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Hundreds rally outside Netflix to protest Dave Chappelle's special

The streaming giant has drawn fierce internal criticism and public scrutiny since Chappelle’s special “The Closer” debuted on Oct. 5.

LOS ANGELES — Dozens of Netflix employees protesting Dave Chappelle's latest stand-up special were met with roaring applause as they lined up outside the streaming giant's headquarters Wednesday in a work stoppage.

Transgender employees and allies staged the stoppage, which began around 10:30 a.m. local time, while employees working from their homes united in a "virtual walkout." Netflix faces escalating criticism over Chappelle's special "The Closer," which debuted Oct. 5.

LGBTQ advocacy groups and some employees have decried Chappelle's special as transphobic and harmful to transgender communities, creating an unprecedented public relations crisis for the country's marquee streaming video service. A spokesperson for Chappelle did not respond to multiple emails requesting comment about the backlash and the walkout.

"While comedy is something people need, we need to be careful what we put out into the world," a Netflix employee, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, told NBC News at the rally. "Trans lives are not a joke."

Hundreds of people, including a handful of Netflix employees who declined to comment on the record for fear of being fired, attended the solidarity rally, which was organized by Ashlee Marie Preston, a Black transgender activist.

"This isn't just about Netflix," Preston told the crowd. "It's about a corporate culture that manipulates the algorithmic sciences to distort the way that we perceive ourselves."

"I'm here to let Ted know that if he won't stand up for their rights, we will," Preston said later, referring to Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos.

David Huggard Jr., who appeared on "RuPaul's Drag Race" as Eureka O'Hara, called on Chappelle to show more empathy.

"Before anything else, understand that your jokes are promoting hateful and discriminatory behavior and conversation, and that's what hurts us," Huggard told the crowd in comments directed toward Chappelle. "Understand that what you said wasn't OK and it's affecting people in a negative way."

The protesters toted signs bearing pro-LGBTQ slogans — such as "Team Trans," "Invest in Trans Creators" and "Spread Love Not Hate" — and chanted "Trans lives matter."

Many, like Sinakhone Keodara, said they came to show their support for the trans community.

"I'm here because I'm pissed. I'm devastated. I'm angry," said Keodara, who identifies as gay. "I believe Ted Sarandos should be fired or resign. Our lives are worth more than money."

Sean Kolodji, a political activist who described himself as a cis gay white man, echoed a similar message of solidarity.

"There is a movement to create a rift in the queer community where there isn't one," he said. "It matters to have solidarity with our trans friends."

Alex Paris, who works in communications for Stonewall Democratic Club, an LGBTQ, feminist and progressive political advocacy organization, said Wednesday was a "really important day."

"Netflix needs to do a better job of listening. We've seen the effects of attacks on marginalized communities, most recently with the AAPI community," Paris said, referring to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. "When we don't stand up for marginalized communities, violence goes unchecked."

Some celebrities — including comedian Billy Eichner, "Schitt's Creek" star Dan Levy, "The Matrix" co-director Lilly Wachowski and actor Elliot Page — showed solidarity on social media.

"I stand with the trans, nonbinary and BIPOC employees at Netflix fighting for more and better trans stories and a more inclusive workplace," Page, who stars on the Netflix series "The Umbrella Academy," wrote on Twitter.

Before the walkout, Netflix's trans employee resources group released a list of demands.

"We want the company to adopt measures in the areas of content investment, employee relations and safety, and harm reduction, all of which are necessary to avoid future instances of platforming transphobia and hate speech," employees said in the document, which was first reported by The Verge.

The company said Wednesday morning that it recognized that Chappelle's special distressed many of its employees.

"We value our trans colleagues and allies, and understand the deep hurt that's been caused," a Netflix spokesperson said. "We respect the decision of any employee who chooses to walk out, and recognize we have much more work to do both within Netflix and in our content."

Netflix said Friday that it had fired an unnamed employee for sharing "confidential, commercially sensitive information" related to the special with a news organization.

The company previously suspended Terra Field, a trans employee who criticized the special on Twitter. A spokesperson denied that she was suspended because of her posts.

Field, who wrote that Chappelle's special "attacks the trans community, and the very validity of transness," tweeted Oct. 12 that she had been reinstated. "I feel vindicated," she said.

GLAAD, the LGBTQ advocacy organization and media watchdog group, said "anti-LGBTQ content" violates Netflix's policy to reject programs that incite hate or violence.

In an internal memo obtained by The Verge, Sarandos said the special did not cross "the line on hate." He also said "The Closer" would remain available to the service's more than 200 million global subscribers.

People rally in support of a walkout by transgender Netflix employees.Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Sarandos acknowledged missteps Tuesday evening, telling Variety that he "screwed up" when it came to "internal communication."

"I should have led with a lot more humanity," Sarandos told the trade publication. "Meaning, I had a group of employees who were definitely feeling pain and hurt from a decision we made.

"I think that needs to be acknowledged up front before you get into the nuts and bolts of anything," he added. "I didn't do that."

Sarandos said he remains committed to "creative freedom" — a priority that might be difficult to square with the company's links to progressive causes and high-profile liberals.

Chappelle has a lucrative content deal with Netflix. He signed an agreement in 2016 that is reported to pay him $20 million per stand-up special.

Addressing the crowd, Preston said: "Dave Chappelle doesn't get to suck the life out of this moment. ... We won't stop until justice is won."

Daniel Arkin reported from New York. Alicia Victoria Lozano reported from Los Angeles.

CORRECTION (Oct. 19, 2021, 5:02 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the pronoun preference of David Huggard Jr., who appeared on "RuPaul's Drag Race" as Eureka O'Hara. Huggard/O'Hara goes by they/them, not he/him.