A group of LGBT commentators called for restraint when news first started breaking about Bruce Jenner’s potential transition plans. He initially called the transition rumors ridiculous, and along with others, I said we should believe what he told us and that I didn’t believe he was transitioning. We were wrong about his plans, we were right to demand we believe him.
I will leave the detailed analysis of Jenner’s interview to others. I am also using male pronouns as that was a request made in the interview by Jenner, at least for the time being. The purpose here is to answer those who say that those commentators who urged restraint were wrong, or even intentionally misleading the public. Such complaints completely miss the point of what those initial calls for restraint were talking about: respect.
Transgender people and their cisgender allies often (although we are not a monolith, and we have vast differences of opinion, as Jenner himself demonstrated by citing his political stripe) point out that the best way to know about someone’s personal identity is to ask and then to believe what that individual tells you. It is wrong to try to out someone if you do not believe them, and it is wrong to argue that what they tell you is false.
Was Jenner transitioning? Obviously, we know now he was, and is, but did we know that at the time? I said we didn’t. In fact, I stated I didn’t believe he was transitioning, and it’s true, I was wrong. However, why I was wrong was more important, and still is more important, than the fact that I was wrong. And I said that we should respect what he had to tell us. I believe we should respect what he says now, yes, but I also believe we had an obligation respect what he told us then.
When asked about the transitioning rumors, he initially denied it. He said clearly that the rumors were ridiculous and he just didn’t like his adam’s apple. Then he went silent on it, as speculation brewed. As the tabloids and late night talk shows mocked him. He remained silent for months and months. His last statement on the matter had been that the rumors were ridiculous. That’s all we had from him.
Here’s why we had an obligation to believe him, even if he was “lying” (and that’s not really fair when discussing coming out narratives anyway): it isn’t our business to out people. If we do that, we only do harm. The coming out experience for LGBT folks is already fraught with terror and stress. Each individual, no matter how “famous” or “well known” or “public figure,” deserves to go through that process on their own time scale and in their own way.
In addition, and in fact, maybe more to the point here, as transgender people we ask you to believe us when we tell you that our gender identity is what it is. This is especially true of individuals who may not have started any visible aspect of transition. How can we trust that you will believe us when you won’t believe someone who says they’re not transgender? If we cannot trust you to take someone like Bruce Jenner at his word when he speaks about it, how can we trust you to believe us?
We can’t. And we shouldn’t.
Keep that in mind if you’re now celebrating Jenner’s coming out as a “told you so,” you’re missing the point, and you’re practicing rather piss poor allyship. And that’s pretty awful.
Image via AP.