I published an article in Buzzfeed on April 25, the day after Bruce Jenner’s interview on ABC where the former Olympic champion and reality TV star publicly disclosed as transgender for the first time. In it, I used she and her pronouns to refer to Jenner. It was a deliberate choice I made on short notice, one that I knew I risked criticism for, which ended up being angrier than expected. So I’ve taken the time to reflect, and watch Jenner’s interview again. I’ve come to the conclusion that she and her were valid pronouns for Jenner given the available information at the time. But more importantly, I’m recognizing that the passion over pronouns probably has less to do with Jenner and more to do with the priorities of cisgender people, whether the vast majority of the general public or those in Jenner’s inner circle.
Some responses to my pronoun use, like this one, mildly disagreed: “I wish this article had referred to Bruce in his preferred pronouns - although he identifies as a woman, he has explicitly said he still wants people to use he, his, and him.” Others were significantly more irate, calling me “offensively presumptuous and arrogant,” as well as “kind of an asshole.” Someone else said, “I never comment on Buzzfeed posts but I am compelled to do so here” and the person who called me an asshole concluded with, “You are just adding to collective of people that forced Bruce to live against his own desires. It was completely pointless for you to even write this article.” Some of these comments got dozens of likes, which indicated that the sentiments were shared by many.
So I went back and found Diane Sawyer’s exact words: “Pronouns. Him, her. They are very important to the transgender community. But Bruce Jenner said at this moment, in this interview, we should still use the familiar him or he.” Sawyer was quite specific about the limits of Jenner’s directive. It covers the moment of the interview, and the “we” here is most readily interpreted as the staff at ABC. Jenner doesn’t specify either what pronouns other people should use or what pronouns to use after the interview. Jenner still has not directly, though people close to Jenner have indicated in interviews that male pronouns are still preferred, so I’ve chosen here to not use personal pronouns at all, in deference to many trans people who find it disturbing to hear male pronouns in relationship to an early-transitioning trans woman.
In Jenner’s case, the fact that the former Olympic champion stated a history of never having felt male because and having the soul of a woman led me to feel that she and her are the right pronouns for her after her interview, and it was only after specific though still indirect information about Jenner’s wishes that I decided to stop. Doing otherwise prioritizes Jenner’s history rather than her actuality, an extension of how trans people have the constant experience of our assigned genders being prioritized over our true genders.
Though despite Jenner giving more explicit instructions through loved ones, I believe it’s still important to examine what drives the passion of the numerous commenters who objected to my pronoun use, and a public consensus that Jenner stated a clear preference for pronouns post-interview despite no incontrovertible evidence otherwise. Also, I think it’s important to talk about how Jenner’s transition in general and the pronoun issue in particular is affecting the trans community specifically, which the Jenner interview barely touched upon.
Many trans people I follow on social media believe that male pronouns should be used too, but it’s telling how hard it is for those trans people to use them, while for cis people it’s the other way around. So it happens to be convenient that the prevailing perception of male pronoun use is so much easier for cis people compared to trans, and it makes me wonder whether this has something to do with the passionate desire to maintain male pronouns in relation to Jenner. When a commenter wrote that “the use of 'she' in reference to Jenner in the Olympic years is simply distracting,” that distraction is driven by the difficulty of adjusting to a trans person’s revelation of her true identity, her truth that the man during those years was actually a woman. It’s trans people who feel the visceral pain associated with being reminded of actions they performed in their assigned gender while remembering their fundamental alienation from that gender role.
So if some might object to my trans-driven use of she, I want to submit that The New York Times’ cis-driven extension of male pronouns to repeated references to “Mr. Jenner” is incredibly galling from a trans perspective, as is the fact that they chose a cis person, Alessandra Billings of the Shonda Rhimes as angry black woman notoriety no less, to react to Jenner’s announcement. The Times’ continued use of Mr. to refer to Jennings demonstrates how male gender markers--already hard for trans people to use because they often bring up bad memories of early transition--can easily be extended without particular thought to consequence. It’s also telling that one of the handful of outlets that continue to refer to Jenner as “Mr.” is the conservative and consistently transphobic Washington Times, which draws attention to how these gender markers can so easily be co-opted for phobic purposes.
Though this isn’t particularly surprising given the interview’s cisgender point of view, which ABC was so good at obscuring that it didn’t become apparent to me until I re-watched the special. The show was so good at showing recorded footage of trans people that it didn’t occur to me how apart from Jenner, only Jennifer Boylan--another white, older, relatively privileged trans woman--was directly interviewed for the show, and was not called upon to directly react to Jenner’s transition. The only mention of transgender reaction treats us as a nameless congregation: “Some people in the transgender community are worried that the circus that follows him will harm the dignity of their gains.” It seemed that the only people who had any real right to be affected by this large shift in the life of a trans public figure are Jenner’s loved ones, especially since Jenner doesn’t seem to have close transgender friends. And those family members, apart from being people Jenner loves and whose opinions he cares about, all happen to be cisgender.
So Jenner probably wasn’t attuned to the ways in which the choice even to use he and him pronouns for the interview was difficult for many trans people. “Triggering as hell” was how one trans woman on my Facebook feed put it, among a chorus of voices who either avoided the interview altogether or had a strong emotional reaction to the use of male pronouns.
For me the moments it recalled--especially during the times when Jenner’s children clung to her role as Dad--was when my otherwise supportive father refused to make an effort to gender me she early in transition (to be fair, his native language Tagalog has no gendered pronouns, so it was harder for him). So as we were driving home in Queens late one night, I got out of the car and started walking. “Get in the car,” he yelled at me. “It’s not safe.” And I replied, “Imagine how unsafe it is when I look like a woman and you call me him so people think I’m a man.” Jenner’s use of male pronouns betrays the privilege of someone who doesn’t walk alone on the street in scary neighborhoods at night, of how gender-nonconformity can so easily lead to violence when exposed. I imagine that many other trans women have their own traumas associated with being gendered male early in transition.
It’s Jenner’s ultimate prerogative as to whose feelings to prioritize when it comes to the newly-disclosed trans woman’s transition timeline. But I hope that Jenner at least takes the reactions of other trans people into account, since ABC was unable to do so in its broadcast. In the meantime, I look forward to the day, hopefully soon, when I can once again call Jenner she.