Dave Chapelle: A Closer Look

Faye Seidler
28 min readOct 17, 2021

I’m an illicit bias trainer and statewide educator on LGBTQ+ outcomes for youth in North Dakota. My work focuses on examining the cultural, religious, and political barriers impacting a person’s willingness to integrate systems that will help achieve better outcomes for this population.

As an educator, I’m very understanding of individuals getting things wrong. Half of my training is telling professionals it’s okay to make mistakes. In our general culture, we have only really been talking about trans topics for the last couple of years. Gay culture has only really been something we’ve talked about for the last thirty. There is a big difference between someone who is queerphobic and someone who has queerphobic beliefs. This is the difference between explicit bias and illicit bias. Folks sitting around, actively wishing the death and harm of another group of people are relatively rare. Folks who have beliefs built or normalized through illicit bias that contribute to systems that harm others are a significantly larger group. Many times explicit bias and illicit bias work together to form our worldviews, an example being Ben Schapiro believes there is no such thing as systematic racism

The biggest difficulty in discussions around Chappelle is that we as a culture do not understand this difference. I feel safe in saying that Chappelle is not a person who actively wants harm to happen to the trans community. He has thought a great deal about trans issues and come up with the best answers he probably could, which are rooted in the cultural and social norms we have today (illicit bias).

The reason we get such a polarity of responses to his work and so many people saying his work is fine or equal opportunity hate or the knife at trans peoples throats is due to what we’re able to see of this work. There is a stark difference between how he feels about what he says and the actual impact what he says will have. “Hate the sin, Love the Sinner” was a phrase Christians used that they felt was kind, while at the same time it alienated queer family members by being passive-aggressive and judgmental. And these aren’t adults that have the agency to find other people or get over it, these can be kids who have nobody in their life who supports them.

It can be easy to watch this special and think he didn’t cross any lines, that he just laid his truth out there, and did his best to make us all laugh. It is easy to see that when you live in a culture that still has normalized many anti-queer beliefs. I think the Closure would serve as a great time capsule to look at exactly where we are with trans issues culturally in 2021. I honestly think Dave perfectly toes this line and just reflects what the audience already believes back at them. That the queer community is whiny, marred in white privilege, that everyone can spot a trans woman, and that come on, gender is a fact.

There is a line that talks about how a comedian should be afraid of getting more applause than laughs, because applause means you’re just feeding the crowd what they want to hear. Chapelle’s special has 32 audience cheers, 38 applauses, and 42 laughs. While Netflix’s CEO backs keeping this special on the air, in a memo saying Chapelle's work doesn’t cross a line or do any harm, Hannah Gadsby responded:

“Hey Ted Sarandos! Just a quick note to let you know that I would prefer if you didn’t drag my name into your mess,” she wrote. “Now I have to deal with even more of the hate and anger that Dave Chappelle’s fans like to unleash on me every time Dave gets 20 million dollars to process his emotionally stunted partial word view.”

Regardless of what Chapelle intended, regardless of the message people can take from this, you can see a large portion of the audience is there to hear and cheer on someone shitting on trans people or the LGBTQ+ community. That this special becomes a rallying cry for anti-queer bigots to gather and spread hate.

White Privilege

Before I get into everything else, I’d like to say that as a white bitch, racism in the queer community is a huge problem. When we added black and brown to the pride flag, some white gay people got very very upset. There is a story he tells about almost throwing down with a big gay white guy, before that person calls the cops on him.

“Gay people are minorities, until they need to be White again.”

I think this is an important look at white privilege and how our systems are both racist and upholding racism. He has a story of a black slave who is freed, then gets some land, farms it very well, gets money, and then buys and breeds slaves. That this black slave owner was so cruel to the slaves he owned, other white slave owners were appalled. And I think this is a good juxtaposition to show we can all uphold racist or queerphobic power dynamics. That even if you have a marginalized experience, like being queer, you can be fucking awful, especially to your own people or towards other groups. We see this with how many wealthy, white gay and lesbian people would love to remove transgender people from their efforts for equal rights. We see this in how well funded marriage equality was, but where is the funding to fight against the transphobic legislation Chapelle mentions? The gay movement has gotten as far as it did because of rich gay people using those privileges to erase the laws or perspectives negatively impacting them — but this umbrella is a small one and most of us are still getting wet.

He looked up the definition of feminism, but he should’ve looked further to intersectional feminism. When I do work to improve outcomes for queer youth, that must include racial justice, because how can I help queer youth if I’m failing queer youth of color. I know black and indigenous kids in our state experience significant amounts of racially motivated bullying and homelessness. Queer kids of color experience all of that queerphobia, often from their families, and racism from schools, so where do they even go? A black trans girl in North Dakota has better odds of not surviving their youth in this state and I really hate this is the person we lose when Chapelle insists his criticisms with queer people are criticisms with whiteness. And I will say, sometimes they are, sometimes he has completely valid things to say about how shitty white people are or how real white privilege is and I’d love to keep that comedy while removing the jokes that just serve to invalidate trans people.

And while people look uncritically at this work and say that he hates on everyone, so why should queer people be protected or special? And the main reason is that a lot of us have struggles and adversary, absolutely, but it’s queer youth who are rejected by their own families; beaten or kicked out of their home because of the negative messaging. And this is bad for a lot of kids, but it disproportionately impacts queer youth and the outcomes we see for this population. Queer adults hear significantly more awful and abusive messages than anything Chapelle has ever said. And when we look at his comedy, most of us are not looking at it from the lens of being whiny or entitled or offended. We are looking at it, exhausted that another person with a lot of fame, power, and wealth decided to spend more than half an hour making shallow pandering jokes. We are looking at it, because we have to again do a mountain of work to make sure kids know they’re valid, make sure parents stop hitting them, and give hope to a lot of them that don’t have it. And while he tries to frame the entire discussion around white queer people, a lot of reads as queer vs black.

Queer History

Chapelle his this mistaken idea that queer people came out of nowhere and suddenly have way more protections and social acceptance than black people.

“Why is it easier for Bruce Jenner to change his gender than it is for Cassius Clay to change his name?”

The answer is because Caitlyn Jenner is rich and because this is a fifty year difference. In the 1960s trans women were being arrested for cross dressing. They were being sexually assaulted and violently beaten by police officers. Medical treatment is nearly impossible to get and while we don’t have a lot of information to look back on, I don’t know how easily they were able to get their names changed. To this day, most trans people struggle to get their name changed because of the cost, which can be between $100 to $500 depending on state. Judges sometimes deny them because it doesn’t match their appearance. They could be presenting as one gender, have a different gender name, and open themselves up to harassment or violence or discrimination because of this. And for black trans people all of that is true, plus the racial components of inequality. Just last year the supreme court determined that firing someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity was wrong, but legally nobody has to bake us cakes. We don’t even have full inclusion in the Civil Rights Act a full 50 years after it was written.

None of this is to say black folks aren’t experiencing systematic racism, but intersectional feminism is understanding that systems of oppression hurt us all. You cannot look at the wealthiest trans people to gauge how this community is doing, like you can’t look at the wealthiest cis straight black person to determine racism. You can’t look at Eliot Page’s transition and think every trans man will be able to do that. And this can’t be a discussion on who has it worse, people experience different hardships that don’t invalidate each other.

Dave mentions how during his first look at making jokes about trans people, he got criticism. Specifically, he was told not to punch down. He expressed that this criticism is what he would go on to hear repeated time and time again. He told a story about talking to a trans person who told him not to punch down.

“Ain’t that weird? “My people this, my people that.” I said, “What do you mean, your people?” Were you all kidnapped in Transylvanian, brought here as slaves? [laughter] She said, “My people have struggled for decades, honey, decades.” And I looked at them gay Black dudes, like. “Is there anything you n*ggas need to tell this bitch? [laughter] Clifford, Clifford?”

He makes the comparison between queer people’s struggles as this recent thing, happening in decades compared to 400 years of black oppression. Forget that black queer people were suffering through that all, but he makes a joke about AIDS earlier on. The AID’s pandemic of the 1980s where the government let over 300,000 people die. Think of the pink triangles of WWII concentration camps. Think of the genocide and colonizations that erased gender diversity in cultures around the world. Think about the Hay’s Code that made it mandatory to show queer people in a negative light in 1934. The reason Dave is so comfortable with the gender construct is because for centuries LGBTQ+ people have been violently erased.

“Do you see where I am going with this? In our country, you can shoot and kill a n*gga but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings.”

And look at how much truth is there. Black lives are not valued by our system and each year another dozen unarmed black people die violent enough deaths by police that they make the news and hundreds more are never reported on. We lose black lives through structural racism and violence. And absolutely we don’t talk about that enough. A white woman goes missing and the whole world asks where she is, when we have thousands of missing and murdered indenious women that get nearly no attention. And you get white rich gay boys being prissy and shitty about all of this. And while Dave tries to make this distinction, do you believe his audience can? Do you believe his audience is hearing these jokes to be targeted at the gay white wealthy people or see jokes about the entire community? The line continues to blur and when a black gay man talks about injustice, a person will think about Dave’s special and see him as being overly sensitive. They will not listen to the struggles or power dynamics. When you devalue the experiences of oppression of one group, you are devaluing all experiences of oppression, questioning their legitimacy, and perpetuating further harm.

I’m providing education here that seems to be lacking in Chapelle's perspective, but I wouldn’t and could never say being a white queer person is harder than being a straight black person. These are different sets of struggles and something black queer black people have to content with the overlapping.

And Dave talks again and again about respecting the struggle of stonewall, he mentions that a black gay man would never call the cops, acknowledges we all have adversity, but just doesn’t seem to recognize what life is actually like for most gay and trans people on the bottom trying to survive. Trans folks have experienced significant structural violence from the police and would never make that call either. Dave starts the special talking about being rich and famous and it’s likely the people he interacts with are probably about there too, creating a really distorted perception for what it’s really like for most of us.

Can’t You Take a Joke?

This becomes the trickiest thing to tackle in all of this, because you can’t seem to criticize this work without being treated as overly sensitive. I mean, that’s exactly what the special does. This means, criticisms that are legitimate or not, are all seen in the same lens. People come away from this with a very strong message and assume people who get that message either didn’t watch the special or didn’t get it. That people trying to ‘cancel’ Dave are all malicious or part of some agenda. This aura of comedy becomes this level of unaccountability.

And worth saying, I’m not offended by his special. I’m an educator in illicit bias training and I’m just doing my job here. I’m looking at these words, what they mean, and the impact they have. As a kid I was on 4chan saying the worst things you could possibly imagine because I thought it made me cool to say the most offensive thing I could to get a reaction. This special is tame in comparison to what you can find out there. Here is a joke of his that I mostly liked:

“I’ve gone too far, I’ve said too much. But I got to tell you, I’m very worried about it. I’m not even joking with you. Every time I come out onstage, I be scared. I be lookin’ around the crowd, searching. For knuckles and Adam’s apples to see where the threats might be coming from. A n*gga came up to me on the street the other day. He said, “Careful, Dave, they after you.” I said, “What?” “One they, or many theys?”

That’s a funny use of pronouns there, honestly super great, but it also comes packaged with the thought trans women are violent and burly — which is a harmful stereotype that is used to fearmonger around trans people and doesn’t need to be included to make this joke work. Does the joke below still work?

“I’ve gone too far, I’ve said too much. But I got to tell you, I’m very worried about it. I’m not even joking with you. Every time I come out onstage, I be scared. I be lookin’ around the crowd, searching to see where the threats might be coming from. A n*gga came up to me on the street the other day. He said, “Careful, Dave, they after you.” I said, “What?” “One they, or many theys?”

There is this false belief out there that you can easily spot a trans person. Most of Chapelle’s special is talking about this and always framing descriptions of trans women around masculine features, stereotypes, and biological essentialism. This belief you can spot a trans woman has lead to cisgender women experiencing harassment or violence trying to use the rest room. There was a story some time ago, where a woman’s arm was broken by a bouncer as she was dragged out of a club’s restroom because people thought she was trans.

People watch this special, they get told their belief you can easily spot someone who is trans is valid, then using their own discretion will hurt any woman who doesn’t look exactly like how we demand women look. Biology is diverse, non-trans women can be tall, have broad shoulders, have pronounced adams apples, have male pattern hair growth that’s common with PCOS, and it goes on. Chapelle even has a story where he nearly beat up a butch lesbian because he perceived her as male. He’s so close to getting the point. Will some women who’ve had very high levels of testosterone for some of their life develop more masculine features that signify high levels of androgens? Yes. Will that mean all trans women? No. And typically in these examples you get folks looking for the most manly looking woman possible to prove some point. Being a marginalized community, not having significant power to speak for or represent yourself means single trans individuals are tokenized for the entire community. If one trans woman doesn’t pass these standards than no trans women could. If one trans woman says you aren’t transphobic, then you’re immune from every other person.

And here is the thing. This special doesn’t hurt trans people by making them offended or hurting their feelings. Do you think a person who was told by their parents, “You are dead to me” is going to cry that some comedian is making impossible whopper jokes? The reason people are criticizing this special isn’t to protect trans people’s feelings, it is to limit the violence they experience by the people who cheer on the material. That isn’t something trans people and those who care about them can just avoid. So many comments amount to, ‘If you don’t like it, don’t watch it.’ Queer kids can’t stop their parents from watching it and coming away with a reinforcement of beliefs that will harm their kid. Here is a slide from a training on queer outcomes from a conference.

Dave Chapelle says that gender is a fact, but the fact is we have decades of medical literature pointing to biological diversity. He jokes that a trans woman’s vagina is like the impossible burger, but it’s actually just a regular vagina. And this is one of the hardest things for someone who has such a background in the outcomes and medical science. We have the answers that being trans is a physiological thing, not a psychological thing. Trans women are not men who believe they’re women. They are not people we’re allowing to play fantasy or engage in blackface. And every statement that insists otherwise is extremely damaging and harmful because it results in parental rejection, exclusionary laws, and mistreatment.

And a person reading this may think that I missed the story about Daphne and living a human experience. I didn’t. It was powerful and moving and a really good story. If all of his trans content was that story and a few surrounding jokes I wouldn’t be writing this. But he’s saying gender is a fact and young trans kids coming out to their family are going to be told that and their real experiences of gender dysphoria will be disregarded. They are getting set up to be rejected or not know the difference between their parents hating their “sin” or them.

In North Dakota, 61.1 percent of our queer youth seriously consider attempting suicide. 84.6% of these kids don’t turn to adults when they’re feeling sad, empty, hopeless, or angry. This is CDC Data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. These kids are experiencing extremely negative messages around being queer, getting bullied at school and at home, and have nobody they can talk to about it. Then, when they have the courage to tell their parents, their parents, just fresh from watching the Chapelle tell them, ‘Sounds like you got punched in the AIDs today.’ Hilarious. (Also worth noting trans women of color have the highest incidence of HIV of any demographic.)

One thing that is less obvious to straight non-trans folks who watch this is that the jokes he uses are incredibly stale. I’ve mentioned queer people have heard worse, well they’ve also heard these jokes a dozen times. They’re the same jokes every family member makes trying to be clever and not fundamentally caring. Is it so hard to understand someone who has these lived experiences may have a different and valid perspective to the harm they are causing? Why do so many folks, not impacted by this humor, feel so qualified to say it’s fine. It’s insane to me. The facts are the jokes are pretty stale, the special will be a rallying cry against woke culture, and be used to abuse or hurt queer folks.

It’s America, you don’t have to and won’t care about this, so why get so invested in saying the comedy is morally fine? Go ahead and laugh, it’s not like you’re structurally improving trans people’s lives anyways or working to make trans people more accepted. Not like you hear the names we read off each year of the trans women, especially trans women of color that die to violence. Do you work in homeless youth efforts? Do you work in healthcare trying to save people’s lives? Do you work in mental health or as a child advocate? The real joke here is people pretending they care, but their only effort ever is trying to make themselves feel better. The rallying cry of ‘we need to cancel cancel culture’ and to what end? I don’t really care about any of that, my focus is in trying to protect queer youth and that’s why I’m even speaking on any of this. I research the epidemiology of youth outcomes and while I’m not the best or smartest in this world, I have hundreds of hours of looking at data when I type these things out. These aren’t feelings, these are real world results.

But let’s take a moment to laugh and here is a joke that works at punching up.

“Here’s an idea I have for a movie, The Karening. It’s a white wealthy transition story, so we’ll get Caitlyn Jenner for the lead. It’ll kind of play like a super power flick, where as she transitions she figures out she has this new white fragility power, hell she can make black people disappear with a phone call. She’s new to shopping for clothes, but she’s not new to being a bitch. This summer, see her absolutely destroy employees of JCPennies

“Karen, you gotta decide right now — tax breaks for your wealth or inclusive trans protections.”

“Sorry babe, what did you’d say? I need to head out for a ted cruise if you know what I mean.”

I’m not a comedian, so hey, maybe you have to misgender trans people to make a joke work?

Daphne Dorman

It’s deeply ironic that the trope of using a black friend to justify being racist is lost on Dave Chapelle using a trans woman to justify not being transphobic. That so many people who support racist institutes or positions try to find a black person agreeing with them to prove that it isn’t a racism thing. And his special he talks about Daphne being a friend and using her memory and her death.

The impression the reader will get is that she defended him and experienced abuse from the queer community and took her own life because of it. And we as the viewer get to feel sad for his loss and his trauma, while at the same time making a broader point about the community itself being too critical, unwelcoming, and toxic. And the queer community can be this. This is a community that grows up with significant trauma, a community that knows loss, a community that often experiences physical and emotional abuse from adults in their life, where everyone is gauged for safety or danger. And when someone says something that mirrors what apologists or abusers have said, even with the intention, there is a reaction to treat that person as entirely bad.

Community canceling is a real thing, it’s very toxic and fucked up and a great video on this can be seen with ContraPoints if one actually cares to learn about this impact outside using someone’s death. And ContraPoints is herself a controversial figure in the trans community. I think regardless of how anyone feels about the creator, it is a powerful look at community canceling (which is different then the fake canceling that happens when rich wealthy people say things and they’re criticized and write a letter with 200 of their other rich wealthy friends bemoaning free speech is dead. See, there are great jokes to be had everywhere.)

That said, you get a different story from Daphne’s roommate and friend, who reframes the encounter as saying she doesn’t know if Dave Chapelle’s special caused Daphne to die by suicide.

“I’m not going to say I know for sure 100% that Dave Chapelle making fun of Daphne in his 2019 special is what caused her death. I don’t think it was the main cause, but who knows. Daphne had PTSD from a life of trauma and she had battled suicidal thoughts for years. I think the final blow was a combination of her losing custody of her daughter, losing her job, and dealing with a lot of transphobic harassment on the streets of San Francisco.”

And it’s really convenient to lay her death at the door of transgender people and not call to attention the transphobia they experience that contributes to alarming high suicides across the board. And this is something we know is a result of cultural exclusion, discrimination, rejection, and so forth. When queer individuals experience social acceptance, suicide signficantly drops.

The Harm

“If you listen to what I’m saying, I’m not even talking about them, I’m talking about us and “they don’t listen.” It’s very annoying. And they have canceled people, more powerful than me. They canceled J.K. Rowling, my God. J.K. Rowling wrote all the Harry Potter books by herself. She sold so many books, the Bible worries about her.

“And they canceled it because, she said in an interview and this is not exactly what she said, but effectually she said that gender was a fact. And then the trans community got mad as shit, they started calling her a TERF.”

She wrote 3600 word essay that conflated her experiences of sexual assault to why transgender women are dangerous and why trans influencer are harming young girls, after publicly defending a woman who was harassing trans women and not renewed for a contract at her job. She, much like Chapelle does with race, created a framework of that pitted cisgender woman’s struggles in opposition to transgender people. She also mentioned how she has trans friends who agree with her. That’s great, come back when you have a trans person of color with a background in community advocacy who agrees with you. I’ll wait.

“I didn’t even know, what the fuck that was. But I know that trans people make up words to win arguments. [laughter] So I looked it up. TERF is an acronym. It stands for Trans-exclusionary radical feminist. This is a real thing, this is a group of women… that hate transgender. They don’t hate transgender women but they look at trans women the way we Blacks might look at Black face. It offends them like, “Oh, this bitch is doing an impression of me.”

Transgender people don’t come up with the word TERF, this was coined a long time ago by cisgender radical feminists who didn’t want anything to do with transphobia. There is an incredibly long essay breaking down both what the TERF ideology is and how they form arguments. It basically reads as a draft, because the author didn’t believe anyone would actually care to read it. People don’t want to learn, they just want to argue what they already believe and try to win. I work in North Dakota, there is no ‘winning’ by appealing to empathy or feelings. I have to work just on the data and even then I only can get so far. I would be laughed out of a room if my presentations talked about feelings or how offensive language is without looking at the structural data and outcomes within reports and studies.

Anyways, TERF was really codified in the Transsexual Empire by Janice Raymond in 1979. It was a 2nd wave reactionary look at transgender women and drawing the line between what they felt was real woman’s struggles. Ironically or what’s that other word? Completely expectedly, Janice seemed to base her criticisms off a wealthy white trans woman she knew and believed all trans experiences were similar. Regardless, her points are something we’ve dealt with within feminism for 40 years and the talking points have never changed. These aren’t just discussions in a vacuum, they were directly responded for why our government didn’t cover surgery for a good three decades. These folks aren’t interested in learning, they’re interested in attacking and upholding a worldview and Judith Butler has been very vocal on the harm of TERF ideology

“So the Terfs will not be part of the contemporary struggle against fascism, one that requires a coalition guided by struggles against racism, nationalism, xenophobia and carceral violence, one that is mindful of the high rates of femicide throughout the world, which include high rates of attacks on trans and genderqueer people.”

What Chapelle doesn’t understand when he allies himself with TERFS, who believe gender is a fact, he is aligning himself with people who will gladly vote a racist or sexist person into government if they promise to make laws excluding trans people. White supremacists have loved to see this infighting and lack of group or class solidarity. So long as you hate trans people, you can get anyone's vote. It’s a very unified phenomenon where all these sides that are often pitted against each other can come together to share the discomfort of a woman with a penis. And we’re given this really conflicting message, that trans people have all this power, that they can cancel anyone, that nobody can say anything these days — then see more anti-trans bills hitting government floors than any year in recorded history. Maybe, just maybe this notion of the trans boogieman isn’t actually real and is used as a strawman to continue to systematically oppress and hurt a group of people while ignoring their cries of pain. Whose to say? Except all those anti-trans bills and nobody getting canceled ever and a casual glance at law, representation, and outcomes.

And what Chapelle is doing in this section, presenting TERFs as not being hateful bigots, but rather just upset at “woman-face”, he is saying they’re okay. That they have legitimate concerns that are equal to the racism inherent in blackface. He is saying a trans woman who transitions is engaging in a kind of blackface. And there is no ‘ha ha’ joke here. The joke happens later when goes on to say:

“Now… I am not saying that to say, that trans women aren’t women. I’m just sayin, that those pussies that they got… You know what I mean?”

This reads like the start to, “I’m not racist but”. I see a young trans girl talking to her mom about needing to transition and about how they know they’re a girl, but are really afraid to talk about it. I can see that mom saying, “we’ll do what we need to, but you’ll always be my little baby boy. I know you identify as a girl, but you biologically male.”

And if you don’t have hundreds of hours of study into biology or the medical history of the trans experience, it can be very hard to think outside of the sex binary. If you only ever think about sex in terms of genitals or have some assumptions about genetics and DNA, you could only see sex as a person with a penis or a person who can give birth. But these big ideas we all have are socially constructed. We are bodies that are acted on by testosterone or estrogen and with intersex folks and genetic diversity and the complexity of development, we’ve created female and male as useful categories that we try to fit everyone into. That isn’t a problem and it has a lot of uses, but to then take that system and try to govern everybody under it is. To think there are people who are intrinsically male or female, who are born one way and regardless of development will always be categorically male or female isn’t accurate. And a lot of this is very useful in medicine, because if you run lab work on a trans woman as male or a trans man as female, you’ll get false flags. Our endocrinology defines most of what we’d considered sexed characteristics and informs ranges within lab work. And regardless of looking at this within a medical lens, feminism is about abolishing these gender roles. It is about allowing individuals to express and be themselves without regard to arbitrary categories. Trans activism at its heart is about empowerment of autonomy that is a benefit to every marginalized person in the intersectional fight against oppression.

And while we’re here, a bone marrow transplant can change your DNA. Most people don’t know their DNA and a lot more people have incongruent DNA to their development than you’d expect. Secondary sexual characters are dependent on hormones and primary characters are dependent on more than just chromosomes — the scrY gene having a lot of responsibility for masculinization. There are folks with XY chromosomes who have developed uteruses and even given birth. There are trans men who’ve given birth as well. There are women who are born without our with an underdeveloped uterus who are unable to bear children and to define womanhood or sex within this narrow focus is only really ever done to exclude trans women and to the harm of all women. This has been debated for decades, we have answers, and reducing the identity of womanhood down specific to parts is the very sexism women have fought against. This is why it isn’t just trans people stepping up against this idea sex is a fact, it is leaders in feminisms like Butler. The idea only trans people care or are fighting against this is a convenient framing device to pretend it’s trans people vs transphobes and not everyone against transphobic notions.

So, what we have here is Dave speaking to millions and millions of people and telling them Queer people are too sensitive. We are told gender is a fact. That TERFS have a bad rap. That Trans people will make up anything to win an argument. That all of this criticism is just a joke, being cancelled is a joke, and hey I have a trans friend so I know I’m right. But people. Butt people. Listen. Empathy goes both ways. Stop being so awful queer people. My friend who died? I’m going to support her daughter, I’m going to wait until she is old enough, then the first thing I’m going to do is misgender her dead mom, who I’ll remind you was my friend, my tribe, who probably lost custody of her daughter because of trans discrimination, because misgendering her will be pretty fucking funny. Thank you and good night!

People have the belief that misgendering someone doesn’t matter, but research disagrees. Do you want a survey of 40,000 kids? Do you want a Medical Article talking about it? Do you want more clinical research? He probably has no idea a common fear that trans youth and adults have is being erased when they die. So, one of his final jokes here is interesting, here is what he actually said:

“The daughter is very young, but I hope to be alive when she turns 21 ’cause I’m going to give her this money myself. And by then, by then, I’ll be ready to have the conversation that I’m not ready to have today. But I’ll tell that little girl, “Young lady, I knew your father… [audience laughs] …and he was a wonderful woman.”

It feels like the narrative closing to this arc is on a high note. Doesn’t that read as ultimately accepting? Doesn’t it just make light of the situation and be read as something Daphne herself would probably enjoy? I think most audiences without any close trans friends or family, would walk away thinking this guys alright. And you know, he is. It’s about as good as you get on average these days, which is why 61.1% of our queer youth are seriously considering suicide. Why more than half experience significant problems with bullying on and off school property, with mental health, with homelessness, and trafficking.

When defending the notion he wasn’t punching down, he used the words of the dead:

And the hardest thing for a person to do is go against their tribe if they disagree with their tribe, but Daphne did that for me. She wrote a tweet that was very beautiful and what she said was and it is almost exactly what she said. She said, “Punching down on someone, requires you to think less of them and I know him, and he doesn’t. He doesn’t punch up, he doesn’t punch down he punches lines, and he is a master at his craft.” That’s what she said.

I don’t think that’s a good definition of punching down and it is one that categorically would exempt Chapelle from doing this. Chapelle doesn’t think less of folks, he knows we’re all struggling. What’s happening in this special though is he is delivering his opinions to millions of people without significant knowledge on the harm those opinions may have. And in regard to his queer comedy, it is just really shallow jokes. It doesn’t really make people think differently about anything. As I mentioned earlier, applause means you’re just feeding them what they want to hear: 32 audience cheers, 38 applauses, and 42 laughs.

So, the real question for Chapelle becomes something he left The Chappelle show over. This fear that people were laughing at him, rather than with him. And as he spends 37 minutes or more than half of his comedy special on trans topics. Is the audience laughing with these jokes or at trans people? He says this is his last special, that he is done talking about queer topics, until he’s better and can be sure everyone is laughing — so why is it okay now. How can you know your dead friend is fine with this? How come you didn’t look into her struggles as a trans person more, talk about those hardships, and instead framed her entire story around how you’re a good person? Why did you spend several minutes talking about how much she sucked and bombed, how great you were to give her a chance, how she didn’t pass, bomb her comedy, how you pushed away her huge, but not talk about why she joked and what she brought to comedy? Why not reach out to Janet Mock to run through your comedy first? Why not talk to trans women of color to see ways you could really get deep and make some jokes that’d shake.

I think the story of Daphne going back and forth, ending with her saying nobody needs to understand everything, but they need to know I’m having a human experience is powerful. I’m glad Dave shared that and I think it’s important. I educate by saying you can make mistakes and take time to learn and grow on these issues. I, like most people criticizing Chapelle, don’t want him cancelled or for the special to be erased. We just want better conversations to happen, because our kids are dying. I want to be able to have these conversations without all discussion trying to get through this wall of disregard of being sensitive, a snowflake, agenda, vindictive or whatever. And while I acknowledge that many in the queer community can be extremely toxic in these conversations, we do have to recognize the power imbalance at play. These discussions aren’t happening in vacuums free of consequence. Straight, cisgender people will not see their lives or rights or mental health ever significantly change because of this, while queer people get to see an onslaught of new legislation denying equal access. And all the while the white straight cis people are trying to make both black and gay issues banned in school. So…instead of asking another marginalized group to not punch down, I’d rather end by saying, can we all just punch up?

Tomorrow Chapelle will have millions of dollars and the agency to do pretty much anything he wants with his life. Folks will argue online and nothing will ultimately come from it. A walkout may happen at Netflix and it won’t cancel Chapelle and it won’t stop people from saying harmful things, but it will send a message to kids that somebody is fighting for them. And that’s what they need right now.



Faye Seidler

I write essays on literature, pop culture, video games, and reality. A throughline of my work is metanarrative horror and defining what it is to be human.