Why It’s Important To Admit That Being Trans Can Be Funny
By Frey Kwa Hawking
For all the pain they give us, bodies and gender *are* funny, and as trans people, we know that better than anyone.
You know the drill: the Hollywood body-swapping movie, subsection: gender. A girl wakes up with a dick, a guy with a vagina, to mutual horror. In Dating The Enemy (1996), it’s the result of a couple’s vicious argument — the woman’s exasperated wish to trade places is taken to its logical extreme. Hilarity ensues, because we love watching people fall over themselves trying to work out how gender’s supposed to work for someone who’s meant to be their opposite. Crossing legs versus spreading them wide apart. Drinking cosmos versus drinking whiskey. Donning a dress versus wearing a suit and tie.
There’s one scene that these movies are particularly fond of. The girl, trapped in “a man’s body,” needs to go to the bathroom and faces a problem. How does one pee out of a dick, exactly? She might receive a kindly pointer, or she might brave it alone and risk the stares as urine sprays everywhere. Apart from — or in part because of — its crudity, what makes this scene funny to people is the sense of how ridiculous and unlikely this situation is: If you have a dick, you’re meant to know how to use it. It’s the cissexism that society builds into all of us that makes this idea, of being impossibly at odds with your body, a humorous one.
What the gender-based “jokes” in films like The Hot Chick (2002) or It’s A Boy Girl Thing (2006) do is reinforce what we’re all “supposed” to know about gender: It’s immutable. Men and women are opposites, and those are the only options available. These films implicitly create a sense of right and wrong when it comes to being a man or a woman. And inevitably, in doing so, they leave far too many people out.
This erasure is a shame, because an aspect of being transgender that demands more attention, and that the media rarely touches, is the funny side. These particular comedies aren’t interested in examining gender when it concerns being trans, of course — which is probably fortunate given Hollywood’s track record on the matter. On the other hand, media that does concern itself with trans issues tends to be heavy to an extreme.
But what if we created more space for hilarity in the stories making up what we think of as the “trans experience”?
To be clear, being trans is, by any measure, tough. It can be life-threatening, depressing, painful. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence, trans women, trans people of color, and LGBTQ or HIV-affected people of color face a disproportionate risk of death by homicide, while trans women are “1.8 times more likely to experience sexual violence when compared with other survivors.” Trans people can’t forget that, but neither can anyone else: The dominant narratives about trans people in the media — being “born in the wrong body,” violence, suffering — leave little room for levity.
Most recently, headlines have rightly been focusing on the violent murder in Istanbul of 23-year-old Hande Kader, a trans woman, activist, and sex worker, and the message sent by the continued casting of cis men as trans women, as happened again in Matt Bomer and Mark Ruffalo’s new film Anything.
This dire representation is surely better than us being the butt of jokes, as it lets cis people in on the genuine emergency many of us face trying to be treated as human beings. And if it’s the darker side of being trans that captures cis people’s interest and, more importantly, their sympathies, it makes sense that there’s such an abundance of Serious Trans Stories.
But what this treatment overlooks is that being trans can also be hilarious.
To hell with universal rules — moments seemingly as impossible as jokes from Dating The Enemy can happen, moments where your body doesn’t look, work, or respond the way you want it to, or changes in a way you knew was coming, but still feels alien. Binding, tucking, packing, hormones, waitlists for surgery, adjusting to surgery, the way people react to you, even the way you react to yourself; all of these things can lead to laughter.
What the hell is going on with your body? With your mind? Your body jiggles now when you go down the stairs. You wonder when exactly it’s acceptable to go shirtless when you couldn’t do it before. What’s that smell? Why do you feel like this today? And do you even want to change anything about yourself?
When I meet up with my trans friends, what stands out is how much we laugh. It can be because of internet memes or jokes, but more often, it has to do with the practical realities of living life while trans. Writing your deed poll, a legal document that proves a change of name, on the back of an envelope (it’s legal no matter where you write it!) and then losing it when you want to show your bank . . . how tucking can go wrong . . . everything surrounding bathrooms . . .
This can all be funny.
Recently, a trans friend sent a Snapchat to another friend of his penis packer lying in a sink, waiting to be washed. A lonely dick in a sink! It was hilarious.
Such laughter reminds me of a strip — #77 — from Sophie Labelle’s popular webcomic Assigned Male, which follows an 11-year-old trans girl, Stephie, who’s unusually able to hold her own against the cissexism she encounters. In the strip, two characters admit to each other what they can’t to their psychologists: that they sometimes dream that they’re their old genders, that sometimes referring to themselves in their heads get complicated, that one still stands when she pees (there’s urine cropping up again!), that painting your nails isn’t something that’s easy to give up, and should you want to? This strip isn’t one of Labelle’s funniest, but the honesty sticks with me. The relief of telling someone things — ridiculous, messy things about your gender — is real.
Labelle herself attributes the exposure of the humor behind being trans to the internet allowing for communities to form. She tells me, “Transness has been made so invisible in society that having access to those safer spaces meant creating a feeling of community and empowerment like never before. Without that, humor wouldn’t be as accessible.”
We glimpse this kind of humor in Tangerine (2015), the critically-acclaimed film with two trans women acting at its center, and in Ekundayo Afolayan’s article “My Genderqueer Quest For The Perfect Detachable Penis.” With gender opened up, there’s fewer limits and subsequently a lot more fun to be had: “I don’t want just any run-of-the-mill genitals. I want a dildo that feels like me,” writes Afolayan.
These works can be sensitive, dramatic, and poignant, but they’re also allowed to be funny. This is the opposite of erasure, or of that constant and toxic stereotype of men being “deceived” into finding trans women attractive (see: Family Guy). We have control here. This is us talking about being us — if it’s at our own expense, it’s also all the more to our strength.
As trans people, we’ve been the punchline of jokes for what seems like forever, sometimes with deadly consequences. But our right to laugh, and to let each other know that we’re not alone, can’t be taken away from us. Finding humor in adversity is powerful, and always has been. As Labelle puts it, “I see humor as a highway to pride. It’s hard to grow pride when you’re always the butt of a joke. Getting to be the ones telling the jokes is liberating.”
This humor does another important thing that also shouldn’t be underestimated. Despite what Pope Francis and far too many others seem to think, trans people don’t have some kind of secret agenda to undermine gender. But it is possible that our visible existence, survival, and most of all, our honesty about our lives can help to highlight how ridiculous the system of gender is.
You shouldn’t tolerate or try to help trans people merely out of pity, or because you’re aware of how dangerous and miserable it could get for them. You should understand them as people who, like anyone else, deserve the freedom to have a really good time.
If you’re open to hearing us, it’s often the experiences of trans people that offer the most rounded accounts of navigating issues related to the problem of gender — the incongruity of it, and its moments of joy, too.
For all the pain they give us, bodies and gender are funny, and as trans people, we know that better than anyone. Give us the space, and we’ll make you laugh, too.