This weekend the trans community set their Days Without Cisgender Nonsense counter back to zero, when UK magazine The Spectator published an interview with Australian comedian Barry Humphries in which he called trans activists “ratbags”, trans identity a “fashion”, and said he feels children are being “taught [it] in schools by crazy teachers”.
In the interview with Lloyd Evans, Humphries was asked if his most well-known alter ego, drag act Dame Edna Everage, copped much flack from trans activists, who Evans deems “swift to take offense”. Evans writes:
“I take him through their case in detail. They say that more than 40 percent of trans men and women have attempted or considered suicide and from this [trans activists] argue that because transphobia is capable of catalysing an act of self-harm it ought to be treated in law as a form of assault.”
I won’t breathe life into Humphries’ comments by quoting them wholesale here. He’s wrong, and a bigot, and it isn’t worth me vindicating his sense of self-importance by going off about his comments. Instead I want to talk about the author and publishers of this piece, and how what they did is arguably far more damaging. Essentially, I’m arguing that we should just stop asking bigots for their opinions.
The question needs to be asked: why did Lloyd Evans feel it necessary to ask Humphries what he thinks about, to use Evans’ word, ‘transgenderism’? It’s not like Barry tweeted it, or said it on stage, or lay down in front of a Pride parade and screamed it - Evans prompted his comments in an interview that was not about trans rights but rather his new show, about Weimar Germany. It’s also not like he hadn’t already made his views on trans people known - in the past he’s called Caitlyn Jenner a “mutilated man”, and said he agrees with known transmisogynist scholar Germaine Greer.
Evans didn’t ask his thoughts on trans people out of a sense of journalistic integrity or the need to follow-up and hold someone accountable to their views - in fact, that couldn’t have been his intent, as there was literally no follow-up question after Humphries spouted a fountain of geriatric nonsense about ‘just how many lavatories we need nowadays’. It wasn’t as though there was a burning public need for answers about Humphries’ views on the subject, because Humphries is also not an informed expert on trans issues - something even he admits in the interview (“I don’t think I’m right to pontificate. I’m really an actor.”)
So if not to hold a transphobe accountable, nor to get an expert opinion on a pressing issue, why did Evans ask the question?
Because when you read the headline you immediately clicked on it.
I won’t pretend I didn’t do exactly that myself. As soon as I saw “Barry Humphries on transgender ‘ratbaggery’” I was tapping my phone screen and screeching at my housemate in the next room.
“Oh god, Barry Humphries is being transphobic again,” I yelled.
“Is it the one where he says gender reassignment is mutilation?” he replied. “Because I’ve seen it already.” But I had already clicked and was reading ferociously, exactly like I did when articles came out about Kanye West saying slavery is a choice, or when Roseanne Barr compares Valerie Jarrett to an ape, or when Caitlyn Jenner says she doesn’t believe in marriage equality.
There’s a reason airtime keeps being given to people like Barry Humphries, Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson - people who we know, by now, are highly likely to veer wildly out of their own lane to say offensive things. The reason journalists ask those questions and publish those interviews is they get clicks. Conflict, controversy, and outrage, in our current turbulent climate, are all commodities - but in commodifying discriminatory opinions, we imply that there is some value in them.
Drumming up the idea of a contentious two-sided conflict on the issue of whether or not trans people are legitimate - where the arguments of trans people, activists, and medical professionals are deemed equally worthy of our time as the bigoted ramblings of a man whose spurious claim to relevancy is that he’s made a lot of money off of playing a woman - is actively harmful, because it implies there is some value to the argument that trans people are self-mutilating degenerates and that “transgenderism” is simply a fashionable trend (despite the wealth of evidence to the contrary).
Let me make it very clear: there is no value in a transphobic opinion - or any argument based in the oppression or dismissal of marginalised groups. It’s not a case of “they said trans people are valid, he says they’re fashionable, let’s agree to disagree”. We don’t gain anything from hearing what Barry Humphries thinks about trans youth - the only people who gain anything are Humphries himself (because all press is good press, right?), and the people who make money every time someone buys into that clickbait headline. This doesn’t enrich the conversation around trans rights, it doesn’t give nuanced understanding to the complex relationship between drag and trans communities. He’s just a straight white man complaining about bathrooms, and if I wanted to hear that I’d walk into any men’s public restroom and wait for someone to tell me the ladies’ is next door.
When Donald Trump farts out a series of tweets about how trans people cost too much money and aren’t worth the effort, there’s no silver lining. Sure, people will rush to counter that statement, but trans people spend significant portions of their time trying to prove to people that they are worth the effort anyway, meanwhile those who agree feel validated in their oppressive views. It just means there’s an extra avalanche of hatred to wade through because transphobia was given a megaphone that week.
I get it. It’s easy asking Barry Humphries his opinions on “transgenderism”, because it’s a pretty good bet he’ll say something headline-worthy, and in a digital media economy where clicks are currency that’s often the expected approach. It’s easy to just quote whoever most recently said the worst thing and let readers do the work of turning that into some kind of politically relevant discussion.
However, when journalists and media organisations publish headlines they scored by baiting a bigot, they are quite literally profiting from oppression and hatred. We as content creators need to stop giving this kind of platform to people whose views on minorities don’t matter - even if the intent is to say “can you believe this rubbish?” - and we as content receivers need to stop being sucked in by the illusion that that content carries any kind of weight.
Charles O'Grady is a queer playwright an director, and a proud trans man.