Humor and the Transgender Community

by Melanie Yarborough

In the beginning, there was Milton Berle, Flip Wilson, and Corporal Klinger on the sitcom MASH. Or Lily Tomlin’s stage show as Tommy Velour. Comedians impersonated the opposite gender for quick laughs, and the trans experience was reduced to a sight gag. Straight society not surprisingly saw transpeople as a walking joke.

Fast forward four decades. Transpeople are now doing their own standup comedy. They’re finally getting a chance to tell their own stories, and add their narratives to the larger American picture. There’s Ian Harvie, Jeffrey Jay, Julia Scotti, Alison Grillo, Bethany Black, Eddie Izzard, Jordan Raskopoulos, Willow Wheeler, and Riley Silverman, to name but a few.

But what’s the point of stand-up comedy, anyway?

For the performer, comedy is often about CATHARSIS-a chance to talk about their own past, their own feelings, their coming to terms with their own difficulties. Transcomedian Sarah Maywalt famously said “Comedy is the island of misfit toys. We’re all broken some way, or we wouldn’t be here”. Transpeople join a long line of outsiders who also turned their marginality and frustration into humor: Jews, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Gays/Lesbians. Each added a new comedic perspective, a new flavor, a new set of experiences.

For the audience, comedy is public education disguised as entertainment. It’s an opportunity to see the world through someone else’s eyes. It’s also a chance for them to step outside the society in which they’re embedded, and see it for its often crazy logic. And when the humor is transgender humor, it can make an audience question and understand on a deeper level what it means to be “female” or “male”.

Luckily for transcomedians, the trans experience is full of many of life’s ironies and contradictions, two important ingredients in humor. Gender is also one of the most basic issues of humanity, so virtually everyone can relate to it. Some of the many themes open to satire include: Learning and unlearning stereotypical male or female gender behaviors. Hormones and surgeries. Adjustment to new body parts (or lack thereof). New sexual experiences. Dealing with reactions of family and friends. Inappropriate questions from strangers. Relationship issues with lovers and spouses. Even transphobia can be turned around and mocked.

One challenge of being a transcomedian is first having to explain who they are. How do you explain what it means to be trans to a largely cisgender audience? And in a way that’s quick, funny, and memorable? Interestingly, being trans actually has built-in advantages. There’s an automatic talking point, an angle that will intrigue and titillate an audience. There’s a variety of approaches available. Self-deprecation (Mom wanted a girl. Unfortunately, she got her wish.). Nonchalance (So I’m trans, y’see, and this is what goes on…). In-your-face. (Okay, let me answer the stupid questions upfront). Some even use straight world parallels of discomfort or crossing lines, to help the audience “get it”.

But at the same time that transpeople are turning their experiences into humor, the institution of comedy itself is coming under attack.

Some current social movements  see humor as the enemy. They take themselves and their particular struggle so seriously that they attack anything they feel devalues it. They sometimes show a Puritan-like outrage, self-righteousness and sensitivity to slights. Comedy represents their exact opposite. Comedy takes nothing seriously and sees everything as fair game for satire. It is built on mockery, breaking taboos, and deflating self-importance.

It’s no surprise that a number of contemporary comedians have stopped performing on college campuses. They understandably don’t want to deal with the inevitable controversy. Some student audiences have in the past been offended by certain words or concepts. Or they are accustomed to perceiving  or seeking out so-called “microaggressions”, where they may or may not exist.

However,  it’s actually a sign of health and strength for any community to be able to laugh at itself. It shows it recognizes its all-too-human imperfections, and is not afraid to call them out. It lets that community manage the narrative about itself, rather than let others manage it. And it shows the rest of the world “You can’t make fun of us. We’ve done it sooner and better than you!”

Humor requires courage, cunning, flexibility and warmth. As long as the transcommunity -or any community- can laugh at itself and at the world, it can face any challenge thrown at it.

These views and opinions are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Neutral Corner as an organization.


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