People, struggles get lost in transgender hype

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Like many readers, I observed Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out party from afar. Unlike many of you, it wasn’t the first time I or those close to me grappled with a transgender announcement.

Years before orange became the new black or Jazz Jennings uploaded her first YouTube video, our family was spending time at the home of one of my husband’s co-workers. It was typical friendship fare comprised of get-togethers, food and adult beverages.

The relationship was, at least for my husband and me, something relatively new. Being very different people with very different interests, we’d each cultivated friendships, but the lines between “her friends” and “his friends” were well-defined. So, spending time with this other married couple and their children was a rare opportunity for us to visit “our friends.” I became a friend of the wife and my husband, because of the work connection, became an even closer friend to the husband.

The announcement that the couple’s husband would physically transition from male to female was shocking and, in retrospect, a tiny bit expected. It was only afterward, when difficult words had been spoken, that the past could be viewed against a previously hidden backdrop.

My husband had a much more difficult time with the news than I did. I can’t describe exactly what he felt or thought because, to this day, we’ve never completely hashed it out. I do remember asking him if he would continue the friendship, and the slow shake of his head that indicated he wouldn’t.

I held two predominant emotions: grief and pity. I mourned the friendship, the marriage and what felt like the death of someone I knew. As much as I tried, I couldn’t fathom how incredibly difficult the situation had to be for our friends, even if this was an issue they’d been discussing for some time. I felt horrible for the wife, more so for their children.

A transgender 6-year-old plays in her room at her Kansas City, Mo. home in this January 2014 file photo. Transgender children, born, they say, with the wrong bodies, face a society slow to accept them while their parents fight misconceptions. (Allison Long/Kansas City Star/MCT)
A transgender 6-year-old plays in her room at her Kansas City, Mo. home in this January 2014 file photo. Transgender children, born, they say, with the wrong bodies, face a society slow to accept them while their parents fight misconceptions. (Allison Long/Kansas City Star/MCT)

The situation was an out-of-control, speeding train that didn’t blow its horn before clanging through the intersection. Our hair and clothing — the fringes of our life — whipped in its wake. Yet we understood the turbulence was even worse for those onboard.

Within days of going public, the family broke apart. The husband took employment in a different state, where a new life as a female could be more easily forged. Wife and daughters remained here, at least for a while, and did their best not to harbor animosity toward the man or the circumstance. Some days were better than others.

Unlike Caitlyn Jenner’s seemingly overnight conversion, our friend explained he was making a multiyear commitment to ultimately match his outward appearance to his internal feelings. There were no awards for courage, no magazine covers, no reality TV contracts, no trending tweets. If anyone suggested the decision was a stunt done on a whim or for publicity, I would have considered them separated from reality.

A multitude of private discussions took place, initiated by our friend. I’m sure his last memories included outrage, dismay and confusion — and he welcomed them, encouraged them, requested them, embraced them. It was as if, once the decision was made, he needed to close the existing book of his life, however painful the last chapter, in order to open a new cover.

Despite the lack of a large sphere of support, our friend gave up everything — and did so with dignity.

As a result, even if I can’t fully understand the decision, I can respect it. I also can hope that if I’m ever in such a situation, faced with losing everything around me to pursue what I believe is an undeniable part of who I am, that I would behave similarly.

This is what I think has been lost within the media circus that has surrounded Jenner and other well-known transgender people. It seemed like one day Jenner was making his announcement and the next her photos were being circulated. There was no larger context, no understanding of the thousands or even millions of conversations, doubts and even regrets that happened before and between these two very public things.

No doubt general awareness is raised when someone famous or well-known places inner struggles on display, but I remain unconvinced such spectacles result in understanding.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on July 19, 2015. Photo credit: Allison Long/Kansas City Star/MCT