What the Dave Chappelle Comedy Special Says About Transphobia

portrait of Sydney Clark
by Sydney Clark
Published on December 15, 2021
Reviewed by Angelique Geehan

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What the Dave Chappelle Comedy Special Says About Transphobia

In recent years, transgender folks have gained increasing visibility in media. More TV series and films than ever represent nuanced trans experiences. Shows like "Pose" and "Euphoria" showcase both the transphobia individuals face and the joy of affirming one's identity.

However, comedian Dave Chappelle's new stand-up special, "The Closer," released on Netflix in October, is dampening the current discourse with bigotry. The public's response to Chappelle's "comedic" material represents just how much more work needs to be done to combat transphobia.

How Society Treats Trans People

For the most part, modern society holds transgender identities in contempt. The gender binary — the construct that dictates the only two genders are "man" and "woman" — is ingrained in many peoples' way of life. It is a defining parameter for how society allocates power, compensates labor, frames injustice, and much more.

Transness, however, complicates these dynamics and puts into question existing norms. Transness — when it is understood to include many genders, including nonbinary ones — disrupts the gender binary, which dictates inherent status, worth, and power, showing that is not innate but can be flexible. As a result, transness is not only viewed as unpalatable, but also treated as a threat.

For those who uphold the current gender binary, crossing the societal boundaries surrounding gender can be an unforgivable act. Disrupting the "natural order," as some say trans folks do, is viewed as a rejection of authority (on many different levels). Transgender people call the status quo into question, making it more challenging to enforce oppressive norms.

To combat this "rebellious" behavior, societal authorities often treat trans people with contempt — as people who are sick, delusional, predatory, or needing to be "converted" or "saved." The resulting stigma enables prejudice, discrimination, and even violence.

Some recent representations of trans folks in the media have insisted upon their humanity and portrayed them with compassion. However, they are still constantly pushed to the back of many social justice agendas.

Chappelle's Anti-LGBTQ+ History

Chappelle's transphobic words and actions are no surprise. He has a history of homophobia and has often made anti-LGBTQ+ remarks in previous stand-up routines. Though his content usually focuses on race, specifically Blackness, his comedic specials have increasingly focused on LGBTQ+ people in recent years.

He's created material making fun of transgender bathroom laws, actively denigrated the concept of intersectionality, used derogatory language, and intentionally misgendered other people.

"The Closer" is a continuation of this behavior, with the last 37 minutes of the special focusing specifically on trans people. In "The Closer," Chappelle uses offensive tropes, language, and situations to invalidate the struggles of LGBTQ+ folks. However, the amount of transphobia present in his writing is overwhelming and disturbing.

Chappelle's transphobic jokes include references to trans people's genitalia, support for rapper DaBaby's recent homophobic commentary, and a pronunciation that he is on "team TERF" (trans-exclusionary radical feminist). Yet, supporters have come to Chappelle's defense, claiming that his jokes are valid and made in "good fun." However, content as harmful as what's present in "The Closer" can never be justified.

Why What Chappelle Says Is Wrong

Though comedy can be used effectively as a medium to confront complex topics, it is not impervious to a fault. Jokes are only as intelligent and impactful as the person writing them.

There is evident support for Chappelle, regardless of his mistakes. He has been deemed a legend for his moments of comedic brilliance and his long career in Hollywood. The comedian has a significant fanbase, and his influence is wide reaching. As Chappelle has a platform, it is absolutely essential that his anti-trans rhetoric be branded for what it is: derogatory, inhumane, and dangerous.

Unfortunately, because of his popularity, Chappelle has become a contributing thought leader on transgender rights. But he does not understand the concept of intersectionality. He routinely excludes Black trans people from his narratives and creates an impossible binary: either you are Black and experience racism or you are trans and not Black, which is illegitimate.

Instead of exploring the intersectionality of queerness and Blackness to gain a deeper understanding of this complex experience, Chappelle does the exact opposite. In his ignorance, Chappelle negates trans identities entirely.

Even in response to direct feedback from the trans community, Chappelle states that he will "not bend to anybody's demands." By trivializing trans identities in his comedy and in his commentary, Chappelle directly contributes to the harm trans people experience.

Why We Shouldn't Allow Transphobic Content Like This to Exist

Enabling transphobic content like "The Closer" is dangerous. By approving the show's content in the first place and by keeping it up after extensive and extremely valid backlash, Netflix brands itself as a company that is willing to promote violence against trans people. A group of employees even organized a walkout to show their solidarity with the trans community.

The dangers of giving these stigmatizing comments a platform is evident across social media. Online discourse supporting Chappelle indicates that his anti-trans rhetoric is penetrative. It sparked counterprotest to the original Netflix employee walkout. The demonstrators carried signs that stated "jokes are funny" and belittled the LGBTQ+ community's valid concerns about the safety of trans people.

The topic of tokenization has also been raised during the fallout of the special. Late comedian Daphne Dorman — Chappelle's collaborator, friend, and colleague — was a trans woman. Fans are using her trans identity as a defense for Chappelle, similarly to how white people can tokenize their friends of color to claim that they aren't racist.

After years of anti-LGBTQ+ content, Chappelle is finally receiving more than just critical backlash. Distributors are pulling his new independent documentary, "Untitled," as a result of the controversy. However, Netflix refuses to remove the title from streaming. Additionally, Chappelle claims that the backlash doesn't have to do with him being transphobic. He claims his battle isn't with the LGBTQ+ community, but rather with censorship.

When society allows faux-comedy like "The Closer" to exist, it only emboldens bigots and their actions.

Conclusion

The abuse of trans people is not new, and society has a long way to go in making transphobia socially unacceptable. At this moment, audiences are looking at Dave Chappelle and the media industry's actions, which will set a precedent for how networks, streaming services, and studios handle similar situations in the future. It is essential to protect the trans community, now and always.

Learn about the experiences and challenges of transgender and nonbinary students, and find resources to help you choose a gender-inclusive campus. Learn about the experiences of LGBTQ+ college students of color, and find tools and resources to help these individuals succeed. Learn about the history and purpose of International Transgender Day of Remembrance.