Why in Touch's Cover Story on Bruce Jenner Should Make You Cringe

January 17th 2015

Aron Macarow

On the bus, in a job interview, at the checkout line in a grocery store -- it sounds like a poorly-written excerpt from Dr. Seuss. What I’m actually referencing, however, is locations at which I’ve been asked invasive, transition-related questions about my own body or my gender identity. These questions usually take the form of well-meaning "curiosity," complete strangers just trying to "get to know the community better" by asking me about my genitals (“have you had the surgery yet?”), my sex life (“but how does it work?”), or my life before I transitioned (“what’s your real name?”).

Seemingly well-intentioned, these questions do come from a place of genuine interest. But that doesn’t make them okay. And the same is true for the horrific InTouch Weekly cover story about former Olympian Bruce Jenner’s alleged gender transition.

What connects them is the culture of disrespect and transphobia they reinforce, each putting transgender and gender non-conforming bodies constantly up for critique, ridicule, speculation, and discussion by those who don’t own or inhabit those bodies. The short InTouch piece, released Wednesday, satisfies the prurient interests of strangers who want to know why an individual is perceived to be gender ambiguous, both through dress and reported surgeries. Its authors present an unnamed source who alleges that Jenner “will come clean in 2015 about transitioning” and will “come out as a transwoman on the cover of The Advocate.” The coup de grâce is a Photoshopped image of the former Olympian on the front cover -- with all the accouterments of stereotyped femininity including red lipstick and matronly neck scarf -- over the title, “Bruce’s Story: My Life As a Woman.” 

The article purports that this is “what Bruce wants to look like when his transformation is complete.”

Bruce Jenner CoverWhy we should care about this InTouch cover story

Sadly, the account certainly isn’t the first of its kind. It comes as the most recent in a long line of stories by that publication and others speculating about Jenner’s gender identity. And as my editors pointed out, it’s not like InTouch is the New York Times in terms of credibility; it’s a tabloid. So why should we care?

Coming on the heels of Transparent’s success at the Golden Globes last Sunday, the transgender community has gained an incredible amount of visibility and made some strong legal strides in the last two years. From the micro to the macro -- gender neutral restrooms in West Hollywood, Calif., to inclusion in the Affordable Care Act nationwide -- American transpeople are beginning to have our moment in the sun.

Jill Soloway meme

Unfortunately, InTouch’s most recent attack on Jenner shows that we still have a lot of work to do in the media to improve our gender politics and to be good trans allies. It matters that a high-profile publication, whether a respected newspaper or a nationally syndicated tabloid, assumes that it’s justifiable to speculate publicly about a person’s gender identity and potentially to out someone publicly without permission. (Jenner has repeatedly denied being transgender or undergoing gender transition.)  

Assumptions like those made by InTouch create a harmful and sometimes dangerous climate for transpeople in a world that’s not exactly friendly (look at the recent suicide of Ohio teen Leelah Alcorn) and set the tone for their readership that it’s acceptable to scrutinize the bodies of those that break gender stereotypes (like Jenner) and others in the larger trans community.

Tambor meme

It’s not just gossip magazines that are guilty of fetishizing trans bodies and trans identities either. Katie Couric invited Orange Is The New Black star Laverne Cox and model Carmen Carrera on her syndicated talk show, Katie, as guests in Jan. 2014 to discuss their success and important issues affecting the transgender community. The interview rapidly devolved, becoming an opportunity for Couric to ask probing questions about Cox and Carrera’s transition surgeries with particular focus on their genitals; Couric excused the line of questioning as “education” for those who “may not be familiar” with gender transition.

OITNB’s Cox responded beautifully, saying that there was a “preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies transpeople. And then we don’t get to really deal with the real lived experiences. The reality of transpeople’s lives is that so often we are targets of violence. [...] If we focus on transition, we don’t actually get to talk about those things.” (She later returned to the Katie show in June 2014 to discuss the incident with Couric and do some more educating.)

Transgender advocate Janet Mock has experienced similar lines of questioning by media professionals, such as CNN’s Piers Morgan, as have many other transgender people.

Maybe I have a stronger reaction to the Photoshopping performed by InTouch on Jenner because I have been a victim of unannounced gender-biased Photoshopping myself as a teenager. (The painted on red lipstick, in particularly, inflames me.) What should have been a crowning moment of my young athletic career, a feature in a column in Women’s Sports Illustrated, was made less so by the surprise efforts of the magazine to "help" my headshot conform to gender stereotypes; they added makeup, including eye-shadow and lipstick, which I never would have worn myself even before my eventual transition. Is society’s desire for bodies to comply to gender stereotypes so strong that a teen’s photo needs to not only be retouched but feminized without permission by magazine staff?

GLAAD’s President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said of InTouch’s most recent foray into Jenner’s private life: “This nonsense has to end. Speculating about a person’s gender identity only inflames the invasive and gross scrutiny that transgender people face every day at school, at work, or even when just walking down the street. It’s long past time that media outlets stop gossiping about Bruce Jenner’s gender.”

I couldn’t agree more, Sarah.