Update: As of writing this, the joke has been patched out of Pillars of Eternity
Transphobia exists in every aspect of our culture, right down to the words we use to describe trans people.
There’s been a bit of commotion as of late surrounding a certain transphobic joke which showed up in the game Pillars of Eternity. The Mary Sue did a write-up on it which explains it far better than I could, so I won’t harp on the actual joke too much. What I do want to talk about is what it represents, and how it ties into the term “trap” and its usage in gaming and anime communities. The basic gist of the joke was that a man slept with a woman, found out she used to be a man, and was so horrified that he ran off a cliff.
People leapt at the opportunity to defend it, of course, and on a basic level I can see their argument. It’s just a joke, yeah? They don’t really mean anything by it, it fits into the time period in which it occurs, and it doesn’t really harm anybody. These all make sense, if you simply take the joke at face value, within a vacuum, out of any greater societal or cultural context.
But unfortunately, this joke did not occur within a vacuum. Nor is it free of context. This idea that it’s shameful or disgusting to sleep with a trans person is incredibly prevalent in modern society, and is responsible for many trans deaths. Numerous trans women have been murdered for not revealing that they were trans before having sex, and many men have tried to use this as a defense. According to them and many others, not revealing that you are trans before having sex is the same as rape, and is worth killing somebody over.
But let’s talk about the term “trap” for a second.
I’m not sure where it originated, but for as long as I can remember, the term “trap” has been used in gaming and anime circles to refer to crossdressers, transgender people, and particularly effeminate men. The idea behind the term is that the audience is led to believe the character is a woman, only to have the rug pulled out from under them when it is revealed that the character is in fact a man. Surprise! Hilarity ensues.
Now this term is another thing that would be harmless on its own, in a vacuum. But again, it does not exist in a vacuum. The term “trap” is largely used to describe any transgender character and/or crossdresser, regardless of whether or not that fact is made clear from the beginning. And it causes people to mentally associate being trans with attempting to trick men into sleeping with them, only to reveal that (gasp) they have a dick!
Of course, this ties into real-world fears about trans people and being “tricked.” Attempting to pass is seen as “tricking people” and having sex with somebody without revealing that you’re trans is compared to rape. To many people, it doesn’t matter what you look like or what parts you have. You are, always and forever, a “trap.”
This joke is not a new idea to gaming culture. It’s been around for a long time and has been immortalized in the term “trap” and its frequent usage. The very language people use to describe trans people is intended to paint us as villains and deceivers, out to trick and sleep with straight, innocent men. We are always seen as on the hunt for sex, as rapists and liars. People always mentally associate trans people with sex, regardless of whether or not we’re interested in it.
And this is why this joke is more than just a joke. It is a pervasive concept. It can be seen in the terms peope use to refer to trans characters, and the way people think about trans people. It is an idea which has gotten many trans people killed, and which has led to even more being harassed and assaulted for daring to try and pass. And it has existed, largely unchallenged, for as long as I can remember.
In short, no, it’s not just a harmless joke. Please stop defending it.