Unlike Kevin Hart, I learned from making a bad joke onstage

In 2005, I performed at the True Colors conference at University of Connecticut. The world’s largest annual gathering of LGBTQ youth. During a smaller post-performance workshop, I closed out with an improvised joke: “Before you go, I have free promo T-shirts in small, medium, large and t—-y sizes!” I got laugher from the classroom, but the transgender students weren’t laughing. When I got their feedback papers at the end, they rightfully called me out on my joke and my use of an anti-trans slur. “The presenter made transphobic jokes. He used the word t—-y.”

I felt a knot in my stomach. It was the first time someone called me out on an off the cuff, unplanned joke. I had just blurted out this “silly thought” with no malice intended. Until that point, I hadn’t thought critically about that word as a slur, and like Kevin Hart, I thought “I love EVERYBODY.” I truly never intended to cause harm to anybody in that room with my joke.

Those same students were kind enough to educate me about my joke and the term. One of them explained to me why the t-word is a pejorative word, and my tone made transgender “the other” or less-than. It implied body shaming, as though a transgender person’s body would be different than anyone else’s. Did I want to hurt and shame these students? No. But was the impact hurtful? It was, and I had to take responsibility for the fact that it was and own it to their faces.