I grew up a scared, nerdy kid in a poor, Black neighborhood in Houston in the late 1970s. I was pummeled with vicious slurs such as “sissy” and “punk” in elementary school by children only slightly older than I was. These babies inherited those terms from their older siblings, fathers, mothers, uncles and aunts like bigoted antiques passed from one generation to the next. Even my father openly expressed his loathing at having a “fag” for a son. But they also learned them from cultural figures like musicians, athletes and comedians who thought nothing of cracking jokes at the expense of gay people.
I don’t want Chappelle to be canceled. I want him to pull out the threads of homophobia and transphobia that run through the quilt of his otherwise brilliant work.
In middle school, I ran home after class every day out of fear of getting beaten up. The fights started as pranks at my expense and escalated to blows to my head and torso. After the end-of-day bell rang, students came together in a circle to be entertained like the audience at the comedy shows the adults watched. The fists of my harassers were the setup and my face was the bloody punchline. I learned to smile when the gags were verbal, but taking a blow to the mouth made that much harder.
The folks in my neighborhood knew that I was gay before I did. When I realized it, too, I tried to hide it by making myself as small as possible. I was the quiet, bespectacled nerd who knew the answers to questions from the teachers, but not what to say to avoid getting hammered in the hallways. I eventually came out at 15, and I’d love to say that it got better after that. But I just became an even bigger target for mockery by boys who wanted to prove how manly they were.
I emerged from the terror of those years into the world of political activism. My first tentative steps into advocacy in Houston became a confident stride as I organized rallies and marches on behalf of victims of hate crimes. I moved to Washington, D.C., to work with Human Rights Campaign to fight for LGBTQ equality at the federal level. I played a leading role in legalizing marriage equality in D.C. in 2009. I left D.C. to help win the freedom to marry nationwide.
I evolved — and so did the Black community’s opinions of gay and trans people. A majority of people of color now support civil rights for LGBTQ people, including the freedom to marry. But a majority is not everyone. And like some of those same entertainers who filled the heads of my neighbors with stereotypes and hate, newer cultural heroes continue to peddle the same stale jokes, and make LGBTQ people like me the butt of their comedy. When I listen to those comedians today, it induces flashbacks to the fear and trauma I felt as a teenager.
One of the most successful is Dave Chappelle, whose latest Netflix comedy special, “The Closer,” is in the top five most popular programs on Netflix this week. It’s his sixth for the streaming channel. He’s won five Emmy Awards and three Grammys, as well as the prestigious Mark Twain Prize.
In his new show, Chappelle quips that DaBaby, the rapper who recently made homophobic remarks, “punched the LGBTQ community right in the AIDS.” He proudly claimed to be “Team TERF,” aligning himself with Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling and others who deny that trans women are women. In response, Jaclyn Moore, the trans showrunner for Netflix’s “Dear White People,” declared that she wouldn’t work with the company as long as it profits from transphobia. And a trans Netflix employee tweeted that Chappelle “attacks the trans community, and the very validity of transness.” Netflix then suspended the employee.
I was once a fan of the man and his comedy. I was entranced by his searing observations on race, and because of that I overlooked his homophobic comments. I cheered his bravery when he walked away from “Chappelle’s Show” on Comedy Central in 2006, which he later said was partly out of concern that he was perpetuating racial stereotypes rather than satirizing and challenging them after he noticed a staffer laughing at him, not with him. I supported his demands that Netflix remove the same program from its lineup because he didn’t think he was being fairly compensated.
The more I watched Chappelle’s work, however, the more his constant stream of humor hostile to LGBTQ people left a sour taste in my mouth. He often hits the mark on race even as he can’t see the humanity of gay people. Instead of coming up with better jokes that don’t verbally punch queer folks, he leans into the controversy masquerading as a truth-teller. To shield himself, he declared in “The Closer,” “Any of you who have ever watched me know that I have never had a problem with transgender people. If you listen to what I’m saying, clearly, my problem has always been with white people.”
But in fact, Chappelle is playing one targeted community against another. He talks about what he sees as a difference in how America treats Black people and the gay community. “In our country,” he said, “you can shoot and kill” a Black man, “but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings.” He’s living in a binary where all Blacks are straight and all gays are white and ignoring the existence of people like me who are both. And his comedy means there are crowds just like the students who whooped and hollered as the bullies bashed my face in school now circling to cheer him on.
I don’t want Chappelle to be canceled. I want him to pull out the threads of homophobia and transphobia that run through the quilt of his otherwise brilliant work. His once bracing wit has become calcified like a wasp in resin unable to move and sting with the times. As such, he’s giving narrow-minded people a safe space to deny the existence of trans people and make gays the focus of their taunts. There’s a difference between being the subject of a joke and being the butt of it. Dave Chappelle, who left Comedy Central when the laughing was at him instead of with him, should understand the distinction.