Bruce Jenner's declaration creates an opportunity

Bruce Jenner's transition to a woman (4:34)

Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner sits down with ABC's Diane Sawyer to talk about his transition to become a woman. (4:34)

I don't know Bruce Jenner. But I do have a dim childhood memory of an Olympic hero who smiled at me from Wheaties boxes in the grocery store, a friendly face that encouraged fitness before America really started losing its battle of the bulge.

If you're a bit older, you know what Jenner's 1976 decathlon gold-medal win in Montreal meant for a country crazed by every glimmer of Olympic success during the gloom of the Cold War. If you're a bit younger, you might think of Jenner only as the kooky supporting cast member on "Keeping Up With the Kardashians." Jenner is a cross-generational brand of celebrity, simultaneously iconic and artificial in the way that only today's manufactured reality of infotainment can convey.

But there's reality TV, and then there's something real. And Jenner's announcement Friday night in an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer that he self-identifies as a transgender woman after years of speculation is one brave declaration. We should not let the tabloid drama that has followed Jenner deflect the significance of the moment. Jenner has shared something about himself, something that is never easy. It's a unique and unimagined paradox -- Jenner provided an insight into something so private, but did so on a stage that is unprecedented in the trans community.

And the road is not over for Jenner putting petty tabloid rumors to rest. Will his life help us further understand and accept any trans person, and every person, for who they are and who we all are -- just people, famous or not?

Transness is an increasingly better understood element of our common humanity, but Jenner's transition between genders is unique, albeit for a different reason. Given the Kardashian-Jenner reality TV experience, it will be the most scripted (and most public) transition of all time. We can wonder about how well Jenner, 65, has armored himself against the difficulties he will face. What was Jenner's sense of community with other trans folk? At the same time Jenner was winning Olympic gold, Renee Richards was blazing trails as the first out transgender athlete -- what did that mean to Jenner then? We can hope that Jenner's experience with reality TV has prepared him for the ongoing onslaught of media attention (good and bad) he will surely face.

The real challenge is separating the overlap between what this moment means for Jenner, and what it might mean for everyone else. It would be only too easy to burden Jenner with unfair expectations as one of the world's most visible trans people. But what does Bruce Jenner really owe anybody? The singularity of Jenner's experiences, as an athlete and as a person, can be admired, but can they really be emulated? What might some people want or need from him as a public figure? As "Orange Is the New Black" star and LGBT advocate Laverne Cox might put it, is Jenner supposed to be a "possibility model" for others? After Cox appeared on the cover of Time magazine's "The Transgender Tipping Point" issue, you have to think so.

Similar high-profile public declarations can be counted on your thumbs: Film director Lana Wachowski of "The Matrix" and "Cloud Atlas" fame staged a slow transition that traveled from initial rumors (as far back as 2003) to her own public declaration in 2012. And there is the tragic story of Los Angeles Times sports writer Mike Penner/Christine Daniels, who came out much more publicly and immediately in 2007, only to move back to life as Penner in 2008 and subsequently commit suicide in November 2009.

I know Lana. I knew Christine. But these examples with two very different outcomes do not provide an instructive pattern to help navigate what we should understand about Jenner's own journey. All of the preparations Jenner has made and will continue to make in the future came after long deliberation among the members of America's most visible family -- a clan whose genius for staying in the public eye inspires envy, adulation and ridicule -- but this is still his life, and his decision to act on who he is. In my own low-key transition back in 2003, I realized I did not and could not have all of the answers, having never done it before. I wound up telling friends, family and colleagues in baseball that if they could give me the benefit of the doubt as I went through it, I would do the same with them, and it's to the credit of all involved that it worked out as well as it did. But that's just it: If there is one thing that is true for every trans person confronting their need to transition, it's that there is only one "right way," and that's the way that works best for them.

There will be a tough road ahead. Jenner's mother delivered a lovely statement of support, but she simultaneously got pretty much every anticipated gender pronoun wrong by using "he" and "him" instead of "she" and "her." Not that anyone should get bent out of shape in this instance; Esther Jenner is 88 years old and has her shared experience with Jenner over a lifetime to make her own transition from. But even after Jenner lets people know to start using "she" and "her" at some point in the future, a mother's experience permits mistakes where other people may inevitably and deliberately aim to offend by not using the right pronoun. So let's focus on what's important from that statement -- a mother's support and love for her child through a change from one expressed gender to another.

There might also be a temptation to make comparisons. One friend in the sports world suggested Jenner's announcement could be similar to Magic Johnson telling the world in 1991 that he was HIV-positive. Being trans should not be compared to becoming ill; but where you'd hope the Johnson-Jenner comparison works is that Jenner's fame will create a better understanding and dialogue, similar to what Johnson did for HIV-positive people worldwide.

Working from that example, we need to recognize what Jenner's transition can't do: It doesn't provide answers to the challenges all trans people face or solve the horrifying numbers from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. The grim facts are that 78 percent of trans people reported harassment in school (K-12), 50 percent have been harassed on the job, and one fifth reported harassment by police. Trans people are twice as likely to be unemployed and four times as likely to be living in poverty. It's no surprise that 41 percent report suicide attempts. What Jenner's declaration does afford us is the opportunity for frank conversations about how to improve those numbers so trans kids of the future don't have to face the failures of the past.

This is where the power of sports, the fame it creates and the shared experience between athlete and audience, can provide us the opportunity to open hearts and minds to the idea that Bruce Jenner, hero of the 1976 Olympics, is still much the same person we can admire for a new and different reason. He is one and the same person, confronting something about himself that he has long known, and something you're only just now becoming acquainted with. The sense of self that Jenner has lived with doesn't change anything you already "know" about him, from the accomplishments on the track, to seeing that smiling face on a Wheaties box, to whatever gets presented through the staged spontaneity of reality television.

The other challenge to you and me is how fully each of us can follow Jenner's example. If we can all provide some measure of support and acceptance, to realize that this is what Jenner needed to do for his own happiness, we might briefly break through fame's gauze and get to know him. And we might just learn something from this new "possibility model."

Because this is also Bruce Jenner. And between his ears and in his heart, it always was.

Christina Kahrl writes about Major League Baseball for ESPN.