Throughout most of the 90s, I worked in a grocery store bakery. There was a regular customer who came in often, and I always marveled at how put-together she always looked. She wore sky-high heels and lots of red, and her long, dark hair was always carefully curled. She was also very tall, with broad shoulders, large feet, a prominent Adam's apple and a shadowed chin. Each time she appeared to pick up her weekly groceries, the same snickers and whispers swept through the store. A few of my coworkers would call out, "Shim in aisle 7!" and the rest would scatter like cockroaches, as if waiting on her without laughing would just be too much to handle.
I distinctly remember hearing one baker say, "THAT is my greatest fear. I'd disown my kid."
I had never known anyone like that before, and I knew nothing of the LGBTQ community. I also didn't know how to refer to her, or what the proper greeting might be (Ma'am? Sir?). But I wanted so badly to be the different one. To be the person who didn't notice anything different about her or make her feel self-conscious. So I spoke to her in a normal voice with my best normal expression, and sliced her normal bread and thanked her with a smile like she was the most normal person I'd ever seen. Even in my ignorance of her situation, whatever it might have been, I had hopes that our small interaction might balance out a little bit of the intolerance that was being thrown at her every day.
Then, a few years ago, I watched from afar as a close friend's daughter moved away, withdrew from the family, and virtually disappeared for a while. My friend was lost for a bit, her heart breaking over a situation she didn't understand. Some time later, her child reemerged as her son, and I watched closely as she stood by his side, learning and loving and adapting to a situation she didn't expect but fully embraced, and I learned everything I needed to know about the kind of parent I wanted to be. It was during that time that I realized that the fear I'd heard from my past coworker was one I'd never have to face -- because for me, having a gay or transgender child was not something to be afraid of, but rather something that simply exists on the long list of things that any child might be.
When the Diane Sawyer interview aired and Caitlyn Jenner, then still presenting as Bruce, announced that she was, in fact, intending to transition into life as a woman, I was riveted. What bravery! What must it have been like to hide that secret in a house with so much girl in it? But most of all, I noticed the hint of sass in her voice when she got close to letting "Her" speak, and I just couldn't shake the feeling that something big and incredibly positive was about to happen. Bigger than one person's decision. Big enough to change the entire life course of people of all ages. People who weren't living happily or authentically. People who may not have even known yet that they were born in a way that most don't understand, but would make the connection thanks to a national news story of pride and self-acceptance.
In fact, I even had a dream about it. In my dream, I tapped Caitlyn's car in a Target parking lot. When I saw who it was, I shook her hand and said, "It's a pleasure. I've never been the type of person to hold up an athlete as a role model to my kids, but now? Now I'll make sure they know who you are."
And then today, I saw all my social media feeds fill with the news of Caitlyn Jenner. She was here! What a thought, right, considering she's been here all along? What a hard concept to get your head around! The responses were good and bad, but surprisingly, the support seemed strong. Stronger than the naysayers who held firm, "God doesn't make mistakes" and "Once a man, always a man." Stronger than the hate, which doesn't seem to be winning this time around.
So as I scrolled through and saw that most of the comments were either jokes about Kris or remarks about how great Caitlyn looked, I felt optimistic, and then caution took over. By all means, let's give ourselves a moment to marvel at how beautiful she looks, but then another to remind ourselves that validity as a female should not depend on, for lack of a better word, hotness -- and today's media attention felt dangerously close to that equation. The perfect blowout, the pouty lips, the corseted waist... Does being more "passable" make Caitlyn more "real" than, say, the woman who shopped in the store where I worked? No. If both identify as women, both are women, equally.
This is all undeniably a step forward, but let's remember that the vast majority of transgender people in the world do not look like a celebrity on the cover of Vanity Fair. Most do not have the budget of a celebrity or the access to experienced surgeons (or any surgeons at all.) Few have the privilege of being made up by a team of artists, and just about none are photographed by Annie Leibowitz. They probably don't have the wardrobe Ms. Jenner has, and they most definitely don't have the style backup that comes along with five high-profile, fashion-forward celebrity daughters.
No, far and wide, most transgender individuals experience discrimination at every turn, unless they stay hidden. These are the people who get disowned by their families. Who don't get hired. Who might be homeless. Who might be victims of violence or suicidal, according to staggering statistics. Who might not have a single person in their support system. Most of the transgender people in your community and mine are not living glamorously, yet they are the ones you will run into at the gas station or the mall. They won't have a makeup team or a designer wardrobe, and that may mean that their transition might not be as flawless as it could be. But most of all, they are the ones who your reaction will matter to when you meet them face-to-face, not Caitlyn Jenner.
I'm not saying we shouldn't support the woman formerly known as Bruce Jenner, because we should. OH, WE SHOULD. Let Caitlyn be a fabulous, glamorous, front-page beacon of hope for everyone out there struggling with gender identity, especially the kids who don't fit in and see no way out. We need representatives of all types, right? But let's stop and think about what else we can do. Let's take that support and extend it to those we see every day who may not fit the image of what a "true" man or woman is supposed to look like, because there simply is no such thing.
Judging by what I saw today in the social media sphere, tolerance is growing. For the sake of those who may need it, let's keep it going. Hell, let's snowball it. Let's turn that tolerance into acceptance, and that acceptance into a full-blown welcome party. And the next time you see someone who challenges your expectations, ask yourself, "Should I go out of my way to show this person the utmost compassion, even if I don't understand them?"
The answer is yes. The answer is always yes.
This post originally appeared on ABCs & Garden Peas, a Central PA-based blog.