how an apology from someone I had never heard of left me in tears

I had never heard of Bill Corbett until two weeks ago.

There is no doubting my credentials as an adventurous explorer of culture, but no map is without a few dragons. In my case, one such is Mystery Science Theater 3000, or MST3K to its fans, and its offshoots. Bill Corbett was a part of this show and remains a well-known actor and writer, one with nearly 30,000 Twitter followers. That is, despite my ignorance, he’s someone with a platform.

Mr. Corbett, whom I hope won’t be offended if I simply refer to him as Bill from here on out, came to my attention when a few of my trans friends were expressing hurt over a comment he made. His five-year old son had received a transformer and named him “Tranny”, prompting Bill to tweet “I’d MUCH rather have my son playing with a Tranny-the-Transvestite doll than anything associated with Michael Bay.” When called out, Bill basically replied that it was no big deal and that comedy sometimes offends people.

The surface structure of the joke is clearly aimed at Michael Bay, which I’m sure we can all get behind, but the humor is predicated on the pejorative use of “tranny”. There’s no joke here about Michael Bay being awful except inasmuch as what he’s compared to is accepted as pretty damn awful too. That is, it’s taken as a given that a tranny toy is, at best laughable, at worst trashy schlock. But hey, at least it’s better than Michael Bay!

Hysterical.

Unless you’re trans.

Funny.

Unless you walk through the world every day prepared for someone to call you a tranny, and know that it’s laced with disgust and the possibility of violence.

Witty.

Unless you spent a lifetime working up the nerve, or simply gave up fighting the inescapable need, to transition, and then found yourself abandoned by family members and people you’ve counted as friends for over 20 years.

Worth a chuckle.

Unless you can walk down the street, minding your own business, and then hear someone cry out “What is that?!” and make vomiting sounds as they pass you … while onlookers laugh.

Forgivable.

Unless you’ve had friends, or people in your community, kicked out of their homes, fired, assaulted, raped, or murdered, simply for having the courage to be honest about who they are.

Ignorable.

Unless you want to make a world that doesn’t allow these things.

When all the above is true, as it is for me and many others, hearing “tranny” used that way hurts. Personally, I didn’t care so much because I didn’t know who Bill was. To me, this was just another ignorant asshole in a world all too full of them. Worthy of censure, but certainly not care. I’ve got too much else to care about.

But it hurt my girlfriend. Deeply. Danielle is trans like me. She feels the world intensely, and I love that about her. (It’d be fair to say I’m an emotional storm chaser, or perhaps more generous to say that I don’t waste time with people who aren’t so engaged.) She was a big fan of MST3K. She explained that the humor of the show, and the continued work of its creators, was, unusually enough, not based on cruelty. It was funny, but kind. It wasn’t built on putting people down. For that reason, it held great weight for her. That such humor existed in the world is a powerful affirmation when you sometimes find yourself the butt of jokes.

It hurt that something she had long cherished was suddenly tainted. That the very quality that had earned its place in her guarded heart was in a moment so casually betrayed. It hurt me to see it. And I could easily imagine how painful it would be for me had something similar happened with, say, Jim Henson, or anyone who holds a precious place in our tender imaginations.

But she didn’t break down into tears until a subsequent morning.

Bill had posted another apology.

I went online and read it.  Quite unexpectedly, I found myself in tears. Here is an excerpt, but please read the full post here.

First and foremost: I’m sorry.

Let me admit it upfront: I had no idea. I thought the term was a shorthand for more accepted terms — maybe not the most reverent, but certainly not all that offensive. I assumed it became offensive only in context, when used with malicious and even violent intent — when clearly meant to hurt and belittle.

… I took this seriously enough to ask some trusted friends about this — friends whose values I admire, whose sense of humanity is pretty unerring, and who I knew would be dead honest with me. They were, damn it.

I also did a lot of research, not only about the nomenclature but about the science (my old friend!) of it all, and about the appalling level of violence against trans people. I understand a LOT more than I did a week ago. Still a relative noob, but much, much more informed than a few days back.

I won’t use the word again.

I want to stand on the side of humanity. I want to be humane, even when being a goddamned wise-ass. There’s no tried and true path through this, but it’s really worth trying to find it.

This wasn’t a pat apology. It clearly wasn’t motivated by a desire to pacify a overly sensitive community or restore an image in the eyes of capricious public whose ever shifting norms were merely a force to be navigated in order to avoid a PR disaster. This was someone who recognized they had hurt people and needed to understand how that had happened. This was someone accustomed to causing offense, and secure in their ability to discriminate when such offense was defensible, who when confronted with the facts realized they had fallen on the wrong side of an issue, of history even, and wanted to make it right.

And that’s what brought me to tears. For me, it wasn’t the recovery of an emotional investment thought lost, but that an obviously moral, honest, thoughtful adult gave this matter real thought, real attention, and then concluded that to stand with trans people is to stand on the side of humanity. Such a person is damn worthy of my care.

Reflecting on the several causes of his misstep, Bill wrote:

An equally likely answer is that I really don’t know any trans people.

Bill, I didn’t know you or your work before this. Now I want to.

Nice to meet you.

Jen

 

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3 comments for “how an apology from someone I had never heard of left me in tears

  1. Savannah
    July 17, 2012 at 2:34 am

    Thanks for relating this story Jen, Bill’s apology really was a beautiful.

  2. Andrea_D
    July 24, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    If you aren’t familiar with Bill’s work on MST3k and Rifftrax, you really, really should familiarize yourself. I grew up on MSt3k, it is the reason why i have to hate my voice so much now. VOice cracking through laughing so hard made me sound like a male action hero.

  3. Allie Stephens
    March 18, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    What a great story, Jen. Thanks for posting it.
    To hear someone think honestly about something they’ve done, to hear them think about things on a human rather than a PR level is so refreshing and so, well . . . human.

    Most people do not have trans issues front of mind like we do, and when confronted with them, tend to fall on the side of humanity & history. Thank you for all We Happy Trans is doing to promote an informed and affirmed discussion.

    Allie

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