Bruce Jenner is – and has been for four decades – one of the most famous Americans alive.
Whether known from Keeping Up With the Kardashians or his infamous infomercials or because he was once widely considered the world’s greatest athlete after winning the Olympic decathlon, there are few people as well-recognized in 2015 by 80-year-olds and 20-year-olds alike.
That’s not an accident – being famous, and living well off that fame, was always part of Jenner’s plan. "I do know that if I win and I handle myself well," he told Sports Illustrated in 1976, "I can work off it for years and years." Now he’s having a good, well-deserved laugh at the idea that after more than 400 episodes of a reality show that has made worldwide stars out of his family, he’s the one with the biggest news of all.
In one recent survey, only 8 percent of Americans said they know someone who is transgender. Watching an emotional two-hour interview isn’t the same as knowing someone – and knowing someone isn’t the same as living their reality – but Jenner’s candid confessional ranks among the biggest history-making reveals in television and cultural history. Very few people, after the massive volume of publicity and commentary given this interview, can now say they've never heard at least one transgender person tell the story of their life.
The younger people who may know Jenner primarily from E! are probably the ones least in need of a crash course in transgender identity and issues, which Diane Sawyer and 20/20 did an impressive job of navigating for its less-savvy viewers. Gender expression isn’t a shocking topic of discussion among middle or high school students, and an increasing number of kids are beginning their transitions while still in elementary school.
These trans children and their parents tell remarkably similar stories about how other kids on the playground don’t really care if someone comes to school and announces a new name or that they’d rather line up with boys instead of girls. And when a teacher or coach pushes back and tries to enforce traditional gender norms – even those a kid is miserably, desperately resisting -- more parents are pushing back, challenging school districts and states to protect their kids’ rights to self-expression.
They’re also often going public, when the kids want to, and so we’re now meeting a generation of transgender activists who began telling their own stories in the media at age 12 or 13.
But these amazing kids are still living in a world that’s playing catch-up – and often not fast enough to keep them safe, healthy and alive. Jenner spoke briefly of considering suicide when the pressure of paparazzi following him to one medical appointment became too much – but for many kids who don’t conform to a traditional idea of gender, staying alive is a daily struggle, whether because it feels like the entire world’s rejected their true selves, or because they are a frequent target of intolerant violence.
"I am still here," Jenner said as he and Sawyer first sat down. "That is the good news."
ABC’s thoughtful approach to the biggest scoop of the year will drastically change how Americans talk about transgender people. It’s unlikely that many trans kids will wait until 65 to come forward and begin – or begin again – to transition publicly. But most of those kids will transition without the resources Jenner has.
And all of them will desperately need their families, friends and even strangers who only know what they heard from Bruce Jenner to respect what pronoun or name they’d like used, to allow them to dress however they wish, and to let them live their lives openly without fear.
"What I am doing is going to do some good," Jenner said, "and we’re going to change the world. I really, firmly believe that."
Editor’s note: As Jenner has not yet said that a new name or pronouns should be used, ETonline will follow GLAAD guidelines and continue to refer to him by his current name and male pronouns.