In the summer of 1976, Bruce Jenner was just about the biggest athlete in America. He had just returned from the Montreal Olympics, where he had won gold in men's decathlon, setting a new world record in the process. He was the AP's Athlete of the Year. He was on the front cover of the Wheaties box, when being on the front cover of the Wheaties box was a huge thing. In an era when the Olympics were a venue for superpower competition, his win was a moral one for the United States. His achievements were a capital B, capital D Big Deal.
In his prime, Jenner was as successful as, say, Michael Phelps. Today, he's mostly known for being the quirky Kardashian dad and for the widespread rumor that he is about to come out as transgender. If so, Jenner would be the most high-profile, most successful athlete ever to do so.
Earlier this week, BuzzFeed reported that Jenner is getting ready to go public with his transition. The announcement is expected to come by way of an interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC News, and to be followed by a E! documentary series chronicling the process. Yesterday, the rumor was all but confirmed by Jenner's mother, who told the AP, "I never thought I could be more proud of Bruce when he reached his goal in 1976, but I'm more proud of him now. It takes a lot of courage to do what he's doing." This is happening, and probably soon.
Generally, the reporting on Jenner's gender struggles has been left to the tabloids, which have covered it as you'd expect. Last month, In Touch ran a hatchet job cover that showed Jenner photoshopped as a woman. Just last week, People ran four separate stories on Jenner and the rumors of his ABC News sit-down. It's been treated as a complete and total joke.
But even if the rumors—which are so widespread at this point that all that's really left is to put a ring on 'em with Sawyer officiating— turn out to be untrue, Jenner's gender identity and the strife it has caused him are not, by any means, jokes. If openly gay athletes are rare, openly transgender athletes are pretty much non-existent. For an athlete of this stature to transition would be a remarkable milestone.
It's worth remembering that for as quickly as social attitudes are changing, America can be a grim place for transgender people. According to a survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, nearly 41 percent have attempted suicide, compared to the rate of 1.6 percent for the general population. Nearly two-thirds have been sexually assaulted. More than half have lost a job as a direct result of gender bias; more than half have been harassed or bullied in school. And that's everyone, not just the sports world.
Transgender athletes not only have to face the same problems that non-athletes do, but to even compete, they have to abide by some complicated and often unfair rules. There are differences from organization to organization, but some—CrossFit, for example—only allow athletes to compete as the gender they were born as. Others bar competition by athletes who have undergone certain hormone therapies. Even the International Olympic Committee, which has a fairly inclusive policy, throws up challenges. It says that those who have 1) undergone sex reassignment surgery, 2) have had hormone treatments for at least two years, and 3) have received legal recognition of their gender identity are allowed to compete. On paper that sounds fine, but those requirements aren't necessarily easy to fulfill.
That's theory. In practice, for a variety of reasons, there just aren't many transgender athletes. MMA fighter Fallon Fox is probably the most notable, and while she's owned her story, she had to do so because of an outing threat and has faced harassment and threats to her life within her own sport. Kye Allums is the first—and, as of now, only—openly transgender NCAA Division I athlete. He came out while playing on the George Washington University women's basketball team. Allums appeared on Orange Is The New Black star Laverne Cox's (who is also trans) MTV documentary about transgender people The T Word, and now travels the country speaking on transgender issues. Chloie Johnson is a transgender woman and CrossFit athlete who recently filed a lawsuit against her own sport for not letting her compete. Jaiyah Saelua is a soccer player from American Samoa who made history last summer for being the first transgender person to play in a World Cup qualifier. That's about it: four very brave athletes doing the hard and lonely work of just being out there, slowly working to change perceptions of what's possible.
This is why, even all these years after the Montreal Olympics, Bruce Jenner's position as a transgender athlete matters. People have been quick to dismiss this as another Kardashian reality TV sideshow—another Christmas ham-shaped blip à la Kim's butt breaking the internet, or speculation over what the hell Kylie Jenner is doing to her lips, or who Khloe is seeing. But it's not the same. Those things are trivialities out of the Kardashian news firehose, a porous stream of entertainment news that makes no difference in real people's lives. Bruce Jenner transitioning from male to female would be something very different.
This is not just a person who's famous for being famous. This is someone who has a gold medal from the 1976 Olympics and another from the 1975 Pan-Am Games; is enshrined in more Halls of Fame than you can count; and at one time had a claim to being, just as the marketing line said, the world's greatest athlete.
Perhaps Bruce Jenner, in a highly visible position, can prompt not just reexaminations of the prejudices that are so harmful to transgender people, but of those that lock athletes into prescribed identities; perhaps not. Perhaps this story will be treated with respect and human kindness, and perhaps it will be treated as a sideshow. We don't know. But it's not one to be casually dismissed, and it's not one to think of without considering a time, not that long past, when Bruce Jenner was everyone's idea of what an American boy was supposed to be.
Photo via AP