One of the highlights of the Roseanne revival has been a storyline involving Mark, the gender-nonconforming grandchild of Roseanne Conner. On the ABC series, the matriarch is an advocate for Mark and even visits the 9-year-old's school to warn his classmates against bullying him.
In the real world, however, Roseanne Barr has a history of bullying behavior when it comes to transgender people. Notably, in 2012, the actress went on a Twitter tirade about Colleen Francis. The transgender woman made headlines after using a women's locker room at Evergreen State College in Washington State, an act that sparked a call of complaint to campus police.
Barr, who was an unlikely presidential candidate at the time, used the occasion to challenge Green Party candidate Jill Stein on her support for trans rights. Barr had no empathy for the harassed woman — and took it upon herself to be the gender police. "If she has a penis, she’s not allowed in," Barr wrote of Francis, adding, "I’m sorry, but a dick means you’re a man to me. Maybe I’m old and out of it, but I can’t go there, sorry."
"Women do not want your penises forced in their faces or in our private bathrooms. Respect that FACT," she declared.
This is not the only time Barr has made anti-trans remarks. Over the years, there have been several reported hateful tweets and retweets, including a meme supporting the myth of the transgender bathroom predator.
As noted by Into, the comedian also dedicated a passage of her 2011 book, Roseannearchy: Dispatches From the Nut Farm, to describing divisions within the LGBT community — or as she termed it, the "Transgendered versus the Butch dyke wars." Barr stated, "You haven’t lived until you have seen a huge guy with boobs talking about female hormones and deciding to keep his penis, and how that was a feminist issue."
Barr's associates are also worrisome. The comedian has a large following of trans-exclusionary radical feminists, or TERFs — a term describing those who do not believe in transgender identity or the legal/societal recognition of transgender people. Barr, who called TERF a "slur" in response to a critical tweet from Black Lives Matter in 2014, has defended this group on social media and even invited some on her radio show, giving them a platform to their views.
In an essay for Slate, Brynn Tannehill detailed this history as a means of raising the alarm. The trans writer noted how the character of Mark — combined with the cover of lesbian costar and producer Sara Gilbert and writer Wanda Sykes — has inoculated Barr from criticism among many LGBT people. Some, including GLAAD, have cited this progressive plotline as a reason to tune in, pointing as well to Barr's history of supporting gay representation. Roseanne was, after all, one of the first network television shows to air a kiss between two women, with Barr leading the charge against nervous executives.
But does this allyship extend to transgender people? Tannehill warned that even a seemingly LGBT-supportive story may have a hidden agenda. "In the context of Barr’s trans-exclusionary ideology, it’s clear that Mark is meant to further a specific narrative about the 'correct' kind of gender nonconformity," Tannehill wrote of the character.
"On any other show, this would be a celebration of gender diversity. But in reality, Mark’s gender nonconformity on a show starring the openly transphobic Roseanne Barr plays into a dogma that uses slightly expanded tolerance for (cis)gender expression as cover for rejecting the legitimacy of gender identity altogether," Tannehill concluded.
Gilbert, it should be noted, made clear that Mark was not transgender in an eyebrow-raising remark that seemed to divorce the character from LGBT identity or even a "born this way" worldview. "He’s too young to be gay and he doesn’t identify as transgender, but he just likes wearing that kind of clothing and that’s where he is at this point in his life," Gilbert told Entertainment Weekly, when asked if Mark saw himself as a girl.
Tannehill's article has drawn the ire of right-wing blogs, which have declared Roseanne to be "the trans lobby’s latest target." But Barr's problematic history warrants a closer scrutiny from queer people, who should demand more and better of a supposed ally. Moreover, her ongoing support and defense of Donald Trump, who has worked to undermine the rights of transgender people and the broader LGBT community, should also spark a needed skepticism as to her beliefs and aims as an entertainer.