How Jim Norton, of All People, Taught Me Trans Acceptance
“A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet,” Juliet argues in that one Leonardo DiCaprio movie. Now I heard the first draft of that line was actually, “This guy is still a good guy, even if he’s on the side that we don’t like” because that’s what it’s supposed to mean. And that can also be said of comedian Jim Norton.
Norton’s reputation in the culture at large is that of the quintessential “edgy,” “anti-PC” comic, part of the Comedy Cellar Tough Crowd circle. This, of course, opposed to the “alt scene” of UCB or Meltdown comics. Now this distinction is admittedly blurring more and more every day, and the intention of this article is to blur it even further. Because despite everyone’s trendy jokes and think pieces and double-plus good-speak about how brave Caitlyn Jenner is, Jim Norton’s been fighting that fight for 25 years.
I did not learn that it’s extremely rude to ask a trans person about bottom surgery from a Salon article in May 2015. I learned it from Jim Norton telling a story about how a hooker stole his glasses in the Meatpacking District like 10 years ago. Or from one of his other stories about hookers; they run together after a while. The point is, his obsession with transsexuals isn’t just a simple quirk, it’s been front and center in his standup since the beginning.
And sure, a lot of these discussions are in the context of the transaction between sex worker and john. But that’s only the entry point. In his essay …Three, Two, One, Contact: Times Square Red, Samuel R. Delany argues that an extremely valuable thing about the illicit sex trade in these kind of areas of New York is that it brings together people that would normally never interact. And specifically that when the Times Square Alliance tore down the seedy porn/sex theaters and built bright, family-friendly Disney stores in their place, they were eliminating this physical interaction space and thereby also eliminating the ideological space where Americans/New Yorkers could share wildly different ideas and experiences.
Luckily, however, Jim Norton still found a way to continue having lots of sex with transsexuals. And talking about it in his standup, and also on very popular radio shows. Now sure, you might be saying this is mostly framed as glib “t***** hooker” jokes. Okay, assuming that was true, isn’t it a radical act to go on shock jock radio every day and talk about giving and receiving transsexual sex in great graphic detail? I mean, not exactly the same audience you’re dealing with in your Salon think piece.
Jim Norton goes on the radio every day and talks about (okay, heavily implies) how much he likes sucking dicks. One of his recent specials opened with a sketch where he gets tied up and fucked by The Wire’s Michael K. Williams. And I mean, there’s a lot in the news about the politics of outing people lately, but this isn’t that. The whole message of all of this is that gender and sexuality is not binary, it’s fluid. And I didn’t learn that from a drum circle in a safe space at Oberlin. I learned it from a guy who once argued that because Christopher Reeve died in his sleep, he was therefore a “zilch.”
But to begin with, the very idea that Norton is out there saying “T***** hooker this, t****** hooker that” is just a flat out misconception. I feel like a lot of people are catching onto this, but he’s, especially since 2012 or 2013, made a point to really bring trans issues to a wider spotlight and to signal boost, to use the parlance of our times, people like Bailey Jay (before she was interviewed on Inside Amy Schumer, she was the co-host of The Jim Norton Show on VICE) and…well I mean that’s more than most of us have done, isn’t it?
Anyways, the point of this is that the think piece crowd doesn’t have a monopoly on open-mindedness and progressive ideas. Just because someone wears the same Black Sabbath t-shirt every day and dropped out of community college, that doesn’t mean he isn’t changing the world for good. And you really gotta give credit where credit is due, because Jim Norton appreciates a little extra gift as much as anyone.