How Not To Talk About Bruce Jenner

CREDIT: Comedy Central/The Nightly Show

Larry Willmore mocking Bruce Jenner as a "mean girl."

On Friday night, Bruce Jenner came out as transgender in a touching two-hour interview with Diane Sawyer. Jenner’s story was one of a person still in transition, including the use of male pronouns and a third-person reference to “her,” the whole individual Jenner is still becoming. Sawyer also delved into complicated questions about sexual orientation, with Jenner denying any change in sexual orientation — attractions to women remaining unchanged — but settling on asexuality, a poignant disclosure in its own right.

Jenner’s interview had some 17 million viewers, and not all reactions to it have been handled with the same sensitivity Sawyer and ABC News employed. Of course, there are those who engaged in the most blatant forms of transphobia, like The Blaze’s Matt Walsh, who described Jenner as a “mentally ill crossdresser” who is pursuing “some perverse, bastardized notion of synthetic femininity.” The vitriol in such reactions is self-evident and does not warrant further magnification.

But many responded in seemingly supportive ways that were nevertheless couched in concerns about how Jenner staged the interview or in critiques about Jenner’s life. These reactions disparaged the reality of Jenner’s transition experience or imposed the very role of transgender spokesperson that Jenner disavowed in the interview. They reflected a struggle in how to talk about transgender issues and an unrealistic set of expectations for any one transgender individual. Here are a few examples of missteps from the past week.

Focusing On Anatomy

Larry Willmore, for example, dedicated Monday night’s The Nightly Show entirely to covering Jenner’s interview. While the second and third segments included transgender guests Ian Harvie and Geena Rocero sensitively helping Willmore and his audience learn how to talk about trans issues, the first segment demonstrated exactly how not to. He opened by scrutinizing Jenner’s claim of being a woman “for all intents and purposes” by focusing on anatomy, perhaps oblivious to the lesson Laverne Cox taught Katie Couric last year. “Back in the day,” Willmore opined, “Johnson equaled man, Ladybird Johnson equaled woman. Very simple.” After acknowledging that Jenner is “a woman with man parts,” he asked, “How are you so sure you’re a woman?” When he got to the questions of Jenner’s sexual orientation and Kanye’s familial support, Willmore’s head exploded in a special effects gag.

Suggesting That “Deception” Preceded Coming Out

Talk show host Wendy Williams has also been critical of how the interview has been handled. On Friday, before it aired, she said she wished she didn’t have to watch it because she felt “duped by Bruce,” calling Jenner a “fame whore” like “the rest of the family.” She also implied that trans people are somehow harmful to kids, expressing that Jenner “should have thought about [transitioning] before having all the kids.” On Monday, her tune had changed a bit, admitting she cried through much of the interview and applauding Jenner’s bravery. Still, she insisted Jenner is being “deceptive,” a “fame-hungry person like the rest of the family.” She concluded, “Today, I’m happy for Bruce, I feel bad for Kris [Kardashian], and I feel bad for the kids.” Williams’ claims of “deception” mirror the way that Grantland attempted to connect a golf putter inventor’s secret transgender identity to her falsified academic credentials, for which the outlet was widely criticized.

Claiming That Jenner Will Hurt The Trans Movement

Jenner’s paparazzi spotlight was similarly at the center of Zoey Tur’s concerns. The transgender tabloid reporter, whose own media coverage of trans issues has been highly scrutinized for its inaccuracies, wrote on Friday before the interview that Jenner’s coming out would “derail” the positive trajectory of trans visibility. “If what the transgender movement seeks is acceptance,” Tur wrote, “association with the Kardashian circus is the last thing it needs,” because it would reduce their lives “to mere entertainment.”

Jenner addressed most of Tur’s concerns in the interview, acknowledging that many trans people do not enjoy the same access to transition-related care and specifically citing the high suicide rates in the trans community and the particularly disturbing persecution of trans women of color. This likely didn’t sway Tur, who called Jenner an “imperfect” spokesperson and concluded, “Everything about the Kardashian family’s public image centers around shock and dysfunction — the very image the trans people are trying to shed.” Just two months ago, Zur was eagerly calling on Jenner to come out, pleading, “We need you.

Countering Jenner’s Story With “Transition Regret”

Ironically, as supporters quibble over Jenner’s unassuming role as a spokesperson for all transgender people, opponents of trans equality are countering by spotlighting their own singular spokesperson. When The Heritage Foundation’s Ryan T. Anderson stopped by CNN Monday morning, he said that he thinks in addition to Jenner’s story, “It will be important that we hear other peoples’ stories, that we hear Walt Heyer, who has spoken on his experience being transgender and he had the sex reassignment surgery. It didn’t help him in that situation. He’s speaking about that.” Indeed, Heyer shared his story this past week on The Public Discourse, which Anderson edits, as well as at The Federalist.

Heyer’s story is an outlier — far more exceptional than Jenner’s. He describes himself as “a former transgender [sic],” explaining that after eight years living as a woman, he began to experience “the shame of being so narcissistic and self-absorbed as a transgender female.” Essentially embracing the rejection of others, Heyer admits that he believes his transition “hurt the ones I loved.” He now advocates against gender-affirming therapies for transgender people, writing this week that “Jenner would do better to change his mind” — as if that were possible.

While Heyer’s own experience is not in question, his broad claims about the rates of transition regret have been thoroughly debunked. Much of the research that is cited to suggest negative outcomes for transition surgeries actually still advocates for those surgeries, acknowledging that they nevertheless do improve the quality of life for transgender people. Modern studies find that surgical regret is particularly uncommon — something less than 4 percent of people experience. In fact, the incredibly low regret rate for transition surgeries is fairly similar to the regret rate for gastric banding (about 2 percent), while regret rates for cosmetic plastic surgeries can be as high as 65 percent.

Heyer and Anderson also both rely on the expertise of Dr. Paul McHugh, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University whose bias against all LGBT people is well documented. As Anderson explained on CNN, McHugh believes performing transition-related surgeries “creates more problems than it solves.” To arrive at that conclusion, McHugh relies on a selective reading of the research, which has earned him the title of “the Mark Regnerus of transgender issues” — a reference to the researcher who erroneously claims that same-sex parenting is harmful to children. McHugh, like Heyer, is an exception, one who stands alone against the consensus of medical organizations that affirm transgender people and support appropriate treatments for them.

Jenner’s story is not over. E! confirmed this week that it will air an eight-part docuseries about Jenner’s transition, which will premiere in late July. This will continue to amplify Jenner’s visibility and expose millions of people to at least one transgender person’s journey. Regardless of the motivations for this project or however unique and ungeneralizable Jenner’s experience turns out to be, it will no doubt create constant new opportunities for viewers to learn how to talk about transgender people and respect their identities — avoiding pitfalls like the ones many commentators fell into this week.