Dave Chappelle Is Right, Isn't He?

The comedian defends reality. Which is currently under siege.

There’s an understandable tendency to view the debate about transgender ideology today as a marginal issue, affecting a minuscule number of people, and at most, a trivial matter in the larger culture wars. And I can see why. It does seem on the surface to be about maybe 0.2 percent of humanity. And if you venture an opinion on it, the consequences are intense — so why bother?

And, overwhelmingly, the elite media in the United States prevents readers from knowing that a debate is even happening, let alone what it is really about. If the argument about gender theory is mentioned at all, it is dismissed as a bunch of “anti-trans” bigots — aka “TERFs” — hurting a beleaguered and tiny minority, for some inconceivable, but surely awful, reason.

And so when the greatest living comedian, Dave Chappelle, bases almost an entire Netflix special on the subject — alternately hilarious and humane, brutal and true — and wades into the debate with wellies on, the exact same piece about the special will be written in much of elite media.

You could write it yourself, couldn’t you? 1. He’s a bigot. “The phobic jokes keep coming — and Chappelle’s efforts to ironise them, to dance around rather than wallow in the boorishness, are derisory,” says the Guardian review. 2. He’s out of date: “All that’s left is the same tired observations delivered behind a bizarre form of commiseration, this time with an added dash of JK Rowling solidarity and using someone else’s death to validate his half-decade of public stubbornness,” according to IndieWire. NPR adds a “multi-racial whiteness” edge: “Too often in The Closer, it just sounds like Chappelle is using white privilege to excuse his own homophobia and transphobia.”

Both the “stubbornness” and the “bigot” theme are reiterated in Vulture: Chappelle is full of “outdated excuses masking a refusal to update a worldview … his head is up his ass. He needs new ideas.” And, with respect to the marginalized: “He’s just asking for you to take up less space, to usher in progress by giving other people time to come around to you.”

And guess what? They’re all wrong. Chappelle’s final Netflix special, “The Closer,” is a classic. Far from being outdated, it’s slightly ahead of its time, as the pushback against wokeness gains traction. It is extremely funny, a bit meta, monumentally mischievous, and I sat with another homo through the whole thing, stoned, laughing our asses off — especially when he made fun of us. The way the elite media portrays us, you’d think every member of the BLT community is so fragile we cannot laugh at ourselves. It doesn’t occur to them that, for many of us, Chappelle is a breath of honest air, doing what every comic should do: take aim at every suffocating piety of the powers that be — including the increasingly weird 2SLGBTQQIA+ mafia — and detonating them all.

The Closer is, in fact, a humanely brilliant indictment of elite culture at this moment in time: a brutal exposure of its identitarian monomania, its denial of reality, and its ruthless tactics of personal and public destruction. It marks a real moment: a punching up against the powerful, especially those who pretend they aren’t.

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Bigoted? Please. Anyone who can watch this special and think Chappelle is homophobic or transphobic is either stupendously dumb or a touchy fanatic. He is no more transphobic than J.K. Rowling, i.e. not at all, and the full set masterfully proves it to anyone with eyes and ears.

In fact, it centers on Chappelle’s friendship with a trans woman comedian, Daphne Dornan, who could give and take a joke, including about her own transness. It’s a moving account of their friendship — brutal, unsentimental, yet crammed with empathy. And like many trans people, and few trans activists, Daphne did not demand capitulation to gender theory as a condition of accepting her for who she was: “I don't need you to understand me.” Chappelle recalls her saying to a rowdy crowd. “I just need you to believe that I'm having a human experience!”

And, through the jokes, that’s what Chappelle is celebrating: the individual human, never defined entirely by any single “identity,” or any “intersectional” variant thereof. An individual with enough agency to be able to laugh at herself, at others, at the world, an individual acutely aware of the tension between body and soul, feelings and facts, in a trans life, as well as other kinds of life. Assuming that marginalized people cannot tolerate humor at their own expense is as dehumanizing as assuming they have no agency in their lives. It is a form of bigotry — of the left.

And the capacity for laughter — the target of every fundamentalism, left and right — is integral to being fully human. To remind us that a trans person can laugh at herself is to remind us that she too is brimming with the kind of complex self-awareness that every mature human has. We laugh, above all, at the absurdity of our reality. And yes, that’s the second point Chappelle makes: there is something called reality. We can deny it; or we can accept it. Comedy’s key role is that it helps us accept it.

Whatever else this is, it seems to me to be the opposite of transphobia. Like Rowling, Chappelle supports every law protecting trans people from discrimination; and believes in the dignity and equality of trans people, as he insisted in the show. But he also believes that it is absurd — absurd — to say that a trans woman is in every way indistinguishable from a woman. Because she isn’t.

The current debate, in other words, is not about being pro or anti-trans, in the lazy formula of woke media. In the US, trans people are already protected under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, thanks to Justice Neil Gorsuch. And I literally know of no one who insists on the reality of biological sex who would disapprove of or reverse this.

The debate, rather, is about whether a tiny group of fanatics, empowered by every major cultural institution, can compel or emotionally blackmail other people into saying things that are not true. This, in Chappelle’s words, is what they are trying to force people to deny:

Gender is a fact. Every human being in this room, every human being on Earth, had to pass through the legs of a woman to be on Earth. That is a fact. Now, I am not saying that to say trans women aren’t women, I am just saying that those pussies that they got … you know what I mean? I’m not saying it’s not pussy, but it’s Beyond Pussy or Impossible Pussy. It tastes like pussy, but that’s not quite what it is, is it? That’s not blood, that’s beet juice.

Yes this is shocking, funny, wild. But not wrong. And this seems to me to be exactly what a comic is supposed to do: point out that the current emperor has no clothes. A transwoman cannot give birth as a woman gives birth. She does not ovulate. Her vagina, if it exists, is a simulacrum of one, created by a multiple array of surgeries. Sex in humans is binary, with those few exceptions at the margins — mixtures of the two — proving rather than disproving the rule. Until five minutes ago, this was too obvious to be stated. Now, this objective fact is actually deemed a form of “hate.” Hate.

This means that the debate is no longer about 0.2 percent of humanity. It’s about imposing an anti-scientific falsehood on 99.8 percent of humanity. It means that we have to strip all women of their unique biological experience, to deny any physical differences between men and women in sports, to tell all boys and girls that they can choose their sex, to erase any places reserved exclusively for biological women, like shelters for those who have been abused by men, and to come up with terms like “pregnant people” to describe mothers. Yes — mothers. The misogyny buried in this is gob-smacking. Is Mothers’ Day next for the trans chopping block?

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And the key thing is: absolutely none of this is needed to protect trans people from any and all discrimination.

The question of trans rights has been settled by the Supreme Court. I’m delighted it has. What we’re dealing with now is something very different. It’s an assault on science; it’s an assault on reality; it’s an attempt not to defend trans people but to cynically use them as pawns in a broader effort to dismantle the concept of binary sex altogether, to remove any distinctions between men and women, so that a gender-free utopia/dystopia can be forced into being.

The use of trans people in this way follows a pattern. The woke left uses gay people in the same way: calling all of us “queer” to ensure our continued marginalization, merging us into postmodern categories like “LGBTQIA+” to deny our distinctive human experiences, erasing gay men and lesbians whose politics are not far-left and whose lives are not much different than our straight friends, describing gay men who are attracted to the same sex and not always the same gender as transphobes, literally falsifying history and re-making the English language to make it conform to their ideology.

The weapons deployed in pursuit of this fantasy are those that are always used by those seeking to impose utopia on free people: the brutal hounding of dissent, the capture and control of every single cultural institution, the indoctrination of the young, cancellations, bullying. The costs are mounting. Across the West, people are being fired, targeted, prosecuted, even jailed, for stating biological facts. Children are being medicated with off-label drugs — “puberty blockers” — that can permanently sterilize them, arrest their neurological and mental development, and deprive them of the ability as adults to experience an orgasm.

I didn’t know the latter until I read the account by two leading transgender surgeons in medical treatment of children with gender dysphoria on Bari Weiss’s substack. These doctors are not marginal to the field. They are: “Dr. Marci Bowers, a world-renowned vaginoplasty specialist who operated on reality-television star Jazz Jennings; and Erica Anderson, a clinical psychologist at the University of California San Francisco’s Child and Adolescent Gender Clinic.”

They explain that when you halt puberty in a natal boy with a penis, and then switch the kid to female hormones, the genitals remain like a child’s, never develop the sensitivity of adolescence and there is therefore not enough penile material to invert into a created vagina. Surgeons sometimes have to take parts of the colon to patch it together. Money quote:

“If you’ve never had an orgasm pre-surgery, and then your puberty's blocked, it's very difficult to achieve that afterwards,” Bowers said. “I consider that a big problem, actually. It’s kind of an overlooked problem that in our ‘informed consent’ of children undergoing puberty blockers, we’ve in some respects overlooked that a little bit.”

The purposeful, life-long removal of sexual pleasure by operating on children? Where are we, Somalia? How on earth can a pre-pubertal child meaningfully consent to that? The reason we are told it is hateful and insensitive to discuss these actual realities is that, if we did, we’d be horrified. Which is why I’m not surprised that when these two leading trans physicians proposed an op-ed on this subject for the NYT — a big scoop — they were turned down, on the grounds that the subject was “outside our coverage priorities right now.” Yet the paper just published this piece, which urges less gate-keeping and describes the current situation as “100 percent justifiable and safe.”

In contrast, these surgeons — transgender themselves — warn of “sloppy, sloppy healthcare” in the rush to affirm any child’s gender-identification, without sufficiently broad and patient exploration of mental health issues. Increasing numbers of detransitioners are blowing the whistle on those who rushed them into changing their gender. The well-intended epistemic hubris of woke medicine may lead to a wave of lawsuits in the near future, as misdiagnoses accumulate, with consequences that could mean the end of child medication as a whole. By overplaying their hand now, trans activists may lose everything in the future. And yet the elites refuse to budge a millimeter.

To be clear: I don’t favor crude bans on healthcare for kids with gender dysphoria. I favor much greater caution, care, and concern — for the sake of trans and gay kids, and their families. The most prominent LGBT groups have no interest in preventing gay kids from being swept up in this, and deny that is even possible — and are now in the forefront of erasing the very existence of same-sex, as opposed to same-gender, attraction. Any engagement with biology is deemed a form of “hate.” And the more potent the evidence of mis-steps in this revolutionary moment, the more furious and intense the urge to suppress it. The trans movement is now, tragically, the vanguard of the postmodern left’s goal of dismantling science itself because they believe that science is, in fact, merely an instrument of “white supremacy.”

In this battle, Chappelle is on the front lines. Not of bigotry. But of objective reality. Remember Orwell’s critical insight into totalitarian thought: “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” Who else, one wonders, has the courage to disobey?

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(David French’s beautifully written review of my new collection, “Out on a Limb,” is here, and Hugh Hewitt’s rave review is here.)

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Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: my conversation with Cornel West about God, the great Christian intellectuals, and how to love your bigoted neighbor; a large number of dissents and other commentary after my debate with Briahna Joy Gray on race and class in America; several more reader dissents over my views on immigration, the labor crisis, child poverty, and Kendi’s children’s book; five notable quotes from the week; eight recommended pieces by other substackers; a Cool Ad promoting clean energy; an unlikely, brilliant mashup of Nine Inch Nails and Hall & Oates; striking views from upstate New York and high-rise Hong Kong; and, as always, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)

A happy subscriber writes:

Your conversation with Briahna Joy Gray was, hands down, the best episode of the Dishcast. Ms. Gray is brilliant, and you were, as always, a worthy interlocutor. It was refreshing to have two smart people with very different points of view converse about complicated issues — rather than endure yet another diatribe against  wokeness. That script has become predictable and boring and none of us who admire your intellect (even as we often disagree with your views) want you to become boring. There are many thoughtful voices on the left (some of whom regard wokeness as a distraction, which it is). Bring more of them on to your show. You’ll learn — and so will we. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

I enjoy The Dish. Thank you for creating it.

Thank you for subscribing! And guest suggestions for the pod always appreciated: dish@andrewsullivan.com.

New On The Dishcast: Cornel West

Cornel West’s academic career is long and storied, having taught religion, philosophy, and African-American studies at Yale, Princeton, Harvard, and Union Theological Seminary, where he recently returned. He has written or contributed to more than 20 books, including Race Matters and Democracy Matters — but he recommends you start with Chekhov.

I met Cornel decades ago, when I interviewed him at Union Theological Seminary for a TNR piece I was writing on divinity schools. He has long fascinated me, and Race Matters had a real impact on me decades ago. Erudite, passionate, and deeply humane, he is an unapologetically leftist Christian, who is also a champion of free speech, civility and the classics. In other words: a rare and beautiful man.

For two clips of my conversation with Cornel — on how he finds common ground with bigots and racists, and his take on CRT and the 1619 Project — pop over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here.

That link also takes you to a robust collection of dissents, assents, and other comments from readers following our episode with Briahna Joy Gray on race and class in America. She and I will be continuing the conversation on her podcast, Bad Faith, which you should definitely check out in general. So keep the emails coming — dish@andrewsullivan.com — and we will link to her episode when it airs.

Dissents Of The Week: What About The Labor Shortage?

Many readers point to what they see as a blindspot in my worries over the waves of unchecked migrants. As one reader puts it, “With the labor crisis that America is facing during the pandemic, no one wants to go back to work for the lower-end jobs, so isn’t this a perfect time to let those immigrants fill our orders at Taco Bell and Burger King?” Another reader:

Our birth rate is tanking. We have a labor shortage in many sectors of the economy. “Now hiring” signs are prominent all over town. My daughter works in a steel plant in Oklahoma City as a machinist and her company is always short of workers. Bring on the immigrants!

Read one more dissent along those lines, along with my response, here — which also includes dissents over my views on government spending, child poverty, and Ibram X Kendi’s children’s book.

As always, keep the constructive criticism coming, along with anything else you want to add to the Dish mix, such as the view from your own window (but don’t forget part of the window frame): dish@andrewsullivan.com.

In The ‘Stacks

In case you’re new to the Dish, this is a feature in the paid version of our newsletter spotlighting about a dozen of our favorite pieces from other substackers every week. This week’s selection covers subjects such as Krysten Sinema, “Red Covid,” and redlining. Below is one example, followed by a brand new substack:

  • As a former goth kid with “long spells of atheism and paganism,” Emma Collins is now searching for a Christian congregation that isn’t so damn political.

  • Welcome, Matt LaBash!

If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: dish@andrewsullivan.com.

The View From Your Window Contest

Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to contest@andrewsullivan.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!

The results for the last week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today.

See you next Friday.

(Top photo of Chappelle by Lester Cohen/WireImage)