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A couple of nights ago at the iHeartRadio Music Awards, host Jamie Foxx made a joke about Bruce Jenner's rumoured transition that was not only quite transphobic but also tragically reflective of Bruce's treatment in the mainstream media and popular culture over the past few months. In a time where mass media has made positive steps towards raising awareness of transphobia and humanising trans people instead of stereotyping them, the public conjecture over Bruce Jenner's gender identity is just ridiculously counterproductive. It has the potential to harm not only Bruce himself, but also the general progression of the world towards becoming a place where trans people feel safe and accepted.
It's pretty obvious that in the past few years some really steady progress has been made in the way that transgender characters are represented on screen. When I think back to my impression of transgender characters as a child, they were all very Priscilla Queen of the Desert-inspired imaginings involving shiny platform heels, feather boas and a lot of glitter. Transgender characters that we are currently seeing on screens are so much more diverse than I was ever exposed to - shows like Orange is the New Black, Transparent and even Glee portray their transgender characters as nuanced, diverse, real people united by only one thing: the desire to be seen by others as they see themselves. It's a small, positive step in the right direction for a public consciousness that has mostly been mislead by conservatism and stereotyping.
Mainstream media has also been effective this year in publicising the effects of transphobia on it's victims. Unfortunately what this basically refers to is a spike in reporting on transgender suicide. Cases like teenage trans woman Leelah Alcorn's suicide were very heavily reported in the press - Leelah took her own life by jumping into traffic in the middle of the night after leaving a suicide note on Tumblr describing her dread about her gender identity never being accepted by her conservative parents. Leelah died in 2014, and this year there have been at least six more trans youth deaths reported in the media. The most recent was the suicide of a teen transgender activist called Blake Brockington who died just last week. Blake was the first out trans teen to be crowned homecoming king in North Carolina. It's not like the pattern of trans youth suicide is a new phenomenon - only 59% of transgender people have reported never harbouring suicidal thoughts. It's just that 2015 is the first year that the media and society as a whole has taken much notice.
But of course the one trans story that has really captured the attention of mainstream media is the one surrounding dear old Bruce Jenner, lovable and astonishingly tolerant stepfather of many a Kardashian, who may or may not be in the process of transitioning himself. Bruce's rumoured transition, as yet confirmed by exactly no one who matters (i.e. Bruce himself), has resulted in some truly horrendous reporting by tabloids. His face has been photoshopped onto women's bodies, fake quotes falsely attributed to Bruce's daughter Kendall have been reported. The whole 'story' has been portrayed as a juicy exposé, as if any potential coming out as trans is nothing more than, as Kat Callahan for Jezebel said, "some horrible secret to be revealed, as if transition was an indiscretion, a bad habit, or a destructive decision."All this tabloid conjecture has also been reflected in the way that casual jokes are made about Bruce's potential transition, like the one Jamie Foxx made or like Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell did a while ago in the presence of two of Jenner's daughters at the "Roast of Justin Bieber".
If Bruce truly is transitioning, then the media attention and the jokes constitute nothing more than deliberate, hurtful, harmful transphobic bullying. Until that becomes a reality, the conjecture and jokes are still evidence that mass media is directing the public dialogue about trans people and gender identity in a very harmful and destructive direction, completely at odds with any other social progress that we could have been seen to have made. It creates the impression that Bruce's gender identity is something we are entitled to have an opinion on and gossip about in the same way we discuss whether Kim's butt has implants.
Therein lies the problem: we are already so used to gossiping about and laughing at everything the Kardashians do that we just naturally have carried that over onto how we talk and think about Bruce's (potential) transition. It's scary how something like laughing at Kim's new dumb hair colour and the fact that Beyonce refused to attend her wedding can quickly turn into an offhand joke about how hilarious it is that Bruce Jenner wants to become a WOMAN. When we use Bruce's transition as a humorous device in the same way we do Kim Kardashian's ugly cry-face, we are failing to separate from what is merely frivolous mocking from what is essentially contribution to a dialogue of negativity and hate towards an entire group of people who have lived their entire lives and all of history marginalised and misunderstood by society.
So, say whatever you want to about Kim Kardashian, but understand that more care and thought needs to be put into what we are saying about Bruce Jenner.
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