In the past few months, state laws and local policies have brought added attention to what it means to be transgender. Identity jokes have been popping up everywhere in response. Some of these are deliberately and openly derogatory. Others seem to be intended as lighthearted and playful. All are harmful.
You’ve likely seen them on your social media feed. They range from suggestions that transgender rights somehow protect rapists and peepers, to jokes about a dog whose identity is a cat, to suggestions that the way one loads the tissue roll is more important. They aren’t funny.
Again, some aren’t intended as jokes. They’re intended to prove a point: that “identity” is meaningless. For an example, there’s the petition that compares being transgender to insisting that one “identifies” as a Target employee, and therefore must be given an employee discount.
What’s the difference between gender identity and employee identity? Being a Target employee is something Target has the right to give or take from a person. Target has certain rights over who gets to be a Target employee. Target does not have the right to determine anyone’s gender. In fact, a major component to the entire discussion here is whether people get to decide the gender of other people, or whether the best person to determine an individual’s gender might be that person himself.
There are also a number of jokes and memes centering on animals whose “identity” is a different species, or people identifying as a different race or income level. Again, these differ from gender. Jokes about your cat identifying as a dog are undignified and follow the same road as the insistence that marriage equality would lead to people marrying their dogs. It’s a slippery slope argument taken to an extreme. Racial identity is also an entirely different thing from gender identity, because it derives from generations of experience. Gender is individual. A man is not a man because his father was a man, or because his grandfather was.
Most importantly, these false equivalencies make light of something serious. Transgender people are human beings — human beings who, according to Youth Suicide Prevention Program, about 50 percent of have at least one suicide attempt by their 20th birthday.
This is serious.
Then there are the jokes that suggest transgender individuals are using their identity to get away with things, or that unscrupulous cisgender people will pretend to be transgender to get certain privileges.
This meme suggests that in 2016, a man on a sinking ship, when told that women and children are to be rescued first, would claim to be transgender. Let’s ignore for a moment that, despite a dearth of transgender rights, the man in the scene was already lying to get away with something. We’ll ignore that calling the “women first” rule gender discrimination would be simpler, too.
Ignoring all that, and even supposing for a moment that it’s okay to punish one group of people, or deny rights to one group of people, out of fear that another group will claim those rights, is this at all realistic? In May, we’ve seen a story from WCAX about a transgender man beaten, left unconscious, with multiple broken bones, and one from News 4 NY about a transgender woman attacked by multiple men.
When people are being attacked for being transgender, is that really an identity we think hordes of people are going to take on lightly?
Elected officials are getting in on the bad jokes, as well. Tennessee Representative Andy Holt recently tweeted this one, by cartoonist Jason Henderson.
— Andy Holt (@AndyHolt4TN) May 22, 2016
Again, it seems to suggest one will choose a certain identity for its advantages, while not-too-subtly comparing a trans person to a devil or demon pretending to be good. Again, I have to ask: when transgender people are being depicted as monsters and demons, is that an identity people are going to take on just for fun?
Then there are the jokes about bathrooms.
Below is an example, from a page that posts comic images and jokes.
Another joke going around is something to the effect of, “I don’t care which bathroom you use, as long as you wash your hands.”
Then there are pictures of port-a-potties, with captions like “These have always been transgender bathrooms!”
Okay, the idea that port-a-potties are commonly gender-neutral might be used to emphasize the point that people of different genders have used the same toilets — if it wasn’t for the fact that transgender people have been told they are expected to use a gender-neutral bathroom, or a port-a-potty. Suggesting that one demographic must use a segregated, separate bathroom is — well, quite literally segregation and discrimination.
Pointing out port-a-potties as a type of “shared” or “neutral” restroom honestly sounds a lot more like this segregation than inclusion.
In general, all the bathroom jokes do the same thing: they make light of a serious subject. Dark humor and laughing at serious topics can be a coping mechanism, but in this case, we’re laughing while people are dying. The Daily Beast reported last month that, after the passing of North Carolina’s HB2, the law that affected bathroom access for transgender individuals, calls to a trans crisis hotline nearly doubled.
When people are actively facing discrimination, assault, and danger just for being transgender, identity isn’t a joke.
[Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images]