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Jokes at the expense of transgender people aren’t funny; they’re lazy and bigoted | GUEST COMMENTARY

Dr. Rachel Levine, assistant secretary of Department of Health and Human Services, at her office on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 27, 2021. Dr. Levine is the highest-ranking openly transgender person ever to serve in the federal government. (Nate Palmer for The New York Time)
Dr. Rachel Levine, assistant secretary of Department of Health and Human Services, at her office on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 27, 2021. Dr. Levine is the highest-ranking openly transgender person ever to serve in the federal government. (Nate Palmer for The New York Time) (Nate Palmer/The New York Times)

As a comedian, but mostly a middle school teacher, I have had to change my language a lot in the classroom and on stage. What I once taught (el and ella as “he” and “she”) feels exclusive now that I teach openly nonbinary students. What I once joked about (my boyfriend not aligning to male stereotypes) feels flat. It’s harder to teach and, to be honest, to be funny when you are thinking of all members of your audience, plain and simple.

So why do it?

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Because it is my job, literally. Cheap shots and simplistic teaching do not make me a strong professional (or a nice person to be around). Per my school and in the comedy spaces I choose to perform in, it is my job to think about how I affect my audience and represent my employer. I emphasize this because, although I deeply believe we are morally called to be inclusive, I know — based on arguments over Thanksgiving meals — that critiques of problematic comedy or teaching can be shut down with an “it’s our First Amendment right.”

So, it is my goal to prove to those who run BaltimoreHumor, an Instagram page with 42,000-plus Instagram followers, that they must remove a transphobic joke they posted on Nov. 17, 2021, by highlighting how their discrimination harms their Baltimore audience and contradicts their affiliates’ commitment to diversity and inclusion.

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During Transgender Awareness Week (celebrated annually Nov. 13th through 19th), BaltimoreHumor posted an image of Rachel Levine, the assistant secretary of health and the first openly transgender official in federal office. Above Dr. Levine’s head, BaltimoreHumor wrote, “That private school in Towson where dads get hammered, dress like their daughters and perform skits on stage.” This refers to a private school, Notre Dame Prep of Towson, Maryland, that held a “Father’s Follies,” where fathers dressed in what looked like their daughter’s school uniforms.

So, first, why is combining a reference to cross-dressing (the “Father’s Follies”) and adding an image of a transgender person (Rachel Levine) problematic? Rather than me, a cisgender female explaining this, I am going to share what my middle school LGBTQ+ student club shared with me:

  • “Transgenderism is not a choice, so making that joke invalidates [Dr. Levine’s] identity as a person.”
  • “It’s like you are saying, ‘No, you are not actually who you say you are — you are not a real person.’”
  • “I do not have a choice to do this. [To be transgender] makes me feel like myself. It’s not like a costume. I can’t take it on and off like I want to.”
  • “Why is my identity a joke? It’s not a joke to be me.”

If these words do not move BaltimoreHumor’s moderators to take down their post, perhaps their affiliation with WBFF Fox45 in Baltimore will, WBFF is a subsidiary of Sinclair Broadcast Company, which boasts it is anti-discrimination and takes “quick and decisive action” when issues arise. A transphobic post by an affiliated Instagram page is discriminatory and does not create a safe working environment for any transgender people at WBFF.

Since BaltimoreHumor apparently blocked me after I shared this message — Hey! I love your page, but I was really saddened by your recent post that made fun of a transperson. It’s actually National Trans Awareness Week. You can go to glad.org/transweek to learn more about how jokes like the one posted deeply and negatively impacts humans — and WBFF never responded to an email I sent on Nov. 17, I wanted to share the following call to action:

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Fox 45 Baltimore: If you support a page that is discriminatory, you are supporting their actions. Stop supporting BaltimoreHumor until the post is deleted.

BaltimoreHumor: Delete the transphobic post of Dr. Levine because it is harmful, it invalidates our trans Baltimorean neighbors’ experience, and it goes against the supposed anti-discrimination practices of WBFF. Plus, making fun of something someone cannot change (like their identity) is not funny — it is lazy and bigoted. Stick to jokes that don’t marginalize the already marginalized.

Although I wish you could meet my middle school kids and hear how your post affected them, it is not a kid’s job to make you more tolerant. To learn about transgenderism and help you, hopefully, reckon with your bias, check out these two local Baltimore organizations: baltimoresafehaven.org and pridecentermd.org.

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Noelle Ford (noelleford@bellytalkblog.com) is a writer/podcaster, University of Baltimore MFA grad student, and a middle school teacher at the Friends School of Baltimore. Check out her website at bellytalkblog.com.

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