'The Closer' Isn't About Laughing at Trans People. It's About Laughing at Yourself | Opinion

Less than a month after its release, Dave Chappelle's Netflix special, "The Closer," has already been picked apart and protested to death thanks to a preponderance of politically incorrect jokes about trans people. But there's something that's been overlooked: the laughter—specifically, the laughter of Daphne Dorman, a trans woman to whom Dave devoted the last segment of the special. In it, Chappelle describes Daphne's exceptional bravery, particularly after she bombed as his opening act one night in San Francisco. Many seasoned comedians would have run home to lick their wounds after such a terrible set, but not Daphne; she took a seat in the front row and laughed heartily at Chappelle's jokes for the rest of the show—a show that like "The Closer" contained jokes about trans people.

Hearing that story of Daphne's laughter reminded me of myself. I was mocked a lot growing up, especially when I was a new kid in school. But while many kids are made fun of, when I was hit with a barb I'd never heard before, I had what I soon learned was an unusual reaction: I'd burst out laughing, despite it being at my expense. I couldn't help myself; I just found it funny. In fact, I was a lot like Daphne.

And then, I lost it. The kids started making fun of me for laughing at myself, and it kind of broke me. I became like other people being mocked. I grew hypersensitive to criticism. I perceived slights where none existed. I lost my sense of humor, my ability to laugh at myself.

I should have stayed like Daphne.

This to me was the lesson of "The Closer"—not that being able to laugh at trans people is good but that being able to laugh at yourself is essential.

That Dave Chappelle made trans jokes, or that he used the story of a trans friend to make this point, isn't dehumanizing to trans people; it's the opposite. It's a refusal to deprive them of the humanity he grants everyone else by joking about them. As Daphne said to Dave that night from the front row after one of his jokes, "I don't need you to understand me. I just need you to believe that I'm having a human experience."

To Daphne, depriving her of the right to be included in Chappelle's set would have been the dehumanizing thing. To suggest that one group has a plight we cannot fathom that puts them outside the realm of jokes is to malign the empathic foundation, that which makes us moral.

This is in no way to deny the unique struggle that trans people have, their incredible bravery, resilience, and resolve. They deserve all the respect and dignity in the world. To emerge from such mountainous odds as oneself and to unabashedly present that self to an unwelcoming world is, to me, a truly heroic act.

And that is why I refuse to treat them as less-than. So few of us achieve what they do by simply being who they are.

Dave Chappelle
Dave Chappelle performs onstage during Dave Chappelle and John Mayer: Controlled Danger at The Forum on December 31, 2017 in Inglewood, California. A fired Netflix employee, who is transgender, has stated that they don't want his latest comedy special to be deleted from the streaming platform after controversy over his comments about trans women. Lester Cohen/WireImage

The thing is, true dignity means being fully included. And it means also being the occasional focal point of absurdity and hyperbole and below-the-belt humor. For all the talk of punching down, the true marginalization would be to deem any group too fragile, too weak, too hopelessly beleaguered to have a sense of humor, to understand context, and to recognize intent.

I insist on granting everyone the dignity of being treated—and mocked—like every other human being. Daphne understood this. That's why she once told Dave, "I wonder why they never said that you normalize transgenders by telling jokes about us."

It took me 30 years of scrambling through depression and insecurity to get my laughter back from those days on the schoolyard. Now, I laugh at everything—and I laugh the hardest when the jokes are at my expense. I laugh because I agree. I laugh because I don't. I laugh because it's witty. I laugh because it isn't. I laugh because our existence is often so bizarre and absurd and heartbreaking that, if I didn't, I'd never stop crying.

I laugh because to have a joke told at your expense is a deeply human experience—and that's what Daphne wanted most of all.

Angel Eduardo is a writer, musician, and visual artist based in New York City. He is a staff writer and content creator for idealist.org, and a columnist for Center for Inquiry. Find him at angeleduardo.com.

The views in this article are the writer's own.