Transmissions: Send in the clowns

  • by Gwendolyn Ann Smith
  • Wednesday February 7, 2024
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Illustration: Christine Smith
Illustration: Christine Smith

Today, I want to talk to you about clowns.

No, I am not slyly referring to the various Republican politicians who are filing ever more draconian bills to squash transgender freedom across our country, though the thought had occurred to me. Rather, I actually do mean the white-faced, red-nosed, baggy outfit, red-shoe types that one might spot at a circus, a rodeo, or other such place.

When I was a young child, my bedroom was decked out in a circus theme, including more than a few clown-themed doodads. In fact, I still have the plaster of Paris clown-shaped bank from those days, not far from my desk.

I enjoyed watching Bozo the Clown on my parent's black-and-white television. I was also no stranger to an even more popular clown, Ronald McDonald, who extolled the two all-beef patties of the fast-food chain's signature hamburger.

Of course, clowns go back much further than the days of my childhood. The whole idea goes back at least to ancient Egypt, with the more familiar white-faced character we might recognize today dating back to the early 1800s. The aforementioned Bozo and Ronald are a couple of the more well-known of their ilk.

Or, at least, they used to be.

Sometime in my teen years, the view of clowns began to change. Sure, Batman's foe, The Joker, had lived in popular culture for decades, but his jests became sharper, and more violent, as we moved from Cesar Romero to Jack Nicholson to the late Heath Ledger to the clown prince of "The Killing Joke" graphic novel.

Likewise, author Stephen King picked up on this vibe when he introduced Pennywise the Dancing Clown to the world in his book, "It," creating a dark malevolence behind greasepaint that has now graced three movies.

Not all of this was relegated to the land of make believe. Serial killer John Wayne Gacy — when he wasn't brutally raping, torturing, and murdering his victims — performed as either "Pogo the Clown" or "Patches the Clown." I wouldn't be surprised if Gacy helped inspire King's book.

All of these changed the view of clowns. Once comedic figures — albeit, perhaps, on the weirder side of things — it has become the default to think of the white-faced clown as something frightful and revolting. Indeed, I suspect that anyone reading this column may have thought of horror long before they thought of hamburgers.

While traditional clowning does still exist, it is an uphill battle for anyone who wishes to don a big pair of shoes and a rubber nose in 2024. At this point, you have two generations who have only lived in a time when the popular view of clowns is one of fright.

This brings us to this column about clowns, when I should be writing about transgender issues.

Transgender people have always existed, as I've noted dozens of times in the past. There are reports of trans people throughout antiquity, including some about the recent recontextualizing of one Roman Emperor, Elagabalus, as a transgender woman.

It wasn't until the early years of the 20th century, however, that we started to see modern transgender history, with people such as Dr. Magnus Hirschfield writing about "transvestites" he encountered at his institute.

While transgender people faced persecution and death in Nazi Germany, trans fortunes grew from the 1950s onward, with a 2014 Time magazine cover proclaiming the transgender "tipping point." Unlike what the magazine was implying, I think we could fairly declare that it was sometime around then that the right began a campaign against transgender people that continues today.

It was a year later, in 2015, that a ballot measure rolled back the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) in that Texas city, in a campaign that focused heavily on anti-transgender "bathroom predator" falsehoods. These same arguments, long debunked, are still being used as recently as this January, after Utah Governor Spencer Cox (R) signed House Bill 257, barring transgender people from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity.

The right has been fighting a campaign for the last decade, attempting to paint transgender people, and by extension the whole of the LGBTQ community, as predators, groomers and pedophiles targeting children and others.

This is being done by more than politicians, as right-wing pundits continually attempt to depict transgender people as dangerous, while comedians portray us as unhinged and deceptive. Meanwhile anti-trans bigots, under the pretense of being feminists, treat transgender people in just the same fashion as the right.

I would argue that each of these folks are doing all they can to demonize transgender people, and change popular culture's view of transgender people into one of wickedness, in much the same way clowns shifted from wacky comedic figures to great, cosmic evil: to the point that people who have never encountered any sort of clown instinctively view them as dangerous.

I'm not saying that the right sat down and said, "Hey, those trans folks? Let's give 'em the ol' clown treatment," but I can see a parallel in how their actions are working to create a generation that's never not heard falsehoods about transgender people as predators and that we, too, could be viewed with the same fright that one views a wacky circus clown today.

Aside from Gacy's very real crimes and King's fictional monster, I feel that clowns got a bad rap because people always saw them as something unusual, even weird. They were always something outside the norm, and this made people at least a little wary — yes, even of the one hawking burgers.

We, as transgender people, need to push back on this. We need people to see us not only as, well, transgender people, but as people in the first place, as well as their friends and neighbors.

We can't let them clown us.

Gwen Smith thinks some people need a pie to the face. You can find her at

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