Posts Tagged ‘Howard Stern’

America’s Got Transphobia

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

Earlier today I saw the YouTube clip of octogenarian Ray Jessel performing a song on an episode of the NBC reality show America’s Got Talent. It was moderately appalling, but, you know, what’s not these days? I assumed it was an old clip someone on Facebook had recently shared (what’s not these days?), and I quickly forgot about it.

It wasn’t until a few hours later that I noticed Ray Jessel and his song were trending on Twitter, and that his episode had aired just last night. That’s when I realized I needed to come here and post about it.

In the song, Jessel related that he began seeing a woman. She was lovely, stylish, well-dressed, etc., but unfortunately (and this is the refrain), “She’s got a penis.” This discovery, of course, was a deal breaker.

When he first hit that line, the judges and studio audience went nuts with laughter. As he continued, explaining that he must draw the line at male genitalia, and that moreover hers was bigger than his, the judges and audience surrendered completely to their hysterical mirth. In the vernacular, they “lost their shit.” Ray finished the song to wild applause and a standing ovation from Howie Mandel. He then had this exchange with Howie, Heidi Klum, and the woman I assume is the former Scary Spice:

Heidi Klum: Did this happen to you? Is this a true story and you turned it into a song?
Ray Jessel: Something like that happened to a friend of mine.
Scary Spice (making air quotes): A “friend of mine.”
Howie Mandel (in a dubious tone): Ooohhh…
Ray: I know those “friend of mine” things, but this is true, actually.

The judges then awarded Jessel four “Yes” votes, which apparently is an unusually high score. You’re probably getting that I’m not a regular viewer of this show.

Now, everyone get out your Transphobia Tropes cards. Let’s see what we have in the song and the subsequent conversation:

  • Transgender women are “really” men.
  • Transgender women go stealth in order to “trick” or “surprise” the men they become intimate with.
  • Straight men don’t date transgender women.
  • A man who admits to having a an experience such as this should be mocked for maybe being gay.

Did anybody score a bingo? There are no prizes.

We are in the summer of 2014, yes? I didn’t unwittingly go back in time to a day before Laverne Cox was TIME magazine’s cover girl? Before she and Carmen Carrera schooled Katie Couric and Wendy Williams on how to be respectful of transgender people? Before California passed AB 1266? Before a string of favorable court decisions strongly hinted that maybe it’s not so nice to dehumanize transgender people and treat them like circus freaks anymore? Because that’s what it feels like.

I can give Mr. Jessel himself a pass. I wouldn’t expect most of his generation to know any better; he grew up in less enlightened times (although I know men in their 80s who do know better). Call me ageist, but studies back me up: homophobia and transphobia are negatively correlated with age. That kind of ignorance is solving itself actuarially.

In fairness, transphobia wasn’t the only reason he was so well received by the crowd. He also benefited from what I call the “Betty White” effect. Senior citizens aren’t expected to talk about sex, or even know about sex that isn’t wholesomely missionary, marital, and mid-century. Those who defy that expectation get comedy cred, even if what they’re saying isn’t objectively funny. At least a third of Jessel’s appeal last night was in his willingness to say “penis” out loud. Howard Stern made this reading explicit by admitting how impressed he was that Ray, at his age, still had a sense of humor. Scary Spice expressed the same sentiment, more obliquely, calling Jessel a “naughty, funny” old man.

But transphobia was the primary reason Jessel was such a hit. The judges were unabashed about it; their wink-winking and nudge-nudging was adolescent and puerile. They should have known better. At least Heidi Klum should have.

The producers most certainly should have known better; they must have chosen Jessel and vetted his performance ahead of time.

It isn’t just thin-skinned “political correctness” to take exception to jokes about “trans panic” or “gay panic” humor. I can ignore rudeness, or shake it off. Hurt feelings aren’t the only thing at stake. Reducing transgender people to a punch line gets people killed. It’s not funny.