Note to my readers: This is an expanded version of what first appeared on Thursday, February 5th, 2015, as an Op Ed for The Advocate Magazine:
These days you can’t turn on the TV or go online in any LGBT social media space without seeing three words together:
Bruce. Jenner. Woman!
It’s not only in outlets that traffic in “celebrity” gossip like TMZ and InTouch Weekly — which had the balls to Photoshop a cover image of Jenner to look more feminine; even legendary, respected sources of industry news can’t help but jump on the bandwagon that transgender stand-up comedian Tammy Twotone dubbed “Bruce Jennifer.”
People magazine’s latest headline loudly proclaims to its 3.5 million weekly readers what all those “anonymous sources” are all to happy too report, despite the fact that Jenner himself has never addressed long-standing rumors about his gender identity.
Even Variety, the storied bible of Hollywood insiders, boasts its reporters have learned “E! is developing a docuseries following Bruce Jenner’s ‘journey,’” and that “the head of publicity at E! [is] planning a meeting with GLAAD about how to handle such a sensitive subject.”
E!, of course, already pays Jenner to star as the often reclusive patriarch on the family reality series, Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
Lest the gossip remain solely the purview of entertainment media, mainstream outlets are jumping on the speculation brigade, too. A representative with ABC News reportedly confirmed to BuzzFeed that Diane Sawyer is finalizing an agreement to host Jenner for a sit-down interview to be aired during the crucial May sweeps rating period.
Then the Associated Press circumvented Bruce Jenner altogether on Wednesday and called up his 88-year-old mother for an hourlong conversation. The reporter asked how Jenner had come out to her. “It was brief,” she said, “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.”
Well, that’s it, then, right? Done deal? All that’s left is for Bruce Jenner himself (or herself) to make it official.
But this is my point. And it’s not mine alone — it’s shared by my colleagues at The Advocate and other leading LGBT publications: We don’t know how Jenner identifies until Jenner tells us.
We at The Advocate have made the choice to wait for confirmation, denial, or whatever it will be from Jenner and the representatives who are actually authorized to speak on behalf of the former Olympic athlete. The Advocate has not been able to get E!, Jenner, or the star’s agent to confirm anything — or even comment on the record.
Is Jenner transitioning? We really don’t know. When we do, we’ll let you know.
But, damn it, People magazine, even if you’re right about Jenner’s plans, here’s a tip: No one “transitions into a woman!”
The ignorance and misinformation about this subject galls me, given the fact that GLAAD has a very easy-to-understand lexicon available online, and experts on gender identity can be found in nearly every metropolis on earth — many of them transgender. Reporters cannot plead “we didn’t know” in their own defense anymore. I mean, come on: Have you heard of Google?
Apparently, it’s time for a crash-course for those unfamiliar: transition is not a “journey.” It’s a very long, Tilt-a-Whirl, summit plummet looping roller-coaster free-fall drop, Tower of Terror ride that, at best, ends with a person feeling better about themselves, employed, in their residence, and accepted by most friends and family. Too often, trans men and women get only one of those — or none.
When it is said a person who transitions “passes” in public as the gender they are presenting, that is seen by some as an achievement, and by others as reinforcing damaging gender stereotypes.
To me, the significance of passing is a personal preference, but let’s be frank: Even the most progressive, LGBTQ-allied cisgender (nontrans) people cannot help but comment to those of us who transition “how much prettier,” or “how handsome,” or, my favorite, “how much happier” we are, once we are living true to ourselves.
It’s a compliment, to be sure, and usually well-intentioned. And in my case, I agree: I am prettier; I am happier. But being trans is not just wearing clothes that match our mind-set. It’s about living and being accepted as the gender we know we are.
I did not “transition into a woman.” And I think a new, better explanation for this thing we do is needed, given all the attention Jenner, Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Chaz Bono, and little ol’ me have received.
My favorite view is from scientist and global businesswoman Carol Holly, who posted last month on Facebook:
I don’t believe that it’s possible for people to change gender. You can’t deny or change what you are.
Gender transition as we know it is really gender *presentation* transition. You stay what you always were, your body is allowed to conform to your soul, giving one the liberty to relax and be ones-self.
Not even all the surgery, hormones and therapy in the world can turn a man into a woman. And even attempting it can be deadly.
For this reason I say, “I was always a woman.”
Being cast as a girl in commercials and catalog ads didn’t make me one, and the birth control pills I took as a teenager didn’t make me trans. The hormones I take now don’t “make” me a woman. I am one. I’m a transgender woman.
Before I could say that, I would get physically ill, and I twice contemplated suicide. Then I realized what I needed to do to live was to stop pretending I was a man.
And so I did, with the support of the love of my life and my children.
But unlike most other transgender folks, I was made aware of what thousands of people thought about my transition, my looks, my “lifestyle,” and how I “abandoned” my family.
No, I’m not a reality star, but the unanticipated and unsolicited news coverage of my transition in 2013 transported me from anonymity to the front page of a New York City tabloid. Shock jocks, YouTubers, and cable TV personalities made me the butt of their jokes; reporters hid in bushes outside my home, ambushed my children on their way home from school, and asked my neighbors what they thought of “the tranny next door.”
Having to keep the children indoors on a summer day to hide from paparazzi parked outside one’s home is not something most transgender people ever endure. And about the only thing worse than having your picture on the newsstands and all over Google is seeing a segment on HuffPost Live featuring your “friends” titled “The Don Ennis Controversy.”
Of course, to celebrities like Jenner and the Kardashians, that kind of attention is not only commonplace, it may even be desirable. Pictures boost publicity, which increases ratings, and ratings translate into riches.
My 15 minutes of fame, however, translated into the loss of my good name and my reputation, and the end of my 30-year career in broadcast journalism.
I can only plead to the media to consider that there is a real person at the center of this frenzy. As someone who used to assign journalists stories for a living, and whose gender transition ironically became your assignment, I beg you to choose your words more carefully.
Focusing on clothing and makeup — as if trans women are drag queens or clowns — dehumanizes us all and trivializes what it means to be a woman. Speculating about surgeries is no more fair to us than strangers asking you about your hysterectomy, colonoscopy, or prostate exam. When someone decided it was my turn, your cameras and blogs and puns magnified my every mistake, for all to see and mock.
Nobody, not even me, knew how deeply someone suffering a seizure and amnesia can be affected by that. In July 2013, three months into living full-time in my true gender, I suddenly had no memory of being trans, and so in my delusion I renounced it in an email to colleagues and detransitioned, and that triggered an even bigger tsunami of negative publicity.
The fact is, detransition happens, even if it’s brushed under the rug. And because it goes against the positive narrative, it is considered taboo. Detransition aids our enemies and perpetuates the myth that we who say we were born this way are just pretenders, that we can be “cured,” or live as we once did through crackpot ideas like reparative therapy. I myself was used as “proof” by anti-LGBT zealots like Matt Barber and Michael Brown that being transgender is something you choose, that can be un-chosen, or that having amnesia is a cure for gender dysphoria. No, it’s not.
I know of more than a few transgender people who have consciously opted to detransition, even after gender confirmation surgery.
Because of family pressure, or unemployment, or just unhappiness, they abandoned their adopted presentation, quietly, out of the spotlight, and were able to do so because friends and family supported their detransition as “normal;” to them, being trans was “abnormal.”
At least one post-op transwoman now lives as a transman. Go figure.
But here’s the thing: he’s still trans. Detransitioners are still transgender, but for many that means back to living in the closet. And in my experience, that is a far worse fate. It is to live a lie. They deserve our sympathy and support.
Given the headlines, I can better understand now why so many transgender people turned on me and treated me as a pariah when I detransitioned, because I, too, cringe at all the speculation about Jenner’s alleged transition, and how it may in turn hurt all of us who are trans. As Dana Beyer, the Executive Director of Gender Rights Maryland, wrote in 2013 about me, “public behavior can be easily misused to pathologize the rest of us.” She was right.
I say now as I have told anyone who will listen: I was under a delusion that took time to heal. I didn’t invent an illness to escape a successful transition; I was diagnosed, treated, and recovered — and was horrified to discover all I had worked for had been undone during my delusion. I was further in the closet than I had ever been. I’ll admit, I am a very creative writer, but even I could not have dreamed-up that much melodrama. It was a living nightmare.
Luckily for me, once the delusion ended and my memories fully returned, I resumed my transition in secret in hopes of avoiding a third round of headlines. Eventually I lived part-time, and then fully reclaimed my authentic identity. Over and over, I’ve turned down the chance to tell my story to the TV tabloids, so they can show me fixing my makeup or choosing which dress to wear, just to prove I am who I say I am. My gender is defined by my brain, not my bra size.
At the very least, media attention to details like boob jobs, nail polish, hairstyles, and tracheal shaves undercut our genuine attempts to present ourselves as authentic. Even trans men are not immune from harsh judgment. The public’s fascination with transgender identities — a curiosity about people like Jenner — drives gossip, sells papers, and draws page views.
Gender dysphoria is real. Hormone replacement therapy helps. Living authentically is the only true solution to gender dysphoria. I know.
Even considering my own negative experiences, it’s not my place to speculate what Jenner may or may not be going through. I do, however, recognize the fear that comes with being talked about, trying to avoid stumbling in front of the whole world, as you undergo the biggest change in your life since puberty.
I’m confident that sooner or later the whole world will hear from Jenner about this. To those looking in from the outside, you cannot imagine what it’s like being in the position where transition is the only way to live.
To Jenner and all those who live authentically, here is something even the media frenzy cannot take away:
The feeling you have when you are all alone, and you look in the mirror and see your true self looking back at you, and you feel for the first time that sense of self-esteem, self-worth, and love for your true self that until that moment had only been a dream.
My hope for Bruce Jenner is to experience that, without a camera recording it.
DAWN ENNIS is a blogger at LifeAfterDawn.com and media correspondent for The Advocate. She was the first transgender journalist in a position of editorial authority at any of the major TV networks in the U.S. to transition on the job.