UPDATE: Story has been updated to take Jenner’s stated wishes into account with an editor’s note added below. We have kept the female pronoun in the headline however to illustrate the question at hand.
Last night, former Olympian and Kardashian stepfather Bruce Jenner came out as a transgender woman during Jenner’s long-awaited interview with Diane Sawyer. Journalistic convention dictates that if a person identifies as female, you’re supposed to use female pronouns (or whichever ones they prefer) when writing about them. So why are The LA Times, Variety, and The New York Times all still referring to Jenner as a “he”?
First, let’s take a look at each publications’ use of pronouns in their Jenner coverage (pronoun emphasis added):
The LA Times: “During the broadcast, Jenner openly discussed nearly every aspect of his issues with gender identity, including his family members’ reactions to his decision to transition and live the rest of his life as a woman.”
Variety: “Wiping away his tears, he said, ‘Bruce lives a lie…she is not a lie. I can’t do it anymore.’”
The New York Times: “And while he showed Ms. Sawyer a black cocktail dress he would wear to a private dinner the two had planned, he didn’t allow himself to be filmed in women’s clothes — and that was the right call.”
Everyone knows the press sucks when it comes to trans issues — remember Don Lemon’s miserable transgender celebrity panel where he asked famous transwomen about their facial hair? And how Katie Couric’s interview where she asked a transwoman about her genitalia? Using the wrong pronouns for a trans person may come from ignorance, but as public educators and informers media outlets have a responsibility to get it right. Anything less is downright offensive and crude.
So what gives? Are they just clueless? Well, it seems like a few things are at the root of this.
For one, The New York Times noted that during the interview, “(Jenner) told Ms. Sawyer to call him Bruce and refer to him as he, saying this was his last interview as a man.” So perhaps they’ve written their article with male pronouns because it refers to a point in time when he still identified as male, even though that time has now passed.
“Upon announcement of Bruce Jenner’s E! docuseries, which premieres this summer, the cable network released a statement — ‘at this time, Bruce Jenner is choosing to not live publicly in the media as a woman and will be referred to as Bruce Jenner and with male pronouns’ — which Variety has respected in this story.”
One friend of mine called Jenner’s coming-out the most visible transgender coming-out of all time, and they were right. And yet, as a celebrity who has chosen to reveal her new identity in degrees (and somewhat secluded from the public eye), media outlets have found themselves unsure how to cover a trans person in the process of gender transition. Jenner, for instance, has not yet revealed a newly-chosen female name nor has Jenner appeared publicly in traditionally female garb.
Throughout the interview, Jenner repeatedly referred to themselves as “he” as well, so it seems that Jenner is still more comfortable with male pronouns, but that’s likely to change as Jenner continues transitioning. Thus, journalists find ourselves somewhere in the middle, faced with a somewhat-new challenge of accommodating Jenner’s preferred gender pronouns, even as they fly in the face of what we’ve been told to do as professional journalists.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We originally used female pronouns to describe Jenner in this article and ended with the line, “For us it’s easy: Jenner identifies as a woman, so respect her identity and call her a woman. Done!” But because in last night’s interview, Jenner requested people continue identifying him with male pronouns for now, we have changed the article to reflect gender neutral or male pronouns, just more evidence of how Jenner’s public transition challenges journalists to respect his wishes while correctly identifying a person’s chosen gender identity.