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The Amazing Non-Normal Trans Love Story That’s Perfectly at Home In Oprah’s Magazine

While flipping through the latest issue of O: The Oprah Magazine, I had what I’ve come to think of as an “O double-take.” That happens when the magazine comes up with an article that complicates stereotypical women’s magazine offerings–such as “Why Women Are Leaving Men for Other Women” or “Comedian Carol Leifer’s Midlife Surprise” (she fell in love with a woman, too). Am I really seeing this, and am I seeing it here?

My latest O double-take was set off by the article “The One” by Allison Cooper–about her “falling in love with a transgender man.” I checked the front cover (see right). Yes, this was O, featuring an unexceptional women’s mag theme: “Real Love: Are You with Your Soul Mate?” There was no other exclamatory headline to tip off readers–no “Ciswoman Falls for a Trans Man!” Nothing to hint that queer content would be folded in with the typically heterosexual/gender-normative fare.

I assumed that author Cooper would bend over backward to make the case that she and the man she loves [pictured] are just like everyone else, that she would assume the bland, homogenizing tone of assimilationists everywhere. But, in fact, she’s quite open about how the very concept of “normal” can limit individual freedom:

Normal has never been too kind to women, to children, or people of color, people mired in poverty, anyone different in any way. Normal is good for no one, really. It is a lie we all decide to believe–after even the most cursory look, no one is actually normal; it is a plastic bag we wrap around our own heads.

For many readers of O, I’m guessing, this romantic tale laced with friendly instructional tidbits will be challenging. (Sample teaching moment: “If the only true definition of manliness is ‘one who possesses a working penis,’ that poses an interesting dilemma for the guy who’s suffered, say, an unfortunate lamb shearing accident.”) But there’s nothing in the presentation that sensationalizes or demonizes. If anything, it’s a bit overly sentimental for my taste, although that’s not a bad rhetorical strategy for the author’s purposes.

I’m not a regular viewer of Oprah’s TV show, but my sense is that when gay, lesbian bisexual and transgender issues are taken up, the titillation factor is high. Recall the frenzy surrounding Oprah’s interview with “pregnant man” Thomas Beattie. In episodes such as this, audience reactions range from supportive to outright hostile, and the tension between these reactions is a crucial part of the show.

In the magazine, though, the presentation of queer issues is more uniformly positive, sheltered beneath the O motto “Live Your Best Life.” If, as in the case of Cooper’s essay, the author tells you in her first sentence, “This is a love story,” there’s no one to stand up and say, “Oh no it’s not!” or “That’s wrong!” Since the piece falls within a section of the magazine called “The Way We Love Now,” the reader is implicitly invited to see their relationship as just another square in the crazy quilt of diversity.

My O double-takes often include Oprah herself. How can this 50-something woman so successfully have eluded traditional femininity, yet reign over an empire that largely revolves around domesticity and bourgeois culture? Isn’t there something more than a bit queer about Oprah herself? I’m not saying I think she’s gay (although I wouldn’t be the first to do so)–just as Cooper and her fiancé aren’t gay–instead, what’s clear is that she falls outside the boundaries of normal ideas about gender and sexuality.

As a non-trans woman, I mostly read magazines like O from a privileged position. The women represented in these mags are more often like me than not. At the same time, as a queer person/lesbian, I’m used to not seeing those aspects of myself there. So when queerness comes into the mainstream, as it does with surprising frequency and without apparent controversy in the pages of O, I take notice. Although I’m skeptical about whether a publication and a personality so entrenched in marketing and consumerism can contribute to genuine social change, I give O credit for expanding the audience for the discussion of queer issues. It made me look more than once. Maybe it can get people who might not otherwise see such things at all to think twice.

This post, titled “How Queer is Oprah?,” originally appeared on Ms. magazine’s blog. It’s reprinted here with permission.

By:          
 
Audrey Bilger is an Associate Professor at Claremont McKenna College, where she teaches classes in Literature, Gender Studies, and yoga. She is author of Laughing Feminism, editor of Jane Collier’s 1753 satire An Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting, and a frequent contributor to Bitch magazine. Her work whose work has been featured in The Paris Review, Rockrgrl, the Huffington Post, and the Women's Media Center.
 

On:           Mar 24, 2010
Tagged: , , , ,

  • 12 Comments
    • terrwill
      terrwill

      Maybe she is laying the ground work for finally admiting that she and Gayle have been a couple for the past twenty years……..

      Mar 24, 2010 at 4:39 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Mike
      Mike

      Why would the owners of Queerty believe that the way to draw an audience is to have a professor of “gender studies” write posts? Was there a sudden reader demand for hectoring, moralizing screeds?

      As a survivor of gender studies classes at the undergraduate and graduate level, I can say from experience that there are no people more self-righteous, vicious, arrogant, and close-minded than gender studies profs. They are the mirror image of right-wing profs at Liberty University, except for the fact that Liberty U. profs treat one another better. I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky that the good professor deigned to write in plain English and not the purposely opaque and inscrutable writing style favored by gender studies “scholars”. Please, more Wavy Davy and fewer morally stunted academics with delusions of moral superiority.

      Mar 24, 2010 at 7:29 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • A
      A

      @Mike: Aren’t you that virulently transphobic commenter that goes around on all trans articles bashing and insulting trans people?

      Mar 25, 2010 at 10:36 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Sam
      Sam

      Wow. I was just about to comment that I loved this article and that it’s exactly what Queerty needs more of, and then I saw Mike’s comment. I say: more substance, more cultural analysis, more articles by professors, way less Davy Wavy. This is one of the better articles I’ve read on Queerty. I come here for the snark and the beefcake, but I’m still pleasantly surprised to find something to think about.

      As for the story itself, cute couple. The transman kinda reminds me of Mac Guy.

      Mar 25, 2010 at 10:51 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Ben
      Ben

      The only thing better than this short analysis is the actual article itself. One of the most thoughtful, trans positive pieces I’ve seen in a mainstream outlet.

      Thanks, Queerty. Bravo, O Magazine.

      Mar 25, 2010 at 12:33 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • missanthrope
      missanthrope

      If queerty starts posting more article gender studies professors than one speculating that if Lady Gaga has a wang, I would come around hear a lot more.

      Mar 25, 2010 at 6:30 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Taylor Siluwé
      Taylor Siluwé

      Mike must have been molested by a Queer Studies professor. He might wanna see somebody about the lingering damage to his personality.

      This is an awesome piece about such a mainstream and wildly popular magazine treating a queer love affair beautifully. Kudos to Queerty for including it.

      Mike probably hates puppies, too.

      Mar 25, 2010 at 7:07 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Shruti
      Shruti

      Adorable! They’re such a cute couple too!

      Also, Mike, why the beef with queer studies professors? Do you have a beef with academia in general?

      Mar 26, 2010 at 1:46 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • adman
      adman

      That writing was the most deliberately pedantic and slanted I’ve seen in a while. She must be an academic…*looks to the footer* Oh snap! she is. This article was a huge fail. Sorry, fail all over the place. Oprah is nothing, the trannys are nothing, we, the audience are nothing, the writer tho—WOW! SHE is something. Something arrogant and suffocating that is. I feel the plastic bag thing, lady. I know exactly what you mean now.

      Mar 28, 2010 at 8:36 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • jeffree
      jeffree

      Oprah has done more 2 influence the daytime TV audiences’ views on gays/ lesbians/ trans people than anyone (Ellen is great too but O has been around lots longer). Her magazine helps too.

      remember when Martha featurred a gay couple’s wedding & the xtians went on attack like rabbid foamy mouth dogs?? O can expect the same.

      thanks Queerty for the story. Even us gay men can forget that the LOVE STORY is what were looking for 2 read, & 2 live.

      Mar 28, 2010 at 10:24 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • lsk
      lsk

      Its nice that they found each other and love is love. Personally I dont think this story has anything to do with being gay and Id really appreciate it if the self appointed mags and journals of the “gay” community would please stop lumping gay people in with gender identity and changing ones physical sex to another Please please stop!. Being gay is not a medical issue involving changing ones sexual identity in order to live a heterosexual lifestyle. Why are these people lumped in with gays for any other reason to recieve support and funding. They really should stand on theyre own two feet form their own pride group and support each other. As long as we are called the LGBT community we will forever be identified as people with a physical sexual disorder. Being born gay is not a “disorder” but being born a man in a womans body or vice versa is a disorder that can only be helped by a surgical procedure medication and hormones. Living life as a gay man and being tansexual are worlds apart though its interesting it has nothing to do with living as a naturally born gay man. And i find it offensive that I am automaitcally grouped in with transexuals. And they should be too. I cant tell you how many times I have heard transexuals tell me “I AM NOT GAY”.

      May 3, 2010 at 10:35 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Michael
      Michael

      LSK: I know your comment is from over a month ago, but I had to address part of it.

      You say “Being gay is not a medical issue involving changing ones sexual identity in order to live a heterosexual lifestyle.” Neither is being trans. You’ve got the first part right, it’s a medical issue. But trans people DO NOT transition in order to live a heterosexual lifestyle. As a bisexual, leaning-toward-gay trans man, I am living proof that this analysis of transsexuality is a misconception. Trans people can be any sexual orientation, just like non-trans people.

      Just wanted that fact to be part of this public record, even if you never see this reply.

      Jun 12, 2010 at 6:40 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·

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