Transmissions: Out of touch

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I doubt she’d admit it, but my mother enjoys celebrity gossip. Growing up, it was common to see her toss a tabloid in the shopping cart to keep up with the latest.

A few years after I came out, my mother — who was then only starting to come to terms with the fact that she did not have a son — would query me on various celebrities, trying to find out if they were (as the tabloids claimed) gay or lesbian. I assume she maybe figured we all have lunch on Thursday afternoon or some such.

She asked about Cruise and Travolta, DeGeneres and O’Donnell. About some I had a tidbit or two about, but about 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, reality TV; then, Jenner was known as an Olympic gold medalist and “Wheaties” model.

Over the last several years, Jenner has been part of the reality show focusing on the children of his now-former wife. And he has undergone plastic surgery, grown his hair out and taken to earrings and manicures. The tabloids have gone nuts.

Just like daytime talk shows, trans stories are not uncommon in the tabloids, which, like the former, tend to focus on more salacious stories. I still remember some of the stories of transgender people in my mom’s tabloids; they were far more interesting to me than the celebrity trysts.

The last couple years have been big ones for transgender people, and this includes in 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, where, 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 was 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 back 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, Jenner’s story was not one I paid attention to; celebrities make a living out of being noticed. Further, transgender people have certainly been on plenty of magazines before, including a groundbreaking appearance on Time 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 the 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. They have put transgender people at risk.

I doubt I was at any personal risk in the checkout line. I live in a fairly friendly area, and we’re regulars at the market. But others are nowhere near as fortunate; they are at risk of violence at home, school, the workplace and in their own neighborhoods. This cover feeds into a culture that — in spite of our advances — still sees transgender people as freaks. That is what they literally painted Jenner as on that cover.

This, too, is what fuels transgender people to self-loathing, 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 opted to display a somewhat-masculine Jenner in bad make-up and someone else’s coat and scarf. What message does this send to the next Leelah Alcorn?

Someone else’s mother will pick up this tabloid and think this really is what transgender people are all about. How will that affect the real transgender people she meets? How many will be harmed?