Dave Chappelle thinks about transgender people – a lot. Like many, I have enjoyed following his career, but with this latest Netflix iteration, I thought, “What’s up with that?” Certainly, he has touched on LGBTQ topics in previous shows, but those musings often seemed sophomoric and axiomatic, but also harmless and innocent. In The Closer, Chappelle delivers calculated barbs mostly towards transgender women, but also the “LBGT” [sic] community.
He thinks transgender women are hilarious and it is on this topic where he devotes most of the show. He fantasizes about their genitalia. He obsesses on their pronouns. He even offers a sexual metaphor about transgender women describing the difference in taste between plant-based and ground beef burgers. Yes, Chappelle thinks a lot about transgender women.
Here are a few ways to regard The Closer. On the surface, it is a huge comedy hit for Netflix and also for Chappelle as he takes his shtick on the road. Netflix Co-CEOs, Ted Sarandos and Reed Hastings, have doubled down on their refusal to pull the video or even offer a warning label. Emphatically, they claim artistic freedom, but with a price tag of $21 million, The Closer is sure to stay where it is. This kerfuffle will no doubt have an indelible imprint on their tenure at Netflix.
When viewed through a queer lens, the show is nothing more than institutionalized bullying. While couched as jokes, the commentary clearly mocks, humiliates, and transgresses, which are tactics of a bully. As Chappelle presents such a rich inventory, he declares that he loves everyone, including queer people. For evidence, he hauled out a classic trope about having transgender friends, one who was trying to make it in the comedy business and considered Chappelle a mentor, when she took her own life only days following their last conversation. This poignant moment is one of several tidings to suggest that the LGBTQ community must be too sensitive about good natured fun and should just get over it.
The ability to laugh with a comedian is different than being laughed at. Chappelle, Sarandos, and now some of his colleagues including fellow comedian Jon Stewart, have emphatically declared there is no malice, only jokes. Therefore, Chappelle should get a pass since he is an artist and has only admiration for his queer brothers and sisters. If there is a problem, it must be with those who are offended, not with his message where one offensive statement after another earns a voracious cheer. If only this gaslighting attempt ended with the one-hour show.
Messages that whittle an entire community to sex acts and genitalia dehumanizes queer people and provides cover to those who would do harm. The comprehensive 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey by the UCLA Williams Institute reported transgender individuals experience greater incidents of suicide, discrimination, stigma, rejection, and lack of access to gender-affirming health care, among many other risk factors than their cisgender peers.
By using violence as comedy, misusing and mispronouncing the nomenclature and culture, and attempting to single out and separate transgender people from the rest of the community for ridicule has real consequences. This is the same divisive strategy President Trump used in 2017 when he banned transgender soldiers from the military. Since 2019 in England, the charity LGB Alliance also seeks to segregate the transgender community from the greater pack. Their heroine, Harry Potter’s J.K. Rowling, refuses to include transgender women in the feminist movement and it is here that Chappelle declares that he too is “Team TERF” for trans-exclusionary radical feminist. Not all of his audience is laughing especially now, as several states and countries successfully roll back basic human rights and advances by LGBTQ people to live in peace and enjoy the same protections as others.
What is it about transgender women that has transfixed Chappelle? It could be that queer people are just easy targets for fodder, or perhaps he senses either disgust or titillation, or even something more outrageous. In 2019 at the Kennedy Center, Chappelle literally declared in his acceptance speech for the Mark Twain Prize, that elicited guffaws, “I’m gay.” Often, homophobic and transphobic actions belie more about the instigator than their intended target, so a reasonable person might wonder if this hilarity revealed a personal truth where he is hiding in plain sight. Similarly, in 1997 Eddie Murphy, having honed his early career on fiercely homophobic and transphobic content, was stopped with a transgender prostitute on Santa Monica Boulevard, in West Hollywood, and declared he was merely giving her a ride home. Shakespeare said it best, “The lady doth protest too much, me thinks.”
At the beginning of the show, Chappelle declares that he is rich and famous which implies he can say anything without reproach. For LGBTQ people, there is nothing new in The Closer but tired tropes about a diverse group of people bound together by their disparate interests. It is for that reason that Chappelle, his show and the streaming platform Netflix deserve condemnation. The popularity of The Closer, which is currently among their top streamed shows, provides another example of the dangers awaiting the queer community. For anyone who wonders why the fuss over a comedy show, queer people have continually had to fight for their very existence, and there is nothing funny about that.
John D. Allen is the Founder and immediate past Co-President of the New Haven Pride Center, and facilitates the walking tour, New Haven’s Closet: 400 years of queer history in the Elm City.