Caitlyn (née Bruce) Jenner didn't seek out the fame that came along with Keeping Up With the Kardashians. In fact, she often shied away from the bright, sometimes blinding, spotlight throughout the show's 10 seasons. But now the position she never fully accepted is one that she's embracing — and for a very good reason.
"The transgender issue right now is kind of where the gay issue was 30, 40 years ago," she said in the second half of a groundbreaking two-part episode about her transition from Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn Jenner. "A lot of people don't understand it, and what we need is tolerance towards that community. Because of the situation I am in, I think we can do a lot of good." And we couldn't agree more.
I've always had a love/hate relationship with the Kardashians. Like most people, I used to wonder what they were even famous for, but I stopped trying to wrap my head around it years ago. I am even a Kardashian apologist of sorts, arguing against naysayers who discount their undeniable knack for building their brand or scrutinize every move they make with a sort of sick pleasure. And yes, I have seen pretty much every episode of the show — and I honestly kind of love them. Still, never did I think that not only could I come to love the Jenner and Kardashian clan, but that they also would be front and center in one of the most important movements of our generation. Yet here I am, looking at the beautiful image of a brave woman on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, and all I can think is what a huge moment this is, not just for one family, but also what a meaningful one it is for the world. Like them or not, the Kardashians and Jenners have an enormous platform for change, and Caitlyn Jenner is using her journey to shed light on the transgender community in a way that only someone with her presence can. Here's why her transition and the media storm surrounding it matter:
1. Questions are being asked (and answered) about the transgender community.
People who are not familiar with the transgender community have questions — both "appropriate" and inappropriate — about how to understand and approach the topic, and everyone should know that that's OK. In an ideal world, we all would be educated and inclusive, but in reality, people need time and help to understand what it means to be transgender and to learn how to discuss the topic in the right way. In Keeping Up With the Kardashians: About Bruce, Khloé Kardashian makes the honest mistake of using the incorrect "he" pronoun when referring to "her" — one that many people make.
"Coming in and doing this interview, I do have high anxiety," she said. "I don't know if I'm saying the right thing, if I'm using the right terminology. I don't want to offend anyone." The moment showed the importance of correct pronoun usage, but also that it's OK to mess up. The special also shed light on gender identity and sexual attraction — two very different things — as shown by the fact that Caitlyn discusses that her sexual preference as Bruce was always women but tells Vanity Fair that her sexuality is not important to her right now. "If you have a list of 10 reasons to transition," she said, "sex would be number 10."
Kim Kardashian asks on the show about what surgeries were planned — a question that many wonder about, but should not ask unless the transgender person chooses to bring up the subject themselves. The topic of hormones was also discussed, and Caitlyn (who at the time of the interview was still identifying as Bruce) answered each question fully and openly. To have these things talked about by a family that the world is already so familiar with has helped to normalize the discussions that everyone — regardless of their personal association with the transgender community — should be having.
2. Faces and feelings are being attached to an important issue.
For many people, "transgender" is just another word they don't fully understand, until that word is attached to a face, a family, and something familiar to them. One thing that Keeping Up With the Kardashians: About Bruce special and general coverage of the topic has done is truly capture the genuine reactions — good and bad — of each family member, including Caitlyn's, and display the various emotions each person experienced in the process of her transition.
Kendall Jenner expressed her feelings in a heartbreaking interview, saying that what hurt most was knowing now how long Caitlyn felt she had to hide the truth from her loved ones. "I just feel bad," Kendall said through tears. "Like, if that's really what makes you happy and you had to sneak around at, like, 4 a.m. [in women's clothing] because you didn't want to, like, scare me and Kylie?"
Khloé was hurt that she had been lied to, Kris Jenner felt deep confusion and loss over her perception of their marriage, and Kourtney Kardashian contemplated how and when she would tell her son, Mason Disick. Kim took the news well, citing input and advice from Kanye West as a factor in helping her become more supportive, open, and understanding. True to form, she jumped at the opportunity to get inside Caitlyn's closet and help her choose her style as a woman — a sweet gesture that clearly went a long way in showing her acceptance. All of the reactions were understandable and relatable, and they were ones that many people realistically have in similar situations. They showed the family as a group of people who love someone and who want to understand and accept this change. They showed Caitlyn as a parent, a grandparent, a spouse, a human.
3. People are taking more notice of transgender rights.
Poverty, homelessness, and suicide are some of the most serious problems people within the transgender community face. Forty-two to 46 percent of trans men and women have attempted suicide, a staggering rate in comparison to the 4.6 percent attempted suicide rates among the general population. Even among LGBTQ groups, the T can often be forgotten or minimized, and transgender people constantly face healthcare discrimination, job discrimination, and housing discrimination.
With shows like Orange Is the New Black, Transparent, and now Keeping Up With the Kardashians, transgender issues are pushing their way to the forefront of entertainment news, a topic that was, until recently, widely avoided and underrepresented in the media. Critics have accused the family of doing all of this as yet another publicity stunt, but Caitlyn shut down that notion easily, saying, "You don't go out and change your gender for a TV show. It ain't happening." If anything, the massive audience the Kardashians and Jenners have been able to hold for so many years has made media coverage of Caitlyn — and by default the transgender community — a guarantee. And because she is open and eager to positively represent the community, we can't see a downside to the exposure.
4. The road to understanding and acceptance is being paved on a bigger scale than ever before.
Caitlyn's transition has generally been accepted by friends and family, all of whom have presented a united front and openly expressed their support for her. The support she has received so publicly will hopefully show other people going through something similar that, while everyone's journey is unique, it's possible to make it through and come out a happier, healthier person. "We want to understand his struggle," Kim said of Caitlyn's transition. "We want to learn about it. We want to relate to it in some way." When one of the most famous women (hey, it's true) in the country speaks, people listen — and the message has been resoundingly positive from the entire clan. We can only hope that the message spreads and, along with it, love, openness, and strides toward equality.
"Bruce Jenner was always telling lies," Caitlyn told Vanity Fair. "Caitlyn doesn't have any lies. Caitlyn's journey is about truth, understanding, and acceptance of all people."