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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

A Crash Course in Transgender Sensitivity

By Phil Plait

On Thursday, the 14th episode of Crash Course Astronomy went live. It’s about our sister planet, Venus, and I spent quite a bit of time talking about just how infernally inhospitable it is.

Just as I have with every other episode, I had a lot of fun writing and recording it. A little background: Once we finish getting the footage of me talking, it’s edited and sent around to the team for comments. I then scour the ‘Net looking for good images we can use, usually from NASA, ESA, and other public organizations (they have excellent high-resolution images that are free to use). Those images (and sometimes video) are placed in the rough cut, and then it goes off to Thought Café, who does our animations.

Eventually it goes live on YouTube, posted around 3 p.m. Mountain time every Thursday. We promote it, and keep an eye on the YouTube comments for anything useful (did we make a factual error, is the audio good, and so on).

For the Venus episode on Thursday I was in Utah giving a talk at Clark Planetarium. When I got back that evening, I checked to make sure the video was up, linked to it for a blog post first thing Friday morning, and then went to bed.

I was out of contact for much of Friday, traveling home. When I landed, though, there was a text from my editor that there was a problem.

If you’ve watched Crash Course Astronomy, you know I like to make jokes, and sometimes I’m the butt of them. The team goes along with it, and it’s usually great. This time, though, we made a mistake without even knowing it.

In one part of the episode, I’m talking about how Venus is really pretty when you look at it from Earth, but up close, it’s an awful place. As I spoke about Venus being pretty, we put up a cute animation of Botticelli’s famous The Birth of Venus. But then, when I say Venus up close is awful (and say, "Yikes!"), we zoom in on the drawing and it turns out Venus has my face on it.

I thought this was pretty funny, a bit of humor poking fun at me. So we OK'd it.

Well, it turns out that wasn’t so OK and funny with a lot of viewers. We got some comments that the joke was transphobic, making fun of transgender people.

That’s why my editor had texted me. I called her, and she told me what had happened. As soon as she told me, I had a forehead-slapping moment. Of course this could be seen as transphobic. In retrospect it was obvious. The good news is that the team felt the same way and had already re-edited the video to remove that part, and had re-uploaded it before I had even called.

Let me be clear: I apologize for myself and on behalf of the team to anyone offended by the joke. None of us would knowingly make a joke at the expense of a group of people, especially one already marginalized and so often mocked in society. That wasn’t at all the intent, and it didn't occur to us it could be seen that way when we put it together. I hope you forgive us, and we’ll try to do better in the future.

Unfortunately, there’s more. In the comments to the (re-uploaded) video, some people are complaining that we are under the thumb of the PC crowd, and the phrase “social justice warrior” is used derisively. Let me address those commenters now:

You’re wrong. First, it’s not up to you to decide what offends or does not offend a group of people you are not a part of. You may feel that this was not an offensive joke, and you are welcome to that opinion; certainly the joke wasn’t intended that way.

But what you don’t get to decide is what offends others, especially in a group you’re not a part of. You may think that offense is undeserved, or that they are overreacting. You have the right to think that, but you cannot dictate it to those others.

Even if there was no harm meant in the joke, people may still take offense at it, and that’s their right. In this case, I can easily see where transgender folks would be put off by it, even angered.

And here’s the important bit: Apologizing and changing it does no harm, and in fact does some good; it helps a group of people see that we can be sensitive to their needs.

There are times when I think people are too sensitive, and times I think others aren’t sensitive enough. I tend to judge these on a case by case basis. But with a group that is historically marginalized and “othered,” well, a little (extra) empathy does a soul good.

And for the other bit, people derisively calling us “social justice warriors”? They may use it as a derogatory term, thinking of SJWs as shrill and overbearing, but to me it’s a term that refers to people willing to go to bat for others who don’t have as big a soapbox. I might prefer the term “ally,” but SJW fits fine, too. This world could use a lot more social justice. I’ll be happy to fight for it when I can.

So to them I say: “Thanks!”

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