These are the facts: Bruce Jenner was a track and field star in the '70s. He won gold in the 1976 Olympics. He set a world record that took four years for someone else to beat. He was on the cover of a Wheaties box, making him a verified celebrity in the world of sports and popular culture. His retirement from the spotlight was as graceful as it could have been, and years later he came back into the public eye in a much different role: as a caring, Cosby-esque father to the Kardashians on their incredibly successful reality TV-show.
Now, many people who don't know Jenner believe that he plans to come out as transgender, due to some ambiguous changes in appearance that have been the source of much comment in the media. Jenner’s long hair and possibly shaved trachea started the rumors, and the recent news of his coming out on the new season of Keeping Up With the Kardashians reignited them. The press, in their speculative frenzy, have not let up on the story, and it seems that they have no intention of doing so until they force him out of the closet so that they might have something concrete to write about.
These are the facts, despite the fact that we have no real facts as of yet. Bruce Jenner has not come out publicly, and has not so much as commented on the rumors of his transition.
In the trans community, the persistence of the story in spite of concrete facts has been a source of agitation—a persistent reminder of just how wide the gulf remains between lived experience and media representation. “I don't care how 'on display' someone’s life is,” says Amos Mac, co-founder of the LGBTQ-focused publication Original Plumbing. "They still have the right to transition, or grow their hair long, or live their life in a way that makes them feel true, and to figure out all of those things on their own terms without being rushed. Just because a public person might be transitioning doesn't mean they need to suddenly become a mouthpiece or a representative for the trans community. Not everyone wants that role in life.”
Yet Jenner's role in both sports and reality TV means his decisions are constantly under public scrutiny, and the media won't leave him alone. This was most jarringly felt when In Touch Photoshopped an image of Jenner onto the body of Dynasty star Stephanie Beacham. Magazines like In Touch and People exist so that we can see the humanity of those heavenly bodies we deify and worship as perfection. No matter who we are, when we pick up a fashion magazine, there’s always a very strong chance we’ll end up feeling a pang of body dysphoria. If we pick up a tabloid, we’ll be able to counteract this by seeing that even the most perfect-seeming bodies do in fact fall prey to cellulite.
But besides comparing ourselves to what we see in magazines, we also make bodily comparisons across genders. “We live in a patriarchal culture that demeans femininity, and cannot understand why someone who was assigned the privileged gender status of 'male' at birth could possibly feel like that didn't fit them and work to get away from it," explains writer, editor, and trans activist Mitch Kellaway. “Part of the fascination around Jenner is rooted in the fear that 'manhood' is not so solid a structure as our culture has led us to believe.” Whether trans or cis, the act of comparing ourselves to other normative bodies and finding ourselves not matching up is part of our cultural inheritance. It’s almost a kind of blood sport.
Part of the reason people are so obsessed with the rumors surrounding Jenner may be that they see his story as a puzzle: Why would someone give up his manhood, especially someone whose body has been responsible for so much of his success?
When I first started to pay attention to the Jenner coverage, it didn’t strike me as being particularly fascinating. It wasn’t a story about how a public figure’s possible transition was being shoved into the public eye. It wasn’t a story about how the media had proved itself once again far from being mature enough to handle human complexity, instead opting for a heavy-handed and speculative approach that is the farthest thing possible from empathy. And it wasn’t about the vulnerability of being one’s true self while famous.
It was a story about sports.
A few years back something happened in the news that haunted me in the same way. In 2009, the South African runner Caster Semenya was investigated by the IAAF, the governing body of competitive sports, on suspicion of steroid use. Before her competition at the World Championships of that year, the IAAF requested she undergo a gender review test, due to certain suspicions about her chromosomal makeup and butch physique.
News of the test leaked, and scandal broke out. Semenya was found to be lacking a uterus and ovaries, but in possession of female genitalia. Semenya “passed” the test and was conclusively found to be woman enough to compete with other women, but the discomfort of the entire episode lingered. What does it mean to have your gender under review by a group of strangers?
In sports, the body is what gives you your success, your pride, the ability to be at the top of your game—and the body, when it ages or gets injured, is also the thing that takes it away. For people on the trans spectrum, the body exists, similarly, as a stage upon which one’s identity is set. And a very public one, at that.
The idea of "gender review" as something implemented and unquestioned in the world of sports is unsettling, almost barbaric. It means that just because of your profession, at any time, a board of strangers can "review" your gender identity, and find it at fault. Dawn Ennis, whose privacy was similarly invaded by the media last year following the discriminatory termination of her employment as a producer at ABC, says, "[It’s] not something the world should be witness to, something as deeply personal and scary and brave and life-altering as a gender transition."
But passing judgment on another person's gender is something the rest of the world does every day. Every conversation, every introduction, every interaction involves a piece of gender review. In the world of sports, the stakes are simply higher. Levels of hormones are measured against what scientists agree to be the normal levels. Chromosomes are counted. Genitalia are examined. The minutia of the human reproductive system, a thing of incredible diversity within genders and individual bodies, is measured up against a solitary idea of what the system should be, and should do. And when all these things are counted and weighed and measured, you're often left with only one of two answers: man or woman.
When your body is your career, your career is constantly endangered. When I think about Jenner, I think about a career with all the perfect moves made: success in his field, and with that success, a heroic type of superstardom that only professional athletes can achieve. Add that to a well-publicized series of marriages, a dignified retirement, and a slightly less dignified resurgence in later life. Everything in Jenner’s career is beautifully enacted, seamlessly achieved. When we have to think about him in different terms, we start to see a young man whose relationship to his body is complex, yet whose body is his livelihood. We see an older man whose body has brought him acclaim and the respect and admiration of millions. And then we have to start to think about what happens when that body becomes an urgent problem—a thing that must become new. We see a person in the midst of a graceful middle-age who, all of a sudden, must become new.
That’s a story we haven’t really heard yet. And it’s a fascinating one, whether real or fictional.
Henry Giardina is a writer living in Boston. His work has appeared in Original Plumbing, New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker.com, and the Paris Review Daily, among other publications. You can follow him here.