In recent months news media has been obsessed with speculation about the possibility that Bruce Jenner might be trans. From tabloids like TMZ to entertainment magazines and respected publications like The New York Times, there has been a stream of reports about the possibility, though Jenner has not spoken publicly on the issue and it’s considered harmful in the LGBT community to “out” someone without explicit consent.
At the same time, eight trans women have been murdered in the US so far this year. Yet they have received very little coverage, which is particularly troubling compared to the seemingly endless reporting of unconfirmed gossip about Jenner. The Advocate and some other LGBT-focused news organizations like Windy City Media Group are the rare exceptions, and there have been local news reports on the individual murders, but they’ve drawn nothing like the coverage of Jenner at every level of media.
People seem to treat reporting on Jenner as absolving themselves of the violence and oppression directed at low-income trans women and women of color, Emma Caterine, a writer and anti-criminalization advocate, pointed out to me—by covering Jenner, and prominent trans women like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, the argument goes, the trans population gains visibility. But there are very serious issues facing trans women that require coverage beyond reporting on rumors about a celebrity.
“It’ll take more than a year of a few trans women in media to transform decades of structural oppression and violence, decades of misinformation, decades of exiling,” Mock explained in a blog post. Further, much high-profile visibility—as we are seeing in the case of reports about Jenner—is just the perpetuation of stereotypes. These negative stereotypes contribute to a climate in which trans women are dehumanized and targeted with violence. Further, high-profile visibility, even when it is positive, can often lead to an immediate backlash targeted at the most vulnerable members of a population.
There already seems to be a backlash against this visibility in the press. The New Republic published an article blaming trans women, who are struggling to be included in women’s colleges, for the inclusion of trans men in these institutions, where these men have been allowed for years. The New Statesman pseudonymously published an article complaining about people being labeled Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists for disagreeing with “extreme views” like “trans women are women,” and arguing that blocking someone on Twitter is “censorship.” But the time has long passed to stop treating trans women’s right to exist as a matter that is up for debate, particularly in a climate when trans women of color are facing such harsh oppression and violence.
While rumors about Bruce Jenner have reached a fever pitch recently, they began in tabloids and entertainment magazines a few years ago. With family members now starting to comment on and off the record, these rumors have made their way into major news publications. This speculation has created an odd situation where press is writing about Jenner transitioning and being a woman as if it is news while continuing to use male pronouns, because we do not know for certain what Jenner’s status is minus a first-person update.
Trans women in the media, and a few writers who are not trans women, have commented on the problems with this coverage. Noah Michelson, executive editor of HuffPost Gay Voices, wrote a one, run-on sentence article about the problematic coverage, concluding that it “paints being trans and coming out as trans as something that’s rooted in and deserving of rumors and secrecy and shame and that isn’t good or helpful or healthy for any of us.”
In an editorial on her MSNBC show SoPOPular, Janet Mock critiqued a “shockingly insensitive, sensational, and inaccurate In Touch Weekly magazine cover featuring a heavily photoshopped Bruce Jenner, who is illustrated to look as if he’s wearing makeup. Jenner’s head is even digitally placed on a woman’s body, specifically Dynasty star Stephanie Beacham’s body.” Mock argued, “The Jenner gender speculation is a modern-day freak show. It spreads the misconception that being trans is laughable. By publishing this cover, In Touch Weekly tells its 400,000 readers that it is acceptable to assume someone’s gender, scrutinize their body, and publicly shame them in the process.”
When I interviewed Mixed Martial Arts fighter and out trans woman Fallon Fox for The Guardian, she told me, “for journalists it’s gone far more than speculation. They snicker, pointing out certain aspects of Bruce’s jaw, face, or whatever in order for people to gawk at and laugh at.”
News media is complicit in the ways these tropes are deployed, often writing about murder victims in salacious ways, dehumanizing victims and perpetuating the attitude that these women “had it coming.” Lourdes Hunter, executive director of Trans Women of Color Collective, addressed some of the tropes used to victim blame trans woman murder victims, including the argument that they “deceive” people they sleep with and therefore deserve to be murdered, in a recent segment on NewsOne Now.
These are not theoretical problems. Lamia Beard, Taja DeJesus, Penny Proud, Ty Underwood, Yazmin Vash Payne, Bri Golec, and Kristina Grant Infiniti were all killed before 2015 was two months old. (There have been conflicting reports about whether Goddess Edwards was a trans woman or a gay man, but it seems, given Edwards’ gender presentation, that the murder still may have been motivated by racist transmisogyny. Monica Roberts, who has done unparalleled work for years raising issues impacting trans women of color, has explained why information about possible trans woman murder victims is often unclear.) Editors, publishers, producers, and writers seem to have a great interest in stories about Jenner and relatively little interest in reporting on all this anti-trans violence.
Numerous trans women in my circles have been asked to comment on Bruce Jenner’s story. The same has not been true of these murders. Teagan Widmer told me she was interviewed for a San Jose Mercury News article about Jenner because she had been quoted in an article in Time. Widmer was asked if she thought things were getting better for trans women because of celebrities coming out. She questioned framing Jenner as a potential trans icon and spent a half hour discussing the murders of trans women of color. The author used one quote about how reading comments on articles about Jenner can be difficult. “It seemed like the reporter already had the story she wanted to write,” Widmer said.
Because many do not want to comment on this speculation, and any trans woman the press can find is being treated as an expert, misinformation from individuals who lack relevant expertise or media preparedness has inevitably made it into the press. Zoey Tur, a broadcast reporter who studied physics, has been acting as an expert for TMZ. She told the gossip publication that Jenner’s sexuality could change upon transition. Dr. Carol Queen, Good Vibrations’ staff sexologist, co-founder of the Center for Sex & Culture, and author of the forthcoming The Sex & Pleasure Book, who holds a PhD in human sexuality, told me Tur is referencing a 300-person study that Tur herself admits may be skewed because it is based on self-reported data. Dr. Queen says there is no scientific consensus on these issues. This sort of misinformation poses a serious problem for an oft misunderstood and dehumanized population.
Trans celebrities are far from the whole story. There are many more trans women facing marginalization than succeeding in Hollywood. Their experiences of oppression, and the extreme violence targeted at trans women of color, is real news that requires real reporting, while the stories about Jenner are not much more than voyeuristic entertainment. Yet the latter is a focus of the media, while the former is going comparatively unreported.
News media has a responsibility to report and inform about important stories. Instead of spreading negative stereotypes, we could do real reporting that humanizes trans women and brings attention to the issues they face. We should do our job.