Thursday, February 20, 2014

Stephen Colbert Discovers Trans People

I'm a big fan of The Colbert Report. But for a long time it's made me sad that he never had any trans guests on his show, or acknowledged the existence of trans people as human beings. Every so often he'd make jokes about men in dresses, which doesn't count.

As it happens, a few months ago he had a guest on his show who said something that in my opinion was transphobic, so I wrote him a letter about it. I never got any answer. I've often wondered since then if he saw the letter, or if the person who opens his mail had a good laugh at the crazy trans person and threw it away.

In fact it would be hard for Colbert to talk about trans people. His schtick is based on the understanding that everything his character says is ignorant and wrong. We laugh because we know what he's saying is not true. But in the real world, too many people still believe false and ignorant things about trans people. We haven't reached the tipping point yet.

On Tuesday Colbert broke through the trans ceiling. In fact he covered multiple trans issues at once: Facebook's new gender options, Katie Couric's intrusive questioning of trans guests on her show, and Piers Morgan's umbrage-taking at Janet Mock for criticizing his treatment of her on his show.

I wonder what prompted Colbert to do this now. (Actually I wondered if his joke about being the new First Lady of France paved the way for this.) It kind of seems like he did it because it gave him the opportunity to make fun of Piers Morgan.

His riff on the new Facebook genders made me uncomfortable, for the reasons I've alluded to above. It's not funny when you've been on the receiving end of comments like those, and you will be again. It's not funny when we don't have full civil rights in this country because people believe that we're "just pretending" to be the gender we are. It's not at all funny when Piers Morgan gets his revenge on his uppity guest by assembling a panel of fake experts to proclaim that she's not really a woman.

It's not even funny when someone who has never acknowledged the existence of trans people before suddenly tries to do a bit about them. In short, there's no way that Colbert's bit could avoid some awkwardness. But I know that he's an intelligent and compassionate person in other areas, and I think there's a good chance he'll be able to get a handle on this.

I will say that Colbert's treatment of Janet Mock was very respectful. That made me feel better. Besides, his two options are either to continue ignoring the existence of trans people (which is bad) or to talk about them even though it reveals his ignorance, which is better in the long run.

Indeed, on Monday I went to see Laverne Cox speak to a huge audience, and on Wednesday I saw Janet Mock on The Colbert Report. That was something.

Bonus rant: how come Jon Stewart doesn't have any openly LGBT cast members on his show? This has often bothered me, but it bothered me even more last night when he had Jessica Williams talking about the Jordan Davis verdict. When will he get a trans woman to come on and talk about the unsolved murder of Islan Nettles? When will he get a queer person to talk about the state of gay rights in Russia? Instead he sends his only unequivocally straight male correspondent to Russia to do a story. Oh those poor gay Russians, they should come to America where Jon Stewart won't hire them for his show.

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