There’s been a lot of talk recently about Bruce / Caitlyn Jenner. One of the controversial aspects is whether her coming out as transgender was heroic. This got me thinking about what it means to be heroic or courageous. To me, those are pretty similar concepts, but I’ll concentrate on the “courage” side.
What does it mean to be courageous? I believe there are a few aspects of courage:
- Doing what’s right, even if it’s difficult
- Being vulnerable
- Putting others ahead of self
In some ways, I think those are alternative definitions — you might be courageous by exhibiting only one of those. But they can also work together.
Doing What’s Right
So was Caitlyn Jenner coming out “right”? This is probably the most controversial factor. People who don’t believe that being transgender is “right” couldn’t possibly believe that coming out as transgender could be right. “Right” is a matter of culture and the times, and to some degree personal taste. Our society is (fairly quickly) accepting LGBT people though, so it seems that the number of people thinking being transgender is “wrong” will quickly dwindle.
Put it this way — Martin Luther King was pushing for civil rights when that was not popular in the greater society. But now, the ideas are accepted as mainstream, and the idea of withholding basic human rights from black people is seen as wrong by almost everyone.
So I’m not sure I can make a very good determination on the rightness of her coming out. I believe it’s right, but I don’t believe that “right” can ever be objectively determined.
Doing Something Difficult
Apparently, Bruce Jenner knew from an early age that he was experiencing gender dysphoria. To wait for over 50 years to publicly disclose this was obviously not an easy decision. As with anyone coming out as having an identity that is not (yet) socially acceptable, she’ll be subject to public scorn and ridicule. That can’t be easy.
Courage seems to involve an element of risk. In the stereotypical act of courage, the hero puts themself at risk of personal physical harm. But I don’t believe that the risk has to be physical. Emotional vulnerability is often more difficult that physical vulnerability.
One thing about emotional vulnerability — definitely the case here — is that it’s more likely to be pre-mediated than a physical act of heroicism. Caitlyn must have spent years thinking about whether to come out. The fact that she still made the decision despite all that thinking about the consequences shows an even higher level of courage.
The remaining question is whether Caitlyn’s coming out was for herself or for others. Certainly there’s an aspect of freedom in revealing your true self. I think that was probably her main motivation. I don’t think that there’s any self-promotion involved here — she’s already got plenty of fame and fortune.
The fact is, by seeing a famous person come out as transgender, young trans people will have a role model — someone to look up to. Transgender people have a ridiculous suicide rate (40% attempts, as opposed to 5% for the general population). Having someone to look up to will help some of these people cope better.
So Caitlyn coming out will save lives. And I think we can all agree that saving lives is heroic.