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Standing up for the Black trans people erased by Dave Chappelle and Netflix

Trans activist Blossom-Chrishelle Brown explains how, by weaponising the experience of a white trans person and using harmful anti-trans language, the comedian is dangerously punching down

The Closer, the Netflix special starring comedian Dave Chappelle, is a stark reminder of the weaponisation of transphobia and capitalism that trans, gender non-confirming, and non-binary people face – in comedy, culture, and beyond.

Across his set, Chappelle used crude satire to joke about trans people and their genitalia, and gave his fanbase his version of the “bathroom chronicles” – the section of discourse that is obsessed with toilets. Defending JK Rowling’s transphobic views, the 48-year-old said: “They cancelled JK Rowling – my God! Effectually she said gender was fact, the trans community got mad as shit, they started calling her a TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist)... I’m team TERF.”

But it’s comedy, goes the typical reply to our valid calls for concern. Yet by flattening us all into one image and gaslighting an entire of community of people for problematic laughs, Chappelle puts a section of the population who are already in danger at harm. Ironically, his comments also inadvertently illuminated the need for a conversation on the trauma transgender people face when doing everyday things such as using a public restroom.

In a particularly striking moment, Chappelle referenced the death of his friend, a white trans woman and comedian called Daphne Dorman who died by suicide. Chappelle made a joke at the late Daphne’s expense, misgendering her with his punchline. “As hard as it is to hear a joke like that, I’m telling you now – Daphne would have loved that joke,” he added. He garbled about her ‘good attitude’ and shirking of pronouns to paint the wider trans community as a group that’s fragile and raving. It is dehumanising – she’s a punchline and a non-consenting weapon in this transphobic crusade.

At the crux of The Closer is Chappelle’s argument that trans people in the US are protected by their white privilege, and that Black men are a group that suffer more persecution and endangerment – duly erasing the plight of Black trans people, or any nuance and intersection of identity. It’s with this cushion of whiteness, one singular person’s trans experience, that he spearheads his latent transphobia.

To imagine this world of Chappelle’s – where the pain of the Black community somehow validates the derision of the trans community, where two vulnerable groups are not allowed to overlap or bolster each other – is a sinister, and indeed very flat one. At one stage, Chappelle makes divisions and polarisations even in the world of comedians: “She wasn’t their tribe, she was mine,” in opposition to the trans community, “she was a comedian in her soul.”

“To be able to weaponise capitalism with a side of transphobia is a fruitful monetary and cultural flex for networks like Netflix and Dave Chappelle himself” – Blossom-Chrishelle Brown

To be able to weaponise capitalism with a side of transphobia is a fruitful monetary and cultural flex for networks like Netflix and Dave Chappelle himself. It’s a strategic plan in which you create controversial content peppered with transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny in order to attract viewership, clout, attention, and unnecessary resources which ultimately feeds the pockets of giants like Netflix and Chappelle. 

Ted Sarandos, co-CEO of Netflix, initially said he didn’t believe the show would cause harm. “We don’t allow titles on Netflix that are designed to incite hate or violence, and we don’t believe The Closer crosses that line,” he said in a company note. “I recognise, however, that distinguishing between commentary and harm is hard, especially with stand-up comedy which exists to push boundaries. Some people find the art of stand-up to be mean-spirited but our members enjoy it, and it’s an important part of our content offering.” In a follow-up statement, Sarandos agreed that they had “screwed up” indeed, but that his “stance hasn’t changed”.

In the aftermath of the show, trans, gender non-conforming, and non-binary folks who work at Netflix were forced into a position of having to choose between their livelihood or speaking up against the transphobia and harm their employer has caused and validated. There was a trans person who lost their job (which was reinstated later, allegedly) because of their public reaction. In turn, we as a community – trans activists, leaders, and allies – have been forced to keep discussing this dangerous show and what it says about wider society, protecting the people it really hurts (or, maybe in Chappelle’s rhetoric, actually ‘cancels’), thereby drawing more attention to it. We’re living through a digital prison industrial complex, driving up viewership and corporate money through our pain and subsequent resistance.

My sister and Black trans activist Ashlee Marie Preston organised the walkout at Netflix, and it was a crucial moment. The protest was a powerful reminder that trans people face immense violence within entertainment as a whole. It’s also important, I think, to highlight that although this Black trans woman spearheaded the protest, the media was quick to undermine and gaslight her efforts until celebrities like Jameela Jamil took a public stand on social media to uplift and amplify the organising effort Ashlee has done. This is a common occurrence in a world that serves and celebrates white supremacy – we are told again and again that Black trans people deserve no recognition. We know it is false, but it is hard to fight.

I attended the Netflix walkout on my 35th birthday, to stand in solidarity with my sister Ashlee and our trans siblings at Netflix. Trans people as well as supporters brought a strong crowd to Netflix’s headquarters. Unfortunately, there were two transphobic Dave Chappelle fans as well as TERFs who showed up in opposition to our efforts. Although it was a small resistance to our message, the media was able to give them the attention they wanted, and they took up the same news article inches as us. 

There was a moment when Ashlee was about to introduce me as the next speaker and one of the men tried to disrupt her. As he made his way past me and other protesters, I took one hand and grabbed his backpack, physically pulling him back to stop him potentially disrupting and causing more harm. In that moment, I felt the resilience of my trans existence – we deserve to take space and lead, and not be in constant despair and dismay by transphobia and white supremacy. The protest was our moment. 

Chappelle has since doubled down on his Closer comments, addressing the controversy for the first time via an Instagram post: “I said what I said. And boy, I heard what you said. My God, how could I not?” Speaking about the walkout, he said: “You said you want a safe working environment at Netflix. Well, it seems like I’m the only one that can’t go to the office anymore.” He added: “To the transgender community, I am more than willing to give you an audience. But you will not summon me. I am not bending to anybody’s demands.”

This Netflix special has illuminated many wider, much-needed discussions. One is how Dave Chappelle can weaponise white supremacy against Black trans people and get away with it time and time again. Another is that we need to reassess how comedy punches ‘up’ and ‘down’, and who truly benefits from comedy at the expense of a community that is continually derided, hurt, and being killed at disturbing rates by society that consumes popular culture (hint: it’s capitalism).

What has also struck me is how some of our cis-gender, queer siblings in the LGB community are actively participating in underlying transphobia, because they do not understand the nuances of the trans community – we need everyone in the LGBTQ+ community and our allies to voice their recognition of our intersectionality. We can’t lionise one identity over another; we have to fight in a shared struggle. The damage from Netflix and Dave Chapelle has been done. However, the resilience of trans people is  energetic and powerful. I believe Netflix should meet the demands of its trans employees and be willing to constructively discuss how it can do better by trans employees, creatives, viewers, and the community as a whole.

Blossom-Chrishelle Brown is an actress, producer, activist, inspirational speaker, and life coach