The discussion about whether Bruce Jenner is transitioning has me feeling simultaneously hopeful and deeply uncomfortable. Uncomfortable because, as a daughter of a "transparent," the tabloid tone of ridicule with which the speculation has been presented recalls the cruel words I heard behind my back growing up. It's amazing how well our muscles remember. Who would have thought that the fear and shame I once felt so viscerally in elementary school -- when someone would make fun of transgender people and I'd break out into a sweat, shallowly breathing, gnawing my fingernails until the subject changed -- could be conjured in an instant, twenty-five years later? Any psychologist on the planet, I'm sure.
Of course this tone is not new, is not specific to the speculation about Jenner's gender. He has set himself up for this; ridicule and spectacle have surrounded the Kardashian/Jenner family for years because they have placed their private lives squarely in the public eye. Once one of the best American athletes, Jenner has undergone extensive plastic surgery and made frequent appearances on the reality television show "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," leading people to jab at him for decades now. "Bruce Jenner -- one of the greatest athletes of all time -- what has that show done to him?" I said that once. I'm not proud, and I don't think I'm alone. It's only now that I have a knee-jerk reaction to the digs because I feel a personal connection. I've watched Jenner on the show for years; he and my father are similar in many ways. They are both pilots and athletes who obsessively tinker with their mechanical toys. They are focused, conservative, and introverted, traditionally masculine in many ways, and I'd imagine wouldn't care too much to be a trans advocate. I have seen my father in this man and in this discussion, and have been reminded of how she -- not famous -- has been spoken about. It's difficult to hear what people are saying and to not think they are saying it about my dad. Because aren't they?
It's perhaps unfair, immoral, and cruel to speculate about someone's gender. What's more interesting to me is the significance of the discussion surrounding the mere possibility that Jenner is transitioning.
On the possible transition, Dr. Katherine Rachlin, a psychologist and gender specialist in New York, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "It would be great to have celebrities who are respected going through gender transitions. I don't know if this falls into that. The whole thing seems pretty tabloid to me."
Rachlin's dismissal of Jenner as a suitable face for the trans community can be understood in the context of the challenges embattled, outsider groups have always faced. She is essentially asking the transgender equivalent of, "But is it good for the Jews?" In order to be included, marginalized groups have to make people feel comfortable, so they must choose the most respectable representatives for the tribe. Laverne Cox and Janet Mock are beautiful and glamorous; they make us feel comfortable. Jeffrey Tambor's character on "Transparent" is pushing it, but we know it is Jeffrey Tambor playing this character, so it's easier to swallow. Bruce Jenner is in a whole other realm that the world doesn't seem quite ready to handle.
My father's transition was awkward to an outsider's eye. I once caught my step-brother imitating her voice, and my stomach still tightens at the memory. He exaggerated the high pitch in the same way In Touch Weekly featured Jenner's face with heightened colors of makeup. My father did not make everyone comfortable, but she's still a face in and of the trans community.
My hope is that this whole ridiculous, invasive spectacle may help expand public understanding of transgender people. I worship Laverne Cox with the best of them -- I sat in a meeting with her once and was in awe of her strength, beauty, and articulateness -- but there's a whole other plebeian trans population out there -- people who aren't young, glamorous, or traditionally feminine. Jenner is no plebeian, I realize, but he's still different than many of the images involved in the trans discussion today, and for that I am grateful. So he, or at least the conversation surrounding him, is "good for the trans."
It's great for them, really. Kim Kardashian alone has over 31 million followers on Twitter and 30 million on Instagram. This will amplify the conversation and expand awareness exponentially. Regardless of what Rachlin thinks the movement needs, the parade around Jenner puts the discussion directly in the faces of people who otherwise would not be involved.
It's time we widen our scope and take a look at all the faces in a community. As much as we try to, we cannot curate humanity.
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