Jesurgislac’s Journal

May 24, 2009

On joy, jokes, transphobic jokes, and apologies

Everyone knows what gender they are. It’s one of those certainties; ask a child old enough to speak in coherent sentences (say around age 2 or 3, later if a conservative) “Are you a boy or a girl?” and you get a definite and often rather irritated answer: “I’m a GIRL,” says that cute little moppet in jeans and sweatshirt, or “I’m a BOY!” )

The difficulty is, with some little kids, they know what gender they’re supposed to be, and they know what gender they know they are, and they’re not the same, and this is bewildering and confusing enough to a child still processing language acquisition – but worse because it is unlikely that the child will receive any helpful support from their parents. A three-year-old who knows he’s a boy will be laughed at if he has F on his birth certificate and his parents know that their little girl is such a tomboy. Worse things happen to little girls with M on their birth certificate: much worse. A girl who “wants to be a boy” is perceived as trying to climb into the superior gender: a boy who “wants to be a girl” is perceived as sliding down into the slummy gender.

Some people say they can’t believe a kid that age can know they’re trans. Well, they don’t know – that is, they are most unlikely to know the word “transgender” or know that it applies to them. But, in the experience of all the trans people I have ever known who remembered their earliest childhood: they knew. They knew the same way any kid knows “I’m a boy” or “I’m a girl”. But what they knew got mockery and abuse and – also almost without exception – they taught themselves not to talk about it.

I have known trans people who died in the closet – who never were able to come out and declare their true gender and transition – legally, medically, socially. Transition is itself – as I have seen it – both joyful and fragile. There will never be a time in a trans person’s life when they’re less likely to “pass”, and the penalty for not passing can be horrible. Each year in November the Transgender Day of Remembrance commemorates those who were killed because they did not “pass”. In this world we live in, a woman can be killed because a man decides that her not “really” being a woman is such an offense that she should die.

Transition often means losing job – career – family – spouse. It’s a difficult time in itself – it would be even in the most caring and careful of environments – but it’s also a dangerous time: and a time where many cisgendered people feel free to mock a trans person for being “a big tranny bastard”, for being lady looks like a dude. Yet for a trans person finally to be able to break out of the cocoon, spread their wings, and be themselves, is to experience a joy I can only imagine, as someone who has never been in prison can only imagine what it feels like to walk out of the gates, free.

The peculiar horror of transphobic jokes for me is that they attack that joy. A trans person, wings spread, out of prison, full of this unimaginable joy – I celebrate that joy. I can’t share it, maybe I can’t imagine it, but I celebrate it, I am full of joy that such joy can exist. And then…

“You big tranny bastard.” “Lady looks like a dude.” “Mann Coulter!”

I don’t care for bigoted jokes. I don’t find the kind of “humour” amusing, that takes for granted that it’s funny when people are different from what privilege has determined as the “norm”. I don’t like racist jokes, whether told about Barack Obama or about Clarence Thomas; I don’t like sexist jokes, whether told about Margaret Thatcher or about Joanna Russ; I don’t like homophobic jokes, whether told about Dan Savage or about Janis Ian.

But I do find transphobic jokes peculiarly horrible. Because the point of the jokes is not just to police women for not conforming to the patriarchal norms of “how women should look”, though that is clearly one of their functions. Nor is it just to make clear to women that, whatever our politics, it’s what we look like that’s really important, though that too is clearly one of their functions. The kind of person who would make fun of Ann Coulter for “looking mannish” is the same kind of person who would try to erase Sylvia Rae Rivera from the gay liberation movement because a trans woman isn’t the kind of hero you want remembered from the Stonewall Riots. Bigoted jokes are policing jokes – warning people who don’t conform to the norm what can happen to them if they don’t behave.

The stereotype of the humourless feminist: fixing someone with a steely eye and saying in a voice promising blood-for-breakfast, “I don’t find that joke funny.”

That’s me. (Quel surprise, I hear you say.) I don’t find those jokes funny. I find them hurtful and horrible. I will not endure them in silence, for fear someone who is hurt by them more than I am, someone on whom they are a personal attack, hears only my silence and thinks silence gives consent.

I do not consent to the destruction of joy.

With regard to apologies: remember Rule 13. Omit needless words. Without the first 772 words, this post would be an adequate, if ungracious, apology. The mere inclusion of just over 64 dozen words of self-excusing explanation of how the author still feels that transphobic joke really wasn’t that bad and how dare people be mean to her boyfriend just because he told a bigoted joke, effectively converted the final two sentences into “Sorry you were offended” rather than “Sorry I offended you”, which in itself is a weaker apology than “Sorry I was offensive”.


  1. Thank you, Jes. That’s a very welcome bit of posting just right now.

    Comment by cericonversion — May 24, 2009 @ 11:22 pm | Reply

  2. I think you deconstructed the purpose of transphobic humor rather thoroughly.

    And yes – I was recently in a conversation in which I asked cis people if they knew their gender at 8, and they kept answering “I don’t believe any child can know they’re trans at 8,” not getting the point. I even linked a study showing that children have fairly strong ideas about gender and gender roles at a young age.

    Comment by Lisa Harney — May 24, 2009 @ 11:39 pm | Reply

  3. Brilliant description of the nature of transphobic humour, I think. It has these emotional layers to it, each one more gruesome than the next.

    Comment by Natalia Antonova — May 25, 2009 @ 11:56 am | Reply

  4. Hey, Jes. This is a very thoughtful post. I will say I have a little trouble with the idea that 2 or 3 year olds have such gender certainty — and I don’t just mean trans/cis — because I’ve seen kids that age demonstrate a fair bit of gender fluidity, one minute all boy, the next all girl. (And I think that fluidity is one of the best parts of childhood.) But that’s such a tiny quibble and doesn’t at all affect your main point about how it must feel to be imprisoned in an identity that’s not your own and feeling the you that your truly are is ever out of reach.

    Comment by Di Kotimy — May 30, 2009 @ 2:32 pm | Reply

    • because I’ve seen kids that age demonstrate a fair bit of gender fluidity, one minute all boy, the next all girl

      Joining Doug in saying: I never have. I’ve seen kids that age behaving in ways their elders identified as “all boy” or “all girl”, but I’ve never met a kid even as young as that who wasn’t perfectly sure of their gender, no matter how confused the adults around them got.

      Comment by jesurgislac — June 23, 2009 @ 2:17 pm | Reply

  5. I am still baffled that people ask “are you a boy or a girl” instead of, I don’t know, “what’s your name?”

    Comment by mythago — June 1, 2009 @ 8:37 pm | Reply

    • Because the next polite thing to say to the kid’s parents is “Isn’t [she]/[he] great!” (indeed, there are gendered compliments to be paid even at that age) and the people who ask aren’t really trying to make friends with the kid: they just want to know what the right pronoun is to use to say to the parents.

      Comment by jesurgislac — June 23, 2009 @ 2:19 pm | Reply

  6. “I will say I have a little trouble with the idea that 2 or 3 year olds have such gender certainty — and I don’t just mean trans/cis — because I’ve seen kids that age demonstrate a fair bit of gender fluidity, one minute all boy, the next all girl. (And I think that fluidity is one of the best parts of childhood.)”

    That doesn’t mean the child’s gender identity is changing, necessarily, just hir gender expression. It is completely possible to be a little trans boy who plays with Barbies–I know, because I was one. I also played with Tonka trucks from time to time. Neither action negated my essential sense of self as a boy, just as neither action would make a cis girl magically “not a girl” or “oh yeah, totally a girl.”

    I think this post is a very nice response to Bitch PhD’s excuses and does a great job of explaining why it’s a problem.

    Comment by Doug — June 23, 2009 @ 1:56 pm | Reply

  7. Naw, it’s okay hon, the stereotype of a humourless feminist is the unreconstructed second-waver running MichFest, and she doesn’t believe that we’re women. You’re already awesome.

    Comment by Valerie Keefe — October 4, 2009 @ 2:44 pm | Reply

  8. Hey there, Jerurgislac. This was a really great essay. Thanks for the link at Feministe. I think it’s really important to emphasized to people that humor is indeed a way of policing people’s behaviors. A joke isn’t just a joke when it concerns gender, race, sexual orientation, class, or any number of other social dimensions that power imbalances play across. Thanks for the refreshing my memory on this basic concept. I’m a little “rusty” in these matters. Thankfully, it’s been a long time since I’ve had to confront someone on these kinds of behaviors outside of the internet.

    I have one small quibble: not all trans people remain within the same gender identity throughout their lives. Some people’s identities are life-long and rock-stable. Some people’s identities shift over time, such as mine. I was assigned male at birth. I identified as a boy until somewhere between 10 and 13 when my gender identity began to shift toward female. I fought this shift, tooth and nail, until my senior year of high school. At the ripe age of 17, I finally accepted that I was, on some deeper level than mere flesh, female.

    The particular transgender narrative that you related in your essay is the most common one I’ve seen related in trans people’s stories—at least the ones that make it to the internet. I just wanted people to be aware that there are folks whose lives have diverged from that common narrative.

    Comment by timberwraith — October 18, 2010 @ 1:20 pm | Reply

  9. Oh crud. I misspelled your name. My apologies. 😦

    Comment by timberwraith — October 18, 2010 @ 1:21 pm | Reply

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