Even Hate Crimes Against Us Are Punchlines. What Do Straight People Expect?

Legs and feet beside spilled popcorn in movie theatre
Legs and feet beside spilled popcorn in movie theatre

There I was, on the Wednesday after the massacre at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, having a fairly hard time of it. Hate crimes are hard to process, and at this magnitude even more so. Beyond that bare fact, one of the murdered was an old friend: the bouncer, KJ Morris. We'd been young butches together fifteen years ago; I taught her to tie a necktie. Compounding the hardness, for me, was the tension and upset my Black and Latinx and other POC friends and family were feeling as the racism of the attack continually went unrecognized. White gays all over the internet talked about "LGBTQ people feeling unsafe now" in ways that suggested this was new news for some of the cis white folks, or something they thought was past. Exhausted and a meter past the end of my patience, I tapped out for a few hours of self care in the form of an escapist heist movie and a tub of popcorn as big as my head.

I am always in time for the previews because I am a compulsive earlybird, but today I wished like hell I'd been delayed. Because there on the screen, smack in the middle of the previews for a movie called Bad Moms starring Mila Kunis, Christina Applegate and Kristen Bell was a joke about murdered trans man Brandon Teena. Some of the other moms are having a go at Mila Kunis for the bra she thinks of as her "sexy bra," and one of them says "I don't even want to touch it....You got a very Boys Don't Cry thing happening right now."

In case you're not familiar, Boys Don't Cry is the title of a movie about the short life and brutal death of Brandon Teena, a trans man who was raped and then murdered in a small town in Nebraska, because people found out he was transgender. In the movie, there's a short scene in which Brandon is shown binding -- the common term for trans guys using a lycra undershirt or ace bandage to make their chests look flat, and therefore more like a man's chest. Not content to make a joke about a compression bra looking like the adaptive devices trans guys use to be able to get through the world with a measure more safety and comfort in a world that hates us, Bad Moms went all the way there and camped out by using the title of this movie about a real-life transphobic murder as the joke.

There I sat in the movie theatre, open mouthed, trying to understand what I'd seen. Trying to parse the idea that in order to add a seventh insult to the six previous tepid ones about Mila Kunis's mom-bra, the writers of this major motion picture had thought it would be just fine to invoke the brutal rape and murder of a trans man. The idea that at no point in all the times that all the people involved in the making of a movie saw this -- in script, when the actors said it live, watching the day's footage, in editing, and who knows how many more times nobody stopped and said "Hey, maybe we shouldn't make a cheap joke out of a hate crime?" And then -- and then! -- not content with only inflicting this re-traumatization on people who volitionally went to see Bad Moms, they put it in the trailer. This is one of the very best and most enticing moments of the film, that means. Look, would you, how good they are at hate crime jokes.

Of course none of this is new. Transphobic jokes have been a staple of movie "humor" for quite a while, and there has been endless sport made of how hilarious it is for a man to don a dress, ha ha, or how revolting it is for these characters of human beings to discover that their cute girl date has (or may at some point have had) a penis. I don't remember a movie ever using an actual transphobic hate crime as joke fodder before this, and certainly not in the trailer, but maybe this is another example of how we remain blind to certain instances of prejudice because they don't resonate personally.

In the wake of hate crimes like the massacre in Orlando, I see a lot of hand-wringing on social media and in the news media. Self-described "allies," in this case straight white cisgender people, engage is a little round of "how could this happen?" How, Mildred? It happens because we're still allowed to be a punchline and nobody gives a damn. It happens because tens of thousands of people will see this movie, in which Kristen Bell -- who has been all over Twitter since Sunday with pro-"LGBT" tweets -- is apparently fine to make hate crimes against trans people a punchline in a major motion picture. Thanks for the pithy comments but I think I can safely say, Kristen, that we don't need allies like you at all. Nor Christina Applegate, who has been doing the same on social media and stars in the same movie. Apparently that concern for "the LGBT community" only extends as far as it doesn't cause a problem with their paychecks.

I was so stunned by what I'd seen on the screen that I immediately convinced myself I had been mistaken about what I'd heard. I'm tired, I'm emotional, I was crunching my popcorn -- surely not. But when I went online later to find out what I'd misheard, I found that I'd heard right the first time. There it was, right there, a throwaway joke about one of the first hate crimes against a trans person ever to get any media attention at all -- the rape and murder of a boy of twenty-one, absolutely and entirely because he was transgender. Ha. Ha, ha.

No? Not funny? How about that fifty people were murdered Sunday and a further fifty hospitalized because they were at a gay Latinx night at a club? Is that funny? I might need some help understanding which hate crimes are funny. Because I just don't see the damn joke in any of them. Another trans woman of color was murdered in new Orleans last weekend, the fourteenth this year so far, and she was just coming out when she was killed. What she would have brought to the struggle for liberation, we'll never know.

I'm more tired, more scared, and more frustrated with empty "allyship" than I started this week (which is saying something). I can't see how change is going to come, not like this. And I cannot imagine, not even at the limits of my ability, how anyone can still look around and say "how could this happen?" about hate crimes against queer people, trans people, black and brown people, women, and on, and on. It's because we're dehumanized every day in the media. It's because the joke isn't on us, it is us. How are we supposed to teach children to stand for justice and equality when they're surrounded daily with endless, reinforcing messages that only some people's lives are important and others are fine to make a joke about, even if those lives have been brutally snuffed out way too soon? How did this happen, you're asking? Just listen, really listen, for one entire day to everything that flows into your eyes and ears, and notice what's erased too. Notice whose experience is treated as real and valid, and who never gets represented (or only as a joke). Take a look at how media and ads and everything we live among reinforces who to take seriously and who it's safe to ignore, especially when no one's totaling up ally points and handing out cookies.

When you finish, I doubt you'll be asking "how did this happen?"