Trans activists, comedians grapple with Dave Chapelle's 'complicated' Netflix special

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 10: Dave Chappelle looks on during UFC 264: Poirier v McGregor 3 at T-Mobile Arena on July 10, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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It’s been a tumultuous week for comedian Dave Chappelle, whose release of his latest Netflix special, The Closer, didn't land as smoothly as some may have hoped.

The sixth and final special in the comedian’s multi-million dollar deal with the streaming giant, which was released globally on Oct. 5, was met with a slew of backlash from queer activists and allies who argued that his jokes about the LGBTQ community were incendiary, disrespectful and dangerous, especially for transgender women of color.

What happened?

During the special, Chappelle touched on several hot-button issues including DaBaby’s recent off-base comments about HIV, J.K. Rowling’s controversial anti-trans statements in 2019, cancel culture as a whole and his personal experience with the trans community — including the loss of a dear friend who died by suicide after being bullied online for defending him.

“You know a lot of the LGBTQ community doesn’t know DaBaby’s history, he’s a wild guy,” Chappelle said in the special. “He once shot a n****… and killed him — in Walmart. Oh, this is true, Google it. DaBaby shot and killed a n**** in Walmart in North Carolina. Nothing bad happened to his career. Do you see where I am going with this? In our country, you can shoot and kill a n**** but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings.”

For context, DaBaby fueled HIV misinformation onstage by suggesting it was a “deadly sexually transmitted disease” that will make you “die in two, three weeks,” which is anything but true. In fact, people living with HIV live long, healthy lives and cannot transmit the virus to others so long as their viral load is suppressed. Following his comments, the rapper was bombarded by critics and has since apologized.

“Remember, taking a man’s livelihood is akin to killing him. I’m begging you, please do not abort DaBaby,” Chappelle later quipped in The Closer.

Cancel culture was also a recurring theme throughout the special. When discussing the backlash against Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who has been under scrutiny by trans activists following comments she made about gender identity that were viewed as divisive and triggering for trans women, Chappelle was no-holds barred.

“They started calling her a TERF,” Chappelle said of the acronym for a trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or a feminist who believes that biological sex determines gender, which contradicts the argument trans and nonbinary activists have made to affirm their existence — that gender identity is more complex and nuanced than one’s biological sex.

“I didn’t even know what the f*** [TERF] was, but I know that trans people make up words to win arguments,” Chappelle said onstage. “I’m team TERF. I agree. I agree, man. Gender is a fact... Every human being in this room, every human being on earth had to pass through the legs of a woman to be on earth. That is a fact.”

Chappelle’s comments were unwelcomed by some trans activists and allies, including some at Netflix, who criticized the streaming platform for publishing content they deemed was harmful to their community.

Last week, Terra Field, a queer/trans senior software engineer at Netflix, called out Chappelle on Twitter, arguing that his jokes have real-life ramifications.

“Promoting TERF ideology (which is what we did by giving it a platform yesterday) directly harms trans people, it is not some neutral act,” Field wrote. “This is not an argument with two sides. It is an argument with trans people who want to be alive and people who don't want us to be.”

Netflix's response

Days later, it was reported that Netflix allegedly suspended three employees — including Field — for reportedly “crashing a meeting of its top executives” in protest. The company later denied that the employees were suspended for tweeting about the special but rather for “attending a recent leadership meeting without proper clearance,” according to reports, telling the Los Angeles Times, "Our employees are encouraged to disagree openly and we support their right to do so."

In the wake of the controversy, Netflix's co-CEO Ted Sarandos sent out a memo siding with the comedian in defense of creative freedom, writing, "Chappelle is one of the most popular stand-up comedians today, and we have a long standing deal with him," adding of internal concerns, "As with our other talent, we work hard to support their creative freedom — even though this means there will always be content on Netflix some people believe is harmful."

The employees have since been reinstated, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

'Now the victims have become the bullies'

Jaclyn Moore, showrunner of Netflix’s Dear White People, and a trans woman, called for a boycott of Netflix over the insensitive jokes, telling Variety that while she “never loved Dave’s trans material before,” it was the “first time I felt like, ‘Oh, people are laughing at this joke and they’re agreeing that it’s absurd to call me a woman.’”

Trans activists are making their voices heard, too. Raquel Willis, a Black trans activist, writer and thought leader, says that Chappelle’s views are part of a larger “structural barrier” that keeps Black trans people from being “masters of their own narratives.”

“We see a lot of folks who are not within that demographic being allowed to be the mouthpiece,” Willis tells Yahoo Entertainment. “For all of the discussion around ‘intersectionality’ being a buzzword over the last decade, there seems to still be a fundamental lack of understanding around this concept. There continues to be a lot of ‘oppression Olympics’ when it comes to discussing race and gender, and so many other dimensions of identity and experience. And so you can have someone who in one way is marginalized — like Dave Chappelle as a Black man — be able to use that as a shield to further the marginalization of other people, i.e. the LGBTQ-plus community, and particularly the trans community.

“I think that that is one of the major failures of Chappelle’s work,” she adds. “There's this idea that you can just flatly equate gender and race, and kind of switch them out amongst these other conversations around ‘Who's the most oppressed?’ And it's actually a lot more complicated than that.”

Furthermore, Willis argues, despite the trans community becoming more “visible” in recent years, it doesn’t mean that real progress has been made — socially, culturally and politically — toward justice and equity. “People have this idea that we have won so many fights that we actually haven’t,” she says. “Winning over more visibility does not mean that we actually have as authentic representation out in the world as people think."

Meanwhile, Flame Monroe, a Black trans standup comic who’s been working for nearly two decades, tells Yahoo Entertainment, “I see all facets of the Chappelle controversy. As a comedian, I don't want to be censored. As a trans woman, I want to be treated fairly in this country. And as a Black person, I want the equal rights that we've been promised. But I'm a fair person. I see the whole world and not half of the world.”

Monroe continues, “The safest place for comics to be is on a stage with a microphone and a willing audience. If you start censoring [comics], you're going to miss out on so many things. A comedian’s job is not only to make you critically think, but it's also to talk about things that make you uncomfortable, that are happening in the world — you may not be able to say it because you might lose your job. But my job is to bring information to you. My job is to bring it to the light.”

Other comedians, such as Damon Wayans agree, recently telling TMZ that Chappelle “freed the slaves,” referring to comedians. “We were slaves to PC culture and he just, you know — as an artist he’s Van Gogh. He cut his ear off. He’s trying to tell us it’s OK.”

It's complicated

To that point, Chappelle spoke directly to the LGBTQ community at the end of his set. “I’m not telling another joke about you until we are both sure that we are laughing together,” Chappelle said. “I’m telling you this is done. I’m done talking about it. All I ask from your community, with all humility, will you please stop punching down on my people?”

Monroe argues that even within the LGBTQ community, “context and research” are often missing when comedians make certain jokes, leading to a useless “tug of war” over who’s right and wrong.

“It is hypocrisy. Now the victims have become the bullies,” she says. “The LGBTQIA community keeps asking for inclusion — 'see us, accept us' — but not in our own community. The tug of war is not with us and them. The tug of war is in our own community.

“The rainbow flag is beautiful in the front but look at the back of it,” Monroe points out. “There are cracks, potholes, racism, ageism, classism, sexism, right there in the community. We can't ask to be repaired outside of our community when we won't fix what's going on in our own community, which is why we keep lashing out at everybody else who doesn’t speak like us.

“As a transgender person, he didn't say anything that was a lie,” she adds, explaining that while online critics “went after” his jokes, “no one pointed out his heartbreak” over the loss of his friend, Daphne Dwarman.

Later in the special, Chappelle gave a touching tribute to Dwarman, a young trans comic who he described as “the coolest person I ever met.” Soon after they met, he asked Dwarman to be the opening act for his shows each time he stopped in San Francisco. It was an opportunity of a lifetime for Dwarman, though her first night was anything but a showstopper. “This b**** bombed for 45 minutes straight,” Chappelle quipped in the special.

Regardless, their friendship continued to grow, and eventually Dwarman “blew the roof off the place," he acknowledged. Even when the trans community “dragged” him on Twitter over distasteful jokes from his prior special, Sticks and Stones, Dwarman rose up to defend him by acknowledging their friendship and the huge risk he took in hiring her.

“The hardest thing for a person to do is go against their tribe if they disagree with their tribe, but Daphne did that for me,” he said of Dwarman, who eventually became a target on Twitter for defending the comic.

Days later, Dwarman died by suicide. “My heart was broken,” Chappelle recalled of hearing the news of her death. “I don’t know what was going on in her life but I bet dragging her [on Twitter] didn’t help. I was very angry at [trans activists]. I was very angry at her.”

Chappelle would later start a fund to support Dwarman's daughter, which Dwarman's family confirmed. “Empathy is not gay. Empathy is not Black. Empathy is bisexual. It must go both ways,” he said in the special. “And I don’t know what the trans community did for her but I don’t care, because I feel like she wasn’t their tribe, she was mine. She was a comedian in her soul.”

While Dwarman’s story is indeed heartbreaking, Willis argues that it shouldn’t be considered “evidence that [Chappelle] understands the trans experience enough to be an authority on us to share with the world.”

Monroe, who’s had a ring of successful Netflix specials including Tiffany Haddish’s They Ready and the series Netflix Is a Joke, reiterates that comedy is meant to push boundaries because its purpose is to show that we’re more alike than we are different. “We all go through the same thing," she says. "And that's what Dave Chappelle said in his special."