Last week in New York City, I attended a taping of “The Wendy Williams Show” as an audience member. That happened to be the day the host discussed Bruce Jenner’s gender transition — the subject of a Diane Sawyer interview on ABC last Friday night.
During her acclaimed “Hot Topics” segment, Williams began her rant by displaying a photo of Jenner wearing a dress while smoking in front of his private Malibu home, which the studio audience responded to with a mix of shock, confusion and even disgust.
‘You know I am all for – and very happy for – people who live in their own truth, including Bruce transitioning, but he should have thought about that before having all the kids.”
Williams seemed to be referring to Jenner’s childrens’ confusion and struggle for understanding about their father’s choice to transition. At the end of her rant she said, “shame on you Belinda,” accusing Bruce Jenner of having “bigger fish to fry,” such as his 17-year-old daughter Kylie’s rumored plastic surgery and questionable relationship with 25-year-old rapper Tyga.
There is no more a deceitful way to criticize Bruce Jenner’s transition (or the gender transition of any person) than by feigning concern for “the children.” This type of reasoning undermines the truth that “the children” are not the problem; children are always confused and look to society for guidance and support. The real problem is society’s hesitance to accept gender fluidity as a reality of life and to educate young people and children to that reality. And the adults who have the power to influence today’s children and adolescents can either be a part of it, or bravely stand tall beside the few who prefer to be a part of the solution. I learned that lesson from experience.
During my junior year of high school, I had a Filipino male math teacher who wore his long brown hair in a pony tail and always kept his head bowed. He fought his hardest to instruct a class of about 35 rowdy teenagers, despite his timid and softspoken demeanor. Whenever he would approach the chalkboard to begin the day’s lesson, many of the students would carry on loud conversations or interrupt him without fear of retribution because they saw him as a pushover. I often felt a sense of dread upon entering that classroom. As a child, I was always instructed to respect my teachers and I found the student’s rude treatment of him — and my inability to do anything about it — disheartening. I simply could not stand to witness adolescents bully a grown man, who seemed to lack the guts to stand up for himself.
Then one Halloween as I walked towards the classroom, I spotted a tall, brown princess with straight, flowing hair wearing a ballgown and glistening, silver sandals with a small heel on them. When I got closer, I noticed it was my math teacher. Except, he barely resembled the shy, unassuming man who my peers thought was undeserving of respect.
“Good morning my students!” he said, with beaming eyes and a huge beautiful smile.
As Cinderella, he stood tall, his posture resembling that of royalty. He approached the chalkboard with confidence and hissed threats at students who attempted to interrupt him. He, most certainly was another person completely; his external transformation finally mirrored what he felt internally and his confidence in that “self” was hard to miss.
A few weeks after that day, my math teacher disappeared. Days passed and his students became increasingly curious as to what prompted his disappearance. Eventually, days became weeks and weeks became months. Christmas came and brought the gift of a two week vacation and all of the kids scurried home, still wondering if their teacher would return to teach, ever.
On our return from winter break, the school’s counselor came to our classroom.
“I’m sure you have all noticed the absence of your teacher from the classroom,” he began. “Everyone should feel free to pursue a path that will lead them to happiness–that is their right– and sometimes that pursuit requires courage,” he continued. By the end of his speech, it was revealed that our teacher would be returning to instruct us as a woman with a new first and last name and we would have to refer to him as “Ms.”. For the first time that year, the entire classroom fell completely silent.
The following day, I entered class to a smiling teacher wearing a woman’s blouse and a form fitting pair of pants. Admittedly, I felt a bit confused at first. I looked around me for cues to show me how to react in a way that was acceptable. Then, I remembered tho insightful words of that counselor, I everyone should feel free to pursue happiness– that is their right. I knew all I had to do was respect that right. And that is precisely what I, and most of the student body, did.
Though there were a few students that were, from time to time, intentionally rude or disrespectful (by misgendering her or calling her the wrong name), they were far outnumbered by the many who respectfully kept their opinions to themselves or outwardly showed support. Our school environment made it clear that our teacher’s dignity should never be compromised, prompting many of the students to have a low tolerance for the outbursts of unruly students.
“Oh, my god, he’s wearing a dress again!” one of the young boys in the classroom announced when our teacher entered the classroom in a loosely fitted, sleeved garment.
“She can wear whatever she wants!” a girl shot from across the classroom, nipping his outburst in the bud.
I breathed a sigh of relief, as I saw a tiny smile form across my teacher’s face. I’m certain she recognized that some of her students were as brave as she was and willing to stand up to others in support of her right to just be. Many of us kids, including myself, only felt brave enough to do so because of the direction given to us by that thoughtful guidance counselor.
I only wish that adults in positions of power, like Wendy Williams, knew and understood how important their opinions are to all people struggling to come to terms with a changing society. Her words could have been used to inspire bravery in the face of bigotry instead of promoting shame. Sadly, many have failed to arrive at that realization.
Yet, there are those who have rise to the challenge. Those who speak of the right to happiness, respect and acceptance. Those who push society, and its young people, to be more compassionate and caring. To stand for freedom, not in the name of judgement or hate. It is such individuals who will help today’s adolescents navigate clouded confusion and arrive at a place of peace, love and understanding.