Social progress, with a concomitant increase in visibility, brings the need for that community to adapt in order to make further progress. A recent case in point is the politically correct backlash from some in the trans community directed toward Sarah Silverman and the equal-pay video from the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) last week.
As this advertising blog points out, Silverman’s video, which “inadvertently sparked controversy,” has been seen over a million times. Note the use of the word “inadvertently.” I have never met Ms. Silverman, and while I am at times taken aback by the volume of expletives she uses in her stand-up comedy, I find her absurdist brand of equal-opportunity comedy, done with a sweetness like no other, to be very entertaining. More importantly, I find her PSAs and campaign ads to be highly effective. Some of you may recall this 2008 Obama for President ad, “The Great Schlep.” It would have been easy to be offended, as a Jewish woman, and, yes, some of it was over the top, but I didn’t take it personally. It was sponsored by the Jewish Council for Education and Research.
Here was another of her election-season videos, this time against voter suppression, “LetMyPeopleVote2012.” Again, it’s easy to take offense on a personal level, but I believe the video is quite effective overall.
She was hired to do the equal-pay video because her comedy is effective. I expect the current video, directed at the nearly 75 million working women in America, will be valuable as well. This video was to make a point about unequal pay for women — allwomen, including trans women. It might not have been useful to include trans women explicitly; that could have been distracting for the vast majority of people who know nothing about trans people.
So why the problem?
The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) said:
The National Center for Transgender Equality is struck by the insensitivity of Sarah Silverman’s video and we have reached out to the National Women’s Law Center to provide a cultural competency training to ensure that transgender people are always part of the conversation when it comes to the wage gap.
I know the senior leadership at the NWLC, and I can categorically state that they are allies of the trans community and need no sensitivity training. Being allies and aware of trans issues, they did not order a transphobic video to be made; they probably expected that trans persons, who have been gaining positive media exposure this past year, along with federal employment rights and advances on the state level, would be proud to be tangentially referenced in a humorous fashion.
I have gay friends who were annoyed by the use of sourdough penises in the video. They’re gluten-sensitive, and celiac disease is a serious issue for them. Yet they didn’t take it personally and storm off in a huff, complaining that the NWLC didn’t consider their feelings. As for gender-confirmation surgery, Silverman does us a favor by destigmatizing anatomical terms related to sexual function. The more we can normalize basic anatomy, the more we can build acceptance for insurance coverage of genital reconstruction.
The trans community makes up, at current best count, 0.3 percent of the general population, or 1 million people, half of whom might be working-age. The video was directed at all of us, 75 million women strong. The video’s primary point? Men are paid more than women. A study showed that when a trans woman transitions to live as a woman, she can expect her income to drop by a third, while the income of transitioning trans men rises a bit. The point is that specific anti-trans bias aside, the disparity is due to sexism. It’s quite possible that if the ad agency had thought about it, they could have had Sarah add a line near the end that referenced that while her gender transition would increase her income, it would be much less for her as a transgender man. Maybe next time, which would be a useful ask of the NWLC.
A trans friend called this immediate backlash the “trans outrage machine,” backlash from people who respond emotionally without rational consideration, who don’t stop to think of the context or what their goal actually is. This kind of rage has been called “oppression sickness” and attributed to Flo Kennedy, the African-American feminist activist. We’re trying to become accepted into American culture with full and equal rights, where we have the same opportunity to thrive as anyone else. Attacking friends publicly because of perceived slights doesn’t help. Demanding complete and total acceptance without making an effort or meeting the other halfway will backfire. We’ve lived through such phases of American history enough times to know that you don’t win friends with an absolutist test of political correctness. Those are not friends who will stand by you when the going becomes more difficult.
Joshua Rothman, writing about Gone Girl in a recent edition of The New Yorker, notes that “we’re fascinated with stories of victimhood,” yet he points out the danger of a “politicized, media-enabled culture of victimhood.” That danger is staring us in the face when our friends are publicly attacked and our enemies laugh and build the case for the next swing of the American cultural pendulum. Some will respond that the potential for violence demands that we extirpate all references to gender transition to which anyone takes offense, yet when our rights and acceptance are limited by general ignorance, the way forward demands education, which requires compromise and not the imposition of a political culture that tries to protect everyone’s feelings.
One can use this video to highlight the pain that trans persons experience in the workplace, as Parker Molloy does, but I feel we still need to remember that it is not always exclusively about us. We are a small part of the women’s community and suffer along with cis women. (That’s not even accounting for the fact that much transphobia and homophobia is rooted in misogyny.) I have spent over a decade pointing out that sex and gender are located primarily in the brain, rather than between the legs, but for most human beings that bit of knowledge has yet to be learned. As a result, I accept, for the foreseeable future, that “penis” is shorthand for “man,” and “vagina” is shorthand for “woman” (and just being able to use those terms publicly is a huge advance in our puritanical culture).
An example of how absurd this demand for recognition and total re-engineering of our language has become occurred recently when a group called #protranschoicedemanded that NARAL and Planned Parenthood stop saying that only women can get pregnant and have abortions.
I believe fully in self-determination and freedom and believe that trans men have as much right to get pregnant as women and should be treated with respect and understanding, but I do not support the demands for changing the language to accommodate those few dozen people. Such demands will engender a backlash that could damage the entire movement.
Our work over the past 15 years (with some successes even earlier) has created a national legal landscape where we have outlawed discrimination based on gender identity and expression in employment. Gender-nonconforming, genderqueer and classically transgender persons are protected. Such protections will encourage and assist the culture in evolving toward a more liberated society where gender is not imposed and policed. But demanding that one be treated with kid gloves, that everyone else’s language be cleansed to avoid offense, and that any perceived insult will provoke outrage, is not the way to build a better America. We are becoming more visible, so more are becoming aware of us. There was no hostility toward trans women in the sketch. We need to lighten up and laugh a little. Let’s not demand that everything having to do with sex and gender has to recognize us and our needs. Improving the lot of all women as a class improves the lives of trans women, so we don’t need to explicitly “always [be a] part of the conversation when it comes to the wage gap.” We’re women, so we are already part of that conversation.