Comedy Central’s Drunk History is an unabashedly ridiculous show. Comedians get trashed and narrate hilarious, if not totally accurate, versions of historical stories; then the series enlists actors to lip-sync their way through the narrator’s giddy slurring.
It’s a whole lot of fun, but this week’s episode was also quietly revolutionary in the simplest of ways: It cast transgender actresses to play transgender roles.
For its "Bar Fights" episode, which aired October 11, Drunk History hired Crissle West — the comedian responsible for the show’s previous and spectacular Harriet Tubman segment — to monologue about the Stonewall Riots and pivotal transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson. Johnson was played by transgender actress Alexandra Grey, whom you might recognize from the season three premiere of Amazon’s Transparent.
West is a very funny comedian, but what makes her Stonewall retelling so great is her obvious passion for the story she’s telling. She’s so spirited and emotional that she can barely contain herself. (And, okay, sometimes she doesn’t; don’t forget, she’s super drunk.)
Grey brings West’s fiery words to life with a light in her eyes, especially when joined onscreen by fellow trans (and Transparent) actress Trace Lysette as trans activist Sylvia Rivera. The combination is incredibly compelling, and it’s easy to understand why.
Historically, transgender characters — whether they’re fictional or based on real-life figures — have rarely been played by transgender actors, with many defaulting to casting cisgender men as transgender women instead of bothering to look any further for trans talent.
Drunk History’s casting of trans actors in trans roles is a positive, active step toward showing others that it isn’t actually that hard if you care enough to look for trans talent in the first place.
But just as importantly, the West-narrated "Bar Fights" also recognizes Johnson and Rivera for their crucial role in the Stonewall Riots and ensuing movements within the LGBTQ community — a sadly rare feat. (See: Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall, which rewrote the story to let a fictional cisgender white gay guy throw the legendary first bottle that sparked the riots, when it was actually Johnson.)
Watching trans actors step into the roles of underappreciated trans activists is downright inspiring, even — or maybe especially — when paired with West’s insistent ramblings, which only get more and more fervent as she reaches the conclusion of this iconic story:
The people at Stonewall that night realized, "There’s a community of us. It’s not just 20 of us on fuckin’ Wednesday night when it’s half off. There’s a whole group of us who are here in this gay shit, and you’re not gonna erase us from the motherfucking conversation no more."
The segment is a forceful (and even funny!) reminder of how hard LGBTQ people have fought for their rights. And as Grey and Lysette smile defiantly into the camera at the end, these two trans women playing two legendary real-life trans figures is a reminder of the progress that’s been made — and how far we still have to go.
Drunk History airs Tuesdays at 10:30 pm on Comedy Central. The first three seasons are currently available to stream on Hulu.