Queer activists say Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special creates ‘real-world harm’ to trans people

CHARLESTON, SC - JANUARY 30: Comedian Dave Chappelle talks with the media while campaigning for Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang on January 30, 2020 in North Charleston, South Carolina. The comedian has endorsed the candidate and performs the second of two South Carolina campaign benefit shows Thursday evening in Charleston.  (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)
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The backlash over Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix special, The Closer, has not let up, continuing to spark dialogue about comedy and corporate responsibility — particularly following the latest defense from Netflix's co-CEO Ted Sarandos, who said in a company memo, "While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.”

During the special, which premiered in early October, Chappelle made several jokes about the LGBTQ community that many thought were incendiary and dangerous to transgender people. He also proclaimed himself to be a “TERF” (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist), a stance that discredits the existence of trans and nonbinary people, and declared that “gender is a fact" — a belief that contradicts the argument that gender identity is more complex and nuanced than one’s biological sex.

Soon after it premiered, queer activists and allies criticized leadership at the streaming platform for publishing content they allegedly knew, before it even premiered, could pose harm to the trans community. Among the vocal critics were several Netflix employees, including Terra Field, a queer and trans senior software engineer at Netflix, who called out Chappelle on Twitter, arguing that his jokes have real-life consequences.

Netflix allegedly suspended three employees — including Field — for reportedly “crashing a meeting of its top executives” out of protest. The employees have since been reinstated. and Netflix later confirmed that an internal investigation found “no ill intent” on Field's part.

During this time, Netflix's co-CEO Ted Sarandos sent out a memo to the company, siding with the comedian in defense of creative freedom while acknowledging that Netflix has "a long standing deal" with Chappelle. As for the company’s internal talent, the memo continued, “We work hard to support their creative freedom — even though this means there will always be content on Netflix some people believe is harmful."

Sarandos later doubled down on the idea that Chappelle’s special could not cause violence to the trans community. “Last year, we heard similar concerns about 365 Days and violence against women,” he wrote in a followup memo. “While some employees disagree, we have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm.”

Those comments didn’t land well with trans employees and allies at Netflix, who have since planned to stage a walkout on Wednesday, Oct. 20, to protest his remarks — and the very notion that such content doesn't have real-life ramifications. (In response to the planned walkout, according to the Verge, Netflix has allegedly fired the organizer.)

"Context matters"

“The reason why these [jokes] are so harmful is because this entire conversation is taking place at a time in which we have had record murders of trans women, for several years in a row now,” Imara Jones, a Black trans activist and journalist, tells Yahoo Life.

This year alone, transphobic hate crimes rose nearly 20 percent from 2020.

“There are now 127 anti-trans bills pending in nearly 40 states in the country,” Jones continues. “So at a time of physical violence, and policy and political violence against trans people in the extreme, he decides to do a show that is filled with anti-trans hate speech and is willing to make money and laughs off of trans people. And that has an impact. Context matters. He reinforces this idea that trans people aren't real, that we are not human, that we're not normal, and therefore are not deserving of the same respect and dignity as all other human beings. That opens the way to violence for us.”

Conversations about trans and nonbinary issues have been steadily on the rise. That may due to the fact that more people are identifying as LGBTQ than ever before — up 4.5 percent since 2017, according to the latest Gallup poll.

Still, despite the growing visibility, society has been slow to understand the realities of the trans experience more fully. Forty-two percent (about four in 10) Americans say they know someone who is transgender, yet nearly half of Americans say they’re “too uncomfortable” using gender-neutral pronouns like "they/them" — even though 26 percent of adults say they know someone who prefers such pronouns.

Though trans/nonbinary visibility is on a steady incline, activists say that Chappelle's rhetoric promotes falsehoods that jeopardizes this progress. Even more dangerous, argues Charlotte Clymer, a trans activist, writer and former press secretary at the Human Rights Campaign, is that his comments about gender directly contradict science.

“It's completely at odds with the medical establishment,” Clymer tells Yahoo Life. “Every major medical authority has made it completely clear that trans and nonbinary people are scientifically valid and should be affirmed. The American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the World Health Organization, and on and on.”

That kind of misinformation, Clymer says, creates divisions about the trans experience, opening up opportunities for the public to believe that transgender people aren't real — or worse, "unworthy" of basic human dignity.

“Chappelle is widely respected for his social commentary,” Clymer notes. “When he says something, people take it very seriously because they feel like it's someone who has thought about these issues quite a bit and they can trust him to tell the truth. Because his brand, more or less, is ‘telling the truth’ in a funny way — more than any other living comic, hands down — so when he says something, people tend to take it as, ‘Oh, he's done his research. He's investigated these subjects. He must be telling us in good faith what's going on.’ But in fact, it is the complete opposite.”

That’s not to say that comedy shouldn’t push the limits, Clymer points out. But there is a line.

“I'm a fan of comedy. Stand-up comedy is an art,” she says. “What I think is fascinating is that there are so many comedians who have a tendency to say ‘We're just telling the truth,’ and yet they refuse to engage in a dialogue about the clearly untrue things they say. That doesn't make sense to me. That is intellectually dishonest.”

A powerful platform

The status Chappelle holds in the Black community shouldn’t be underestimated, adds Brenden Watts, executive director of the Trans People of Color Coalition, who believes Chappelle's comments have a trickle-down effect into Black households.

“He has a platform and he's able to reach the masses,” Watts tells Yahoo Life. “Black trans people are already fighting in our own community to be accepted and then when someone that people in the Black community respect says these things without context, that falls back on Black trans youth.”

Furthermore, Watts adds, Black trans youth often “don't have the opportunity to be open and to transition early,” especially if they live in “abusive households, and have to wait until they're an adult.”

“Black families are caught up in a lot of traditional religious traits in our culture," he says. "We have a lot of work to do to educate people on what is gender identity versus what is sex. And what is sexuality and sexual orientation. His platform pushes us back, and the work that we're trying to do. It really reflects on how people are [being treated] in their communities and where we're seeing the social effects."

Melanie Willingham-Jaggers, interim executive director of GLSEN, a teacher-led organization aiming to create safer spaces for LGBTQ youth in schools, also emphasizes the risk of harm posed by Chappelle's words. "When public figures degrade and harass transgender people, it sends a message that transgender youth are not valid and not welcome, which can be devastating for young people without access to strong support networks," she tells Yahoo Life.

"These kind of remarks can embolden extremists to follow politicians' example and harass the transgender youth in their own communities," she adds. "Transgender youth are far more likely than peers to consider suicide, and experience other mental health crises, which are worsened by this kind of stigma and harassment."

"Netflix should be very worried"

Jones believes that content spewing misinformation about transgender people plays a factor in "creating self harm" and that Netflix must hold itself accountable.

"We know what Ted Sarandos said isn't true because Netflix has internal standards that it says it enforces around content," says Jones. "So if content isn't harmful, or can never be harmful, why are there standards in the first place? If you believe there's no content that actually does harm in the public sphere, then you would never have standards there to be met for content to be released that doesn't do harm. So that's a a contradictory statement."

Comedian Hannah Gadsby agrees with Sarandos's supposed hypocrisy, having posted a no-holds-barred message on Friday directed at Sarandos: "F*** you and your amoral algorithm cult," she wrote. "I do s**ts with more back bone than you. That’s just a joke! I definitely didn’t cross a line because you just told the world there isn’t one."

"I would hope it sends a message that we're not pawns in their game," Watts, a Black trans man, adds of the whole controversy. "I think it's about gaining back our power [as queer people] and using that against these corporations to say, 'Hey, that's not going to be tolerated.' Until [change is made], we won't support you. These subscriptions and things like that, financially, that's the only power we do have in the community right now against large corporations. So walking out and making physical statements is where it hurts."

"I think Netflix should be very worried about how their brand is being perceived right now," Clymer adds. "What I hope happens overall is that the voices of Black trans people are centered [in the discussion]."

Willingham-Jaggers hopes that the kind of vigor we're seeing over Chappelle's controversy will transfer to the political level. "For people at home who want to help transgender youth in this moment, there's a lot of ways to show your support," she says, which include "urging your Senator to pass the Equality Act to ensure comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for transgender and LGBTQ people, writing to your local school superintendent to advocate for nondiscrimination protections and inclusive curriculum, or reaching out to young people in your life to check on their well-being."

She adds, "Transgender youth are resilient, though, and the young people I work with every day are fighting to build a more inclusive world where all people, regardless of gender identity, can thrive."

Jones believes there must be "fundamental change" at Netflix. "That's not to say that Netflix hasn't come out with some really powerful content. But I think that everyone should be chilled by what we're seeing. I think [Oct. 20's walkout] is going to develop into something larger... We can see even places like Facebook are facing some very real-world challenges and threats that aren't good for business, aren't good for employees, aren't good for society. So I think that this is going to lead to change. I really do."

Video courtesy NBCUniversal/NBC News