The nail on my little finger is all sparkles: green mostly, but with glints of purple, peach and pink besides. I owe this burst of glitter to Sally Hansen Snow Globe polish, which my wife claims is the rightful domain of six-year-old girls. For me, it’s the first all-out expression of my genderfluid self—or, more precisely, the vibrant woman who lives in my soul.
Based on that, you could assume the Bruce Jenner interview resonated with me, and you’d be right. But not for the reasons you might think.
Sure, being on the Q end of LGBTQIA, I loved hearing a national figure say on national TV that “my brain is much more female than it is male.” I appreciated the authenticity and nuance with which Jenner articulated the ins and outs of being trans.
But the interview also revealed something that happened before the interview. Over the past decades, Jenner has been playing, experimenting with his identity, exploring it in fits and starts. He (the pronoun Jenner still uses) tried on dresses as a child, underwent estrogen treatments briefly in the eighties, shared his secret with his sister.
Perhaps most important, he did it all privately. Carefully, thoughtfully, Jenner separated his public self from his private self until he was ready to come out.
That’s rather incredible for a celeb of Jenner’s visibility. Think of the tabloids and paparazzi who would have killed to break the story. Goodness knows they tried: The executive editor of the National Enquirer told The New York Times he investigated Jenner’s gender as early as 1989. In the past couple of years, they’ve been all over the story. It’s become a consistent headline maker in a media landscape where everything is fodder for public view.
What makes Jenner’s “secret” even more incredible is that he’s actively fed the erosion of privacy in other areas of his life. Kardashians, anyone?
But here’s the thing: this isn’t just about Bruce Jenner. It’s not even about celebrities. It’s about all of us. In a Twitter world—where anything we do might show up in social media, where one stupid comment can destroy a career, where our most private information gets shared among corporate databases—the public-private tussle impacts every one of us.
Specifically, the public-private tussle impacts a process that’s all too familiar to most of us: coming out. It’s in coming out, I would submit, where we need that private sphere most of all.
Many people, of course, have the wrong idea about privacy. They think it’s only for those who need to hide something. If it’s private, it must be bad. Privacy is the cache where you keep your deepest secrets.
But that’s not all that happens there. Privacy is the place where we do what Jenner did: play with ideas, try on identities, experiment with self-image. It’s where we give that work of the soul the time and space to develop. As any creative type will tell you, new ideas die fast and hard when exposed to the public sphere (and its usual criticism) too soon.
There is a huge advantage to using privacy in this way. By the time Jenner came out on 20/20, his identity had reached a level of development where it wasn’t going to crumple under a barrage of judgment. Clearly he’s still working things out—pronouns, new name, etc.—but his core is strong enough to bring those concerns public and, hopefully, inspire others.
This is also where I find myself. It’s been several years—private years of pondering my inner girl and what she needs, when/where/to whom to come out, the fear of judgment from certain friends, what styles would and wouldn’t look good on me—between my first halting steps out and the Sally Hansen on my pinky. That may seem trivial to some, but it’s not for me.
Along that path, I’ve painted my toenails (not as visible), published a book with a brief description of my identity (ridiculously visible), started writing about gender issues in general, and evaded questions from certain of my relatives. Fits and starts, each start forged in the crucible of my private sphere, giving me the courage for the next step.
Clearly, then, the fostering of our private spheres can bear tremendous fruit in our lives—and the mention of fruit brings one more thing to mind. Maybe privacy is more than just useful. Maybe it’s even godly.
Look at the Virgin Mary. At the crucial junctures of her life, she didn’t run back to her village to broadcast the news about her Son, or her latest thoughts on what might happen to him. No, the Gospel of Luke tells us she “treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Did that pondering give her the fortitude to persevere with Jesus, even to the cross? It’s speculation, of course, but clearly her heart is where she processed thoughts and words and brought them to maturity.
I have no idea what’s next for Bruce Jenner. Hey, I have no idea what’s next for me. Snow Globe polish on all ten fingers? Discussing gender with my conservative friends? More articles like this? I don’t know. What I do know is that the “next” will come from that private sphere where I pray, and play, and experiment, and ponder all these things in my heart.
— photo credit: “A little pop of color,” Caitlin Bell via Flickr, cc
As a regular contributor to Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, JOHN BACKMAN writes on contemplative spirituality and dialogue. He is the author of Why Can’t We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart(SkyLight Paths), and his articles have appeared in numerous faith-based publications, including RELEVANT and PRISM. John serves on the board of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, and he has presented internationally at academic conferences and faith gatherings.