This year marks four decades since Caitlyn Jenner won Olympic gold in decathlon at the 1976 Montreal Games. To celebrate, Sports Illustrated has put her on the cover, wearing her medal, in a “startling pose that delivers two messages”, according to the accompanying story.
Of course, since 1976, Jenner has transitioned to living as a woman, coming out publicly as transgender on the cover of Vanity Fair a year ago, during which time she asked to be called by her chosen name and to be addressed using female pronouns.
Why, then, has Sports Illustrated published Caitlyn’s deadname—a trans person’s birth name—on the cover alongside the one she now identifies with, with an additional 34 mentions in the cover story alone?
The article acknowledges Jenner provided consent to be referred to by her birth name when the author writes about her pre-transition, as per GLAAD’s media guidelines. The author even quotes GLAAD’s director of programs and transgender media Nick Adams as saying “the fact it doesn’t grate on her like it does most trans people is unique.”
Many instances of deadnaming within the article may occur within quotes, but plenty of them have been written by the author’s own hand. Phrases such as “he is female”, “that guy is this woman” and “those who knew Bruce Jenner”, as if that person is now dead. The essence of deadnaming, and swapping between present-tense female pronouns and past-tense male ones is confusing for many readers still trying to get their heads around Jenner’s transition.
Prior to her transition Jenner may have publicly used the name and pronouns she was assigned at birth, but we have to remember transgender people don’t just wake up one day and “decide” to change genders. It is a feeling within them from a very young age, so to write Caitlyn was once Bruce may be factually correct, but affirming Caitlyn has always been inside is a truer statement.
“Little Caitlyn has been in there since I was this big,” she says in the piece. “Sometimes she raised her cute little head more than others. I was female inside, but I wasn’t an effeminate male. Being a macho male was a way for me to try to convince myself that the woman living inside of me really isn’t living inside me.”
The argument has been made that Jenner isn’t a spokesperson for the trans community at large, but when she’s the only out trans person in history to be featured on Sports Illustrated’s cover, she is a role model for trans athletes and a harbinger for readers of the magazine. Sports Illustrated, whether they realise it or not, has a responsibility to the trans community by placing Jenner on its cover, and part of that is to refer to her respectfully.
Jenner’s nonplussed attitude to being deadnamed is exceptional, just as is her sporting achievements and the shelter her privilege affords her from the realities many trans people face. One is being afforded the decency of being called by their chosen names and pronouns, not adding to the demoralisation and invalidation deadnaming and deadpronouning apply to trans people's’ existence.
Sports Illustrated’s article not only contributes to this but, in a way, it further negates the historic coming out of Jenner a year ago and the things she’s done to raise awareness of transgender issues (though some would say she hasn’t done enough).
It draws a distinction between the male decathlon gold medal winner and the trans woman reality star. As if there wasn’t already enough disdain for Jenner when she deigned to turn her back on the macho American ideal (in a men’s only sport, no less) to become a part of a family of women who, for better or worse, largely dictate femininity today.
Sports Illustrated does mention other trans or gender non-conforming athletes in the profile, such as hyperandrogenic (a naturally higher level of testosterone) track and field athletes Dutee Chand and Caster Semenya, but it would be great to see them dig deep into the struggles other trans athletes, such as MMA fighter Fallon Fox, face in being taken seriously as competitors in their fields.
Ultimately, the writer acknowledges “historical figure Bruce Jenner” as some kind of justification for deadnaming Caitlyn Jenner but that’s exactly where that name and the bigotry it calls to mind should remain: in the past.