This blog posting has a bit of a different focus than my blogs typically do. But I have a rule: if something causes me to throw back my head in frustration or to start talking to my computer screen or TV, that means I need to write about it—if only to work out my irritation, to reach some type of catharsis if I’m fortunate, or to come to a conclusion that may even have a pearl of wisdom buried within. So I sincerely apologize if any of my wonderful readers takes offense to anything I’m about to say—but please do stick with me to the end if you can.
So here it goes. If I see one more article about Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner’s “rocking a gorgeous white Versace gown,” taking “a walk on the wild side when she stepped out” in a leopard-patterned wrap dress in New York City, or “conquering her fear of swim suits,” I’m going to start screaming, and I may not stop. But as you’ll see shortly, my rant here is not so much about Caitlyn, but rather about what I’m calling today’s “Jenner-ization” of America.
At the age of 12, with the rest of the country, I watched in admiration when Jenner set the world record in the decathlon and received the gold medal during the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics. And his win was certainly exciting in the moment. But I didn’t quite understand why so many seemed to worship him so–and for so long. After all, having received his gold, he retired immediately after taking his victory lap around Olympic stadium. Even he has joked that “Nobody has milked one performance better than me—and I’m damned proud of it.” And years later, after moving to Newtown, CT, I learned some not-so-admirable facts about Jenner, making it even more difficult to consider myself a fan of the former athlete.
A bit of background first, and then on to why Jenner has not been Newtown’s favorite son for some time now. The fact is that Jenner lived right here in Newtown, and this is where he spent his last 2 years of high school. In addition to competing in track at Newtown High, Jenner also played on the football and basketball teams, and he was voted Most Valuable Player of Newtown’s track squad. He attended his senior prom with the young lady who became the wife of Newtown’s former first selectman. And a few months after winning the gold medal in Montreal, Jenner returned to Newtown to attend a ceremony at Newtown High, during which they christened “Bruce Jenner Stadium.” Just a few months later, tragedy struck the Jenner family: his younger brother, who was just 18 years old, was killed in a car accident in Canton, CT while driving Jenner’s Porsche, which had been a gift to celebrate the Olympian’s success. Though some speculate that his brother’s tragic death may be at least part of the reason that Jenner appears to have kept his distance from Newtown after that time, his name remained on the Newtown High School stadium for nearly 25 years.
And here’s where many Newtownians’ opinions of Jenner changed. Former Newtown High School principal, William Manfredonia, told the Danbury New-Times that in 1997, school officials repeatedly tried to contact Jenner–whom at that time was living a charmed life as an actor, announcer, and motivational speaker–asking “for both financial and moral support” for a $400,000 renovation to the stadium. Manfredonia said that “I wrote to [Jenner] twice to see if he could help, and I even called, but I never even got the courtesy of a reply letter.” Michael Kelley, who was then the president of Newtown High School’s Blue and Gold Booster Club, also made repeated calls to Jenner while working with the club to help raise money for the new stadium. “I never spoke to him personally, but I called his office and home numerous times,” Kelley told The News-Times. “His wife told me he was involved in other commitments and was not able to help us.”
At that time, I was a relatively new resident of Newtown, and my husband had already been living here for many years. We were both enamored and protective of our sweet home town. Needless to say, upon learning that Jenner did not even have the common courtesy to pick up the phone to return a call, let alone contribute to the stadium that bore his name, we were outraged at first and then simply disgusted. Apparently, he simply was not interested in contributing to the warm, sleepy town where he honed his athletic skills. Nor did he appear to have any inclination to help with a renovation to the “Bruce Jenner Stadium,” so that new generations of young men and women could develop their own athletic skills and perhaps go on to reach some semblance of the fame, fortune, and success that he had achieved. Of course, it was completely within his right to choose to spend and not to spend his fortune in any manner that he wished. But the result was that many of us who love Newtown lost a great deal of respect for him, the man who was Bruce Jenner at that time.
So that was that. In October of 2001, the school board unanimously approved a name change for the stadium, calling it the “Blue and Gold Sports Stadium,” and they also renamed the athletic field behind Newtown High School as the “Harold S. DeGroat and Ann Anderson Sports Complex.” Speaking to The News-Times, long-time Newtown resident Joan Crick said that “the stadium never should have been named after Jenner; it should have been given the name of Harry DeGroat, a long-time high school sports coach and physical education teacher, who died nearly 40 years ago. ‘He did so much for the town and is remembered by so many for his work and achievements,’” she stressed. Kelley somewhat agreed: “I think we made the right decision in choosing his [Jenner’s] name for the stadium at the time, but over the years there hasn’t been a connection between Mr. Jenner and Newtown.” The high school stadium, which is still known as the Blue and Gold Sports Stadium, contains a plaque listing the names of the many people who contributed toward the stadium’s improvements. One former Newtown resident’s name is notably lacking.
Fast-forward to the very different world in which we live today. So now you know why I have not considered myself a fan of Jenner for some time. I just happen to think that not deigning to take a phone call from an official of your former home town—a town that honored you and celebrated your accomplishment by putting your very name on their stadium–was simply a rotten, thoughtless thing to do. But as hinted earlier, that’s not why I’m writing this blog: what prompted me to do so is my concern for what’s been happening to our beloved country.
Before you start shaking your head, thinking that I’m a transgender-phobe (is that a word yet?), that is absolutely not the case. If Bruce was miserable being Bruce and is truly happy now being Cait, I’m genuinely happy for her. There is far too much suffering and pain in this world, and it’s always a wonderful thing when people are able to make changes that result in their leading much happier lives. Also, I truly hope that by sharing her story, Cait is able to provide comfort and hope for those who are currently struggling with gender identity–and perhaps help to prevent some of the terrible experiences that impact so many transgender youth, such as family rejection, harassment, discrimination, violence, and other severe stressors that may contribute to the high suicide attempt rate among transgender people.
But sadly, with that said, it certainly appears to some of us that this is just as much—or perhaps much more–about Bruce doing what he wanted to do and making a pretty penny than it is about a strong sense of altruism and genuine concern for others. Rather, for many, this seems more like another episode (literally) in our country’s current sensationalized reality TV show culture.
When Diane Sawyer asked Jenner (who was not yet going by Caitlyn) about whether this was a publicity stunt for the “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” show as many in the public were convinced, he rolled his eyes, laughed, and sarcastically said the following:
Jenner: “Ohhh noooo, we would never do that, Diane! Are you telling me that I’m going to go through a complete gender change, okay, and go through everything you need to do [for] that for the show? Sorry, Diane, it ain’t happening, okay? Yeah, we’re doing this for publicity … yeah, right. Oh my God, Diane, do you have any idea what I’ve been going through all my life, and they’re gonna say that I’m doing this as publicity for a show? Oh my God. There are lots of shows out there.”
Sawyer: “Yes, but there’s a shameless selling of everything these days.”
Jenner (now leaning forward and pointing at Sawyer): “And I get that, but what I’m doing is going to do some good. We’re going to change the world. I really firmly believe that we’re going to make a difference in the world with what we’re doing. And if the whole Kardashian show and reality television gave me that foothold into that world—to be able to go out there and really do something good, I’m all for it. I got no problem with that. Understand?”
“Understand?” My goodness! It would be difficult not to regard Jenner’s tone and body language as sarcastic, didactic, and just downright rude. And it was interesting to me that he kept using the word “we.” Wouldn’t one who was genuine about what he was saying use the word “I”? Doesn’t his use of the universal “we” seem a bit contrived and suggest that he was referring not so much to his family members, but rather to the “cast members” of the Kardashian television show? Perhaps the lady doth protest too much?
Yes, in my humble opinion, she “doth.” Over the last several weeks, every single time I’ve gone online to conduct a search on Yahoo, there were not one, not two, but several stories about Caitlyn. It was the day when I saw six, yes, SIX of these stories listed one after the other that I’d had enough. And what did these “news” stories cover? Let’s see: where Jenner went to lunch; how “stunning!” she looked while wearing “a tight black dress”; how stylists everywhere are finding “her classic and timeless hair and makeup flawless”; and the fact that she was excited about @Caitlyn_Jenner stealing the “Twitter crown” from @BarackObama by receiving 1 million followers the most quickly (where Caitlyn’s reaction was a squealing “Let’s go for the record! I love records!”). Good grief. Doesn’t this non-stop, frivolous, “glam” coverage about hair, nails, make-up, and social media highly suggest that much of this is about furthering celebrity and piling up those pennies? And how about the fact that Jenner called a “family meeting” to break the news about his transgender plans to Kim, Khloe, Kylie, and Kendall Kardashian–during which E! cameras were rolling to capture the moment for an upcoming episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”? What was that you said about publicity? “Ohhh noooo, we would never do that, Diane!”
But for many, perhaps worse yet was when the media, Hollywood, and many others started throwing around the word “Hero” to describe Jenner’s transgender transition. The icing on the cake was this quote from Kanye West, the husband of Kim Kardashian, when speaking to Jenner about her transition: “I think this is one of the strongest things that have [sic] happened in our existence as human beings, that are [sic] so controlled by perception. You couldn’t have been up against more.” Besides being barely understandable, really? In my humble opinion, it’s difficult to reconcile “hero” as an appropriate term here—and I’m certainly not the only one who feels this way. Just one example is former Virginia Beach Navy SEAL, Kristin Beck, who has not minced words concerning the manner in which Jenner is revealing her transgender transition. In an interview with NewsChannel 3, Northeast NC, posted on May 13 this year, Beck bluntly stated, “He’s no hero. I’m seeing too much of that money-grubbing reality show crap.” Two years after retiring from the Navy, Beck revealed her transgender transition in a 2013 interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. Beck strongly feels that Jenner’s approach to spacing out bits and pieces of information is less than helpful to the LGBT community. “He’s keeping everything secret and parsing out information to fish out another 17 million viewers to make another million bucks. It’s shameful, and you’re not a hero if all you’re doing is trying to make money. You can’t be an example if all you are is just that reality show machine.” Beck has written a book on her transgender journey and created a documentary called “Lady Valor.” She explained that “I took the road where I made a documentary, did everything real quick, and just said, ‘Hey, here it is; here’s the information if you want to know about it.’ And now I’m going to universities and speaking for free at colleges and universities all around the country. I’m barely breaking even, but I’m trying to show people who we are as normal folks, as something you can look and say, ‘Okay, I can understand it.’”
Beck, who is running for Congress in Maryland, emphasized that “There are kids, transgender LGBT kids who are killing themselves every day because they have no hero to look up to. They see no future. They feel isolated, and this could have been a really good example of what you can do and could have saved some lives. But instead, you’re going to make a few bucks. Disappointing.”
And concerning Kanye West’s statement that Jenner “couldn’t have been up against more”? It is terribly sad that Jenner was unhappy for so long. But Jenner became a celebrity many moons ago, had more opportunities than most in this life, and was immediately buoyed and supported by other celebrities when he revealed that he was now Caitlyn. Just to name a few examples, singer Demi Lovato dedicated a song to “American Hero, Bruce Jenner.” Celebrity after celebrity tweeted their support to Jenner after her Vanity Fair cover, Culture Club’s audience gave her a standing ovation, and she is now surrounded by dedicated hairstylists and assistants to ensure every hair is in place and every outfit is “stunning.” So Jenner “couldn’t have been up against more?” In all seriousness, isn’t it time to stop the sensationalizing, the rubber-necking, the lowest-common-denominator impact of reality shows on our true reality? The popular media has played a disgraceful role in this, with the result being more and more people who are “famous for being famous”—the Kardashian sisters, Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, and on and on it goes. Instead, imagine what a better world this could be if the media paid much more attention to the TRUE heroes all around us–many of whom in reality “couldn’t have been up against more”? For example, wouldn’t you like to learn more about the following remarkable people?
Unsung Heroes in Our Midst
- Do you recognize the names Ali Viator Martin and Jena Legnon Meaux? I did not hear a single news story about them and only learned of their bravery due to my brother-in-law’s discussing what had happened to them. The two teachers were recently watching a movie in Lafayette, Louisiana when a gunman opened fire in their crowded theater, killing two people and injuring nine others, including Martin and Meaux, who were both shot in the leg. One of these brave teachers immediately threw herself on top of her friend when the shooting started to protect her from the ongoing gunfire. The other managed to drag herself to a fire alarm and pulled it to alert everyone in the building of the danger. The overwhelming majority of the news coverage focused on … (you guessed it) … the motivations of the killer, who shall remain nameless here, rather than on these two brave women who undoubtedly saved many lives.
- Have you heard the name Kimberly Koss? She is a biomedical scientist, mother, and grandmother who delayed her treatment for a particularly aggressive type of breast cancer (known as triple negative breast cancer) to donate her tumor cells for research. Speaking to Yahoo! Health, Dr. Koss explained that “This will be tremendously helpful in figuring out what causes this type of cancer and how to treat it…Every day, that gives me hope.” Her friend and colleague, Dr. Keith Jones, is heading the research team at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, where they are using Koss’s tumor cells in an effort to create an immortal cell line. Crucial for cancer research, immortalized cell lines are a population of cells that would normally not proliferate indefinitely yet, due to mutation, are able to evade the normal loss of the ability to grow and divide and therefore can continually proliferate. Such laboratory-grown human cells, which may be cultured in mice, are critical for testing theories about the underlying causes of and treatments for cancers for translation into clinical advances. Koss’s cancer was highly invasive, with the cancer cells’ undergoing cell division rapidly, making them good candidates to successfully proliferate in cell cultures. However, chemotherapy would have damaged the tumor cells, making them less likely to survive in cell culture. For triple negative breast cancer, many basic questions remain, and though there are some triple negative cell lines available for research, these tend to be from patients who had received chemotherapy prior to removal of the tumor. In addition, as Dr. Jones told Medscape Medical News, Koss’s cells contain mutations not seen in the other cell lines. “This will allow us to confirm that the cell lines used for study reflect the actual tumor tissue the way it was in the body, before it was extracted. This is an opportunity we did not have before.”
Due to Koss’s decision to donate her tumor cells to research, she started to receive her chemotherapy after her mastectomy rather than before surgery. Her chemotherapy therefore was started more than two months later than her doctors had recommended. (For triple negative breast cancer, presurgical [neoadjuvant] treatment is often recommended in an effort to shrink the tumors and improve patient prognosis.) Dr. Jones confirmed that some of Dr. Koss’s tumor cells have been growing in culture for about six months, but explained that another six months or so are required to determine whether they have successfully established an immortalized triple negative breast cancer cell line. Though this is extremely encouraging news, there is also upsetting news: Dr. Koss’s breast cancer has now metastasized to her chest wall and lungs. She also has developed cardiotoxicity secondary to her treatment, including early-stage cardiomyopathy and heart failure. In speaking of his friend, Dr. Jones noted that, “It’s always a little scary to hear a friend say they were taking a chance on something that could cost their life or health. I don’t know if, in the same situation, I could do the same. It’s very brave.” He also emphasized, “Part of her legacy will be what this does for other women.” Now THIS is an American hero.
- Did you know that more and more Americans, many of whom are veterans of the Iraq War, are volunteering on their own and creating several emerging groups to fight alongside local Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Christian militias against the terrorist group ISIS in Iraq and Syria?
- What about the cancer researchers who are devoting their hearts and souls to developing life-saving treatments, while quietly struggling to keep their labs and their critical research afloat as available grant funding continues to disappear? Heroes in my book.
- And those patients with cancer and other life-limiting or terminal illnesses who participate in clinical trials, understanding that there may be little or no direct therapeutic benefit for themselves and a very real possibility of significant harms, yet who do so for the hope of future patients? We all owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude: true heroes.
- What about the young spokesman for Shriners Hospitals, the adorable little boy with the huge heart with whom so many of us have fallen in love? In his role as a Patient Ambassador, 12-year-old Alec Cabacungan has brought Shriners Hospitals to the attention of countless folks who before were unaware of the critical orthopedic, spinal cord injury, burn, and other specialty care they have provided to over a million children regardless of families’ ability to pay. Cabacungan has been diagnosed with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder characterized by bone fragility, and he has been affected by more than 50 bone fractures in his young life. Shriners Hospitals’ “What is Love?” campaign has brought Alec’s radiant smile into millions of living rooms across the country, with the goal of bringing further charitable donations to help support Shriners’ ongoing critical work. Alec, all of the other Patient Ambassadors, their families, the clinical staff and researchers at Shriners: heroes. All of them.
- How about the millions of folks across our country who serve as caregivers for family members—for their children, spouses, adult parents, or siblings–with terminal or life-limiting diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and other dementias? Being a primary family caregiver can be one of the most emotional experiences one may have: it’s often physically, psychologically, and financially draining, stressful, frustrating, upsetting, and it’s never easy. Yet for so many families, it can also be deeply rewarding and joyful. As Edward Albert said so eloquently, “The simple act of caring is heroic.”
- And though I could go on and on, I cannot conclude here without including the volunteer firemen in our communities, often our friends and neighbors, who run toward burning homes, buildings, World Trade Center towers, rather than running away like most of us, risking their own lives to save ours. Our American Heroes.
No, winning an Olympic gold medal, becoming a reality television star, and undergoing a transgender transition in front of the rolling TV cameras do not a hero make. But today, as I was again trying to ignore the deluge of stories about Jenner’s gowns, swim suits, and latest trips on the town, I saw a short article for the very first time that specifically described what they called Jenner’s transgender activism and her concern over the high suicide rates seen in the transgender community. Is it possible that over the rush of applause and the flashing cameras, Jenner has begun to hear the words of folks like Beck and to recognize that it’s not all about glitz, glam, celebrity, and cash? Perhaps she has started to recognize her privileged status and what true struggle is like? Might she start to worry less about the dress and direct the full focus and determination she had shown so famously as an Olympian to help the next generation of transgender youths feel less isolated and more hopeful? Dare we hope that she, the media, and so many in our reality show culture will finally begin to recognize that it’s not what transpires in front of the cameras and what’s seen in the public view, but rather, as John Wooden famously said, that “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching”? We shall see.