By Gwendolyn Ann Smith
I doubt she’d be the one to admit it, but my mother enjoys celebrity gossip. When I was growing up, it was quite common to see her toss a tabloid in the shopping cart so she could keep up with the latest rumors.
A few years after I came out, I was working for a GLBT organization. My mother — who was then only starting to come to terms with the fact that she did not have a son — would ask me about various celebrities, trying to find out if they were — as the tabloids claimed — gay or lesbian. I assume she maybe figured that we all had lunch on Thursday afternoon or some such.
She asked about Cruise and Travolta, DeGeneres and O’Donnell. Some of the ones she asked about I actually had a tidbit or two about, but most I had no clue. To be honest, I don’t much care: the interest in celebrity gossip does not appear to be a genetic illness.
One name that came up, all those years ago, was Bruce Jenner. At the time, Jenner had supposedly gotten a nose job, I recall, and people started to whisper about it.
This was ages before “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” or, for that matter, the rise of reality television. At that time, Jenner was best known as an Olympic gold medalist and Wheaties box model.
I told my mother that I had no clue one way or another, and the subject changed.
Over the last several years, of course, Jenner has been part of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” a reality show focusing on the children of his now-former wife. In the last couple years, Jenner has undergone more plastic surgery, grown his hair our and taken to earrings and manicures. The tabloids have, of course, gone nuts.
Of course, just like daytime talk shows, trans stories are not uncommon in the tabloids. Like the former, they also tend to focus on more salacious stories. I still remember some of the stories of transgender people I read in my mom’s old tabloids growing up. As you can gather, they were far more interesting to me than the latest celebrity trysts.
The last couple years have been big ones for transgender people, and this includes the celebrity rags. Chaz Bono is still a regular feature in the supermarket lines several years after his transition, and there have been quite a few stories revolving around celebrity children potentially exploring their own gender identities.
This week, my spouse and I went to the supermarket on our weekly stop for provisions. There, on the rack next to the gum and mints, was Bruce Jenner, right on the cover of In Touch magazine. Well, mostly Jenner. His head was poorly photoshopped onto the body of former “Dynasty” star Stephanie Beecham, and he’s been given a poorly painted-on make up job. The headline claims that this is “Bruce’s Story” of his life as a woman.
Now, much like I said to my mother all those years ago, I really don’t know if Jenner is trans. He could be, or he could be just another celebrity on a plastic surgery kick. More than this, I don’t much care what he chooses to do with his life.
I do care, however, when a tabloid decides to put this sort of story out there.
Until this week at the supermarket, the Jenner story was not something I paid much attention to. Celebrities make a living out of being noticed, and Jenner is no different.
Furthermore, transgender people have certainly been on plenty of magazines before, including a rather groundbreaking appearance on Time magazine last year by Laverne Cox of “Orange is the New Black.”
This badly photoshopped photo isn’t like Cox’s Time cover. If anything, it is comical: a hit piece designed to scorn Jenner and — by extension — his ex-wife and family. The overall look of this cover is clownish, a thinly veiled mockery.
Whether they fully realized it or not, however, In Touch has painted a broader target than Jenner and the Kardashians. By putting this out, they have put transgender people at risk.
I doubt that I was at any risk personally as I spotted this tabloid in the checkout line. I live today in a fairly friendly area, and we’re regulars at the market. I’m sure they’re well aware of my transgender status and don’t seem to care much one way or another. Perhaps I’m the source of some entertaining break-room discussion.
Others are nowhere near as fortunate. Others are at risk of violence in the home, in their school, at their workplaces and in their own neighborhoods. This cover only feeds into a culture that — in spite of our advances — still sees transgender people as freaks. That is what they have literally painted Jenner as on that cover.
This, too, is what fuels transgender people to self-loathing, to hatred and violence against themselves. When Leelah Alcorn took her life, one of her fears was that — as she was not being allowed to start her transition early — she would always appear masculine. In Touch has opted to display a somewhat-masculine Jenner in bad makeup and someone else’s coat and scarf. What sort of message does this send to the next Leelah Alcorn?
Someone else’s mother will pick up this tabloid and think that this really is what transgender people are all about: how will that affect the real transgender people she meets? How many will be harmed?