LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In coming out as a transgender woman, U.S. Olympic gold medalist and TV reality star Bruce Jenner made clear that while he is keen to help raise awareness about problems faced by the community, he is not self-appointing himself as a spokesman.
During a groundbreaking interview on ABC Friday night, Jenner made a case for the transgender community’s fight in the United States for equality, a safer society and more acceptance and understanding - in Washington, in church, in the media.
“I would like to work with this community to get this message out. They know a lot more than I know. I am not a spokesman for the community,” said the 65-year-old Jenner, now the most high-profile American to come out as transgender.
Putting such a well-known face and name to the causes of transgender people could help accelerate the drive for equality, just as high-profile endorsements gave momentum to the fight to legalize gay marriage in the United States, say people who work with the community.
In the last few years, the community’s visibility has been on the rise. Hollywood began to embrace transgender characters and storylines in TV shows like “Transparent” and “Orange Is the New Black,” whose transgender star Laverne Cox appeared on the cover of Time magazine last year.
But mainstream acceptance of transgender people is in its infancy, making the transition hard for everyone, whether famous like Jenner or not.
“There are still a lot of haters out there and there are still a lot of people who don’t fully understand it,” said Barbara Warren, a psychologist and director for LGBT Health Services at Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. The initials refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
“The more people that are prominent and are influencers and can share and humanize the transgender experience, the more our social system will become more accepting,” Warren added.
The legal system is also lagging and legal rights of transgender people vary dramatically from state to state, with California as the leader against discrimination, said John Thomas, professor of law at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
“An easy example is employment,” Thomas said. “In most states there is no prohibition against discriminating against people based on gender identity.”
That means that a transgender applicant can be rejected from a job due to gender identity and it would not be illegal.
Gender identity discrimination also affects public accommodations - the right to be served by businesses and institutions - the use of public restrooms and public documents.
In a widely publicized case this week, South Carolina’s motor vehicles agency was forced to change its driver’s license photo policy as part of a settlement reached with a transgender teenager who was required to remove her makeup for her picture.
Healthcare is also an area of concern. In most states, it is legal to deny insurance coverage for transgender-related health services, like hormonal therapy or gender reassignment surgery.
For Thomas, Jenner is “the best possible model for public advocacy on the issue of transgender people’s rights because he was the world’s greatest male athlete ... the most male of males.”
Jenner won the Olympic decathlon in 1976, earning the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete” and the respect of generations of Americans.
For younger generations, he is known better as the patriarch of the Kardashian family after eight seasons on the reality TV show “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
The ABC interview included messages of support from his six biological children and he said his Kardashian stepchildren have been mostly understanding, including the wildly famous Kim.
How his transition plays out on television could be the real game-changer for the transgender community.
“I think that actually has the potential for more impact than Jenner’s individual transition,” said Warren. “People are going to see if Kim Kardashian supports her stepfather. That is going to have more of an impact than Jenner’s coming out.”
Editing by Frances Kerry