Half-and-Half Wits

I lost a friend last week. I didn’t lose her in the physical sense. She didn’t pass away or move to the other side of the globe. Rather, after a disturbing online exchange, I made the decision to, in the words of Gwyneth Paltrow, ‘consciously uncouple’ myself from her.

What happened was this: on her Facebook page she posted a popular Internet meme that read, “If Caitlyn Jenner went missing, would her picture appear on the back of a carton of half-and-half?” While some people might find a celebrity-mocking joke like this funny, I found it in exceedingly bad taste.

I was also surprised that this joke was posted by someone who is herself a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. I asked her to take the post down, explaining my concerns about the type of message that a joke like that sends. She refused and our online conversation quickly went downhill. I finally ‘de-friended’ her.

Now anyone who knows me well should know that I rarely take offense at jokes. I enjoy sarcastic, self-depreciating and (often) inappropriate humor, particularly of the type that skewers celebrities and politicians, or that calls out some of the absurdities of modern life. My snarky comment about Gwyneth Paltrow is proof of that. So what was it about this joke that got me so riled up?

The problem with a joke like the one about Caitlyn Jenner is it perpetuates ugly stereotypes about the transgender community. It makes light of the real struggles of a highly marginalized and stigmatized segment of the population. It contributes to the continued victimization of a group of individuals whose only mistake was to be born into the wrong body.

Because of their fame, transgendered celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner, award-winning actress Laverne Cox, and musician Chaz Bono are easy targets for jokes like this. However, their wealth and prestige means that they are largely insulated from the discrimination and harassment that other transgendered men and women deal with on a daily basis.

If Caitlyn Jenner heard us laugh at a joke that implies that she is somehow half a man or only half a woman, she would probably roll her eyes, climb into her limo, and head off to her next photo shoot or red carpet gala. But when a young man or woman who is struggling with their gender identity hears us laugh, it sends a very different and very powerful message. It reinforces the idea that they are somehow damaged or defective. It denies them of their basic humanity and strips them of their dignity.

Add to this the fear-mongering rhetoric of politicians in states like North Carolina, Mississippi and Tennessee – where conservative lawmakers have promoted the idea that transgendered individuals are sexual predators in order to gain support for laws that deny them access to basic services, including the use of public restrooms – and it should come as no surprise that transgendered men and women have some of the highest rates of drug addiction, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and suicide.

For example, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, a study of over 6,000 people conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality, found that over 40% of transgendered men and women attempt to take their own lives. This is a rate of suicide that is more than 10-times the national average.

That same 2011 study also found that transgendered individuals are very likely to be bullied in school (55 percent), to experience discrimination at work (59 percent), to be refused services by a health care provider (60 percent), to be harassed by law enforcement officers (61 percent), to be homeless (69 percent), and to be the victim of physical violence and sexual assault (78 percent). Most frightening is the fact that murder of transgendered women has hit an all time high, with one transwoman killed every 29 hours. Few of these murders are solved; of all of the transgender murders that occurred from 2013 to 2015, not a single one was prosecuted or even reported as a hate crime.

All of this can be directly attributed to the rampant transphobia that permeates American society. While a single ill-conceived joke about Caitlyn Jenner might not seem like a big deal, when we suggest that transgender men and women are to be laughed at we ourselves contribute to the internalized self-loathing and externalized stigmatization that results in the tragic death of so many of our brothers, sisters, sons and daughters.

Suicide, murder, physical violence and sexual assault are no laughing matter. If you think that they are, then you’re a half-and-half wit.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on May 5, 2016, and is available on the WAMC website.]


About Sean Philpott-Jones

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Sean holds advanced degrees in microbiology, medical anthropology, and bioethics. He is currently Chair of the Bioethics Department at Clarkson University's Capital Region Campus and Director of the Bioethics Program of Clarkson University-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Director of two Fogarty-funded programs to provide research ethics education in Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean Basin. Until his term expired in August 2012, he served as Chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board, an advisory panel that reviews the scientific and ethical aspects of research involving human participants submitted to the EPA for regulatory purposes.
This entry was posted in Discrimination, Human RIghts. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Half-and-Half Wits

  1. Thank you for this post. The lack of sensitivity shown when joking about someone in the public eye is one thing, but what that “one thing” can do to a person shamed and despairing is another. To feel so horrible about who you are is a burden that no one should suffer, yet we are so quick to judge, to malign, to dismiss – all with horrifying circumstances. Human dignity matters – for all, no exception, full stop. Every time we act otherwise, everyone suffers – just some more than others. Thank you again.

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