Humor and Civil Rights
Keynote Address to 2012 DC Trans Pride
Folks who teach about public speaking often say that you need to relay your main message to the audience three times—you tell them what you’re going to tell them, you tell them, and then you tell them what you told them. This ties in nicely to comedy writing, because threes are often the standard set up for jokes. Creative writing instructors, on the other hand, insist on a minimum of telling and a maximum of showing, usually through dialogue and character interaction. Perhaps a keynote address isn’t exactly creative writing, but old habits die hard, so I’ll try to do my telling via showing, and I’ll do it at least three times so I keep all of the public speaker people I know happy. You don’t want to piss off the Toastmasters, trust me.
So I’m going to talk about humor and civil rights in our movement. I will, after this introduction, explain what every thing in that sentence means. Well, let me define humor, civil rights, and our, right now. By “humor,” I mean something that makes us laugh. By “our,” I mean the transsexual/transgender/trans-asterisk/genderqueer/gender non-conforming bunch of us. And by “civil rights,” I mean all the stuff that we deserve and don’t currently have, and yes, after this intro—this is still the introduction—I’ll list out what those things are, but I probably won’t exhaust everything that should be on the list because as we’ll see, I have but one perspective to bring to the movement, and as you’ll see by way of some lovely anecdotes, we need as many voices as we can scrabble together. Along the way I’ll read a few stories to satisfy the minimal showing requirement of this talk, and then I’ll finish with a self-deprecating comment to tell you what I told you. You’ll applaud, possibly because the words I strung together today were helpful and/or amusing, but more likely because I traveled more than 3,000 miles to get here and you feel pity for me that this is all I came up with in the way of a keynote. But let me thank you in advance for your excellent manners.
Delectable Reese’s products aside, humor does and should have a place in our civil rights movement. Humor is a big term, however. Almost an *cough cough TRANSGENDER* umbrella term to describe the quality of literature or speech as jovial in some way. Humor can cut the stress of a moment—something we transfolk know nothing about, I’m sure—or it can be used as sarcasm. See how I did that? I demonstrated my own example right there. Thank you again for your polite laughter. Wow, tough audience. But let us remember that some forms of humor, like satire, were designed to bring about change to dysfunctional institutions. Would anyone like to name a few dysfunctional institutions? Or you can just think about them in your head, either way. I promise there are no trick questions today.
Okay, so if we can use humor to specific ends, then maybe there’s some room for humor in our civil rights movement. Pardon me, I don’t mean to get ahead of myself. This is my first keynote. That’s obvious, isn’t it? That makes you all my test market or guinea pigs. Forget I said guinea pigs. Let’s talk about who the “our” is.
We’ve got people who identify as transsexual, people who identify only as the gender they transitioned to and most definitely NOT transsexual, transgender, genderqueer, no-gender, fluid gender, assigned gender to unknown gender, third gender, two-spirit, girl/grrl, boy/boi, people who pronounce it “bwah,” folks who want others to use a neutral pronoun, and identities I haven’t listed. If you don’t see your identity in the list, please don’t take it personally. But we want you here, in the “our.” We need you for the robustness of our community and because, hey, you’ll want to be here when it gets funny.
I admit I don’t have any patience for exclusions to this “our.” Too many of us have lived too long feeling alienated and isolated and barely present. Plus it makes it a ton harder to argue that the T is getting left out when we’re leaving out people from the T. That’s called a contradiction in my book. My proverbial book, not my uh, actual book. Anyway I just adore making fun of contradictions. They’re like sitting ducks. They’re just waiting for someone to come along and point out their sittingness.
Now then, civil rights. Jesus, when did this keynote become a long list of crap? Again, my sincere apologies for wasting your time like this. But as I understand them, we’d like the following for ourselves and our community: housing, health, safety, and opportunity. Housing because hello, we’d like to get out of the rain from time to time, health that is appropriate to our needs—if I’m never going to need a prostate exam, could you please cover my PAP smears, oh health insurance overlords? I think that’s fair deal. Any breasts who come into a doctor’s office should get a proper breast exam, if those breasts want an exam, that is. Breasts, as I said in my actual and not proverbial book, have their own opinions, but being free from cancer is a human right, not a privilege or a benefit of some physician who “gets” us. I wish I didn’t have to say that personal safety is a civil right, but apparently basic concepts have gone the way of the dodo for our leaders in law enforcement and criminal justice. Or they wouldn’t prosecute someone like CeCe McDonald for surviving a hate crime and yet fail to prosecute the vast majority of individuals who assault trans people every year.
You see why we need humor? Let me map it out for all of the doubters in the room.
Number 1: We have our other bases covered. We’ve got busloads of anger over the injustices we’ve faced. We gather across the country yearly and on an ad hoc basis to mourn the people in our community that we’ve lost to violence, and trans women account for the largest group of victims among LGBT people, and are the number one reported identity victimized in ALL hate crimes. We deal with depression, frustration, and betrayal as we come to terms with who we are and as we encounter the specialists we need as transfolk—namely doctors, mental health professionals, employers, lawyers. I see you shuddering at lawyers. You’re in DC, aren’t you used to them yet? But yes, humor needs to make an appearance in all of this. Because while we absolutely need our collective anger to hold hands with our righteousness, we also need tools to help us recover and refuel our spirit when we’re exhausted. Or at least I need those things.
At least I had my hair dye debacle to thank for wearing a hat that day. As the sun beat down on the city, the stench of urine, car exhaust, and Tidal Basin funk wafted up from the sewers and asphalt of Connecticut Avenue. It gets a little hard to chant about the advantages of gayness when one is suffocating. Tourists saw us and appeared to wonder openly what the fuss was about—300 young to middle-aged, angry-looking, masculine, man-eating lesbians were walking down the street coughing, sweating and chanting. What wasn’t to admire?
We rounded the corner, the stream of lesbians chanting ahead of me to the beat of my call. I began to wonder just how long this parade route was, because we were looping around much more than the year before. I couldn’t put down my bullhorn and pony up at one of DuPont Circle’s taverns to grab a beer. Suddenly a new sensation distracted me—in addition to the heat, the stench, and my fatigued feet—my head was on fire. The vat of chemicals in my hair was activated by my now sweaty scalp. I put my hand to my temple and pulled it back. Yes, the dye was dripping down my face. So now I looked like an angry, masculine, man-eating lesbian who sweat blood. Perfect.
I held the bullhorn in one hand and attempted to wipe my brow with the other before the toxin could reach my eyes. Better the day should be awful than unbearable.
In the midst of shouting, marching, and wiping, I heard someone call out to me. We were toward the end of the parade, which I knew only because marchers had started dropping to the ground like lemmings that couldn’t quite reach the sea. I walked up to the DuPont Circle fountain, turning to the voice. It was a young transgender guy—a woman who had transitioned to a man.
“Hey, you,” he said, jogging up to me looking perfect, every short hair in place. His clothes didn’t look limp or greasy like mine did.
“Aric, how are you?” I greeted him.
“Great. I just wanted to say nice bullhorning. Is that a verb?” He laughed at himself. He was so attractive, with sturdy cheekbones and a chiseled jawline. He looked not only like he was always meant to be male, but that he’d moved the heavens to make it happen.
“It is now.”
“So I didn’t recognize you for like, half the march. I was wondering, are you GQ?”
GQ. Short form of genderqueer, describing people who didn’t identify as male or female but as something that messed with gender itself. There were 2,381 permutations of what that could look like, or so I’d heard.
I worried if I said yes, Aric and a Greek chorus would suddenly spring out of the concrete and start laughing at my ineptitude. My hand wandered to my forehead to make sure I didn’t look like a boiled beet. I said the first thing that came to mind.
“Yes, I am Gentlemen’s Quarterly.” I gave him a big, winning smile.
He shook his head and smiled. “You’re so cool. Great to see you! You coming out later tonight?” He leaned in and hugged me as he said this. He must have had our representative amounts of appeal mixed up, because I should have been the one falling over him.
“Coming out, yes, I think so!” But not the no more closeted kind of coming out, Aric, I thought. I just don’t know if I’ll ever have your confidence.
Number 2: Humor is disarming. There’s power in a well timed moment of comedy. Since I’ve covered public speaking trainers and creative writing teachers, let me also share what comedy writers say about humor: to laugh, the audience needs to feel superior to the target of the joke. That’s right, superior. Sure, there are many strategies around identifying that target, and for me, I use two over and over again. Myself, and gender. Not that I never put anyone else into focus. Before I transitioned, I caught the ire of a stranger on the Metro.
I sat down on a lightly-populated Metro train and fumbled with my iPod, though all of my friends told me, after a spate of robberies, not to listen to it on the train. I kept the sound level down so I could hear ambient noise and perhaps give my ears a break. I stopped paying attention to which stop I was at, since I knew I was in for a twenty-five-minute ride or so.
The doors opened and closed, the familiar sing-song alert sounding each time. At one stop, a man in a dirty trench coat got on. He had on what had once been nice khaki pants, now discolored and shredded at the bottom, revealing scarred ankles above worn out high-top sneakers. He looked grizzled, had stringy hair and a gray, unkempt beard. After staring at me for many minutes, he suddenly shouted: “Are you a man or a woman? Are you a man or a woman?” There was a brief pause. “Are you a MAN or a WOMAN?”
I watched as everyone on the train looked at him and then me, to see if they themselves could determine my gender. Nobody else seemed to be as angry about it as this guy. I pretended my music was much louder than it was and ignored him. Seeing my stop coming up, I stood up and stood four inches in front of the car doors, as I did usually anyway, screaming crazy man or no screaming crazy man.
The doors opened. I stepped onto the platform. I turned around and looked back toward the car.
“Are you an ASSHOLE or an IDIOT?” I shouted, and the doors closed to people applauding me and laughing at him.
Number 3: Humor is memorable. We are fighting for some very high stakes here, namely our lives. On another level we’re fighting for the soul of this country, which seems to be mired in mean-spiritedness during a time of intense need for millions of people. Right-wing pundits lambast every advance transfolk make for our civil rights, as if they have the cornerstone on morality and even as they wrestle with an Oxy habit, get caught manufacturing scandals about their enemies, or are photographed locking lips with their boyfriend in a random gay bar. One way to rise above this noise from the extremists on the right is humor. Let’s take the frequently cited male predator in a dress. This concept gets trotted out nearly every time a jurisdiction looks at changing public accommodations law—you know, to allow us to urinate in a public facility. In all states across the country, there is not a single, solitary instance of a man or trans woman, wearing a dress to sneak into a women’s rest room in order to assault her. Not one. This utter fiction comes only from the bigot’s mind, but because I love humor, let’s break it down.
“Hey uh, Jeff.”
“I have an idea.”
“Let’s go scare some dames.”
“Ha ha. Okay.”
“Wait, Jeff. Let’s scare ‘em while they’re peeing.”
“Uh, okay. You mean in like a ladies room?”
“Yeah. Let’s go into the ladies room and scare some dames while they’re peeing.”
“But how will we get in there?”
(Pause) “Let’s put on some dresses and go in disguise.”
“Ohhhhh. Smart, Frank.”
Fifteen minutes later.
“Gee Frank, these pantyhose are hard to walk in!”
“And these bra straps are killing my shoulders!”
“Maybe we should scare some dames the old-fashioned way, on the street corner.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Number 4: Humor is good for us. Laughing reduces the cortisone hormone that we make when we’re stressed when we laugh and releases endorphins instead that help us feel more generally happy. We also give ourselves good memories to draw upon later, form deeper emotional connections with our loved ones who laugh with us, and some scientists say that we reduce our and our friends’ social anxiety when we laugh in public. Okay, I made that last one up, but I wish it were true. It’s not impossible. You heard it here first. Look, we need to laugh. I’ve been trying to teach my 8-month-old son to laugh, and laugh a lot. I put random small objects on my head and look shocked to find them there, one second later. To an 8-month-old infant this is truly hilarious. He gets so caught up in my comic act that he’ll laugh once all I’ve done is pick up a new block or rattle, in anticipation of seeing another instance of dad being a total idiot. For adults finding the laughter can sometimes be a more challenging prospect, it’s true. But like the plastic toy on our heads, we need to find our tricks for laughing, because humor can keep us sane in a crisis and give us just what we require to make it to the next more optimistic moment.
After I’d seen the therapist Robyn a few times, she asked me outright, “Would you rather be liked, or respected?”
What kind of a question is that? I wanted to know. My brain started firing frenetically. How could anyone not want to be liked? What the hell are you talking about? Why would anyone make that choice? How could you pick respected over liked? What a crazy question! Who thinks up shitty questions like this? What are you really asking me? How could I ever answer such a ridiculous question?
I realized suddenly that I’d asked all of those things out loud. I looked down at my shoes, always my default instead of making eye contact. If I couldn’t be grounded, at least I could look at the floor.
“Liked, Robyn, liked,” I said, trying to breathe. “Why would anyone say anything else? Of course I would pick liked.” Perhaps speaking more slowly would make me sound more certain.
“Well,” she said, looking at me, “I hope that someday you answer by saying ‘respected.’”
Number 5: Humor humanizes. Whatever message we’re looking to communicate—be it borne on posterboard at an Occupy rally or into a microphone at a legislative hearing—one of the powerful effects of humor is its ability to remind the listener that we are people. We needn’t add the “just like them” line; I for one am nothing at all like Glen Beck, Ann Romney, Gary Bauer, Bill O’Reilly, or Barney Frank, for that matter. The debate about assimilationist versus outsider agendas aside, it becomes harder for people not in the trans community to rail against us when they see us as people. Like it has done for LGB people to some degree, knowing someone who is out and proud has changed the attitudes of millions of Americans on issues from anti-discrimination to parenting to marriage equality. There is no reason whatsoever that reminding others about our presence with the diversity of our faces and lives could have similar effects for our community. Humor is a key into that process of realization.
Susanne met me at the bar, taking off her winter hat and unwrapping a scarf the length of an adult boa constrictor. It took her thirty seconds to remove all of her outerwear. She’d emailed me from her parents’ house in Michigan, saying she was stuck with dialup and had just gotten my message. A quick cheery email exchange, and we’d set up this date.
“Hi, there,” she said, smiling.
“Hi, thanks for meeting me,” I said, trying to keep my smile out of the goofy nerdy range.
We got a table and were checked on often by the waitress, who didn’t have much else to do but who also seemed to find us amusing. Our pizzas arrived, hers a sausage and extra cheese, and mine a mushroom lover’s that Michael would have hissed at, given his abhorrence of fungi.
She looked at me and my pizza. “So are you a vegetarian?”
“Oh, no. I just like the mushroom pizza here.”
“Thank God,” was her response, and I laughed.
We talked about our love of Kitchen Aid mixers, and that we’d each named ours: hers was Bette, and mine, Grapey, after the official Kitchen Aid color of grape. We’d also both previously bought mixers for other people’s weddings and then wondered why we hadn’t purchased one for ourselves.
“I love baking,” I said. “I enjoy it so much I want to retire early and start my own bakery someday.”
“Shut up,” said Susanne, laughing. “That’s what I want to do!” Somehow this made sense to me, because she was currently a Ph.D. student in public policy. Who wouldn’t want to retire from that and bake cake all day?
“No kidding. That’s great.”
Things were going so well I decided to take a risk and let her know everything about my gender goings on. As soon as I started talking, I wanted to erase the decision and start over with any other topic of conversation. Hummingbirds. The state of the economy in Guam. Bloomsday parties. Monkey rectums.
“So I’ve been transitioning, taking it really slowly,” I said, feeling exposed. “Many of my friends still only know me as Jenifer, but for more and more people I’m Everett now. So you could call me either, really.” Stop talking!
The voice in my head was powerless to stop me.
“Well, that sounds like it can be hard at times,” she said.
I fought to stay on my seat and not fall onto the floor. “Yes, it can be. I’m taking things at my own pace. It’s been interesting, I guess.”
“You’re not the first person I’ve met with complicated gender,” Susanne said, looking at me. She wasn’t backing away. I didn’t know what to make of this. Maybe she was a psychopath, collecting people with gender issues in her basement and putting them in little cages so she could have her own private transsexual zoo.
Or maybe it was just okay.
The fight for our civil rights is serious, complicated. It needs to occur on the part of all of us, to whatever degree we are capable and along a multiplicity of lines of attack. We need to petition our employers when we are privileged enough to do so without losing our jobs. We need to lobby our elected leaders. We need to take issues straight to the press. We need to talk to each other, advocate for our best interests with our physicians, and stay on top of a changing, tempestuous legal system. We need to be watchdogs for each other because few outside our community have our backs. We need to make a fuss, protest, perfect our skills at insider politicking, and be ready to soothe our war-weary. To get all of this done, we need to remember that humor, comedy, laughter—our collective laughter—is a tool in our arsenal. It’s an effective means of pushing our goals forward, but it’s also an affordable means of staying alive, and better yet, of staying happily alive. Each and every one of you deserves your own “pursuit of happiness.” We have worked too hard to get where we are today to let anyone take our giggles, snark, and glee away from us.
There, I’ve told you what I’ve told you, I’ve done it by showing you, and I hope I met all of the rules for public speaking. Thank you so much for the honor and privilege of speaking today; I recognize that you’ll never get these 45 minutes back, so I hope you have no regrets in coming by and listening.