Dave Chappelle thinks he’s just being funny. But his jokes about trans people miss that mark

The term “political correctness” is described as language, policies or measures that intentionally avoid offense or disadvantage to marginalized groups in society. Since when did that become a bad thing?

President Trump has been a vocal critic of political correctness, and the whiplash effect is being felt in society at large.

Comedians are railing against “call out culture” or “cancel culture,” where a celebrity (most often, comedians) are boycotted for a comment or behavior that is perceived to be offensive and are called out on social media or “cancelled” by the boycott of their shows or programs. Think Louis C.K. or Kevin Hart or Roseann.

Comedian Dave Chappelle is firing back against this phenomenon with a Netflix Special called Sticks and Stones. Chappelle has taken grief from the LGBTQ community for comments he has made, and continues to make, in his shows. He most often targets the transgender community, and this special was no exception — though I didn’t find anything in there I found to be hateful or over the line; it was just garden-variety ignorance.

Chappelle views himself as the victim because, he doesn’t believe he deserves the criticism, though he profits from the attention.

I really have mixed thoughts on this subject. Chappelle complains that being held accountable for a comment made two decades ago is not fair. Maybe — we all said some stupid shit when we were younger; I, for one, am super glad Twitter wasn’t around when I was 17. So, he has a point.

Most of us aren’t the same people we were 20 years ago, and we should get credit for growing and being the people we are now.

In case you haven’t seen the special — and maybe don’t intend to — I’ll share what he said about trans people:

Chappelle says he has LGB friends but no T friends. He says he doesn’t blame trans people, because he can’t stop telling jokes about us.

Chappelle says we need to take responsibility for his jokes: “[Trans people] have to admit, being born in the wrong body is a hilarious predicament. If it happened to me, you’d laugh.”

He’s only partially right. I have a broad and sometimes dark sense of humor. I can laugh at myself, and do! In quiet moments, I have laughed at the prank God played on me.

But for the vast majority of us, dealing with gender dysphoria is no laughing matter.

Having one of the best-known comedians in the world telling jokes about trans people, while we may not like being the butt of these observations, is evidence that we are becoming more mainstream. Comedians on Netflix don’t do inside humor that only a few people “get;” they joke about cultural touchstones that everyone is aware of.

Ten years ago, we were on nobody’s radar. So that visibility is the good news.

But the troubling part is that with that attention has come the kind of institutional oppression that has been reserved for groups that are reviled by the ruling class.

Transgender people have no state or federal employment protections and no housing protections. We can be refused care by doctors, and we can’t join the military. Soon it may be legally acceptable to exclude us from homeless shelters, and violence against us is a daily occurrence. Just last week, a trans woman was walking in North Dallas when a man in a red truck pulled alongside her and, according to police, yelled gender-related slurs at her before shooting her several times in the arm and chest. (The suspect in that attack has been identified and arrested, and he has confessed to the shooting.)

Chappelle goes on: “LGBT — all those letters aren’t in the same movement; they just travel in the same car together. G is driving. White men are the G. L in passenger seat. Everyone likes L except the Gs. B breaks tension in the back seat. L and G agree that Bs are gross. The Ts in the backseat by themselves. Everyone respects but resents the Ts because [they] are making the trip take longer. Everything the Ts say pisses everyone else off. ‘I need to use the restroom.’ Shut up! There isn’t a restroom for you for four states!”

What Chappelle conveniently ignores is that this same joke could have been made about him up until 1965. Jim Crow laws made it difficult for African-Americans to find a bathroom too. Would that have been funny?

In my previous life, I worked as a smart-aleck morning show jock on radio stations in Sacramento, Vegas, Houston and elsewhere. I tried to be funny, but occasionally would hear from someone whose feelings I had hurt. That bothered me.

I never wanted to hurt anyone; quite the opposite, I wanted to make them laugh. Sometimes I missed the mark.

What Chappelle and others who pick on the trans community need to understand is that when that audience leaves the “Chuckle Hut” and heads home, their only impression of trans people might be the caricature he left in their minds that we are not people, and our lives are not worth respect. 

That’s when words can become as harmful as sticks and stones.       

Leslie McMurray, a transgender woman, is a former radio DJ who lives and works in Dallas. Read more of her blogs at lesliemichelle44.wordpress.com.