The Trans Comedic Punch Line Jumps the Shark

It's become a cliché that social change moves at a faster pace in today's socially connected world than ever before. Not only would that be a comfort for the trans community, and our LGBQ allies, but it would be welcome for the community that needs and deserves it the most, the African-American community. While I take little regarding celebrity seriously, there are trends that sweep through the public that devour all things celebrity that are a good metric for the direction in which the country is moving.

Awards ceremonies are one such metric. Trans-themed films and television programs have become more popular and honored in the past few years. Granted, most people don't watch Netflix and Amazon -- produced series -- yet -- but that the various awards groups recognize those platforms brings them to the attention to a wider audience.

Last year at this time Transparent, and its lead actor, Jeffrey Tambor, were widely feted as a breakthrough program, and won multiple awards. Comedian Aziz Ansari, with a new series on Netflix, and a GG nominee, was seen reading a book at this year's Golden Globes gala entitled, Losing to Jeffrey Tambor with Dignity.


While neither Transparent nor Tambor won this year, they were even more critically acclaimed. Last year's award came less than a month before the breakthrough trans event of the year, the coming out of Caitlyn Jenner.

Regardless of what you think of her, or her performance as the world's most famous trans woman, she sparked a revolution in trans coverage throughout the media. Trans women had long been the butt of late night comedy, but the attacks were few and far between. We were off the nation's radar, and that included comedy. Comedians have to tap into the national zeitgeist to get laughs, and it wasn't until Jenner came out that the community was mined for comedic gold.

Trans persons expect it, brace for it, complain about it or ignore it. Sometimes they even appreciate that being targeted is a sign of growing visibility, and even acceptance. The jokes usually expose the comedian's disquiet with his own sexuality more than anything else. Still, it stings. It stung me when Milton Berle did it, then Flip Wilson, Billy Crystal and many more. There was an edge to it, more homophobic than transphobic, and in those years it covered a lot of anxiety and fear.

Those days are gone. There are some comedians, like Bill Maher, who seem smitten with Jenner, but the humor is losing its edge. More importantly, it's losing its power. Watch the audience reaction to Ricky Gervais' opening monologue where he targets Jenner. He wasn't cruel, correctly used "trans" community, was approving of her bravery and only criticized her driving as the punch line. One could say deservedly.

The shtick about Tambor, however tasteless it was, managed to distinguish Tambor the man, with male genitals, from Caitlyn Jenner, the woman, without male genitals. That shows a sophistication that's been lacking in public discussions about trans issues.

Here's the monologue -- draw your own conclusions:

But as I say I'm gonna be nice tonight. I've changed. Not as much as Bruce Jenner, obviously. Now Caitlyn Jenner, of course. What a year she's had! She became a role model for trans people everywhere, showing great bravery in breaking down barriers and destroying stereotypes. She didn't do a lot for women drivers. But you can't have everything, can you? Not at the same time.

At least Jeffrey Tambor did it in a dress. What a year he's had! What an actor, what a role. Every day he has to put on all the women's clothes and the hair and makeup and let people film it. That takes balls. I don't know how he does it. I really don't. I've seen his balls -- they're huge, and long. I don't know if he tucked them in the bra or does that thing where you push them out the back and let them hang out, like a bulldog -- no one knows. I love Jeffrey Tambor. I don't know if that's because he's such a great actor or because he reminds me of my nan.

Of course, this is just my opinion. Others used phrases like "mean-spirited," and "at the expense of trans persons." One such writer was Chase Strangio, writing for the ACLU. Carly Ledbetter at the Huffington Post, and others tweeted their disapproval, The National LGBTQ Task Force and Dawn Ennis writing in the Advocate joined in.

To give an example of why I differ from the majority here, and am much more optimistic, let me examine the issue of "deadnaming." This is the act of using someone's pre-transition name, usually with the intent of outing, shaming or humiliating that person. Using the pre-transition name, in and of itself, however, is not deadnaming. There are instances when it's very appropriate, from police blotters to government archival records.

In this case Gervais used "Bruce" before "Caitlyn," but his intention was evident in his using appropriate pronouns. We should remember that a year ago Caitlyn was still Bruce, and even during her interview with Diane Sawyer presented as and went by "Bruce." "Call me Cait" hit the world on June 1st, so clearly she was going as "Bruce" for 42 percent of 2015. She even requested that we use male pronouns until she was ready, and most of the community's writers respected that request. Given that recent history, it's not transphobic to use "Bruce" in the context of referencing her transition. Opposition to deadnaming is based on demanding respect and civility, and just as one shouldn't go nuclear when the wrong pronoun is used in error, attacking every use of an old name is overkill. We're not fragile flowers, and we should save our ammunition for more important battles.

Overall, I sense that the concept of joking about trans persons is coming to end as the jokes themselves are more nuanced and much less hostile. As people get to know more of us, and we've got a long way to go as we're still known by fewer than 20 percent of the population, then we'll no longer be one of the easier targets, and the jokes will fade away. The audience reaction Sunday was evidence that process has begun. Getting people comfortable is a process, and not always a pleasant one at all points along the way.

Maintaining a sense of humor is always a good attribute to have, for the targets as well as the purveyors of humor.