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Opinion Dave Chappelle cannot erase me

Comedian Dave Chappelle in an image from his Netflix special, "The Closer." (Mathieu Bitton/Netflix)

Brian Broome is the author of “Punch Me Up To The Gods.”

I grew up in a small, racist town in northern Ohio, where all the Black people lived on one side and all the White people lived on the other. It didn’t take me long to realize how things shook out in America.

I was prone to childish fantasies. I used to dream that an enormous spaceship would one day hover over the earth. It would linger until all the Black people everywhere had time to board and then it would carry us all far away from racism to a place where no such thing could exist.

Like I say, I was a child. When I got older, I realized I was gay. It took me a little while to connect the dots but, once I did, I realized to my sadness that, even if such a ship appeared, that Black people, my own people, would never allow me to board it. Because, according to the culture, my Blackness and my gayness were not allowed to coexist. I had to pick one or the other. This reality fragmented my personality for far too long, and in ways that were unhealthy for me and everyone around me.

In his most recent Netflix special called “The Closer,” comedian Dave Chappelle expounds on what he believes to be a disparity in America’s response to Black men and the gay and trans community. “In our country,” he said, “you can shoot and kill” a Black man, “but you better not hurt a gay person’s feelings.”

I have enjoyed Chappelle’s comedy in the past. But I could not laugh at “The Closer.” It felt, in a word, mean. Perhaps that’s because it hit too close to home. But it also felt like a vendetta. Like he had a score to settle against all the gay and trans folk who have challenged him in one way or another about his views.

In “The Closer,” Chappelle treats equality as a zero-sum game in which some, though oppressed themselves, seem to be getting more equality than others. I think this is a dangerous game to play. Chappelle seems to believe in a dynamic in which it’s Black people vs. gay and trans people. A belief that essentially erases the experiences of people who are Black and queer. He seems to believe that the entirety of the queer community is White.

I’m here to remind him that Black gay and trans people exist. I’m here to remind him that we are here facing the same racism that every Black American faces and the same homophobia and transphobia that he seems to find such fertile ground for his comedy.

One night, when I was young, I boarded a bus in the city where I live. Behind me sat three Black men, who began to harass another Black person as they boarded. This person was an affront to their eyes. This person was, to them, not feminine enough to be a woman. Not masculine enough to be a man. So they taunted. This person said something back to them. So they began to beat the person up. Right there on the bus.

No one did anything. I didn’t do anything. I wasn’t brave. The bus driver, also a Black man, stopped the bus, and his solution was to tell this person to get off and wait for the next one. And that’s just what happened.

Those men, wherever they are, are probably laughing with Chappelle tonight. To some degree, he has affirmed for them that they all did the right thing.

I remember when people used to say that they had “no problem” with gay people as long as gay people didn’t “shove it in their faces.” This was code for us not to ask for too much. For us to keep it a secret. It seems to me that, in many ways, we as a country have gotten beyond this. But even if that is true, the same grace is not extended to trans people.

All people are capable of great cruelty. After I came out, I found out that gays can be just as racist as the public in general. I have been called the n-word by queer people and non-queer people alike. There appeared to be no escape from the world not wanting me to exist the way I was made. Addiction followed. Then suicide attempts. And now, here I am. Still broken, but still carrying on.

In the end, Chappelle can, of course, say whatever he likes. All I can do is wish that he didn’t want to say these things. Chappelle ended his special by asking the trans community to stop “punching down” on Black people. But members of that community aren’t “punching” anywhere. They are simply trying to live their lives with dignity. And just because you don’t understand something doesn’t automatically make it wrong.