If you thought Sia feuding with neurodivergent Twitter users was the only ridiculous celebrity behavior to happen on that site this week, you don’t know Twitter. 81-year-old man John Cleese, who built an entire comedy career off of drag, spent the better part of Sunday, November 22 making transphobic jokes and railing against “woke” culture on Twitter in a series of quote tweets. Cleese’s tirade began when Twitter user Greg Joughin screenshotted one of Cleese’s tweets from September 30 in which the British comedian wrote, “I have added my name to the signatories of the letter in solidarity with J.K. Rowling.” This referred to the Harper’s letter in defense of Rowling’s right to use her platform to further transphobic speech, which featured many known anti-trans co-signatories.
Cleese quote-tweeted Joughin, asking, “What would you like me to tell, Mr Joughin?” Twitter user Michael Acquino replied, “Why the fuck can’t you just let people be who they want to be? Do you actually think there is some deep conspiracy to turn people ‘against their genders’? Or do you like her as a person and therefore there isn’t anything she can do wrong? Latter probably …” Cleese quote tweeted this response, writing, “Deep down, I want to be a Cambodian police woman. Is that allowed, or am I being unrealistic ?”
This attempt at a joke is transphobic for a number of reasons. It is premised on an assumed invalidity of people’s right to be respected by their gender. It draws a false equivalency between gender expression and knowingly obtuse fantasy. It frames gender-affirming language as “unreasonable.” It comes across as mean; a joke from a man with acclaim, fame, wealth, and a platform targeted at a persecuted group that faces intolerance and violence. Cleese spent the rest of the day quote-tweeting critics in his replies while doubling down on his stance against “wokery, humorless posturing and moral self-promotion,” which is to say his “right” to make bad “jokes” that contribute to a dominant culture of transphobia. If we were 81 we probably would have spent our Sunday just doing a crossword or FaceTiming our family instead of tainting our reputation. But that’s just us.