By Nicholas Kristof
The New York Times
When I was a growing up, yearning with my pals to be a track star, one of our heroes was Bruce Jenner. He won a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics in the decathlon, and he adorned our Wheaties boxes. We all wanted to be Bruce Jenner.
I haven't thought much about him in years. But Jenner is in the news again, widely reported to be preparing to come out as a transgender woman.
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At first, there were snickers, but, lately, the tone has been respectful. And news reports say Jenner is planning to chronicle the transition in a program for E! television and in an interview with Diane Sawyer for ABC News. All this, and comments by family members, suggest that Jenner is willing to be a role model and help educate the world on transgender issues.
Radar Online quoted his mother, Esther Jenner, as confirming the news and saying she was prouder of him now than when he won his gold medal. His stepdaughter, Kim Kardashian, told Entertainment Tonight that it was Jenner's story to tell but added: "I think he'll share whenever the time is right."
Good for Jenner. All this is probably harder than the training for the Olympic decathlon - but more important, because transgender people face hate crimes and discrimination at an astonishing rate.
Remember Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old gay university student in Wyoming who in 1998 was tied to a fence, badly beaten, and left to die? That was seen as the ultimate hate crime and now seems to belong to a different era.
Yet, just so far this year, at least three transgender people have been reported murdered in the United States. The Human Rights Campaign issued a report the other day listing 13 transgender women murdered in 2014: They were shot, strangled, burned and beaten.
"Violence is something that is disproportionately affecting transgender people — and for specific reasons," says Elizabeth Halloran of the Human Rights Campaign. "Inability to access employment, housing and safety-net services, as well as family rejection, all conspire to create a reality that makes transgender people — especially transgender people of color, transgender women and transgender people living poverty — more vulnerable to violence."
Vincent Paolo Villano of the National Center for Transgender Equality said that there has been progress in laws protecting transgender Americans but that public attitudes remain a problem.
Sex and gender are such befuddling mysteries even for those of us who are in the mainstream that you'd think we'd be wary of being judgmental. Yet much of society clings to a view that gender is completely binary, when, in fact, there's overwhelming evidence of a continuum.
And considering the violence and discrimination that transgender people endure, no one would go through this except for the most profound of motivations: to be authentic to one's inner self.
A 2011 survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 57 percent of transgender people interviewed reported significant family rejection. Partly because of widespread job discrimination, they were often impoverished, and almost one-fifth had been homeless. And 41 percent reported having attempted suicide.
"Gender needs to be taught about in schools," Leelah Alcorn, a transgender 17-year-old who had been sent to conversion therapy by her parents, wrote in a suicide note when she killed herself last year. "Fix society. Please."
Gays and lesbians began to gain civil rights when Americans realized that their brothers, cousins, daughters were gay. Numbers are elusive, but research at the University of California at Los Angeles suggests that while 3.5 percent of American adults identify as gay, only 0.3 percent are transgender.
Jay Brown, a transgender man who has written an excellent online guide to how the public can support those transitioning, notes that as 65 percent of Americans say they have a family member or close friend who is gay, compared with only 9 percent who have such a connection to someone who is transgender.
Yet there are signs of a real opening, with TV shows dealing with transgender issues, Vice President Joe Biden referring to transgender discrimination as "the civil rights issue of our time," and President Barack Obama mentioning transgender people in his State of the Union address last month.
That's the context in which Jenner is stepping forward. If the aim is to educate us, bravo!
Cynics might say that the television plans are more about self-promotion than leadership. All I know is that Jenner seems to be preparing for a bold public mission involving something intensely personal, in a way that should open minds and hearts. So, in my book, Bruce Jenner is now a gold medalist again. Come on, Wheaties. It's time to put Jenner back on the box!