Transphobia Strikes Again on Conan

Co-authored by Jac Cichocki

The Oct. 1 episode of Conan featured a parody song sung by a man in a wig making effeminate gestures, written, performed, and intended for the purpose of comedy -- this being the second time that the show has featured transphobic tropes and rhetoric, despite Laverne Cox calling Conan O'Brien the "first transgender talk show host" in a historic skit only last month.

The lyrics to the parody song reinforce the idea that men who are sexually or romantically attracted to trans women should be ashamed and need to hide it. The line "I could swear that guy was female" is merely an excuse for what the narrator believes to be inexcusably poor behavior and a justification for his "honest mistake." This is also established by the secretive and cheap "carwash at night" setting of the whole narrative.

The lyrics feature the all-too-common "trap" characterization of trans women -- "It was such an honest mistake" -- and casual deadnaming, where the subject of the song is called "Greg." This serves solely to support the idea that this practice is acceptable. The sketch involves framing a trans women who does not disclose her trans status as deceitful, reinforcing the belief that everyone has a "right to know," which is another tool used by those who are transphobic to shame their victims rather than admit their own guilt as perpetrators of transphobia. This is yet another example of how the mainstream media attempt to normalize and provide justification for the "trans panic" defense, which refers to the state of violent "temporary insanity" that some claim to experience after someone else discloses their transgender status. This fear-based framing and negative representation of transgender people in mainstream media influences the way the public thinks. Justifying anger toward a trans person as a reaction to the disclosure of their trans status contributes to the high rates and graphic nature of murders perpetrated against trans women today.

In addition to the sketch itself, there is yet another issue: For accurately interpreting the band's performance as a parody of Aerosmith's "Dude Looks Like a Lady," the contestant is gifted a "serial-killer 'See 'n' Say,'" which reinforces the irrational fear of trans people committing violent crimes against others that is so often the unsubstantiated and easily disproven allegation made by trans-exclusionary radical feminists and right-wing groups such as Focus on the Family.

The "See 'n' Say" toy's reference to Ed Gein was no coincidence. Ed Gein was the cross-dressing serial killer who is alleged to have been the basis for the fictional character Buffalo Bill in the film Silence of the Lambs, one of the most glaringly awful examples of the "scary transsexual" or "transsexual killer" trope in the mainstream media.

Below is a transcript of the Conan segment:

Conan O'Brien: [Reading hint to contestant:] "'If we tried to play this Aerosmith song without paying the band, my producers would be saying, "Dude, looks like a lawsuit."'" [Gesturing at the band:] "Gentlemen?" [Band plays instrumental song intro.] "Oh, my god, that's awful." [To contestant:] "Uh, uh, what does that sort of sound like?"

Contestant: "Uh, maybe 'Dude Looks Like a Lady'?"

O'Brien: "OK! That sounds like 'Dude Looks Like a Lady'; it's actually 'I Could Swear That Guy Was Female.' And here's that awful performer to sing it again. I hate this guy."

Singer: [Singing:] "I could swear that guy was female. / It was such an honest mistake. / And it was so dark in that car wash. / Plus, lots of girls are named Greg."

O'Brien: [To singer:] "Why do I keep bringing you back? You're awful."

Singer: "All right! I hang out at the DMV for simple human contact."

O'Brien: [To Andy Richter:] "What do we have for my friend here, uh, Jeff?"

Andy Richter: "Teach your kids the ABCs of murder with this serial-killer 'See 'n' Say'! Check it out!"

Toy: "Ed Gein says, 'I wanna wear your skin!'"

The medicalization, sensationalization, and vilification of trans women must stop. Mainstream media and law enforcement are failing to investigate the crimes against us, prosecute our perpetrators, and cover our murders (not to mention how they commonly misgender us in when our deaths are covered or publicized). We will not stand for the media continuously attributing comedic value to our appearance or existence. We will not stand for the media constantly instigating fear and anger in an uninformed public. And we will not stand for the media's erasure of the authenticity of our experience through our lack of representation.

Even though groups such as GLAAD and NCTE have yet to respond, we are hopeful that the issues raised by Conan's show will eventually be addressed by the mainstream LGBT organizations and condemned for the damage that they have perpetuated against the transgender community.