Allan Stratton: Chappelle is playing a divisive game
The Closer presents the LGBT community as white, erasing Black lives and setting us against each other.
By: Allan Stratton
Dave Chappelle is one of the best comedians in the world, not only due to his timing and stage mastery, but also because of the hard social commentary that grounds his routines. Many of his jokes are on the money in his now deeply controversial Netflix special, The Closer. However, others are off, ugly, and counterproductive, driving wedges between minority allies and erasing members of his own community.
Some of Chappelle’s best laughs come at the expense of white woke saviours. But his truth-telling skews sideways when he frames all his opponents as white — a dodge he uses to present himself as an embattled underdog punching up, even as he goes after Jews, women and many members of the LGBT community. Jews are portrayed as white colonizers and slaveholders. Sojourner Truth’s challenge to racists in the suffrage movement is used to discount contemporary feminists; to excuse beating up a woman in a restaurant; and to toss out “bitch” as an all-purpose putdown.
Chappelle applies the same framing to the LGBT community: “I have never had a problem with transgender people. My problem is with white people.” It’s a funny line because Chappelle appears to come in peace — then flips the target. But here’s the unstated premise of that joke: trans people are white. So, apparently, are gays: “Gay people are minorities until they need to be white again.” And it’s the subtext to one of the edgiest lines in the show: “In our country, you can shoot and kill a n*gga, but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings.”
Cancel culture is ripe for takedown. So why does Chappelle frame his criticism of transgender LGBT activism in terms of anti-Black racism? Alphabet Twitter has tried (and failed) to shut down Kevin Hart, DaBaby and Chappelle himself, however, they've also aimed at J.K. Rowling and Margaret Atwood, who are are hardly Black.
Black writers like Kenyon Farrow and Saeed Jones have called out Chappelle’s erasure of gay, lesbian and trans Blacks. For 30 years, the Christian right has successfully driven a wedge between our communities by advertising homosexuality as a specifically white phenomenon. Why does Chappelle amplify that division and memory-hole people like James Baldwin, Alice Walker and Bayard Rustin? Is he seriously unaware of the cultural importance of RuPaul, Laverne Cox, Wanda Sykes or Lil Naz X?
Chappelle regularly uses the words “faggotty ass,” “fag” and “faggot” for laughs, but he isn’t entirely homo or transphobic. For instance, he opposes anti-trans bathroom bills and cheers the old-school activism of Stonewall. Instead, his attacks are mainly focused on the self-indulgent whining and bourgeois entitlement of today’s acronym activists, and his perception that LGBT rights were won quickly because we’re white.
He’s correct about Alphabet Twitter, which is hugely overrepresented by white arts and academic elites — a view widely shared within the LGBT community itself. While white closeted gays have always been embedded in social and political power structures, they’ve also always been our worst enemies, using anti-gay vitriol as closet camouflage. And if skin colour is the determining factor of LGBT success, why were we ever persecuted?
What many people forget is that the fight for gay rights was mostly won on the graves of the hundreds of thousands of us who died in the AIDS pandemic of the '80s and '90s. Those mass deaths, across racial, ethnic, religious and political lines forced a generational coming out in which society was forced to see us, for the first time, as its family members and friends.
That had nothing to do with being white — nor with Stonewall, to tell the truth. Contrary to LGBT revisionists, Stonewall was far from the beginning of the movement, and wasn’t even the first time the community had fought back against a police raid. It only became our origin myth after the fact because a small number of activists understood the power of an annual commemorative march for building local communities.
In those early days, Gay Liberation marches were small and scattershot. Fringe elements made them controversial even within LGBT circles. (Memo to Chappelle: They included Black trans drag kings and queens like Stormé DeLarverie and Marsha P. Johnson.) Even into the '80s, when they were rebranded as Gay Pride marches, they’d done nothing to move public opinion or provide civil or human rights.
Then bodies started dropping. In the beginning, “the gay plague” heightened fear and loathing. Beatings and murders increased. Intellectuals like William F. Buckley advocated that anyone with HIV be branded on the buttocks and upper forearm. The stigma of being gay, and the fear of being fired, denied housing and beaten, had kept us closeted. (Memo to Chappelle: This hit the Black community especially hard.)
Invisibility meant we heard AIDS jokes from our own families. Here’s one my stepmother planned to share at her women’s club: “What’s the best thing about AIDS? It’s turning the fruits into vegetables.”
Finally, enough was enough. We came out, angry that our lives didn’t count. By the '90s, families across racial divides had to confront was happening to their children, grandchildren and siblings, not to mention their colleagues, neighbours and friends. We weren’t an abstraction. We were people they loved.
Acceptance wasn’t sudden or universal. Many of us were exiled from our homes, especially in racially, culturally and politicly conservative communities. But the shift in public opinion was indisputable. In 1988, only 11.6 per cent of Americans thought gays should have marriage rights. By 1996, that number had more than doubled to 27 per cent; by 1999 it was 35 per cent; and the trend line has continued. There are lessons here for today’s LGBT activists. Trans woman Jessica Triff made the indisputable case for CBC that when people see us as human beings, they listen: When we engage in vicious rants, they recoil. Predictably, Trans Twitterites proved her point, denouncing her as a self-hating transphobe. When Margaret Atwood retweeted the column, they vilified her as a “fucking cunt,” “a bitch” and “a piece of shit” and suggested she “suck a fat one” and be killed by a drone. Have women ever radiated such toxic masculinity?
But here’s a thought for Chappelle, too. Years ago, he left behind $50 million and his TV show because his white audience was laughing too easily at his race jokes without getting his point. To this viewer, that’s how his current audience laughs. The crowd was getting off whenever he’d say faggot, bitch, and Jew, or talk about women and Asians getting beaten up.
Chappelle is too good for that. He missed the opportunity to take a bird’s eye view. The Closer should have unapologetically attacked Alphabet bullies simply because they’re bullies. Human nature crosses demographics.
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