By consistently making jokes at the expense of transgender people, Jon Stewart (The Daily Show) and Stephen Colbert (The Colbert Report) are using their bully pulpit to perpetuate transphobia. Consequently, they are contributing to the perpetuation of exclusion, harassment, and violence against transgender people.
The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are the sole or main sources of news for many young people; the shows are watched regularly by 16% of Americans. While Stewart and Colbert may claim to be comedians - and comedians only - their shows constitute a mix of documentary, satire, and journalism in the same vein as the work of H.L. Mencken, Sarah Vowell, and Samuel Clemens. Regardless of their claims, they are influential and their tone has often resonated with the recent cultural shift towards support for equal rights for LGBT people.
It is this history of broad sympathy for LGBT rights that makes the numerous instances of transmisogynistic jokes all the more jarring. These are not satirical jokes or jokes that "laugh with" transgender people; these are crude, cruel jokes that laugh at and dehumanize transgender people. For example, recently on The Colbert Report, Colbert made a deceptive-transsexual joke during The Word:
"Folks, it’s just like when someone lies to you. Technically, they’re telling you the truth as long as you never find out it was a lie."
[Text on screen] "Or Notice Her Adam’s Apple."
Another example has Stewart commenting on the U.S. Attorneys scandal of the mid-Aughts:
“Here’s a general rule of thumb I have: if you don’t know whether you’ve made a particular mistake more or less than 50 times, that’s not really a mistake. At that point, it’s something you do.
For instance, how many times have I accidentally picked up a tranny hooker at a truck-stop? I want to say it’s in the 50s, but it could be higher. I guess what I’m saying is I’m nearsighted?”
During this segment describing protests in China over a new universal I.D. system, Stewart says:
“But Cow and Chipmunk are not alone! They are joined by Transvestite, who worries that her true gender will be revealed by this new system.”
[Camera shows a person implied by Stewart to be a "transvestite"]
[Voiceover with fake translation] “I am afraid that when I lumber out of my apartment in a tight dress with my scrotum taped back and my large hands covering my adams apple, somewhere, some bureaucrat will know I am a dude.”
There are many other examples documented by Your Moment of Transphobia and other similar blogs.
It is sad to see Stewart and Colbert diminish their standing as progressive heroes by continuing to use institutionalized transphobia to garner easy laughs. Instead, they should be using their immense skill to point out the weaknesses in the arguments of those who would deny transgender people their basic human rights. However, we suspect that Stewart and Colbert are simply ignorant of the impact of their hurtful words. We also acknowledge that Stewart and Colbert are often only the presenters of jokes written by their extensive staffs. We expect that once their ignorance is relieved, they and their writers will commit to rejecting transphobia and respecting gender identity.
At heart, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are just too important and too good for transphobia. Mr. Stewart and Mr. Colbert, please stop making transphobic jokes, and please make a commitment to reject transphobia and to respect gender identity!
Update: No response yet from TDS, TCR, Comedy Central, or Viacom. We'll keep trying with messages like the one below!
I recently started a petition against transphobic jokes on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. It's up to 3000 signatures and growing. Please provide me with contact information, e.g., postal and email addresses, for decision makers for each show. You can read about the petition at change.org/petitions/jon-stewart-and-stephen-colbert-reject-transphobia-and-respect-gender-identity, but here are some comments on the petition to help give you some perspective:
"Transphobia kills hundreds of trans* people a year, whether through violent murder, or through suicide. Consider the effects of your satire." - C. Rossier
"As a transgender woman myself, it hurts me to hear the things some people say as seemingly harmless jokes with people like me as the punchline." - T. Hyde
"I will not tolerate transphobia. Do not be another Rush. I will stop watching TDS TCR & boycott sponsors." - N. Frost
"As a transgender fan of both shows I'm pretty tired of having two men I otherwise respect make jokes that my transphobic father would find hilarious." - S. Ader
"I watch these shows because it makes me feel hopeful, like there are other people out there who see the injustice in the world and are showing it to people who don't. I don't watch these shows so I can wonder whether or not anyone will every truly see me as I am, and to feel even more isolated and inadequate than I do as a transgender teenager." - M. Cox
"I’m a veteran, a liberal, and a transsexual woman. It bothers me that Mr Stewart and Mr. Colbert are so willing to respect me for my term of military service while simultaneously thoughtless enough to disrespect me and other trans people on a regular basis. I don’t believe they do this out of malice, but I think this kind of humor is beneath them and inconsistent with their politics." - R. Feral
"Several people I love and hold in greatest esteem have been physically and emotionally assaulted because of their gender orientation. I strongly believe that everyone has the responsibility to end transphobia." - E. Brenum
"'Satire' should punch up, not further hurt and marginalized people who are already treated as less-than-human by much of society. Telling transphobic jokes is not progressive, it’s not cool, it’s not funny." - S. Moon
"I’m a transwoman. I watch your shows. I like your shows. But these things make me feel bad about being who i am. And i just want you to realize that what you are saying isn’t funny, just hurtful." - R. Petchenik
"I’m a trans woman and frequent Colbert Report and Daily Show viewer. I love the commentary and humor but hate never knowing if I’m going to be dehumanized for a cheap laugh." - E. Lockhart
"I’m a transgender person who regularly views both shows, although I honestly watch Colbert less now because of his frequent use of transphobic humor. I’d like to see more of Stewart’s segments mocking transphobic bigots, rather than more segments where we’re the punchline for a cheap joke. Remember, there are a lot of scared, closeted trans teenagers watching your shows, and those little jokes can do more damage than someone who hasn’t gone through it can possibly imagine." - K. Brumfield
This is a small sampling of the comments received on the petition. Institutionalized transphobia is a huge problem, and Viacom and Comedy Central should not use their programming to promote transphobia. Please respond, and please remember that this issue warrants a real response, not a form letter or a canned apology.
Thank you for your time and consideration,