We're living in a transgender moment in America -- which is a little odd, when you think about it. For transgender people are not exactly new to the news: The British travel writer James Morris became Jan Morris as long ago as 1972, and the ophthalmologist Richard Raskind became tennis pro Renee Richards in 1975. Nor are they new to American celebrity culture: A young ex-GI named George Jorgensen traveled to Denmark in 1951 and, after surgery, returned home as night-club entertainer Christine Jorgensen.
And while it is true that, this past January, Barack Obama became the first president to use the term "transgender" in a State of the Union address, the concept is not exactly new to politics, either. Some may remember -- with amusement and/or indignation -- Vice President Spiro Agnew's 1970 characterization of Sen. Charles Goodell (R-N.Y.) as the "Christine Jorgensen of the Republican party." Of course, Agnew did not intend that as a compliment, but everyone knew what he meant.
I was reminded of that now-forgotten Agnew one-liner the other evening when Diane Sawyer of ABC News interviewed Bruce Jenner, the 1976 Olympic decathlon champion and Kardashian in-law, who revealed himself to be transgender. The public memory seems to be short enough that Sawyer and ABC News believed that, prior to Jenner, there had never been a high-profile person "in transition" before. But of course, that's not true. Nor was the revelation about Bruce Jenner news to anyone who has stood in a grocery checkout line during the last year.
For that reason, among others, the most memorable exchange in the interview had nothing to do with Bruce Jenner's gender, but his politics. When Sawyer alluded to the president's public use of the word "transgender," Jenner offered mild praise for the gesture but then allowed as how he is "more on the conservative side" than Obama. This, clearly, more than Jenner's sexual identity, was a shock to Sawyer, who asked, "Are you a Republican?" He replied, "Yeah, is that a bad thing? I believe in the Constitution."
There are two points to be made here. First, Sawyer's incredulity and horror were especially peculiar, coming from someone who first came to the public's attention as one of Richard Nixon's White House staff assistants.
And second, the news that Bruce Jenner -- male in transition to female -- is a Republican is an interesting, and instructive, rebuke to the popular culture. The political class, and its allies in the media, tend to segregate political opinion into arbitrary, and highly misleading, categories: All women, gay people, blacks, and Hispanic voters are Democrats; all white men, suburban residents, financiers, and evangelical voters are Republicans. Yet none of these general assertions are categorically true, and all feature exceptions that illustrate the danger of assigning political allegiance based on race, sex, geography, or religion.
Human beings have brains, which they exercise at will, and their political opinions are not necessarily determined by glands or skin color. The fact that Bruce Jenner is both Republican and transgender is less surprising than that Diane Sawyer is surprised by the fact.