Homophobia and Transphobia

A recent post by Brian McNaught describes David Letterman’s now-infamous skit about Amanda Simpson, who Obama recently appointed to be Senior Technical Adviser to the Commerce Department. McNaught summarizes the skit:

On the program in question, announcer Alan Kalter ran from the stage in horror when Letterman announced that Simpson was born male. The humor was supposed to come from Kalter realizing that he had been intimate with a woman without knowing that he had been with someone born male.

Jokes like this one are old staples of sexual comedy, and they probably remain the most common examples of transphobic humor. The audience is expected to laugh at the pathetic man who has discovered that the gender identity of his sexual partner, and by extension his own heterosexuality and masculinity, have been challenged.

Such jokes are transphobic at a very superficial level because they imply that it is revolting to sleep with a trans person. The knowledge that the woman is trans leads to the man’s embarrassment and disgust, which the audience is expected to understand and share. The cognitive steps between “trans” and “disgust” are important, but they are not necessary to the concept of transphobia: the stimulus leads to the response — trans people are framed as vile creatures to be despised.

But such jokes also reinforce specific forms of transphobia in more complex ways. The man’s show of disgust stems from his perception that sleeping with a trans woman violates or challenges his heterosexuality. He is a Real Man: he only wants to be with Real Women. The joke relies on the notion that trans women are not actually women, or at least that there is something about us which makes us less genuine as women. That notion is transphobic in itself: it relies on a biologically deterministic view of gender which erases the very real experiences and identities of trans people. It also underlies most other instances of transphobia. Bigots on the right try to keep trans people out of public restrooms not just because they have a generalized aversion to trans people, but also because they view trans women as “men,” and they are afraid of these “men” using the women’s room.

Even more pertinent is the “trans panic” defense used in so many trials of men who attack or murder trans women after sleeping with them, flirting with them, or even just being attracted to them. These hate crimes happen, according to the narrative of the defense, because the victim was “pretending” to be a woman, and the attacker was so shocked to find out that she was “really a man” that he couldn’t control his actions. The common themes are the notion that trans women are not Real Women (and, by implication, that trans men are not Real Men, although such cases almost always involve female victims) and the perception that trans people are being “deceptive” about their “true identities.” Jokes like Letterman’s are simply less violent models of the “trans panic” narrative, and they reinforce the deeply transphobic perceptions that underlie anti-trans politics and hate crimes. The basic premise of the comedic cliche — that one should be shocked and disgusted to learn that one’s sexual partner was trans — is entirely incoherent without this underlying transphobia.

The jokes are also homophobic, of course. It’s perfectly reasonable for a straight person not to sleep with members of his or her own gender category, but when a straight man responds in front of an audience with intense revulsion at the mere suggestion that a past sexual partner was “really a man,” his melodramatic performance draws on social revulsion at the thought of homosexuality itself. McNaught expresses the same idea by pointing out that Kalter’s affected disgust on the Letterman show was a reaction to his own perception “that he had been involved with a man.” Kalter writes, “That’s homophobia—the fear and hatred of homosexuality in others or in ourselves.”

But Kalter frames his argument as homophobia and transphobia are mutually exclusive. The context of the above statement is as follows:

His reaction of disgust was not to Simpson’s sex reassignment surgery but to his horror that he had been involved with a man. That’s homophobia—the fear and hatred of homosexuality in others or in ourselves. Transphobia is a fear and hatred of the transsexuality of others or of ourselves.

In short, Kalter argues that the joke is homophobic, and only homophobic, and that its object merely happens to be trans. He concludes that

Likewise, if the leaders of national gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender organizations want to be taken seriously as educators by the media and the general public, they need to be clearer and more accurate in why a word or a behavior is offensive.

Asking for clarity makes sense, but Kalter seems to want to sacrifice honesty — and attention to trans issues — in favor of fictitious simplicity and exclusive attention to GLB issues. Transphobia and homophobia are not mutually exclusive at all — in fact, they are mutually reinforcing and often codependent. The homophobia in Letterman’s little gag is clear, but it also exists only because of the underlying transphobic assumptions and the overt disgust reaction to an actual trans woman. Kalter’s demand that we focus on homophobia alone constitutes selective blindness and accomplishes little more than the continued marginalization of trans issues and people.

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3 Responses to “Homophobia and Transphobia”

  1. Grace Says:

    It’s not homophobic nor transphobic to have a heterosexual orientation or for a straight man to have a profound reaction when he finds out that he has unknowingly been intimately involved with someone who previously had a penis.
    In no way could that skit have been characterised as homophobic. There was no hatred expressed or directed towards any ‘group’. If anything, the joke was on Kalter, not on Amanda Simpson…a point that seems to have been completely lost in this transphobia brouhaha.
    The only bigots here are those that seek to characterise perfectly decent non-trans people as ‘homophobic’ or transphobic. It’s ridiculous.

    • seburke Says:

      If a heterosexual man slept with a woman he assumed to be white and later found out she was Hispanic – and then reacted with disgust, that would be racist.
      If a heterosexual man slept with a woman he assumed to be straight and later found out she was bisexual – and then reacted with disgust, that would be biphobic.
      If a heterosexual man slept with a woman he assumed to be rich and later found out she was poor – and then reacted with disgust, that would be classist.
      If a heterosexual man sleeps with a woman he assumes to be cis and later finds out she is trans – and then reacts with disgust, that is definitely transphobic.

      “Sexual orientation” usually takes the form of preferring to be romantically involved with people of a particular gender. When someone is disgusted at the thought of sleeping with a person of a particular race or social class or medical history, that is not “sexual orientation.” That is prejudice.

      Re-read my second paragraph in the original post. Yes, of course the joke is on Kalter – and it is transphobic.

  2. It was a Joke! « Analysis of Variance Says:

    […] Some instances of comedians veering into nasty territory are pretty obvious, like “Kramer” actor Michael Richards’ racist tirade from a 2006 standup show. Click here for video. A transcript is available within this CNN show – do a search for “Kramer” to get close to the starting point. Some are not so clearly distinct from “the act,” like Adam Carolla’s recent bigoted comments about GLBT people. Some are more superficially lighthearted while still carrying harsh prejudicial implications, like the David Letterman skit I wrote about in January 2010. […]

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