Tabloids Promote Harmful View of Transgender Identity

Kiley Petersen, Managing Editor

Recent headlines in gossip magazines like InTouch, People and Us Weekly proclaim the news that former Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner is transitioning to live openly as a woman. While I tend to regard tabloid news with as much respect and credibility as Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine movement, the story has created enough controversy for major news outlets like The New York Times to cover the story.

Jenner’s changes in appearance have been widely publicized. There are countless slideshows and photos depicting the more feminine aspects of their look: Jenner’s increasingly longer hair and painted nails along with signs of a shaved-down Adam’s apple have been used as evidence that they are in the process of transitioning. While Jenner has not released a statement about the allegations of their transition, the Associated Press spoke to their 88-year-old mother, Esther, who spoke in ambiguous terms concerning her support of her child. “[Our conversation] was brief, and I said I was proud of him and that I’ll always love him. I never thought I could be more proud of Bruce when he reached his goal in 1976, but I’m more proud of him now. It takes a lot of courage to do what he’s doing,” she said.

This uncertainty surrounding Jenner’s gender, combined with the sensationalized attention surrounding the Kardashian-Jenner family, has sparked an intense public curiosity to find out the truth. Americans are already accustomed to viewing every aspect of the Kardashian family’s lives on TV, so why shouldn’t we know these details about Jenner’s personal life as well?

The organization GLAAD spoke out against this sort of gossiping in a January statement. “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,” GLAAD stated.

The Jenner controversy comes right on the heels of news about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s oldest biological child, 8-year-old John Jolie-Pitt, sporting a suit at a premiere like their brothers and requesting to be referred to as John. Media and public responses have been mixed; some praise the Jolie-Pitts for their acceptance of their child’s wishes, while others claim Brad and Angelina are harming their child by allowing John to push the boundaries of gender expression.

Amber Rose, a hip-hop artist, actress, model and fashion designer, posted an Instagram photo of John Jolie-Pitt in a suit, which has now been deleted. The caption read, “How gorgeous is this John Jolie Pitt?! Born into the perfect family for him. #TransKid #LoveurKidsNoMatterWhat #Support.” Rose has received backlash from all sides, both for supporting the Jolie-Pitt family and for imposing a gender identity on John that they have not publicly expressed. It’s quite possible that John doesn’t even know their own gender identity yet. Regardless of gender identity as an adult, a child’s exploration of gender roles is healthy and normal, despite social expectations to the contrary.

In an article titled “Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie Support Their Oldest Kid Wearing Suits,” Advocate contributor Sunnivie Brydum writes, “Whether the young Jolie-Pitt will grow up to identify anywhere along a gender-nonconforming or LGBT spectrum is impossible to tell, but one thing is certain — having parents that embrace a child’s curiosity, independence and self-direction is sure to make that young person’s life easier as they go through the fundamentally human process of discovering who they truly are.”

While some might point to these high-profile cases as examples of celebrities coming out, furthering recognition and acceptance of trans people, it is important to remember that coming out as trans or nonbinary is up to that individual and only that individual. Outsiders can speculate on gender identity and sexual orientation, but ultimately every individual has the right to reveal their identity and their pronouns or to keep these facts private if they so wish. These tabloids participate in a crude form of outing that is sometimes inappropriately veiled as support for the trans community.

It is true that representation is important. Laverne Cox’s Time magazine cover in late May, the success of Transparent at the Golden Globes and Janet Mock’s book Redefining Realness all point to greater public approval of trans people in 2014. More famous faces would only aid in this acceptance.

But there is an obvious difference between someone publicly coming out as trans and others labeling gender-nonconforming behavior or appearance as automatic signs of a transgender identity. This completely erases the existence of nonbinary gender identities, as well as falsely equating someone’s fashion and beauty choices with their sexual or gender orientation.

Inevitably, the tabloids are going to continue printing harmful gossip about Jenner and Jolie-Pitt. There’s not a whole lot we can do to dismantle the culture that People and Us Weekly reinforce. As individuals, we can stick to gender-neutral or previously used pronouns until an individual announces differently. We can celebrate trans children like Jazz Jennings and trans people like Cox and Mock and still respect the nonconformity to gender norms that Jenner and Jolie-Pitt present.