Barry Humphries’ anti-trans remarks are a sad stain on Dame Edna’s legacy

The late Barry Humphries dressed as his drag alter-ego Dame Edna Everage, with purple hair, horn-rimmed glasses and a pink dress

Tributes have been flooding in for Dame Edna star Barry Humphries since the comedian’s death at the age of 89 last Saturday (22 April), but news of the Australian drag icon’s passing has renewed the conversation around anti-trans comments he made in recent years.

Humphries, who performed as the exuberant Dame Edna Everage for more than 60 years prior to his death a in Sydney hospital, helped bring drag into the mainstream during the second half of the 20th century, his larger-than-life alter-ego known for her bitingly satirical political and social commentary.

Despite his status as a beloved comedy figure known to audiences across the globe for subverting gender expectations on TV and on stage, the last few years have seen Humphries hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons after he made repeated remarks about trans people that left a sour taste in the mouths of many LGBTQ+ people, allies and fans.

What did Barry Humphries say about transgender people and Caitlyn Jenner?

The controversy began in 2016, when Humphries expressed support for Australian feminist author Germaine Greer – a long-time critic of trans people who wrote in her 1999 book The Whole Women that trans women are “men who believe that they are women and have had themselves castrated to prove it”.

Barry Humphries as Dame Edna Everage.
Barry Humphries passed away in hospital in Sydney on Saturday, 22 April, aged 89. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty)

Greer had been at the centre of a controversy in late 2015 after trans rights supporters at Cardiff University opposed plans for an on-site talk by the writer.

In an interview with The Telegraph in January 2016, Humphries described Greer as a friend and stated: “I agree with Germaine! You’re a mutilated man, that’s all. Self-mutilation, what’s all this carry on?”

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In the same interview, Humphries criticised Olympian and Keeping Up with the Kardashians star Caitlyn Jenner, who had publicly come out as transgender on the cover of Vanity Fair the year before.

“Caitlyn Jenner – what a publicity-seeking ratbag”, he said. “It’s all given the stamp – not of respectability, but authenticity or something.

He added: “If you criticise anything you’re racist or sexist or homophobic.”

Dame Edna participates with her fans in a Zumba fitness class at Martin Place on January 15, 2013 in Sydney, Australia (left) and Barry Humphries out of drag.
Barry Humphries described trans women as ‘mutilated men’ in a 2016 interview (Getty).

After the remarks hit the headlines, Dame Edna’s official social media channels posted a series of bizarre messages that appeared to distance the character from Humphries.

“I’m partly Aboriginal. I’m certainly Jewish. I could play Canasta at the age of five. And I disassociate myself from anything Barry Humphries has to say”, a statement read.

“I fired him years ago but he refuses to accept dismissal. The poor thing is losing the plot.

“He deserves our pity not our disapproval.”

Trans actor and star of BBC drama Boy Meets Girl Rebecca Root was among those to publicly criticise Humphries at the time, saying his “retrograde” comments were “resonant of the bad old days”.

Root stated: “If he retracts the statement I’d say he’s said sorry, and move on. But if he does a Germaine Greer, I’d say he’s gone too far and the BBC should reconsider its position on giving him a show.”

Humphries went on to describe supporting trans youth in schools as “pretty evil”

Just two years later, Humphries doubled down on his original anti-trans comments, making further graphic references to those who had undergone very specific forms of gender-affirming care.

“They had their genitalia chopped off and tucked in and whatever they had to do. And that aroused a lot of indignation — probably among the people who’d spent a lot of money having it done”, the star told The Spectator in July 2018.

In the same interview, Humphries branded being transgender “a fashion” and criticised teachers who support trans youth in schools, declaring: “How many different kinds of lavatory can you have? And it’s pretty evil when it’s preached to children by crazy teachers.”

Among those who criticised Humphries at the time was genderqueer Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby, who branded the veteran entertainer “irrelevant” and “inhumane”.

The star of Nanette and Please Like Me tweeted: “Barry Humphries loves those who hold power, hates vulnerable minorities and has completely lost the ability to read the room.

“Thats not a comedian, thats an irrelevant, inhumane d**k biscuit of the highest order.”

The following year, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival announced that it had renamed the event’s top prize, the ‘Barry Award’, which had previously been named in honour of Humphries.

Did Humphries ever apologise for his comments?

When asked about his comments again in 2019, Humphries attempted to play down the controversy, telling The Sunday Times Magazine that “nothing has been more grotesquely interpreted”.

However, he failed to offer further clarification of his views or provide a retraction.

Appearing to appoint blame for the remarks to his alter-ego Dame Edna, he added: “Edna carefully said she thought that men who had themselves castrated did not become women, and that got taken the wrong way.”