This Is Not Reporting, It's Transphobia — Journalists Should Do Better
In a week when Sochi Fever has taken over America, former Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner managed to all but upstage Russia. The Kardashian in-law and cereal box mainstay has allegedly undergone plastic surgery to shave his Adam's apple. (We will continue throughout this piece to refer to Jenner using male pronouns, as this is his preference as far as the media is currently aware.)
Now, if this were a world where we needed evidence to report on someone's surgery, we would leave it at that and wait for these things called "facts." But this is not how tabloids work, and Jenner's operation has led to increasing speculation that he is in the beginning stages of a gender transition. In the tabloid world, all you need is a few unnamed sources close to the family and BAM! — you have a sensationalized transgender headline.
What are these Deep Throats of serious reporting saying? An unnamed source told Australia's National Enquirer, "Before Bruce had his Adam's apple shaved down, he talked to the doctor at length about having his penis removed next." And gossip website TMZ claims to have spoken with more than one anonymous source, giving its sleazy speculation the air of integrity. It reports, "Multiple medical sources have told TMZ ... getting a Laryngeal Shave is almost always the first step in gender reassignment."
Of course, the people being interviewed could be literally anyone, even a member of the TMZ staff. Sometimes anonymity is a useful tool to make sources feel more comfortable when they know that talking won't cost them their job or reputation because whatever they say is protected. However, it also allows journalists to play with the facts.
Printing total garbage might not seem like much of a scandal for the tabloid media, but it matters when the topic isn't just a salacious headline. These are real peoples' stories, and printing misinformation is dangerous when the public is as uneducated about transgender lives as it is. Reports from TMZ about Jenner's tracheal shave have the veneer of legitimacy because they're peripherally related to some person who may or may not be involved in the medical industry. But, as Kat Callahan writes in a post for Jezebel, this is bullshit. "The truth about transition is that it varies for everyone," Callahan writes. "There is no first step for everyone (beyond maybe the recognition that one is trans) ... It's absolutely ridiculous that any of these 'sources' (or the writers of such pieces) could ever pretend to plot Jenner's transition (if such a thing even existed, and it probably doesn't) so easily by looking at these supposed road signs."
Image Credit: Cracked
These reports, rumors and wink-winks about his gender presentation didn't even start with Jenner's recent tracheal shave, however. As early as 2008, Cracked joked about Jenner's "androgynous" appearance, claiming that he looked like an "old lesbian." Although his Captain and Tennille look isn't the most flattering, the problem isn't any alleged resemblance to Billie Jean King. It's that there's something considered "weird" about it. A recent US Weekly piece reported on "Bruce Jenner's Weird Surgery," and in tabloid media, that word has become oddly synonymous with "transgender."
In an article for MTV, Jose Iniguez throws his hands up with the supposed conflation. "Shocking. Weird. Abnormal. Dysfunctional. Transgender. It's all the same, right?" Iniguez asks. "No, it is not. But with headlines and stories and coverage like such, what else are we to believe?" Iniguez reminds us that it's not the first time that the media has sent the message that trans bodies are suspect and open to scrutiny, and that they're a mystery for journalists to figure out. During one much-discussed segment, talk show host Katie Couric took it upon herself to get to the bottom of Carmen Carrera and Laverne Cox's private parts, asking them invasive questions about their surgeries.
Image Credit: Think Progress
Couric meant to give America a teachable moment on transgender lives, but, like Piers Morgan, she taught us the wrong lesson. Morgan invited transgender activist and icon Janet Mock on his show ostensibly to discuss her recent book. Instead, Morgan wanted to sensationalize her gender history, as a graphic at the bottom repeatedly reminded viewers that Mock was "born a man."
Daniel D'Addario discusses what this focus only on the narrative of transition gets wrong in Salon: "Trans people are not trans because they got injectables in their face or mildly altered physical characteristics associated with the presentation of biological sex. They're trans … because their gender identity doesn't necessarily match the body in which they were born. Being trans is not, as one tabloid site previously cited described it, a 'decision.' It's inherent." D'Addario believes that the tabloid media is making the same mistake with Jenner by suggesting that the former Olympian is "becoming a woman because of his appearance and not because of his identity in the world."
This treatment doesn't go unnoticed by transgender people. As Advocate columnist and transgender activist Parker Marie Molloy argued on Twitter, creating a culture of distrust and dehumanization surrounding the transgender community keeps its members in the closet. Transgender people are less likely to come out or speak up when they feel their identities and bodies aren't respected. "I honestly wonder how many trans people have intentionally hidden from doing things, accomplishing goals that might have put them in the spotlight for fear of being treated like a sideshow by the media," Molloy hypothesizes. "How many novels, inventions, works of art weren't created because of this kind of media violence."
Image Credit: CNN
Katie Couric and Piers Morgan are just two examples of how the media gets transgender stories wrong. For many transgender people, the violence that Molloy discusses can start to feel normal. As Lucian Clark writes in the Advocate, trans folks might even begin to believe in their mainstream representation. "This recurring depiction can be internalized," Clark argues. "We sometimes believe these images of ourselves that we see. The transphobia embodied by the media, especially the transmisogyny and how acceptable it is, is such a prevalent and repeated issue, only solidifying the correlation between being trans* and the negativity, the pain, and the suffering."
This is why Clark believes that it's time for the media to start focusing on new narratives when it comes to transgender lives, realizing that trans people are more than their pain and suffering, and that there's more to being transgender than your body. Transgender people are so much more diverse than the stories we've been telling, and if we ever hope to do Bruce Jenner justice, eventually the media needs to figure out how to get his right, whether he's actually transgender or not.