Bruce Jenner’s gender is the papal white smoke of tabloid journalism. Every time he appears in public with manicured fingernails, long hair, or plucked eyebrows, the rumors that he is transgender begin to swirl anew.
But the tabloids that hound Jenner aren’t waiting for a big announcement so much as they are milking the possibility of his transition as long as possible. From Perez Hilton to People magazine, from the Daily Mail to TMZ, speculating that Jenner is going to transition any day now has become something of a cruel sport. And now InTouch Weekly has raised the stakes of this dangerous game by Photoshopping makeup onto a cover photo of Jenner above the headline “My Life as a Woman.”
The InTouch cover has been denounced as “mean” by Jenner’s ex-wife Kris, and it has already been widely condemned in the media. As for Jenner himself, he has always denied the rumors that he is transgender. When asked about his laryngeal shave—a procedure that some transgender women undergo as part of transition—he reportedly told TMZ, “I just never liked my trachea.” The speculation about his identity should never have started in the first place, but it certainly should have stopped there. At this point, continuing to pester Jenner about his gender isn’t just a matter of prurient interest, it’s socially irresponsible.
As GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis said, “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.”
If Jenner is transgender, he should be allowed to come out on his own timetable. Given the fact that he’s a regular presence on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, we’re in no danger of missing it, if it ever happens. Outing transgender people before they’re ready to come out can have deleterious consequences for their health, their careers, and their relationships—yes, even for celebrities. Leelah Alcorn’s suicide late last month was a painful reminder that too many transgender people are made to feel as if their lives are unlivable. Jenner may have a great deal more wealth, independence, and privilege than Leelah Alcorn, but coming out would still be no small feat for him. Winning a gold medal in an Olympic decathlon is hard, but dealing with transphobia is much harder.
For all we know, however, Jenner’s just a man who wants to look how he wants to look and there’s no shame in that. The fact that he can’t adopt a more feminine appearance without sparking speculation that he is transgender reveals a broader commitment to gender binarism that’s just as troublesome as the reactions to the possibility of his transition. It’s important to acknowledge that people can transition from one gender to another, yes, but it’s also necessary to keep in mind that men can have long hair, get manicures, and undergo cosmetic surgery without being gay, bisexual, or transgender. A decade ago, we might have labeled Jenner “metrosexual” for wearing nail polish, but these days “transsexual” makes for a much more sensational headline. Either way, instantly jumping to conclusions about Jenner’s sexuality or gender identity based on the length of his hair sends a toxic message to men and boys that they must adhere to rigid masculine gender norms or face the consequences.
But the fact that this speculation has gone on for so long raises another important question: Does anyone who doesn’t have the psychological profile of an Internet commenter really care whether Jenner is transgender? It’s 2015. The writing is already on the wall for people who think that transgender people are abnormal or that transitioning—even late in life—is controversial. The American Psychological Association (APA) recognizes the legitimacy of transgender identity, medical studies have proved that hormone treatment is safe, and the U.S. Justice Department now considers gender identity to be protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. There’s still a long way to go both legally and culturally before transgender people are regarded as equals, but we’re fast approaching the point beyond which a public figure’s transition will be about as scandalous as a wedding announcement.
In some fields, this is already the case. Supermodel Andreja Pejic came out as transgender last July and, although some outlets still struggled with their headlines and reporting style, the fashion world didn’t explode and her career has continued without incident. Lana Wachowski, co-director of The Matrix, came out as transgender in 2012 and no one really seemed to notice, much less care. In 10 years, transitioning in the public eye will be a non-issue. But for now, Jenner still lives his life inside the paparazzi-filled panopticon of reality television, where transphobic sensationalism still has some legs left.
Maybe this inordinate focus on Jenner’s gender, then, is one last hurrah for entertainment tabloids that can sense that open season on transgender people is about to come to a close. After all, it’s only been a few days since Amazon’s original series Transparent took home two Golden Globes for its portrayal of a transgender woman named Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) who comes out of the closet at around Jenner’s age. The show has been widely praised for its sensitive and humanizing portrayal of a late-life gender transition. If Jenner does come out as transgender, why would that be any more controversial and any less heartwarming than Maura’s transition? Now that a show like Transparent is starting the process of humanizing transgender seniors, tabloids and entertainment journalists only have so long left to mock the possibility of an aged transgender woman before that window closes.
And if there’s any doubt that Jenner’s age is the reason he is enduring such ridicule for adopting a more feminine appearance, the only resource we need to consult is InTouch’s own article about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s decision to support their child’s decision to go by the name John rather than the child’s given name. The article begins: “Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt definitely go down as two of the coolest parents in our book!” It even includes an editor’s note explaining their choice to use gender-neutral pronouns for John “out of respect to gender identity.” Respecting Jenner’s privacy, it seems, is InTouch’s bridge too far.