I watched Caitlyn Jenner’s extraordinary speech at the ESPY Awards with fascination. She was poised and passionate, funny and inspirational. It was a heckuva coming-out party. And she was a knockout! Say what you will, but girl definitely has found the right stylist.
Leading up to the awards show and now its aftermath, I’ve seen social media all atwitter questioning whether Caitlyn deserved an award for “courage.” Seems there are three camps on this. First, there are those who wholeheartedly endorse Caitlyn as the recipient of the Arthur Ashe Prize. The second group honors the impact she will have, but are skeptical about and uncomfortable with the notion that she has done anything courageous. The third group is the usual assemblage of online haters who consider Caitlyn an abomination and an affront to all things American, Christian or civil.
I actually fall into a subsection of the first group (and I suspect I am not alone): We totally get the courage thing, but are a little sheepish about embracing anything that has had that much proximity to a Kardashian. You can’t help but think at first glance that this is just another cog in the grand publicity machine that has labored intensively to convince the world that this astonishingly talentless family has any real bearing on anything that would actually matter in life. It’s all about the ratings, kids. I get that.
So why is this such a cultural touchstone? Why am I rooting for her success and happiness so much? And why, as a gay man, am I completely caught up in her story?
“If you want to call me names, make jokes, doubt my intentions, go ahead,” she said while rocking that Versace dress with the Beladora emerald, pearl and diamond earrings. (I had to look that up. I’m not THAT gay.) “The reality is, I can take it. But for the thousands of kids out there coming to terms with being true to who they are, they shouldn’t have to take it.”
And there you have it. As a gay man who grew up at a time when being gay was considered shameful, I get it. And I maintain, to anyone who cares to ask, that any person who finally embraces his or her authentic self publicly is courageous as hell. Once you come out on the other side and express your personal truth, the journey toward self-esteem and self-acceptance is exhilarating and, dare I say, life-affirming.
I grew up in an upper-middle-class, progressive community, and yet when I realized I was different, my immediate instinct toward self-preservation was to hide, to avoid, to run away, to self-flagellate. It just seemed easier than admitting I wasn’t what society deemed to be normal. In retrospect, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I always refer to that time as living inside of my own head. You can still function as a productive member of society. But, all the time, inside your brain, there’s a running mantra that convinces you that you are less than … that you will never have a normal life. Certainly the notion of marriage and social acceptance were completely out of the question. It just wasn’t going to happen. Ever. In fact, marriage and acceptance were things I would have to forgo, at least according to my annoying inner voice, if I decided I needed to go ahead with this gay thing.
At the end of the day, of course, that’s not the decision I needed to make. That decision was made for me when my DNA got all mixed together. The decision I needed to make was whether I was going to run away from my true self for my entire life, or whether I would ever come to the conclusion that, gay or not, I was a good person, a productive contributor to society, a faithful taxpayer, and perhaps, in someone’s eyes, a helluva catch.
You have to understand just how astonishing it is to see popular culture today so rife with positive gay imagery. I can’t even speak to how brutal it must’ve been in the pre-Stonewall days, but even after Stonewall, the only people on television that sort of “pinged” with recognition to me were the likes of Paul Lynde, Charles Nelson Reilly and Alan Sues on Laugh-In. I’m not sure I even knew why they seemed kindred to me, but bless their proudly nelly souls.
But I knew for damn sure that I better not act like any of them, lest I give away my deep, dark secret. I grew up during the Anita Bryant crusade against gays, at a time when there were propositions on ballots to ban gays from the teaching profession. We watched the Westboro Baptist Church’s “God Hates Fags” signs pointlessly and malevolently become ubiquitous at celebrity and military funerals. The American Psychiatric Association didn’t declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder until 1973, for Pete’s sake.
We didn’t have Ellen. Or Neil Patrick Harris. Barney Frank was still in the closet. People were still “shocked” about Liberace and Rock Hudson. Of course, the AIDS pandemic made things even worse. Even if technically we no longer had a mental disorder, now we were insidious carriers of disease. Who, in their right mind, would want to announce they were “one of those people” at a time like that? Who, in fact, would “choose” to be gay when the whole world hated us?
In fact, plenty of people proudly declared themselves “one of those people.” They openly embraced their gayness, homosexuality, queerness, faggotry. And they fought. For civil rights. For human rights. For equality. For the simple decency of government funding to help eradicate (or at least even begin to understand) a horrifyingly complex and deadly disease.
I honor those who came before. At the risk of sounding like the stodgy old fart I’m quickly becoming, I’m not sure that the lion’s share of 20-somethings blithely coming out into a far more accepting world today appropriately acknowledge their forebears. And really, can you blame them? They’re busy being twenty-something and fabulous. Isn’t that something of a victory in and of itself?
The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on marriage equality is something few of us could ever have dreamt possible when we were scared little different kids. It opens another road to legitimacy that was previously blocked. If I can marry whomever I love, then that means the world doesn’t see my love as an aberration.
Of course, there will always be hate, based on gender. Race. Religion. Orientation. Age. Weight. If you are “other than normal” in any of these categories, there’s certain to be a whole subgroup of people who want to negate you on the basis of religious freedom or some other euphemism of intolerance.
Now Caitlyn has brought gender identity to the table in the fiercest freaking manner possible. And OK, she has power and privilege and wealth and stylists. But she didn’t have to become the poster child for the transgender movement. Ellen didn’t have to become “America’s Lesbian.” Matt Bomer and Zachary Quinto and Jim Parsons could have easily kept their mouths shut and enjoyed lucrative careers without casting agents (most of them gay themselves) snarkily decreeing that openly gay actors can’t play “straight” roles. They did something brave. And thankfully, repercussions have been few.
Caitlyn decided at an age when most people begin to collect their Social Security that it was time to start her life over again. This time, authentically. She knew she would be stalked by paparazzi. She knew she would be ridiculed by the intellectually challenged. She knew even that she would disappoint those who hold up the decathlon-winning Bruce Jenner as the quintessence of male achievement in the 20th century.
But, you see, for years, she was only disappointing herself. As was I. As were any of us who tried to “pass” or wish it away or sublimate our genuine needs and desires by working or eating or drinking or drugging too much. That’s a lack of courage.
I see it so clearly now, after kicking down the closet doors at a riper old age than most, only to discover that my sexuality didn’t matter one iota to the people who loved me. And then, the greatest revelation: Anyone who judged me because of a flaw only they perceived was not worth my time or energy or love. And they probably never were. Now, living in Palm Springs, the epicenter of LGBT self-actualization, with amazing, passionate, accomplished, witty, smart, fun, extraordinary friends and acquaintances who also happen to be gay, I can’t imagine what I was so scared about.
Yet bigotry is not over as too many recent examples remind us. The sweeping “religious freedom” movement. The anti-LGBT pandering by the clown-car of candidates for the Republican nomination for president. The voting down in the U.S. Senate of a measure to ban LGBT discrimination in schools. In schools! It goes on and on. But, optimistically, we may be witnessing the last gasps of an out-of-date prevailing belief system.
Caitlyn’s bravery flies in the face of every zealot who will try to deny us humanity. She will have incalculable impact for countless young (or maybe even not so young) transgender people around the world. She didn’t have to do this so publicly. Her pain was long and deep and profound and personal. It’s easy to get lost in that and just make misery and self-loathing your reality.
To my mind, it takes courage to thrust away long-festering mental shackles and just, finally, be real. I think all of us who got to the other side after a lifetime of inner antagonism are, in fact, nothing short of truly courageous.
When all of the Kardashian-level hysteria dies down, Caitlyn will just educate by example. A life well lived is the best revenge, as they say. I hope she avoids the gravitational pull of Access Hollywood-type hype and sensationalism once the initial curiosity abates. That would be an even more courageous thing. Just go and be.
But for now, she deserves her victory lap. She triumphed over fear. And if you’ll pardon the inevitable gay Wizard of Oz reference: Not unlike the Cowardly Lion, she had courage inside of her all along.