Why We Shouldn't Rush Bruce Jenner into Telling His Story

Bruce Jenner has apparently come out as a trans woman -- or has he? I use male pronouns because in every clip released about the former athlete’s forthcoming docuseries on E!, I can’t find one source that refers to Jenner using female pronouns. Including Jenner himself. 

The language being used to describe the upcoming TV series, which will air in May or June, is varied and vague. According to TMZ, Jenner’s show will take a “very personal look from Bruce’s vantage point of the process of changing” and examine his “journey.” San Jose Mercury News makes the boldest statement with the headline, “Bruce Jenner is becoming a woman, will document process with reality TV show.” 

Whether Jenner is transitioning or not, his decision to come out -- or to discuss his well-documented changes in appearance -- doesn’t alter the fact that the speculation by InTouch Weekly and others has been totally out-of-bounds. (Catch up with ATTN’s coverage of InTouch’s cringe-worthy cover story earlier this month here.) Even if personal rumor later becomes journalistic fact, it doesn’t make it less inappropriate or more defensible. And it absolutely doesn’t make it good reporting.    

Going to a Kardashian for wisdom surprises me, but reality star Kim Kardashian’s recent appearance on Entertainment Tonight displays the kind of sensible prudence that media should listen to in regard to forcible public outing. In her televised Jan. 27 interview, Kim responds to questions about her step-father by letting Jenner speak for himself: “I will say that I think Bruce should tell his story his way [...] I think that story and what Bruce is going through, I think he’ll share whenever the time is right.” 

She continues, “I just think it’s his story to talk about, not really mine.” 


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Kim points to what so many miss -- that coming out, whether as gay or as trans, always must be on an individual’s own terms even if they are in the public eye. 

Beside being a grievous violation of privacy, outing someone without permission can also be dangerous. Only last year, golf club creator Essay Anne Vanderbilt committed suicide after a story published on ESPN’s Grantland outed her against her permission as a transwoman. And in the first four weeks of 2015, at least three transwomen of color have already been murdered

As the GLAAD’s Rich Ferraro noted to The Washington Post in response to Vanderbilt's suicide: “We live in a culture that marginalizes transgender people, subjecting them to poverty, discrimination and violence - and outing them places them in actual physical danger. A person should be allowed to make his or her own decision about facing the consequences of being an out transgender person.” 

Outing someone as transgender also presents distinct complexities, even when compared to outing an individual based on their sexual orientation. This comes back to the oft misunderstood difference between sexuality and gender identity. Revealing a person’s sexual orientation without their permission is highly problematic -- despite those that would argue that outing homophobic public figures is defensible -- but it does not possess the same ‘gotcha’ narrative that is present in trans outing. 

Whereas sexual orientation (leaving queer identity aside) represents a behavioral truth, revealing someone’s gender transition often overtly or covertly employs the idea that they’ve been ‘masquerading’ as something they are not. In other words, that my transgender status or identity represents a truth about me that I was hiding -- that I’m not actually the man I say I am because of my sex assigned-at-birth. 

This narrative plays out in the courtroom to justify the murder of transgender people, too. Called ‘transgender panic defense,’ it suggests that a lesser charge of manslaughter is warranted because the perpetrator’s shock to learn that their victim was transgender caused them to violently lash out. (The victim is often described as “duping” or “fooling” the assailant, as in Angie Zapata’s 2008 murder.)  

Although it’s particularly easy to speculate about celebrities, this really comes down to consent and respect. (Sadly, we seem to have deep problems with both concepts in this country, if the need for legal clarification that “yes means yes” is necessary to help curb an epidemic of sexual assaults.) 

I am who I say I am -- and I give you the same courtesy. 

So let’s all try to be a little more like Kim Kardashian and let her step-father tell his own story in his own time. Which will apparently be sometime this summer, if TMZ’s sources are accurate.