THE role of a reality television star as a possible champion of transgender rights has received a mixed reception from American equality campaigners.
Former Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete Bruce Jenner has so far declined to comment but people in his inner circle have not challenged mounting speculation he is preparing to live as a woman and could appear in a new reality series about his transition.
The divided reaction to the news serves as a backdrop to what promises to be an intriguing melodrama over the coming months regarding Mr Jenner, who has been a real-life stepfather on the reality series Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
His mother, Esther Jenner, said last week that she had spoken to her son about the news reports.
“He said, ‘I want to be honest about my identity and I know this is coming out in the press’,” Mrs Jenner said. “He started by saying, ‘We need to have a long, serious talk’. I am at peace with what he is and what he’s doing.”
Over the weekend, Mr Jenner was at the centre of unwelcome publicity when it emerged he was one of the drivers in a four-car crash in Malibu, California, in which a woman died. Media attention could grow more intense in the months ahead.
Depending on how Mr Jenner’s story is presented and received, the revelation that a celebrated athlete and member of one of the most visible US families is transgender could be comparable to the cultural shifts that came with the news that film star Rock Hudson was gay and died of Aids-related complications or that basketball great Magic Johnson, a heterosexual, was HIV-positive.
Despite some progress, activists claim many transgender Americans, far more so than gays and lesbians, remain vulnerable to violence and discrimination.
“We see transgender rights as the next wave of the work we need to do, after marriage equality,” said Katherine Franke, director of Columbia Law School’s Centre for Gender and Sexuality Law. “Getting protections on paper is important. But the day-to-day lives of many transgender people won’t be affected – they’re unemployed, experiencing violence in the streets, in shelters, in schools.”
Allyson Robinson, an activist working to end the military’s ban on transgender people serving openly, said gains for transgender rights in some areas have triggered a backlash from religious conservatives who lost the same-sex marriage fight.
“Transgender people and their identities and communities are under siege right now on multiple fronts,” she said, citing as an example recent bills proposed in state legislatures that would make it illegal for transgender people to use a bathroom that doesn’t correspond with their biological gender.
Transgender Americans have many recent breakthroughs to celebrate, including several positive, high-profile portrayals of transgender people on popular TV shows, including the prison inmate played by Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black, and the transgender woman played by Golden Globe winner Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent.
Moves by at least nine states to ensure health insurers cover transgender treatment has been deemed necessary. The government has ended the exclusion from services related to gender transition in the Medicare programme for the elderly and disabled. And steps are being taken to allow people to change gender on their birth certificates before re-assignment surgery.