Heard the one about the ladyboy? Media jokes about trans people are not acceptable

Paris Lees
WendyAriepa 300x211 Heard the one about the ladyboy? Media jokes about trans people are not acceptable

Media bias has made trans people the objects of laughter and derision // ADALBERTO ROQUE / AFP / Getty Images

Impressionist Morgana Robinson claimed last week that: “you can tell a tranny by their hands and their feet.”

Does the star of Channel 4’s Very Important People congratulate herself when she spies a woman with large shoes? Does she smile and think “Ah, look, it’s one of those trannies”, or is she humble; does she see it as an easy-peasy guessing game? I can only speculate.

I’m a trans woman and I hear these stupid comments daily. “Transsexual” has become shorthand for someone ridiculous, someone unnamed, someone that nice, middle-class people probably don’t know. Transphobia has passed the dinner table test because those who mock trans people simply don’t expect to see one of us at their dinner tables. I’d like to petition high profile trans newsreaders and politicians to raise awareness, but none exist. Trans people are today’s Aunt Sallys – and comics throw pies at us with impunity.

Take BBC3’s Snog Marry Avoid! If you’re lucky enough never to have seen it, the format involves a fictional computer called POD who “makes-under” anyone with a remotely individual look. Participants are dressed down both verbally and physically before finally emerging in exquisite blandness. Here’s how it went last week:

POD: Who are you?

Participant:  I’m Rachel

POD: Are you sure it’s not Richard?

Participant:  Why?

POD:  POD computes that with those eyebrows, eyelashes and ridiculously big hair, you look like a transsexual

Rather poor form from a channel aimed at young people, don’t you think? As Julia Serano remarks in the wonderfully polemic Whipping Girl, as well as being offensive to trans people, the “you look like a tranny” line is also deeply misogynistic. Look, it says, you’re doing femininity all wrong – you must be a man! The BBC dismissed complaints against SMA with a sorry-you-were-offended, and described POD’s pejorative use of transsexual as “a light-hearted comment”. I disagree. I don’t know if I meet BBC3’s ideas of what trans people look like, but the fact I’ve got a reasonably acceptable face is something of an achievement. It was punched, kicked and spat on repeatedly during ten years or so of “light-hearted” bullying at school. Ha-ha.

Suicides of gay teenagers have received widespread attention recently. Do you suppose the situation is better for trans youth? A recent American study revealed that 41% have tried to kill themselves (compared to 1.6% of the general population). Perhaps they “looked like transsexuals” and couldn’t, therefore, go around their daily business without being abused and ridiculed – like the 79% of British trans people who’ve suffered verbal and violent harassment. A disproportionate number are murdered.

But just what do “transsexuals” look like? Germaine Greer says we’re “ghastly parodies of women”. Actually, we’re as varied as the rest of the population: check out #WhatTranssexualsLookLike on Twitter and see for yourself. Some of us wear makeup; some don’t; some of us are fat, some thin, some have bad breath and some of us (like me!) you want instantly to jump into bed with. And we aren’t all going in the same direction, either. Chaz Bono has done wonders to promote visibility of trans men, yet vacuous pundits still use “transsexual” to denote some absurd, pantomime dame version of femininity.

Of course, when trans people do conform to narrow beauty standards, we’re presented as deceivers. Cue Stand Up for the Week comic Paul Chowdhry, who recently humiliated a trans woman for entering Brighton’s Next Hot Model. Prepare for some “edgy” satire:

Chowdhry: This week right a Thai contestant beat hundreds of women to the final of a UK beauty competition. Here’s the contestant…

[Shows image of woman]

Chowdhry: Nice innit? She had real balls to enter that competition!


Chowdry: Cos it’s a geezer!


Chowdhry: That’s not a bird, this is a bird

[Shows image of muscular woman]

Chowdry: See these birds together; which one would you rather deal with?

He then mocks the contestant’s “giveaway” blokey voice. Side-splitting, isn’t it? I was particularly disappointed to see this aired on Channel 4, which signed a document last year calling for improved trans representation. Channel 4 has made huge strides forward, but clearly there’s still some way to go.

Ultimately, I’m most offended on behalf of comedy. I mean, knob-jokes – really? People are more likely to yawn than laugh. I met with Jonathan Ross earlier this year after I complained about a similar ladyboy skit on his ITV show. He admitted it was weak material. Why did someone with Rossy’s profile agree to meet me though?

“Because I knew I could’ve got away with it, and that seemed unfair.”

Ross is right. The media are annoyingly tolerant when it comes to gender based bigotry. In a fair and free society, which respects the humanity of all its members, this must stop. Time for some different jokes, folks.

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  • ineluctable4u

    Utter tosh.

  • Martin_Kinsella

    How typical to trot out Jim Davidson and Bernard Manning, pathetic. I am no fan of theirs but I would not censor them either. As I said elsewhere –

    “Just because my view is all subjects should be open to humour that is not a reflection of my taste just a general principle. I have no problem with pap like “Love Thy Neighbour” or “Mind your Language existing. That is not to say I like either. I do not. ”

    I do not believe that any subject should be off limits for humour and it is not for the state to censor.

    As for Roy “Chubby” Brown, never found him funny.

  • RedDevil9

    You would not have censored the racism of Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson? Says everything about you that. Very sad and pathetic.

  • Charlottey

    Thank you, Paris Lees: what a superb article and one which hits the nail right on the head.  The way in which certain people (including certain self-proclaimed, very poor ’comedians’) constantly seem to be telling us that we can tell a trans woman by the size of her feet, shape of her jaw etc. reminds me of the way that bigots used to (and sadly still do) insist that you can spot a Jewish person by the size of their nose etc.  Hopefully, in years to come, society will look back at the comedians and presenters who do this and view them in the same light as most of us rational people now view those who made anti-semitic and racist marks one hundred years ago.  I am also a trans and I get so frustrated when I see people on TV trying to get cheap laughs at our expense and then passing it off as ‘light entertainment’.  I am so glad that there are people – such as yourself - who can write and express things as well, entertainingly and funny as you do.

  • Kara Connor

    Would you watch reruns of 1970s “The Black and White Minstrel SHow” and consider them acceptable knowing what you know now? It’s a similar sort of thing. We grow and learn, and I know that there are certain things I will no longer say because I now know that they are impolite or disrepectful to some groups of people.

  • Kara Connor

    You’d suggest wrong. Violence can take place anywhere. Victim-blaming is a dangerous path to take, and that’s what you are doing, in addition to deliberately using the wors “tranny” which is offensive, as is using “quotations” around “female”. Do you feel that people with other congenital conditions need to be “pointed out and laughed at”?

  • My ladyboy gf

    I’m not so sure if we need to make this a big deal. What matters most is that people respect transsexual. Can we just talk about being in a relationship with a transsexual I found this article

  • Donna Robinson

    I must say in response to your point that I am a pre op trans woman and 20 years ago was told by a friend who worked there that I would not be accepted if I applied for a position at Women’s Aid. today I work for the North Wales Women’s Centre in Rhyl and am completely accepted as a woman by everyone, things are changing slowly but, we have to be prepared to make the first move and prove ourselves (much more I have to say than genetic women) perhaps I’m just lucky, or perhaps I’m a bloody nice person and it comes across.

  • Emma Manning

    It really depends a lot on the type of humor the shows are using. There’s a big difference between a masculine heteronormative man putting on a dress because a self-identified man wearing a dress is a little bit funny, and a masculine, heteronormative man putting on a dress specifically to make fun of transwomen (or women in general). The fact that a man in a dress is funny isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it’s not truly mean or dangerous. Making transpeople’s existence a punchline is. I’m not familiar with the shows you’re talking about, but since you seem to be a decent person, truly destructive and demeaning humor would probably put you off. I think you’re okay.

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