Some Nerve: How We Discuss Transgender People
A high school English teacher once told my class that there remained one group of Americans that faced open verbal discrimination: farmers. In one regard, he was right. “Hicks,” “rednecks,” “hillbillies,” “country bumpkins,” etc.—I’d said it all in casual convos, probably with a grin. I didn’t get how important and revealing rhetoric can be, or how it might manifest into larger, more tangible prejudices. But my teacher wasn’t 100 percent right; farmers aren’t the only ones we unapologetically denounce. The increasing visibility of the transgender community has been met with vicious, unabashed verbal attacks on highly public platforms, often without much punishment. It seems as if popular opinion has deemed being trans a choice, more specifically one that justifies everything from snide jokes to full on death threats.
The issue made the media rounds last week after “The Breakfast Club” radio show brought on comedian Lil Duval for an episode. After hosts Charlamagne tha God, Angela Yee and DJ Envy asked Duval what he would do if he found out he’d slept with a trans woman, the performer replied, “This might sound messed up, but I don’t care. She’s dying. I can’t deal with that.” A few other prize quotes from Duval:
“You manipulated me to believe this thing…If one did that to me, and they didn’t tell me, I’mma be so mad I’m probably going to want to kill them.”
“Shout out to all the trannies out there.”
And his response to the backlash he received on Instagram:
“So let me ask u slow ass transgender niggaz something. Y’all really think if u don’t tell a Man U use to be a man it’s gon be no repercussion to it? Yea ok 😒 if u can see why somebody would kill someone that rape them u should understand how a straight man feels. Matter fact I ain’t going back and forth with u confused nigga bitches”
“The Breakfast Club” was hit hard with backlash from the LGBTQ community and its allies, with protests demanding apologies as well as the show’s cancellation. People went after Lil Duval specifically, inciting his embarrassingly distasteful Instagram reply, above. But the whole ordeal, in my mind, begs another question: Why did someone feel comfortable threatening violence against a marginalized group on public radio in the first place? To say that Lil Duval’s comments don’t deserve severe repercussions would be false; but to ignore the fact that we’ve somehow cultivated an environment in which people like Duval don’t even think twice before making such remarks would halt any progression. Lil Duval is a problem, yes, but more so he is a symptom of a larger sociological mindset: “I am allowed to express my disgust towards trans people however I see fit.” Even the show hosts, who replied by telling Duval he should be more “politically correct” between laughs, failed us by not shutting him down then and there. They helped normalize hate speech by entertaining Duval’s comments, which essentially work to strip a group of the validity of their identity.
We saw it again last week when 19 Kids and Counting star Jill Duggar’s husband, Derick Dillard, lashed out against a 16-year-old trans kid on Twitter. After seeing a promo for I am Jazz, a new reality show starring adolescent Jazz Jennings, Dillard wrote:
What an oxymoron… a “reality” show which follows a non-reality. “Transgender” is a myth. Gender is not fluid; it’s ordained by God.
While the tweet doesn’t explicitly threaten violence, it does cross another line: that of attacking a minor. While Jennings is certainly old enough to make decisions about her gender, we should not equate tough life experience with age—she is still a kid in the law’s eyes, and should be treated as such. Dillard is, effectively, attacking a child by expressing contempt over her entire community. Here, an individual’s trans identity has stripped her of rights and protections held even by our youth, even in other marginalized groups.
In another case just this past week, Lena Dunham called out American Airlines after hearing two of their employees making transphobic statements. According to the Girls star, the employees were “talking about how trans kids are a trend[;] they’d never accept a trans child and transness is gross.”
A few points to make here. First, we Americans do celebrate freedom of speech, meaning you can say whatever you want, but only on your own time. During working hours, and perhaps particularly for those working in service industries such as airlines, you surrender certain rights, including that of slinging hateful prejudices. Racist jargon, let alone hate crimes based on skin color, remains a crippling issue in our country. That said, people are less inclined to share these opinions publicly or casually drop them while on the job. It’s seeming more and more like the same can’t be said about lambasting the trans community, which people criticize openly everywhere from public radio to our own president’s Twitter feed.
Rightist publication Breitbart covered the Dunham story with a headline that reads: “Lena Dunham Whines About Flight Attendants’ ‘Transphobic’ Private Conversation,” hinting that:
- Calling trans kids a gross trend is not ‘transphobic’
- The conversation was a private one and none of Lena’s business
- Lena Dunham is whiney (they might actually be onto something there)
Unfortunately, these examples are but the tip of the iceberg, one that’s been growing in size as the trans community gains visibility. Perhaps an individual’s identity as trans dehumanizes them in our country’s minds; how else can we explain the prevalent opinion that this group deserves to be: banned from our military, restricted from using the bathroom they feel comfortable in, laughed at, physically threatened, publicly denounced as “myth,” etc.? It could be that the fear of trans people, not too dissimilar to that of gays and lesbians, is that they are not as easily identifiable as races or religions, which remain the causes of most hate crimes within our country. More so, it’s likely harder for someone to believe that you can be born trans just as you can be born jewish, which goes back to the false notion of “choice” within these matters.
I am not trans myself, and thus need to tread lightly when discussing language around trans individuals. But the thing is that most of us are not trans, and we need to collectively work toward pushing the conversation in a progressive direction. When it comes to labels or pronouns, everyone is an individual and should be treated as such. It’s why we started Gender Diaries, in which we invite a guest each week to discuss their personal relationship with gender. But on a larger scale, we need to start discussing trans individuals as what they are: unique from one another, of course, but sharing an identity that makes them members of a marginalized group in the midst of a civil rights battle. They are a group of which 21 individuals were murdered last year (a number that’s been steadily increasing, with 2016 being the deadliest year yet and with a great majority of casualties being women of color). Little kids, increasingly aware of their country’s hatred for the way they feel about gender, are growing up feeling like the enemy.
Being trans is not a joke; nor are Duval’s comments, despite their disguise as humor. It was a blatant attack on a minority that is obviously struggling—a cowardly low blow to a group that’s already on the ground. What can we do? Correctly acknowledging this rhetoric as being beyond politically incorrect or a harmless joke. It’s nothing short of shocking, and treating it as such is a solid start.
Featured image via Slate
Stay tuned to Milk for more from lil nervous.