Your Phobic Jokes Aren’t Funny. They Kill People


When I was a teenager, I did laugh at Mrs Doubtfire. It was a funny movie and I didn’t see it as about gender at the time. Of course it is. Casually dismissive to the point of callous, but until I gained an awareness, I didn’t understand. The nineties are full of examples like this; even landmark examples of inclusion have their moments to a modern audience. I had to find myself threatened before I really understood how horrible these things are.

My rude awakening came the hard way when I found myself homeless, numbered amongst the victims of normalised transphobic humour. It’s not a position I expected to find myself, exactly. Not like that. Though I was saved by people that were rather a lot more socially aware than I was at the time, it sticks in my head.

The gurgles of disgust from my in laws are still audible in my memory; every time that Money Supermarket advert came on with the guy in the heels and hot pants, they would lament in disgust. The writers were obviously trying to be funny. Maybe they persuaded themselves they were being avant garde or taking on some issue or other. It was disgusting. Disgusting to create an object of ridicule to sell car insurance. Disgusting to empower those that kill or maim people who challenge gender stereotypes. Disgusting that doing so made them quite a lot of money.

Going back to Mrs Doubtfire, my dad saw it as a huge step forward for acceptance. His time as a gay activist probably connected it to drag and its role in publicising queerness. The gimmick also made a lot of money, and while his research into representation paints a far less favourable picture than his personal reaction, it was clear that his connection to that particular film was in the context of drag, not transgender folk. And he’s right: in that context, Mrs Doubtfire is perfectly placed. For people like my dad, that didn’t conflate transgender people with drag/drab queens/kings, this works.

But most folks I interacted with in 1994 didn’t make that distinction. My in laws in 2014 didn’t, either. To me it’s obvious because the objective for dressing and behaving like Mrs Doubtfire is entirely deceptive. And that’s another problem.


The primary thrust of anti trans arguments focus on transgender women being deceivers of some kind. They bypass the truth, usually by simply ignoring it, and work with a definition that constructs the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing, gaining access to things they shouldn’t. In the case of Mrs Doubtfire, his children out from under the nose of their mother.

I struggle with this because I watch the film now and I still find it funny, but I can’t dismiss the way it enables bigots to joke about trans women. I can recognise that the film actually doesn’t talk about trans women at all: no attempt is made to create a link between what Robin Williams’ character is doing and transgender issues. I think that’s why I can laugh still.

Unfortunately, it comes back to the audience and how they respond. Someone could make the most heartfelt, honest, accurate and careful representation of drag and enough of the audience would still use it to smear trans women. The conflation is endemic to mainstream society, and jokes about people crossing — even though they have nothing to do with actual transgender people — end up enabling bigotry.

The context of the cultural artefact matters as well. Mrs Doubtfire was not some academic exploration. It was a light comedy. Analysis was there but not on the surface. It also illustrated every mumsnet regular’s worst nightmare: a man dressing as a woman to get away with something. This isn’t Paris Is Burning. We’re not delving into the topic here. We’re using the topic to deliver physical humour with some sociopolitical comment thrown in to make it feel deeper than it is.

Now maybe not every piece needs to carefully examine this stuff. Maybe we can just have an innocent laugh. However, my homeless self crying into her phone trying to find help says that until people realise that drag is not trans, crossing is a bit of a grey area, and nobody is using this as a means to get something they shouldn’t, maybe we should stay away from comedy.

The phobic jokes nearly killed me, and that was just when I came out. The phobic jokes threatened me for a much longer period in the form of my married family making it absolutely clear that I could not share what I was with them. The phobic jokes made my home hostile. They’re not funny, and they won’t be funny as long as they endanger people.


And this is the thing cisgender folks don’t seem to get: transgender folks are in extreme danger all the time. Last year, we had documented cases of more than one murder of a trans person a day. That’s not looking at the suicides or death from slower forms of murder like being left without basic needs; crimes with a multitude of perpetrators we never see. Nobody just kills themselves. Nobody just dies of exposure on the street. That happens because society allows a person to go that far down the spiral.

So yes it’s just a joke, but the people we’re joking about are dying. Yes, it can be helpful to reach mainstream audiences with content like Mrs Doubtfire, but not while it verifies an actual argument made by bigots to justify harm. This isn’t appreciation. It isn’t even appropriation because the stuff depicted never actually happens. It’s just callous disregard and it’s not funny.

I don’t think I need to learn to take a joke. I think probably I need to learn to stop laughing. I laugh despite myself, but it’s still a harmful thing to laugh at. Perhaps that’s me being a killjoy, but too many have died because people think it’s OK to laugh. If you want to stop killing us, you can start by not laughing at us.