I'm not laughing

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday August 24, 2011
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Illustration: Christine Smith
Illustration: Christine Smith

Recently, Adam Carolla, comedian and former host of The Man Show, went on a bit of a tear during his podcast. The eight-minute rant, starting in response to an online petition to let Muppets Bert and Ernie get married on Sesame Street, covered a lot of ground. Carolla told us about his testicles, about anime cartooning, and even conversations he has with his penis.

As entertaining as those may be, the bigger issue was comments he made about transgender people.

While asking, "When did we start giving a shit about these people?" Carolla nevertheless suggested that the acronym GLBT be replaced with YUCK, told the transgender community to "shut the fuck up," and generally displayed his ignorance about the queer community and transgender individuals in particular.

It did not take long for activists to react to Carolla's rant, with the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation taking a lead role in pushing for an apology from Carolla.

Cue the non-apology apology that has become so common when celebrities or athletes go on a homophobic or transphobic tirade. Not long after GLAAD got involved Carolla issued a brief apology, stating, "I'm sorry my comments were hurtful. I'm a comedian, not a politician."

To its credit, GLAAD called him out further, noting that he had a history of similar comments, and claimed that his "empty apologies" are just a part of Carolla's routine.

From what I've seen of Carolla over the years – which, to be honest, isn't much – I have to agree with GLAAD. He seems a low-rent comedian cut from the same cloth as a Howard Stern or an Andrew Dice Clay. He bases his humor on being crude, ignorant, and insulting, with a healthy helping of misogyny, racism, and queer-phobic commentary thrown in. That's his schtick, as some would say.

With that in mind, GLAAD and others – yes, including myself for having already written some 300 words or so above – have simply given Carolla more attention. By even discussing this, we're giving him credibility among his core demographic: others who wish to champion being crude, ignorant, and "politically incorrect." None of the anger based on what he said will really harm him in the long run.

So now that I too have gone on about him, I'm going to move on, in part because I don't think he deserves any more free publicity from my hands. Instead, I'd like to talk about the words of another celebrity in recent days and his attempt at humor at the cost to transgender people, and yes, another half-hearted apology.

American rock group Matchbox Twenty, headed up by Rob Thomas, has an official Twitter account. Like most celebrity accounts on Twitter, there's is a mix of promotional tweets and social interaction with the members of the band.

On August 18, a tweet was set out that said, "Enjoying a song & found out it's a band I hate. It's like making out with a hot girl & finding out she has a penis."

Setting aside the obvious conclusion that perhaps you don't really "hate" that band after all and maybe, you know, you should give them another try, comparing music you hate to "making out" with a transwoman just doesn't feel right to me. Perhaps I've seen way too many people use the transgender panic defense to ever be comfortable with this.

For those unfamiliar with the trans panic defense, it is a bit of legal maneuvering that comes up in case of anti-transgender violence, particularly murders. Supposedly a person becomes so panicked when they discover the person they're sexually intimate with is not the same gender they suspected that they fly into a rage, and simply cannot control their urge to kill. Yes, this defense has worked many times, so much so that a law was actually enacted in California to limit its use after the Gwen Araujo murder trial brought so much attention onto that defensive technique.

Matchbox Twenty quickly recanted when people cried foul, saying, "It was a joke. I apologize if it was taken seriously. It was not meant to be. We do not hate any one. The joke was about the surprise – and it is sad to me that it was taken as such. Like oh, 'I wasn't expecting that' not 'oh, I hate transgender' seemed kind of obvious to me. I guess it wasn't. So I leave it at this. We love everyone, we support all choices. We have always been vocal about that. Still are. Also, I say lighten up."

I'm glad they did respond, and try to set things straight. Nevertheless, the "lighten up" comment at the end sticks in my craw. It kind of turns this into yet another non-apology apology: you must not have a sense of humor, and gosh, I'm sorry to hear that.

Like with Carolla, GLAAD was contacted. Unlike with Carolla, GLAAD opted not to speak out about this, saying in email to various activists that officials "were planning on reaching out to Matchbox Twenty," but won't bother to do so, given the band already apologized. GLAAD will not be speaking publicly about the incident at all, not to call them out, not to praise them for apologizing so quick, and not even to know that anything ever happened.

In the end, we have one comedian who will reap the rewards of being offensive to transgender people, and on another, we have a rock band which will likely not face any repercussions for its ill conceived "joke" about transgender people.

For some reason I don't really feel much like laughing, but I will most definitely not shut the fuck up.

Gwen Smith really does have a sense of humor, somewhere. You can find her online at www.gwensmith.com.