In a recent episode of Real Time, Bill Maher asked transgender people to wait until after the election on their civil rights agenda. In doing so he also showed a side of himself that dismayed many of his followers (like myself) and once more exposed his misogynist views on transgender women.
This is not the first time Maher has made such comments, so we can not pass it off easily as a temporary error in judgment. On an April 22 segment, he referred to Caitlyn Jenner as comparable to Rosa Parks only because "she now has boobs" and, referring to bathroom bills, said, "If you're a bearded dude in a dress, just hold it until you get home."
In the most recent segment he continued his insults, referring to trans women as 6-foot-4 men in panty hose. Comments such as these can be extremely painful to those of us who struggle for acceptance while avoiding the painful stares of people on the street who may be guessing our gender identity. What Maher needs to realize is that trans women don't get to pick our height, our bone structure, or the timbre of our voices. Many of us will always wonder who is thinking of us as "a man in a dress." And when someone we and others respect makes fun of us on a popular television show, we feel that much more vulnerable and afraid. Over 41 percent of transgender people (mostly youth) have attempted suicide. And the majority have seriously considered this as an alternative to living in ridicule. Bill, is it worth a few laughs to push more of us over the edge?
I am a board member for the Trevor Project, whose mission it is to end suicide among LGBT youth though our crisis lines, research, and advocacy. About half of the crisis calls we receive are from transgender youth. Maher might benefit from listening in on a few of our calls -- to know what it's like to have a transgender youth on the other line who has the means at hand to kill themselves. That unless you can talk them down and give them a reason to live, you will be the last person they ever talk to. Should I tell them know that their issues can wait until after the election because Bill Maher says its the right thing to do? That it's OK that they should go into the bathroom that does not match their gender presentation and be ridiculed, molested, or physically abused? I was one of those kids once. Every day was a nightmare. One day after gym class a bully urinated on me in front of 30 other boys.
I have spoken over 300 times in the last four years to various audiences, including high schools, universities, graduate schools, medical schools, and regularly at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Among other topics, I speak of bullying. I was severely bullied, but bullying can take many forms. It can be as simple as hearing your peers saying "that's so gay" when referring to something they don't like. LGBT kids hear this kind of language every day, and it contributes to pushing them over that edge where it's just too hard to go on. Bill, what you did on your show was bullying in one of its worst forms -- in a highly public forum -- and its effects ripple like a million people thrown into ponds all over the world.
Of course, Maher made other ridiculous comments, like comparing putting off transgender rights to his putting off his advocacy for pot legalization. Though he is now hearing it from so many upset trans activists, Maher may not have been fully aware of other challenges faced by trans women, such as workplace discrimination and highly elevated levels of violence.
Though as a whole their education levels are comparable or higher than those of the general population, trans women are much more likely to live in poverty. As an employer myself, owning a group of successful restaurants in Southern California, I hear the stories of talented employees who could not find work or were treated poorly on their jobs.
One girl who worked for a major restaurant chain was forced to use the men's restroom, though she clearly identified as a woman. Subsequently she was sexually molested in the men's room, then told she could use the ladies' room but later fired when it made one customer's husband uncomfortable.
Another employee of mine worked for a major chain for 13 years and was repeatedly denied promotions unless she would go back to presenting as a man. She experienced workplace violence by customers, once stabbed in the side and once punched in the face, breaking her nose. Her boss gave her an Advil as a solution and did not offer medical assistance.
These are just a couple of many such stories. Working for me, both of these girls were put on fast tracks to management in our restaurants and are doing incredibly well. The customer compliments have been pouring in.
This is not the first time we have been severely disappointed by those in a position to offer so much help to our community. Ten years ago, in her fight to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to assure LGBT (or at least LGB) equality, Human Rights Campaign head Elizabeth Birch was quoted as saying that transgender people would be made a legislative priority over her dead body.
Now it's Bill Maher who has sorely disappointed us. Take it back Bill, please. You can do so much good with this opportunity. For these kids, every moment counts. Bring a trans person on your show and let our views be heard. I'd be welcome to oblige if you're willing. There is so much you can learn from us if you'll truly listen with your heart and mind to know what it's like for hundreds of thousands of kids who are fighting to survive. And maybe then your off-color trans jokes will stop and you'll become a true ally.
MICHAELA MENDELSOHN is a transgender activist, public speaker, and businesswoman with over 40 years of entrepreneurial leadership experience as the CEO of Pollo West Corp. She is the founder of the California Transgender Workplace Program and now the first transgender board member for the Trevor Project. Follow Michaela on Twitter: @MichaelaIvri. Watch her YouTube sizzle reel here.