Why I’m not offended by Gervais’ trans-gerbil tweet

A Twitter exchange between British comic Ricky Gervais and his ‘Idiot Abroad’ friend Karl Pilkington has sparked fury in the trans community, but is that the right response?

Why I’m not offended by Gervais’ trans-gerbil tweet
04 January 2013

Ricky Gervais has put his foot in it again.

Gervais, most famous in the UK for writing and starring in BBC series The Office and Extras, recently tweeted a quote from a conversation with his friend Karl Pilkington which has understandably upset some in the trans community.

The tweet, sent out on Wednesday (2 January), reads: ‘RG: Some transexuals think they were a woman trapped in a man’s body. KP: But what next? "Doctor, I Think I’m a gerbil?" "Well you’re not!"’.

The tweet quickly generated outrage among some of his follows. ‘Seriously, eat shit’, ‘Send him to the gulags’ and ‘Fuck you dude. No, seriously, fuck you’ are just a handful of angry messages people have left him.

I can understand why people are upset. I certainly agree that making fun of a vulnerable minority group for no good reason isn’t acceptable, although I may have some bias in that since I am trans myself.

But I’m hoping that people will choose this opportunity to actually try to engage with Gervais, and not to shout him down as a bigot.

Firstly, it is important to understand the context of the tweet, which is something that Ricky’s fans, and fans of Karl in particular, would understand that the rest would be oblivious to; trans people are not the target of ridicule for Gervais here. Karl is.

Pilkington, who is well known for his stupidity and Gervais describes as ’round headed buffoon’, often comes out with nonsensical quotes and comments that may well come across as ignorant and offensive. That I cannot argue with – if you’re going to open your mouth, you need to expect some reaction to it.

But Gervais regularly laughs at the stupidity that comes out of Karl’s mouth. This has been the focus of a radio show, a very successful series of podcasts (which have been adapted for television) and even a critically-acclaimed documentary series in ‘An Idiot Abroad’. And the way I see it (and unless Ricky decides to say otherwise, which I seriously hope he doesn’t) is that he’s once again pointing out the ridiculousness of Karl’s comments.

There’s another reason why I don’t see this as malicious on Gervais’ part. See, what might surprise some people is that in the past Ricky Gervais has actually shown some understanding as to what trans people are. You wouldn’t think it – sending Karl to spend time with ‘ladyboys’ in ‘An Idiot Abroad’, and a derogatory jab at trans man Thomas Beattie in one of his podcasts would make you think he’s like pretty much every entertainer out there.

Almost ten years ago, in one of Ricky’s XFM Radio shows, he entered a conversation with Pilkington (who was his producer at the time, somehow) and the topic eventually touches on transsexual people. At this point, Gervais painstakingly attempts to explain the differences between a transsexual and a transvestite, something which doesn’t get through to Karl.

Bearing in mind that this was a good few years ago, certainly before the time of Trans Media Watch, that Gervais would actually try to educate Karl on the differences in trans people shows an openness that honestly took me by surprise when I first heard it. But it exists.

So with that in mind, I don’t believe there is anything malicious in what Gervais has tweeted. However, people clearly are upset. Whilst Gervais is world famous, not everyone is aware of what Karl Pilkington is like. So I totally support any effort to openly engage with him on this issue.

Just one thing, though. Please let’s not make it another ‘mong-gate’.

For those who have forgotten, just over a year ago Gervais landed himself in hot water over his repeated use of the word ‘mong’. Whilst he was called out for his ableist comments, he famously ignored his critics. This might have had something to do with the kinds of comments people were leaving him – ‘fuck you’ and ‘fucking ableist’ were common themes. It was only when the situation was properly explained to him, by a mother of two sons with Down’s Syndrome, did he realise the error of his ways and apologize.

And that’s how it should be done. The situation should be explained to him properly, and he shouldn’t just be shouted down because we’re offended.

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