"Letterman will be apologizing a lot to trans people," says our Slog tipper. The video:
Yesterday Amanda Simpson told ABC News...
"Being the first sucks," she told ABC News.com. "I'd rather not be the first but someone has to be first, or among the first. I think I'm experienced and very well qualified to deal with anything that might show up because I've broken barriers at lots of other places and I always win people over with who I am and what I can do."
Better first than never. Unfortunately one of the jobs for a first—unfortunately—is to endure, deflect, defuse, absorb, lance, exorcise, etc., the cultural biases that created the discriminatory climate that prevented someone else, long ago, from being the first before her. Being the good-humored butt of a joke or two—jokes that acknowledge your arrival and help lance, exorcise, etc., some of those biases—is one of the ways a first like Simpson contributes. Ultimately this video tells us more about Letterman's discomfort with trans people—and his audience's discomfort—than it does about Amanda Simpson. And it isn't a joke that Letterman can tell every time a trans person walks through the door that Simpson (and Obama) opened for her community. It's a "first" joke.
And Letterman's joke is premised on Simpson's ability to pass—and that's a good thing, right? Isn't that what most transgendered people want? (That and equal rights, justice, jobs, access to medical care, etc.) I mean no disrespect to transgendered people who can't pass, of course, but the ability to be perceived as your new gender—or your actual and true gender—is what most transgender people strive for in their casual interactions, right?
And... ahem... considering the numbers of straight men out there actively seeking sex with transgender folks... it would've been a far better, braver, more interesting, and more contemporary joke if Letterman's announcer was delighted to learn that Simpson was trans, not horrified.
UPDATE: HRC's reacts...
You may not be aware that the punch line in your skit has been used as a defense in nearly every hate crime perpetrated against transgender people that has come to trial. For example, the “trans panic” defense was infamously used by Allen Ray Andrade, who was convicted in 2009 of beating 19-year-old Angie Zapata to death with a fire extinguisher after learning of her gender history. According to media reports, it has also been the main defense employed by Juan A. Martinez for the killing of Jorge Steven López Mercado, 19, in Puerto Rico last November. Your skit affirmed and encouraged a prejudice against transgender Americans that keeps many from finding jobs, housing, and enjoying freedoms you and your writers take for granted every day. We ask that you apologize publicly to Ms. Simpson and the transgender community for this unfortunate episode.
Depicting people reacting in horror to transgender individuals is a dangerous stereotype for popular media to perpetuate because it contributes to the societal conception of transgender people as abnormal and deceptive, which all-too-often results in anti-transgender violence and/or discrimination when played out in reality.
Stopped clocks and all, but: the orgs are right, and I have to admit that my initial reaction was too sanguine. Still, just as putting up with a few bad jokes is part of the job for a first like Amanda Simpson—the jokes are practically a ritual that must performed when someone breaks through some barrier to become a new first—particularly when that someone, that first, happens to represent a sexual minority. The orgs jumping up and down and demanding an apology when a joke goes to far, or is too clueless, or reinforces discriminatory attitudes is part of the ritual too. Simpson's breakthrough represents real progress for trans folks and for all sexual minorities and her achievement means things won't suck quite as much for the second or third or fourth transgender federal appointee—and things will suck less in part because the lame and obvious jokes will already have been told, the angry press releases will already have been sent out, the apologies will already have been made, and consciousnesses will—hopefully—have been raised just a bit. Letterman's will have.
And I think Amanda should call Letterman and ask to come on the show to talk about her life, her achievements, and his joke. I betcha Letterman would say yes.