Calls for respect, more representation and less harmful content at Netflix came long before Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special and the walkout of Netflix employees on Wednesday that I helped organized. In the middle of the recent backlash, I was still hopeful we could push for change, but Netflix leadership disappointed us, and on Oct. 14, it became clear that further actions should be taken. By 4 p.m., a walkout protest was announced; around 7 p.m., I was terminated. I was told that while I was a well-respected member of Netflix, it seemed likely that I was the source of leaked information that appeared in the media — a charge I firmly deny.
So when did this fight really start? For me, it began when I was born. I was assigned female at birth and socialized to be a woman, but I knew I was different. Growing up in Mississippi meant that I mostly hid those differences — until 2014, when I met my wife. She freed me from the chains of gender and the last remaining vestiges of the ideas that had been ingrained within me. I remember the giddiness the first time I introduced myself to someone with my pronouns, they/them. I felt that I finally had the opportunity to just be me.
But this giddiness often mixed with fear, because of the many people and systems that oppress my identity. I received pushback from my family, friends and colleagues. They thought I was “a bit too much.”
I shared my story with Netflix content executives last year as a part of a conversation to facilitate more trans content on the platform. I wasn’t the only one. Trans colleagues remained utterly professional as they also shared their stories. We asked to be seen as equals. We asked them to recognize our stories, to see that we deserve a place on the platform. We felt vulnerable, but at least they heard us.
Or so I thought. Recent events show Netflix executives took nothing away from those conversations.
The release of Chapelle’s special, “The Closer,” happened without consulting the Trans* Employee Resource Group (ERG), of which I was a member and coleader. The ERG might have recommended not releasing the special — but that if that wasn’t an option, we could have offered other ways to minimize the harm it could do to our community and to the company. But Netflix didn’t ask for guidance, deeply miscalculating the impact of this inflammatory, inaccurate and dangerous content.
The ERG could have suggested that the special not be released in October, during LGBTQ+ history month. Perhaps, they could have considered not doing it on Oct. 5, the day before the anniversary of the brutal death of Matthew Shepard, the University of Wyoming student who was beaten, tortured and left to die near Laramie on the night of Oct. 6, 1998.
The ERG also could have suggested editing out the TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) comments that ignited a great deal of public outrage. We could have been seen as partners, our opinion valued and considered. Instead, Netflix ignored us.
Many people want to boil down this to just “crazy libs” obsessed with “cancel culture” who want to harm Chappelle, but that could not be further from the truth. Let me be clear: Within the Trans* team there is no desire to “destroy Netflix” or “cancel Dave.” Our goal has always been to create parity in the content available at Netflix to better reflect the spectrum of users. Data shows that the incoming user generations are going to expect that parity in content. Gen Z and younger groups increasingly feel comfortable coming out as LGBTQ+; so it only makes sense to create content that will interest this next group of consumers.
By ignoring this segment and failing to think through the economic power of the global trans population, Netflix is giving up a valuable competitive edge. A mantra heard often about Netflix is that the competition is not just HBO Max, Disney, etc., but also TikTok, Fortnite and other social media platforms. When you think of those platforms, the first thing that comes to mind is the relative youth of creators in those spaces and how drastically different that content looks from what you see on other media services.
In many ways, the work Trans* has been doing for three years now is prescient. We know many young users find homophobic, transphobic, racist and xenophobic content repugnant. This content reflects tremendous injustice and causes “real world harm” to the communities being targeted. There’s no longer tolerance for intolerance.
Ultimately, this is not only a fight for the heart, soul and long-term future of Netflix. It’s also about ensuring that hate won’t have a prominent space in the new world that’s coming. We in the trans community know this is a marathon, and we will never stop fighting for equity and respect. Let this backlash be a lesson.