Trans in Comedy

CW: Discussion of Transphobia and Sexual Assault

For my Trans Tuesday post this week I talked to some of my fellow comedians to talk about being trans in the comedy industry. This article brings together several peoples experiences within the comedy industry and have an honest discussion about what its like. It’s worth noting that I’ve only spoken to trans people who are still working in the industry, its possible that other trans people have left the industry because they’ve had worse experiences than us. With thanks to Red Redmond, Jonny Collins, Harry-Anne Bentley, Darcie Silver, and Ben Hodge. Y’all should check them out and give them work 😛

The overall impression is that, while there are some people in the industry who are actively shitty about trans people they are relatively few and far between. Red summed this up as “it can be hard to be a trans person in our society, but the comedy scene is no worse than most places”. Ben and Darcie did talk about how audiences have doubted their identities due to a level of passing privilege, and Jonny mentioned that they’ve been misgendered by MCs and other acts while working. But in general the picture painted by these interviews is at worst one of ignorance and mistakes, rather than hatred and persecution.

More issues started coming up when the conversations moved on to talk about material. Most of the people I spoke with talked about getting pigeonholed as a trans comedian. Darcie in particular spoke about the expectations placed on her to speak about being trans as part of the comedy. I know that when I perform I feel the need to address my genderqueerness so it doesn’t loom unsaid over my set. And when you do talk about transness on stage it can restrict a career. Red pointed to the lack of diversity in the BBC and other big platforms, suggesting a glass ceiling restricting how high trans people are allowed to rise in this industry. And to succeed on more mainstream bills you have to prepare for a less supportive audience, and you might end up having to explain your identity before you can joke about it.

Perhaps the biggest issue though, is the transphobic jokes we have to put up with. It can be exhausting and degrading to have to listen to jokes which punch down at trans people, in the words of Jonny “prioritizing your own sense of humour over the feelings and safety of others is a huge red flag” when it comes to accountability in comedy. These jokes are of course shaped by the culture we draw from, Harry-Anne argues that it feeds through from sitcoms which have treated transness as a punchline for decades, to comedians like Ricky Gervais, to club comics drawing on it as a lazy punchline without thinking about how it affects real people. Ben also pointed out that it’s very different when trans people make jokes about our experiences, saying that “I’m talking from my life experience and about the things I go through on a daily basis, and in some ways it’s a bit of a coping mechanism”, whereas when cis people make these jokes it tends to laugh at us as something inferior.

And of course this ties into the exhaustively and exhaustingly debated question of free speech vs inclusivity in comedy. I don’t really want to dive into this debate right now because OH MY GOD IT’S FUCKING ENDLESS. If you’re interested I’ve written about it before here and here.

Looking forward, I asked what we’d like to see change for trans people in the industry. Darcie and Red are optimistic, as Red puts it “we’ve already won the culture war, most people accept us for who we are. What we’re seeing is transphobes getting increasingly desperate”. Ben and others pointed to the prevalence of transphobic jokes as a sign that we still have work to do. Harry and Red also spoke about a need for more opportunities for trans people (and more diversity in general) for more prestigious work, while Jonny argues that people need to put more work in to make events inclusive. As they put it “it’s all well and good me saying ‘Book more trans people’ but the fact is you have to make your gig somewhere that a trans person would want to be first.” In the light of recent discussions around sexual assault in the comedy industry Red also suggested that we should use more inclusive language to empower survivors of all genders to speak out about their experiences.

I also asked each of them what advice they would give to an aspiring trans comedian:

  • Please join us, we’d love to have more representation!
  • The industry is hard work and between hecklers and industry bitchiness it can be painful. You need to be reasonably tough to survive.
  • Research the gigs you apply for and find queer friendly nights, that’s a good place to get started
  • To start with you probably won’t be confident being yourself on stage, but your act will be so much stronger when you can be honest.
  • This industry can be brutal and demoralising at times, find friends to support one another through the bullshit.

I don’t think for this community is actively transphobic, most people in industry don’t have an issue with trans people on a personal level. There is still work to be done to make it a more inclusive and welcoming place for trans people, but that’s true for society as a whole. The bigger issue is the content which is performed by comedians. The same people who are polite and tolerant of us in the green room, all too often go on stage to make jokes which dehumanise us and use trans people for a cheap punchline. I have so many trans friends who don’t watch comedy because it’s painful to see your identity humiliated onstage like this. Part of what’s driving this is the use free speech as an excuse to make bigoted jokes. The other side of it is that there are trends in comedy as there are in anything else. The recent popularity of transphobic jokes in mainstream comedy filters down through the industry and normalises these harmful messages. And perhaps part of the solution is to introduce more diversity at the top of the industry.

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