Gossiping About a Person’s Gender Identity Is a Dangerous Game

Bruce Jenner with ex-wife Kris Jenner.

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Last week, Transparent creator Jill Soloway upset a number of transgender individuals when she posted a photo meme to her Facebook page. The meme—which Soloway has since apologized for sharing—featured Bruce Jenner and the Kardashians inserted into one of the promo images for Soloway’s Golden Globe-winning series. Reaction to the image was immediate, but somewhat divided. For every person suggesting that the image was in poor taste, there was a comment declaring the image innocuous. After all, Bruce Jenner is trans, right? And doesn’t his Kardashian-adjacent status make him fair game for ridicule?

No and no.

While tabloids have been spreading rumors about his gender identity in recent months, Bruce Jenner hasn’t actually come out as trans. Still, the speculation has been feverish: Last year, the Daily Mail reported that Jenner had undergone a trachea shave, writing, “The operation reduces the size of the cartilage in the neck and is typically performed on patients in the initial states of gender reassignment surgery.” (That news might come as a shock to myself and the many other transgender women who have and will not undergo that particular procedure.) More recently, People magazine is citing unnamed sources claiming that Jenner plans to come out in an upcoming E! series. While that may happen, it’s irresponsible to speculate on the matter further until Jenner speaks for himself.

I say this because coming out as trans is such an intensely personal, painful, and challenging life event, and when you whisper about someone’s gender identity, you’re turning their life—right down to the core of their existence—into a joke, into gossip. The ramifications of feeding the rumor mill extend far beyond Jenner and the Kardashians and reality show raitings. Gossiping about someone’s gender identity sends a message to the thousands—or even millions—of people trying to come to terms with their self-conception: You are a freak; you are inherently scandalous.

This concept was luridly illustrated in a Jan. 14 article in InTouch Weekly, titled, “Bruce Jenner Sex Change Rumors, the Sony Hacks and 8 More Unforgettable Celebrity Scandals of 2014.” Alongside Jenner’s existence, InTouch names former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist tirade; the photo hacks that led to nude pictures of Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, and others being made public; Bill Cosby rape allegations; and actor Stephen Collins’ confession to child molestation as being the top “scandals of 2014.” While Jenner’s gender is simply a part of who he is, the other items in this list detail racism, theft, and sexual assault. Apparently, being trans is as scandalous as these acts of prejudice and crime.

When we feed into these rumors—even if they turn out to be correct—we’re not showing respect. When we dig through that especially personal part of someone’s life and make it public without their consent, any good we believe we’re doing is nullified by the violation. This is where Soloway went astray. Thankfully, she’s acknowledged her mistake, writing, “Bruce Jenner has not said he is transitioning; his identity is his to share and no one else’s to determine. … I made a mistake; it was horrible judgment. My complacency is checked and it won’t happen again. Please accept my apology.”

While I’ve seen some trans people say they can’t and won’t trust Soloway or that they’ll boycott Transparent, I don’t fall into that camp. She offered what I see to be as a very genuine apology in which she demonstrates an understanding for what went wrong—noting that such gossip robs the subject of all agency. Whether we’re talking about Jenner or a 14-year-old kid from Iowa, we need to foster a more caring, understanding culture that doesn’t treat someone’s being trans as a “scandal.”

The trouble is, the line between commenting respectfully on cultural news (of which Jenner is a part) and participating in the gossip is a thin one. 

“It’s tough to talk about Bruce Jenner right now, because he has not made any public comments on his changing appearance, so the noblest thing to do would be to ignore it,” Ruth Graham wrote in Slate’s own Brow Beat blog last week. “On the other hand, the former Olympian and his sprawling family have made careers out of turning gossip into gold, and speculation is the lifeblood of that industry. And real evidence is mounting that 65-year-old Jenner has, at the very least, a complicated relationship with gender: He has been photographed in public with glossy red fingernails, diamond earrings, and with long feminine hair, and about a year ago he underwent surgery to pare down his Adam’s apple.”

Graham was so close. “The noblest thing to do would be to ignore it” is right. And to suggest that anyone assigned male at birth who has “glossy red fingernails, diamond earrings, and long feminine hair” is having a “complicated relationship with gender” is patriarchal, and reinforces gendered stereotypes related to what women should look like and what men should look like. Someone can have long hair, wear makeup, and have perfectly manicured nails, and still be a man; much like someone can have short hair, ditch makeup altogether, and wear more traditionally masculine clothing and still be a woman. Being trans isn’t about adhering to gendered stereotypes—for example, I have extremely short hair, don’t ever wear much makeup, and go with jeans, a T-shirt, and sneakers most days; I’m still a woman.

And then on Saturday, Slate’s Daniel Politi wrote, “Well it seems it’s all but official now. People magazine is confirming what many have been reporting for a while: Former Olympian Bruce Jenner is transgender.” There is only one person who can confirm such a thing, and that’s Bruce Jenner.

Politi adds, “The source is still referring to Jenner as ‘he,’ so it seems the transition is not fully complete.” One question that frustrates me personally more than any other is that of, “Have you finished your transition?” or “Where are you in your transition?” For me—and for many—there is not a start and a finish to “transition.” My gender has nothing to do with how much money I’ve invested in surgery, how many months of hormones I’ve taken, or what I look like. My gender is, and always has been, my own. I am “she,” and you don’t need to know what operations I’ve had done in order to call me that.

Jill Soloway is an example of someone who made a mistake, learned from it, and moved on. Now if only the rest of the media would distance itself from the gossiping and follow suit the world would be a friendlier, much more welcoming place for trans individuals.