A recent dust-up over tweets the British comedian made about transgender people has mainly left us confused.
Last month, Ricky Gervais tweeted about trans people a whole bunch, and by the end of it all, he’d contradicted himself multiple times, frustrating both the UK’s ascendant TERF movement and LGBTQ people everywhere. Can we make heads or tails of it all? We’ll certainly give it a shot.
This whole thing started with the controversy over JK Rowling’s tweet in support of Maya Forstater. We’ve covered this in detail elsewhere, but the basic upshot is that the Harry Potter author took to twitter to defend a British feminist who lost her research-foundation job over the fact that she insisted on making a point, Ben Shapiro-style, of misgendering trans people. Rowling tweeted support for Forstater by using anti-trans phrasing like “sex is real.” It really bummed a lot of LGBTQ Harry Potter fans out.
Ricky Gervais didn’t get involved until a satirical twitter account known as “Jarvis Dupont” tweeted out an article he had written about the JK Rowling incident, with the caption, “J.K. Rowling is a TERF! Speaking as a trans woman, the thought that I will no longer be welcome in a fictional school for wizards has destroyed me.”
Now, before we go on, Jarvis Dupont requires a bit of unpacking as well. This account is an attempt to mock the type of people referred to as “SJWs” in right-wing discourse; Gervais described Dupont in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter as “a spoof Twitter account, and the joke is that he’s so woke that he’s actually gone full circle and does terrible things.” This isn’t exactly it, but it’s close.
The article Dupont was promoting in the tweet Gervais responded to was published by The Spectator, a conservative British magazine, and is the sort of ham-fisted satire that wouldn’t fool anyone (The Onion, this ain’t), but demonstrates through the very on-the-nose-ness of its satire (“I don’t want to live in an intolerant world where men cannot legally force women to change their views on biological reality in the name of intersectional feminism”) that it is written by someone who, underneath all the “jokes,” sincerely holds some really TERF-y views.
Those awful biological women can never understand what it must be like for you becoming a lovely lady so late in life. They take their girly privileges for granted. Winning at female sports and having their own toilets. Well, enough is enough.— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) December 20, 2019
In response to Dupont’s tweet of this article, Gervais decided to get in on the fun by responding with a tweet written in imitation of Dupont’s satirical tone. “Those awful biological women can never understand what it must be like for you becoming a lovely lady so late in life,” Gervais tweeted. “They take their girly privileges for granted. Winning at female sports and having their own toilets. Well, enough is enough.”
The problem he immediately ran into was that the very clumsiness of Dupont’s satirical approach, when Gervais himself attempted it, was read as sincerity. And it didn’t help when Gervais responded to another twitter user saying, “Kindness is magic. Try to remember that,” which seems to have been a very gentle chide against Gervais saying something that would hurt people, with the reply: “Exactly. We need to protect the rights of women. Not erode them because some men have found a new cunning way to dominate and demonise an entire sex.”
And if that first tweet was hard to read as a joke, this one seems all but impossible to read as such. Instead, it seems like Gervais jumping on the same TERF bandwagon that has been running roughshod over dialogue around transgender issues throughout the UK. However — plot twist! Gervais then immediately responded to someone asking, “Can you clarify if you think the trans women are men or that there is another group of people that are men and up to no good?” by saying, “I think trans women are women. I wasn’t talking about trans people.”
Sure. I think trans women are women. I wasn’t talking about trans people 🙏— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) December 21, 2019
Gervais went on to say things like, “No, I’m not telling you I don’t believe people can be trans. Or that trans people shouldn’t be respected etc.” All of which, in addition to getting him a whole lot of grief from actual TERFs (who tweeted things like “Sellout” and “Bigger back flip in history dude! Sad Ricky. Very sad”), left him with a series of confusing and contradictory tweets that were impossible to reconcile without knowing what sort of tone he intended them to have.
Gervais tried to clarify in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. When asked, “How do you respond when people keep bringing up comments that you’ve made and implying that you are transphobic?” He responded, “I just say I’m not. And there’s nothing else you can say, you know? Yeah, I’m not.”
Gervais then fell back on the old “it’s better to let people say terrible things than to abridge free speech in even the slightest way” chestnut — a favorite of conservatives and alt-right types — saying, “I think offense is the collateral damage of free speech, and it’s no reason not to have free speech. That’s what I’d say — it’s the lesser of two evils. Having free speech and some people getting upset by it is the lesser of two evils because not having free speech is horrendous.”
But of course, his clarification also made it difficult to understand his original tweets. That first one was clearly a joke, regardless of how badly constructed or easy to misinterpret it was. The second one, which included the line “We need to protect the rights of women. Not erode them because some men have found a new cunning way to dominate and demonise an entire sex,” is a bit harder to interpret. And later on, when he was clearly trying to explain himself in all seriousness, he said, “I wasn’t talking about trans people.”
So then we must ask: who was Gervais talking about? Was he saying that transgender women are perfectly valid and cool by him, but there was some OTHER menace to the rights of women? And that that menace involved men, actual men, using transgender identities as a means to disenfranchise women? Presumably both cis and trans women, since he claims to regard trans women as women?
This is an awfully fine line to parse, and frankly, it seems like bullshit. A 2018 study from the Williams Institute found no correlation between allowing transgender people to use the bathrooms corresponding with their gender and reports of attacks and other crimes in public bathrooms. Trans people aren’t doing anything in public bathrooms other than what cis people do in public bathrooms, and there’s no evidence to suggest that nefarious cis men are attempting to enter women’s bathrooms at all.
That hasn’t stopped a lot of anti-trans forces, including many UK-based TERFs, from claiming that giving trans people legal rights creates an imminent threat of exactly this. And if there’s any coherent way to understand Gervais’ latest tweets about transgender people, it’s that he believes both sides. He simultaneously believes that trans women are women, that their identities are valid, and that allowing them legal rights will inspire many nefarious men posing as trans women for evil purposes to attack and harm women.
While I suppose that makes Gervais less of an enemy to trans people than JK Rowling, it ultimately doesn’t make much difference if the end result is a position along the lines of, “I respect and believe in you and your identity, but giving you legal rights would just be too dangerous for society as a whole.” At that point, you may as well be a full-on TERF — it amounts to the same thing.
In the end, the best we can probably hope for is that this whole kerfuffle will be enough to keep Gervais from mentioning trans people at all for a while. God knows we don’t need his input.
Top Photo: Gervais holding 2019 Golden Globes, via YouTube