The Case of Bruce Jenner and Our Transphobia

Media coverage of Bruce Jenner reflects our society's trouble understanding transgender issues.

(Photo: Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images)

Feb 10, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Christopher Carbone is a New York writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, and Slate.

What happens when the voracious 24-7 news cycle clashes with the personal journey of a bold-faced name who appears to be transitioning to another gender? You get a wave of what many people are interpreting as transphobic coverage. It began on the cover of InTouch, stretched across social media, and landed on the front page of Saturday’s New York Times under the buzzy headline: “The Transition of Bruce Jenner: A Shock to Some, Visible to All.”

Jenner hasn’t publicly addressed gender identity. But several published reports have said Jenner is taping an interview with ABC News’ Diane Sawyer to discuss all of these issues. People quotes the Olympian’s mother, Esther Jenner, as saying Jenner told her, “I want to be honest about my identity, and I know this is coming out in the press.” Last week Jenner’s stepdaughter Kim Kardashian told Entertainment Tonight: “We support Bruce no matter what. I think Bruce should tell his story his way…. Everyone goes through things in life, but I do think that story and what Bruce is going through, I think he’ll share when the time is right.”

You don’t have to be a fan of Jenner or the Kardashians to appreciate how painful it must be to endure relentless media coverage that’s driving conversations focused primarily on Jenner’s physical appearance. Media is a powerful force in helping society understand itself. The arrival of diverse images of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in newspapers, television, and film has helped ease Americans’ openness toward LGBT issues, including same-sex marriage. Yet, we struggle with transphobia: Seventy-five percent of transgender people have experienced workplace discrimination, and nearly 20 percent have been denied housing. An estimated 41 percent of transgender people have attempted suicide. Then there's the case of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old transgender girl in Ohio who committed suicide last year.

In media and general daily life, explaining transgender issues can be challenging for even the most sensitive people. GLAAD defines "transgender" as an umbrella term for people whose gender identity differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. Gender identity is a person’s internal sense of being a man or a woman (or someone outside the gender binary). For transgender people, the sex they were assigned at birth and their internal gender identity do not match.

The Times’ nearly 1,200-word piece, published before an official announcement from Jenner, as of Monday afternoon had drawn more than 600 comments on the newspaper’s website. The article opens with a few references to Jenner’s athletic prowess and celebrity status. The article uses the male honorific “mister” and male pronouns to describe Jenner—instead of gender-neutral pronouns such as “they,” “them,” and “their” that are preferred by many transgender people. (It’s arguably presumptive to use female or neutral pronouns for Jenner, because there’s been no public disclosure. It’s the kind of thing that drives the most fair-minded writers up the wall.)

News organizations of various sizes are grappling with the issue. In August 2013, a few days after Chelsea Manning announced her gender identity and intention to transition from male to female, The Associated Press sent a note to its bureaus declaring the wire service would use the preferred gender pronouns of the person being written about—regardless of that person’s physical appearance. Many transgender people don't have the financial resources or the ability to present as the gender they know themselves to be.

Jen Richards, a transgender writer and activist, says the overall tone of the Jenner coverage so far has been mocking. The language, Richards says, is having a negative impact on the transgender community. “We internalize public hatred, and it kills us,” Richards says, adding, “It allows the public to side with our harassers and attackers. Ultimately, it dehumanizes us.”

Richards notes that Jenner’s story could turn a brighter spotlight on the crises affecting the transgender community. “Black and Latina trans women are being killed with impunity (there have been four murders in 2015 already), and we’re all dealing with ourselves or our peers being subjected to a wide array of tacitly sanctioned social and institutional barriers to employment, safety, health, housing, and education,” says Richards, creator of We Happy Trans, a website that collects positive transgender perspectives. “Combine this with our reflective aversion to the public gawking of a trans person, one who still hasn’t spoken in their own voice, and the frenzy feels absurdly removed from our immediate concerns.”

The question is, how can journalists produce sensitive work that doesn’t demean transgender people? Certainly, the question also can be asked of people who don’t work in media. It would help to start by respecting and listening to transgender people and using the preferred pronouns. Believe transgender people when they explain themselves, and don’t demand “proof” of their identity. Be open-minded, and don’t ask invasive questions that you wouldn’t want to be asked. Remember, each one of us has a story—and a right to tell that story and stand in our truth.