Queer Guy in the Public Eye, No. 2
One of the biggest flaws with the LGBTQ+ community – in my opinion – is the forgetfulness to include the “T” part of the equation when we are discussing the issues our community faces, as well as those exclusive to the trans community.. Our trans brothers and sisters have always been at the forefront of the fight for gay rights, but too often we forget to fight for what they need when it’s their rights that are on the line. Transgender people have become the victims of politicians writing discriminatory “bathroom bills” and have had to watch as the current administration has attempted to define gender as “unchangeable”, which would effectively erase them from existence and invalidate the struggle with which they have been plighted and the work they have had to do in order to barely be visible in a cisgender world. Through the work of countless activists and a number of trans people reaching celebrity status – not looking at you, Caitlyn Jenner – the rights of trans people are being fought for every single day now more than they ever have, but for every step that our community takes forward, it seems like transgender rights suffer by taking half a step back. Due to the current state of trans rights in this country, I was surprised to learn that a transgender character appeared in a 1977 episode of the critically-acclaimed sitcom, The Jeffersons.
The Jeffersons premiered in January 1975 as a spin-off of All in the Family (which I discussed last week) and ran for over 10 years until July of 1985. The show centers around George Jefferson and his wife, Louise, whose chain of dry-cleaners has recently afforded them the opportunity to move into an upper-class high rise in Manhattan. It was the first television show to feature an upper-class African-American family and was also the first show to feature an interracial couple. I could write about the cultural impact of the show from a number of different social angles, but for the sake of this column we will focus on the third episode of the fourth season entitled “Once a Friend”. This episode — as with the All in the Family episode that I wrote about before — is far from perfect when we look back at it 41 years later; but the episode did bring a transgender character into the homes of millions of Americans.
The episode opens with George arriving back home and asking Louise if the housekeeper, Florence, has left any messages for him. She points to the notepad where Florence writes down the messages and there’s one message from an “Edie Stokes” which includes a hotel room name and number. Naturally, Louise begins to question why a woman would call and leave a message – including an invitation to a hotel room – for her husband, but George insists that he has never met an Edie Stokes. After thinking, he realizes that Florence must have made a mistake and that it was his old Navy buddy Eddie Stokes that had called and left the message. Eddie was George’s bunkmate in the Navy with whom he spent all of his time during the Korean War. George goes on to tell Louise about a trick that Eddie used to play where he would balance a bucket of water on the top of a door that was ajar just a few inches and then the next person to enter to room would end up having the water dumped all over them. This was an example of a “gotcha” that Eddie was famous for in their military days. George can’t believe that after 25 years Eddie is in town; and he decides to go down to the hotel and surprise him.
George arrives to the hotel in a pair of disguise glasses – the ones with the fuzzy eyebrows and mustache – and knocks on the door before hiding behind a plant next to the door. When it opens, he jumps out and screams “gotcha!” in an attempt to prank Eddie. To George’s surprise, there’s a tall, beautiful woman in the doorway instead of his old buddy Eddie. George apologizes, saying that he thought he was knocking on the door of Eddie Stokes and the woman assures him that he’s in the right place. George assumes that Eddie is hiding and pulling a prank, so he searches the room. Before opening the door to the closet, George yells, “Come on, Eddie! Come on out of the closet” to which the woman replies “I’m already out of the closet, George. It’s me, Eddie; only I’m Edie now!” George is obviously caught off guard by this, but then looks closely and realizes that it really is the person he once knew as Eddie and assumes that it’s one of his infamous jokes. “What a costume!” George says before telling Edie to change out of those clothes and that “dumb-looking wig” as he tugs on Edie’s hair – which is very much not a wig. The conversation between the two continues with the following exchange:
“George, what I’m trying to say is [that] I’ve changed.”
“What are you trying to tell me, Eddie, that you’re a fairy? Come on, say it! I can handle it!”
“No, George, I’m not gay.”
“Thank God! I don’t think I could’ve handled it You can tell me anything, no matter how bad it is, so tell me..are you one of those guys that likes to dress up in women’s clothes? Are you one of them …”
“Yeah, one of them.”
“Good, because I can’t stand them weirdos. Well, look, if you ain’t gay and you ain’t a weirdo then what are you?”
“I had the operation. I had a … sex change. George, I’m a woman now.”
George doesn’t take the news well and tries to understand why his friend Eddie would undergo a sex change operation. He continues to refer to Edie by her dead name, Eddie, even after she asks him to please call her Edie. He refuses, because “underneath all that makeup and that dress [she’s] still Eddie.” Edie tries to explain to George that she’s always been this way, producing one of the most relatable lines in the episode: “Everything about me was a woman except the way I looked.” Edie goes on to explain to George that she’s happy for the first time in her life and that most of her old friends have abandoned her and that it took her six days of being in New York to work up the courage to even call George. She tells George how much it means to her to make sure that he understands. He assures her that he understands; but when she grabs his shoulder in excitement and invites him out for a drink, George jumps back and makes up an excuse to leave for a meeting. Edie is left in the doorway obviously heartbroken at how their interaction has played out.
Back at the house, Florence returns from shopping and greets Mrs. Jefferson, who tells Florence that George went to meet the old friend that had called earlier. “Who is she, anyway?” Florence asks, to which Mrs. Jefferson responds that it’s not a “she:, but rather a “he” who called. Florence is sure that it was definitely a woman who called, so Mrs. Jefferson rings the hotel and asks for a Mr. Eddie Stokes. The front desk tells her that there was only a Mrs. Edith Stokes checked into the hotel. This is devastating to Mrs. Jefferson and she asks Florence why her husband would be out with another woman. “I’m sure he has a good excuse” says Florence “Even when he does something wrong, he has a good excuse.”
George returns and is visibly shaken up. Louise asks why George didn’t bring Eddie back with him and he tells her that he’s already left to catch a plane and that she can’t meet him because he’s gone. The conversation carries on with Louise finally telling George that she called the hotel and that the desk clerk told her that the room he went to belonged to a woman. George comes clean and tells Louise that Eddie had a sex change operation and is now Edie. Louise doesn’t believe the story, so George calls the hotel and rings Edie’s room, only to be told that she checked out 5 minutes prior. He decides to go over to the hotel and find Edie, since her flight was not scheduled to leave for three hours more. One of the most frustrating exchanges happens as he leaves the house.
“You just wait right here. I’ll be back, and I’ll be back with him.”
“Him, her, it … whatever!”
At this point, the episode gets extremely problematic. George returns to the high-rise with one of his employees, Leroy, dressed in a wig and dress. Obviously he wasn’t able to find Edie, so he decided that putting a man in a wig would be sufficient enough to get Louise off of his back. This section of the episode’s storyline is obviously transphobic and reduces trans women down to nothing more than men in wigs something that has been done for years to demean an entire population of people who exist within our LGBTQ+ community. This caricature of a “man in a wig” for comedic value continued on well after this one episode of The Jeffersons, carrying all the way into our current day and age, where we have YouTubers who have made a lot of money throwing on some lipstick and a cheap wig in an effort to create comedy sketches. I won’t get into all of my feelings about this, but these kinds of comedy sketches have helped perpetuate the idea that trans women are nothing more than men who want to play dress-up and I am not here for it.
The entire conversation that Louise and George have with this supposed Edie consists of them calling her Eddie and addressing her with male pronouns. Louise quickly realizes that there’s no way this man in a wig is Edie and demands answers right away. George insists that Edie really exists and that his story isn’t fake. As soon as she’s decided she’s had enough and kicks him out, the doorbell rings and Edie stands in the doorway. Another frustrating exchange happens when George introduces Edie:
“This is Eddie.”
Louise compliments George on at least hiring a woman this time around, to which he replies, “This ain’t no woman!” — a cringeworthy moment in the show’s storyline. Nevertheless, Louise is still not convinced until Edie says “I love you and I miss you, my fuzzy wuzzy teddy bear,” which turns out was the way Louise ended every letter to George during the war. This is enough to convince Louise that this woman has to be the Eddie — now Edie — that George was in the war with. Unfortunately, Edie has to run to catch her plane, but George takes a moment to apologize for the way he acted at the hotel and to assure Eddie that they’re still friends. “George,” Edie pleads, “as a friend, I really wish you’d call me Edie.” He agrees and offers Edie a ride to the airport, which she agrees to, but asks to use the restroom first. While in the restroom, Edie screams and asks George to come quickly because there’s a big spider. George opens the door and a bucket of water falls on his head…the classic “gotcha” from their days in the Navy.
It’s worth noting that the role of Edie was played by actress Veronica Redd, a biological female. So while the episode showed a transgender character, they didn’t actually put a transgender person on television. Although she was great in the role, it’s frustrating to see a cisgender female used to portray a trans person to a predominantly cisgender audience That being said, in 2018, I think that we are just beginning to scratch the tip of the iceberg when it comes to actually putting transgender stories out in the public. Television shows like TLC’s I Am Jazz and Facebook’s My Trans Life web series have helped to show that transgender people are just that: people. This kind of content is also helping others to see that trans people struggle with and deal with all of the same things that we cisgender people do, but that they are also bogged down by their own vast and perennial problems to which cisgender people are not accustomed. Although, on the other side of the same token, we are still in a place where transgender youths are the targets of school bullying and where hate crimes against trans people are still far too common. It has been 41 years since this episode of The Jeffersons and it’s hard to be optimistic about just how little progress society seems to have made when it comes to the acceptance and normalization of the trans community. It’s going to be up to us as cisgender people to determine how much progress will be made over the next 41 years.
Other than the obvious reference to Queer Eye, one of the reasons that it was important for me to include the word “queer” in the title of this column is because it’s all-encompassing nature. When we reduce ourselves to LGBTQ+ people — something that actress Lea DeLaria refers to as the “alphabet soup” – we are pointing out what makes us different from each other. The term “queer” keeps a lot of marginalized groups under one umbrella where we can find strength in numbers. With the recent changes to the Supreme Court, there has been discussion that the rights that have been extended to queer people over the last few years could be overturned. While it’s important that we fight to make sure that this doesn’t happen, we also need to keep fighting to promote trans rights. Now, more than ever, it’s important for us to come together as queer people and fight for — and alongside — each other.