It's more likely than you think. Entertainment media has been able to get away with perpetuating and reinforcing subtle hatred for a very long time. It's easy to think that we're making progress, but are we really?
Imagine for a moment that you're sitting down to your favorite sitcom, and in this week's episode, our main character can't get a date. His best buddy buys him an escort, and the man is terrified until his friend reassures him that he would never "stick [him] with some toothless tr*nny from Port Authority." The laugh track plays, and no one watching at home gives a second thought to the careless use of that word, but "tr*nny" is not a synonym for transgender. It's a slur that carries a long history of hatred, violence and oppression.
For the most part, it seems like society recognizes that slurs have no place on tv or in our daily language, but cisgender (non-trans) people call me a "tr*nny" all the time. I don't take kindly to it. That's not their word to use, and for the most part, even we don't use it. I try to explain that word is a slur but they just tell me to "chill," because "no one likes an angry tr*nny." Slurs have power. They carry institutionalized hatred based on myths and stereotypes, and serve to create a hostile environment, which can often claim lives.
Is it really that bad? Let's get back to our show and see. Several seasons later, our main character is on a date and none of his friends seem to like this girl at all. He wonders if she might have had a man framed for rape (a whole other bucket of misogyny in and of itself), or if she might get off on killing puppies, but then he has an even worse thought as he imagines excusing himself to use the restroom, after which his date ponders aloud if he might be using the urinal, reminiscing about when she had a penis. It paints a picture that transness is somehow worse than murdering baby animals, and society laughs, and they learn to see us as deviants, predators and tricksters, when the reality is that somewhere right now another transgender youth is taking their own life, and another transwoman of color is being murdered by her lover as a result of the impacts of tasteless jokes and blind ignorance.
Casual transphobia is the root of all transphobia. It's not the overt things like zealots in the streets with "god hates trannies" signs, or a man smashing a glass into a transwoman's face. Instead, it serves to enable and justify true hatred, and convince society, and even us that we are worth inherently less because of our transness.
It's the subtle things, like total strangers asking us the most intimate questions, and paying us back-handed "compliments" that treat transness as a negative. It's every story from a straight cis person about a "gay cousin" that "proves" they "don't judge." It's realizing you're someone's token trans friend, or being asked by a stranger to help her settle a bet with her friends as to whether or not you're "really a guy"
It's every time a cisgender actor gets cast for the leading role of a trans character in a film about trans lives written, directed and produced by a cis team for a cisgender audience, and it's the people rolling their eyes right now at my abundant use of the word "cisgender" instead of "normal" who don't understand that the word "cisgender" is absolutely necessary and in no way offensive because transgender people are normal.
The saddest part is that cis, or trans, we have all unintentionally contributed to an environment that carelessly ends trans lives without knowing any better. You might not want to harm trans people, but that's the thing about casual transphobia; It doesn't need to have true hate behind it to be real and harmful. The good news is that it's really easy to change so much just by learning to educate ourselves, challenge our norms and recognize that if a trans person says something is harmful to trans people, it is harmful to trans people. The knee-jerk reaction is to defend ourselves and try to justify it, but this is wrong, and it's not hard to learn to acknowledge our privilege, apologize, start educating ourselves and others. And you know what? It's okay. We are all human and we all make mistakes. The important part is owning up and fixing them.
And speaking of fixing things, let's get back to our sitcom. Because as much as I wish it was only hypothetical, it's not. It's How I Met Your Mother, and it somehow even won a GLAAD Award for "fair, inclusive and accurate depictions of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender communities." in spite of continuing season after season, with many more examples than I can list here, to use it's main character's rather paranoid level of transphobia as one of it's main comedic staples.
I hope the irony at least gives you pause, because I can't fathom it. And I hope we can all see the need to eliminate casual transphobia, because in the end, it's not just a joke. It costs trans lives, and it shouldn't be so hard to stop clinging to this lazy, tired, unfunny brand of "humor." Bigoted, ignorant humor isn't sacred. Trans lives are sacred. Is a shift in language so much to ask to save those lives?
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