When I was a lad, I often heard jokes about blacks, Latinos and gays, who were regarded as amusing because of their supposed inferiority and defectiveness. Today most people would be embarrassed and offended by such humor. But, at least in some places, there is one group that is still a safe source of yuks: transgender people.
Recently, Time magazine reports, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told a gathering in Dallas, "It is great to be in the largest Republican convention on the planet, and not one man wants to use the ladies' room." He advised, "When you go to the restroom, the M does not stand for 'make up your mind,' and the W does not stand for 'whatever.'"
His stand-up routine is nearly as sharp as that of Ted Cruz, who in the closing days of his campaign often quipped, "Even if Donald Trump dresses up as Hillary Clinton, he shouldn't be using the girls' restroom." His audiences would laugh till their ribs ached.
This jocularity relies on the belief that anyone who is transgender is bizarre, dangerous and mentally ill. The comedy expresses contempt. These conservatives firmly believe that anyone born with male genitalia is a male and anyone born with female genitalia is a female. End of story.
If only humans were so simple. Right-wing culture warriors have long tried to depict gays and lesbians in similar terms. If you have a penis, you should not be attracted to men. If you do, you're a deviate — akin to someone who engages in bestiality.
But reality indicates that heterosexuality is not quite universal. Neither is gender dysphoria — the intractable sense that you are fundamentally different from what your body denotes.
The Justice Department offered a more rational understanding in the lawsuit it filed against North Carolina for a law requiring people to use public restrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate.
The state's mandate makes sense if you assume that gender is a straightforward matter of plumbing equipment. For most people, it may be. But for a small segment of the population, it isn't.
"An individual's 'sex' consists of multiple factors, which may not always be in alignment," the Justice Department explained. "Among those factors are hormones, external genitalia, internal reproductive organs, chromosomes, and gender identity, which is an individual's internal sense of being male or female."
It may seem absurd that someone could be born with a penis yet feel female. But University of Chicago law professor David Weisbach offers an illustration that helps to make sense of it.
Suppose a heterosexual male were captured by a James Bond villain and subjected to surgery to replace his penis with a vagina. Would he then be a woman even though his mind tells him he's a man? Would he embrace being female? Wouldn't he want the change reversed to make his body match his gender identity?
That, says Weisbach, is how transgender people feel. When someone who lives, identifies and presents as a woman is required to use the men's restroom, it humiliates her. And it does no good; it's not as though men will be comfortable having someone who appears to be female in the next stall.
But to understand what it's like to be transgender, you have to want to understand. People like Patrick and Cruz don't. They would rather depict this group as perverted and predatory — and therefore undeserving of any accommodation from normal folks.
It's an old tactic used against despised minorities. Southern whites once recoiled at the idea of sharing water fountains with African-Americans. Straight men blanched at having to shower alongside gays. Nazis perceived Jews as parasitic vermin.
"For a long time, our society, like many others, has confronted same-sex orientations and acts with a politics of disgust, as many people react to the uncomfortable presence of gays and lesbians with a deep aversion akin to that inspired by bodily wastes, slimy insects and spoiled food," writes Martha Nussbaum (also a University of Chicago law professor) in her book "From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law."
Their habits, she says, are said to "contaminate and defile society, producing decay and degeneration," and that perception is used to justify their mistreatment. The same language is now aimed at transgender people.
They, like those other minorities, merely want to be treated with ordinary respect rather than baseless hostility. Isn't that hilarious?
Steve Chapman blogs at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: Intel Free Press