I watched the Bruce Jenner interview on 20/20 last week and had a lot of feelings. It’s complex to have your transition made public before you are living 100% of the time as your true gender. Most folks begin to “go public” with it with a letter to friends and family requesting a pronoun change and a new name. But not Bruce Jenner! A Friday night Prime Time TV interview!
As my friend Avory put it, “Bruce Jenner is a rich, white American who could not escape his truth.” As Americans we need to learn how to hear hard truths from people different than us, and for folks who are not trans accepting (like many of Bruce’s fellow Conservative Republicans) this interview and the rampant publicity around it, is another seminal moment for trans liberation. This moment is only made possible through the incredible work of queer and trans activists, allies and movements. Many leaders in these movements are incredible people of color who did not have the monetary or other privileges Bruce Jenner enjoys.
Here’s hoping this interview can help Americans learn how to hear hard truths from people who are different in other ways.
My favorite takeaway was the authenticity quote by Kanye West. He had told Kim Kardashian West, his wife and Bruce Jenner’s step-daughter, this anecdote.
Look, I can be married to the most beautiful woman in the world, and I am. I can have the most beautiful little daughter in the world, and I have that. But I’m nothing if I can’t be me. If I can’t be true to myself, they don’t mean anything.
Kanye is exactly right. When you aren’t authentic to yourself, it is nearly impossible to enjoy your life. I spent a long time being depressed, suicidal, self-hating and body hating. It robbed me of the pleasures of the everyday. Making choices and taking risks to be my authentic self has saved my life.
I remembered an ice cream wrestling party with my sorority sisters when I was in college. It was June of the year 2000. I’m pretty sure our president, Sam, came up with the idea of getting a blow up pool, putting it in the backyard of our sorority house and inviting a bunch of women over to wrestle.
Somehow this is the only group photo I have from our sorority, taken at our winter retreat in Lake Tahoe, which includes friends of ours not in the sorority. I’m far right in what I believed was a “Winter coat” when I still lived in CA.
I think it’s important to mention at this part of the story that I was a member of a lesbian sorority, Lambda Delta Lambda, and our sorority house was a 3-4 bedroom ranch house just off the UC Davis campus that was shared by a few members of our sisterhood. Other formal Greek organizations on campus (the panhellenic sororities, as they were known) had pretty big houses with towering Greek letters attached to the second story. Ours was just a regular rental house but it was super cute and special because our membership was pretty small.
I was only a member for one school year. I came out during my Junior year in college and by the time Senior year rolled around I realized that my friends consisted primarily of straight women and gay men. I knew I needed a way to meet lesbians and so I decided to rush the lesbian sorority. I was so into the Greek system at Davis, having a lot of friends who were in sororities and going to events all the time.
My friend Dianna at a sorority produced charity event pageant for fraternity brothers to win a Mr. Some Sorority Name title. One of the contestants handed out cookies. I used that technique in my 2009 bid for Miss LEZ.
My roommate Jill was rush chair of Alpha Chi Omega and invited me to the rush event I’d been hearing her plan for weeks just to support her and get a free meal. When my friend Dianna came with me to the event just to check it out they sent their best sisters over to rush us even though I was just there to support Jill. Some of them thought I was there to do an expose for the college newspaper. (True story, I did write a women and gender studies term paper about the Greek system on campus, but it was never published.)
Me and Jill in our apartment! I was still learning how to have the bravery to wear sleeveless shirts…
Despite the Alpha Chi Omega sisters’ best rush attempts I was never going to join a panhellenic organization. I definitely felt too fat to join a sorority where matching outfits bought at the Gap (which didn’t produce ANY plus size clothes in those days) were de rigueur and the dues were the equivalent to another quarter’s tuition per year. This was true of all of the panhellenics. I could barely afford college–I paid for my public university experience through student loans I’m still paying back, working three jobs, and my teacher mom’s couple hundred a month to help out. By the end of each quarter when the loans ran out I bought my burritos on credit cards.
But Lambda Delta Lambda’s dues were totally equivalent to an active club and they seemed really nice. And I needed to make lesbian friends if I was ever going to get laid with my newly minted out bisexual lifestyle. (In those days, I identified as bi because I didn’t know queer was a thing and my complex attraction to masculinity remained unexplored.)
My friend Dianna, great straight ally that she is/was, came with me to my first Lambda Delta Lambda rush event. I think it’s really awesome when you do ally work to be willing to blend into a marginalized group. Adopting an attitude of “who cares if people think you’re gay at gay events” is definitely an ally pro-tip.
The lesbian sorority rush event was very different, just a casual hang out at a local pizza place with the sisters and some of their friends and partners. I don’t remember being nervous about whether I would “get in” like the deep selection process of traditional sororities. Being part of a sorority was a great experience even though it was only for one year of college. I’m really glad I made the choice to risk doing it. There were no matching outfits, and I went to the local Greek letter schwag shop and bought myself a sorority letter sweatshirt in an XXL. I wore it for years, until it was threadbare.
Jill and I threw a fake fraternity themed house party that year. Fraternities on our campus LOVED decorating with spray paint and trash bags. Our parties were an amazing amalgamation of my LGBT friends, women and gender studies friends, Jill’s Greek friends and our mutual dorm friends. Here are a bunch of my sorority sisters and my friend from Girl Scout Camp, Cole, visiting from Sacramento.
Okay, so back to authenticity. At this point in my development towards becoming the fully actualized authentic human I am today, I was not a person who knew how to show up and be present. I hated my body, I never thought I was good enough, and was gearing up to attend law school after graduation because “everyone” told me I should go to law school. I had no idea how to know what I really wanted or to give myself permission to throw myself into things with the wild abandon I do today. I definitely did not feel okay risking looking foolish.
I was 21 years old and just about to graduate when Sam suggested an end of the year ice cream wrestling party. I went along with it because it’s what everyone else wanted, I wasn’t sure how I felt about watching girls wrestle in ice cream.
One of my sisters outside our retreat cabin by the snow woman doing some topless snow angel making. I deeply wanted to go join her but no way was I okay with being topless around anyone when I was that age.
I was informed that as the graduating senior among us I was going to have to wrestle (ugh) and I would get to select who I would wrestle against from my sorority sisters. I remember knowing immediately who it was going to be, I figured if I picked the strongest member it would be over quickly and I could move on.
Even though I was not yet aware of the true magic of the gender spectrum amongst queers (in the culture of UC Davis in the late 90s/early aughts Butch and Femme were frowned upon, most folks were on the andro/hippie spectrum of gender presentation) if you lined up our sorority based on gender appearance, I was certainly the farthest in the feminine spectrum and the girl I wrestled was on the other end. I think it’s a testament to how deeply I wanted to be Femme because I would wear clothing from the men’s section of Old Navy, as there was no plus size women’s section yet, and enough make-up to have it be girly.
This is a great/terrible example of the kind of men’s clothing I loved to swim in because I thought it camouflaged my fat. This is my BFF Mary (we had so much fun together) and Dianna on our way home from our women’s honor society trip to Tahoe.
I don’t remember what I wore to wrestle but I’m absolutely sure it wasn’t anything special. I brought extra clothes to change into. I noticed with dread and extra humiliation that the girl I had a mild crush on was there (she worked in the same building as my academic advising job). I was first to wrestle and my sisters sweetly and deviously surprised me, the graduate, by making me “ice cream sundae” wrestle, pouring chocolate syrup, nuts, whipped cream, marshmallow fluff and lord knows what else on me as well as ice cream before I was quickly defeated by my masculine-presenting opponent. I remember standing there becoming a human ice cream sundae and feeling so embarrassed and nervous about what other people thought of me. After wrestling, I immediately ran into the shower for the wrestlers, got cleaned up and tried to enjoy the rest of the night. But I kind of couldn’t. I didn’t die of awkward that night, but I thought I might.
This is me winning an award for being an “outstanding senior” at UC Davis. I hated being on stage at that point in my life. So deeply insecure. Also, back then I dealt with insecurity by being an overachiever!
I think about that time a lot as a lost moment. I could have worn a bathing suit to wrestle, but I think at that time in my life I was still wearing a tee shirt over my bathing suits in pools when I went swimming. I could have really enjoyed the ability to wrestle with the person of my choice and I totally should have chosen the sister with whom I had a ton of sexual tension. Being not authentic and not particularly brave, I didn’t know how to make that choice or even acknowledge our sexual tension. I also could have hammed it up being in the spotlight, since it was a really beautiful moment of appreciation and love by my sorority sisters. AND, with the incredibly resilient digestion of my 21 year old self, I totally could have snacked on some ice cream sundae but sadly I was too afraid of being seen eating ice cream in the equivalent of on stage.
What would it have been like if I had been my authentic self at that moment? I would have been present, I would have enjoyed the moment and I would have had a lot more fun. My insecurities and my self-hatred kept me from the best of that moment.
I have no regrets in my life, I believe we all have a path, we’re all meant to learn what we can from what happens in our lives. But I know how not being fully authentic to who I was robbed me of enjoying what could have been a really incredible night for me.
If I could have that moment again, I know exactly what I would wear. This bikini, which was pretty cheap and could probably stand up to potential staining from maraschino cherries. I would also totally ham it up because I have learned how much I LOVE to be on stage and perform and people love performative wrestling.
So Kanye West is right. You can have the best of everything and never be able to enjoy it if you’re not fully yourself. Authenticity isn’t just about gender presentation, sexuality, or body liberation–it’s about taking the time to get to know yourself and taking the risks to let other people get to know the true you.
Not all of us are Bruce Jenner and do that with a 20/20 interview. But when you see that tender smile of Bruce’s in that interview, you can see the smile of someone who is SO excited to breathe freely, without being on guard. It’s worth it to step out and experience the tentativeness, the risks, the scary feelings of learning how to chip off your shell and expose your tender, true self to the world. Start with your closest, most trusted friends and body positive allies. Then move on to safer public spaces, then go bigger and bigger. It is worth it to be your whole, true self.