The first time I openly laughed at a transgender person I was 12 years old. It was February, but I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, so the movie theater in which I was seeing Ace Ventura: Pet Detective had the AC on. The laughter helped me shake off the chill.
We, the audience, had just learned that Sean Young's character, Lt. Lois Einhorn, was transgender. Prior to identifying herself as Lois Einhorn, she'd been the pro football player Ray Finkle, who everyone thought was an at-large criminal. "Einhorn is Finkle!" screamed Jim Carrey, cracking the case before our very eyes. "Finkle is Einhorn! Einhorn is a man!" Then, more to himself: "Einhorn is a man?" Then he went to vomit.
The joke, if you can call it that, rested upon an earlier scene in which Carrey kissed Lt. Einhorn. "Your gun is digging into my hip," he'd told her as they made out. Now the memory of kissing a transgender woman was forcing Carrey to puke profusely, burn his clothes, and weep. In the background played Boy George's "The Crying Game," the hit song from two years earlier that had soundtracked a dramatic film with a prominent transgender character.
Looking back, I'm ashamed at how much I guffawed at Carrey's revulsion. We all know what the real joke was—it was disgusting to kiss Einhorn because there's something weird and gross about transgender people. The mockery gets especially debased when Carrey forcefully strips Einhorn down in front of an army of police officers in order to expose her tucked-away penis. Everyone dry heaves when they see the bulge. Carrey eventually tells someone to "read it its rights."
The laughter at transgender people's expense didn't end there, either. One month after Ace Ventura premiered I saw Naked Gun 33 1/3, the hit comedy in which Anna Nicole Smith's character does a sexy silhouette striptease that ends up revealing a penis. Once again, her former suitors are appalled. Then there's the famous Tone Loc frat anthem "Funky Cold Medina," the second verse of which finds Loc talking about a girl he meets named Sheena. After the two flirt, Loc takes Sheena home, where it's revealed that she's transgender. The rapper, who you might remember also co-starred in Ace Ventura, throws Sheena out of his house, saying, "I don't fool around with no Oscar Mayer wiener." Even in supposedly queer-friendly movies like 1991's Soapdish you'll find characters disgusted by transgender people, like when Robert Downey Jr. gags after having a romantic interlude with a trans woman.
Repugnance is a common theme in the trans-people-as-jokes canon. But more prevalent is the element of deceit. Time and again in both comedic and dramatic films, transgender people are cast as deviant tricksters out to fool innocent victims into sleeping with them. This narrative plays upon two of America's deepest fears: sexual vulnerability and humiliation. Not only is your sex partner "lying" about their gender, victims who "fall for it" are then forced to grapple with the embarrassment of being had, of being seen as gay. Men "tricked" into sleeping with another man are embarrassed by the threat to their masculinity. So much culture has taught us that transgender people aren't just sexual aliens, they're also predatory liars.
In reality, we know the real predators are straight people afraid of transgender interlopers. Transgender men and women have been raped, beaten, and killed, often with impunity, throughout history, but only recently have we been keeping count. In 1993 Brandon Teena was raped by two former friends after they discovered he was born a woman. Teena reported the rape, but his local sheriff, who called Teena "it," refused to arrest the attackers. Five days after assaulting him, they returned and murdered him. Similarly, in 2002, four acquaintances of Gwen Araujo, a 17-year-old girl in California, beat and strangled her to death after discovering she was transgender. In all, the Human Rights Campaign estimates one out of every 1,000 murders a year are transgender hate crimes.
More recent cultural depictions of transgender characters are less reactionary, but they're still not very humanizing. A character on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia did date a transgender woman, but they concentrated most of the jokes around his girlfriend's big penis. And in the recent hit sequel The Hangover 2, Ed Helms has sex with a transgender prostitute who may or may not have taken advantage of him when he was too drunk to function (once again, trans folks are portrayed as predatory). We have made some progress, sure, but tell that to the transgender woman who was beaten into a seizure in Baltimore in April. We've still got a long way to go.
In the years since I laughed along with Ace Ventura, I've grown up and stopped getting a kick out of LGBT people—you could say I've gotten better. I've also started to consider what I was laughing at in the first place. I'm willing to agree that society is improved if we grant some leeway to comedians and artists to push the limits. But when pushing the limits becomes debasing an entire group of people as twisted quasi-rapists, we cross the line from comedy to bigotry. When I was laughing at Ace Ventura I was laughing because I was uncomfortable with a biological man living as a woman. I have to wonder if Brandon Teena's killers laughed, too.