When the Olympian formerly known as Bruce Jenner made her big reveal as Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair you could hear the Internet break. Sorry, Kimye, but news of baby number two was immediately eclipsed by CJ’s coming-out party. Folks were just too curious to finally get a glimpse of her transition, and when we did, our collective jaws dropped in shock and awe.
Of course, we live in the digital age, so it wasn’t long before a flurry of memes flooded our timelines. Some were humorous (mostly at Kris Jenner’s expense). Others were just ignorant of the many complexities of what it means to be transgender, not just as a public figure but also as a human being. But there was one meme in particular that stood out from the pile for me.
Featuring a pair of adjacent Michael Jackson photos (one dark-skinned and the other light-skinned) atop a pair of before-and-after flicks of Jenner, the caption called attention to the idea of MJ often being “insulted and judged” for his physical transformations, while CJ is being “praised and called brave” for hers.
Let’s be 100 percent clear. It’s a major error in judgement to compare vitiligo and cosmetic surgery to transgender identity because, truthfully, the reasons for both are worlds apart. One procedure can be viewed as completely elective while the other is a necessary change that most may (obviously) never understand. Still, the anonymous meme got me thinking beyond sexism, racism, classism or any other suggested ism:
Is it possible that the media’s decades-long (mis)perception of Michael Jackson is far different than any of us ever thought? Could it be that the King of Pop’s physical transformations were not about self-hate but rather a misunderstood search for self-discovery? What if Jackson was struggling with a similar inner conflict as Jenner and just didn’t know how to express it?
Of course, there are absolutely no facts or proof of that being the case, but with approximately 700,000 transgender people living in the U.S. today, who’s to say that MJ couldn’t have been one of them? At the very least, it’s something worth considering as a slight possibility, no matter how improbable. But maybe that’s just me.
Sure, Jackson spoke in a soft, effeminate voice, wore elaborate costumes and had his hair laid in immaculate doobies on the regular, but let’s be real. None of the above automatically points to him (or anyone else for that matter) being gay, transgender or other. Being eccentric is par for the course when it comes to many celebrities (think Jaden Smith, etc.). Unfortunately, so is the ridicule that often comes with being different (again, think Jaden Smith, etc.).
Over the years, we literally watched Michael change before our eyes. His complexion lightened, his facial features shifted, and his hair texture morphed from kinky to bone straight. It all reminds me of a “joke” I once heard about Michael being the greatest man in the world because he was born a poor Black boy in Gary, Indiana and grew up to become a rich White woman in Europe. They say that behind every joke is a little bit of truth, but neither transgender identity nor Michael Jackson’s assumed issues are a punchline.
Still, people continued to speculate about Jackson’s mental state and even questioned his sexuality and the sincerity of his humanitarian support of young people. With unsubstantiated descriptors like “gay,” “asexual” or even “pedophile” thrown around in the media, stand-up comedy routines and regular conversations occurring whenever the singer’s name was brought up, it’s no wonder he eventually moved his family abroad and limited his time in the public eye.
If it took Jenner—an international star in her own right albeit microscopic in comparison to Michael—65 years to publicly embrace her true identity, imagine the pressure someone like Jackson could have experienced if feeling trapped in the wrong body was at the root of his inner conflict. It’s hard enough for the average Joe/Jane to come out and truly feel free, so the burden of wanting to change genders would be tenfold for a perpetually persecuted man who was arguably the most recognizable person in the world.
Of course, this is all theoretical rhetoric on my part, and there is no reported evidence of Jackson even considering himself transgender, but a part of me still wonders: What if he was? Not for my personal conspiracy theories or some desire to publicly out someone who can no longer defend himself, but for what that could have meant for the world’s acceptance of Black LGBT rights. Can you imagine all the good MJ (transgender or not) could have done if he were to have become an international advocate for Black trans issues?
His music, which was at times politically tinged (think “They Don’t Care About Us,” “Earth Song”), could have been the soundtrack to the movement. He could have been the face of change and acceptance for people of color the world over. But that’s just wishful thinking on my part because only Jackson truly knows the reasoning behind his many physical transformations over the years. And since the singer is no longer with us in the physical form, we have no clue as to where he would have stood publicly on LGBT issues, but I’m an optimist.
In the six years since Jackson’s passing, the world has still managed to change albeit at its own pace. In recent years, trans women like Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, Isis King and countless others who don’t get national headlines have emerged at the forefront of the new millennium civil rights movement. While their advocacy and acceptance has helped the cause, a public figure of color the likes of Michael Jackson could have made their journeys somewhat easier. Because for all the praise Jenner receives for her brave revelation, it still leaves a large section of voices unheard.
Cox explains it best on her Tumblr page:
“Most trans folks don’t have the privileges Caitlyn and I have now have. It is those trans folks we must continue to lift up, get them access to healthcare, jobs, housing, safe streets, safe schools and homes for our young people. We must lift up the stories of those most at risk, statistically trans people of color who are poor and working class. I have hoped over the past few years that the incredible love I have received from the public can translate to the lives of all trans folks. Trans folks of all races, gender expressions, ability, sexual orientations, classes, immigration status, employment status, transition status, genital status etc. I hope, as I know Caitlyn does, that the love she is receiving can translate into changing hearts and minds about who all trans people are as well as shifting public policies to fully support the lives and well being of all of us. The struggle continues…”
Regardless of your views on Jenner, Jackson, or transgender issues, the message here is about how much the world needs to change and I’m starting with the man in the mirror.
What about you?