Leave Ellen Alone: A Lesson in Misplaced Transphobia

Originally Published: March 5th, 2014; Updated: June 25th, 2014

Comedienne, actress, host extraordinaire, and overall amazing human Ellen DeGeneres recently came under fire for a comment during her opening monologue at the 86th Annual Academy Awards, which aired Sunday, March 2nd. During her witty opening, which employed her signature wry-delivery and the pop culture-laden humor of her daily talk show stand-up routines, she referenced gay icon Liza Minnelli, daughter of Hollywood Legend Judy Garland, by saying, “Hello to the best Liza Minnelli impersonator I’ve ever seen!  Good job, sir.”  This spurned a barrage of internet-related hate, calling DeGeneres “transphobic” and “disrespectful.” Others denounced her status as a “lesbian icon,” saying that using drag queen humor is hateful and intolerant towards the trans community.

I don’t understand this.

Have we forgotten who Ellen DeGeneres is? Has the gay community forgotten what Ellen stands for, and how much she has done for positive exposure to gay culture? In The Age of the Internet & Social Media, it’s easy to type hurriedly on a keypad and tweet something hateful towards a celebrity for an off-hand joke; it’s easy to publicly condemn those who have done wonderful, beautiful things for the LGBT community because of one misplaced joke; it’s easy for others who call themselves advocate to climb up onto their Twitterfied soapboxes and cry “____PHOBIA!” But it’s not easy to look at the real source of the problem: that phobia’s of any kind are born from a lack of understanding.

I was 7 years old when Ellen premiered on March 29, 1994 on ABC, a network that is now considered extremely gay-friendly. I used to watch this show religiously, and when Ellen’s self-titled main character made television history in 1997 in “The Puppy Episode” and came out as a lesbian. I remember watching that episode and not truly understanding what it meant and the social significance of that moment. All I remember was my mom forbidding me to watch it, and my dad referring to her as “Ellen DeGenerate.” I didn’t know any better; I was 7. All I knew was that I was entertained. I never realized how big of a deal that would be for me, a boy who knew he was different, but didn’t know why. Around the same time the episode aired, Ellen came out publicly and in accordance with the violent media storm created after Ellen’s outing, including religious rights groups petitioning The Walt Disney Company, ABC’s parent company, ABC placed a parental advisory at the beginning of the episodes warning viewers of “adult content.”

Ellen was cancelled the following season.

Ellen DeGeneres fought hard for positive media exposure of lesbians, but instead was criticized for it. This was a time before Will & Grace, where the only real representations of lesbians were two “hot” females making out for the pleasure of a male viewer. Ellen was bold and brazen and a pioneered that paved the way for a show like Will & Grace, and other sitcoms and dramas. Without Ellen‘s landmark “coming out” episode, I doubt we’d have Callie and Arizona on Grey’s Anatomy; we’d still be living with representations of part-time, rebellious lesbians like Marissa Cooper of The O.C.

After Ellen‘s cancellation, DeGeneres went back to stand-up — (Editor’s Note: if you haven’t seen her two stand-up specials, Here and Now and The Beginning, which I own on DVD and watch religiously, you should; they’re magnificent) — before experiencing a gradual comeback with 2003’s Finding Nemo and her self-titled daytime talkshow Ellen. Over the last 11 years, DeGeneres has not only been welcomed back into with open arms, she’s become a household name and done more the exposure of positive gay influences and role models than anyone I can think of off the top of my head. She’s an advocate. She’s a friend. She’s a positive force in the LGBT community.

Ellen is not the enemy.

Her Liza Minnelli-in-drag joke at the Oscars was poor, yes, but it was poor not because of the content, but because it just simply wasn’t funny enough. In my opinion, she should have created a funnier punchline. She is, after all, a stand-up comedienne at heart. And really, in comparison to former hosts like the witless and unfunny Seth MacFarlane, Ellen was tame.

The issue with her comment is this: Calling Liza Minnelli, a woman, a drag queen (i.e., a man who dresses and acts like a woman; more often than not — and in the context of DeGeneres’ particular — men who dress in drag do so for entertainment purposes) is considered, by many, to be transphobic. Transphobia is the expression of negative attitudes and feelings towards individuals who are transsexual or transgendered; often expressed as emotional disgust, fear, anger or discomfort  towards people who don’t conform to society’s gender expectations. The inherent problem with this is that, to consider her remarks “transphobic” would mean that every man who dresses in drag is also considered either transsexual or transgender. That would be wrong.

First, let me clarify a few terms. According to GLAAD, “Transgender” is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. According to the Trans Awareness Project:

  • “Sometimes transsexual is used to imply that a person has or desires to have some sort of gender affirmative surgery […] Like many other words, the specific meanings transgender and transsexual vary with time, location, and the individual.  Before assuming that someone uses any word to identify their gender, it is respectful to ask them which words they use to identify their gender. The argument has been made that the difference between transgender and transsexual lies in making a distinction between gender (culture/performance) and sex (bodies/biology) [respectively]. On the contrary, Transgender rights activist and lawyer Dylan Vade claims there is no ‘meaningful difference’ between sex and gender and any definition ‘that pit biology against psychology or the body against the mind … denigrates transgender peoples self-identified genders.'”

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Image Courtesy of Trans Awareness Project

After learning the distinction between the two terms, “transgender” and “transsexual,” and that it really is individual to the specific person, it would be quite presumptuous to assume that all men who dress in drag are transsexual or transgender. As a culture, we use terms like “tranny” as slang when referring to men who dress like women in public, but not all men who dress in “drag” are transsexual; in other words, not all men who wear heels and make-up and carry hand bags consider themselves inherently female. Nor do all of these men desire sexual reassignment surgery.

I used to work in an Italian restaurant that would routinely host a slew of loyal, colorful customers, one of which was a man who dressed in drag at a club in the city. After knowing him and talking to him for many weeks when he would come in, I asked him why he enjoyed dressing in drag. The notion never really appealed to me, despite my fetish for wearing Dorothy’s ruby red slippers growing up, so I was curious and felt comfortable asking him. He said, “Honey, it’s fun!” Our conversation unfolded naturally and I mentioned the implications that many believe those who dress in drag secretly wish to become women or identify as something other than “male”; he told me that he had no desire to get a sex change because he was a guy. He just enjoyed making a living dressing up as Tina Turner.

As a professor of English, I teach composition courses that require heavy research elements; one of the units I particularly enjoy is a unit I call the “Deconstructing Images in Mass Media Unit.” During these few weeks, our class deconstructs advertisements, art pieces, and bold images prevalent in pop culture, one of which is a man dressed in drag. We discuss the bias behind these images and, more often than not, my students will say that a man in drag is one of the following:

  1. Gay
  2. A “tranny”
  3. Sick
  4. Confused about life.

Usually, this discussion devolves into areas of deep homo- and transphobia. Many are afraid of the implications of what it means to be a drag queen. But what’s of more concern is that many exhibit transphobia without truly knowing what it means to be transgender or transsexual. Of course this leads me into a lengthy, but necessary discussion about the difference between a “drag queen” and a person who is transgender.

This is the real problem. Not Ellen DeGeneres, who was referring to impersonators, not anyone who identifies themselves as a certain gender that they’re not biologically. To read into her off-hand comment further does more damage than cause awareness. In fact, instead of bringing about awareness of the real issue, which, again is true transphobia, it displaces the focus on something different: in this case, Ellen’s joke about Liza Minnelli impersonators.

But that’s the inherent problem with transphobia, isn’t it? People don’t really know what — or who — to be afraid of. The argument is this: Unless you know what it’s like to self-identify as a gender different from the gender you were born, you can’t possibly understand. That, of course, closes off anybody who wishes to understand and sympathize and support. But how can someone understand something that they aren’t a part of?

It’s a vicious cycle of misplaced misunderstanding.

The only solution: education. It’s about knowing what phobia to fight against. It’s about empathy.

I’m not going to stand here and say that I know what it’s like to be a member of the “T” in LGBT. I do, however, know what it’s like to be a “G,” but more so than that, I know what it’s like to misunderstood, to want to stand on equal ground as everyone else.

Celebrities and known LGBT advocates like DeGeneres are the greatest advocates we have right now because they have a platform that reaches the housewives who wouldn’t normally look any further into the issue than what their churches teach them.

DeGeneres has done so much for the LGBT community, and to put her on blast for a poorly written joke that semantically had nothing to do with the trans community is to misplace our country’s transphobia. Writer and blogger of The N!colas Blog, Nicolas DiDomizio says, “It’s like Sinead O’Connor would say: Fight the real enemy!”

We are not, or we should not be mad at Ellen DeGeneres. Instead, we should be taking a look at the real issue, the real struggle, the real stories behind those who are transgendered and transsexual. We should be attacking those who actually perpetuate the stereotypes and bad images that have lead the LGBT community to attack DeGeneres and instead educate them on what truly needs the attention.

We’re so quick to slap the word “phobia” onto everything, but not-so-quick to examine the real issue. Attacking DeGeneres for her joke is an easy out. It’s a way to use her as a scapegoat for the real issue, which is two-fold:

  1. A lack of positive trans exposure in the media.
  2. A fear of the unknown.

As a culture, we’re afraid of what we don’t know. So we attack what we think we know: “Ellen made a joke about Liza Minnelli impersonators” suddenly becomes “ELLEN IS TRANSPHOBIC!” because we don’t understand the trans community and what it means to transgender or transsexual. But we can’t fight Ellen DeGeneres, our ally for so many years; we have to fight the real enemy: Mainstream American media. They are at fault for perpetuating stereotypes and transmitting the fear of the unknown to the masses. Conformity is, after all, what we as a society strive for. The only real positive weekly image of a transsexual in mainstream media, besides RuPaul’s Drag Race, is Unique on Glee.

But that’s not enough. Really, to be honest, mainstream American media is not ready for the real war. None of us are. We’re barely ready for nationwide marriage equality, as evident by the bill in Arizona that proposes to give business owners the right to refuse service to gay men and women on nothing but pride and principle.

We need to toughen our skin and examine the real villain: our own demons. The first step toward fully realizing how to help the trans community is by educating ourselves and exhibiting a little human empathy.

And to leave Ellen alone.

.

Must-Read YA:

Luna by Julie Ann Peters

Regan’s brother Liam can’t stand the person he is during the day. Like the moon from whom Liam has chosen his female namesake, his true self, Luna, only reveals herself at night. In the secrecy of his basement bedroom Liam transforms himself into the beautiful girl he longs to be, with help from his sister’s clothes and makeup. Now, everything is about to change-Luna is preparing to emerge from her cocoon. But are Liam’s family and friends ready to welcome Luna into their lives? Compelling and provocative, this is an unforgettable novel about a transgender teen’s struggle for self-identity and acceptance.

34 thoughts on “Leave Ellen Alone: A Lesson in Misplaced Transphobia

  1. With the plethora of Liza impersonators out there, it never crossed my mind that Ellen could possibly offend someone with that joke. The problem is, there are always those people who strive to make a big deal out of everything. I wholeheartedly agree with you; leave Ellen alone! 🙂 Great post!

    • When I saw it, I was all, “Oh, Ellen. That could have been so much funnier.” It never crossed my mind either that the Twitterverse and the blogosphere and interwebs at large would take it the way they did.

      Thanks for checking it out 🙂

  2. OMG. This piece is everything. So well-researched, too.. you shut. the. haters. Down. AND THIS NEEDS TO BE SEEN BY ALL OF THEM!

    Also, this is so well-put (and applies to basically everything ever):

    “But that’s the inherent problem with transphobia, isn’t it? People don’t really know what — or who — to be afraid of. The argument is this: Unless you know what it’s like to self-identify as a gender different from the gender you were born, you can’t possibly understand. That, of course, closes off anybody who wishes to understand and sympathize and support. But how can someone understand something that they aren’t a part of?

    It’s a vicious cycle of misplaced misunderstanding.”

    Also. Being Sinead O’Quoted has enriched my life tremendously. (*Crosses it off bucket list*)

    • I figured: If I had to shut them down, I would really have to SHUT. THEM. DOWN.

      That’s the whole thing about transphobia…nobody really understands what transgender and transsexual mean, the difference between them and the feelings behind those words. Nobody really stops to think about the people behind the labels. Yet everyone is SO QUICK to label a joke “transphobic.” GURL.

      ALSO: can we make Sinead O’Quoted a thing?

  3. This is one very excellent post!!! I love Ellen … always have, always will. There IS no way to please everyone. So to those who object … I don’t need you. And I’m sure neither does Ellen!!

    Reblog! Great job. Really like the “moving” pics!!! Peace …..

  4. Pingback: Ellen Degeneres …. a powerhouse!! | It Is What It Is

  5. Very interesting read. I’ve honestly didn’t pay much attention to her comment when I saw it on TV, but I guess I could see where the counter argument stems from. It’s so true that our culture pays very little attention to trans community because it’s so “taboo” and hardly gets any (positive) exposure, and what you’re saying (about people misplacing their phobia judgments because they don’t really understand the struggle and all the terminology and the distinction between all the “T”s in LGBT) makes so much sense.

    The solution is to educate ourselves. It’s such a touchy subject, with a lot of gray area though.

    Well-written article! I really think I learned a thing or two about something I don’t really know much about.

    • You’re right, it very much is a very “touchy” subject, and I suspect that, by-and-large, it will continue to be for a very long time. The only thing that can help at this point, besides education, is to remember to keep open minds and hearts to the struggle the trans community faces on a daily basis. And recognize that a joke like Ellen’s was NOT directed toward anybody who is trans AT ALL. Misunderstanding doesn’t help anybody. I’m glad that you were interested in the piece! Like I said, the only thing that will help is if people truly start to understand the issues.

  6. This was VERY well said. Honestly, I think that all the gurls and gays overreacted on Twitter and Huffington Post and such. I was following everything last week when our community was attacking Ellen for the joke. Just like you said, her only crime was that that shit just wasn’t funny. I really enjoyed the gender vs sexuality breakdown and the link to that trans website. If we can just spread TRUTH instead of RIDICULOUSNESS, maybe we might understand that real enemy, like you said.

    — Jay

    • Thank you you!

      Yes…everyone overreacted to the issue and I think it shows how little mainstream media knows how to handle things like this because sites like HuffPost didn’t help in spreading her joke as transphobia. Thanks for visiting Jay!

  7. Transgender issues are extremely taboo right now, despite everything going on with the human rights campaign. Articles like this will only help with educating people in the long run, so good on you for writing this! Very well said.

    • AGREED. There should be MORE pieces like this out there. I guess our culture can only take one huge issue at a time. Maybe in another 50-60 years, we’ll be ready to really tackle trans issues.

  8. I’m really not a fan of Ellen. I don’t know why people think she’s funny. I thought that her Liza joke was unfunny and poorly timed. It was in bad taste, I think. I don’t really agree with you that it wasn’t directed at the trans community. It was a classless joke from someone who should have known better.

    • Well, I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree (on all counts). I love Ellen (for reasons mentioned in the piece above), and I think she’s hilarious (and have for the last 20 years.) Bottom line is that she can’t be discredited by one joke that really had nothing to do with what it was criticized for, and I stated above why.

  9. This was definitely pretty informative. I’m currently in an office where my coworker is in the middle of transitioning. It’s very difficult to figure out what to call him (them?) like what pronouns to use. I really don’t want to offend and I want him to know that I’m 100% supportive, but I’m afraid of coming off as ignorant-by-accident.

    What would you suggest?

    • Thanks! I think the BEST thing you can do is to start an open and honest dialogue with your friend/coworker and ask what they prefer. It’s more direct, and acknowledges them and their transition without making it seem like you’re walking on eggshells. Plus, if they’re a friend, they’ll understand that’s it a difficult subject to approach for someone who isn’t going through this personally.

      Check this out on GLAAD’s website: https://www.glaad.org/reference/transgender

      Should help with what not to do/say.

      But I am by no means an expert on the subject. I’m just feeling my way through like everyone else 🙂

  10. Pingback: Kyle Grossman

    • Awesome! Thank you so much for sharing your friends story! This is exactly what I hoped would happen from writing this. I know that my blog doesn’t have a huge platform (yet), but I’m hoping that even if one person reads this each day, that it will allow them to start a dialogue about these issues.

      And yes, ELLEN KICKS ASS!

  11. Pingback: @discoveryjane

    • OMG it’s so funny because today in one of my classes, one of my students was doing a presentation to the class about Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” and this was exactly part of our conversation because that short story is all about what would happen to our society if political correctness reigned supreme. I think being PC does more harm than it does good because, like another reader commented previously, walking on eggshells just leads to more misunderstandings.

  12. Very interesting and thought provoking piece on transgender issues. I’m wondering why this isn’t becoming a bigger issue (not Ellen, but I mean the whole shedding light on the transgender issues thing in mainstream media.) I absolutely agree with education, but may I ask you something: How? How can this distinction be taught when there really isn’t one “right” way to discuss it (not without accidentally insulting people)? What would you suggest?

    • Honestly, I wish I had the right answer (or any for that matter) for you. The best thing that can be done is for the media to give transgender issues a proper spotlight and to let as many as possible speak candidly and honestly about the process (both internally and externally) so others might have a chance to understand. I mean, I just read on Twitter somewhere that using “trans” as an abbreviation is considered un-PC and transphobic. So I’m just as much at a loss as you in this matter. But, like I said, I think positive media exposure is step #1.

  13. Pingback: Representation really does matter | A Transgender's Journey

  14. Pingback: From 2014 to 2015: Bridging the Media Diversity Gap | HyperReality

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