Last week, I was looking at the news while I had my coffee. You know, like you do. I saw that Netflix had this massive comedy festival coming up, and Netflix had invited Dave Chapelle to headline.
Real quick, for context: Chapelle has repeatedly, proudly, unapologetically, hurt people I love and care about, and when the people he hurt spoke up about it, he and his supporters doubled down, hurting them all over again.
When someone I love is attacked or threatened or bullied, the part of me that’s rational and thoughtful gets shoved into a box and tossed into a locked shed while the part of me that will fucking tear your throat out and bathe in your blood takes over. Lots of us who are trauma survivors have this extreme response to things we perceive as threats (even threats that aren’t directed at us, but toward people we care about) because the fight or flight reflex that helped us survive when we were in the midst of whatever our trauma was is sort of set up to be run by an automatic system that, in my case, slips past my rational self and detonates a hydrogen bomb that doesn’t care who it vaporizes. It just knows that it is protecting me or someone I care about. Or at least, it thinks it is. A younger, traumatized version of myself needed this reserve of fury. If you get it, you get it (and I’m so sorry). I don’t need it any longer. I haven’t needed it for years. But it’s still there, and on occasion it yanks the controls out of my hands and I don’t have any say over where it’s going to go before I am in control again.
I’m not sure this makes sense outside of my head. I hope it does. Put another way, I will, on occasion, have a reaction to something that feels appropriate in the moment, but like fifteen minutes later reveals itself to be entirely not appropriate at all.
And that’s what happened the other morning. While I was reading the news, I saw that Chapelle, whose bigotry disguised as jokes has hurt, and will continue to hurt, people I love, is being rewarded for his hurtful behavior. My friends don’t deserve to be mocked because of who they are. My friends are people who at the very least deserve to exist and be happy in this world, and Dave Chapelle has made it REALLY clear that, as far as he is concerned, they aren’t people who deserve the same love, respect, and right to exist as he does. He’s made a cruel punchline out of my friends, whose fundamental existence as human beings is constantly under attack, and Netflix doesn’t seem to be bothered by that. After weeks and weeks of transpeople begging the world to listen to them about how much this hurts and how it increases the risks to their lives, Netflix didn’t only ignore them, they gave Chapelle the headliner spot on their massive comedy special.
I found this to be deeply offensive and morally bankrupt. It disgusted and infuriated me and before I knew what was happening, that hydrogen bomb went off. I stepped WAY out of my lane and suggested that comedians who were part of this festival should withdraw unless and until Netflix kicked Chapelle off the bill. I do not apologize for getting angry. I do not apologize for speaking out in support of people I love. But I deeply regret going way overboard and giving garbage people an opening to distract and deflect from the fundamental issue: Netflix is supporting a bigot at the expense of the entire transgender community.
After the mushroom cloud settled and I looked out at the smoking, radioactive wasteland in front of me, I had a few moments of reflection, and I regretted making that suggestion. It’s so easy for me to sit here at my desk and issue declarations and edicts about what people should do, and that’s just … that’s obnoxious. I can absolutely make the choice to personally boycott this festival, even though friends of mine and people I think are great are performing in it. But it was not okay for me to declare that any of them should make the same choice I would make.
Surprisingly quickly, a few C-list right wing personalities grabbed hold of my post and said I was trying to cancel Chapelle. I mean, it’s adorable that anyone thinks I have that kind of influence over ANYTHING, much less an internationally famous comedian (who I still think is a bad person), but I’m just not that important. Still, I saw how easy it was to draw that conclusion, and I decided it was best to delete that post.
So I did, and in its place I wrote something that I hoped would give context to why I reacted the way I did.
Trans rights are human rights, y’all. Don’t forget that. Dehumanizing people in the service of “jokes” isn’t okay. It literally gets people killed. Don’t forget that.
Here’s what I posted on my Facebook. I want it here for the record:
For anyone who genuinely doesn’t understand why I feel as strongly as I do about people like Chapelle making transphobic comments that are passed off as jokes, I want to share a story that I hope will help you understand, and contextualize my reaction to his behavior.
When I was sixteen, I played ice hockey almost every night at a local rink. I was a goalie, and they always needed goalies, so I could show up, put on my gear, and just wait for some team to call me onto the ice. It was a lot of fun.
One night, I’d played a couple hours of pickup with some really great dudes. They were friendly, they were funny, they enjoyed the game, they treated me like I was part of their team. They welcomed me.
After we were finished, we were all in the locker room getting changed into our regular clothes.
Before I tell you what happened next, I want to talk specifically about comedy and how much I loved it when I was growing up. I listened to records and watched comedy specials whenever I could. One of the definitive comedy specials for me and my friends was Eddie Murphy’s Delirious, from 1983. It had bits that still kill me. The ice cream song, aunt Bunny falling down the stairs, mom throwing the shoe. Really funny stuff.
There is also extensive homophobic material that is just fucking appalling and inexcusable. Long stretches of this comedy film are devoted to mocking gay people, using the slur that starts with F over and over and over. Young Wil, who watched this with his suburban white upper middle class friends, in his privileged bubble, thought it was the funniest, edgiest, dirtiest thing he’d ever heard. It KILLED him. And all of it was dehumanizing to gay men. All of it was cruel. All of it was bigoted. All of it was punching down. And I didn’t know any better. I accepted the framing, I developed a view of gay men as predatory and weird, somehow less than straight men, absolutely worthy of mockery and contempt. The culture that surrounded me, that I was part of, reinforced over and over again that gay people were not normal, like I was. Always good for a joke, though.
Let me put this another way: A comedian who I thought was one of the funniest people on the planet totally normalized making a mockery of gay people, and because I was a privileged white kid, raised by privileged white parents, there was nobody around me to challenge that perception. Everything around me, in my suburban bubble of privilege, reinforced that perception. For much of my teen years, I was embarrassingly homophobic, and it all started with that comedy special.
Let’s go back to that locker room.
So I’m talking with these guys, and we’re all just laughing and having a good time. We’re doing that sports thing where you talk about the great plays, and feel like you’re part of something special.
And then, without even realizing what I was doing, that awful word came out of my mouth. “Blah blah blah F****t,” I said.
The room fell silent and that’s when I realized every single guy in this room was gay. They were from a team called The Blades (amazing) and I had just … really fucked up.
“Do you have any gay friends?” One of them asked me, gently.
“Yes,” I said, defensively. Then, I lied, “they say that all the time.” I was so embarrassed and horrified. I realized I had basically said the N word, in context, and I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to disappear. I wanted to apologize, I wanted to beg forgiveness. But I was a stupid sixteen year-old with pride and ignorance and fear all over myself, so I lied to try and get out of it.
“They must not love themselves very much,” he said, with quiet disappointment.
Nobody said another word to me. I felt terrible. I shoved my gear into my bag and left as quickly as I could.
That happened over 30 years ago, and I think about it all the time. I’m mortified and embarrassed and so regretful that I said such a hurtful thing. I said it out of ignorance, but I still said it, and I said it because I believed these men, who were so cool and kind and just like all the other men I played with (I was always the youngest player on the ice) were somehow less than … I guess everyone. Because that had been normalized for me by culture and comedy.
A huge part of that normalization was through entertainment that dehumanized gay men in the service of “jokes”. And as someone who thought jokes were great, I accepted it. I mean, nobody was making fun of ME that way, and I was the Main Character, so…
I doubt very much that any of those men would be reading this today, but if so: I am so sorry. I deeply, profoundly, totally regret this. I’ve spent literally my entire life since this happened making amends and doing my best to be the strongest ally I can be. I want to do everything I can to prevent another kid from believing the same bigotry I believed, because I was ignorant and privileged.
So this stuff that Chapelle did? That all these Cishet white men are so keen to defend? I believe them when they say that it’s not a big deal. Because it’s not a big deal TO CISHET WHITE DUDES. But for a transgender person, those “jokes” normalize hateful, ignorant, bigoted behavior towards them. Those “jokes” contribute to a world where transgender people are constantly under threat of violence, because transgender people have been safely, acceptably, dehumanized. And it’s all okay, because they were dehumanized by a Black man. And the disingenuous argument that it’s actually racist to hold Chapelle accountable for this? Get the fuck out of here.
I love dark humor. I love smart, clever jokes that make us think, that challenge authority, that make powerful people uncomfortable. I don’t need a lecture from some dude in wraparound sunglasses and a “git ‘er done” tank top about how I don’t understand comedy and I need to stick to acting. I don’t need a First Amendment lecture from someone who doesn’t understand the concept of consequences for exercising speech the government can’t legally prohibit.
Literally every defense of Chapelle’s “jokes” centers white, cishet men and our experience at the expense of people who have to fight with every breath simply to exist in this world. Literally every queer person I know (and I know a LOT) is hurt by Chapelle’s actions. When literally every queer person I know says “this is hurtful to me”, I’m going to listen to them and support them, and not tell them why they are wrong, as so many cishet white men do. If you’re inclined to disregard queer voices, especially as they relate to this specific topic, I encourage you to reflect on your choices and think about who you listen to and why.
Too many of my fellow cishet white men are reducing this to some abstract intellectual exercise, which once again centers our experience at the expense of people who are genuinely threatened by the normalization of their “less than” or “outsider” status. Thirty years ago, I centered myself and was appallingly hurtful as a result.
I was sixteen and didn’t know any better. I still regret it. Frankly, a whole lot of y’all who I’ve already blocked on Facebook should feel the same shame about what you said TODAY that I feel for something I did three decades ago when I was sixteen and didn’t know any better. But you don’t, and that is why people like me need to keep using our voices to speak up and speak out.