According to GLAAD, Bruce Jenner “has not indicated that a new name or pronoun should be used,” therefore GLAAD has indicated that the press should respect his wishes and continue to refer to Jenner by his current name and with male pronouns until otherwise informed. GLAAD writes, “Some transgender people prefer to change their name and/or pronoun quickly. Other transgender people may take more time to decide what name and/or pronoun feels right to them. To be respectful, use the name and/or pronoun requested by the individual.”
Last night on ABC, Diane Sawyer sat down with legendary Olympic decathlon gold medalist and reality TV star Bruce Jenner for an interview about the long-speculated-upon story that Jenner is transgender. In two hours we learned Jenner is indeed a trans woman, and he’s struggled with feeling this way for his entire life, he hopes his story will educate people and maybe even save some lives and Diane Sawyer probably should’ve done some more homework before doing an interview like this. We also learned we still have a long way to go before trans women are treated with full respect by the media.
Before I get into anything else, I want to say congratulations to Jenner. Coming out as trans can be a terrifying thing, and I imagine that when you live in as big of a spotlight as he does, it must be even more terrifying. I wish him nothing but the the best in all of this, I hope he’s able to get some rest from the media assault that’s been launched against him and I hope when people see him coming out and talking about his journey to get here, they recognize and respect his humanity and then transfer that respect for humanity to all other trans women they see.
I was actually very pleasantly surprised by most of what we saw. As the interview started and Jenner welcomed Sawyer into his house, he honestly did seem really nervous, especially for someone who’s lived the last eight years in front of the camera and most of the last forty in the public eye. His first few sentences were filled with heavy pauses and tears wiped away with tissues. At first he came out more indirectly by saying things like “I’ve always been confused with my gender identity since I was this big,” motioning with his hand, and imagining God saying “let’s give him the soul of a female and see how he deals with that” when he was being created. Finally, Sawyer asked if he’s a woman, receiving the reply “yes, for all intents and purposes, I’m a woman.”
Jenner told the story of a person who lived their life in public, but always felt like they were telling a lie by being the person the public saw. He talked about how at the height of his Olympic glory, he was actually a confused “her.” He didn’t come out because he was afraid that that lie would disappoint people, especially his family. He said he was always “running away from [his] life, running away from who [he] was” and that he was scared for his life. As much as the previous coverage of his transition tried to strip him of his humanity, this interview built it back up. He was able to tell his story, and he was able to answer Sawyer’s questions when he seemed to be completely lost about what Jenner was talking about. Jenner talked about coming out, or at least partially coming out to his wives over the years. He talked about how, for five years in the 80’s, he was actually on HRT and was transitioning, but he lost his nerve and didn’t want to hurt his children, so he stopped.
It’s kind of remarkable to think this might’ve been the biggest “trans moment” in American history — by that I mean it’s likely more people were watching this interview and therefore learning about and talking about trans people, at least at this level and depth of understanding, than at any single moment before. For older generations, Jenner is one of the greatest and most famous athletes that they’ve seen in their lives. He’s a genuine legend and a true American Sports Hero. He was on the cover of the Wheaties box. And he’s a trans woman.
Jenner also talked about some very serious issues with a lot of aplomb. He talked about how he became deeply suicidal after the paparazzi ambushed him when he went to get a tracheal shave. He talked about how many trans people face serious issues, and while he doesn’t see himself as a spokesperson for the trans community, he’d be happy to work with the community to make things better for other trans people. He even pointed out that Black trans women are the most at risk for anti-trans violence. I’m going to say that again, a member of one of the most famous families in the US specifically talked about violence against Black trans women on a prime time interview that was expected to be seen by 20 million people. That’s a start.
Jenner also talked about how his family is taking the news. He said most of his children are being incredibly supportive, and we actually got to see some of his sons talk about him and to him, saying they’re more proud of him now than they’ve ever been. Jenner said while his daughter Khloe is struggling with his transition, Kim, the first daughter that he told, is taking it really well, partially thanks to her husband, Kanye West. It actually brought a tear to my eye when Jenner described how Kanye helped Kim come around to fully support him. In support of Bruce transitioning, Kanye apparently told her, “I can be married to the most beautiful woman in the world, and I am. I can have the most beautiful daughter in the world, I have that. But I’m nothing if I can’t be me. If I can’t be true to myself, they don’t mean anything.”
I feel like Katie Couric’s second interview with Laverne Cox has kind of given me expectations that are too high. If you remember, Couric first had Cox and Carmen Carrera on her show and proceeded to keep asking them about surgery and their genitals even after being told that neither one would talk about that and that they didn’t consider those questions to be appropriate. She then invited Cox to return to the show and really showed us how an ally should learn and grow after they make mistakes. It seemed like Sawyer, especially early on, made a lot of the same mistakes Couric did. Multiple times she asked Jenner if he was gay or interested in men, even though Jenner pretty clearly explained gender and sexuality are different things. At one point she said, “experts say that crossdressing and being transgender aren’t necessarily the same thing,” which is a huge way to undersell the fact that they’re not the same thing at all. However, it wasn’t a complete disaster, and much of the interview was actually pretty respectful. There were times that it was clear Sawyer had been given some guidelines, probably from GLAAD, like when they acknowledged that most members of the trans community don’t want to talk about surgery but Jenner had indicated he was ready to. Still, I felt like Sawyer and ABC kept on dropping the ball only to be saved by Jenner picking it up and running ten yards with it.
Seeing this story unfold over the past four months has been, to say the least, tiring, trying and very strange. You could easily argue the Jenner-Kardashian family is the least private family in the world, so to have the media speculate on this story without a single comment from Jenner for this long has created what is largely an unprecedented situation, during which time the media has been enormously offensive and disrespectful. A person with this much celebrity and this much in the public eye coming out as transgender hasn’t ever happened before, and it’s rare the media starts reporting on a public figure wanting to come out as trans before they say anything about being trans. Probably the closest story we’ve had is that of Chelsea Manning, who we learned was trans from information that she did not release herself during the investigation into her involvement in leaking classified documents. When writing about her story, journalists had to ask themselves if and how they wanted to use this information and if they should change the way they refer to a trans person who hasn’t themselves said they are trans.
This time, the story is even more complicated. As I said, Jenner’s life has been anything but private, especially over the last decade or so, and that’s largely been because Jenner has wanted it that way. No one forced Jenner to have his life filmed for a reality show, and no one forced him to have a relationship with the press that is defined by leaking stories and photos at the most opportune time. Still, though, that very relationship with the media makes this story stand out. The Jenner-Kardashians are perhaps the most media savvy family on the planet, and so one thinks they would have been in control of this story from day one. This just highlights how difficult coming out as a trans woman is and how even people with the kind of media power the Jenner-Kardashians have don’t know how to “control” a situation like this.
One thing I should make clear, is that no matter what else was done, any coverage of Jenner that treated him as a sideshow freak to be gawked and laughed at was patently offensive, extremely dehumanizing and plainly malicious. Magazines that printed photoshopped pictures of him with words like “Secret Double Life” and “Caught Cross-Dressing!” in giant letters with multiple exclamation points served no purpose other than to try to humiliate Jenner and insult and tear down all trans women, Jenner included. This kind of coverage was vile and has no place in journalism.
Tabloids and media outlets that made fun of the way Jenner looks or has been acting or that tried to make money off the idea that trans women are weird and deserve to be stared and laughed at shouldn’t even be relevant to this discussion. They weren’t even covering the story of a former Olympic champion and popular TV star who was coming out as trans, they were simply making transmisogynistic jokes, and lazy ones at that.
Knowing that that kind of coverage was wrong doesn’t completely solve the problem though. People still couldn’t reach a consensus on how to talk about Jenner once it seemed more and more certain he would be publicly coming out sometime in the coming months. In February, MTV posted a story called “What Are The Rules For Talking About Bruce Jenner? Here’s What MTV Is And Isn’t Saying” where they said they weren’t going to speculate on Jenner’s gender and didn’t use a single pronoun for Jenner at all. Other websites and publications said that they would continue to use “he” until Jenner himself would make a public statement. A few places started using “they” to show they weren’t going to make a judgement on Jenner’s gender, but those places seemed few and far between. Although many of the more “respectable” news and media outlets didn’t sensationalize the story the way gossip magazines and some websites and blogs did, that didn’t stop them from still reporting on the story in their own way.
Even trans women have been disagreeing about the best way to approach this story. Some say speculating if a person, even a celebrity and reality TV star, is trans, is disrespectful and irresponsible and since Jenner didn’t say anything about his gender until last night, the proper way to talk about him would’ve been to use “he/him” pronouns. Assuming anything else would’ve been going too far. Outing a trans woman is an act of violence that can lead to her facing discrimination, alienation from her friends and family and physical violence, and some people saw this speculation as a version of that. Others said once things got to a certain point where we were constantly seeing “leaks” from “sources close to the family” and even statements from Jenner’s mother, the proper thing to do was to use “they” or even “she” pronouns to refer to Jenner. After all, when a trans person, even a closeted trans person, hears themself referred to with the wrong pronouns, it can hurt a lot. However, Jenner told ABC they could use “he/him” for the interview and he often referred to a post-coming-out and internal version of himself as “she/her.” So things are complicated.
Back in February, Redefining Realness author, MSNBC contributor and trans advocate Janet Mock aired a segment on her Shift by MSNBC program So POPular! on the subject of the media’s reporting on Jenner’s trans status, which was still unconfirmed back then. On her show she said trans people need to be respected, and perhaps the best thing for the media to do would be to use “gender-inclusive language” when talking about Jenner until he “stepped forward to tell their own story.” I think this is a good approach, and normally would use “they” in a case like this if it weren’t for the statement released by GLAAD. In her segment, Mock said publications using “he” pronouns because that’s what the family was using were going about things the wrong way.
Any trans person navigating identity, community and especially family could explain that when it comes to explaining your identity to loved ones, family members will likely be slow, resistant, or even hostile, to making name and pronoun changes. So, a journalist could surmise that family members are not going to be the most reliable sources of information, specifically around pronoun usage. And as seen in the People story, the magazine, by relying on family members’ use of masculine pronouns helps spread harmful misinformation about Jenner and all trans people.
She continued on to say it’s time we learn new ways of using pronouns and talking about gender. She said “the media is making every effort to proclaim that Jenner is living as a woman, yet the media refuses to call Jenner ‘she’ or even ‘they.’ If they’re going to report on Jenner’s identity as a woman, we should be vigilant in ensuring we use gender inclusive language, starting with ‘they,’ until Jenner, the only source that actually matters, tells us otherwise.” About thirty minutes into last night’s interview, after Sawyer had repeatedly called Jenner “he,” even when referring to him sitting in the room after coming out, she said that while it’s important to use the correct pronouns when talking to and about trans people, Jenner had told ABC to use “he” for this interview.
One thing this has taught us is our language needs to evolve, and it needs to evolve quickly. Even when the media was trying to be respectful of Jenner’s situation (which to be honest, didn’t really happen all that often), they were struggling to find ways to tell his story. As the media talked about Jenner’s upcoming interview with Diane Sawyer, they continued to use “he” and “him” to describe him. At this point they seemed to be 100% sure he was a woman, and they wouldn’t use “he” when talking about a trans woman like Andreja Pejic (I use her as an example because I saw one TV entertainment show do segments on both women the same day, using “he” to describe Jenner and “she” to talk about Pejic). So why did they continue to use masculine-coded pronouns to refer to Jenner when there are gender-neutral pronouns available? At the time they didn’t know Jenner’s pronouns, and the safe thing to do might have been to use the singular “they.” When we finally heard from Jenner himself and found out that he isn’t indicating that new pronouns should be used yet, it became fine to use “he/him.”
All of this raises more questions we need to deal with sooner, rather than later. Why are journalists and TV hosts so reluctant to adopt gender-inclusive language? How can you respect the fact that someone is in the closet but also respect their pronouns and not misgender them? Which is more respectful, to refuse to speculate a closeted trans woman’s trans status, or to refuse to misgender her? Which path lets you keep more of your journalistic integrity?
It’s kind of sad, to be honest, that we need Jenner’s coming out to become a teachable moment, but the fact is, it’s not like there are tens of millions of trans people in the US and it’s not like there are dozens of celebrities coming out as trans every day, or even every year. So a lot of this is just new and unexplored territory for the media. That’s not an excuse for bad behavior, though, they need to learn and they need to do better, and hopefully that’s what they’ll do. Hopefully they’ll become more educated on trans issues and terminology and they’ll learn you don’t have to use words that rely on a cis-centric view of the world to report on every person or every issue.
As being trans becomes more accepted and as more and more people become educated on trans issues and trans people at earlier and earlier ages, the number of public figures who come out as trans is only going to go up. While Jenner’s interview is an unprecedented media experience, I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Next time we should be prepared.
The main thing we need to keep in mind is above all else, we need to treat Jenner like the human being that he is. While I do think in some cases it’s fair to report on a person potentially being trans — if the person is in the public eye the way Jenner is, if family members and other sources close to the person keep on leaking information like they did in this case and if they schedule an interview to come out — I don’t think it’s fair at all to do it the way most of the media did it. Once there were quotes from Jenner’s family and team confirming he was trans, I feel it would’ve been most respectful to stop using “he” and “him” to refer to him and adopt “they/them” until we got information from the woman himself. Still, that in no way excuses the gross sensationalism and completely insulting headlines and “scoops” that were printed in magazines and broadcast over the airwaves.
As the interview started to wrap up, Sawyer asked Jenner to put himself in Sawyer’s seat, what would he ask Bruce Jenner if he were in her position? Jenner thought about it for a minute and said he would ask himself “Are you okay?” Again, showing that at the root of all this, he just wants people to see him as a human being. All of the nervousness and apprehension that was so evident at the beginning of the interview seemed to disappear as Jenner showed Sawyer his closet, complete with the dress he was going to wear when the two of them had dinner later. Instead of seeming like he wanted to crawl under the covers and never come out, Jenner now seemed not just happy, but genuinely joyful as he joked about being the tallest girl in the room and hugged Sawyer.
When he was asked what his goal is for what he’ll look like now that he no longer has to pretend to be the “Bruce Jenner” that America has known for so long, he said all he wants is to be able to keep his nail polish on long enough for it to chip off. That’s it. Such a small thing that every woman should be able to take for granted, but before today, he still had to hide it and remove his nail polish before he was ready. He closed out the interview by telling Diane Sawyer that this wasn’t the end for him, saying, “I’m saying goodbye to people’s perception of me and who I am, I’m not saying goodbye to me.” While I’m not ready to place Bruce Jenner on the same level as trans advocates like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox, Bruce Jenner bared his humanity and represented trans women well, and he did it in a brighter spotlight than perhaps anyone has done before.