“Sorry,” Drake Bell, a musician and former child star, wrote in a tweet since deleted, as Us Weekly reported. “Still calling you Bruce.”
Immediately excoriated by many who deemed the tweet transphobic, Bell tried to explain himself.
“I’m not dissing him! I just don’t want to forget his legacy!” Bell wrote — in another tweet he later deleted. “He is the greatest athlete of all time! Chill out!”
There’s no doubt that it’s insensitive for former Nickelodeon stars, news organizations and just about anyone to refuse to refer to someone by the name he or she prefers — whether that person is Malcolm X, Cary Grant, Muhammad Ali, Chelsea Manning or Jay Z.
But Bell’s insensitive declaration raised an interesting point.
Did Bruce Jenner or Caitlyn Jenner win those Olympic gold medals and appear on those TV shows? And if Caitlyn Jenner did, must history be rewritten? Is every source that refers to “Bruce Jenner, record-breaking athlete” — or “Bruce Jenner, guest star on ‘Silver Spoons'” — now in need of a correction?
Wikipedia thought so. By Tuesday evening, the ubiquitous crowdsourced encyclopedia was redirecting its “Bruce Jenner” page to “Caitlyn Jenner” and using the pronoun “she.”
Example: “At the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Canada, she won the gold medal in the decathlon, setting a world record of 8,616 points, beating her own world record set at the Olympic Trials,” the Caitlyn Jenner Wikipedia page read at 11:24 p.m. EST on June 1. This sentence was a bit jarring: “Jenner was also the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year in 1976.” Even the Wikipedia page for “Can’t Stop the Music,” a poorly received — and pretty darn obscure — film featuring the Village People that Jenner appeared in in 1980, lists “Caitlyn Jenner” as a star.
Could Bruce be Caitlyn before he knew he could be Caitlyn? Further complicating the question were Jenner’s own statements about her transition. Jenner told Diane Sawyer to use pronouns such as “he” and “him.” But in Vanity Fair, she implied that Caitlyn — or a version of Caitlyn — was there all along.
“I’d walk off the stage and I’d feel like a liar,” Jenner said of the 1976 Olympic win, as The Washington Post’s Soraya McDonald noted. “And I would say, ‘F—, I can’t tell my story. There’s so much more to me than those 48 hours in the stadium, and I can’t talk about it.’ It was frustrating.”
Of course, terabytes of Internet space have been filled with writing about the appropriate use of pronouns when referring to transgender people. GLAAD’s media reference guide is particularly handy.
Except when it comes to referring to transgender people in the past.
“Ideally a story will not use pronouns associated with a person’s birth sex when referring to the person’s life prior to transition,” the organization wrote. “Try to write transgender people’s stories from the present day, instead of narrating them from some point in the past, thus avoiding confusion and potentially disrespectful use of incorrect pronouns.”
The problem: Caitlyn Jenner is an American legend, and her story began decades ago.
More about Jenner’s transition: