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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Getting Bruce Jenner Right

I grew up with Bruce Jenner in my cabinet. Just 10 when he became known to many as the “greatest athlete in the world,” I knew him as the face and the form on my Wheaties box. He was strong, he was handsome, he was likable.

I had rounded the corner past 40 when my niece pointed me toward something called “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” an alleged reality show. There was Bruce again. Older, a bit bumbling, but still entirely likable.

And today I sit with trepidation as Bruce will appear again tonight, this time in an extended interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer. The show has been endlessly questioned, hyped, teased and imagined. ABC’s ads proclaim in Bruce’s voice, “My whole life has been getting me ready for this.” He may — or may not — discuss a transition from male to female.

My fear stems from whether journalists, commentators and the public at large are ready to get this right. This is a moment for us as a society to begin respecting transgender people, understanding experiences we don’t live, and moving forward on serious social injustices this community faces. Media coverage and conversation will be a major part of that moment.

Make no mistake about it, we’ve gotten this wrong before. Piers Morgan on CNN. Katie Couric on her syndicated show. News stories presuming to establish whether a child is “really” a boy or a girl. We do this largely because we are trying to map a binary view of gender onto a spectrum of gender expression. Although the National Review would have some believe actress Laverne Cox is or is not a woman, the reality just isn’t that simple. We want to assign some kind of biological A/B certainty to gender, but scholar Katherine Bell encourages journalists to recognize instead that all gender expression is a “deeply held notion of self.” Cox’s self is a woman. And to misunderstand that is to get the story of her wrong.

The Reality of Disparity

Getting it wrong has consequences. In focusing on appearance (as Morgan did) or genitals (as Couric did), media miss the larger — and often tragic — realities for trans people. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, respondents reported:

  • vastly higher rates of attempted suicide (41% among transgender respondents vs. 1.6% among the U.S. population)
  • housing discrimination and living in extreme poverty at a rate four times that of others
  • double the rate of unemployment, with 90% of respondents reporting some measure of harassment, mistreatment or discrimination at work

All of these measures saw increases among respondents of color

These effects are felt by the approximately 700,000 Americans who identify as transgender. For Christina Kahrl, a trans woman who covers Major League Baseball for ESPN, Jenner’s interview is about Jenner’s own experience. But it also presents a moment to awaken people to the trans experience and the disparities people face.

“What can you as a journalist teach people about the trans experience using this moment in time?” she says. “It’s a rare experience. And you have an obligation to talk about it well, with an eye to all those issues – health care, employment, safety, sex education.”

Respecting Experiences You Do Not Live

I called Kahrl before writing this piece for a specific reason: I was terrified of getting it wrong myself. I was born female and have always felt like and lived as a woman. So can I truly understand how another person born female could feel like a man and live as a woman? Or as a man? How might I feel as someone who doesn’t feel a strong gender leaning?

I’m white and can’t know what it really means to be Asian in our society. I’m middle-class and don’t pretend to grasp the true grip of poverty. I’m straight and can’t walk in the shoes of a lesbian. But as a journalist — and someone who teaches a whole bunch of aspiring journalists — I am ethically bound to respect that which I do not know and work to responsibly and sensitively report on the range of experiences of all people.

So in this moment — this “rare experience,” as Kahrl termed it — what should we do in covering the Jenner interview and transgender people overall?

Study up: When you’re trying to understand something you haven’t experienced, you surround yourself with background information and perspective. Three excellent places to start:

Open up: Closed-mindedness is a particularly deadly trait for anyone engaging in public conversation, including journalists. The essential element of telling stories about experiences you haven’t had is an openness to that very idea. It’s recognizing that you don’t know. It’s in this element that we see the stunning difference between the missteps by Piers Morgan and Katie Couric. Where Couric recognized where she had erred and brought Laverne Cox back to her show for a “teachable moment,” Morgan brought Janet Mock back to his show to reprimand her for “vilifying” him.

Listen up: When Sawyer interviews Jenner, people will watch. I’d love to think we could live in a world where someone’s gender transition is no big deal. But we don’t. Plenty of people will be talking. The most important thing is how much we will be listening. By engaging with trans communities on social media and opening ourselves to trans people living in our communities, we can find and tell the stories that don’t get the ratings grab Jenner-Sawyer will.

“The key here is what this conversation creates as a moment for all people to talk about trans people,” Kahrl said. “To demonstrate our capacity to accept that people are different and will go through different challenges in life. If Jenner is able to do this, hopefully it will engender some greater measure of acceptance for trans people, to treat trans people with greater dignity.”

Responsibility for All

It is that dignity that concerns me when we expand ethical questions beyond journalists and commentators and out to the wider public. I’ve become increasingly concerned about how quickly our ability to publish in an instant has increased and how far behind our conception of the responsible use of that freedom lags. Whether with GamerGate or non-consensual porn, we see a gulf between access to technology and the thoughtful use of it.

Bruce Jenner has already walked the tabloid and social media gauntlet and more is sure to come. Yet Jenner has fame, money, power and privilege that may serve to insulate him from demeaning tweets, hateful posts and nasty memes. But the trans kid in the high school down the road doesn’t. He already faces the disparities detailed above and the consequences of trying to survive in a society that doesn’t accept him. Transgender is not his “choice” or his “lifestyle.” It is who he is, and that alone is worthy of respect.

As I thought through that and what it meant, I sat down with a remarkable young student of mine. At just 20 years old, Lanni Solochek has spent significant time trying to learn about and understand how to cover and write about transgender people. As we talked, I thought about how mature she was and how much further down the road toward understanding she was — and at less than half my age.

“As a journalist and a human being,” she said, “I’m focused on people. On their lived experience.”

What a tremendous amount we could all learn from people like her, people who learn about what they haven’t lived.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ted Eytan and used here under Creative Commons license.

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