Richard Simmons Shows the Media Will Believe Anything About Trans People

All skepticism of National Enquirer rumors seems to disappear when transgender people are involved.

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP

No, Richard Simmons is not living as a woman named Fiona.

No, the fitness guru did not spend the last two years taking female hormones and undergoing “secret surgeries,” as the National Enquirer claimed in its Wednesday cover story.

And you’d think after Fox News, CBS, and the Washington Post all reported the fake Caitlyn Jenner detransition rumors before they were debunked, any news outlet with a reputation to protect would steer clear of an unsubstantiated tabloid report claiming that Simmons has been quietly transitioning.

This is the same outlet, after all, that recently gave us the Ted Cruz sex scandal and the JFK-Rafael Cruz conspiracy theory.

Most National Enquirer claims would never be taken seriously but the threshold of credulity drops precipitously when transgender people are involved.

Even after getting burned on the Caitlyn Jenner detransition tale, for example, Fox News relayed the Simmons rumor Wednesday morning, headlining their story, “Richard Simmons transitioning into a woman, report says.” The headline has since been updated to “Richard Simmons rep denies fitness guru is transitioning into a woman” but the original language is preserved in the URL.

Simmons’ representative did more than just deny the rumors. He told The Daily Mail, which gave the Enquirer’s story a huge boost, that they were “crap.” He told TMZ that they were “absolute madness.” And later in the day, he told CBS they were “not true and a total fabrication.”

This time around, incidentally, CBS waited until after the denial to collect their page views. With the Caitlyn Jenner detransition rumor last month, CBS rushed to print, attributing the story in their headline to “reports.” The only source for those reports at the time of publication was an unauthorized tell-all writer who had also told tabloids that Lamar Odom and Caitlyn Jenner are “intimate.”

Generally speaking, when commenting on rumors of this sort, news organizations should either wait for a more credible source than a tabloid or get a comment from the relevant party before clicking “publish.” But as long as transgender people can still be made into public spectacles, journalistic integrity will keep on taking a backseat to sensationalism.

That was certainly the case with the Simmons story. Dozens of tabloids spread the gossip, of course, but that’s to be expected. More disappointing is the fact that some news outlets that should know better took the bait.

The Orlando Sentinel ran a story early on Wednesday with the headline “Report: Richard Simmons had sex change” without waiting for comment.

The conservative Daily Caller also reprinted the Enquirer’s claim, publishing a separate story a few hours later with the denial instead of fixing the headline.

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The International Business Times creatively phrased it as a question: “Is Richard Simmons Transitioning Into a Woman?”

And the Viacom-owned BET declared that “Fitness Icon Richard Simmons is Now Allegedly a Woman Named Fiona” before reporting in an additional story that he “broke his silence about [the] rumors.”

Since when did the National Enquirer become worthy of reprinting? And why are rumors about transgender people fair game when most other Enquirer stories would be dismissed as tabloid trash?

When can we expect the International Business Times to report on Hillary Clinton’s secret lesbian love letters or Fox News to reveal the identity of Marco Rubio’s lovechild? So eager are some outlets to participate in a public outing that they are willing to completely ignore the obvious unreliability of their source.

The reality is that Simmons largely keeps to himself after going off the grid almost entirely a few years ago, making him the perfect target for this reliable tabloid trick. It’s easy to invent a “sex change” story about any male celebrity who has stayed out of the public eye for long enough, especially one who is frequently called “flamboyant.” The cottage industry of fake transition rumors is much older than Caitlyn Jenner and the way things are going, it will outlive her, too.

It has also been a little over a year since Caitlyn Jenner’s historic coming-out interview with Diane Sawyer so it’s no surprise that less-than-truthful outlets like the Enquirer are itching to break the next big transgender story. The Enquirer didn’t even hide their desire to replace Jenner coverage with hot new Simmons stories, captioning their cover: “Why She’s the New Caitlyn Jenner!” They wish.

This isn’t about what’s true or not—it’s about checkout-line rags needing a new famous transsexual to grace their covers.

Even if the rumors were true, it would be wholly irresponsible to amplify them. Outing LGBT people before they are ready to come out can impact their familial relationships, their careers, and even their mental health. That applies to everyone from the many closeted LGBT people we all interact with on a daily basis to a reality TV superstar like Caitlyn Jenner, who was hounded by the tabloids long before the ABC Sawyer interview.

In its ethics code, the Society of Professional Journalists recommends that reporters “minimize harm” by treating their subjects as “human beings deserving of respect.” We don’t expect tabloids to respect their subjects, but we should expect that from outlets that aspire to provide real news.

Maybe one day, when transgender people are seen as human beings, rumors like this will finally be tossed in the garbage where they belong.