Transphobia is defined as the fear or hatred of trans people. But all too often, it is applied much more widely than that. Disagree with a trans person, and you could well be labelled as transphobic; look at us a ‘bit funny’ and we may report you for hate crime. Poke fun at us, and heaven help you.
Comedian Dave Chappelle pulls no punches when it comes to the transgender community. In The Closer – his latest Netflix special – he is direct and uncompromising. But – and this is important – he plays the ball rather than the man. His target is not us but the ideology that has sprung up around us: a pseudo-religious doctrine that demands everyone believe that a man can become a woman just because he says so. Chapelle’s victim is the epitome of privilege in America, an Olympic gold medallist, Kardashian and TV personality:
‘I asked you, Why is it easier for Bruce Jenner to change his gender than it is for Cassius Clay to change his name?’Dave Chappelle, The Closer
‘If you listen to what I am saying, I’m not even talking about them, I’m talking about us and they don’t listen…they have cancelled people more powerful than me.
They cancelled JK Rowling, my God. They cancelled (her) because she said in an interview that…gender was a fact.
And then the trans community got mad as shit, they started calling her a TERF. I didn’t even know what the fuck that was but I know that trans people make up words to win arguments.’Dave Chappelle, The Closer
A key theme running through Closer is one of oppression and the question of who is the more oppressed? The black community or LGBT people?
‘In our country you can shoot and kill a nigga,’ he says, ‘but you had better not hurt a gay person’s feelings. And this is precisely the disparity I wish to discuss.’
His evidence? American rapper, DaBaby, who back in 2018 admitted to being involved in the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old man inside a North Carolina Walmart. ‘Nothing bad happened to his career,’ says Chappelle. Indeed, charges were dropped. DaBaby claimed self defence and then went on to release two critically acclaimed, chart-topping albums. But after he made a series of remarks interpreted by some as homophobic, his career came crashing down. The disparity is clear and the audience laughed.
But his real target is transgender ideology. To Chappelle, it allows the privileged to punch down on the oppressed. This is America and privilege is white:
‘Any of you, who have ever watched me know that I’ve never had a problem with transgender people. If you listen to what I’m saying, clearly my problem has always been with White people. I’ve been arguing with the Whites my entire career. Just when I thought I had you guys on the ropes you changed all the rules. ‘Oh yeah?’ – Yeah, motherfucker! – ‘Well. I am a girl now, nigga. You must treat me as such.”Dave Chappelle, The Closer
Is this transphobia? Of course not. His account of his friendship with Daphne Dorman is touching and heartfelt. Dorman was a transwoman and wannabe stand-up comedian, who died tragically at the age of 44. ‘I don’t know what the trans community did for her but I don’t care, because I feel like she wasn’t their tribe, she was mine. She was a comedian in her soul,’ says Chappelle.
Six weeks before Dorman died in October 2019, Dorman wrote:
‘Punching down requires you to consider yourself superior to another group. Dave Chappelle doesn’t consider himself better than me in any way. He isn’t punching up or punching down. He’s punching lines. That’s his job and he’s a master of his craft.’Daphne Dorman
Yes, Chappelle is crude, cutting and outrageous. I don’t care much for his style – it’s too loud, too direct and too American for me – but his message is prophetic. Who punches up and who punches down – and who gets to choose – determines who gets to enjoy power. The backlash and petitions launched by the eternally outraged against Chappelle are inevitable. But perhaps these eager critics would do well to stop shouting about Chappelle’s ‘transphobia’ and instead listen to the verdict of people like Dorman.
Debbie Hayton is a teacher and journalist.