The Jenner Factor: Former Olympian Now Carrying a Different Kind of Torch

Caitlyn Jenner, photographed by Annie Leibowitz, on the cover of Vanity Fair (photo via Vanity Fair)

By now, most of you know that Caitlyn Jenner, once known as Bruce Jenner, the former Olympian and reality show star, underwent sexual reassignment surgery and other feminization procedures to become a woman. Insisting that she has always felt she should be a woman, she finally made the life-changing decision to align her physical appearance with her gender identity.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for society to burden Jenner with all of the discrimination and inequality women typically endure on a daily basis. Jon Stewart chimed in on the controversy when he addressed the issue on The Daily Show last week. He commended the media for being mostly accepting of Jenner’s transformation but was quick to point out that “it is really heartening to see that everyone is willing to not only accept Caitlyn Jenner as a women, but to waste no time in treating her like a woman.” Stewart then presented a montage of media coverage showing newscasters obsessing about her appearance (i.e., “so sexy it hurts,” and, “that is a hot woman!”) and also critiquing her age.

Jenner’s public debut demonstrates the harsh reality of what society values in women: their appearance. Her athletic legacy is no longer important. Instead, people seem concerned about whether she can pull off being an attractive and desirable woman. In fact, there are those who feel she no longer deserves her athletic recognitions. A new petition is asking that Caitlyn Jenner’s Olympic metals be revoked: “Ms. Jenner…claims that she has always believed herself to be truly female, and therefore, was in violation of committee rules regarding women competing in men’s sports and vice versa.” No matter that Jenner competed in the Olympics with male biological sex characteristics and won fairly—the Olympics’ controversial gender verification regulations would not even have applied. The petition creator was kind enough to congratulate Jenner on her transformation but condescending enough to insist she didn’t deserve her metals as a woman. Fortunately, the US Olympic Committee has publicly stated that not only will they not revoke Jenner’s medals, but would be willing to update their award records to reflect the new name.

And, just recently, it was announced that Jenner would receive the ESPN Arthur Ashe Award given to athletes who exhibit exceptional courage “in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.” While it is clear that Jenner deserves this award, being a renowned athlete who now faces hatred and bigotry in efforts to be honest and true to herself, it didn’t take long before the whistles were blown on that one too.  Shortly after the announcement, Jenner’s eligibility and worthiness of the award was challenged by a meme  claiming that disabled Army veteran Noah Galloway was also up for the award. Although Jenner and Galloway were in fact never in competition for the same award, social media became inundated with hate, attacking Jenner’s integrity by insisting that she doesn’t deserve the honor. (One might assume some critics were taking issue with the fact that Jenner is currently facing two lawsuits involving an automobile crash she was involved in last February that resulted in the death of the woman driving the car Jenner rear-ended. However, the vitriol seems to be wholly focused on her transgender identity.)

For someone to embrace their identity so publicly, no matter how socially taboo, is at the very least, courageous. And, while we hate to see Jenner subject to such bigotry and discrimination, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. For every negative mention of her decision, there has been a flood of support and acceptance not just for Jenner, but for the transgender community. Jenner’s experience (which, it’s worth noting, hasn’t been nearly as treacherous as that of transgender people of color or those without Jenner’s wealth) has enlightened the masses on an issue that needs to be discussed at the national level (hopefully with more diverse transgender representation in the future)—one couldn’t ask for better exposure. Her decision to identify as a woman has also brought to light issues of feminism and gender equality as well.

Caitlyn Jenner, thank you for being human, for fearlessly being who you are, and for showing all of us that even when others don’t accept you, you can proudly accept yourself.

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