Comedian Jaye McBride shares her reflections on how comedy can connect and heal in this moment, as it has for her.
I never used to talk about being transgender on stage. Even though I started comedy as a trans woman, I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a ‘trans comedian.’ I wanted to be known as a comedian who just happened to be trans. At least that’s what I told myself for years. What glorious privilege not to have one singular adjective define you.
The truth, I realized, is that I was absolutely terrified of telling the world that I was trans for fear sharing that part of myself would open me up to violence, hatred, bigotry or worse: people not taking me seriously. Usually a comic’s dream. But why would they? Anytime a trans person was portrayed on television, it was as a serial killer, a sex worker, a punchline or a combination of the three. It got to the point where I would’ve killed to see a boring trans accountant. Still would actually really like to see that. Accountant representation!
Have you ever heard of Klinger from M*A*S*H? He was a guy who wore dresses because he wanted people to think he was insane and discharge him from the army? The last thing I wanted was to be lumped into that stereotype by the straight world (and I would be), which is kind of ironic because Klinger was a cis, hetero guy- they’d be lumping me in with that dude. I’ll pass.
It was sometime later, after a friend asked me why I was still not talking about being trans onstage that I realized I was letting my fear dictate how I was living. I transitioned to be myself, but I wasn’t bringing all of myself to my work.
So, I made the decision to finally begin telling my story on stage. It felt like a giant weight was lifted off my shoulders and my comedy improved dramatically. I was getting bigger laughs than before and some of the biggest would be at my trans material. And as a bonus, I even enjoyed being onstage more. The outpouring of support from people in the LGBTQ community, the local comedy community, and my friends didn’t hurt. I’d be lying if I said everyone was supportive or that doors of opportunity didn’t slam shut in my face because of my openness but, fortunately, several others popped open.
One door that needs to swing wider, though, is increasing transgender representation in comedy. In their 2020 report, the Yes, And… Laughter Lab, a comedy and social impact program, shared that “comedy is uniquely persuasive, memorable, enlightening, and attention- getting when it comes to serious issues – and it works in tandem with serious forms of messaging and journalism to engage publics around social challenges.”
Transgender comics need to have the opportunity to make people laugh with us, not at us. For too long, transgender issues and identities have only been seen in deeply dramatic contexts or offensive jokes as the punchline in comedies and in stand up. Too often, cisgender comedians and creators have dehumanized us and our experiences in a way that pushes us further into the margins–portraying us as monsters in people’s minds. This isn’t horror, people–trans-genre isn’t what we’re talking about.
In GLAAD’s annual Where We Are on TV Report which tracks the quantity and quality of representation in streaming, broadcast, and cable television, it’s noted that the majority of trans characters currently appear in dramas–of 26 series featuring trans characters, 22 of them are dramas. That’s trans comedy erasure if you ask me. But in all seriousness, if we are only set in dramas, and only exist as punchlines in comedy, there’s a big gap where the next Will & Grace, Glee, or Modern Family could be. Except hopefully better and definitely more diverse.
Jokes making fun of trans people are still seen as acceptable now in the same way that homophic jokes used to be just a few years ago. The difference is that gay, lesbian, and bisexual acceptance has grown and LGB comedies and comedians have been making way for decades now. There’s Wanda Sykes, Tig Notaro, Billy Eichner, Margaret Cho, and hundreds of young rising LGB stars in comedy and stand-up following in their mic steps.
It’s a problem most people can’t name a single A-list trans comedian. But in just a few years I’ve seen talented transgender comedians finally getting cast in movies, getting writing jobs, and crushing mics all over the country. Josie Totah and Patti Harrison coming in hot. There is a new generation of trans comics out there, being themselves proudly, and being damn funny. In addition to bringing subversive comedy, trans comics are skilled to joke about trans issues in a way that isn’t harmful or derogatory. Because it’s coming from inside the house. And that is the sort of comedic entertainment and education audiences need.
To quote Margaret J Wheatley, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” To quote myself, “You can’t laugh at someone if you’re laughing with them.”
In my own comedy career, what I didn’t expect was how many trans people would come up to me either after a show or online and talk about how they were trans and were terrified of coming out but I gave them a glimmer of hope that it was possible. I started referring to myself as the ‘gateway tr***y.- See my show and you’ll be shaving your legs in a week! J.K., not Rowling.
I don’t think many trans people felt that way after seeing not naming any names but you know who you are cosplaying as trans in all the fave sad Hollywood films. It’s because I’m a trans woman, portraying myself, writing it myself, it’s me telling MY story that I’m able to create comedy that is not only funny but meaningful because it’s coming from a place of experience, self-awareness, and reflection.
And I’m not the only one. There are plenty of trans men, trans women, and non-binary people living openly and authentically in this world. We’re a growing population and we need to start controlling our own narrative. We need our stories to be told by us, not cis people using their cis-trans dictionary to decide what our stories should be. The limited French I learned in seventh grade was more accurate “Où est le pamplemousse!!!” I NEED TO KNOW WHY THE PINEAPPLE!
We’re real people with real problems, real lives, real triumphs, real tears-some revolve around being trans, some don’t but they’re still OURS to feel, experience, and share.
If you’re trans, you don’t have to be an actor or a comedian to tell your story. In fact, you don’t have to tell any part of your story at all if you don’t want to. Just be open and true to yourself. Maybe you’ll find, like I did, the coolest, hottest, best, smartest, most important audience is within. It’s an exclusive club and you can only join if you earn the privilege to enter.
Jaye McBride is funny, smart and proudly transgender. One of the most prominent out trans comedians to work on a national level, she recently made her television debut on Comedy Central’s ‘This Week at the Comedy Cellar’.
To learn more about GLAAD’s campaign to highlight trans comedians for Transgender Day of Visibility, visit: /blog/tdov-glaad-and-instagram-are-teaming-amplify-trans-comedians-when-we-need-them-most
This guest post is brought to you by GLAAD and Yes, And…Laughter Lab.