Two years ago, I summoned the courage to stop lying to myself and come out of the closet, beginning my transition to humorless killjoy professional-victim uptight bitch.
At least, that’s what several old acquaintances and most of the internet would have you believe. Ever since I began living openly as a transgender woman, people’s treatment of me has subtly changed. Here in passive-aggressive Portland, I’ve rarely experienced outright hostility, but I’ve been subject to countless microaggressions and bristly defensiveness from cisgender people. I’ve noticed a distinct pattern when cis folks have to grapple with my expression of marginalized struggle: it so often comes down to my supposed negativity and lack of humor.
Last year, when I discovered a series of transmisogynist jokes that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert had made on their respective television shows The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, I expressed my discomfort to some university friends. One “friend” shouted me out of the dorm lounge with a rant about how comedy is “about making fun of people” and “no one’s allowed to be funny anymore.” More recently, when a high school buddy posted a Facebook comment calling me an affectionate nickname (a feminized version of my deadname), and I very politely asked her to delete the comment, she responded by unfriending me and sending me a wall of text beginning with “One thing I’ve noticed is that you have a hard time being fun anymore.”
Apparently, the single most paramount human right is the ability to laugh at anything whatsoever, and never, ever feel bad about it or reflect on your choices. In particular, trans women are required to be a walking joke at all times, and if we ever dare to assert that we are human beings, not punchlines, the backlash is swift and brutal.
Now, much transmisogynist humor is clearly situated in contempt and loathing at our subhuman status. Consider Lois Einhorn, the villainous character portrayed by in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, the crowning gag of which is Lois’ exposure as a trans woman by being stripped naked by the protagonist in front of a watching football team. The hero’s victory consists of literally exposing a trans woman’s penis so that the entire male cast can feel the revulsion of having been attracted to and/or sexually intimate with her.
This is perhaps the prototypical trans joke: the very idea of sexual intimacy with us is revolting, and anyone who happens to have sex with us, or even find themselves attracted to us, is a pitiful victim — often of our deception. This “joke” would seem to be painfully outdated, yet it’s repeated over and over again, on into the present day. The Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert material that my dormmate so valiantly defended from my pesky hurt feelings hinges on this trope. So does the infamous bit on Family Guy in which a character vomits for many minutes upon learning he has had sex with a trans woman. On the show Archer, lead female character Lana is subjected to running ridicule over supposedly mannish features like her height and “large hands”—all transmisogynist tropes, intersecting in an ugly way with misogynoir, the denigration and defeminization of Black women’s bodies. This culminates in a scene in the fifth season in which Lana is asked, “Seriously, did you used to be a man?” and is called a “tr*nny” — which is, of course, a slur against trans women.
So clearly, we have yet to move beyond the “hideous, deceitful tr*nny” as a stock joke, but many people are savvy enough to know that open mockery is at the very least a bit impolitic. Therefore, they couch their “humor” in positivity — in celebration. The material need not vary a bit from the “mockery” version; cisgender drag performer RuPaul drew criticism for habitual use of terms like “tr*nny” and “sh*male” on his show RuPaul’s Drag Race, and doubled down on the use of the slurs. RuPaul told offended trans people to “get stronger” and claimed it was not “the transsexual community” who was offended, but merely “fringe people who are looking for story lines to strengthen their identity as victims.” RuPaul situated his entitled insistence within the language of positivity, of celebration, but the result was indistinguishable from open ridicule.
Is it any wonder, then, that trans women tend to prickle at the mention of “humor” or “comedy”? Comedy does not have a great track record with us. And yet the ability to laugh is so paramount, so prized. To opt out of comedy is to opt out of much of society, of culture — and, again, leads to a vicious backlash as we are perceived as victim-complex killjoys taking everyone’s fun away.
What it comes down to is that laughter makes people more comfortable. It relieves tension, covers uncertainty, grounds us in the face of the unfamiliar. The pressure release valve of humor is a necessary and valuable thing. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum, however. When the privileged laugh at the marginalized, they make themselves comfortable at the marginalized’s expense. Their humor is, quite literally, oppressive.
As a trans woman, when I’m told, “Come on, lighten up!” “It’s just a joke!” “Learn to laugh at yourself,” what I actually hear is, “Your existence makes me uncomfortable. Please render your body and your lived experience more palatable for my consumption.”
And you know what? I am not here to make cis people feel good. I am not here to inspire you or comfort you or placate you. If my life and struggle make you uncomfortable, that is your problem, not mine, and if anything, I want to increase that discomfort until you are forced to examine the transphobic and transmisogynist assumptions that are at its root. When you guffaw at the latest “man in a dress” gag in your favorite media, I want my cleared throat to make you squirm in your seat. When you make your shitty jokes equating gender with genitals, I want to be there, staring you down with a raised eyebrow until you realize what an ass you’re making of yourself. I want to affront you, until you finally realize that you, yes you, hip queer liberal “ally” have transmisogyny buried just as deep in your heart as the stereotypical conservative bigot you imagine is the “real” problem. I want you to change society, first and foremost by realizing that you are the problem — and doing something about it.
Are trans women funny? You bet your ass we are. But you won’t find our humor prepackaged for mass cis consumption in spectacles like RuPaul’s Drag Race or sympathy porn like Transparent. We find our humorous pressure release in the margins, on private trans Facebook groups or on Twitter or Tumblr or wherever we gather, online or in person, to seek mutual support and solidarity. Our humor isn’t for you — doesn’t make a spectacle of us for your consumption — but is, rather, for us.
It’s how we cope with life in a society that finds us a hideous joke. It’s how we bash back against those who deny us basic rights and dignity. Our jokes play on the ins and outs of our healthcare, on the quirks of our bodies and how we relate to them, on the gross behavior of our cis opponents and faux “allies,” on the shared lingo of our unique struggles. And while some of us create our humor in the public eye — writers, artists, and YouTubers such as Zinnia Jones, Jessica Udischas, Red Durkin, and Sybil Lamb — for the most part, you will not see it. But thoroughly interrogate your ugly attitudes and preconceptions and actually change — and maybe, someday, you’ll be close enough friends with the trans women in your life to discover how truly hilarious we are.
[Headline image: The photograph features a light-skinned person with long brown hair covering their mouth and laughing.]