The front cover of this month’s Vanity Fair features a stunning Caitlyn Jenner smiling coyly at the camera, wrapped in a snug bustier that shows off her considerable assets. But media headlines have, of course, responded by referring to her by her old name and prior pronouns—despite the fact that even on the magazine’s cover, she asks us to “call [her] Caitlyn.”
It takes courage to share your story. https://t.co/Q7wWjV9Rxx— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) June 1, 2015
Jenner is one in a long line of high-profile trans individuals who have been reduced to “Caitlyn, formerly…” and constant misgendering in media reporting, as editors attempt to cope in the wild without a style guide. Even Wikipedia has it together on this one—within hours of her formal announcement, her Wikipedia entry had been seamlessly edited to fix pronouns and address other inconsistencies.
Associated Press misgenders Caitlyn Jenner in violation of its own guidelines http://t.co/wfXBRQqyGg— Stuff Journalists Like (@JournalistsLike) June 2, 2015
Caitlyn Jenner is a woman. She always has been a woman, though it took her years to come to terms with her identity and choose to seek medical care to help the outside of her body align with her inward perception of herself. She did so in the harsh scrutiny of the public eye, where the public endlessly speculated about what she was doing and what was happening to her body, a culture of media surveillance that won’t end with her April 20/20 interview or her Vanity Fair feature.
As the New York Times pointed out in February, Jenner’s transition was almost painfully visible:
Other prominent people have been here before. But never has the process been played out quite like this—at the intersection where celebrity exhibitionism meets public voyeurism. Never before has it involved someone of such public ubiquity whose transition, at least so far, seems to be unfolding before our very eyes.
Jenner can join the ranks of trans celebrities who will be asked questions about their genitals on national TV when the tabloids aren’t publishing muckraking stories about them or seizing upon any and all private information about their transition. This is about more than just transness, though: It’s specifically about trans women.
Women like Jenner are subject to transmisogyny, discrimination that involves a complicated interaction between sexism, transphobia, and even a whiff of homophobia. Society refuses to view them as “real women,” a notion that follows them from the mercifully canceled Michfest to stereotypes about men in dresses. It’s a dangerous notion, too: Trans women—especially women of color—are at an extremely high risk of rape, assault, and other violent crimes.
In the meantime, some turn to crime and sex work to afford their basic costs of living, including access to medical transition. Jenner, in her position of considerable social privilege, doesn’t have to deal with these barriers—or discrimination in housing, employment, and other areas of life.
This is about more than just transness, though: It’s specifically about trans women.
She will, however, have to confront misgendering and constant references to her birth name. Some editors might claim they must use former names as a form of disambiguation: Otherwise, who will know who Caitlyn Jenner is?
This argument rings hollow, given that she’s one of the most high-profile transgender women in America and that there are plenty of other contextual references that could be applied to her. She’s a former Olympian, for example, and she’s an intimate member of the Kardashian family. She’s also a prominent social activist.
Any one of these things would provide enough identifying information for a reader to understand who was being discussed—and the use of male pronouns is just actively misgendering. In stories about the transgender community, editors and writers struggle so much with pronouns that it’s often extremely difficult to tell who is being referred to at any given time, let alone what that person’s gender actually is.
Sadly, most reporting on trans people in the media is either about women like Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, the cases of trans women brutally murdered and assaulted, or those who commit suicide—when their stories make it into the news at all. When women like Leelah Alcorn hit the news, a trans teen who took her own life last December, their birth names pervade the articles that surround them, only reinforcing the very struggles they faced.
This has become such an issue that organizations like Media Matters for America have started to speak out on the dangers of misgendering, following the 2015 death of a Louisiana woman: “Experts in journalism ethics have criticized NOLA.com’s repeated misgendering of Penny Proud, a transgender woman who was shot and killed in New Orleans this week, calling it ‘dismissive’ and ‘inflammatory.’”
In 2014, Time made its mark in the trans media landscape with an unforgettable cover starring Laverne Cox, proclaiming this the “transgender tipping point.” The magazine’s assertion was premature, but it’s not wrong in the sense that trans visibility is growing daily, which means that editors are facing extremely difficult choices when it comes to covering transgender people with respect.
Those choices, however, are not so difficult when stories are boiled down to their essence. Transgender people are human beings and deserve to be covered as such. If someone’s a man, he’s a man. If she’s a woman, she’s a woman. The subject’s current name should be used, and if clarification is necessary, it’s possible to use contextual clues.
Transgender people are human beings and deserve to be covered as such. If someone’s a man, he’s a man. If she’s a woman, she’s a woman.
Caitlyn Jenner is a woman, no matter what her history may tell editors and the public, and she should be referred to with female pronouns and treated as someone with a female history. Femininity and the female experience take many different forms, and for Jenner, it was a long journey that’s far from over.
Media outlets are going to be writing about the transgender community much more in the coming years, and a long-established tradition of dehumanizing trans subjects must come to an end. Despite a number of guides available to help journalists cover subjects relating to the trans community, editors are still having difficulty with the concept that trans people are people, just like everyone else.
The She Not He bot is already on it, but what about the rest of us?
.@DressingInW Breeepbeep! It's she, not he.— She not he (@she_not_he) June 2, 2015
The answer to which name and pronouns should be used in profiles of trans individuals is rather straightforward: The name and pronouns the person has requested. If the media and the public can finally get the message, we really will start to reach a transgender tipping point.
S.E. Smith is a writer, editor, and agitator with numerous publication credits, including the Guardian, AlterNet, and Salon, along with several anthologies. Smith also serves as the Social Justice Editor for xoJane and will be co-chairing Wiscon 40—the preeminent feminist science-fiction conference—in 2016.
Screengrab via ClevverNews/YouTube