Over the past several months there has been mounting speculation around former Olympian Gold Medalist and the stepfather of E!’s hit reality show Keeping Up With The Kardashians Bruce Jenner’s gender identity and what the reality star may or may not be doing for their alleged transition. The overall tone of this public hypothesizing around Jenner’s gender identity is something that really needs to shift.
Jenner, who in the name of bodily autonomy I will refer to by the gender neutral pronouns of they, them and their, has yet to come forward to disclose any aspect of this alleged “journey”, and let’s be clear: they don’t have to. Although Jenner is a reality star and has granted us access to certain aspects of their life, that does not give us the right to discuss their body or life in a disrespectful or dehumanizing way.
For ten seasons now Jenner has graciously welcomed us into their home. During which time we’ve had the opportunity to see Jenner and their family at their best and worst. We’ve witnessed their daughter’s come of age, the marriage and divorces of their stepdaughters and watched as their family expanded time and time again. So why not just be upfront give us the tea? Unlike the other occasions transitioning is a deeply personal journey one in which an individual should only invite others into their truth when they are ready to take that step.
However, I understand being a reality TV star places Jenner at an ambiguous and interesting position. Reality TV had very humble and almost admirable beginnings. It was to give the viewer a sneak peek into someone’s private life. The idea was to invite the viewer to have passenger’s seat on that individual’s journey, but we were never intended to mandate where they ought to go. For months now I’ve had friends and family ask me “Do you think he’s trans?” To which I reply that my opinion is irrelevant in this conversation. If Jenner does identify as trans we will know if and when they are ready to let us into that aspect of their life. Until then we must remain in the passenger’s seat, because otherwise our speculation and gossiping can be hurtful for both the individual and for our society as a whole.
But before I get into why the framing of our public discourse is harmful let’s first realize that gender expression is a societal construct. As a society we’ve decided that long hair, makeup, nail polish, among other things are considered “feminine” forms of expressing one’s gender. So when a ‘male’ formed individual steps forward to express themselves with these features that we deem ‘feminine’ we are quick to place judgment, jump to assumptions about their identity, proclaim them as a trans woman and decide without their input what their final goal actually is, assuming that there is one. In other words, there is nothing stopping an individual from wearing all those garments that we deem to be feminine from coming out and saying “I identify as a man, and the way I choose to express my masculinity is through hair and makeup”.
Our western society does not allow people the space for different forms of expression. We police people’s expression that fall out of our hetero-normative views around gender with policies and procedures such as student codes of conduct and employee handbooks that state that “men” cannot allow their hair to grow past their shirt collar or women are not allowed to paint their nails different colors—as if this would make a difference in being able to check someone into a hotel properly and efficiently—. These regulations claim to maintain a visually appealing aesthetic. The question is, visually appealing to whom?
This public policing is aimed at shaming people who do not express themselves in the ideals set forth by our racist, misogynistic and patriarchal society to prevent that individual from exercising their bodily autonomy. It isolates and silences a person who chooses to express their identity and individuality in a way that is not sanctioned by these narrow standards.
By no means is Jenner the first celebrity to have their gender expression questioned and speculated. Michael Jackson, Prince, and Marilyn Manson amongst others all have been on the receiving end of these criticism. But I believe that the fact that Jenner in being a former Olympian gold medalist informs the intensity and volatility with which the public has chosen to undertake these conversations about Jenner’s possible transition. Furthermore, this derogatory tone is reflective of our culture’s cis/hetero-normative views around gender. Jenner in having been an athlete—and one of the world’s best at that—embodied the ideals of masculinity. With the privilege that being heterosexual, able-bodied, wealthy, white and male awarded them, they essentially sat at the top of our societal food chain. Abandoning this position of power seems like a transgression society is not yet ready to forgive them for.
I believe having an open respectful conversation around the lives of trans people is essential in creating a safer and more affirming environment for trans people. If we want to discuss the character of Maura from Amazon’s Transparent—a character that is reminiscent of countless trans people who transition later in life and the challenges that come with that—That is a conversation that we should have. If we want to discuss the support that these individuals and families need, that is a conversation that I believe needs to be had. However, Placing Jenner at the center of these issues when they have yet to come forward to confirm that they are in fact transitioning and identify as transgender is problematic because it reinforces the belief that people’s gender expressions and identities can and should be policed and while we speculate we deflect from the actual issues that trans people face.
For months now tabloids and media outlets have sensationalized Jenner’s alleged transition with headlines such as “I’ll Be a Woman Soon”. These headlines perpetuate the belief that your identity as a woman is inextricably linked to your ability to transition; in other words, that you are only a woman if you are able to medically transition. These headlines do not take into account an individual’s access, safety, ability or desire to medically transition and completely exclude individuals who do not identify with our gender binary system. Furthermore, headlines like “Bruce’s Secret Double Life” preserve the myth that trans people are deceiving others, that it is something shameful that should be hidden, or that trans-ness is a choice, an identity that people can put on and take off like makeup. But one of the worst covers is the photoshopped picture of Jenner’s face with makeup added on another woman’s body. These headlines are offensive for a host of reasons. But they are also symptomatic of a greater issue in our society and that is the pervasiveness of objectifying segments of our population.
Since the time of Sarah Baartman, to Christine Jorgensen, to the Maury Povich Show, we have treated the bodies of women, people of color and members of the LGBT community as cadavers open for public dissection. We have deemed it our responsibility to investigate who eats what, who is pregnant, who has an eating disorder, who’s sleeping with whom—how, when & where— pre or post op, etc. with little regard to those individuals or the harmful impact that that query speculation can have.
In sensationalizing trans people’s lives and engaging in speculatory insensitive conversations about an individual’s body, it not only objectifies them, but also makes us culpable in facilitating an environment that further dehumanizes segments of our populace. Let us not be mistaken, that that dehumanization is very dangerous. By objectifying certain individuals and divorcing them from their humanity we enable an atmosphere that is hostile towards those who are feminine, black, brown, disabled, etc. and it is then within that same context that we aid a world that lends itself to emotional, physical, administrative and sexual violence against these individuals.
Our media, for generations now, have fed the narrative that a transgender person’s trans-ness is something deserving to be laughed at, something that one should not take pride in under any circumstance. Trans-ness has been labeled inauthentic, inferior, not real and even monstrous. Trans-ness has been characterized as something that should be hidden from others, and therefore “passing” ought to be the only goal. Many within the trans community have internalized these messages and this form of public shaming. For the past several months our media and all who have engaged in the spectacle tone of the discourse surrounding Jenner’s life have fed that narrative.
The isolation that results from policing someone’s expression and the shame that it caused from internalizing these messages is real and has the potential to bring about deadly outcomes. So allow me to say something unequivocally: there is nothing wrong with being a person of trans experience. I have said on multiple occasions that there is beauty in being trans. There is beauty in the conviction of knowing who you are in the face of so much opposition.
The tone of the public discourse surrounding Jenner’s alleged transition is one that needs to shift. I openly welcome having a public dialogue about the inclusion of trans people into our mainstream society. If we are to shed light to the plight that trans people face on a daily basis we must have that conversation. But the discourse needs to be handled with the utmost respect and sensitivity. We need to be responsible for the impact that the tone and selection of our words has on other people. In other words; we must never forget that in the midst of these conversations we are talking about the lives of people, people who live day-in and day-out in the beauty of their trans-ness.