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How Wikipedia covered Caitlyn Jenner’s transition

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By Ed Erhart
The following content has been republished from the Wikimedia Blog. The views expressed in this piece are those of the author alone; responses and critical commentary are invited in the comments section. For more information on this partnership see our content guidelines.

Caitlyn Jenner—the American hero of the 1976 Olympics, a film actor, and prominent member of Keeping Up with the Kardashiansmay now be the most famous openly transgender person in the world. She began her transition from Bruce in April; on June 1, she premiered her new name in Vanity Fair with a 22-page article and cover shot by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz.

As befitting someone with Caitlyn's fame, the news has quickly gone viral around the Internet. There has, however, been conflict over how to address her. National Review Online asked “who won Bruce Jenner’s OIympic medals?” and questioned how individuals should write about a new gender identity set against Jenner’s extensive history in a gendered sport.

By comparison, there has been little conflict on the English Wikipedia over Caitlyn Jenner. The first update was made just 21 minutes after Vanity Fair‍ '​s tweet, and the page was moved after just over an hour. In part, this is thanks to more concrete guidelines after US Army soldier Chelsea Manning announced her own transition in August 2013. In that case, a Wikipedia administrator quickly moved the article to her new name. While this action received many accolades in the press—such as from Slate, Buzzfeed, the Daily Dot, and Market Watch—after a series of moves between the two names, the article was returned to its original title nine days later. It took more than a month to move it to the name Chelsea desired, time taken up with an extensive vote that saw 226 editors make over 2,000 edits, and an arbitration case before Wikipedia's highest adjudicating body,

During and after this conflicted period, Wikipedia editors hammered out guidelines for how to deal with future cases. After thousands of bytes of text, a subsection of Wikipedia’s Manual of Style called "Identity" was edited to read, as of 1 June 2015:

An exception ... is made for terms relating to gender identity. In such cases, Wikipedia favors self-designation, even when usage by reliable sources indicates otherwise. Any person whose gender might be questioned should be referred to by the pronouns, possessive adjectives, and gendered nouns (for example "man/woman", "waiter/waitress", "chairman/chairwoman") that reflect that person's latest expressed gender self-identification. This applies in references to any phase of that person's life, unless the subject has indicated a preference otherwise.

This new guideline was applied to Caitlyn Jenner's article and, in part, is the reason that her Wikipedia article has seen a comparative lack of controversy. The page was moved during a short, uncontentious discussion, and a subsequent move request was quickly closed with a unanimous consensus to keep the article under its new name (Editor's note: The author of this blog post, in his separate and volunteer role of administrator on the English Wikipedia, assessed the consensus and closed the requested move.) The article even uses Leibovitz's Vanity Fair cover under the US' fair use doctrine, quoting the Washington Post's interpretation of it: "After all the magazine covers that featured the former athlete ... [this] photograph will be the most meaningful. Looking directly at the camera, Jenner is finally herself for the first time publicly."

Those opposed to the move cited Wikipedia's common name policy, a commonly cited page which stipulates that an article title be the name most used in reliable sources on the topic. This is why the article on Bill Clinton is not "William Jefferson Clinton," for example.

Those in favor refuted these arguments with the identity guideline. One editor with the concluding comment in the main discussion section (as of the time of writing) wrote:

I'm just going to say that if someone out there has access to wikipedia (aka: has internet), they clearly are not living under a rock. Even with mainstream media only covering her name change as of today, without living under a rock, there's just no way the common public at large doesn't already know that Bruce Jenner is now Caitlyn Jenner. So long as there's a Bruce Jenner re-direct linking to this Caitlyn Jenner article (which there is), I really don't understand why this conversation is even being had?

The new title of Jenner's Wikipedia biography, and the way Wikipedia has handled the situation, has garnered positive press attention from the Boston Globe, Washington Post, Bustle, Yahoo! UK, Zeleb, and Vocativ. Reactions on Twitter from users like Geeta Dayal and Hiro were also broadly supportive. Discussion is, however, continuing on whether links to Caitlyn's biography should be from Bruce or Caitlyn.

A litany of frequently asked questions, and how the English Wikipedia deals with gender identity, have been laid out in a gender identity essay.

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Bruce Jenner was a man

  • Interesting the mind set of those wanting to be encyclopedic but forget the human aspect of what they are covering. This is one of the reasons why Wikipedia has a hard time retaining editors. People are not respected in a manner that is both encyclopedic and sensitive to those living people involved. It is a criticism of Wikipedia that is not that far off base.--Mark Miller (talk) 02:17, 10 June 2015 (UTC)[reply]
    • We are writing for a broader audience, not only for people familiar with Wiki arcana, like MOS. A 12-year-old reader has every right to believe that prior to one's transgender transition he/she was referred to via different pronoun. In my opinion, that part of MOS should be amended accordingly. It's not our job to tamper with history by extrapolating it backwards by default without explicit notice of the person in question. If a transgender person hasn't mentioned any preference as to how he/she wants to be referred to in the past, then so be it. Brandmeistertalk 08:13, 10 June 2015 (UTC)[reply]
      • "We are writing for a broader audience, not only for people familiar with Wiki arcana, like MOS". Of course, just as journalist use a manual of style book and do not write for those familiar with it. Readers have is an expectation of getting accurate information. Whatever is decided, it should never be about anything but accurately covering the subject and doing so within our stricter adherence to BLP policy.--Mark Miller (talk) 23:03, 10 June 2015 (UTC)[reply]
  • If SHE competed in Men's Decathlon, SHE should be disqualified. He was a he when he competed, and that's that.— Vchimpanzee • talk • contributions • 17:45, 11 June 2015 (UTC)[reply]
I think that the question which may be waiting to be asked relates to the extent that Jenner internally identified as being a woman or a man. If she felt like a woman trapped in a man's body (and still eligible to compete) then this sounds fine to me but should, in some way be cited. If he felt like he was then a man and even if he had preference to be/become a woman then the male pronoun certainly fits. My gut reaction is that we shouldn't categorise all histories of trans women in the same way.
Imagine a person who is biologically clearly of one particular sex and yet, say, is a cross dresser and identifies with the opposite or their biological gender. In these cases, she or he could certainly be restricted to performing in male or female events according to biology but this would have no relevance to the gender identity of that person as that individual person perceives it. GregKaye 11:44, 12 June 2015 (UTC)[reply]
If SHE (by gender identity) competed in the Men's Decathalon (as a biological male) then SHE has done nothing wrong. For any of a variety of reasons she may have preferred to have competed in the women's event but these events go by biology at birth. As to the opening statement "Bruce Jenner was a man" I would agree that he or she certainly was. GregKaye 11:50, 12 June 2015 (UTC)[reply]
The consensus by those that are trans is overwhelmingly against you. I am grateful that the policy on Wikipedia, and other Wikimedia projects, is to follow the route of dignity and respect for the person and prefer their self-identification, however that pans out. It's a good thing. -- (talk) 13:04, 12 June 2015 (UTC)[reply]


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