Bruce Jenner is Not Your Sermon Illustration
On this past Friday evening, I couldn’t get away from one certain topic on Twitter – the tell-all interview of Bruce Jenner by ABC’s Diane Sawyer. There has been ongoing speculation about Jenner’s gender identity, with tabloids hatefully photoshopping lipstick onto Jenner’s face and talking about the length of Jenner’s hair.
Jenner, for those of you who don’t know, was an athlete in the 1976 Olympic games. Jenner won the decathlon gold, and became a hero to the United States. In recent years, Jenner married into the famous reality television family, The Kardashians, and became stepparent to arguably the most famous group of sisters in the United States.
And, on Friday night, Jenner told Diane Sawyer, “For all intents and purposes, I am a woman.”
I am happy for Jenner. They brought a ton of attention to issues that rarely reach the mainstream, including the threat of violence that hangs over the lives of trans women of color. And they did a good job explaining the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity – something people conflate all the time.
I am also nervous for Jenner, not because I think they are under any specific threat – their money and security within the Hollywood scene will protect them for the most part. I am nervous that Jenner will be the object of sermons, of self-righteous blog posts about sin. We’re already seeing slickly produced videos from megachurches about “how to respond to the Bruce Jenner in your neighborhood” – videos that falsely link school violence and mass shootings to transgender identity.
The problem with this trend, however – and a problem I feel deeply even as I write this post – is that Bruce Jenner isn’t a sermon illustration. Their life and their story is a long-suffered, very high profile, story – but it is their story. Using someone else’s story as a philosophical quandary or a method of provoking thought is a troubling commodification of people’s lives.
I fear Bruce Jenner’s appearance in Sunday sermons because I know these recollections will not make an effort to demonstrate Jenner as a human being who has lived with this their entire life. Their life will be boiled down and reduced to their “sin” and how Christians can respond to that sin.
I know this because I’ve watched it happen, over and over, in my own life. Having conversations about LGBT issues with many evangelicals is like talking to a brick wall. They want to categorize me, to put me into a specific narrative, so they then can either dismiss or me try to convert me. I suddenly move from fully human, fully person, to project they can change and convert and use for their sermon stories next Sunday.
I am a tool, a mechanism in the ongoing narrative of Christ that these evangelicals seek. As we all participate in God’s story, it becomes less about the dynamic interactions of our individual humanities and more about what function we play in the fantasy narrative. There’s a constant calculus that objectifies people into certain roles within the larger story, as opposed to people whose story you’re just interacting with briefly. Everything because centered around the roles that we play in another person’s story, not in the ways God is working love out in our own lives.
Part of this is a good emphasis on the communal way in which our actions affect others. But a larger part is a selfish objectifying of the author as a philosophical exercise – trans people, in the minds of the evangelical, only exist to pose a quandary to God’s binary of gender, and as a way to push us “good” Christians to love more by sharing the Truth of Gender with them. It’s a total refusal to see the work of God within that person without that person fitting our preconceived notions about what people look like.
When everyone exists to play a role in our pre-existing story arc, we don’t get a lot of opportunity for encountering the real. We exist within a book’s covers, with a set path controlled by The Author. We’ve no space to be people of our own right – queers become one-dimensional enemies, one-trick sinners in need of God’s grace. We’re the simply allegorical antagonists, instead of rich characters with vast back-stories and lives and character creation.
Part of simply existing as we do, as LGBT people with multifarious and beautifully diverse stories to contribute to the world, is resistance to this flattening of the lives we lead. We are not simply one part of this larger story – we have a long, creative existence outside of that evangelical narrative. We have our own relationships to the God of the Universe. And we are living out our stories in the ways best suited to who God created us to be.