The way Dave Chappelle tells it, the multimillionaire superstar comedian with multiple comedy specials on one of the largest media platforms in the world, is the victim of cancel culture run amok.
He’s so “canceled” that he booked a nearly sold-out New Year’s Eve show at Seattle’s new Climate Pledge Arena, where the remaining tickets start in the hundreds of dollars.
As most people know by now, the release of Chappelle’s latest Netflix comedy special, “The Closer,” led to walkouts by the streaming service’s employees in October, over the show’s repeated and unapologetic attacks on trans and queer people. These cruel, unrepeatable “jokes” make up about half of the show.
Last week I sat down with some local Black and Indigenous trans community leaders over Zoom to get their thoughts and center their perspectives on the upcoming Climate Pledge Arena show and the ongoing controversy — perspectives that are too frequently overshadowed by Chappelle and his huge megaphone as well as his legions of fans.
Jaelynn Scott, the executive director of Lavender Rights Project, summed up the situation this way: It’s a “huge slap in the face to bring in the new year with transphobia in our town,” by inviting Chappelle to Seattle, she said.
One of Chappelle’s core defenses he gives in “The Closer” for not being transphobic is that in his heart, he respects individual trans people on a personal level, in particular one comedian he befriended, Daphne Dorman, whose relationship he describes at length in one of the most manipulative sections of the show. But poet and educator J Mase III said that defense is beside the point.
“I’ve seen a lot of people questioning whether or not Dave Chappelle is transphobic, which is what the conversation typically devolves into,” Mase said. “And to me, it actually doesn’t matter, because the point is that he has learned to monetize antagonizing trans people, right? And so he’s found a market for that. He assumes that we’re a small portion of the population, that he can get away with it and still make tons of money … he’s simply learned a tactic that sells tickets.”
Profiting off antagonizing an extremely marginalized group is the definition of punching down, but in Chappelle’s world view, he’s taking aim at racism. One of the fundamental problems with “The Closer” and his other shows, is that Chappelle deeply misunderstands gender, sexual orientation and race. In his view, his fight against trans and queer people is a fight against anti-Black racism by white people. As he sees it, gay and trans equal white, and cisgender and straight equal Black. So criticism of him by trans and queer people equates to criticism from white people rooted in racism.
It simply does not compute to him that you can be trans and Black or queer and Black at the same time. In one part of “The Closer,” he reveals his ignorance of this truth in stark fashion, saying, “Gay people are minorities until they need to be white again.”
Mattie Mooney, a community organizer, health care advocate and co-founder of the Trans Women of Color Solidarity Network, said that “the root of a lot of things that he was saying was, ‘Well, I’m saying these things because I know that it’s going to make white people mad.’ And there’s this general idea that trans people equal white people. … There’s this separation of Blackness and transness, right? We can’t do both at the same time.
“And I believe that Dave Chappelle also did the same thing with queer and gay identities. When he was doing jokes about queer folks and about gay folks, it was very white-centric, and it definitely erased the experiences of Black gay and queer folks,” Mooney said. “And we know that we can obviously be Black and queer or Black and trans, and both at the same time.”
Ebo Barton, artist, poet and director of housing services at Lavender Rights Project, said part of the frustration is that while Seattle talks a good game, when it comes to standing up for Black people or trans people, little real action is taken.
“I’m not shocked as a Seattle resident, as somebody who’s been living in Seattle for the past 15 years, because this is exactly what Seattle does,” Barton said. “They have no capacity to hold the complexities of multiple identities, and they never have. Many households in Seattle have Black Lives Matter signs on their lawn, they have Trans Lives Matter signs on their lawn. And once they saw [the Dave Chappelle show coming], it should have been in their minds to do the work for us and not for us to do this for ourselves. And so it’s actually a slap in the face by any other cis person that lives in this city that has claimed that either of those two identities matter, and then to not do anything, and we have to sit here and work for ourselves to get ourselves humanized by the rest of the country.”
As Mooney points out, violence against Black trans women is disproportionately high. By the fall, 2021 had already set a record as the deadliest year for trans people, with the majority of people killed Black trans women.
“And while I don’t think that anyone’s saying or going out and saying, ‘Well, Dave Chappelle says this, I’m gonna go do XYZ,’ ” Mooney said, “I really feel like the reinforcement of these things comes at a cost to Black trans folks and trans folks of color, but particularly trans women, Black trans women who disproportionately face greater instances of violence for just existing while trans.”
Afro-Indigenous educator, national organizer and performance artist Ganesha Gold Buffalo said part of the work that is needed is for the larger community to center trans voices.
“An issue that we come up against time and time again, as a community and in movement spaces as Black Indigenous people especially of trans experience [is] that we aren’t listened to at all,” she said. “It’s that system of silencing … that we’re regularly not given a platform for our voice [and] that our voice is not carried because it’s systematically silenced, systematically taken off the radar and systematically targeted and removed from being heard on certain platforms.”
When asked about community concerns regarding the upcoming show, a Climate Pledge Arena spokesperson said in an email, “As an inclusive organization, we host a wide range of performers, including those who express opinions that diverge from our views and values. While we don’t restrict the freedom of expression of our performers, we do listen to our audiences and support their own right to free expression in response. To this end, we have met with Seattle Pride to discuss their concerns and we look forward to building a lasting relationship with their organization.”
Climate Pledge Arena did not immediately respond to follow-up questions about whether it has limits or guidelines on who uses the venue, or how bringing Chappelle aligns with its statement that it is “the most progressive, responsible, and sustainable arena in the world.”
On Dec. 9, Seattle Pride issued a statement calling on the arena to postpone the show until Chappelle apologized and acknowledged the harm he has caused to the transgender community. Seattle Pride Executive Director Krystal Marx met with arena officials last week and said the conversation was “encouraging.” She said the arena was looking to build stronger relationships with the LGBTQ+ community moving forward.
Scott said Chappelle and others would do well to educate themselves more deeply on our true history.
“There was an association with whiteness with LGBTQ identity, but [trans and queer Black, Indigenous people and people of color] always existed,” Scott said. “And in fact, we started the … movements in this country. And so there’s a lack of history here and understanding of our history as LGBTQ people, there’s a lack of history and understanding the source, the roots, the heart of the LGBTQ movement in this country. And there’s a lot of folks that just need a basic education on Blackness, queerness and trans identity.”