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Bruce Jenner Interview Serves as 'Ellen' Moment for Transgender Movement

It's been a big year for transgender awareness.

ABC News

It’s been a big year for transgender awareness.

Laverne Cox, star of “Orange is the New Black,” graced the cover of Time Magazine. And President Obama used the word transgender in this year’s State of the Union address, becoming the first president to do so.

But it seems likely that Bruce Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer will serve as the “Ellen moment” for the transgender movement.

Jenner’s story isn’t that of all or even most transgender people, just as the experiences of most gay people didn’t mirror those of Ellen DeGeneres.

But Jenner’s interview was one account, poignantly and sensitively told by someone already well-known to multiple generations of Americans. For two hours, some 19 million Americans heard the highs and lows of Jenner’s struggles, and answers to a lot of questions about what it means to be transgender.

And, unlike when Ellen’s character came out nearly 20 years ago, the discussion isn’t limited to TV or even to the mainstream media. With the advent of Twitter and Facebook, the rest of the world had a chance to weigh in, from Jenner’s family to celebrities to other transgender people.

Oprah Winfrey called the interview “stunning,” while retired NFL star Randy Moss tweeted: “This interview takes guts an I’m proud of Bruce Jenner!… Live ur life an b urself!” In a tweet hashtagged “ProudDaughter,” Kim Kardashian West said: “Love is the courage to live the truest, best version of yourself. Bruce is love.”

Transgender leaders, as well as those in the lesbian, gay and bisexual community also weighed in. Cox congratulated Jenner on Twitter, saying: “It is always brave to stand in one’s truth.” Journalist Janet Mock said the interview confirmed that “no matter our age/path, we’re all searching for authenticity, identity, acceptance & (self-)love.”

DeGeneres also praised Jenner for sparking a new dialogue that would open minds and save lives.

“Bruce Jenner is a beautiful, brave human being,” DeGeneres wrote.

The Jenner interview also offered a chance for Internet media to do what it does best: Rapidly churn out a range of perspectives. FiveThirtyEight, being the data-driven site it is, provided a statistical look at challenges facing the trans community, while writers on sites ranging from the Huffington Post to Mashable to ESPN all weighed in with varying views. Mic, meanwhile, offered a sobering look at the legal hurdles still facing transgender people in the United States.

Not all the response has been positive, naturally. But even the negative sentiments, when shared on Twitter and elsewhere, serve to underscore the work yet to be done in breaking down the widespread ignorance that remains around trans issues.

And, of course, there were pronoun challenges.

In the interview, Jenner talked about coming to identify as a woman, but ABC also said that Jenner had requested that the more familiar male pronouns be used. That fueled the debate over what pronouns to use when referring to Jenner. (Accepted journalism practice is to use the name and pronouns a subject prefers. When they haven’t publicly announced a gender identity, the preferred practice is to refer to the individual by name.)

Sawyer, for her part, seemed to struggle — as many people do — with the notion that sexuality and gender are separate, continuing to ask about Jenner’s sexuality even after the question had been answered several times.

But Jenner refused to be ruffled, at one point reminding Sawyer that sexuality and gender identity were like apples and oranges.

Jenner also began the interview with Sawyer by stressing the importance of maintaining one’s sense of humor, something that has served me well in my transition and helps ease people’s fears around a topic that remains awkward even for those with the best of intentions.

Refreshingly, Sawyer noted that transgender people shouldn’t have to discuss what they are doing with their bodies — though Jenner chose to talk about it. She also pointed out that most transgender people don’t have access to the financial resources necessary to afford some of the treatments that have been available to Jenner.

Many in the transgender community who headed into the interview fearful of what was to come said they came away pleasantly surprised.

“The major news networks have now all clearly demonstrated that they not only know how to cover and present trans people and our issues to their audiences, but that they can do it well – stunningly well, in fact,” talk show host and activist Rebecca Juro wrote for MSNBC. “What trans people need now is not only great coverage of our notables, but also coverage of the topics and issues that matter most in our lives.”

Jenner’s interview comes at a time when other transgender stories have also enjoyed broader media coverage. NBC News has aired a series on transgender kids, while ABC Family has a show in the works, called Becoming Us, focusing on children growing up with transgender parents. And of course there is Amazon’s fictional “Transparent” and Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.”

Notably undercovered, though, have been a number of murders of transgender people this year– mostly women of color — after a similarly violent 2014. That’s in addition to extremely high rates of suicide, unemployment and homelessness.

And even as public support pours in for Jenner, bills are making their way onto ballots in several states that would make it illegal for transgender people to use the bathroom associated with their gender.

But, awareness is a start toward addressing even those issues, particularly if we embrace not just Bruce Jenner but all those who similarly find themselves transcending society’s notion of the gender that should accompany their bodies.

For those who missed the interview, here’s Jenner’s full conversation with Diane Sawyer:

ABC Breaking US News | US News Videos

In addition, here’s Kim Kardashian West talking to NBC’s Today Show (her full interview will air on Monday morning.)

And finally, here are thoughts from a wide-ranging panel of transgender people who watched and reacted to the Jenner interview for ABC’s Bay Area affiliate, including me:

This article originally appeared on

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