The media’s Bruce Jenner speculation is failing transgender people

Who knew there would come a day when Kim Kardashian sounded like the most sane person on the Internet? In a recent interview, Entertainment Tonight asked the professional famous person about Bruce Jenner’s much speculated upon gender presentation, as the one-time Olympian has recently been spotted out and about with longer hair and manicured nails. Emphasizing that it’s “his journey to talk about,” Kardashian diplomatically replied, “I will say that I think Bruce should tell his story his way … I think everyone goes through things in life and I think that story and what Bruce is going through, I think he’ll share whenever the time is right.”

According to nearly everyone with a keyboard, that time may have come. A “source close to the family” told People magazine, “Bruce is transitioning to a woman. He is finally happy and his family is accepting of what he’s doing. He’s in such a great space. That’s why it’s the perfect time to do something like this.” Reports further suggest that Jenner is working on an E! reality show documenting his transition, with working titles ranging from Transjenner to Bruce Jenner: My Journey. With the E! and People allegations, nearly everyone is jumping on the Jenner clickbait bandwagon. U.K. tabloid the Mirror reported that Jenner is “removing pictures of himself in his home” and the ever-classy TMZ is gloating that it got to it first: “As we reported more than a year ago, Bruce underwent an operation called a laryngal shave, to smooth out his Adam’s Apple.”

Even outlets who are usually too good for this sort of thing are wading into the fray. On one hand, the Washington Post’s Emily Yahr writes that “[reading] these kinds of gossipy details on sites like TMZ can feel uncomfortably invasive for a casual reader,” but she completely dismisses that with the other: “[W]hen the personal and private journey appears to be fodder for a reality show, all bets are off.”

But are they? Given that People is reporting news of Jenner’s transition, it might seem like open season to speculate away, but let’s play Internet detective for a minute: What’s missing on all of this reporting about Jenner? Any competent sleuth should have already guessed: Bruce Jenner. The People story used the old canard of “a source close to the family,” which could mean literally anything. Using anonymous sources is an old trick both in tabloid gossip and general reporting, where saying you have an anonymous tipster could protect a source who doesn’t want to go public or also cloak total fabricated bullshit. If Jennifer Aniston had a child every time a mystery source claimed she was pregnant, her last name would be Duggar.

When asked about the pervasive gossip surrounding his gender, Jenner has (thus far) done nothing but deny reports—insisting he is, in fact, male. TMZ actually asked Bruce Jenner about the supposedly conclusive  laryngeal shave last year, and Jenner responded nonchalantly: “I just didn’t really like my trachea.” This could mean one of two things: 1) That he’s not ready to talk about it or 2) That he’s getting plastic surgery for the same reason lots of straight, cisgender men get plastic surgeries—they’re unhappy with parts of their bodies and want to change them. Note that neither of these scenarios presents a third option: Because he’s playing hard to get and really wants everyone to be a jerk about it.

If Jennifer Aniston had a child every time a mystery source claimed she was pregnant, her last name would be Duggar.

At Jezebel, Kat Callahan reminds us that polished nails and a feminine haircut do not a transgender woman make. “Is Jenner testing the boundaries of gender expression?” Callahan asks. “Absolutely, he is. He’s doing things which are clearly at odds with his athletic manly-man image our society wants to hold up above all other images. Yet embracing a more so-called feminine gender presentation or even expression doesn’t make one transgender. Having a gender identity which is distinct from the gender you were assigned at birth is what makes one transgender.” Bruce Jenner could be genderqueer, gender non-conforming, or any other label he chooses, and according to Callahan, “it really isn’t anyone’s business to try and guess.”

While the speculation isn’t always mean-spirited—and it’s nice to see outlets as diverse as Slate and US Weekly coming out to support Jenner’s alleged decision—that doesn’t mean it’s entirely appropriate or ethical. Just because Bruce Jenner is a former reality star doesn’t mean his gender should be treated with the same indiscretion as a nip slip or a divorce rumor; it’s not as fair game as Yahr suggests. This is because Jenner’s supposed transition isn’t just a sensitive subject for the Kardashian family, but for the transgender people who have to watch his story turned into a spectacle. As Callahan reminds us, “It’s insulting to Jenner even if it’s all inaccurate speculation. If [he] is transitioning, then it’s even worse.

It shouldn’t be surprising that the media is using allegations about Jenner’s transition to generate clicks and stir up controversy—this is how tabloids and reality television works. However, in an interview about his book Freaks Talk Back, Yale professor Joshua Gamson explains that outsiders are the genre’s bread and butter, whether that’s TMZ or The Jerry Springer Show. Gamson says, “On talk shows, it’s mainly the ‘different’ who are used to attract an audience which is then sold to advertisers … Nobody gets treated particularly well by the shows, and the way lesbian, transsexual, gay, bisexual people are often set up on talk shows… often disturbs and upsets to me.” This is why Maury Povich, whose show debuted in 1991, has long included transgender people in his infamous “Man or Woman?” segment. Speculation sells.

But Gamson argues that trashy TV shows, at their best, allow marginalized communities to engage in conversation with the audience and help normalize difference. “Exploitation is the starting point, not the conclusion,” Gamson explains, but the positive benefits of visibility only work as long as the subject is allowed to actually “talk back.” One of the most important things LGBT people can do to change the hearts and minds of bigots is not only to be visible but also to be vocal—making their lives relatable to the public. It’s harder to discriminate against someone if you feel like you know them. By making Bruce Jenner a voiceless object of gossip, the media has taken the power out of Jenner’s journey, simply by not allowing him to tell his own story.

When the media looks less informed on trans issues than a woman who won a Razzie for a Tyler Perry movie, you know we’ve got a problem. 

Now is a particularly important time for us to allow Jenner to do so. Although shows like Transparent and icons like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox have brought transgender issues to a wider audience than ever before, trans people continue to be targets both of hate crimes and discriminatory public policy. A bill recently introduced in Kentucky would force transgender students to use the school bathroom that corresponds to the sex assigned to them at birth, and Houston mayor Annise Parker infamously left transgender people out of non-discrimination laws passed in Texas last year. Meanwhile, trans women continue to face disproportionately high murder rates, many of whom are then misgendered by newspapers after their death, just another way we take trans people’s stories away from them. Remember Dr. V?

Jenner, by virtue of wealth and privilege, lives a reality divorced from the lives of a majority of transgender folks—who might be struggling to survive or afford housing and basic health care, let alone a laryngeal shave or plastic surgery. The Kardashian patriarch might not be the advocate many have in mind, but his former stepdaughter, Kim, is one of the most powerful and influential figures on the planet—whether we like it or not. Her 28.3 million Twitter followers accounts for a huge global audience, and as a member of her modern family, Jenner is part of that brand. Whatever he does will be covered and talked about in newspapers across the world, which is why it so important to get it right—whether he is or isn’t transgender. The easiest way to do that is to simply shut up and let Bruce Jenner tell the story his way and in his own words. Has he told you he’s coming out? No? Then stop speculating.

Doing anything else isn’t just foolish and morally reprehensible—it’s dangerous. When the media looks less informed on trans issues than a woman who won a Razzie for a Tyler Perry movie, you know we’ve got a problem. 

Photo via Nakeva/Flickr (CC BY N.D.-2.0)

Nico Lang

Nico Lang

Nico Lang is an essayist, movie critic, and reporter who specializes in the intersection of politics and LGBTQ issues. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Jezebel, Esquire, and BuzzFeed, among other notable publications.