“There are many different types of brave.”
I don’t think I’m the first person to write this this week. I’m sure I read it on another blog or in a more sophisticated article. But I wrote it on a Facebook thread shared by some friends with whom I went to high school–friends who were talking about Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner. It was one of those refreshing and–sadly–rare online conversations where people respectfully disagree, seem to listen to one another, and really, truly share perspectives. Seriously. I have to say–not bad for a bunch of folks who grew up in Mt. Sterling, KY. Not a bad place to be from (no matter what the Onion says).
I haven’t followed the Caitlyn Jenner story that closely. I don’t watch much reality television at all, much less anything dealing with the Kardashians, and because I was too young to remember his showing in the Olympics or buy a box of Wheaties with his face on the cover, Bruce Jenner was always the guy who talked about his Dyslexia on Silver Spoons (and I swear he appeared on that low budget show about a robot daughter, Small Wonder, but I may be conflating him and Lyle Alzado). I do remember being a bit shocked when I saw his face on the front of a tabloid a couple of years ago. The plastic surgery was obvious. I didn’t know what it meant for him. I probably rolled my eyes and muttered something about being wealthy and vain.
But yes, bravery.
Since the Vanity Fair cover, since the announcement of the ESPY Courage award, it seems everyone in America is weighing in. Lots of folks have challenged whether a wealthy, famous man is truly brave in announcing his gender transition. As someone who has a visceral reaction bordering on moral disapproval to the use of Botox and who sounds like a Marxist cultural critic to anyone in earshot every time a new Real Housewives spinoff airs, I get the critique. It seems easy–relatively speaking–for a man who was worshipped for his (masculine) athletic achievement, who became wealthy by shrewdly leveraging his achievement into celebrity, to use all of that collateral to tell the story of his transition to the entire world.
And maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t.
Where Caitlyn’s decision takes me is to a memory of my own: several years ago, I was part of a Young Adult Project on Multiculturalism, focused on issues of immigration on the US/Mexico Border, right around San Diego, CA. The gathered group was amazing–there was lots of honest dialogue about privilege and race and culture, and some relationships that will undoubtedly lifelong were forged over just a few days. We visited resource centers, made our way to the border, saw the long dividing fence between the US and Mexico, yelled “hello”s to folks on the other side, and made our own pilgrimage across the border. We visited a number of organizations doing interesting work in Tijuana, but the one that is cemented in my mind is an HIV/AIDS Hospice that also served as sort of sanctuary for folks who had been living–undocumented–in the United States, returned to Mexico by ICE, but who had nowhere to go once they were returned, most likely because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, or perhaps because of their addiction issues or HIV status.
When we arrived, a young transgender girl, no more than 18, waited outside, staring at the bus full of Americans. Our guides had warned us about being sensitive to everyone there–the living and the dying all had heartbreaking stories, but they made sure we were aware that this young woman, a runaway from the moment her family refused to let her live as a woman, was fragile despite her hard stare.
“You can’t know what she’s seen.”
Addiction. Deportation. Abuse of many kinds. So handle with care.
I’ll never forget the moment a member of our delegation, Luis, shared with this young woman. Luis, a New Yorker, had that tough New York exterior that communicates quickly that he is not one to be messed with. But over the days we all spent together, he quickly showed us all that his strengths were many. A soon-to-be Prison Chaplain, he was at his best when he could share moments of compassion, empathy, and understanding. At some point during our visit, he discovered that this young woman dreamed of being a chef with her own restaurant. Before enrolling in Seminary, Luis had been a chef. Somehow, our group connected the dots, and before we knew it, they sat together, Luis describing New York restaurant life, the young woman’s sullen stare gone, replaced with a sweet, wide grin as she shared her dream. It was an incredibly tender moment. It was the kind of moment that makes me proud to be in ministry–not because I did anything, but because I have colleagues whose kindness is so bold, who wear pure hearts on their sleeves, who are brave enough to be dream alongside a child who has had almost everything ripped out of her, save her dreams.
There are many different types of brave. Is a magazine cover or photo shoot the most noble act imaginable? Probably not, but in a day and age of globalized, internet driven wall-to-wall celebrity coverage, a former Olympian’s story can have power. I hope it has the sort of power that makes safe spaces for teenagers who struggle with being who they are. I hope it has the sort of power that makes parents think twice before they kick their children out of their homes. I hope it has the power to help people like me do more, like remember the names of people I encounter, and not just their stories. Above all, I hope that, regardless of how one feels about surgery or the resources to have it or Gender and whether it’s a God-given concrete fact or a social construction, that we are in a moment where we recognize that this is not a conversation about breaking records or creating buzz, but one about breaking down barriers and creating empathy.