The Dangerous Myths About the Trans Community in Dave Chappelle’s Comedy
October 29, 2021
By Laura Erickson-Schroth and Laura A. Jacobs
Editor’s notes in italics: Art is no longer art when it spreads misinformation that can incite violence against marginalized communities. That’s the problem with Dave Chappelle’s latest Netflix special, The Closer. He doubles down on his transphobic screeds—retreads from his previous offerings on the streaming platform—in this seventy-two-minute stand-up concert.
To protest his special, Netflix employees staged a walk-out in support of their trans and nonbinary colleagues. Yes! Because the falsehoods he perpetuates are no joke. The mental health and lives of trans and nonbinary folx are at stake. Leading cultural commentators and comedians have rightfully taken issue with Chappelle’s concert in GQ, the Guardian, Vox, and the New York Times. Referring to Laura Erickson-Schroth and Laura A. Jacobs’s “You’re in the Wrong Bathroom!”: And 20 Other Myths and Misconceptions About Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming People, we’re going to cover the dangerous myths about the trans community laced all through it. He harps on three of them.
MYTH: You’ve Never Met a Transgender Person
In solidarity with JK Rowling, Chappelle proudly proclaims himself Team TERF because, as he says, “Gender is a fact.” To utter this betrays his ignorance around the distinction between gender and biological sex, and more importantly, his investment in the social construct of binary gender. In a bit before that, he facetiously asks, “What is a woman? What is that in this day and time? Is there even such a thing as a woman or a man or anything?” Here’s what Erickson-Schroth and Jacobs have to say:
The belief that transgender people are recognizably distinct from nontransgender people assumes that there is something we can pick out about a transgender person’s clothing, body shape, or speech that “gives them away.” It assumes that trans people never escape their “essential” gender assigned at birth—that they are never “really” a part of the gender with which they identify.
Why do we have this belief? What purpose does it serve? For one thing, it helps us to feel secure that we will not be “tricked” about someone’s gender. But why is it so important to us that we are not “tricked?” Some might argue that it is about genitals—that we want to know the genital status of the people we are going on a date with or going to the bathroom with. But why would—or should—we care about the genital status of people in the checkout line with us at the grocery store or in the seat across from us on the train?
Clearly the concern is not just about genitals; it’s also about gender. We have a lot of expectations about people based on their gender. We regulate the way boys and girls, men and women work, play, dress, and love each other. And if someone doesn’t fit into one of our gender categories, we’re not sure what to expect of them and may sometimes find ourselves upset. Transgender people are harassed, discriminated against, and all-too-often assaulted or murdered. Stepping outside of gender boundaries can provoke significant hostility. It’s crucial to ask ourselves why it bothers us so much to see these lines blurred.
MYTH: Trans People Are Trying to Trick Others
This continues a theme from the previous myth. Just listen to Chappelle’s comments about looking for knuckles and Adam’s apples on trans women in the audience who are “out to get him,” to see where the threats are coming from. It’s always trans women who “pose a threat” because they’re in disguise to do cisgendered men in. That couldn’t be further from the truth:
Trans people, especially trans women, are repeatedly cast as deceptive. A constant barrage of news stories portrays “unsuspecting” men who have been “fooled” into sleeping with trans women. Online forums such as Debate.org discuss whether it should be illegal for a trans person to sleep with someone without disclosing their trans identity. In 2013, a UK court of appeals sided with a teenage girl who claimed she had been sexually assaulted by a teenage trans boy because the two had dated and he had given her consensual oral and digital sex without disclosing that he was trans.
Though cisgender men are often painted as the victims in these stories, statistics demonstrate that it is the trans people who are commonly the subjects of emotional and physical violence. In August 2013, James Dixon and a few of his friends began chatting up a group of women on a New York City sidewalk. Among the women was Islan Nettles. Dixon reportedly asked Nettles if she was trans, and when she answered affirmatively, he began to beat her. He punched her so hard that her head hit the ground, causing her such serious brain injury that she died in a hospital five days later. “I just didn’t want to be fooled,” Dixon admitted during a police interview.
Every third day, a transgender person is reported murdered, and this is likely an underestimate, as many murders of trans people are never brought to the attention of authorities. Heterosexual cisgender men are, by far, the majority of perpetrators in these crimes, and there is social acceptability in some circles to claim “trans panic” as a defense—the idea that learning someone is trans can cause a temporary inability to prevent yourself from killing them. In 2014, California became the first state to ban “gay panic” or “trans panic” as defenses in court, but elsewhere in the United States these arguments are still permitted.
The concept of disclosure is very complex to a trans or gender-nonconforming person:
The first step in coming out is coming out to yourself. This can take a significant period of time—often years and sometimes decades. People who are exploring their gender identities often start by reaching out to online or in-person support groups in order to build community and hear stories so they can compare them to their own. Once they feel they understand themselves, they may begin to consider if and how to tell others.
Some trans people make a decision to be “stealth,” keeping their identities private from all or most people. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who feel it is important to be open to a large number of people about their identities, sometimes for political reasons. Almost all trans people are open to some people and not to others, and most fall somewhere in between these two ends of the spectrum.
Although there is often a lot of focus on trans people coming out to potential sexual or romantic partners, most people come out to those they are not intimately involved with, such as family, friends, and coworkers. Deciding who, how, and when to tell can be extremely complicated. For some people, coming out may not be a choice. For those who decide to make physical changes, it may be obvious to those around them that something is different about them.
MYTH: “You’re in the Wrong Bathroom!”
We’ve covered the bathroom myth in other blog posts, in this one and this one, but we’re including it here as well, because it’s low-hanging fruit for Chappelle. His fixation on his discomfort of using a urinal next to a trans woman in a public restroom makes him very basic. The bathroom scare, and the bills passed to protect cisgendered folks from trans women, come from this myth. Chappelle is so far in his feelings that he doesn’t understand how fraught using a public bathroom is for transgender people, as Erickson-Schroth and Jacobs explain here:
For transgender people, just going to a public bathroom—something all of us may need to do multiple times a day—can be extremely frightening. In the wake of numerous state bathroom bills, many transgender people have contributed to the hashtag #WeJustNeedToPee. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report focusing on trans youth and sex-segregated school facilities reveals that preventing youth from using bathrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity leads to numerous health and safety issues. A fourteen-year-old transgender girl in Texas who was forced to use the boys’ locker room was assaulted by a group of football players. A fifteen-year-old trans boy in Utah told HRW, “I just don’t go to the bathroom at school,” and another said, “I go home for lunch and use the bathroom there. And I don’t go for the rest of the day.”
Avoiding fluid intake or holding your bladder can lead to dehydration, urinary-tract infections, and kidney problems. In the HRW report, the mother of another transgender boy in Utah stated: “He told us about junior high and not going to the bathroom all day. He was getting bladder infections and we didn’t know why.” While the Department of Justice and the Department of Education have announced that Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 protects transgender students’ rights to use the facilities corresponding with their gender identity, a number of states have sued to challenge the federal government’s interpretation.
As long as Chappelle focuses on race and race relations between Blacks and Whites, his comedy is shrewd, insightful, and cutting at the moments where it matters. When it comes to gender, the trans community, the queer community at large, and the intersections of race and class with those identities, he is out of his depth, underinformed, and willfully ignorant. He clearly needs proper schooling on these issues, which he won’t get from the enlightenment of his perfunctory Google keyword searches. Erickson-Schroth and Jacobs’s book would be a good start. Because without it, his comedy is no different from the tirades of cis-het men at the mic, chronically cranky about not keeping up with the changing world.
What was that joke he made in The Closer about the woman who confronted him in a parking lot about his misogyny? The one where, at the end of the exchange, he blew her off and told her to save her breath for the comments section? We have news for you, Dave. Your whole concert was a comments-section rant.
About the Authors
Laura Erickson-Schroth, MD, MA (New York, NY), is a psychiatrist working with LGBTQ people in New York City. She is the editor of Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, a resource guide written by and for transgender people.
Laura A. Jacobs, LCSW-R is a psychotherapist, activist, author, and public speaker in the NYC area. She is co-author of “You’re In The Wrong Bathroom!” and 20 Other Myths and Misconceptions about Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming People, and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, one of the largest LGBTQ+ health centers in the nation. Follow her on Twitter at @LauraAJacobsNYC and visit her website.