What Happened When I Called Out Comedians for Transphobic 'Jokes'
After I received a hateful message from my former friend, actor and comedian TJ Miller, the #MeToo movement inspired me to continue calling out transphobia – even when it means facing hordes of vitriolic trolls.
Photos courtesy of Netflix and Wikimedia Commons
My name is Danielle Solzman and I’m the film critic who was once on the receiving end of a transphobic tirade from actor-comedian TJ Miller.
TJ was part of my small group of friends in the Chicago improv scene that I stayed in touch with over the years as many moved to New York or Los Angeles. It was with those same friends that I did one of the scariest things I’ve ever done: I came out to them as transgender on November 4, 2015. After my announcement, TJ shared one of my photos on Facebook and called me a "hero." I didn’t think he meant it in a mean way, but as a way to show support for a friend.
Flash forward to August 2017, when I learned that the meta-description of TJ’s website contained a derogatory trans slur. Rather than publicly call him out on it, I reached out to him privately since I’d known him for over a decade and hoped he’d use the interaction as an educational experience to learn why using the slur was both transphobic and completely uncalled for. When it comes to comedy, there’s a fine line between what’s considered provocatively funny and what’s downright offensive. In response to my simple, one-line email telling him that the slur was derogatory and offensive, TJ subjected me to the most transphobic and abusive email of my life. In it, he deadnamed—using a trans person’s former name rather than the one they prefer as an act of transphobic violence—me, used the original offending slur once again, and even went so far as to deny my identity as a trans woman.
When I received that email from someone I’d considered a friend, I decided to block him from all my social media platforms. I tried instead to bury my feelings and focus on work, but it wasn’t easy. The psychological effects of such transphobia can be damaging. Even four press screenings and phone interviews weren’t enough to keep me distracted.
In the following weeks, things only got worse. I'd had it with defenses that transphobia is "just a joke." I knew that the dangerous stereotypes embedded in "jokes" often become true beliefs held by people who commit violence against trans people. And I knew firsthand how much a transphobic "joke" could bring on real abuse. I wanted to continue speaking out to improve trans representation in media.
In July, I called out actor John Barrowman for wearing a TARDIS dress and calling himself a "transgender TARDIS" at Comic Con and reinforcing the negative stereotype that transgender women are men in dresses. In response, I received massive amounts of hatred from Barrowman fans and transphobic people on social media. Trying to respond to comments became exhausting, so my Saturday nights turned into a Block Party—the kind where I block a lot of people, not the kind where I party with people on my block.
That same month, comedian Lil Duval joked that he’d murder his partner if he found out they were trans. In August, Dave Chappelle performed a transphobic show at Radio City Music Hall in which he used the term "man-pussy" and said he thinks "the only reason all of us are talking about transgenders is because white men want to do it." I called out Chappelle’s offensive act and the subsequent transphobic abuse I received was a lot to deal with—too much for someone to handle alone. Chappelle fans defended the comedian and others spewed vitriolic hate at me.
I started to feel seriously depressed and suicidal. I ended up in a psych ward for a week as a result, but I’m in a better place now, thank goodness.
During this wave of transphobic bullying, I sat on my story about TJ because I felt too scared of any legal threats I might receive if I went public with the encounter. It wasn’t until I started to see reports locally and beyond about people coming forward with stories about sexual harassment they’d faced. If it weren’t for these reports and Hollywood’s watershed moment of calling out abusers, I don’t know when I would have found the courage to speak up about TJ’s transphobia.
I decided to share a screenshot of TJ’s transphobic email. I was tired of being scared and silenced, and wanted everyone to know: Trans people are already subject to a disproportionate amount of hatred and violence. There is no place for transphobia in comedy. Not from Dave Chappelle, not from Ricky Gervais, not from TJ Miller—not from anyone.
As comedian Kumail Nanjiani said, "Comedians making transphobic jokes: What side do you wanna be on?"
TJ Miller’s agent did not respond to Broadly’s phone and email request for comment.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.