For Leno, Gay People Continue to Be a Punchline

A mom shares a story about her empathetic 4-year-old son's reaction to the Jets-Patriots game last week. While watching the post-game press conference, the child goes up to the television where there is an image of a sad coach who just lost his playoff game. With the charming innocence of a toddler, the child kisses the screen to make the coach feel better. "It was so cute," says the mom with an adoring smile.

But in response to the mom's sweet story, the man sitting across the table doesn't laugh, but makes a joke: "Was dad concerned by this?" The audience cracks into laughter. The mom is Amy Poehler and the man across the table is Jay Leno.

The joke is supposed to be funny because it plays on the assumption that fathers across America should be uncomfortable with their four-year old son not acting "manly" enough. "The dad's like, OK, he's four, let's pick it up!" Leno schticks. But that same joke also sends a message to everyone watching that it's okay to laugh at people who might not live up to Jay Leno's rigid gender expectations.

Relax, it's just a joke, right? Right, and in the grand scheme of things, Leno has said far more offensive things than this one-liner.

But it's still a joke whose punch line is that a four-year-old boy shouldn't comfort Bill Belichick because he is a man. It's also a joke that sends a message to young people that it's okay to belittle their peers who aren't conforming to gender expectations. The "lesson" of an offhanded joke like Leno's can and is quickly assimilated into the conduct of adolescents.

What's sad about Jay Leno's joke is that it was so unsurprising. Comedy routinely plays on types and often makes fun of people from all walks of life. But jokes like this one -- ones that reaffirm these stereotypes for laughs -- can also make things harder for gay and transgender people who already face tremendous hurdles.

What's even sadder was that he made the joke about a child's behavior and a parent's expectations. When young people come out, the first people they should be able to go to are their parents. And at a time when so many of us are asking why our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth are being physically or verbally bullied or worse -- shouldn't we want a child to believe they can go to their father to talk about it? But who would go talk to a dad like the one in Leno's joke?

I think Queerty blogger JD said it best, "I'm willing to laugh at pretty much anything. Crude humor? Bring it on. But children 'acting gay' is not a punchline."