Dave Chappelle – Funny Or Die Oddball To by Anirudh Koul, on Flickr
Should I write yet another note to PBS NewsHour? That particular evening show is one of my favorite sources of thoughtful news and reflection on the world around me, but they do occasionally stumble. This evening, they did more than stumble. They waved me aside, and relegated me and people like me to an insignificant footnote.
I wasn’t meant to be a footnote.
When the NewsHour introduced their interview with the comedian Dave Chapelle, they did fleetingly acknowledge that he sometimes mocked transgender people. But having that footnote out of the way, Jeffrey Brown of PBS continued with his interview, with no further reference to this frequent practice by this stand-up comic. Why let this man’s regular practice of humiliating transgender persons get in the way of the bigger story: a comedian’s return to the spotlight? What’s so important about gender identity anyway? After all, there is no human right to a gender identity.
I would guess that even the term “gender identity” remains unfamiliar to many Americans, so speculating about a human right to one’s authentic sense of self is arguably premature. To most people, we’re the sex we were assigned at birth, and the state – which has unquestioned authority in such matters – records the observable fact of our sex. That’s it. Done. We are sexed and then society sets to work on making sure that we are appropriately gendered.
It’s all so obvious – except when it isn’t.
Short of incidents of hate-speech, intentional defamation, or libel, it appears that we also have no specific human right individually or as a group not to be humiliated or made the butt of humor due to who and what we are, even when who and what we are do not constitute choices. Freedom of expression prevails over the sensitivities and vulnerabilities of many marginalized persons, and those affected are supposed to shrug it off.
It’s no big deal – except when it is.
Arguably there do remain some social constraints on abusing the dignity of other persons, which in America we used to call “decency”. That concept may already be anachronistic for large numbers of my fellow citizens, who in 2015 not only tolerated watching then presidential candidate Donald Trump as he crudely mocked New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski (who suffers from arthrogryposis), but then went on to vote this person into the highest position of power and trust in the nation. While most of us haven’t forgotten Trump’s appallingly insensitive portrayal of this person with disabilities, we’ve waved it aside. After all, Trump is Trump; he makes it a common practice to assault the dignity of others by using demeaning nicknames, calling human beings “animals”, branding entire ethnicities (presumably just the males) as rapists, and so on. Sure, some of us get upset momentarily, then we let it go, with perhaps a whispered aside about the national “erosion of values”.
So, making fun of some of us is apparently acceptable, or at least one would be forgiven if one reached this conclusion because PBS chose to feature a comic who makes transphobia an integral part of his act. What are we who are transgender supposed to do? Is there a human right to having one’s dignity recognized and respected?
In fact, yes.
Every moral and legal concept of human rights is grounded on the very notion that human dignity is very important, and that it is universal. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins with the sentence “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. You cannot get more explicit than that – except that isn’t what we experience, is it? Especially those of us who are transgender.
To a very large extent, the bias, discrimination, humiliation, mockery, exclusion, stigmatization, and violence directed at transgender people has its roots in gross ignorance, coupled with fear of the unknown. Ignorance and fear we can work on, and many of us are trying to do just that. I recently published my own memoir, intended to bust some of the more pernicious stereotypes out there, but writing that book was emotionally draining and very hard to do. Still, I remain an idealist at heart, and I am moved by the notion that if only people knew what it is like, what we are like, then…
I’m willing to work that angle, to gradually raise the awareness and empathy of those around me, to help them begin to see the person behind – and integral to – the gender identity that the person declares. The gender identity that I declare. Still, my published memoir, and similar efforts by so many in my community (and by our stalwart friends and allies), pales in comparison to the normalization of transphobia by leading American comics. Dave Chapelle isn’t alone in this; other blatantly transphobic comics include Lil Duval, Ricky Gervais, Louis C.K., and many more. It’s been this way for decades. Shouldn’t we just brush it off? It really doesn’t cause any harm, right?
Think about it. How would you like to be intentionally and consistently misgendered, referred to by a name that isn’t yours (even if it might have been, once), or accused of “deceiving” men into sexual intimacy (it doesn’t matter even if you are entirely female in your mind, spirit, and embodiment now)? How would you like to be portrayed as someone unconscious – an “object” in the emergency room at the hospital – whom doctors and medics react to with undisguised disgust and revulsion? Good for a laugh, eh? And there is always that oldest gag of all, the “man in a dress”. Or being consistently referred to by the slur “tranny”. All of this demeans us, sets us apart, denies our humanity, and makes it “OK” to treat us as less than human.
The consequences can be catastrophic.
Note to Jeffrey Brown: transphobic comedy isn’t ever funny, and those who make their living by targeting the dignity of transgender people do not warrant your warm smiles and gentle praise, or PBS NewsHour’s time on the air. For a population with the highest known rates of attempted suicide, it’s irresponsible to shine the celebrity spotlight on those who unapologetically persist in abusing the dignity of transgender persons.
We’re marginalized, yes, but we are not content to have our dignity waved aside as an inconvenience to a larger story. The universality of human dignity is the largest story of all – if only we chose to live those convictions.