John Cleese accused of transphobia amid backlash over JK Rowling comments

Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness is among those to condemn the Monty Python star’s tweets

Louis Chilton
Monday 23 November 2020 09:49
Republican senator quotes JK Rowling while opposing an LGBT equality act

John Cleese has faced a backlash for recent comments made on social media that many have described as being transphobic.

The 81-year-old Monty Python star had previously faced criticism for signing an open letter in solidarity with Harry Potter author JK Rowling, who has been embroiled in a row of her own over social media posts many have deemed transphobic.

On 22 November, one Twitter user asked Cleese to clarify his position on the Rowling controversy, to which he replied: “I'm afraid I'm not that interested in trans folks. I just hope they're happy and that people treat them kindly.”

“Right now I'm more focussed on threats to democracy in America, the rampant corruption in the UK, the appalling British Press, the revelations about police brutality...”

However, after another user asked Cleese why he “can’t just let people be who they want to be”, the actor replied: “Deep down, I want to be a Cambodian police woman. Is that allowed, or am I being unrealistic?”

Cleese was subsequently criticised for the joke, and accused of having a “superficial” understanding of the subject.

He replied: “Yes, my understanding is superficial. One thing: When a woman who was once a man is competing against women who have always been women, I think she has an advantage, because she inherited a man's body, which is usually bigger and stronger than a woman's. Does that prove phobia?”

The succession of tweets were criticised by many social media users, including Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness.

John Cleese during a Q&A at the Sarajevo Film Festival in 2017

“Dear @JohnCleese you’ve made several transphobic comments here,” wrote Van Ness. “You do seem to not only be interested in trans folks, but also adding to transphobia at a time when trans people are being murdered world wide. Trans & non binary people aren’t being treated kindly.”

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The TV star and podcaster, who identifies as non-binary, added: “Try being a trans, non binary, or gender nonconforming person especially Black & Brown ones, ALONE in a rural town or ANYWHERE in the world. 

“The @jk_rowling & @JohnCleese of the world could never. So cruel to constantly punch down onto a marginalized group of people.”

Many others, including former Nine Inch Nails art director Rob Sheridan, also condemned Cleese’s words.

Sheridan accused the Fawlty Towers star of being “on the JK Rowling transphobia train”.

The controversy surrounding Rowling’s views on trans people dates back years. In 2017, the author’s representatives characterised Rowling’s “like” of a transphobic social media post as “a middle-aged moment”.

In June, Rowling tweeted in response to a post that used the phrase “people who menstruate”. She suggested that the writer should have used the term “women” instead. Rowling’s remarks failed to take into account the many non-binary people and trans men who menstruate, and the many women, including cisgender women, who do not.

Rowling then posted an essay on her personal website defending her position, which was opposed by Harry Potter actors including Daniel Radcliffe. The author was subsequently criticised for “liking” a tweet that pejoratively compared hormone therapy to anti-depressants.

The Independent has contacted Cleese’s representatives for comment.

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