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Dear Bruce Jenner: You Could Really Be Hurting People


The June issue of Vanity Fair has a stunning cover shot of the newly formed transgender Caitlyn Jenner, quite the contrast to the cover shot almost 40 years ago of the newly famous Olympian, Bruce Jenner, on the Wheaties cereal box.

No doubt, this is an exhilarating time in Jenner’s life. So exciting it promises to eclipse the notoriety and fame of Jenner’s gold-medal accomplishment.

However, too much fame can turn sour and become painfully unwelcome. Some will see the new cover shot as an invitation, an open season to bash and make fun Jenner’s transition to Caitlyn. The glare of the media could be difficult, even for someone like Jenner, who made his living from being in the spotlight. Only time will tell if this current media frenzy will turn good people into sharp-teethed piranha who devour him and his new gender.

Jenner is not the first to publically acknowledge gender-identity struggles, just the latest on the list of transgender celebrities. But unlike those who have gone before, he has the inventiveness and savvy to manage his transition for maximum benefit.

As a former transgender myself, who underwent all the surgeries in mid-life and lived eight years as the female Laura Jensen, I will take care not to be hurtful. But I have concerns.

You Can’t Control a Media Circus

Jenner learned valuable self-promotion lessons from his years with the Kardashian women. Like a world-renowned symphony conductor, Jenner has orchestrated an elaborate, well-staged, “coming out” party, and America is caught up in watching his personal life unfold, waiting for the next red high-heeled shoe to drop. The cover of Vanity Fair is no accident. Jenner is making big hay out of all this fame. The media are completely complicit in his self-promotion, looking like a bunch of drunks surrounding Jenner at Friday-night happy hour tossing back the Caitlyn Kool-Aid.

The media look like a bunch of drunks surrounding Jenner at Friday-night happy hour tossing back the Caitlyn Kool-Aid.

In April, Jenner’s first highly-anticipated media event aired—an interview with Diane Sawyer on “20/20.” Jenner’s team dictated strict rules of engagement beforehand so the notably sensitive Jenner would not be ruffled. With his tissue in hand, at times he dabbed at his tears like a jilted teenager who had lost his first love.

The interview with Sawyer was the set-up for the Vanity Fair cover article this week. Let’s face it: Jenner has successfully captured America’s attention, “blowing up” social media with his transgender debut on Twitter and Facebook. Everyone is talking about Caitlyn. Each step in the rollout seems deliberately designed to pique interest for the next: the revelation with Sawyer on “20/20,” the glamorous photo layout in Vanity Fair, and, coming soon, the reality “docu-drama” of the transition process.

While Bruce Jenner Focuses on Himself, Others Suffer

I said I would use caution not to harm Jenner. But sometimes the humor or irony of certain aspects of the media circus are too tempting. When I started thinking about how well-planned this media launch has been, I could not help seeing the humor in using a magazine called “Vanity Fair.”

Sixty-three percent of those who have the desire to change genders suffer from a variety of other psychological and psychiatric disorders.

When I looked up the meaning of the word vanity, everything fell into place. Vanity is defined as “the quality of having too much pride in one’s appearance and/or accomplishments” and also “being excessively proud of oneself or one’s qualities or possessions; self-conceit.” Perhaps it is no accident Jenner arrange to debut her new appearance on the cover of a magazine called Vanity Fair.

What Jenner nor the media has not talked about is that 62.7 percent of those who have the desire to change genders suffer from a variety of other psychological and psychiatric disorders that haven’t been diagnosed and therefore haven’t been treated. The other disorders range from depression and anxiety to bipolar, dissociative, personality, and obsessive-compulsive disorders and narcissism.

The desire to change genders can be the “acting out” of one of these disorders. When the underlying psychological disorder is treated, the desire for a change of gender subsides.

The Transgender Experts Aren’t

That was my experience. I was told by leading gender experts that my lifelong anxiety and gender distress would be alleviated by changing genders. After much soul-searching, I decided to follow their advice. I underwent feminizing procedures and surgeries and lived successfully as a woman for eight years.

But the distress did not go away. The specialists told me to “give it time.” I thought eight years was enough of an investment in a strategy that wasn’t yielding long-term peace. A fortuitous observation on the part of a psychiatrist with whom I worked led to the definitive diagnosis of a co-existing disorder. After doing the tough work in counseling, I returned to my male gender identity and achieved real serenity.

Those who think gender reassignment is a cure for their depression, anxiety, and gender distress need to be warned. I get hundreds of emails from visitors to my web site,—letters from regretters and their wives, parents, brothers, and sisters who tell me how their lives and the lives of their families are completely broken apart as a result of a family member who wants to, or has already, changed genders. All because they did not properly diagnose an existing psychological disorder before undergoing the drastic step of gender change.

Jenner did talk about wanting to help reduce the transgender suicide attempt rate (estimated at 41 percent). I have the same goal. However, we come at the problem with different solutions: Jenner by promoting his own gender change and me by suggesting improvements in diagnosis and treatment of disorders prior to changing genders.

My concern is that the extravagant public adulation of Jenner will encourage others to seek out gender-change therapists for the wrong reasons. Many will see the excitement Jenner is enjoying and think they can emulate his life. Unfortunately, gender-change surgery is serious business. The surgery is not reversible. When Snoopy is gone, he’s gone. The toll on the rest of the family is also serious, especially if children are involved. Their young lives can be shaken with a catastrophic trauma not of their own making.