Gag Reflex

Being Transgender Can Be Funny, but Not for the Reasons Dave Chappelle Thinks

Trans people can laugh at themselves and being trans. But Dave Chappelle’s latest TV special, which includes a number of anti-trans jokes, is simply boorish and cruelly offensive.


Mathieu Bitton/Netflix

I agree with Dave Chappelle about this much: Being transgender is “kind of fucking hilarious.”

“I’ve never seen somebody in such a hilarious predicament, not have a sense of humor about it,” the comedian claims, in one of the over 10 minutes’ worth of jokes he tells about transgender people in Equanimity, one of his latest hourlong Netflix specials.

In my experience, transgender people do indeed have a sense of humor about our unique place in the world; we just don’t appreciate the sort of degrading and dehumanizing humor that Chappelle seems so fond of spouting in his Netflix specials, like calling Caitlyn Jenner’s genitals a “man-pussy” or jokingly equating sex reassignment surgery with “cutting off” a penis.

I know that I laugh at myself. I do find it funny—in a cringe comedy sort of way—when a nurse asks me for the date of my last menstrual cycle because I still haven’t figured out the most artful way of explaining that I have a vagina but no ovaries.

I joke about “male-to-female” USB adapters and I have made more than my fair share of bad puns on the trans- prefix.

Years ago, when I found myself driving through rush-hour Atlanta traffic to a cryogenic laboratory with a vial of my sperm wrapped in a sweater on the passenger seat—something that I did as a precaution before starting estrogen to give me a chance of one day having biological children—I did think to myself, “What a strange situation I’ve found myself in.” I could almost hear the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme.

But when other people laugh at women like me for the wrong reasons—because they think we are really men, or they think that a man who sleeps with us must be gay—I no longer find it funny. And that’s exactly the kind of humor that Chappelle seems determined to perpetuate.

I’m loath to be one of the many critics to call him out for it, though, because as Stereo Williams recently observed for The Daily Beast, Chappelle seems to have turned offending audiences into a “badge of honor.”

Participating in the Internet Outrage Machine feels almost fruitless because I’ll just get labeled “politically correct,” as many LGBT people who criticize stand-up comedy do.

Indeed, Chappelle’s fresh batch of transgender jokes in Equanimity seems to be a direct response to the criticism he received over his earlier 2017 Netflix special Deep in the Heart of Texas in which he called a transgender woman a “man in a dress” and balked at the notion that he should be expected to use female pronouns to describe her.

“You know who hates me the most?” Chappelle asks his Equanimity audience early on in the special. “The transgender community. Yo, yeah these motherfuck—I didn’t realize how bad it was. These motherfuckers was really mad about that last Netflix special.”

And then he proceeds, for nearly a quarter of an hour, to try to walk the delicate line between claiming that he “like[s]” us—that he has “never had a problem with [us]”—and making fun of everything from our genitals to our knuckles to our voices. I say “try” because Chappelle always errs on the side of mockery.

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Nowhere is this more apparent than when the comedian says that being transgender should not “disqualify” someone from having “a life with dignity and happiness and safety in it,” right before smiling knowingly at the audience, and saying, “But if I’m honest…” before launching into yet another misinformed treatise on transgender issues.

Chappelle goes on to claim that the “dialogue” around our community “reeks of white privilege” and shouldn’t happen “in front of the blacks,” as if transgender women of color haven’t been leading the conversation around our rights all along.

Caitlyn Jenner aside, Orange is the New Black star Laverne Cox and author Janet Mock may be the two most widely known transgender people in America—and they were both speaking out long before Jenner came out in her interview with Diane Sawyer.

Of course, no acknowledgment is made in Chappelle’s special of the fact that transgender people—especially transgender people of color—face staggering levels of violence and murder, except for a single comment at the end in which he essentially abdicates responsibility for his rhetoric.

“So if I’m on stage and I tell a joke that makes you want to beat up a transgender, then you’re probably a piece of shit and don’t come see me anymore,” he says.

If you subscribe to the belief that stand-up comedians should be immune from guilt or criticism—a belief Chappelle might share based on his comment in Equanimity, “I never feel bad about anything I say up here”—then you might buy into this idea that there’s no link between transphobic comedy and transphobic violence.

People who hurt transgender people, you can safely assure yourself, were already “piece[s] of shit” to begin with and a few jokes on a Netflix special wouldn’t push them over the edge.

But if you recognize that comedy, like all forms of media, plays an undeniable role in shaping our culture, then you know how morally disingenuous it is to claim that holding a microphone on a stage gives you free reign to mock an already-brutalized minority.

If you’ve been listening to transgender advocates like Cox and Mock, you know that the root of anti-transgender violence is often the belief that we are not really our genders, and that we are trying to deceive those around us.

Chappelle plays with this line of thinking when he shares a “brutally honest” closing anecdote about dancing at a Los Angeles nightclub with a woman for “six songs straight” with “no idea” that she was transgender. “Then the lights came up and I saw them knuckles [and] I said, ‘Oh no!’” Chappelle says, to uproarious laughter from his audience.

Chappelle then reveals that they “ended up having breakfast together” and when the audience gasps, he says, surprisingly, “Oh, grow up. That doesn’t make me gay.”

For an all-too-brief moment, it seems like Chappelle is going to subvert expectations and assert that, for all the outrageous things he says about transgender women on stage, he still recognizes that we are women—that the constant misgendering and the inappropriate punchlines are just meant to get a rise out of his critics.

Then Chappelle makes it clear what he means by the interaction not being “gay.”

“I just titty-fucked her,” he says, as if anything beyond that would have crossed a line into “gay” territory.

For Chappelle to make jokes like that and then claim that his critics—like a fan who wrote him a letter that he responded to in Equanimity—don’t have a “sense of humor,” is tantamount to tripping someone and expecting them to laugh.

I have spent the last two years laughing at transgender jokes told by comedians as wide-ranging as Jimmy Kimmel, Daily Show contributor Michelle Wolf, and transgender comedian Ian Harvie.

I laugh at jokes, even irreverent ones, that find humor in our experience without implying that we are inherently disgusting, subhuman, or unworthy of love. I know, too, the value of gallows humor—and that you’d be hard-pressed to find a group of transgender people that doesn’t make a few crass anatomical jokes here or there in the safety of each other’s company.

But those aren’t the kind of jokes that Chappelle is telling. At this point, after two back-to-back specials in one year, his transgender jokes are getting as tired as they are hurtfully unfunny. Being transgender can be “hilarious,” but apparently not for the reasons that Chappelle thinks it is.