Craig Ferguson, transmockery and the reality of bias in new report, 'Injustice at Every Turn'

The transgender community, already marginalized and misunderstood by the heterosexual and LGB communities, finds itself again mocked and derided in late night comedy (see SNL’s Estro-maxx skit).

In this case, it’s CBS’s Craig Ferguson, who thought this sketch was a knee-slapper for viewers (MetroWeekly):

The sketch featured Ferguson’s “half-sister” — played by a man — coming out in a skirt and female’s shirt, with an oddly painted face appearing to suggest significant facial hair. The first “gag” was her apparently showing male genitalia as she sat down — to “eww” gasps from the audience.

Ferguson continued forward, mocking at several points that his “half-sister” was sexually unappealing, saying, for example, that no one wanted her in a date auction. There also were repeated negative references to Ferguson’s “half-sister” masturbating.

Ferguson also went so far as to include a “he-she” reference at one point.

Oh. my. god. That was painful to watch. Never mind transmockery, this is a foul transminstrel skit. The amazing amount of (sweetened) laughter makes me sick.

For those of you who are ready to wail “you have no sense of humor” or a variation on “get a life,” many, many Americans do not personally know someone who is trans to feel any empathy, disappointment, let alone outrage at this kind of bad taste/mockery. It would be different if trans folk had numerous examples of positive images projected in mainstream society. The fact is, we’re just not there yet for this kind of display of “humor” to be acceptable. And I’m sure many will disagree.

The issue isn’t whether Ferguson is gay/gay-friendly, it’s that he’s apparently blissfully unaware how few people know someone trans. For too many people they see “camp drag” and people in transition as the same thing. In the present day our society is only starting to understand or explore the impact gender non-conformity on our culture. And it’s a culture that likes to draw distinct gender lines. I think skits like  this reflect, in my opinion, the continuing clash with any acceptance of MTF transition (notice MTFs are primarily the butt of these jokes). That’s not random, that’s the not-so-buried misogyny. The ignorant belief that your gender not what’s between your legs, but what’s between your ears. We have way too many folks out there, particularly  squeamish men, who ask themselves and anyone who will hear them, “why a man would want to be a woman” (while holding their cojones). And the bias is real.

Case in point – the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) released a comprehensive new report yesterday, “Injustice at Every Turn” (summary, full report) that outlines the findings in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS). This is the first national comprehensive study of its kind, based on responses from over 6,450 participants.

Perhaps Mr. Ferguson should be emailed a copy to read. He would learn how reinforcing bias through imagery continues to foment discrimination against transgender and gender non-conforming people in a wide range of areas, including education, health care, employment, and housing. From the report:

  • Respondents were nearly four times more likely to live in extreme poverty, with household income of less than $10,000.
  • Respondents were twice as likely to be unemployed compared to the population as a whole. Half of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment or other mistreatment in the workplace, and one in four were fired because of their gender identity or expression.
  • While discrimination was pervasive for the entire sample, it was particularly pronounced for people of color. African-American transgender respondents fared far worse than all others in many areas studied.
  • Housing discrimination was also common. 19% reported being refused a home or apartment and 11% reported being evicted because of their gender identity or expression. One in five respondents experienced homelessness because of their gender identity or expression.
  • An astonishing 41% of respondents reported attempting suicide, compared to only 1.6% of the general population.
  • Discrimination in health care and poor health outcomes were frequently experienced by respondents. 19% reported being refused care due to bias against transgender or gender-nonconforming people, with this figure even higher for respondents of color. Respondents also had over four times the national average of HIV infection.
  • Harassment by law enforcement was reported by 22% of respondents and nearly half were uncomfortable seeking police assistance.
  • Despite the hardships they often face, transgender and gender non-conforming persons persevere. Over 78% reported feeling more comfortable at work and their performance improving after transitioning, despite the same levels of harassment in the workplace.

Said Rea Carey, Executive Director of the Task Force: “By shedding light on the discrimination that transgender Americans face, this study poses a challenge to us all. No one should be out of a job, living in poverty, or faced with sub-par health care simply because of their gender identity or expression. The scope of the problem is clear, and now we must come together to solve it.”

Said Mara Keisling, Executive Director of NCTE: “Reading these results is heartbreaking on a personal level-each of these facts and figures represents pain and hardship endured by real people, every single day. This survey is a call to the conscience of every American who believes that everyone has the right to a fair chance to work hard, to have a roof overhead, and to support a family. Equality, not discrimination, is the ideal that Americans believe in, have fought for, and need to apply here.”

MetroWeekly’s Chris Geidner noted that in the skit the “half-sister” noted: “If CBS really cared, they wouldn’t broadcast this crap every night.” Sorry, guys, if that was supposed to be the CYA to mitigate this tripe, your plumber’s posterior is still showing.

UPDATE: Over at Facebook, the defense of Ferguson begins, primarily based on the fact that as a Brit, this sort of drag stuff is sort of a wink on the matter, as a cultural icebreaker. Well that’s fine and dandy across the pond, but based on Americans’ ability to deal with any sophistication about race, I doubt the majority of Americans will be convinced that was parody – it was simply funny to them. If we can’t even get ENDA on the freaking table because of the “bathroom fears” or “men in dresses teaching our kids” hesitancy, this kind of skit doesn’t help, IMHO. Maybe Craig needs to have some trans guests on to actually “break the ice” – that would go a long way, in the absence of so little balance.

But it’s his show; he’s not obligated to balance anything. And he’s also not free from criticism.


* Memorializing: International Transgender Day of Remembrance

NOTE: Over at LGBTPOV, Diego Sanchez, the openly transgender Legislative Assistant to Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA4), has a guest column about his personal reaction to this sordid skit. A snippet:

On Friday night I watched CBS, the network that features a series of Public Service Announcements (PSAs) promoting CBS Cares, the network’s initiative around tolerance, embracing difference as a path to understanding.

I hadn’t imagined that I would relive some of my life’s most excruciating memories at the mercy of CBS’s The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. The segment on CBS on The Late Late Show deflates the CBS Cares “tolerance” plea.

That segment (featuring Craig’s “long-lost half sister” Peg – oh, so cleverly named) gave me a flashback to being “Other” as a youth in the South. I’m Latino now and at the time, Latina on the outside – which gave me a different gender identity and expression than expected by society that made staying alive a challenge for me.   I could no more hide being not-a-girl but rather, a boy who hoped to live long enough to be the man I was intended to become than I could being dark and not-White.  Both just are.

Whatever the creators and deliverers of this segment imagined as they crafted and chose to air this painful piece, they could not possibly have understood how oxygen-robbing and frighteningly traumatic it would be for me and many others to watch.  What if, rather than tell my parents at age five that I was born wrong, I would have seen on my computer a replay of this segment that says, “Don’t be me.”? Is that the “tolerance” CBS Cares would promote?

I realize that some people would consider the segment humorous.  But some of us found it painful and frightening.

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