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Halfway through a 40-minute interview on Thursday evening, Jaclyn Moore pauses briefly to navigate a common occurrence in the life of an out trans person. Someone hurled derogatory slurs at her as she passed by on the street in New Orleans, where she’s been working in the writers room as co-showrunner of Peacock’s Queer as Folk reboot. “I’m literally getting yelled at now,” she said before apologizing as she got back in sync with her thoughts. “Where was I?”
At that moment, she’d been pondering the aftermath of Netflix releasing Dave Chappelle’s latest special, The Closer, a 112-minute mic drop set that touches on a range of current topics, from coronavirus and racism to the #MeToo movement and rapper Da Baby’s controversial AIDS remarks. Moore has thought a lot about consequences since the special’s release on Tuesday; it’s what led her to take a stand by tweeting that she will no longer work for Netflix because of The Closer’s “blatantly and dangerously transphobic content.” This after spending four years working alongside Justin Simien on his now-wrapped Netflix series Dear White People, first as a writer and eventually as co-showrunner.
Specifically, Moore took issue with Chappelle stating that “gender is fact” and aligning with Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling as “team TERF,” a term that means trans-exclusionary radical feminist, an ideology that excludes trans women as women. She wasn’t the only one, as GLAAD, the National Black Justice Coalition and high-profile members of the LGBTQ community also objected to the new material, with the NBJC going so far as to request Netflix remove The Closer from its platform. (Netflix has declined comment.)
Moore says censoring Chappelle is not what she’s after. If anything, she wants people to know the realities of what life is like for trans and other LGBTQ folks who face discrimination, harassment, violence and abuse on a regular basis, some of which she says is fueled by the same type of rhetoric. For Moore’s part, aside from being yelled at on the street, she’s had bottles tossed at her and worse. The thought causes another break in the conversation, this time for tears.
“It is much easier to commit violence against someone that you think is immoral or a liar or … sorry,” she says, choking up. “Someone not worthy of your respect. That makes it much easier to hurt me. [Chappelle] says, ‘Please stop punching down.’ I don’t know in what world trans women control the universe because from where I’m sitting, Dave Chappelle has all the specials, all the money, all the things. I just want my friends to not get killed.”
Moore talked to The Hollywood Reporter about arriving at the decision to boycott, what she hopes happens next and, as a longtime fan of Chappelle, whether or not she found anything in The Closer to be funny. Hours after the conversation, Chappelle returned to the stage at a sold-out and star-studded show at L.A.’s iconic Hollywood Bowl. Following a screening of his Untitled documentary about his “Summer Camp” live shows, Chappelle stepped into the spotlight to a standing ovation which led him to say, “If this is what being canceled is, I love it.”
You tweeted about the emotions you felt watching The Closer. What section made you cry?
Dave has been making trans jokes for a long time, which is not to say that it’s fine, but often it has come from this comic persona that he puts on. It’s a little bit Bugs Bunny like, “Ain’t I a stinker?” Bits where he says something outrageous and then turns his back to the crowd or slaps the mic on his knee. Some of his trans jokes in the past felt, to me, that is where they lived. I’m not excusing it, but it previously didn’t hit me with the full weight of, “Dave Chappelle hates me.” And I’m not to say that he does — I don’t know his heart — but it didn’t hit me that way previously. It hit me as stupid or irresponsible, maybe even juvenile.
There’s another mode that Dave Chappelle has that is almost professorial. It’s why he’s brilliant because he can break the world down for his audience. In [The Closer], I feel this is where the trans material lands because it felt like he was breaking down the world, and I cried in a couple of moments, specifically, because of that. The one that broke me came when he was talking about Caitlyn Jenner, who, by the way, of course is someone I’m not a fan of. He talked about Caitlyn Jenner winning a Woman of the Year award, saying that she’d only been a woman for about a year and had never had a period. If he were a woman, he said, that would make him mad. “It does make me mad,” he said. A decent amount of the audience clearly agreed. And then he called himself “team TERF.” Those moments broke me because it crystallized the feeling that they don’t believe me. They think it’s absurd that I call myself a woman. They don’t like me. Isn’t it absurd that you could be a woman and have never had a period? And isn’t it absurd that someone who was not assigned female at birth could be a woman?
To be honest, it’s the same shit that people say to me usually right before they throw me against a wall or throw bottles at me — two things that have happened to me. It’s the same rhetoric that inspires people to [inflict] violence on trans people, which is itself an epidemic. To hear someone saying, “It makes me mad,” or, “It should make you mad,” it feels to me that he was trying to do something. I have no interest in canceling Dave Chappelle, that’s not what this is about. This is about dangerous rhetoric coming from someone who once left his show because he was worried people were misinterpreting his material, and yet he doesn’t see that people misinterpret these jokes. If I’m to grant the premise that Dave is not transphobic, then at the very least he is naive to think that these jokes — and I hesitate to call them jokes — don’t lead to actual violence. They do. They give voice to the idea that trans women aren’t women and it’s laughable for them to consider that they are. If those are the parameters of a debate, it’s going to get a lot of people killed.
Do you believe he is transphobic?
I don’t know that it’s my place to say what is in his heart. He tells transphobic jokes. Weirdly, he has become obsessed with trans people and continuously pokes the bear — and I get the impulse as a comedian to do that — but I don’t know what his motivations are. I don’t know if it’s transphobia or what it is or why he calls himself a TERF. That’s not somebody I feel comfortable with.
In one of your follow-up tweets, you opened up on how exhausting it is to constantly have the validity of your existence debated as if it’s a matter of opinion — or, in this case, as the punchline of a joke. How does this dialogue affect you in the world?
I don’t know if you can do a one-to-one-to-one assessment of how someone tells a transphobic joke and how that directly responds to someone assaulting me when I’m walking home at night. But it’s the kind of rhetoric that gives people permission structures. Who hasn’t gone back and watched a movie or a teen comedy from the ’70s or ’80s and thought, “Wow! People used to hate gay people a lot more than they do now.” Not that everything is great for the gays [today], and I say that as someone who was presenting as a man for a long time, I know that it’s not all sunshine. But when you hear those jokes, it gives people permission to call someone a f** because they believe, “Well, this is how you talk to people.”
Imagine if a straight comic got out there and made jokes that were similarly hurtful about [other topics] like, “Can you believe these people think they should get married?” or “Can you believe these people think this is what a couple looks like?” Apply the same structures to race — and I do think that’s one of the points he’s trying to make here. Unfortunately, he keeps saying that we aren’t listening to him, but it feels as if the opposite is true. It feels as if he’s not listening to us because we keep saying, “The jokes you are telling are harmful.” Not that my feelings are hurt. He even jokes that “You can’t hurt a gay person’s feelings anymore,” and it’s not about feelings. It’s the reality of being thrown against a wall. It’s the reality of abuse.
When one of the most famous people on the planet gets up on stage and says that they think it’s absurd a trans person claims to be a woman, that puts me in real danger when I go into a women’s restroom, which is already a dangerous place for me. The irony of ironies is that people think trans women shouldn’t be in women’s bathrooms because [trans women] are dangerous, but those spaces are dangerous for us. We are going to pee and we end up facing violence, harassment and hatred. I’m tired. I’m just tired.
It feels like that point is getting lost because he says jokes can’t be made anymore that hurt gay people’s feelings, but you’re speaking about violence, hatred and harassment …
My feelings are not hurt by his jokes. We live in a world where trans women are more likely to get murdered. And, by the way, the thing that I find most galling in some ways is his framing of race because Black trans women are the most susceptible to that violence. How do Black trans women fit into this totally intersection-less world that you’re painting? It’s not about sensitivity. I don’t want to speak for all trans women, but I’m not offended, I’m concerned for myself and my community. We’re the people who are getting killed, thrown against walls and having beer bottles thrown at us. These are real things, not some theoretical debate.
How did you arrive at the decision to not work with Netflix anymore?
I want to be clear that Dave Chappelle should be free to say whatever he wants and I should be free to say whatever I would like about him. Not to let Chappelle off the hook, but my bigger issue is with Netflix. This isn’t a live special. It was filmed, finished and people watched it and nobody said, “Hey, are we sure this is good? Are we sure this is OK? Are we sure this isn’t dangerous? What are the consequences of putting this out?” [Pauses as she is verbally harassed on the street.] I worked for Netflix for four years, and I told my coming-out story for their Pride [content] this year. In doing that, I said, “This is a place that cares about us and our community.” Now, watching [The Closer], it’s really hard for me not to feel like I can no longer confidently say that. As I posted, I have worked with so many people at Netflix who are brilliant, lovely, kind, caring and want nothing more than to do the right thing. So, I don’t know who [approved it], but what I do know is that there aren’t enough trans people in these spaces because a trans person would have said, “Are we aware of the implications?”
I hear that the Netflix culture is big on memos and talking things out, getting second, third, fourth opinions and multiple rounds of feedback. As someone who has worked there, what is the process like?
All the divisions are segmented, so I don’t know how it works in stand-up. It probably exists in a totally different world than what I did in the half-hour narrative space. But the process is much like any network. We wrote story ideas, outlines and scripts. At each stage, they went to the network and the network gave thoughts, asked questions, pushed back on sections, flagged things for contractual reasons, things like that. They may have asked, “Are we saying what we think we are saying?” That’s something we talked about all the time on Dear White People both with the room and the network. “What do we think we are saying here, and will people think we’re saying that or something else?” These are important questions to ask when you’re making art about difficult subjects and nobody is going to be perfect with that. Everyone will make mistakes and everyone will make jokes from time to time that cause you to say, “Oh, you know what? I want that one back.” Sometimes you think you nailed wordplay, but after saying it or reading it back, it might feel like something else.
The problem in Chappelle’s case is that he’s now done this in something like five specials in a row with increasing hostility. Netflix keeps paying for these specials. It’s hard to feel like the financial upside outweighed the rest. I’m not saying that’s what they think, but that’s the message that’s received when this happens. So, I tweeted about my decision because I felt like I had to. There aren’t many trans showrunners in this business. It’s a short list who have done this job, and I’ve done this job at Netflix on a show that talks about queer issues, race and a host of other topics. I felt I had to say something, especially because I had put myself out there previously to promote Netflix as an inclusive place.
After tweeting your decision, have you spoken to anyone from Netflix or heard from Netflix peers, either in support or otherwise?
I have spoken to someone from Netflix. I don’t want to say who, but I will say it was a very lovely conversation. Someone called to hear my side of things, and they wanted to let me know that they see me and see what I’m doing and they wanted to keep an open line of dialogue. I really appreciate that; it was a stand-up move by that person. I don’t know what the internal politics are there about this or any of it, but I do want to say that I worked with many people at Netflix who are some of the most empathetic and caring folks I’ve worked with in this business. There is a difference between the corporate decisions and whatever happens as an entity versus the people who exist within it.
You told Variety that your goal is not to get The Closer pulled off the platform and that you will just not work there until something changes. To clarify, what changes will remedy that?
I’m developing stuff all the time, and I’m not going to pitch it to Netflix for the time being. I don’t know what it will take to change that. I didn’t do it as an ultimatum like, “If you don’t do it by this date, then … .” I just can’t in good conscience do business there right now. It’s a difficult question because I don’t know the right answer. I don’t know if it’s to supplement the specials, to add disclaimers or edits, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s my job to fix their problem, but I will say they do have a problem, which is their platform is promoting dangerous rhetoric from someone who says they are a TERF, who mocks the idea of my existence and compares what I do to blackface.
I love the NPR piece going around about the special because it states that oppression and harm is not zero-sum. Trans people face suppression. We are a marginalized community that often faces violence for our existence. It is much easier to commit violence against someone that you think is immoral or you think is a liar, or you think is … (pauses as she gets emotional and tears up) … sorry … someone not worthy of your respect. That makes it much easier to hurt me. [Chappelle] says, “Please stop punching down.” I don’t know in what world trans women control the universe because from where I’m sitting, Dave Chappelle has all the specials, all the money, all the things. I just want my friends to not get killed.
In another section, he says that gay people are minorities until they need to be white again. What is your response?
My response is that intersectionality is important. To pretend that racism doesn’t exist within marginalized communities would be foolish — of course it does. But I don’t want to speak for the rest of the community, and there’s no world in which I would ever try to tell Dave Chappelle anything about the Black experience. I don’t know why he needs to keep telling me about the trans experience.
You mentioned freedom of speech. People talk a lot about the line in comedy, where is it? What is provocative and what goes too far versus people being allowed to say whatever they want under the First Amendment. Where do you stand?
There’s a difference between being provocative and inciting violence. I’m not saying that Dave Chappelle is specifically inciting violence. It’s also not for me to say where that line is. It’s for the audience to say where that line is. I am a member of the audience, and I am saying where I feel comfortable on this issue. People can listen, they can not listen. They can choose to watch this special and say that I’m wrong. There’s so much talk about the idea of whether intent matters when harm is involved, and I would say that whether or not it is his intention to be transphobic, what happens after I say that I do not like what he says about trans people and I find it dangerous? Sure does lead to a lot of people telling me that I’m a man or I’m lying or I need Jesus or I’m ugly or that he was right and hilarious. For every person who tells me that it wasn’t transphobic and that I didn’t understand it, there’s at least one person, if not more, who is saying, “Dave was right, you’re not a woman.”
It appears as though he was an equal-opportunity offender with jokes about lesbians, the #MeToo movement, white gays, etc. Did you find any of it funny?
He’s a really talented performer. I was at his Radio City comeback show. I love Dave Chappelle. I’ve loved Dave Chappelle for a long time and he was a hero of mine. There are turns of phrases and ways that he tells jokes that are great. There are moments in recent years when he’s been brilliant. His George Floyd special was profound and incredible. Often there are moments of profundity in what he says, but I don’t think granting someone a genius ascribes to everything they do. It can be fleeting. There are things that Dave is brilliant about, and there are things that I think he is not brilliant about. There was a lot in this special that I found not so brilliant.
You’re co-showrunning Queer as Folk for Peacock. Would you ever write any of this into the show?
As a trans woman, I am writing a show that stars [trans actress] Jesse James Keitel as one of the leads, so it will definitely have a lot of my life experience. I would not say that I’m going to go write an episode that says, “Dave Chappelle says this.” No. But what we are going to do is aim to tell the truth about what it feels like to be queer and what it feels like to be queer in New Orleans, where the show is set. All we can do is try. People screw up and some art is great and some art is not, but we aim for greatness and we aim for truth. This is a city that is simultaneously wildly welcoming to the trans community, overwhelmingly so, but it’s also the South. People are hostile to the trans community, and they feel very comfortable in their hostility. If anything, the last 24 hours have shown me that is more true across the country than I thought.
Last question. We are living in a time when there are many successful queer comedians, probably now more than at any other time. Some with Netflix specials, others are touring, acting, performing and doing well. Is there someone out there that you love or want to shout out for making you laugh?
I love Patti Harrison, Bowen Yang, Grace Freud. Sammy Mowrey is a very funny stand-up in L.A. God, there are so many. Sabrina Jalees is one of my very best friends and one of the funniest people on the planet. Their designation and categorization mean less because they’re all brilliant.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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