July 1st, 2015

The Jenner effect

Psychologists reflect on celebrity’s transition

Editor’s note: Because two interviews took place before the debut of Caitlyn Jenner regarding ABC’s 20/20 interview, the male pronoun was used in this article.

Diane Sawyer asked Bruce Jenner during the two-hour “ABC 20/20” interview that aired April 24 if the “media circus” surrounding her subject was harming the dignity of the hard fought gains of transgender people.

“I am not a spokesman for the community,” replied the 65-year-old celebrity who is now the most widely recognized transgender person on the planet. “20/20: Bruce Jenner – The Interview” drew more than 17 million viewers the night it was broadcast and made Jenner the top worldwide trend on Twitter.

Bruce Jenner is not a spokesman. Bruce Jenner is no longer Bruce Jenner. The Olympic gold medalist turned reality television star introduced herself as Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of the July issue of Vanity Fair magazine, photographed by Annie Leibovitz looking glamorous, toned and confidant in a strapless white corset.

But Sawyer’s question is a valid one to consider, especially for clinicians who treat transgender individuals and their families. Those who specialize in transgender issues contacted after the “20/20” interview expressed positive views of the discussion between Jenner and Sawyer, but note that this transition is only one unique case.

“One thing that I really appreciated was that he clarified that he was not the spokesperson for all transgender people,” said Michelle Contreras, Psy.D., director of the MA in Counseling Psychology in Global Mental Health at William James College in Newton, Mass. Contreras also has a private practice in Cambridge providing psychotherapy services for adults mainly between ages 19 and 30 and specializes in helping people cope with stress before, during and after transition.

“It really seems like he was wanting to share his story about coming out or the whole process that he’s been through.”

Not all transgender people have the same journeys, Contreras said, adding that the specific historical period in which a person is transitioning influences their experience. Young people today in the Boston area will find more acceptance and more services available than when Bruce Jenner was a young boy struggling with gender dysphoria in the late 1950s in Westchester County, New York.

“From my experience working with transgendered persons, I know that the particular way in which people transition is going to depend on many factors. So what supports do they have readily available to them or what financial resources do they have? Bruce Jenner pointed that out. He felt very fortunate that he has all these resources.”

Laura Edwards-Leeper Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Pacific University School of Professional Psychology in Hillsboro, Oregon, watched the “20/20” interview and said she found herself commenting to her husband numerous times “that Jenner was hitting the nail on the head and describing the experience of so many clients with whom I work.”

“I felt it was one of the most well-done and powerful television interviews on this topic I’ve seen,” she added.

From 2007 to 2011, Edwards-Leeper was a staff psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital where she was a founding member of the Gender Management Service (GeMS) whose director Norman Spack, M.D., was featured in the “20/20” interview with Jenner.

Edwards-Leeper was a co-author of a study led by Spack published in 2012 in the journal Pediatrics, which found that 44.3 percent of 97 gender identity disorder patients under age 21 referred to the clinic had a history of significant psychiatric problems, including 20.6 percent who reported self-mutilation and 9.3 percent who attempted suicide.

After the interview, Edwards-Leeper said, a number of parents shared that Jenner’s story had a huge impact on their understanding of their adolescent’s transgender experience. “Specifically, they felt that Jenner’s life experience allowed him to clearly articulate what their adolescent children were going through in a way that they felt was valid and could be trusted,” she said.

Judith Bradford, Ph.D., director of the Center for Population Research in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Health at The Fenway Institute in Boston, watched the “20/20” interview and thought it served as a good opportunity for people to hear and understand Jenner’s personal story. At the same time, she said, it’s a story so unlike what most people thinking about or pursuing transition would experience themselves.

“I thought, wow, this is really something. How many people would have the opportunity to achieve that kind of change?”

“It does have this sort of show feeling to it,” Bradford added. “Here we see someone on television who basically can become as beautiful and as perfect in every possible way because of the resources that are available. That’s a very rare situation.”

By Janine Weisman

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