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.'”
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:
- A “tranny”
- 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:
- A lack of positive trans exposure in the media.
- 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.
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.