling someone “him” one day and “her” the next seems bizarre, even unthinkable—not because the action is intrinsically unnatural, but because they have never been called on to do so before. Change takes practice. So does looking at a person and realizing that what you admire about them—their strength, their bravery, their integrity—is not tied to masculinity or femininity nearly so much as to their willingness to be fully honest with themselves and the world.
For many of us, Caitlyn Jenner’s story is, in effect, old news. We are happy, but we want more—and so we should. Better recognition, more affordable medical treatment, and above all safer lives are things that transgender people do not just want, but need. Those continuing the ongoing conversation about this struggle will know that Caitlyn Jenner’s story is just one small part of this story. But those for whom Caitlyn’s story is powerful because it is the first such story they have ever encountered can be forgiven for sitting with this material a little longer, tuning out of the febrile frequency of online recrimination, correction, and debate, and learning to fully appreciate what they see when they look at Caitlyn Jenner: a person who has found her truest self, and encourages us all to do the same.