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Sunday 7 June 2015


At all costs, get the pronouns right

With celebrity transexualism such big news, we’d better take the issue seriously

THAT’S NOT MY NAME: Caitlyn Jenner, previously Bruce,
as she appeared on the cover of ‘Vanity Fair’

'If Caitlyn Jenner wishes to be known as she, of course she's entitled to that,' tweeted Jim Naughtie of the BBC Radio 4 Today programme last Wednesday, "and I'm sorry for saying 'he' on air. A bit sloppy."

Here, for those of you who haven't been paying attention to social change, is an explanation of what this is all about and why it matters.

Almost everyone in the media pays attention to Twitter. Not only is it where you get news before it breaks officially, but it's also where you find out what stories are exciting huge numbers of the kind of people who send Tweets.

Plenty of these are frightful people known as trolls, who are a technologically up-to-date version of the breed who used to write poison pen letters but now, under pseudonyms, hurl abuse in under 140 characters at anyone who acts in a way that offends them.

James Naughtie is a 63-year-old Scot with a passion for politics and books and a habit of asking inordinately long questions who has been a Today programme presenter for more than 20 years.
On Wednesday, he reported that President Obama had acquired a million Twitter followers five hours after joining it, but that while that was a record, it had just been beaten by Kim Kardashian's step-parent who had acquired a million in four minutes.

Seeking an explanation from a woman from the BBC Internet Unit known as BBC Trending (which logs the most popular stories), Naughtie indulged those of his listeners who are getting on a bit by giving this introduction.

"Now, this is complicated. He used to be called Bruce but he's now a woman. I realise some of you will never have heard of Kim Kardashian, let alone her stepfather, who was Bruce and is now a woman but, anyway, they are very well known on television."

In the 1970s, Bruce Jenner was arguably the greatest athlete in the world, having won at the 1976 Olympics the gold medal in the men's decathlon, setting a world record that lasted four years. He used his celebrity to make a career of sorts on television, but struck gold not long after he married in 1991 his third (now ex) wife, Kris Kardashian, whose first husband, Robert, was the defence attorney who, amazingly, got OJ Simpson off his murder rap.

Robert and Kris had Kourtney, Kim, Khloe and Robert, and Bruce and Kris had Kendall and Kylie and, on the back of the fame acquired by Kim when a 2003 sex tape was leaked on the internet, a reality series called Keeping Up with the Kardashians became hugely popular and made all the family - especially those with names beginning with 'K' - very very rich and famous.

Kim was always the Queen of the Ks, but now, at 34, having married her third husband - the mega-rapper Kanye West with whom she had a baby called North - she is one of the most famous people in the world: her bottom recently was claimed to have 'broken the internet'.

"She sat on the internet?" ask people at the back of the class. No, but when she exposed herself on a magazine cover her large and shapely bottom caused a global sensation for about two weeks. Indeed, unfortunate men no longer know if the answer to "Does my bum look big in this?" should be "No" or "Yes".

Kim has 32 million Twitter followers, Obama has 2.6 and Caitlyn Jenner has 2.42.

Bruce, who is 65, posed in a corset on the front of Vanity Fair, which displayed to advantage his stunning coiffure, his expensively made-up and feminised face and large post-operative boobs and kept his male genitalia well-squashed.

The story inside was of how he had been living a lie for decades, and indeed there is plenty of evidence that he had long desired to become a woman. His transition is a work in progress.

Naughtie struggled with the pronouns and among the polite Tweeted rebukes were: "Have to try harder than 'He/she' Jim" and "Can someone explain to Jim Naughtie what misgendering is? He did it to Caitlyn Jenner several times this morning".

He was lucky that the aggressive trannies who stalk the internet don't listen to the Today programme or he'd have had thousands accusing him of transphobia.

A California-based organisation called GLAAD - "the nation's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender media advocacy" - has laid down the law on this for Naughtie and the rest of us to obey in future.
"Do avoid male pronouns and Caitlyn's prior name, even when referring to events in her past. For example, 'Prior to her transition, Caitlyn Jenner won the gold medal in the men's decathlon at the Summer Olympics held in Montreal in 1976.'"

This is mad. We should all be sympathetic to people who feel trapped in the wrong body, but we can't be expected to rewrite history. Caitlyn is fully entitled now to be given female pronouns if that's what she wants, but it is insane to insist on making it retrospective.

He won the medal: Caitlyn modelled for the cover of Vanity Fair; and Jim Naughtie shouldn't have apologised. Why it's important is that Caitlyn has her own reality show coming up and transgenderism will be discussed by millions. Those with a taste for rational debate had better be ready.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards