By Erin Rook
Standing in line at the grocery store, Bruce Jenner’s face greets me from multiple magazines. The headlines speak with such authority, but the pronouns pop out like prom night blemishes. And yet, they manage to avoid using many of the words pertinent to the story. Jenner is “finally happy.” Kris is “in complete denial.” Neither has made direct comments. A think-piece in the New Yorker ponders the ways in which Jenner—who has not publicly affirmed a transgender identity—”has come to embody our collective anxiety about masculinity—not to mention our curiosity, fear, and looming questions about transgender identification,” and calls Jenner “our first transgender poster woman.”
When I worked in LGBTQ media, I asked for sources’ identities and/or pronouns as part my routine questions (spelling of name, age, occupation, etc.). As journalists, we are tasked with gathering information, distilling concepts, and reporting observations. I can’t just trust that my assumptions are correct. And yet, despite rampant suspicion that Jenner identifies as female, most media outlets continue to use male pronouns.
The fact Jenner has not yet made public comment related to their gender identity or the swirling speculation about a possible pending transition says to me that Jenner is exercising some control over their story—whatever that may be. The media, however, is not respecting that. Now, to be fair, there are times when violating the privacy or the trust of a subject or source is justified. But they are, for the average journalist, few and far between. But mainstream journalists—that is, those not working for a gossip mill like TMZ or an LGBTQ publication like The Advocate—have no reason for you to be writing about Jenner at all, let alone speculating about Jenner’s personal life and identity .
Why? Because there aren’t enough facts to write a story, and there isn’t any community service to be accomplished by sharing second-hand statements and the “expert” testimony of unnamed sources. Sadly, that doesn’t stop otherwise reputable news sources from hopping on the bandwagon, hoping to get their share of the clicks driven by sensationalism.
Journalists need to check themselves. We’re supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, but we’re getting it twisted. If this were a story more close to home, if we were liable to run into Jenner or the Kardashians in the grocery store, would we be writing these pieces? What is to be gained?
It sometimes feels like publications are permitting themselves to be peeping Toms, justifying their actions with the misguided belief that they are contributing to some kind of positive and progressive visibility for transgender people. News flash—you’re not. Depending on the angle, you’re spreading petty gossip or posting self-congratulatory columns where you pat yourself on the back while admiring Jenner’s “courage.”
Like many of my fellow journalists, I do not typically cover reality television actors or retired Olympic athletes. It’s just not relevant to my readers. And while I have frequently written about transgender issues—while working in LGBTQ media and now, as an occasional freelancer for such publications—I don’t write speculative pieces. As a result, I haven’t covered the chatter around the suspicion that a public figure of sorts might have a different gender identity than what we’d assumed for all those years.
This isn’t news.
Now, if Jenner were to come out publically declaring a transgender identity and offering to be a spokesperson on these issues—that would be news. Probably not for months on end, but for a moment. When a celebrity transitions in the public eye, it feels simultaneously novel and trendy, and therefore buzzworthy. And because there’s so little visibility of transgender people in the media, it feels like it must be some kind of win. But all visibility is not created equal.
In the meantime, if publications are looking to feature transgender stories, they would be better off looking to the people in their own communities who are out and actively creating change—the real poster women for trans experiences, like Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Laura Jane Grace, and Lana Wachowski. Or, they could be drawing attention to the disturbing rate at which transgender people—specifically, transgender women of color—are being assaulted and killed in this country. So far this year, at least seven transgender women in the United States have been murdered—about one per week. That story, however, is depressing and uncomfortable and it doesn’t sell ads.
This story—this fiction we are collaboratively crafting out of circumstantial evidence—is addictive for a reason. Because the postponement of resolution creates intrigue. Because the popular curiosity about transgender lives is voyueristic and adolescent. Because we see reality TV stars as characters, more than real people. Because a part of us is hoping for a Cinderella story.
But it’s not our story to tell. Just because we can write something, doesn’t mean we should. Transgender people’s lives are not novelties. They are not a box to be checked on your journalistic bucket list. So check your motives, remember your standards, and get back to comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable—not the reverse.