on fat, trans, and the pitfalls of comparing identities.

A colleague and I recently gave a training on how to be a good ally to trans communities.  For those who’ve been through similar trainings, it’s nothing earth-shattering: respect people’s gender pronouns, don’t ask people when they’re having “the surgery,” and generally avoid forcing loads of intrusive questions or making a slew of judgments based on someone’s identity (or what you believe their identity to be).  Basic, right?

But something surprising happened at this training.  Many of the cisgender (non-trans) people in the room were struggling for analogies, for parallel identities and oppressions to help them understand a community that’s new to them.  But what surprised me was the number of people who compared being trans to being fat.  According to many, their perception of whether or not a trans person is “successfully passing” (that is: presenting as a gender-conforming person) is just like their perception of someone’s thinness.  If someone is passing well, or if they’ve lost weight, praise them.  If you clock them as trans, or if they’ve gained weight, it would be rude to mention. These comparisons were made left, right and center.

And as these comparisons were made, I felt myself begin to shake, from frustration, from sadness, from powerlessness, from anger.  Good as their intentions were, as a fat person, I felt more and more shameful, more and more erased, less and less valid.  I can only imagine how trans-identified people in the room felt.

We hear these comparisons all the time.  Being trans is like being gay.  Being a gay couple is like being an interracial couple.  Being fat is like being a person with a disability.  And everything, apparently, is just like being a person of color.

To their credit, this is often the way that allies—and many community members—struggle to find the language of oppression that hasn’t been taught to them.  They’re reaching to link our struggles, and that’s a good impulse.  The problem is, they’re doing it in a way that is substantially flawed and makes it deeply difficult to build relationships, coalitions and movements across lines of identity. 

 

why we compare identities.

Overwhelmingly, we do it because our intentions are good. Sometimes we do it to better understand allied communities—to deepen our understanding of the needs and experiences of other communities. Sometimes we do it to give voice to our own experience of oppression in a culture that doesn’t provide us with the tools or opportunities to speak for our experiences of marginalization. Again, the intention here is good: we’re trying to start conversations that establish various forms of oppression as real, valid and harmful.

The problem is that identity comparisons are often overarching and ineffective—and they don’t really help us meet those goals. While our intentions are good, these comparisons don’t create the impacts we hope for. So what I want to talk about today is the unintended impacts they create. So: what are the challenges with comparing identities, communities and movements?

(Note: I’ve focused here on race, LGBT, and fat, because those are the examples that I deal with most frequently, but there are many, many more.  Feel free to add yours in the comments.)

 

problems with comparing identities.

It glosses over substantial differences in experience in a way that can be hurtful, insulting and alienating.  After Prop 8 banned same-gender marriage in California, gay news magazine the Advocate published a cover story that declared that “gay is the new black.”  The problem is, this is frequently stated by white queer people.  And while white queer people have historically experienced hate crimes, police raids, and a whole lot more, we haven’t been lynched, been forced to sit at the back of the bus, or experienced the accumulation of oppression over generations on a single family or neighborhood.  Black/African-American communities have.  Intentional or not, claiming that “gay is the new black” is deeply disrespectful, and it’s often experienced as such. 

It’s an escape hatch for ally education.  When we compare our identities to others that we don’t share, we can unintentionally imply that we’ve got nothing to learn.  And sometimes we can even believe it. 

The logic goes like this: if I say that my identity is just like yours, then presto!, I have nothing new to learn about your experience or needs, because they’re the same as mine.  And if I already know all there is to know, I don’t need to change anything about what I’m doing to make spaces, communities or movements more accessible to people with differing identities. 

In that way, it also paves the way for pushing aside identity-specific needs.  If being fat is like having a disability, then I just need to make this event accessible for me, and it will automatically be accessible for you, right?  Wrong.  Many fat people don’t seek need ramps, bars, or ASL interpretation.  And making the comparison keeps us from grappling with the complexity of the identities of those around us.  It keeps us from growing, and it keeps others from participating.

 

problems with comparing movements.

It claims someone else’s work.  I’m a young white queer woman.  I wasn’t alive during the highest profile work of the Civil Rights movement, and I didn’t begin to take on anti-racist work until very recently, in the scheme of racial justice history in the US.  But if I say fat acceptance is “the next great Civil Rights movement,” I’m claiming that work as my own and conflating oppressions in a way that (rightfully) alienates communities of color.

Sometimes, it implies that other forms of oppression are “over” or “fixed.” Frequently, we hear that fat is the last acceptable discrimination. The implication here is that other forms of oppression are somehow remedied or obsolete.  Racism isn’t “fixed.” We haven’t “cured” our society of xenophobia.  But that’s the implication.

And all of that alienates potential allies. These comparisons, well-intentioned though they may be, divide our communities against one another.  LGBT communities know the pain of police raids, but we don’t readily and uniformly ally ourselves with immigrant communities, who face raids and deportation at staggering rates.  Fat people know the sting of discrimination and exclusion (see: Southwest Airlines policies), but many of us still dismiss concerns over ableism.  And when we draw sloppy parallels that make broad generalizations (while failing to pinpoint shared experience and values), we alienate the communities we are best positioned to support—and that are best positioned to support us.

 

drawing effective parallels.

This doesn’t mean that drawing parallels is out of the question—it just means that comparisons must be made carefully and thoughtfully.  Here are some ways to draw thoughtful, nuanced parallels.

Point to shared opposition & tactics of oppression.  A great example of this: Suzanne Pharr’s stellar essay, The Common Elements of Oppression.  In it, Pharr discusses the ways the common tactics used to oppress—but she is careful not to conflate communities or types of oppression.  Both immigrant communities and LGBT communities are accused of seeking “special rights.” That’s a tactic used to divide and marginalize us.  That means our struggles are linked—it does not mean they are the same through and through.

Point to shared needs.  Since our opposition (and their tactics) are shared, our communities often experience similar needs.  So when budget cuts target low-income people and communities of color, our needs are shared.  When bullying targets trans youth and fat youth, our needs are shared.  And when oppression and privilege are so poorly understood as a whole, many of our communities can benefit from some serious public education.

Be specific.  Sweeping generalizations (a la “gay is the new black”) are dicey at best, so specificity can be helpful.  Are you trying to draw a parallel between communities’ shared experiences?  Their shared oppressors?  Similar institutionalized discrimination?  Be sure to voice what you are specifically thinking.

 

what else you can do.

Support the work of allied movements.  If you’re a white queer person, like me, fight against police profiling and brutality.  If you haven’t experienced the criminal justice system as a prisoner, work for prisoner’s rights for those who have.   Believe in them, yes, and do something.  Write your elected official.  Phone bank.  Attend a rally.  Taking action is the most meaningful way to contribute.

Speak about the oppression you face on its own terms.  Grant it the integrity to speak for itself.  I feel fatphobia deeply enough on a daily basis that I can describe it in extraordinary detail.  I know, and trust, that those experiences speak for themselves, and do not need to rely on broad parallels to others’ oppression.

Use “I” statements.  I know, it’s well-worn and hackneyed territory, but it works.  Speak from your own experience, and avoid speaking on behalf of communities with which you don’t identify.

Interrogate your own privilege.  At the core of these comparisons is a deep desire to help those around us more fully grasp our own understanding of oppression.  And that desire is often paired with the internalized entitlement that comes with privilege—and that’s what creates the impulse to reach so readily for someone else’s experience in order to describe our own. 

Continuing to challenge our own sense of privilege and the internalized ways in which we appropriate others’ experiences is one of the most lasting ways to stem the tide of the comparisons that divide us while seeking to unite us.  And while that tide goes out, we can build more meaningful relationships across identities, and stronger coalitions across movements for true and lasting social justice.

the inclusion impulse & the paradox of extending the LGBT acronym

I’m intersex, I’m queer & I do a lot of work within LGBT communities. Increasingly, I see LGBT being extended to “LGBTI,” and every time I see that acronym, I’m filled with dread. That’s just the tip of the iceberg—increasingly, individuals, groups and organizations within the community are extending the acronym ad infinitum, to “LGBTQQIPA,” or even further.  Today, I want to write a little bit about why that feels so problematic, and ways of approaching identity inclusion in LGBT communities and movements.

First things first: in my experience, when someone bemoans the ever-lengthening “alphabet soup,” it’s usually someone who’s relatively privileged within the community, talking about how it’s “too difficult to keep up with all these letters,” and getting irritated with having to track who our communities and movements are claiming to represent.  This is often combined with a hint of fear that, as our communities and movements expand, their voice and needs will be diluted or deprioritized.  This isn’t that.  This is a way of looking critically at our history, our communities, and our missed opportunities and applying those lessons to our collective future.

 

the problems with inclusion

Inclusion is a lovely impulse.  Without taking a genuinely inclusive approach, we contribute to the erasure of communities we don’t represent.  And, frankly, when we don’t prioritize multifaceted inclusion, we don’t get to the root of the distorted ways that our society makes sense of sex, gender and sexuality.  Yes, let’s create a movement for any & all of us who exist outside of the sex/gender/sexuality norm!  Come one, come all for the gender justice revolution!  I’m in!

But here’s the thing: when we add a new letter to our collective acronym, we also make ourselves responsible for speaking for that identity/community.  But when we do so, we don’t make ourselves accountable to actually doing that work, much less doing it in a way that’s accountable to those communities.  Here are a few of the challenges of the inclusion approach:

  • We assume that, because our title is inclusive, our work is inclusive.  When we discuss the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), we almost always use “LGBT” as a way of describing the people it will impact.  Except it won’t actually remedy much for trans people in the military.  Many of us who aren’t trans-identified don’t understand that—and the routine use of the full LGBT acronym keeps us from thinking regularly about who our work impacts.  Better, I would argue, to be clear that policies like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell primarily impact cisgender gay and bi people.
  • We don’t restructure our priorities, as witnessed by the continued prioritization of primarily cisgender gay issues like repealing DADT and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) over winning federal protections against employment discrimination, which deeply impact a much larger portion of the community, especially those of us who experience transphobia, classism, racism, and life in isolated/rural communities.
  • We don’t change our leadership structures.  Most boards require major fundraising.  That will likely be a problem for working class queer people, trans people (the majority of whom are un- or underemployed), and LGBT people of color (who are more likely to raise children, and therefore less likely to have disposable income).
  • We don’t make our work accountable to newly-included communities.  We don’t elevate intersex people into leadership positions.  We don’t set up advisory boards of same gender loving people.  And we don’t intentionally open ourselves up to critiques of our work and programming from the communities we represent.

I’m not saying that we should revert to being a primarily white, class-privileged, cisgender gay & lesbian movement—quite the opposite.  I’m saying that when we expand the movement, we should do so in a thoughtful, deep, reciprocal and accountable way.  And while some of us have figured out how to do that, most of us haven’t.

(Note: this is very much focused on a “we” that’s white cisgender gay people.  That’s not meant to be exclusive, it’s meant to be real about where power is centered in our movements and communities, and who’s elevated to positions to hold it.)

 

why it keeps happening

With all that, why do we keep seeing these pushes for inclusion?  Because, for those of us who are allies to those newly-included communities, we see the benefits.  Inclusion pacifies guilt.  It allows us to feel as if we’re on the cutting edge of progressive identity politics.  And frankly, it makes us sound like the most progressive person in the room, without requiring us to do anything substantive to represent those communities.  In other words, we can talk the talk without having to walk the walk. 

None of this is bad in and of itself—but it does present problems if we act strictly out of self-interest, and don’t actually listen to the communities we’re claiming to represent.  The point of being an ally isn’t to better yourself or your image—it’s to work to support communities that face a different type of oppression than you.  And that support must exist on those communities’ terms. 

Let’s dig into the way a few key identities play into those dynamics.

 

same gender loving and two spirit

Same gender loving (SGL) is a term coined by African American activists as an alternative to “gay and lesbian,” terms associated with a white-dominated movement.  Two spirit is a term within Native and First Nations communities to describe a range of differences in sex, gender and sexual orientation, and is rooted in alternate modes of understanding the social/cultural role of Native people who are sex, gender and sexual non-conforming.

Increasingly, SGL and two spirit identities are being claimed as part of broad (primarily white) LGBT communities.  Regardless of primarily white folks’ intentions, we benefit from paying lip service to SGL and two spirit identities.  It’s a way of signaling that we understand the ways that communities of color define LGBT identities and, by extension, that we prioritize racial justice, without actually having to discuss racial justice.  Again, when it’s used by white folks, this one can be a pretty clear product of white privilege.

So: can you name any two spirit or same gender loving-identified people leading work locally?  If so, are they in favor of including their communities in your broader LGBT work?  Then do it!  Otherwise, take a deeper look at why you’d like to reference those identities.

 

intersex

Intersex refers to a range of bodily or hormonal sex characteristics that develop biologically within people who are not easy to categorize as male or female.  Historically, we’d be called hermaphrodites, but that was a term used in freakshows, so let’s leave it there, shall we?

This is the one that hits closest to home for me.  Many intersex people get surgery as infants without their consent (and even without their parents’ consent) to “correct” their sex and make them more “properly” male or female.  As such, many intersex people go their whole lives without knowing that they are intersex.  In short, not having a community is part of the oppression faced by intersex people.  So including intersex people who don’t otherwise identify as L, G, B and/or T in that acronym feels, to me, like salting the wound.

As mentioned above, consent from a given community is a key part of inclusion.  But when that community is, by design, difficult to find, consent can be difficult to obtain.  Plus, the struggles faced by intersex people are very distinct, and don’t necessarily mesh as well with queer communities as one might hope.

Including intersex people is a way for non-intersex people to signal that they’ve given some thought to what’s often called the plight of intersex people, or that they simply know what the world intersex means.  But, again, this is done without considering what the priorities of intersex people are, how the voices of intersex people will be lifted up, and what this means for reorganizing existing work.  And, as with two spirit and same gender loving communities, these decisions are often made in the absence of the people they claim to represent.

 

ally

Seriously, you guys?  We love allies, but our work to build community, inclusive policies, and public understanding of queer and trans communities doesn’t need to accomplish all that for our allies.  We welcome them with open arms, but really.  The whole world is designed for straight cisgender people.

action steps

When inclusion can be so problematic, what can you do?  Here are some options:

  • Speak for yourself.  Speak from your own experience—don’t try to speak for the needs of other communities if you haven’t been asked or invited to do so.
  • Include a community when they ask you to.  It’s a basic ally principle: do what you’re asked to do when you’re asked to do it.  Anything short of that is hijacking the priorities and needs of the community you’re trying to support.

We truly can build groundbreaking, broad and inclusive communities and movements.  But it will require a whole lot of thought, tenacity and consideration to do so effectively.

borders & intersections: wisconsin, choice & immigration

A lot’s at stake in Wisconsin.  Public understandings of the meaning and worth of labor are up for debate.  National displays of solidarity are popping up nationwide.  And, in amongst all of that, the very livelihood of thousands of Wisconsin workers is at risk.  We are looking at the resurgence of the labor movement.

One more thing that’s at stake in Wisconsin: corporations’ control over elections and legislative sessions.  To be clear, if Wisconsin conservatives get their way, corporations will be the only voice well-resourced enough to be heard in state politics.  By defunding unions—or preventing them from forming altogether—the biggest contributors to elections will be corporations.  Look, of course everyone approaches elections with their own interests at heart.  By breaking unions, we’re removing their voice from elections—which means corporations are the only voice left.  To make it all Marxist, we’re eliminating proletarian participation in democracy in order to play up bourgeois interests. Given that labor unions also fund and support most of issues we care deeply about Women’s rights, LGBT rights, POC rights this is not just an attack on labor its an attack on everything.

 

labor and immigration

Increasingly, “made in America” is a thing of the past.  Our economy is global, which means labor must be global, too.  When corporations can’t exploit labor abroad, they do it here—within immigrant communities.  When we fail to address immigration reform in a deep and comprehensive way, we unintentionally perpetuate classist and anti-labor systems of thought, policy and rhetoric.

This is an opportunity to re-imagine labor. Cesar Chavez had it right. The farmworker’s movement developed because migrant workers were the one pool of labor that could not legally unionize in the United States.  So business owners had carte blanche to treat farm workers however they saw fit—and with the latitude they had, they proved that corporations can play tidily into Hobbesian narratives of self-interest.  In short, they treated immigrant labor like shit. 

So what’s the Chavez connection to Wisconsin?  The farmworkers movement of the 1960s and 1970s  interrupted what the labor movement was at the time.  Corporations were just beginning to outsource jobs and seek cheaper labor in other countries—thereby exploiting policy divides in nations that had less established labor laws.  In the United States, migrant workers existed (and still do) in a no man’s land: many aren’t documented residents who can leverage American labor laws against unjust employers.  At the same time, they also cannot unionize and speak out as a group about their own best interests.  It’s a stalemate in the truest form.  And corporations have been exploiting and perpetuating that stalemate for decades.

As of yet, major American labor unions haven’t deeply addressed the needs of immigrant workers.  In so doing, they have missed an opportunity to get union workers and their many allies to do something radical and actually identify with immigrants: as workers who can be all too easily exploited when they can’t frequently and vigilantly voice their own needs and enforce their rights.  And in the absence of intersectional, pro-immigrant perspectives, anti-immigrant xenophobia takes hold, even in the most progressive communities.  By not drawing the parallel between labor and immigration, we reify systems that keep immigrants undocumented and prioritize corporate interests over those of workers.

And the labor connection to immigration is just one opportunity that progressive people in the United States miss.  There are many more opportunities to connect our work for immigration reform to choice, LGBT rights, and progressive activism around globalization.

 

gender justice

Gender justice is a term used to unite struggles for queer rights, trans justice, and choice & reproductive justice.  And guess what?  Immigration reform connects to all three!  Here’s how:

Reproductive justice & “anchor babies.”  A primary scare tactic used by the far right accuses immigrant women of entering the United States to give birth to “anchor babies” that will provide their path to citizenship.  In this trope are deep and unspoken fears of a conscious racial takeover.  And in using the “anchor baby” line of thinking, conservatives once again paint the fertility of women of color as something that’s “predatory” and must be restricted.  Once again, women’s families and reproductive health are up for public debate.

LGBT rights and asylum.  As astonishingly anti-LGBT stories continue to roll out of Uganda, and many LGBT people in the United States join together to show our support, we lose immigration and asylum as a key mode of supporting LGBT people in other countries.  Asylum is very rarely afforded to LGBT immigrants to the US, showing that, once again, homophobia and transphobia aren’t “real” enough, that it’s all in our heads, and that ultimately, we could choose to be or do something different.  (You know what’s not a choice, though? Being gay.)  At the same time, we fail to expose the role of American evangelists in creating the anti-LGBT climate in Uganda and then exploiting that climate by seeding sensationalist policies like the infamous “kill the gays” bill.

Trans justice, documentation and Arizona. Recently, Arizona effectively legalized racial profiling of people perceived to be immigrants  (read: Latinos).  If you’re brown, police will assume you’re not a citizen.  Something similar happens to transgender people every day: if they don’t present as gender normative, their documentation is challenged and questioned at every turn.   The whiter, and more gender normative you are, the less your citizenship is interrogated.

globalization & foreign policy

Globalization is inevitable, but the way it’s taking shape is not.  For decades, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and so-called “free trade” agreements have defined what kind of power and money nations can access when they don’t already have power and money.  Many of us know that this is unfair, some of us know that this disproportionately breaks along lines of race (creating shitty impacts for nations of people of color), but few of us make the connections to immigration into the US.

In truth, “free trade agreements” could be more accurately renamed as “free labor agreements,” which allow American corporations to build maquiladoras and sweatshops in, among other places, Central and North America.  When those sweatshops open up, they employ many—if not most—people in the town where they’re located.  That means that corporations define the going price for labor in that area while simultaneously establishing a deep local dependence on that corporation to keep the local economy alive.  At the same time, corporations can decimate local natural resources and introduce social power structures that eventually decimate indigenous ways of living.  It’s malevolent, it’s racist, it’s insidious, and it’s forever.

 

do this, right now, today.

So, what can you do?  Here are some action steps:

  • Redefine “the immigration problem.”  Overwhelmingly, people on the left and the right will agree that the solution to “the immigration problem” is to stop the flow of immigrants to the US.   But the need for immigration reform runs much, much deeper than that.  If we had thought more deeply about the impacts of free trade agreements on Latino nations, we would have predicted the wave of immigration from Central America.  “The immigration problem” is more than documentation for farm workers, naturalization for LGBT immigrants, or the DREAM Act for students.  It bleeds into movements for labor, choice, and global justice in US-powered foreign policy.  And, at its core, it asks US voters who we think should be allowed to be an American.
  • Explicitly connect your liberation to the liberation of immigrants.  Because, as we’ve explored here, those two things are deeply connected.
  • Ask yourself: who benefits?  Overwhelmingly, you’ll find that the people who benefit from anti-immigrant policies and discourse are (surprise!) US corporations.
  • Come out as an ally to immigrant communities.  Speak up about your support for immigrant communities, and continue to educate yourself on the lived experiences of immigrants, the problems with public discourse about immigration, and how public policy continues to define who can be a “real American.”

You can’t hold me accountable, I’m hilarious!: SNL, trans communities & the politics of taking a joke

Week before last, Saturday Night Live aired the sketch above as a fake ad for “EstroMaxx,” a once-daily hormone treatment for transgender women.

I know. There’s a whole lot of bad going on there. Take a minute if you need one.

Thankfully, and almost immediately, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) responded by launching a petition, calling upon SNL producers to address the impact of the sketch. In their release, GLAAD provided a quote from org president Jarrett Barrios, who said:

“The violence, discrimination and harassment that transgender Americans experience each and every day is no laughing matter. ‘Saturday Night Live’ is a touchstone of American comedy, but Saturday’s unfunny skit sends a destructive and dehumanizing message.”

GLAAD’s response is timely and critically important. But the format of a press release doesn’t allow for a full response, breaking down just how & why a sketch like this is so destructive. So let’s do that here.

The Problem with EstroMaxx

To put it simply, a sketch like EstroMaxx contributes to a climate of transphobia. Where there had been radio silence on trans identities, EstroMaxx filled that silence with counterproductive and misleading messages. (And it’s become part of a little avalanche of transphobia, from Craig Ferguson to Adam Sandler.) Here are some of those messages:

The sketch makes a joke of passing, without recognizing the extraordinary barriers, challenges, and yes, violence, that people face when they don’t appear to be a gender that can be quickly and easily categorized. Trans and gender non-conforming people are followed into bathrooms, called names, and subjected to the use of gender pronouns that may not reflect their identity. And that’s just the daily background noise that transphobia creates. On the larger end, trans and gender non-conforming people face pervasive discrimination, violence, and even dramatically increased rates of death, both by suicide and murder. Given the considerable risk, it’s incredibly unlikely that a trans woman would sport a week’s worth of facial hair growth. Should she have the right? Absolutely. But the chances that she’d do so this cavalierly are slim.

It encourages disrespectful behavior, like leering at trans people’s bodies, using the wrong pronouns, and laughing at the daily lived experience of trans people. The writers here clearly did their homework: they read up on the medical care necessary to transition. They looked into hormone treatments and surgery, and found out how difficult they are to access. Hell, they even brought in the danger that trans people face in going through airport body scanners. They learned all that, and then what did they do? They made all that hurt and all those barriers into one big hateful joke. Classy.

It paints a target on the backs of trans women, portraying them as clueless, bumbling impostors who are completely unaware of the way they’re perceived. Bobby Moynihan appears as a woman with styled hair, no makeup, and a beard. Paul Brittain wears a skirtsuit with feathered hair and a mustache. On Friday, most Americans weren’t specifically on the lookout for people whose gender presentation they didn’t recognize. By Sunday, Saturday Night Live’s 5.4 million viewers were. And that’s 5.4 million people who will start making jokes, saying hurtful things, and even inciting violence against trans people. It’s not a one-to-one equation, that’s for sure—watching this sketch won’t make you transphobic. But it definitely won’t make you less transphobic. And it certainly won’t make trans women any safer.

It fetishizes trans people, while simultaneously making anyone who’s attracted to trans people creepy and suspect. That’s right, people who date trans people: you’re on the hook, too. Keenan Thompson’s attraction to Bobby Moynihan is played for skin-crawling laughs. Can it be genuine attraction? Nope. It’s got to be creepy. Partners of trans people must be even crazier than trans people, if they find that attractive.

Isn’t anything funny?

So we’ve established what’s counterproductive about EstroMaxx. But when is humor productive?

Here are some questions to ask yourself: Does it expose the bias that trans people face? If so, awesome! Go forth & funny! Does it educate people on trans identities and communities? Rock it out! Is it in the hands of trans-identified people? Go team!

Look, I’m the fat girl who makes more fat jokes than anybody. I’m a big fan of the funny. Humor’s also a great tool for interrupting oppressive moments, and for taking control of narratives about our communities and experiences. But jokes that perpetuate oppression and misconceptions? Thumbs down.

“Why can’t they learn to take a joke?”

GLAAD’s response has popped up on a number of web sites, from MTV to Perez Hilton. Many of the comments feature a sad old line, rehashed again and again: “Why can’t they just take a joke?” It’s a line that’s used time and time again, in a wide range of context against a variety of communities. It’s deceptively simple, and it accomplishes several things at once. This one short line can deftly:

Absolve the speaker of any responsibility. It’s not my fault that I said it, it’s your fault for misinterpreting it. I don’t need to confront my privilege, you need to confront your hyper sensitivity. This one can also quickly and easily slip into accusations of emotional instability or straight up mental illness—a tactic that’s been used against women (hysteria was a real illness, everybody!), queer people (reparative therapy, anyone?) and communities of color (drapetomania made slaves run away!), to name a few. Simply put, the why-can’t-you-take-a-joke approach swiftly shifts focus from the oppressor to the oppressed, and can shortly thereafter cast dangerous aspersions about that person’s stability. Fair? Hardly. Effective? Definitely.

Creates a space in which it’s okay to be oppressive and you can say anything as long as it’s in jest. We also see this when white people make racist jokes ironically, as a way to prove how “post-racial” they are. Ultimately, this doesn’t prove anything to anyone: it perpetuates oppressive tropes and makes them impossible to critique. I like to call this part “you can’t hold me accountable, I’m hilarious!”

Places blame and responsibility on the person/community that’s already being targeted. If you’re offended, that’s your own fault. Not only that, but you’re ruining it for the rest of us. The take-a-joke line quietly but clearly creates a climate where speaking from your own experience and voicing your needs is now, in this bizzarro upside down world, somehow oppressive to people with privilege. I know, you guys! It’s ridiculous.

Ultimately, the EstroMaxx skit is deeply transphobic. It perpetuates some dangerous myths about trans people (particularly transfeminine people, who are already at extraordinarily heightened risk of violence and discrimination) and salts that wound by making a mockery of the oppression they face. And when someone musters the courage to speak out against that oppression: they’re too sensitive to be trusted, and they’re a pariah for “ruining a perfectly good sketch.”

Some joke.