And so it goes on.
Being punched in the guts, metaphorically - or perhaps even for real if you happen to live in one of the more bigoted parts of the country - is seldom fun. And listening to the person doing it saying, "I'm only kidding!", doesn't make the blow easier to bear.
A couple of weeks ago, Russell Howard, cheeky, blokey geezer you'd be happy to bring home to meet your Mum, who I personally ( to pinch words from a review I found online) find about as funny as athlete's foot, included a sketch about trans people in his 'Good News' BBC 3 vehicle.
To recap. Howard likes to base the material for his show on recent news stories. This particular one comes from Thailand where a local airline has started hiring kathoey (transsexual) women as cabin crew. It's an enlightened policy - in Thailand many trans people end up working in the sex industry - a career choice that, apart from being pretty unpleasant in many ways, has a limited life span once you get past a certain age. This airline is seeking to offer just a few a better choice...
In the hands of Howard's writing team, this is all a bit of a gift. What, imagines Howard, would it be like if a UK budget airline decided to do the same!? Thus begins several minutes of extraordinary 'comedy', which brings together just about every abusive tabloid cliche about trans people you can think of. Howard's 'budget airline' transsexuals...
1. Are burly men with beards
2. Have comedy gruff voices
3. Expose themselves gratuitously - including two scenes in which they show off their testicles (and once when we see 'them' - sacks of potatoes handing between their legs)
4. Are so sickening, they make a passenger throw up after she asks her 'stewardess' for some 'nuts' and gets a full frontal
So what's wrong with all this then? It's just a joke. As ever. Christ Alive. Another...fucking...joke...about...trans...people. Just what we've been waiting for. And so soon after Peter Kay's reanimation of 'Geraldine'.
Well, you know what they say, 'You wait ages for a tired, cliched and pernicious portrayal of trans people to come along, and then suddenly...'
Except, no that's wrong isn't it? You don't have to wait ages for these portrayals to come along. Just turn on your tv, or open a tabloid paper any day of the week to get a feel for the landscape of media prejudice in which trans people have to live. A landscape which now features this contribution from Russell Howard...
People complained. I did.
And this came back from the BBC - the same response others received:
It is never our intention to cause offence, so of course it troubles me to hear of cases where we may have done so inadvertently.
This sketch was not about transgender people per se, and while the BBC and the programme makers sincerely regret any offence we have caused to you, we would like to stress that the comments were not targeted at the transgender community.
The sketch was about a fictional budget airline and the aim was to poke fun at the age old tradition of men dressing as women for laughs, very much in the vein of Les Dawson and Kenny Everett. We're sorry if you felt this went too far but we have to credit the audience with the ability to discern that this is what we meant.
We are acutely aware that there are sensitivities around particular subjects and give careful thought to how to deal with such issues in comedy.
I appreciate and understand your strength of feeling on this matter and we will certainly bear it in mind going forward.
Just not good enough.
Whilst comedy is held to a 'problem' area for output, and comics often hide behind arguments of free speech and 'context' to justify off colour material, it is simply inconceivable, that the BBC would allow material of this sort to appear if directed at any other minority group. Just rewrite the sketch with black people in the place of the trans characters. Those responsible could have been prosecuted. In fact, of course, it would never have been made.
A common, pretty specious, defence, that this is about 'men dressing as women' is here trotted out, with parallels drawn with Les Dawson and Kenny Everett.
This is a very very basic misunderstanding.
Dawson and Everett, and many others of that era and ilk used drag in their acts to create characters with whom the audience built a relationship of complicity, and even affection. They never sought to present these characters in any relationship to transsexualism, but simply as dragged up blokes. We knew it, they knew it. The history of panto is littered with this device. I'm not a huge fan of this tittering, over used comedic approach, but it's different. The audience joins with the character - laughing with them, in this shared understanding.
Howard's sketch is entirely different. The comedy comes from the comic-repulsive behaviour of the characters. We feel no empathy for them, they are simply vessels for distasteful gags based on their strangeness (not, as was often the case with Dawson, some element of their identity we somehow recognised). Howard's characters in this sketch have nothing to do with the 'tradition' of Dawson, or Everett, or Paul O'Grady or Dick Emery for that matter.
They are freaks - and the humour is based on them being freaks.
The 'logic' of the BBC producer who wrote this response is further undermined when one asks where in the many sketches of Les Dawson, or Kenny Everett did these comics ever expose their testicles to others, and produce in that other vomiting? This happens in this sketch - the subtext is crystal clear. These people, and how they act, make you sick. They are unconvincing (we'll show that with their hair bodies, voices, and beards) frauds. And as for this all being in some 'tradition' of drag, the Thai airline which inspired this story isn't hiring bearded drag artists...they are hiring transsexual people. The story is about kathoey women. This therefore is a characterisation of transsexual people - it can't be anything else if the sketch is to have resonance and meaning. It has to be. That's what the news story is about. That's where the 'gag' began...
Even at other levels, the BBC defence is crass. Even if this is meant to be some panto-style pastiche (it isn't), can that be a defence? Would they have ever have considered using black people in this way, using this argument? Once upon a time, the Black and White minstrels occupied this space, in a kind of 'no-harm-meant-hey-get-over-yourself' ritual humiliation of black people that some apologists claimed 'wasn't supposed to represent black people'.
Except that it did represent black people. Because it was on the telly. Because that was the whole point of it. Because it was all about white people covered in boot polish pretending to be black people. What the fuck else could it have been about? Black people didn't like it. Because it was demeaning.
The BBC claims that the audience for Russell Howard will be able to understand that the point of the sketch wasn't about trans people. I'm really lost now. Why's that then? The whole sorry thing was one long parody of trans people, and all the 'humour' came from how they behaved. And show me the 'counter-balancing' material on our screens where the audience for Russell Howard could find the more 'accurate' picture of transgender people from which they could make a more accurate, sophisticated judgment? Which might help them to understand that these grotesques were completely unrelated to any reality of any kind?
It barely exists at all.
People are beaten up to the tune of this kind of material. The language and the images it gives the world, and the bigots within it, is what drives the abuse - emotional, verbal, physical - that trans people have to face.
The young trans person going to school the day after this episode was on, knowing his or her classmates will have seen it, will have done so with a new level of fear.
The transitioning person about to tell his or her workmates, and conscious that they might have seen this the night before, will have had felt a little more dread.
The closeted trans person, of whom there are thousands, who can't talk, who is in despair and a black loneliness will have felt that loneliness deepen just a bit more.
And perhaps in the pubs or streets of Britain, just a few more laughs were had in someone's face, just a little more ridicule showed?
It's all in the research. The link with the vocabulary of the media is established. Or perhaps you've been through it yourself? Apart from the laughter and the looks (from pity, to disgust, to withering laughter, to animal hatred once or twice), I personally remember being filmed in a pub, being shouted at and followed by a group of teenage girls, even being spat on.
This episode of Russell Howard's Good News encourages these attitudes, and this behaviour, to live just a little longer.
And the BBC's attempts to explain itself are superficial, unconvincing, insulting and completely unacceptable.