Bruce Jenner, former Olympic gold medalist and patriarch of reality television’s Kardashian clan, is bringing national attention to issues of gender transition ahead of his April 24 interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer.
The question is why Jenner would consider a transition at this stage of his life.
One of the main reasons is that he may finally have found a way to let go of pressures to conform, said an expert on later-in-life gender transitions from the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis.
“For many people, it’s like a dam just bursts later in their life,” said Vanessa Fabbre, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School, whose research focuses on exploring issues at the intersection of gender, identity and aging.
“After years of external societal pressure to be something they know they are not — and internal pressure of shame and self doubt — the flood gates open and they realize they have to live life on their own terms,” she said.
In a study published last year, Gender Transitions in Later Life: The Significance of Time in Queer Aging, Fabbre found that an awareness of “time left to live” and a feeling of “time served” play a significant role in later life development.
“It’s the idea that the person has lived their entire life by the rules, done everything they are supposed to do in life, and yet they still are not happy,” Fabbre said. “It’s just time for them to make the change.”
“Some might think that transgender people are selfish for causing such disruptions in their family’s lives,” Fabbre said. “I find that to be far from the truth. Many of the people I’ve interviewed want to wait to make the transition until after their children are grown so they don’t interrupt their kids’ lives. I’ve also seen people wait until their parents die. Those are very selfless things to do.”
Her most recent paper, “Gender Transitions in Later Life: A Queer Perspective on Successful Aging,” was published this year in the The Gerontologist, the journal of the Gerontological Society of America. The study explores the experiences of transgender persons who contemplate or pursue a gender transition in later life in order to develop culturally diverse conceptualizations of health and wellness in older age.
At the very least, Jenner’s announcement should serve as a learning opportunity for American society, Fabbre said.
“At this point, everyone is looking at Jenner and the media attention being paid to him,” she said. “If we take it as an opportunity to learn about his story and his reasons for making this transition, it will serve to educate some people who are still unfamiliar with transgender issues.”
While Jenner is a person with a lot of privilege, fame and resources that many people do not have, Fabbre said she hopes his story will inspire society to think about others who are facing these same decisions but with additional barriers and use this opportunity to promote social justice for all transgender people.
Fabbre and her partner, Jess T. Dugan, are working on “To Survive on This Shore,” a book and website project of photographs and interviews highlighting transgender and gender variant in older adults.