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Calling Out & Calling In: On Dave Chappelle, Patton Oswalt, and Transphobia

I’ve been wanting to talk about this for a while now. Well, I talk about it a lot, but I guess writing about it is a little different. Transness. Outside of my own new experience medically and socially transitioning, what really motivated me to write about this was watching the news and hearing about the latest issue involving Dave Chappelle and Patton Oswalt. I was initially overwhelmed when Chappelle was trending in late 2021 for his Netflix special, The Closer. I wanted to comment on things then, but I just didn’t have the energy. Now that it has resurfaced, and I’m in a different place in my life, I got time!

For starters, I have mixed feelings about Dave Chappelle. For the most part, I’ve always considered him to be generally funny, with his own comedic style. He was a common household name growing up. I remember as a kid, at my mother’s house, we would watch The Chappelle Show on Comedy Central while she braided my hair before bed. I’ll never forget the episode where he shamelessly performed the “Piss On You” song, spoofing the infamous 2002 R Kelly case. Chappelle has always been off the chain.

As an adult, more specifically a Black trans-masc person, I’ve grown to view him through a much more critical lens. So what if he’s widely loved and celebrated? So what if he can make my mama laugh? No one is exempt from critique. Especially if you’re a rich public figure and much of your rhetoric deals with politics and social issues.

Small disclaimer: I typically try to be open-minded and diplomatic in thought. I understand life’s many contradictions. As hard as it is to accept them, it really is what it is. My intent isn’t to bash anyone, rather to provide another perspective. I don’t personally know Chappelle, and I won’t act like I do. In his latest stand up act, he did say that his work could be interpreted however a listener wanted. I’m writing and posing arguments based on his statements. I do not plan to pick apart each problematic or arguable thing that he’s said, as that would involve a lot of unpacking.

Dave Chappelle clearly has a lot of opinions and theories rooted in transphobia and homophobia. His comedic style is daring, controversial, and inflammatory. He knows it. He’s aware. He’s intentional about being offensive. Even outside of queerness, his jokes around racism, sexism, and sexual assault have always been jarring.

I love comedy. I feel like the world needs humor. I’ve used humor as a coping mechanism, and still do. Black folks especially– we can extract humor from the darkest of places. We’ve had to. It’s how we survive. It’s cultural, and some may not understand. Some things are straight up jokes. It’s subjective whether people find them funny. It’s complicated, because when that point is made, people think it gives them the right to be hateful or ignorant. What’s not subjective is if people are harmed or offended. We shouldn’t invalidate someone’s experiences, especially if their livelihood is the butt of the joke. There has to be a line drawn somewhere. Just like there should have been a line drawn when Chappelle made “Piss On You.”

In his latest 2021 Netflix stand up show, The Closer, Chappelle flirts with an admission of transphobia that is laced with sarcasm and condescension. Some may disagree, but it seems that he’s somewhat aware of his problematic politics. An issue, at least for me, is that he insists on writing reductive jokes about his seemingly unchallenged beliefs, rather than further interrogating them. He dares to be controversial. While I may have laughed at parts of the show, I think some of his jokes could be more developed if he did further research around transness and didn’t rely so much on his deceased token trans friend, Daphne Dorman, to justify his views.

In Will Smith’s latest book Will, he makes an interesting point about what makes a stronger comedian. He notes that the smarter one is, the better jokes they’re able to create. I’d like to think that Chappelle is a pretty smart guy; but his craft is stunted by his decision to be ignorant. I mean, just imagine what lessons or discoveries he could make about more marginalized groups of people with just a little more research. Furthermore, how a joke could draw attention to those discoveries. Chappelle makes it clear that he isn’t a part of the LGBTQ+ community. It raises questions around him constantly discussing a topic that he isn’t fully informed about, yet knows he’ll benefit from.

There were many times throughout The Closer that Chappelle reminded folks he didn’t “hate gay people.” That might actually be true, but his writing is all too revealing of his biases, his ignorance, and beliefs. A lot of white and non-Black poc wouldn’t call themselves racists, even if they have underlying beliefs about other ethnic groups that are undoubtedly racist. If white and non-Black poc aren’t actively calling Black folks “niggers,” they don’t think of themselves as racists. In turn, they don’t view their micro-aggressions as racist. They may not think it’s racist to tell their Black female colleague that they always mistakenly call her another name instead of her actual name, because they remind her of another Black woman that they know outside of work. Just as someone may not see calling a trans woman a man, a transphobic act. Catch my drift? Towards the end of Chappelle’s special, he says “People say things to me all the time, but what you don’t know is that it does affect me. I think about it.” Okay, so he has to know that the things he says have an impact on others. He just may not care that his jokes are harmful. Again, he’s daring. That’s his image. That’s his brand. It doesn’t make it right, and what I’m pointing out is that he is actually aware. His awareness and ignorance are in competition with one another. This inner conflict is laced throughout his writing.

Moving on, cause’ I ain’t forget about Oswalt. The issue I have with Patton Oswalt’s actions is how a cis-white man, intentionally or not, is publicly throwing a Black person under the bus, to redeem himself to a white fanbase. It’s a reminder how disposable we are in the face of whiteness. For context, Patton Oswalt and Dave Chappelle were seen in pictures together, right after the New Year. The two have been friends for over 30 years and they’re both established comedians.

They’re pictured in an Instagram photo dump on Oswalt’s page, casually hanging out and posing together. Apparently after Oswalt posted the picture, there were mad folks commenting on the post who were upset about Oswalt posing with a transphobic “TERF” (trans-exclusionary radical feminist). (Let it be known that Dave Chappelle also referred to himself as a TERF in The Closer). I visited the post myself. I saw a lot of non-Black folks critiquing Oswalt for supporting a problematic Dave Chappelle, and expressing their disdain over the photos. Oswalt later made a follow-up Instagram post with a lengthy caption apologizing to his fans for sharing pictures of himself posing with Chappelle.

My thing is, white folks, where y’all be at when other non-Black folks, pose with each other, endorse one another, when they’re known for being problematic and harmful? I don’t think it’s fair for white folks to scold, come down hard on, and shame Black folks. It’s giving, “you really got the audacity.” Let us Black folks hold Chappelle accountable. That is not y’all’s job. He already doesn’t fully understand how LGBTQ+ is inherently inclusive of Blackness. He doesn’t include Black people in being queer and trans. That’s a problem in itself. We got some wrangling we need to do with him. A lot of y’all still have work to do when it comes to social justice related issues, i.e. racism, anti-blackness, xenophobia, and appropriation just to name a few…yet you want to teach and hold a Black person accountable around transphobia and homophobia? Please.

Anyway, this brings up other issues that I want to address. About 14 minutes into The Closer, Chappelle says, “we Blacks, we look at the gay community and we go, ‘God damn it! Look how well that movement is going.’' When Chappelle spoke to how he felt the LGBTQ+ community is advancing and how they get what they want, are sensitive, and hold political power, he’s talking about the white folks…whether he knows it or not. He speaks to this a bit within the special, but I think it needed clarification. There’s still a disconnect here. What I think people fail to understand is that it is not about offending LGBTQ+ people as a Black person, it’s about offending white people, the people in power, whether they’re gay or trans or not.

I had a friend, a Black cis-het woman, tell me that she thought the LGBTQ+ community succeeds more as a political group over Black political groups and Black Americans. So then I asked her, “what about Black LGTBQ+ folks? They’re still Black.” She basically said that since Black folks are a part of that community, we reap the benefits. I don’t agree, because at the end of it all, we’re still Black. We will still face discrimination. Black trans people are discriminated against for being trans, and subject to racism for being Black. Whiteness is going to render a Black person as Black first. Whether I like it or not, I am likely to be perceived as Black before anything else. My transness makes me doubly marginalized. So no, we are not included in the white LGBTQ+ world just because we’re a part of the LGBTQ+ community. It’s bad enough that a lot of white and non-Black queer folks believe that they are absolved of their racism because they’re marginalized by their queerness or transness.

Inside of cultures, we have subcultures. Black folks have always carved out our own subcultures inside and outside of queerness. White and non-Black queers are inclined to adopt the behaviors of their cishet white counterparts. That’s the math. So while Black folks suffer, it isn’t a matter of making it a competition, rather understanding that Black trans and queer folks suffer, too. Sometimes more.

I admit, throughout The Closer I laughed at some things. Other things made me shake my head and go, “this fool is just ignant”. I understand and respect that there are some people who won’t see it that way– people that ultimately feel offended and harmed by his jokes. Then you have another portion of his audience; people who have not interrogated their own transphobia and homophobia. There are people who take his jokes and use it to justify their transphobia and homophobia. Whether it be subconscious or not, he’s empowering others to be hateful. This is an issue. Sure, he’s conscious about his “pronoun game.” Is that enough, though? Does he challenge his audience to get hip to pronouns? Some folks laugh along with Chappelle because they’re already transphobic. His rhetoric and tone throughout the act suggests that he isn’t really transphobic, rather he just wants to joke, but there’s actually more than that embedded into his writing.

After writing this, I can’t help but to think that what it means to be canceled needs to be rethought. Chappelle and others like him, will almost always have a platform to continue to make money. Is it true that canceling someone suggests that a person can never grow or educate themselves? And if so, isn’t that the opposite of what we want? Moreover, where do we even begin to draw the cancellation line, and who has the power to do so?

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