Update, June 1 2015: This article was written in February, when Caitlyn Jenner still publicly identified as Bruce, and employs the name and pronouns that she chose at the time. While I’m at it, congratulations to Caitlyn for coming out and living a life that is true to herself.
I have a relative, a nasty closed-minded kind of guy–homophobic, misogynistic, and just generally lousy. A couple of years ago, he saw fit to apologize to me for any gay jokes that might have offended me. I suspect this was prompted by other relatives, and not by any inner guilt or empathy–by my best estimation, this individual isn’t capable of feeling such things.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I hope you know I was just kidding, and I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
I accepted the apology, surprised as I was to receive it, but I took the opportunity to deliver a little lecture. I explained that, as a man in my late 20’s (at the time) I was secure in my queer identity–certainly secure enough that the jokes and opinions of small-minded bigots didn’t hurt my feelings. But, I said, it wasn’t me he should be concerned about.
Think of your daughter, I told him. At the time she was 6 or 7 years old, and she was generally present when he made such jokes. What if she found herself, at that age or older, questioning her sexual orientation and identity? That’s a tumultuous, agonizing experience for any person, and would he want her going through it alone? I’m sure what he’d want her to know is that he loved her and he’d be there for her, but after years of hearing his jokes and comments she was more likely to think he’d hate her, and fear his judgment.
What about strangers, I said, who hear you calling the Red Sox pitcher a faggot at Shea Stadium, or making some homophobic comment on the sidewalk or in a random parking lot? Think about the kids who are going through that same turmoil, wondering if they are as evil in nature as some people say, and maybe even contemplating suicide? It’s one thing to apologize and explain yourself to your adult relatives, but are you going to follow up with all of them?
I bring up this story now because I’m inclined to give the same lecture to everyone I see mocking Bruce Jenner on Facebook and Twitter. Sure, the man is a millionaire celebrity and a public figure, and sure he opened himself up to ridicule when he joined his family in becoming a television freak show. But it’s not Bruce Jenner’s feelings you should consider when deciding whether to share that hilarious picture with the transphobic caption; it’s the feelings of all the other people you’re communicating with, the friends and neighbors and total strangers who are measuring society’s reaction to Bruce Jenner and thinking that’s how everyone thinks about me.
The human brain is evolved and programmed to crave the approval of your peers, and it’s a damned difficult thing to be different. Difficult enough that some people would rather die–and trans people at a higher rate than almost anyone else. That little joke you make at the expense of a millionaire celebrity might get some laughs from your friends, but it also just might contribute to the death of a trans kid, be it suicide or murder at the hands of those who choose to “express their transphobia” through homicide.
No matter how hilarious that little joke, no matter how big a target Bruce Jenner might be right now, that just doesn’t seem worth it to me. Keep the joke to yourself, and then you won’t have to apologize to anyone.