Once again, the worlds of entertainment and politics have collided to ask whether it is funny–or acceptable– to make jokes about transgender people. Comedian Dave Chappelle’s recent Netflix special, The Dreamer, is the latest in his now extensive body of work making fun of trans folks. The Dreamer was released the same month as Lady Ballers, a right-wing film inaccurately portraying the experience of trans women in athletics. Any criticism of these transphobic jokes is usually met with comments about trans people and leftists being “overly sensitive” or “not being able to take a joke.” These rejoinders often come from folks like Chappelle, whose work frequently investigates political tensions in America, and yet they never seem to consider how their work negatively impacts the political realities of transgender people.
A Black Trans Woman Responds…
Kat Blaque, a Black transgender YouTuber, has made two video essays about Dave Chappelle’s comedy specials. Her most recent video, “When You’re Starting To Run Out of Jokes…” offers one central argument: Dave Chappelle’s jokes about transgender people aren’t funny because they’re not grounded in any actual experiences, and they play to the ignorance of his audience. What she means by this is that Chappelle’s jokes only reflect misinformed assumptions about trans life, losing the sharp edge and insight of his other work. She argues that many of his jokes about being Black in American land well because Chappelle is speaking from his own experience as a Black man in America and the racism endured from that experience.
Kat Blaque also explains that, as a Black transgender woman, “his jokes about transgender women in The Dreamer only land with his audience because he is speaking to and capitalizing on the ignorance that his audience has about transgender people’s experiences. Because so many people are ignorant about transgender people’s experiences, I completely understand why plenty of people who follow Dave Chappelle and love what he’s doing, laugh at these jokes.”
For example, Kat Blaque analyzes one of his jokes about going to jail where Chappelle says: “God forbid I ever go to jail. But if I do, I hope it’s in California. Soon as the judge sentences me, I’ll be like, ‘Before you sentence me, I want the court to know I identify as a woman. Send me to a woman’s jail.’”
Kat Blaque responds by explaining how in order to be sent to a women’s prison in America, one would likely have to undergo hormone replacement therapy and gender-affirming surgeries and the costs associated with them. She even explains the complexity of how gender-affirming care is inaccessible at various levels depending on the state and its policies. There’s no world where Chappelle could just “say he’s a woman” and go to a women’s prison. His comedy here isn’t cultural criticism or witty observation; it’s rightwing fantasy. She notes that Dave Chappelle describes trans people as immensely privileged, but obviously, that is not the case when right-wing policymakers are limiting access to gender-affirming care.
Thick Skin or Just Trans?
Something in Kat Blaque’s video that resonated with me is her discussion of having “thick skin.” Whenever people critique Dave Chappelle’s comedy, especially his jokes about trans people—or whenever any comedian is critiqued for making bad jokes about communities to which they do not belong—the critiques are called sensitive. We are told that we should get over it because it is just a joke. Like Kat Blaque, I have been told by cisgender people that I need to just “develop thick skin.”
She explains how annoying it is to be told, “just get over it; get thick skin” because for her, being a trans woman is having thick skin. Many trans people of color have to survive transitioning alone, being disowned by their families, being discriminated against in the workplace, being harassed, and being targeted by violence. She could not survive in this world without thick skin.
With a rise in white supremacist and transphobic rhetoric, trans people of color are often met with hateful arguments, attitudes, and actions. Nevertheless, trans people of color continue to organize on behalf of our communities and to fight for a better future—one that is anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and queer-affirming. So no, it doesn’t really make sense to tell trans people to “develop thick skin” because many of us have had to do that to stay alive.
Words Influence Policy
While it’s certainly not fair to blame Dave Chappelle’s comedy specials for the onslaught of anti-trans policies, I do think it’s fair to argue that his work plays a role in shaping how cisgender people view transgender people. In her video, Kat Blaque states that cis people often regard trans people as unreliable narrators of their lives and will look to people like Chappelle to explain transgender experiences and take his words as fact. It may not be Chappelle’s intention for audiences to take his jokes literally, but he is spreading dangerous misinformation about trans lives. His made-up jokes go on to guide real legislation, policies, and actions aimed at eradicating trans people.