Dave Chappelle’s punchline ‘jokes’ put young Black LGBTQ lives at risk

OPINION: The Trevor Project's Preston Mitchum writes that Dave Chappelle and others should evolve beyond jokes that could undoubtedly contribute to hate crimes and violence.

Dave Chappelle thegrio.com
Comedian Dave Chappelle has received criticism for comments he made about trans people during his latest Netflix special "The Closer". (Credit: Getty Images)

Last week, I watched with amazement as my colleagues rapidly responded to the legislative attacks against transgender and nonbinary young people in Texas.

The current political climate is unfortunately one where LGBTQ people must defend our existence — even if that means traveling hundreds of miles to push back on harmful legislation. All while rich and famous comedians like Dave Chappelle double down on the “culture war” for the sake of a few laughs. 

In his new Netflix special, Chappelle made the LGBTQ community, particularly transgender women, the punchlines of several jokes. He even goes out of his way to identify himself as “Team TERF” and defend Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. Rowling has taken up a new hobby advocating for the exclusion of transgender women.

Dave Chappelle Canvassing For Andrew Yang
Comedian Dave Chappelle campaigns for Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang on January 30, 2020 in North Charleston, South Carolina. The comedian has endorsed the candidate and performs the second of two South Carolina campaign benefit shows Thursday evening in Charleston. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Make no mistake, Chappelle’s alleged jokes do not impact hypothetical people; they, in fact, cause real harm to transgender and nonbinary viewers and Black LGBTQ youth who may have once looked up to him as a role model. As a Director of Advocacy and Government Affairs for The Trevor Project, the largest suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ youth, I have witnessed firsthand how anti-LGBTQ rhetoric like Chappelle’s can harm one’s sense of self and exacerbate mental health challenges. And as a Black queer person who has deeply struggled in navigating the intersections of my identity, none of this is funny to me at all.

In 2006, at 20 years old, I experienced my first suicidal thought followed by my first attempt soon thereafter. Though this is one of the first times I’ve shared this reality with the world, it’s important to understand that there is no one particular look at mental health challenges and suicide. Admitting that comments have an impact on our psyche doesn’t make us incapable of taking jokes or being too sensitive, it makes us human. 

The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health found that more than half (52%) of transgender and nonbinary youth seriously considered suicide in the past year and 1 in 5 attempted suicide. For Black LGBTQ youth, 47% seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, and more than 1 in 5 (21%) attempted suicide. Across our 24/7 crisis services, we hear from Black queer and transgender youth every day who want nothing more than to be respected for who they are. 

The Trevor Project thegrio.com
(Photo: The Trevor Project)

Perhaps the most absurd part of Chappelle’s comedy is how he erases Black LGBTQ people by synonymizing all LGBTQ people as white. Chappelle says, “All I ask of your community, with all humility: Will you please stop punching down on my people?” and then “gay people are minorities until they need to be white again.” It’s undeniable that racism exists in the LGBTQ community — I know that all too well. But Chappelle is either forgetting or actively ignoring that many of his “people” are both Black and LGBTQ, and that we’ve been at the cornerstone of the LGBTQ rights movement since its inception. A 2021 report found that more than 1.2 million people in the United States self-identify as Black and LGBT. 

In a year when we’ve seen a record number of anti-transgender bills introduced and passed across the country, Chappelle’s ignorant remarks shouldn’t be seen as anything but “punching down.” This type of high-profile commentary not only influences how society views the LGBTQ community, but also how we LGBTQ people see ourselves, and can contribute to the internalization of stigma and shame. If you don’t think comments about LGBTQ people can have serious impacts, think again. Ninety-four percent of LGBTQ youth report that recent politics negatively impacted their mental health. 

It doesn’t escape me that days after Chappelle’s comedy special was released, we’re also talking about a video of North Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson describing the LGBTQ community as “filth.” It hurts me to think of all the Black LGBTQ kids who will witness these affluent Black men use their platforms to spread vitriolic, anti-LGBTQ beliefs. I shudder to think of all the other men who will feel emboldened.

Dave Chappelle thegrio
Dave Chappelle (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)

It is imperative that those with large platforms be intentional about their art and not replicate harm. That’s especially important on days when many LGBTQ people celebrate National Coming Out Day, a day founded in 1988 to celebrate individuals who publicly identify as LGBTQ. The tragic reality is that far too many LGBTQ young people who are Black and/or transgender still cannot come out and be visible in their identity because it is not safe for them to be. At least 38 transgender or nonbinary people, predominantly Black transgender women, have been murdered this year.

Holding Chappelle accountable and addressing harm caused is not about “cancel culture.” It is not about respecting satire and it is not about sensitivity. This is about who we are and who we want to become. This is about how much we care about ending suicide among LGBTQ youth. This is about understanding that comedians, like everyone else, should evolve beyond their tired jokes that could undoubtedly contribute to hate crimes and violence. 

Until then, Chappelle and others alike will continue to make us the brunt of their jokes instead of realizing that it impacts mental health outcomes of LGBTQ people, in particular Black queer and transgender people, way beyond the headlines. 

Preston Mitchum Headshoot - Green Background

Preston Mitchum, Esq., LL.M. is the Director of Advocacy and Government Affairs with The Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning young people. He resides in Washington, DC.