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What Dave Chappelle gets wrong about trans people and comedy

Dave Chappelle’s trans friend knew how to take a joke. So what?

Neverending Nina speaks as trans employees and allies at Netflix walk out in protest of the Dave Chappelle special on October 20, 2021, in Los Angeles, California.
Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

Toward the end of Dave Chappelle’s incendiary Netflix standup special The Closer, he says something revealing about the fight he’s waged against trans people — a fight that’s drawn Netflix itself into the fray and which led to a walkout and protest against the company on October 20.

After discussing the death of his friend, a trans comedian named Daphne Dorman who Chappelle also mentioned in his previous special Sticks and Stones, Chappelle makes a joke where the punchline is to blatantly misgender her. Then he says, “As hard as it is to hear a joke like that, I’m telling you right now — Daphne would have loved that joke.”

As I’ve attempted to grapple with the aims of Chappelle’s comedy, this line has stuck with me. Chappelle’s use of Dorman as a kind of totem for the type of relationship he’d like to have with the trans community at large is both telling and confusing — not because of what it says about Chappelle and Dorman, but because of what it says about the nature of comedy and the nature of pain.

Trans people have expressed outrage at both Chappelle and Netflix for amplifying overtly transphobic and anti-scientific views about gender and trans identity. In his defense of Chappelle, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos first said that he didn’t believe The Closer could cause any real-world harm, and then, after recanting that statement, said that trans people would simply have to deal with the special being on the platform. What we wind up with, then, is this: Yes, The Closer could cause real-world harm, but trans people will just have to get over it.

So perhaps the real question is, should trans people have to get over it? “Yes” seems to be the answer from The Closer, more or less. There’s no getting around the reality that transphobic rhetoric like Chappelle’s absolutely contributes to real-life harm. But Chappelle seems to view that hurt, and even the immediate pain of his transphobic jokes, as a worthy trade-off.

Chappelle wants to make classes of oppression into a zero-sum game. Individual identity doesn’t work that way.

Throughout The Closer, Chappelle argues — often savvily, if with glaring hypocrisy — that many queer and trans people enjoy white privilege, and that their white privilege makes them essentially more cosseted and protected than Chappelle and other Black men in America. “Gay people are minorities until they need to be white again,” he notes at one point. Chappelle gets close to lobbing a critique of social justice movements that mainly focus on aiding white people, but his analysis lacks nuance: He frames whiteness as the protective cover most gay and transgender people default to, ignoring Black trans people in the course of the show.

Chappelle repeatedly attempts to redirect the conversation back to concerns of Black oppression and violence against Black communities. These are serious problems — but in contrast, he treats the equality movement among sexual and gender minorities as essentially shrill window-dressing. Chappelle rarely acknowledges that these communities contain people of color; instead, he frames the concerns of queer and genderqueer people — especially the linguistic arguments about pronouns, anatomy, and bodily functions that often arise from conversations about trans and nonbinary identity — as solely a product of white progressive hysteria gone mad.

In fact, in the moment where he comes closest to accepting trans identity, again using his friend Daphne as his lodestar, it’s the semantic argument that makes the crucial difference for Chappelle. Praising Dorman for her skills as a comedian and her good-natured attitude, he recalls Dorman telling him, “I don’t need you to understand me. I just need you to believe that I’m having a human experience.” Then he points out that he accepted her explicitly “because she didn’t say anything about pronouns” or make him feel like he was about to be “in trouble” for saying something wrong.

On one level, Chappelle’s anxiety here is deeply relatable. It’s the anxiety felt by many people who are frustrated by cancel culture and what they perceive as its policing of language and free speech. No one likes to be yelled at or told they’re problematic, especially if they say the “wrong” thing when they’re trying to get clarity on complex situations. Much of the conversation around “canceling” and the reactionary politics it engenders — reactionary politics that include all of Chappelle’s recent comedy material — seems to demand a degree of patience with people who are still working out the basic issues surrounding complicated identity vectors. Often, thinking about these things is hard.

But Chappelle makes it clear that he needs Dorman to exist on his terms, not hers — not as a trans woman with autonomy, but as a trans woman who’s proven she deserves autonomy by way of having a chill, laid-back sense of humor. Furthermore, in repeatedly reducing Dorman’s existence to her body parts and her relationship to them and the language surrounding them, Chappelle dehumanizes her and dehumanizes other trans people.

Dorman’s fate — she died by suicide shortly after the release of Sticks and Stones in 2019 — directly undermines Chappelle’s logic. Because Dorman was trans, she was at an extremely high risk of dying by suicide or transphobic violence. Any way you look at it, trans people are among the most vulnerable populations in society:

  • Out of all hate crimes that result in homicide that target LGBTQ and HIV-affected people, 72 percent of the victims are trans women, according to 2013 data.
  • 50 percent of trans people will experience sexual assault or abuse in their lifetimes; this number is even higher for Black trans people.
  • 54 percent of trans people experience intimate partner violence.
  • Trans people of color are six times more likely to experience police brutality than white cisgender people.
  • 10 percent of trans people experience violence from a family member after coming out as trans. Eight percent of trans people are kicked out of their homes after coming out.
  • 30 percent of trans people experience homelessness at least once in their lives.
  • In 2015, 30 percent of trans people reported experiencing workplace harassment, including sexual assault, physical harassment, or being fired for their gender expression.
  • More than 50 percent of trans teens seriously considered suicide in the last year; more than 66 percent of trans teens experienced major symptoms of depression within the two weeks prior to the survey.

This is what Chappelle’s critics mean when they discuss the real-world impact of Chappelle’s transphobia. His comedy, which involves continually insisting, against science, that gender is always tied to biology, isn’t just reactionary semantics. It’s dangerous rhetoric that’s been shown in study after study can directly impact the levels of anti-trans violence and societal prejudice that trans people already face daily.

It’s important not to omit this reality from the equation — which is what Chappelle does when he treats Dorman as though she’s a comedian first and a trans woman second.

Chappelle seems to think all trans people should have the attitude of comedians like Dorman

Chappelle views comedians as their own “tribe.” In The Closer, he even claims Dorman for his own “tribe” and not for the trans community: “She wasn’t their tribe, she was mine,” he says. “She was a comedian in her soul.”

Chappelle’s not just talking about comedy as a medium here, he’s talking about comedy as a worldview. Comedy is a subculture, after all, with its own very particular set of rules and mores. Perhaps the chief rule is the one comedians tend to embrace the hardest: Always, always be able to take a joke.

In the past, this principle has led to the privileging, within the comedy community, of the comedian’s right to make rude, disturbing, or even heinously offensive jokes. The logic goes that if the comedian can take a joke, the audience should be less sensitive, too. (See, for instance, the notorious moment in 2012 when a comedian heckled a woman in the audience who reacted to a sketch about rape jokes by making a rape joke about her.) Much of the recent cultural conversation over comedy and free speech has centered on the idea that comedians should be able to discomfit their audiences, whether in the service of making them laugh or making them think, without backlash — and that if you can’t handle a joke that makes you uncomfortable, that’s your problem, not the joke-maker’s.

Dorman herself was adept at taking an offensive joke. As Chappelle recalls, when an audience member interrupted one of Dorman’s shows with a transphobic question, she shot back by making an even better joke about her own anatomy. This, Chappelle wants us all to know, should be the response when we’re confronted with transphobia: not anger, hurt, or pain; not a walkout in protest of Netflix, but good-humored deflection.

This rule applies, at best, within the realm of comedy, between a comedian and their audience, not to the lived experiences of people in their everyday lives. Chappelle seems to need all trans people to accept the mores of his own very specific professional subculture, and he makes this request sound reasonable — he’s just a guy wanting to be allowed to make transphobic jokes without getting canceled for it, geez — but in practice, it’s baffling. Most people aren’t comedians, and most people are sensitive to jokes designed specifically to hurt them. Chappelle’s idea that trans people should have to prove, like Dorman, that they can take a joke without getting offended before they’re worthy of respect is a bit like a journalist demanding trans people prove they can use AP style before allowing them to command a conversation about their own gender identity.

What’s more, if “always be able to take a joke” is sacrosanct, there’s another rule that comedy holds just as dear: the one about never “punching down.” In comedy, punching down refers to humor that targets vulnerable groups of people who don’t hold much power in society. It exists in opposition to the kind of “punch up” that aims to critique people and institutions with power. Onstage, punching down is generally considered a huge “No” — the kind of thing that can immediately alienate an audience if you’re not doing it to make a deeper point. (Chappelle talks about this concept in The Closer, asking the larger LGBTQIA community not to “punch down” on his people, using Kevin Hart and DaBaby as examples.)

Chappelle’s deeper point seems to return again and again to the idea that trans people are too sensitive and that this sensitivity is somehow bolstered by white fragility. He seems to feel that his prioritization of the pain of Black communities over those of trans communities — as if, again, they are entirely separate — justifies an evening devoted to homophobic and transphobic jokes. Because Chappelle seems to believe that all queer and trans people have white privilege, he views himself as punching neither up nor down and even quotes Dorman as suggesting as much.

But Chappelle, of all people, should know better. He’s hyper-aware, as a comedian who frequently uses humor to make points about racial and social justice, that comedy impacts the real world. In fact, in 2005, Chappelle completely killed his own hit comedy show, the legendary Chappelle’s Show, because of one joke that made him realize, according to an interview he gave to Time, that rather than critiquing racist comedy, he might instead be reinforcing racist stereotypes for white audiences who were enjoying the joke unironically.

At the very least, then, Chappelle should know that there’s a possibility his jokes about trans people could be taken the wrong way and used to hurt trans people. There’s even an echo of the 2005 moment in the new special, when Chappelle has to stop and gently reprimand an audience member who starts to applaud a transphobic law. As Vulture’s Craig Jenkins put it, “You talk enough shit, and you’ll draw flies.”

Rather than acknowledging this possibility and its potential for harm, Chappelle not only justifies his comedy using white privilege, but seems to go a step further: He suggests that being hurt is good for trans and nonbinary people. When he says, “As hard as it is to hear a joke like that,” and then follows it up with any kind of defense, he’s telling audiences that he knows the joke is painful, hurtful, and transphobic — but that it’s somehow productive for trans people to be confronted by it. That it’s a learning experience to be confronted with transphobia onstage, as though trans people aren’t confronted with gender policing in every other moment of their lives.

Only then, in Chappelle’s telling, can Chappelle and trans people “[start] getting to the bottom of shit.” Once trans people have shown him that they’re capable of being good-humored about other people’s continual objectification and degrading dismissal of transgender identity issues, they can — on the terms of the person using transphobia to interact with them — be heard and accepted and loved.

This isn’t equality. Chappelle, who’s spent his entire comedy career using humor to make sharp, trenchant commentary on racism and injustice, should know that. Trans people should never have to just live with or get over or get used to rhetoric that dehumanizes them. The man who speaks viscerally about the fear Black Americans experience daily should know that asking trans people to accept and embrace transphobic ideology isn’t tolerance. It certainly isn’t the love and good humor he wants to be credited with.

And despite the audience laughing with Chappelle, it’s not funny at all.

Correction, October 25, 12:15 pm: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that trans women comprise 72 percent of all hate crime homicides. It has been corrected to state that trans women comprise 72 percent of hate crime homicides targeting LGBTQ and HIV-affected persons.

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