LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JULY 10: Dave Chappelle looks on during UFC 264: Poirier v McGregor 3 at T-Mobile Arena on July 10, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
'Disheartened': Activist reacts to Dave Chappelle's jokes about transgender people
04:21 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

On a summer night in New York’s Greenwich Village, standup Jaye McBride’s energy was squirrelly and unpredictable as she stood a few feet from a full crowd at the Comedy Cellar.

“You guys know I’m trans, right?” she asked the audience. “Y’all have figured that out by now? Bunch of Brooklyn detectives.”

She made a crack about how 6 feet of distance and Zoom couldn’t conceal her being trans.

“It’s weird, because I wasn’t trans before the vaccine,” she deadpanned with a shrug.

The audience sat with the joke for a second before erupting into laughter and applause. McBride cracked a sly smile.

The vaccine joke is one of several in McBride’s set that revolve around being transgender – like many successful standups, she mines her own life for material, though she thinks her jokes are relatable for cisgender audiences, too.

So when she read what Dave Chappelle, a comedian she once admired for his searing social commentary, said about trans women – about their genitalia, their “knuckles and Adam’s apples,” their insistence on being recognized and respected – in his latest Netflix special, she felt disappointed and defeated.

She felt Chappelle was “scapegoating trans people” for issues that their community – which represents about 0.6% of the US adult population, per Gallup – had no power to control. (McBride didn’t watch the special herself; she said she “didn’t want to give Netflix the views.”)

Jaye McBride's a regular at the Comedy Cellar, where she shares self-deprecating stories about being trans.

“I know [Chappelle] says he wasn’t punching down – he’s absolutely punching down,” McBride told CNN. “When you’re just taking this mean position against a minority, no matter who the minority is or who you are, it just comes off as wrong.”

CNN spoke with four trans comedians about what they think Chappelle got wrong in “The Closer.” Some said they had considered Chappelle a comedy hero. But three of the comedians said that, by targeting trans people – trans women, mostly – and adopting the language of opponents of trans rights, his comedy has mutated into something meaner, more dated and less impactful. (CNN has reached out to a representative for Chappelle and is waiting to hear back.)

Chappelle has been lauded throughout his career for forcing difficult topics on unsuspecting audiences and highlighting the absurdity and omnipotence of anti-Black racism. But his jokes about trans people only reflect his own intolerance, said Mx. Dahlia Belle, a Portland-based standup.

“Given Chappelle’s undeniable cultural impact, his insistence on my erasure is deeply painful and feels like a betrayal,” Belle said in an email to CNN.

Chappelle’s trans jokes weren’t funny, comics say

It’s not that jokes about trans people can’t be funny – it’s just that Chappelle’s weren’t, McBride said.

At several points, he referred to trans people as “transgenders,” a term GLAAD advises should not be used in its noun form – only as an adjective. He said he was “on team TERF,” which describes people who identify as feminists, but argue that trans identities are not valid.

“I absolutely believe that a straight comic can tell a joke about trans people that is funny for everyone,” McBride said. The conditions? The joke can’t be about their genitals – Chappelle broke that rule with a particularly crude joke that invoked plant-based meat alternatives – and it can’t come from a place of disrespect, she said.

A recent standup set from Belle centered on being trans and having sex with people who are trans. About one minute into her five-minute set, she turned a heartwarming story about her religious mother’s acceptance of her bisexuality – in the form of some very blunt sex advice – into a punchline about gay sex and AIDS.

Mx. Dahlia Belle said Chappelle's most recent special, filled with jokes about trans people, "feels like a betrayal."

In an opinion piece for the Guardian, Belle acknowledged Chappelle’s influence on her early career and how he molded her “understanding of comedy.” But their philosophies on what’s funny have diverged, she said. While she’ll gladly poke fun at herself and anyone with “greater privilege,” Belle draws the line at making anyone with less privilege than her – as a Black trans woman – the butt of a joke, she said.

“A joke should only be as offensive as necessary and, if it has to offend, it needs to be funnier than it is offensive,” she told CNN. “No one should come away from a joke more offended than they are entertained. That’s what makes it a joke.”

Nat Puff, a Seattle comedian and musician with a large TikTok following and viral videos that predate that platform, said what disappointed her most about Chappelle’s statements was the apparent hypocrisy. She quoted an empathetic statement Chappelle once made about how calling people “crazy” is dismissive, that those people are “strong” and it’s their environment that’s “a little sick.”

“[The quote] shows so much awareness and, like, respect that he just does not show for trans people, which is the heartbreaking thing about it,” Puff told CNN. “Like, I feel like he has good intentions with what he’s saying. He doesn’t seem like a hateful person, unlike J.K. Rowling. But the thing is, he’s saying hateful sh*t regardless, no matter what his intent is.”

Puff said Chappelle’s influence on comedy and his advocacy for Black Americans “cannot be understated.” In 2000, with his breakthrough standup special “Killin’ Them Softly,” he took aim at White indifference toward anti-Black racism and police violence. On “Chappelle’s Show,” he leveraged racist stereotypes to reflect White Americans’ biases. When he wasn’t sure whether his audiences were laughing for the right reasons, he walked away from the show (and a $50 million deal, which he mentions in “The Closer”).

But in his recent specials, which have aired on Netflix since he made a deal with the streamer in 2016, the winner of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor increasingly dabbles in what Belle calls “edgelord humor,” a brand of humor rooted in rage, often directed at progress being made from social groups seemingly separate from one’s own. Chappelle’s humor, once prescient and progressive, now often mirrors that of an internet troll, Belle said.

“I want to like Dave Chappelle so much,” Puff said. “But when he talks about the trans community, he’s not talking about them, he’s speaking out against them. And that’s the difference between saying something funny about the trans community and saying something offensive about the trans community.”

One trans standup on Netflix defends Chappelle

Chappelle has made transphobic comments in specials past, but “The Closer” was released in 2021 – a year that’s seen at least 33 states introduce anti-trans legislation aimed at children, and a year already shaping up to be the deadliest on record for trans and gender nonconforming people in the US. (At least 41 trans or nonbinary people have been killed this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign, and historically, victims are disproportionately Black and Latinx trans women.)

The upsetting context of the year in which the special was released made it more disappointing when Netflix stood behind it, McBride said.

“It’s absolutely a terrible message to send,” she said.

Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos has repeatedly defended Netflix’s decision to stream “The Closer,” even after some employees voiced their objection. In an email to employees earlier this month, he said the company had “a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm,” though days later he said he “screwed up” in his communications with staff.

Netflix later fired an employee it claimed had leaked to Bloomberg “confidential, commercially sensitive information” for “The Closer.” The employee has denied leaking the information.

While several Netflix original series star trans actors, there are almost no other standup offerings from trans comedians, save for a set from Chicago’s Flame Monroe in Tiffany Haddish’s “They Ready” series.

Without a dissenting trans comedian’s voice to act as a “counterpoint” to Chappelle’s, said McBride, Netflix “is not helping” combat transphobia or dispel it from its platform.

Monroe, for her part, supports Chappelle’s right to joke about trans people, and has since at least 2019, when Chappelle’s Netflix special “Sticks & Stones” drew similar ire for jokes aimed at LGBTQ people. Monroe told CNN she “absolutely [does] believe that you should be able to make jokes about trans folks,” since comedians sometimes skewer other marginalized communities.

“As a trans person and a comedian, we mostly crack jokes about who we are and how we identify in my experience, and I’m only speaking for me,” she told CNN in an email. “You can’t ask for inclusion 24/7 and then conveniently want to be excluded because some truths are being told in a comedic fashion about your community.”

Flame Monroe defended Chappelle's jokes about trans people.

In an interview with CNN’s Pamela Brown last week, Monroe said that while some of the jokes did make her initially recoil, she didn’t take them as more than jokes – “it’s just laughter.”

“We have to be able, as grown people, [to] stop being so sensitized in this world and be able to take a joke,” she said in an appearance on CNN. “It’s only a joke. Nobody lost their life.”

Chappelle does bring up, in the last minutes of his special, the late comic Daphne Dorman, a trans woman who once opened for him and, per the comic, “bombed.” He tells audiences that Dorman died by suicide days after she defended him from the “Sticks & Stones” controversy and was criticized by other trans people for it.

“I don’t know what the trans community did for her, but I don’t care, because I feel like she wasn’t their tribe,” Chappelle said in the special.

That statement was particularly upsetting, Belle said, because in it Chappelle appeared to link Dorman’s death to how she was treated by other trans people.

Suicide and thoughts of suicide are a particular danger in the transgender community. Forty percent of respondents to 2015’s US Transgender Survey, carried out by the National Center for Transgender Equality, said they had attempted suicide – nearly nine times the rate in the general US population.

“Jokes are jokes, whether good or bad, but there’s something uniquely insidious about being blamed for one’s own oppression - especially by those who otherwise deny that oppression even exists,” she said.

If you or someone you know may be at risk of suicide, call 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. To reach the TrevorLifeline, a suicide prevention counseling service for the LGBTQ community, you can call 1-866-488-7386. Additional information is available here.

Chappelle has sworn off LGBTQ jokes for now

Chappelle has yet to publicly respond to the backlash against him. He did say, toward the end of “The Closer,” that he’d no longer make jokes about the LGBTQ community until “we are both sure that we are laughing together.”

Monroe was laughing with Chappelle, though she was first taken aback by his jokes. But the three other comedians who spoke to CNN were not.

“I’m a 40-year-old comedian and Black, transgender woman who grew up in the ’80s and ‘90s,” Belle said. “I couldn’t care less about jokes being made at my expense. I grew up fearing my imminent murder and/or eternal damnation. What makes ‘The Closer’ unacceptable is the intense gaslighting of multiple, vulnerable communities.”

Meanwhile, McBride has opened for stars like Amy Schumer and played to crowds at Madison Square Garden, but there are still clubs that refuse to book her because she’s trans, she said.

McBride said she hopes the controversy surrounding “The Closer” motivates comedy fans to seek out trans comedians – stars like Patti Harrison, RB Butcher and Jes Tom have already built sizable fanbases – and puts comedy clubs that don’t respect trans performers on notice.

“There are trans comics that are putting in the work all the time, that have followings,” she said. “So it’s only a matter of time.”