John Oliver’s recent hilarious segment* on the state of Transgender rights has generated buzz in the trans community. His take is unerringly accurate. He obviously consulted actual transgender people when deciding which issues to tackle. I felt both entertained and validated. That such a high profile cisgender voice could so completely “get it” filled me with hope for the future of our place in society.
Oliver’s treatment makes me all the more upbeat when I contrast it with another popular video satirist’s disappointing contribution (putting it kindly).
Jon Stewart, the host of Comedy Central’s Daily Show for most of the last two decades competes in some ways with Oliver, though that run is set to end next month. Stewart’s forays into transgender rights can be characterized as mixed at best, and one especially egregious comment overshadows everything else he has said on the subject. True, it came more than a decade ago, but it makes up for what it lacks in currency by the magnitude of its hostility, offensiveness, and denigration of our worth as human beings.
It came during the primary race in the lead up to the 2004 presidential election, in response to candidate Dennis Kucinich’s comment that he would have no problem nominating a transgender Supreme Court justice. Stewart called this the “craziest” thing said during that particular debate, and finished with the following comment:
“Yes, Yes. All rise for the honorable Justice Ch**k with D**k!”
It is the single most offensive thing I have ever heard on TV. In case it isn’t obvious why this rises above a run-of-the-mill hate slur, I’ll point out that in nine words, Stewart manages to use an extremely derogatory and profane term for a pre-op trans woman, reduce our identity to the state of our genitals, and imply that we lack the competence to execute positions of power and responsibility.
Most of the people to whose attention I call to this remark initially refuse to believe Stewart would have said this. Since seeing is believing, I invite you to view this particular segment on Comedy Central’s own website (assuming it hasn’t been taken down). The offensive sequence starts about 2½ minutes in.
Before I begin examining the question of whether Stewart deserves our forgiveness, I will address the two most common excuses people offer when I show it to them
“It was just one statement. I don’t think he really believes that.”
True, it was one sentence, but it telegraphs a complete disregard for our worth as human beings. When someone makes a single statement defaming members of a marginalized group with more power, retribution is swift.
A single comment revealing Donald Trump’s attitude toward Mexican immigrants led to contract cancellations from multiple television networks. One private racist admonition to his girlfriend was enough to strip Donald Sterling of his billion dollar NBA franchise. Lawrence Summers’ one-time musing about the suitability of women for scientific careers in part cost him his position as Harvard president. None of those remarks approached the level of hostility shown in Stewart’s one-liner, but in each case, a single occasion was sufficient to bring consequences on behalf of the powerful group being targeted.
“It was many years ago.”
How often have those of us routinely subject to microaggressions been told we need to “let it go” and “lighten up” when a bully refuses to disown or repudiate a hostile comment. Somehow, the passage of time alone is seen to alleviate any responsibility to make amends. I don’t understand the logic behind time absolving someone of the responsibility for undoing the hurt they’ve caused.
Gloria Steinem showed the importance of making amends even long after the fact. In a 2013 opinion written for The Advocate, the feminist icon clarified remarks she made in the 1970’s that had been taken by many as anti-trans. It helped our community when she wrote that she understands we are “living out real, authentic lives” and calls for our lives to be “celebrated, not questioned.” Steinem is widely admired (as is Stewart) and her words had the effect of encouraging millions who respect her to reconsider their own prejudices.
So, do we forgive Jon Stewart?
I am charitable enough to believe that Stewart has probably become more enlightened in the dozen or so intervening years, and may even realize now the full evil behind what he said. However, I have unearthed no attempt on his part to apologize for his hurtful words or to set the record straight about whether he still today believes in the sentiments behind them. I did not receive a reply to email I sent to Comedy Central, offering an opportunity to do that (or to point me to evidence that he already has).
If Stewart is to be held accountable for his actions (as even the most popular celebrities should), and to be deserving of my charitable thoughts, the least we should ask is his best attempt to reverse the harm. I am well aware of the valuable wisdom that forgiveness is more for the person doing the forgiving. We need to “move on”, that advice would say, or our resentment would damage us. I largely believe that in the case where a personal slight from one individual to another is involved. But when it involves an entire class of people, and when the remark gives an endorsement to prejudicial attitudes toward those people, I am far less inclined to advocate letting Stewart off the hook.
We have a long way to go before ours is a trans-friendly world, due in part to a landscape of destructive comments like Stewart’s. Remarks like his are buttresses that hold up the wall of transphobia sitting between us and the equal treatment and opportunity we deserve. Our voice is too weak and attenuated to reach everyone who needs to be reached, and we don’t stand a chance of drowning out or countering messages from such a mouthpiece. The best we can do is make sure that those who command the world’s attention understand consequences for humor at the expense of our dignity.
I confess I have a personal reason for wanting Stewart to let us know how his views have changed (if he indeed understands why his words were in error): I admire his style and I find him very entertaining. As the sun sets on his time with The Daily Show, it will assuredly rise on the next phase of his career as an entertainer and satirist. I would like to view his upcoming endeavors with unmixed enjoyment. As it is, I cannot see him perform without the bitter taste of hate somewhere in the back of my mouth.
*(You can view John Oliver’s recent segment on transgender rights here).