Dave Chappelle and the warped self-victimhood of transphobes

The many ways people rationalize denying trans people basic respect boils down to ignoring who's really harmed

Published October 9, 2021 3:30PM (EDT)

Dave Chappelle: The Closer (Netflix)
Dave Chappelle: The Closer (Netflix)

By now you've likely heard of the controversy surrounding comedian Dave Chappelle's latest Netflix comedy special, "The Closer," and take it from us: there's no need to give the hateful stand-up set another view. 

Throughout the not-so-comedic comedy special, Chappelle calls the "white" women who ushered in #MeToo "annoying as f**k," and seemingly blames them for Harvey Weinstein's abuses. But the bulk of the special, and the main subject of criticism and protest, is the comedian's focus on punching down at queer and trans people. 

Among other horrific comments, including proudly referencing a time he beat up a lesbian woman he perceived as a man, Chappelle declares, "I'm team TERF," referring to trans-exclusionary radical feminists, who don't recognize trans women as "real" women. He makes a number of degrading and invasive jokes about trans women's genitals, and goes to bat for J.K. Rowling, the rabidly transphobic "Harry Potter" author who's lost a sizable following after repeatedly attacking and claiming to be victimized by trans women.

At another point, Chappelle expresses jealousy about his perception that LGBTQ people have made more progress than Black people, because a white gay man once called the police on him at a bar. He begs LGBTQ people to "free" DaBaby and Kevin Hart, as if these men are being unfairly held hostage for the truly horrific comments both have made about queer people. Last we checked, DaBaby just recorded a track on Kanye West's new album, and Hart has several movies coming out in 2022 alone. They're hardly suffering.

But perhaps the most jarring bit from the special is Chappelle's reference to a trans woman named Daphne Dorman, who staunchly defended his transphobia. The audience gasps when Chappelle reveals Dorman killed herself in 2019, and he shockingly seems to insinuate her suicide is the fault of trans people for not accepting her after she defended Chappelle.

"I don't know what the trans community did for her," he says, "but I don't care, because I feel like she wasn't their tribe. She was mine. She was a comedian in her soul." And now, because Chappelle reveals he's since set up a college fund for Dorman's daughter, he's not transphobic, period.

Chappelle ultimately concludes by claiming he'll quit his jokes about queer people.

"I'm done talking about it," he says. "All I ask of your community, with all humility: Will you please stop punching down on my people?"

It seems that he sees himself and others like him as victims of queer people, whom he codes as exclusively white, while erasing the many queer and trans people of color who exist. The crux of the problem — among many — with Chappelle's special is his overall equation of the women and survivors of #MeToo, and gay and trans people broadly, as white. Therefore, as he regards queer identity and womanhood as mutually exclusive from being a person of color, he sees his degrading, bullying jokes as punching up rather than down. 

It should go without saying that there are consequences to irresponsibly spreading these ideas. LGBTQ folks and especially trans people of color are routinely harassed, assaulted, and killed — last year was the deadliest year on record for trans people. Yet, following Chappelle's logic, he and other unrepentant bigots are the real victims of trans people and activists who merely want their gender identities to be acknowledged and treated with respect.

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Chappelle's line of thinking is unfortunately part of a larger trend of men who don't want to seem overtly bigoted, and thus justify their homophobia, transphobia and misogyny by flippantly sticking "white" in front of whoever they're mocking, when they're actually attacking all queer people and women indiscriminately. The coded whiteness of Chappelle's female, LGBTQ boogeymen co-opts legitimate, progressive concerns about white supremacy, and frames women and queer folks as the real persecutors from whom everyone else needs protection. 

Who's amplifying Chappelle's voice

We already knew about Chappelle's bigotry, thanks to his previous comedy specials. But what's stopped him from merely being bigoted in private and enabled him to publicly bully trans people is the massive, worldwide platform he's received. Netflix is one of the most popular streaming services in the world, as we've seen from the unprecedented global success of the South Korean-produced series "Squid Game."

The streamer encompasses all genres and programming, from reality shows and cheesy Hallmark-style movies to children's programming and gripping dramas. Netflix is also home to a commendable amount of groundbreaking, inclusive stories – such as "Orange Is the New Black," "Sense8" and "Dear White People" – starring and made by LGBTQ actors, writers and creators, whom the streaming service has now thrown under the bus by hosting "The Closer." 

At this time of surging, anti-trans violence and the proliferation of bills in state legislatures that attempt to write trans people and especially trans youth out of existence, Netflix has chosen to platform and promote Chappelle's bigotry, despite outwardly pretending to support LGBTQ people. There's something for everyone on Netflix, which even targets all of these different marginalized identities with its array of social media accounts, such as Strong Black Lead, Most (its queer Twitter) and Con Todo (its Spanglish Twitter). But when Netflix aims at appealing to everyone, they mean everyone, including bigots. 

This forced coexistence of bigots and the queer and trans creators on Netflix can only come at the expense of the latter. Jaclyn Moore, the executive producer of Netflix's smash hit "Dear White People" and a trans woman, has since responded to Netflix's streaming of "The Closer" by stating her intent to sever ties with the streamer. 

"I love so many of the people I've worked with at Netflix. Brilliant people and executives who have been collaborative and fought for important art . . ." Moore, who shared the story of her transition on Netflix's LGBTQ Twitter account. "But I've been thrown against walls because, 'I'm not a 'real' woman.' I've had beer bottles thrown at me. So, @Netflix, I'm done."

The other vocal transphobes

When comedians and otherwise famous, bigoted people set up trans women and advocates as their oppressors, this is the violence they feed. Even when anti-trans bigots doesn't overtly paint trans women as violent, bathroom-terrorizing perverts, at the very least, they insist that basic demands for respect and recognition for trans people are an oppressive inconvenience. 

On Wednesday, novelist and playwright Joyce Carol Oates posted a string of tweets complaining about the use of they/them as singular pronouns, and declaring they'll never "become a part of general usage." Her complaints were supposedly for grammatical reasons, but Oates' subsequent defenses of her tweets were rife with self-victimhood, as if adapting to changing language norms is somehow oppression on par with being attacked and killed for your gender identity. 

Oates' tweets have since sparked a wave of backlash and justifiably outraged responses from trans folks and advocates: "Can cis folks just leave us alone for a day? One day, that's all I ask. Would that be possible?"

At roughly the same time as this controversy, The Guardian UK has also come under fire for an op-ed that appears to blame the police killing of Sarah Everard in London this year on the need for more gender-segregated spaces, where trans women would not be welcome. The suggestion here isn't exactly subtle — following this logic, violence against cis women is a result of trans inclusivity. The offensive article comes after just last month, The Guardian UK was accused of covering for transphobes, as it deleted numerous paragraphs and quotes from an interview with gender theorist Judith Butler. In the deleted quotes, Butler unabashedly condemns TERFs and transphobia against trans women. 

The devotion of Chappelle's comedy special to his and other bigoted people's imagined victimhood by trans people is part and parcel with the other aforementioned controversies around the "threat" of trans women. All are rooted in the pretense that transphobes are a noble people, protecting comedians from perceived cancellation, cis women from violence, and language from inconvenient change to be inclusive. Beneath all of these overt lies and obfuscations, it's not washed-up, entitled and bigoted male comics who need safety and protection, but the trans people they mock.

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

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Commentary Dave Chappelle Lgbtq Netflix The Closer Transphobia Tv