How To Talk About Bruce Jenner

CREDIT: YouTube/ABC News

A scene from Diane Sawyer's interview with Bruce Jenner.

On Friday night, ABC News will air a two-hour interview with Olympic gold medal winner Bruce Jenner. The 65-year-old is perhaps now best known for familial connections to the Kardashians — and thus regular reality television show appearances and a constant paparazzi spotlight. Though promotions for the interview have been vague, all signs seem to indicate that Jenner will finally address rumors of a gender transition.

Up to this point in time, ThinkProgress has not reported on the rumors that Jenner might be transgender, even carefully avoiding intersections with other stories. That’s because, even as tabloid speculation based on Jenner’s appearances crossed over to mainstream reporting based on reported accounts from family members, one important detail was missing from the story: Jenner’s own account. Despite the various exchanges across outlets about how to discuss the rumors — including good-intentioned but somewhat ironic commitments not to comment on them — crucial information necessary for respecting transgender identities was not available.

GLAAD’s media guide offers a detailed but simple framework for discussing transgender identities. Among the most important recommendations is to “always use a transgender person’s chosen name.” Jenner has been known as “Bruce” for 65 years, but even though that’s how the ABC interview is being billed — and TMZ seems to know that there will be no new name reveal — that doesn’t mean there isn’t a new preferred name that just won’t yet be public.

Another important guideline GLAAD offers is to “whenever possible, ask transgender people which pronoun they like you to use.” As with a preferred name, this is not information available regarding Jenner. In such cases, GLAAD recommends using “the pronoun that is consistent with the person’s appearance and gender expression,” and the AP Stylebook similarly instructs that reporters “use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.” Rumors about Jenner’s transition were based on apparent changes in appearance documented in paparazzi photos: a laryngeal shave to smooth the Adam’s apple, bright red nail polish, hairless legs, poutier lips, longer hair, etc. Are these sufficient to draw conclusions about a gender identity — to impose female pronouns without confirmation that Jenner prefers them?

Arguably, no. And likewise, it’s equally difficult to discount the possibility that a transition is under way or that a change of identity has already taken place. Readers may have already noticed that this very post intentionally avoids using any pronouns to describe Jenner, a practice also recommended this week by NLGJA, The Association of LGBT Journalists. Just because a person enjoys — or suffers, depending on the day — a media spotlight doesn’t mean that individual sacrifices self-determination along with privacy, and until Jenner specifies preferences, it’s problematic to assume and assign labels. This Diane Sawyer interview will seemingly be the first time that Jenner publicly shares any of that relevant information, providing the first true opportunity to discuss this personal journey authentically.

Jenner is not the first to experience such media scrutiny about very personal life details. Jane Kirtley, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, pointed out to ThinkProgress a parallel story that played out two decades ago about another renowned athlete, his personal secret, and the way the media squeezed it out of him against his will.

Arthur Ashe had retired from professional tennis a United States Open and Wimbledon champion, but had continued to engage in philanthropic activities. A sports reporter at USA Today observed that Ashe appeared to be ill — his physical condition obviously deteriorating. He called Ashe to say that the paper would report that he was suffering from AIDS unless he either affirmatively denied it or went public himself. Ashe unenthusiastically elected for the latter option, disclosing at a press conference that he had contracted HIV through a blood transfusion and had known of his condition for at least three years. It was 1992, the height of the AIDS epidemic, and USA TODAY took the position that Ashe’s condition was a matter of great public concern.

For Kirtley, Ashe is an apt analogy. “It is very problematic from an ethical perspective to speculate on someone’s health based on observation and rumor, in my opinion,” she told ThinkProgress, “yet journalists do it.” Celebrity privacy is “a difficult line to draw, and impossible to generalize,” and public revelations only become a legal concern when the intimate information disclosed “would be highly offensive to a reasonable person,” a purely subjective standard. Reporters counter that such reporting is newsworthy, that the information “should be a matter of public concern or public interest — but not just ‘interesting to the public,'” Kirtley explained.

Ed Wasserman, Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley, agreed that there are lessons to be learned from Ashe’s story. USA Today, he explained to ThinkProgress, “ran roughshod over the defensible notion that he should be able to control details over his health. They bullied him into going public with this. It wasn’t a great moment. It was one of the instances of the media finding ethical justification for doing exactly what they want to do.”

Wasserman highlighted another more recent example — one that also intersected with the world of sports — that raised similar questions about what details about a person’s life should be included when reporting a story about them. Grantland’s story last year about “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” revealed that reporter Caleb Hannan had outed the inventor of a revolutionary new golf club as transgender to one of her investors. The threat of publishing this information more widely — information that confirmed that she did not have the academic credentials she claimed to have — seemed to spark a chain of events that led to her suicide.

On one hand, Wasserman acknowledged, “You only disclose this if the person involved asks for it. What her identity was previously was nobody’s business.” On the other hand, he reasoned, “It seems odd to walk around this important transition as if it has no relevance at all to who this person is. Your central identity isn’t just a personal fact; it’s a totally defining part of how you relate to your external and social reality.” But therein lies the dilemma, and the great dividing line between gender and gender identity. Transgender people experience discrimination, rejection, and violence at every turn. Campaigns to deny them equality portray them as predators of women and children who threaten public safety. If Jenner identifies as a woman, the experience of womanhood would indeed be a core aspect of that social persona, but acknowledging a transgender identity invites the reaction of a society that is still by and large unfriendly — if not hostile — to transgender people.

Wasserman leans on the side of caution. He described the kinds of inferences that have been made based on Jenner’s appearance and gender presentation as having “a salacious, peeping-tom quality,” and chastised outlets that repeat the same rumors. “There’s tremendous pressure on news organizations to ratify gossip,” he said, calling on journalists to uphold a higher standard. “We’re not just vehicles for conversation; we’re vehicles for publication. We have evidentiary standards that we’re very proud of.” In fact, Wasserman doesn’t even think it’s enough to question the rumors, adding, “Repeating what everybody’s saying and expressing skepticism isn’t enough. You’re still propagating things that are untrue.”

Some have accused Jenner of delaying addressing the rumors to maximize the publicity gained from coming out. A docuseries had reportedly begun chronicling Jenner’s transition, though if the project exists, it may be on hold. The delay could just as well be an attempt to control the pace of the story for personal reasons. Kirtley points out that when “celebrities grant very broad-ranging interviews and exploit their personal lives to advance their careers,” it’s then hard to “turn off” that access, and she believes that it may even be hypocritical to try.

Transgender equality advocates haven’t agreed about the value of speculation about Jenner’s transition, but most agree that the visibility could be good for the transgender community. While a plan to delay or drag out a full disclosure to maximize personal gain may be perceived as selfish, if it increases how many people are exposed to the story, it could provide an incredible learning opportunity to a broad swath of the public.

Either way, it’s a story Jenner needs to be the one to tell. That story could be told in full Friday night, or the interview could merely be the first chapter in a longer journey. Until it’s told in Jenner’s words, the Wikipedia page for “Bruce Jenner” will rightfully remain devoid of the word “transgender.”