What Dave Chappelle gets wrong about trans people and comedy

“Toward the end of Dave Chappelle’s incendiary Netflix standup special The Closer, he says something revealing about the fight he’s waged against trans people — a fight that’s drawn Netflix itself into the fray and which led to a walkout and protest against the company on October 20.

After discussing the death of his friend, a trans comedian named Daphne Dorman who Chappelle also mentioned in his previous special Sticks and Stones, Chappelle makes a joke where the punchline is to blatantly misgender her. Then he says, “As hard as it is to hear a joke like that, I’m telling you right now — Daphne would have loved that joke.”

As I’ve attempted to grapple with the aims of Chappelle’s comedy, this line has stuck with me. Chappelle’s use of Dorman as a kind of totem for the type of relationship he’d like to have with the trans community at large is both telling and confusing — not because of what it says about Chappelle and Dorman, but because of what it says about the nature of comedy and the nature of pain.

Trans people have expressed outrage at both Chappelle and Netflix for amplifying overtly transphobic and anti-scientific views about gender and trans identity. In his defense of Chappelle, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos first said that he didn’t believe The Closer could cause any real-world harm, and then, after recanting that statement, said that trans people would simply have to deal with the special being on the platform. What we wind up with, then, is this: Yes, The Closer could cause real-world harm, but trans people will just have to get over it.

So perhaps the real question is, should trans people have to get over it? “Yes” seems to be the answer from The Closer, more or less. There’s no getting around the reality that transphobic rhetoric like Chappelle’s absolutely contributes to real-life harm. But Chappelle seems to view that hurt, and even the immediate pain of his transphobic jokes, as a worthy trade-off.”

“in the moment where he comes closest to accepting trans identity, again using his friend Daphne as his lodestar, it’s the semantic argument that makes the crucial difference for Chappelle. Praising Dorman for her skills as a comedian and her good-natured attitude, he recalls Dorman telling him, “I don’t need you to understand me. I just need you to believe that I’m having a human experience.” Then he points out that he accepted her explicitly “because she didn’t say anything about pronouns” or make him feel like he was about to be “in trouble” for saying something wrong.

On one level, Chappelle’s anxiety here is deeply relatable. It’s the anxiety felt by many people who are frustrated by cancel culture and what they perceive as its policing of language and free speech. No one likes to be yelled at or told they’re problematic, especially if they say the “wrong” thing when they’re trying to get clarity on complex situations. Much of the conversation around “canceling” and the reactionary politics it engenders — reactionary politics that include all of Chappelle’s recent comedy material — seems to demand a degree of patience with people who are still working out the basic issues surrounding complicated identity vectors. Often, thinking about these things is hard.

But Chappelle makes it clear that he needs Dorman to exist on his terms, not hers — not as a trans woman with autonomy, but as a trans woman who’s proven she deserves autonomy by way of having a chill, laid-back sense of humor. Furthermore, in repeatedly reducing Dorman’s existence to her body parts and her relationship to them and the language surrounding them, Chappelle dehumanizes her and dehumanizes other trans people.

Dorman’s fate — she died by suicide shortly after the release of Sticks and Stones in 2019 — directly undermines Chappelle’s logic. Because Dorman was trans, she was at an extremely high risk of dying by suicide or transphobic violence. Any way you look at it, trans people are among the most vulnerable populations in society:

Out of all hate crimes that result in homicide that target LGBTQ and HIV-affected people, 72 percent of the victims are trans women, according to 2013 data.
50 percent of trans people will experience sexual assault or abuse in their lifetimes; this number is even higher for Black trans people.
54 percent of trans people experience intimate partner violence.
Trans people of color are six times more likely to experience police brutality than white cisgender people.
10 percent of trans people experience violence from a family member after coming out as trans. Eight percent of trans people are kicked out of their homes after coming out.
30 percent of trans people experience homelessness at least once in their lives.
In 2015, 30 percent of trans people reported experiencing workplace harassment, including sexual assault, physical harassment, or being fired for their gender expression.
More than 50 percent of trans teens seriously considered suicide in the last year; more than 66 percent of trans teens experienced major symptoms of depression within the two weeks prior to the survey.”

“His comedy, which involves continually insisting, against science, that gender is always tied to biology, isn’t just reactionary semantics. It’s dangerous rhetoric that’s been shown in study after study can directly impact the levels of anti-trans violence and societal prejudice that trans people already face daily.”

“Dorman herself was adept at taking an offensive joke. As Chappelle recalls, when an audience member interrupted one of Dorman’s shows with a transphobic question, she shot back by making an even better joke about her own anatomy. This, Chappelle wants us all to know, should be the response when we’re confronted with transphobia: not anger, hurt, or pain; not a walkout in protest of Netflix, but good-humored deflection.
This rule applies, at best, within the realm of comedy, between a comedian and their audience, not to the lived experiences of people in their everyday lives. Chappelle seems to need all trans people to accept the mores of his own very specific professional subculture, and he makes this request sound reasonable — he’s just a guy wanting to be allowed to make transphobic jokes without getting canceled for it, geez — but in practice, it’s baffling. Most people aren’t comedians, and most people are sensitive to jokes designed specifically to hurt them. Chappelle’s idea that trans people should have to prove, like Dorman, that they can take a joke without getting offended before they’re worthy of respect is a bit like a journalist demanding trans people prove they can use AP style before allowing them to command a conversation about their own gender identity.”

“Chappelle, of all people, should know better. He’s hyper-aware, as a comedian who frequently uses humor to make points about racial and social justice, that comedy impacts the real world. In fact, in 2005, Chappelle completely killed his own hit comedy show, the legendary Chappelle’s Show, because of one joke that made him realize, according to an interview he gave to Time, that rather than critiquing racist comedy, he might instead be reinforcing racist stereotypes for white audiences who were enjoying the joke unironically.

At the very least, then, Chappelle should know that there’s a possibility his jokes about trans people could be taken the wrong way and used to hurt trans people. There’s even an echo of the 2005 moment in the new special, when Chappelle has to stop and gently reprimand an audience member who starts to applaud a transphobic law. As Vulture’s Craig Jenkins put it, “You talk enough shit, and you’ll draw flies.”

Rather than acknowledging this possibility and its potential for harm, Chappelle not only justifies his comedy using white privilege, but seems to go a step further: He suggests that being hurt is good for trans and nonbinary people. When he says, “As hard as it is to hear a joke like that,” and then follows it up with any kind of defense, he’s telling audiences that he knows the joke is painful, hurtful, and transphobic — but that it’s somehow productive for trans people to be confronted by it. That it’s a learning experience to be confronted with transphobia onstage, as though trans people aren’t confronted with gender policing in every other moment of their lives.

Only then, in Chappelle’s telling, can Chappelle and trans people “[start] getting to the bottom of shit.” Once trans people have shown him that they’re capable of being good-humored about other people’s continual objectification and degrading dismissal of transgender identity issues, they can — on the terms of the person using transphobia to interact with them — be heard and accepted and loved.”

The GOP’s attack on trans kids’ health care, explained

“Nowadays, doctors recommend taking a humane and affirming approach when a child expresses that their gender may not match their assigned sex at birth. This affirmation includes allowing trans kids to socially transition (i.e., use whichever name, pronouns, and clothing make them comfortable). Medical interventions — like puberty suppression or gender-affirming hormones like estrogen or testosterone — are only recommended for adolescents who have been insistent, persistent, and consistent in their gender identity over long periods.

The affirming model has been recommended by nearly every major American medical association, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the Endocrine Society, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and many others.

While the affirming model is often willfully misconstrued as instructing parents to accept a child’s gender identity and rush them off into medical interventions, it’s really more about creating a space for trans kids to explore their own gender expression and more thoroughly understand their dysphoria before deciding on whether to transition or not. Allowing a trans adolescent to go on puberty blockers is a decision most parents don’t take lightly. Transitioning is a slow, deliberative process for minors.

Puberty blockers merely act as a pause on an adolescent’s natal puberty, so that adolescents ages 9 to 14 can be more mentally mature before deciding on the course of their permanent treatment when the time comes”

“puberty… brings along its own permanent changes, which could only partially be reversed through painful and expensive medical treatments in adulthood. Trans women forced through male puberty would then have to undergo painful and expensive electrolysis to remove facial hair and may be left with a body frame (shoulder and hip width) that would be unchangeable by any surgeries. Trans men would have to have surgery to remove their breasts and, like their trans female counterparts, be forced to live in an unwanted body frame for their entire lives.”

The massive Republican push to ban trans athletes, explained

“It’s perhaps the harshest in a wave of state-level anti-trans legislation aimed at barring trans girls and women from playing girls’ and women’s scholastic sports. About 30 states have introduced anti-trans athlete bills this year, and two of those became law this month: Mississippi and Arkansas. Tennessee’s ban, meanwhile, is awaiting the governor’s signature. Idaho passed a similar law last year, which was later enjoined by a federal court.”

“science has found that trans girls who hormonally transition at younger ages do not necessarily have a “biological advantage” athletically. And none of it justifies banning middle school trans girls from the local girls’ soccer team.”

“An Associated Press investigation into these athletic bans found that most lawmakers supporting such bills cannot name a single trans athlete competing in their state. A New York Times report indicated that out of about 200,000 women taking part in NCAA women’s sports at a given time, about 50 are transgender.”

“Advocates say that laws that exclude and punish trans kids — and messaging that classifies young trans girls as “biological boys” — is scare-mongering and unfair, and only seeks to reinforce ugly stereotypes about trans girls and women to an uninformed public. It’s another attack on trans kids that potentially threatens not just their school life but also their relationship with their parents — which, advocates say, is ultimately the goal for anti-trans conservatives: forcing trans kids back into the closet.”

“Children frequently play coed sports until puberty begins, and only then does there begin to be a separation in athletic performance between boys and girls. The existence of girls like Walker, however, further complicates matters. She largely avoided male puberty to begin with, thanks to her middle school puberty blockers and hormonal transition. Taking a look at her slight physique would render absurd the idea that she’s some genetically giant super-athlete compared to her cis peers.”

“Even for trans women athletes, many experts agree that trans women at least lose some performance ability when they hormonally transition, even if it’s after puberty has been completed, rendering it unlikely that they would be able to keep up — or stay safe — competing against their cis male counterparts.
Estrogen is much less efficient at building and maintaining muscle than testosterone, and early research indicates that trans women lose significant strength through their transition-related hormone replacement therapy regimen. So for trans women athletes, that means they need to take longer to recover between workouts than they did before transition, causing muscle loss.

While some studies have suggested that trans women do retain at least some of their previous pure strength advantage even after a year on estrogen, with further drops past the one-year mark, how this exactly translates to more complicated athletic movements beyond pure strength and endurance tests remains to be proven.”

“Part of the problem on the anti-trans side is that they’re starting from the base assumption that trans women are men, and substitute cis male physical traits when discussing whether trans women may have competitive advantages. They’ll argue that men have bigger hearts and more lung capacity, or produce more red blood cells on average than cis women, and then assume trans women’s bodies would be the same.

But initial scientific findings don’t necessarily support that, according to Loughborough University PhD student Joanna Harper, who has spent the past decade researching trans athletes. Harper noted that a trans athlete she previously studied at Arizona State University saw the ejection fraction rate of her heart drop significantly after HRT, meaning less blood was pumped with each beat. “The heart itself might be the same, but the muscles may not work as well,” she told Vox. “And if the ejection fraction goes down, who cares about the size of the heart? It’s how much blood you can pump that matters.””

“Trans women were allowed to begin competing as women in the Olympics if they’d had bottom surgery beginning in 2004. The surgery requirement was lifted in 2016 and replaced by guidelines stating that trans women must lower their testosterone levels for an entire year before eligibility. Despite the more open stance, no openly trans woman has ever qualified to compete as a woman in the Olympics.”

“Sports — and, ultimately, being part of a team — are a normal part of kids’ socialization. Studies have shown that athletic participation provides all sorts of positive effects on children, from reduced rates of depression to positive physical health outcomes. But more importantly, high school and college sports are a common space for community-building. Small towns often gather at the local high school’s athletic events and socialize and build a common identity. By excluding trans girls from these spaces, it sends a clear message to all trans kids that they don’t belong.”

Why Republicans are suddenly in a rush to regulate every trans kid’s puberty

“Compiled by the Trevor Project in a research brief, study after study has shown that affirming trans and gender-diverse kids in their self-exploration improves mental health and lowers suicide risk. The affirming model, which allows children to explore their gender identities at their own pace and can include puberty blockers, has been recommended by nearly every major American medical association, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the Endocrine Society, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.”

“The state now threatens to insert itself into the most basic decisions of body and identity, all to drive a handful of votes from the conservative base to win in an election year. Lost in the conservative rush to tamp down the trans rights movement are the very real lives of trans kids who simply want to transition and move on to adulthood.”