Dave Chappelle has received significant criticism for his jokes and comments about trans people in The Closer, his latest Netflix special that premiered on October 5. The backlash is not limited to media and Twitter commentary: Netflix employees have also been questioning the company’s decision to air the special.
The day after The Closer’s release, Netflix senior software engineer Terra Field posted a Twitter thread responding to the Chappelle special. On October 11, The Verge reported that Field, who is trans, had been suspended.
“I work at Netflix. Yesterday we launched another Chappelle special where he attacks the trans community, and the very validity of transness–all while trying to pit us against other marginalized groups,” she wrote. “You’re going to hear a lot of talk about ‘offense.’ We are not offended.”
Field then listed the names of 38 trans and non-binary people who have been killed in 2021, including 30-year-old Dominique “DeDe” Jackson in Mississippi, siblings Jeffrey “JJ” Bright, 16, and Jasmine Cannady, 22 in Pennsylvania, and 24-year-old Tiara Banks in Chicago. “These are the people that a callous disregard for the lives of trans people by our society have taken from us, and they all deserved better,” she wrote.
Responding to The Verge, Netflix said that Field and two other employees were suspended because they attempted to attend an upper-level meeting to which they had not been invited. “It is absolutely untrue to say that we have suspended any employee for tweeting about this show,” a spokesperson wrote. “Our employees are encouraged to disagree openly and we support their right to do so.” Another Netflix employee reportedly quit over issues with the Chappelle special.
Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos sent an internal email saying the company doesn’t “allow titles on Netflix that are designed to incite hate or violence, and we don’t believe The Closer crosses that line.”
During the comedy set, Chappelle talks about the challenges faced by Black people and contrasts them to those of queer and trans people, seeming to ignore the overlap between both populations. Chappelle has consistently been a champion for Black Americans–his 2020 special 8:46 was named for the amount of time police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck before he died–but he’s often been critical of LGBTQ+ folks. In his 2019 Netflix performance Sticks & Stones, he laments how in the entertainment industry “you are never, ever allowed to upset the alphabet people.”
“Watching Chappelle contort himself to justify ashy ideas about gender, queerness and identity is harrowing, because the only thing more brutal than someone saying hurtful shit is someone saying hurtful shit moments after making you laugh, moments after cracking you up in a way that’s both fun and deeply needed, moments after you making you feel like you all got free together,” Saeed Jones wrote in a GQ essay about the comedian’s new material.
In one widely-circulated clip from The Closer, Chappelle blasted people for “cancelling” J.K. Rowling. ““EffectuallyEffectually, she said gender was a fact, 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…This is a real thing. This is a group of women that hate transgender woman–they don’t hate transgender women, but they look at trans women the way we Blacks might look at blackface. It offends them. Like ‘Ugh, this bitch is doing an impression of me.’”
(TERF stands for “Trans-exclusionary radical feminist,” a label that has often been placed on Rowling for her rhetoric.)
“Promoting TERF ideology (which is what we did by giving it a platform yesterday) directly harms trans people, it is not some neutral act,” Field wrote. “This is not an argument with two sides. It is an argument with trans people who want to be alive and people who don’t want us to be.”
At the conclusion of the special, Chappelle talks about his friendship with comedian Daphne Dorman, a trans woman who committed suicide in October 2019. He shares a story of a show where Dorman opened for him and the two ultimately had a back-and-forth exchange during Chappelle’s set.
He recalled that at the end of the show, he said, “‘Daphne, that was fun. I love you to death, but I have no fucking idea what you’re talking about.’ … She looks at me like I’m not her friend anymore, like I’m something bigger than me, like I’m the whole world in a guy. And she said, ‘I don’t need you to understand me. I just need you to believe that I’m having a human experience.’”
Dorman’s family has offered support for Chappelle in the wake of the backlash, calling him “an LGBTQ ally.” They also said that Chappelle had set up a college fund for Dorman’s daughter.
Comedian Dahlia Belle responded to Chappelle’s routine in a column for The Guardian, particularly taking offense at the way he shared his story about Dorman. “The marginalization, mockery, dehumanization, and violence many of us face everyday of most of our lives is what fuels our despair. For you to use Daphne’s tragedy as your closing tag is the only thing you’ve done that’s made me angry enough to write a letter,” she wrote.
Since Chappelle re-emerged in 2017 following a long hiatus, he has repeatedly made jokes about trans people despite requests from fans to not do so and critiques in the press. Past specials like Sticks & Stones have also been points of contention among queer comedians.
Given the stance taken by Sarandos and Netflix, it’s unlikely anything will change about The Closer. But it has already had ripple effects through the entertainment industry, as Dear White People showrunner Jaclyn Moore has said she will no longer work with the company over Chappelle’s material.