After Bruce Jenner’s tragic car accident this weekend, stories on celebrity websites quickly devolved from discussions of the tragedy to the fact that Jenner may have been taking “heavy doses of hormones” when he got in the accident. The former Olympic gold medalist has not confirmed that he ingests a dose of female hormones on a daily basis. But one thing is for sure: we can’t stop talking about Jenner’s rumored transition to womanhood. And contrary to what some trans and LGBT activists have said, that’s not a bad thing.
Because Jenner has been silent on whether or not he is transitioning, LGBT groups, such as the Institute for Transgender Economic Advancement and GLAAD, say the media should stop speculating on Jenner’s sexuality and allow Jenner to come out on his own time. Yet for all intents and purposes Jenner has come out. As a seasoned celebrity who has lived the past seven years of his life on TV, Jenner would have to have been acutely aware that if he walked around LA displaying painted nails and a visible sports bra, the paparazzi would take pictures, which would lead to national speculation about his gender. In a perfect world that lacked repressive gender norms such displays would not warrant rampant speculation about gender transitions. But we don’t live in this world, and Bruce Jenner knows it. It’s even plausible that Jenner is trying drum up interest in his upcoming reality show.
So why are so many LGBT organizations urging the media to stop the speculation about Jenner’s gender transition? Most likely it’s because outing a private citizen as trans is a terrible thing to do and could potentially lead to a loss of a job, homelessness, and even death. If Jenner were a private citizen, I would be appalled by all the coverage. But Jenner most definitely is not. And outing a celebrity as trans is a different matter, especially this particular celebrity.
Although Jenner initially became famous from his 1976 Olympic achievements, the reason we are still talking about him 39 years later is because he launched a second (or third?) career as a reality TV star. Choosing to air your dirty laundry on cable TV has notable downsides like being chased by the paparazzi. But it also has considerable upsides: he has made a shit-ton of money. What’s most important to remember is that living his life in the public was a conscious choice that he made.
The various LGBT organizations opposed to a public discussion of Jenner are well-intentioned, but attempting to stop a media discussion about Jenner’s gender transition sends the message that it’s not OK to talk publicly about gender transitions unless given explicit permission to do so, which leads to fewer discussions about trans at a time when we should be having more conversations. Shutting off a discussion of Jenner’s transformation shrouds it in an air of mystery and otherness that can too easily be misconstrued as shame. The only way to reduce the stigma associated with trans is by speaking more about celebrity gender transitions, not attempting to silence speech about them.
If the general public is led to believe that we cannot discuss a gender transition of a celebrity who has lived his life in the public, then what is the message that is being sent? Why not use this public transition to educate society on the various steps of the lengthy transitioning process? What are we supposed to tell our loved ones who may be going through the same thing? Are we supposed to pretend that they have not grown breasts?