Jeneé Osterheldt

Bruce Jenner is a bigger hero than ever

Diane Sawyer interviewed Bruce Jenner in a two-hour edition of “20/20” Friday night.
Diane Sawyer interviewed Bruce Jenner in a two-hour edition of “20/20” Friday night. ABC

Diane Sawyer describes Bruce Jenner as the man who once embodied the muscle and glory of America, once celebrated as a real-life superhero.

And now Jenner tells the world he identifies as a woman. For now, he says, we should still refer to him with the pronouns “he” and “him,” but that will change. And let me say, I still see him as a superhero.

During her interview with him on ABC Friday night, Sawyer holds up an image of Jenner, cherished for winning the gold medal in the decathlon in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. “People have to know that you can want to identify as a woman and still …?”

Jenner says it simply: “Kick butt.”

That picture, the “him” so known as an athletic powerhouse, a true inspiration, is also the “Her” that Jenner refers to himself as. Being transgender does not erase the admirable traits. If anything, he displays courage as he lets his hair down, releasing that ponytail and smashing the strict gender roles and stereotypes we subscribe to so he can finally be himself at 65. That is Olympian strength.

For months and months, tabloids, comedians and other celebrities have joked about Jenner being transgender. When ABC announced the Jenner sit-down, it became known as the “the interview the world is waiting to hear.” A debate broke out over whether Jenner was making a spectacle out of the trans community with this show.

Jeffrey Tambor, the actor who portrays Maura, a transgender woman, on Amazon’s “Transparent,” puts it best.

“I think Jenner has a right to do what Jenner wants to do, and the way Jenner wants to do it. I don’t think we should say, ‘Oh, you have to come out this way, or you have to come out this way.’ It’s not fair,” he told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month. “I wish Jenner happiness and an authentic life. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — that’s in the Constitution, dammit!”

Debi Jackson, a Kansas City mother of a transgender child and president of PFLAG KC, an LGBTQ advocacy group, says the interview is validating.

“This is innate, and trans kids know they are different. But society puts so much pressure on them to conform that it damages their souls,” Jackson says. “Too many don’t survive that damage and end their lives. To have an American hero say that he’s known this about himself for so long and he can’t do it any longer shows tremendous bravery and how powerful the need to be authentic really is. Those feelings won’t go away, no matter how much society tells a person to ignore them.”

We don’t get to define Jenner or anyone. We shouldn’t dictate gender roles. He is a woman. He is not gay. He still wants his kids to call him Dad, and he’s still about golf, fast cars and flying. And while Jenner is sharing the journey with the world, he doesn’t have to validate it.

And yet we demand answers, we need to judge, to cast out and put people in a box. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 13 transgender people were murdered in 2014 and at least seven have been killed this year. We started this year with the heartbreaking news of Ohio transgender teen Leelah Alcorn’s suicide. She said she didn’t have support.

Jackson says it’s essential that we learn to recognize trans people as people first.

“Being trans does not define the person. But how we treat trans people can define what kind of life they can have. The external identity needs to be respected. Use the right names and pronouns. Don’t make fun of a person’s appearance. But the most fundamental truth is that the person is a human being with thoughts and feelings, and if you knew them before transition, you will know them after. But as a better, happier, more comfortable version.”

According to a National LGBTQ Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality survey, 41 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide.

Jenner tells Sawyer he contemplated it, too. He talks about never fitting in. When Sawyer asks about him being a lonely little boy, he admits, “I’m still a lonely big boy.”

He envies the ease so many men and women have. “I look at guys and I go, ‘He’s comfortable in his own skin.’ I look at women and think how lucky are they that they can wake up in the morning and be themselves.”

Now, Jenner can finally be himself. He can be Her, and that doesn’t mean a woman stuck in a man’s body or a sideshow freak. It makes him a person.

“I’m saying goodbye to people’s perception of me and who I am,” he tells Sawyer. “I’m not saying goodbye to me.”

We don’t know Jenner’s new name yet. But I’m happy to say hello to Her, a hero, an embodiment of the muscle, glory and humanity of America.

To reach Jeneé Osterheldt, call 816-234-4380 or email josterheldt@kcstar.com. “Like” her page on Facebook and never miss a column. On Twitter @jeneeinkc.

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