Wil Wheaton explains why Dave Chappelle's transphobic jokes 'normalize hateful, ignorant, bigoted behavior'

Backlash surrounding Dave Chappelle’s transphobic jokes from his latest Netflix special, The Closer, continues to divide the trans community, their allies and comedians at large.

Now, Star Trek: The Next Generation star Wil Wheaton is adding his voice to the mix in a lengthy Facebook message, through which he attempts to explain why Chappelle’s jokes can lead to real-world harm to trans youth. In the post, he cites examples such as Eddie Murphy’s 1983 comedy album, Delirious, which Wheaton says inspired him to display bigotry toward gay men at an early age.

He shares a story about when he was a teenager and decided to tell a homophobic joke to the guys in the locker room following a hockey a game at a local ice rink, during which he used an anti-gay slur. It wasn’t until later that he realized the group of men in the locker room were actually gay themselves.

“So I'm talking with these guys, and we're all just laughing and having a good time,” he writes. “We're doing that sports thing where you talk about the great plays, and feel like you're part of something special. And then, without even realizing what I was doing, that awful word came out of my mouth. ‘Blah blah blah F****t,’ I said.”

“The room fell silent and that's when I realized every single guy in this room was gay,” he explained. “They were from a team called The Blades (amazing) and I had just ... really fucked up. ‘Do you have any gay friends?’ One of them asked me, gently. ‘Yes,’ I said, defensively. Then, I lied, ‘They say that all the time.’ I was so embarrassed and horrified. I realized I had basically said the N-word, in context, and I didn't know what to do. I wanted to disappear. I wanted to apologize, I wanted to beg forgiveness. But I was a stupid 16 year-old with pride and ignorance and fear all over myself, so I lied to try and get out of it. 'They must not love themselves very much,’ he said, with quiet disappointment. Nobody said another word to me. I felt terrible. I shoved my gear into my bag and left as quickly as I could.”

Even though the experience happened three decades ago, Wheaton said he still feels “mortified and embarrassed and so regretful” over the incident. In hindsight, he says he credits specials like Murphy’s Delirious and Chappelle’s The Closer for normalizing such rhetoric.

“A *huge* part of that normalization was through entertainment that dehumanized gay men in the service of ‘jokes,’” he explained, adding of Murphy's Delirious, “For much of my teen years, I was embarrassingly homophobic, and it all started with that comedy special."

For the record, in recent years Murphy has acknowledged the damage his early standup has caused for the LGBTQ community, and even apologized. In a 2019 interview with The New York Times, he called his past material on AIDS and the LGBTQ community “ignorant.”

Still, for people like Wheaton, the harm had already been done.

“Young Wil, who watched this with his suburban white upper middle class friends, in his privileged bubble, thought it was the funniest, edgiest, dirtiest thing he'd ever heard. It KILLED him,” Wheaton explained of Murphy's special. “And all of it was dehumanizing to gay men. All of it was cruel. All of it was bigoted. All of it was punching down. And I didn't know any better. I accepted the framing, I developed a view of gay men as predatory, somehow less than straight men, absolutely worthy of mockery and contempt. Always good for a joke, though. Let me put this another way: A comedian who I thought was one of the funniest people on the planet totally normalized making a mockery of gay people, and because I was a privileged white kid, raised by privileged white parents, there was nobody around me to challenge that perception.”

“That happened over 30 years ago, and I think about it all the time,” he continued. “I said it out of ignorance, but I still said it, and I said it because I believed these men, who were so cool and kind and just like all the other men I played with (I was always the youngest player on the ice) were somehow less than ... I guess everyone. Because that had been normalized for me by culture and comedy.”

As far as Chappelle’s special goes, Wheaton encouraged other “cishet [cisgender, heterosexual] white men,” who are “so keen to defend” the comedian, to speak out.

“For a transgender person, those ‘jokes’ normalize hateful, ignorant, bigoted behavior towards them,” he said. “Those ‘jokes’ contribute to a world where transgender people are constantly under threat of violence, because transgender people have been safely, acceptably, dehumanized. And it's all OK, because they were dehumanized by a Black man. And the disingenuous argument that it's actually racist to hold Chapelle accountable for this? Get the fuck out of here.”

“I love dark humor. I love smart, clever jokes that make us think, that challenge authority, that make powerful people uncomfortable,” he continued, but "When literally every queer person I know says ‘This is hurtful to me,’ I'm going to listen to them and support them, and not tell them why they are wrong, as so many cishet white men do.”

While he was 16 "and didn't know any better," he wrote, "I still regret it. Frankly, a whole lot of y'all who I've already blocked should feel the same shame about what you said TODAY that I feel for something I did three decades ago when I was sixteen and didn't know any better. But you don't, and that is why people like me need to keep using our voices to speak up and speak out.”

Dave Chappelle introduces Jay-Z during the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. October 30, 2021. REUTERS/Gaelen Morse
Dave Chappelle has been under fire for several weeks following a slew of transphobic jokes he delivered in his latest Netflix special, 'The Closer.' (REUTERS/Gaelen Morse)

The backlash against Chappelle’s special first gained momentum in October, when queer activists and allies, including Netflix employees, spoke out about how Chappelle’s jokes in The Closer could potentially harm the trans community.

The furor led to a walk-out in October, organized by Netflix employees, and activist Ashlee Marie Preston.

During the special itself, Chappelle touched on several hot-button issues, including DaBaby’s recent off-base comments about HIV, J.K. Rowling’s controversial statements in 2019, cancel culture as a whole and his personal experience with the transgender community — including the loss of a dear friend who died by suicide, allegedly after being bullied online for defending him.

Two former Netflix employees who helped ignite the movement had filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that Netflix retaliated against them for speaking out. They later rescinded the complaint and have confirmed they are no longer employees of the company.

Despite the upheaval — and the numerous activists who say Chappelle’s jokes cause real-world harm to trans youth — the comedian doesn’t seem to be bothered.

In a video clip posted to Instagram in October, Chappelle remained unapologetic about the special, saying, "I said what I said, and boy, I heard what you said. My God, how could I not? You said you want a safe working environment at Netflix. It seems like I'm the only one that can't go to the office anymore.”

He added, “Everyone I know from that community has been nothing but loving and supportive. So I don't know what this nonsense is about,” noting that if Netflix employees were to meet with him, he would have several conditions conditions for them, including "you cannot come if you have not watched my special from beginning to end."