Words By Steven Monacelli
Dave Chappelle cemented his name in comedy over a decade and a half ago with his television hit, The Chappelle Show, which made waves for its satirical skits that touched on everything from racism to Rick James. By the end of the third year of the show, Chappelle had been dubbed a “comic genius.” But at the height of the show’s fame, he abruptly stepped away and effectively went into hiatus until 2013, when he began touring full-time as a standup comedian.
After staging his comeback, Chappelle began pumping out new comedy specials and raking in awards, securing multiple Grammy Awards for Best Comedy Album and the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Just like any famous comedian, Chappelle has not been without controversy. Chappelle’s Grammy Award winning Netflix special, Sticks & Stones, drew criticism for his jokes about the LGBTQ community and his lamentations about “cancel culture” — both popular with right-wing boogeymen. This is also the case for Chappelle’s most recent Netflix special, The Closer, which has been embroiled in controversy due to a segment about transgender women that has been labeled transphobic by critics. In response, transgender employees at Netflix have staged walkouts in protest, holding signs that read “Transphobia is not a joke.”
Considering the substantial criticism he’s received, comedians and others have spoken out in Chappelle’s defense. Jon Stewart, formerly of The Daily Show, said Chappelle’s intentions were not harmful. “He’s just not that kind of guy,” Stewart said. But whether the statements were intended to harm does not change how they may be received by those in the transgender community, and ultimately, it is not for non-trans folks to decide how they should feel or what they should think.
So, to better understand these dynamics, I spoke with several members of the local trans community to better understand their viewpoint on the matter.
Alice, a 30-year-old transfeminine machinist who described herself as a longtime fan of standup comedy, spoke in similar terms to Stewart. “I think it’s possible for someone to say things that are harmful while not intending to do that,” Alice told DW. “And I think there’s a lot of that in this special interspersed with some things that are actually funny. He is a talented comedian.”
Sylvia, a 16-year-old transfeminine student, was not so generous in her criticism. “The special was…really bad,” she told DW. “Throughout the special, Chappelle plays the bodies of transfeminine people as a joke. He uses our knuckles, our Adam’s apples, our voices, and, of course, our genitals for shock value.”
Of particular concern to Sylvia was a segment about TERFS — short for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists — which are feminists who exclude transgender women’s rights from their feminist advocacy. “I’m on team TERF,” Chappelle remarked during the special.
Both Alice and Syliva said they were concerned by Chappelle’s insistence that trans rights are a “white people issue” and that he did not address the fact that Black folks not only can be trans, but that Black trans women are the most violently victimized. In the summer of 2020, six Black trans women all under the age of 32 were murdered within nine days. This came amid a steady increase in hate crimes against non-gender-conforming persons over the years.
“It is worth noting, too,” said Eva, a 35-year-old transfeminine economist. “The only person who’s suffered any consequences because of Chappelle’s association with Netflix is a Black transgender person.”
Indeed, after helping organize the walkout at Netflix, Operations Program Manager B, Pagels-Minor, was fired from the company, allegedly for leaking confidential information.
“We’re not asking you to take down the content,” Pagels-Minor said of Netflix in an article for Vulture. “We’re asking you to potentially put a trigger warning on that content, but also to look into investing time and money in creating content that shows the other side of the story.”
Ultimately, none of the folks we spoke with explicitly argued that the content should be removed. But what they all agreed upon was that just like we are all free to say what we want, we are all also free to criticize the things others say.
“It’s not that anyone is saying, ‘oh you can’t say this or that,’” Alice told DW. “But if someone says that they think transwomen are actually men, then the consequence of that statement is there is going to be a reaction. People will call you out for saying something harmful.”
Some might invoke the idea of “cancel culture” at this point in the conversation, Chappelle included. But that would be misguided.
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“Chappelle, for instance, is constantly talking about how he’s ‘been canceled’ when his show is still on Netflix,” Eva said. “He’s still getting interviews, he hasn’t lost a platform anywhere, and he’s doing fine. It’s easy to create your own momentum when you’re worth tens of millions of dollars and can spend it on talking about how beaten down you are with no consequence.”