Hundreds of Netflix employees and supporters gathered in the shadow of the streaming giant’s Los Angeles headquarters on Wednesday to protest Dave Chappelle’s standup special “The Closer.” But the event, which was intended to showcase solidarity with the trans community, grew tense at certain points as protesters clashed with a vocal crowd of the comedian’s fans.
Netflix has been embroiled in controversy since the comedy special debuted on Oct. 5, with employees and artists openly criticizing Chappelle for comments and jokes they deemed transphobic and homophobic. The Netflix office complex, a stone’s throw from the closed Arclight Hollywood Cinemas, saw dozens of passionate trans supporters waving signs reading “Trans Lives Matter” and “Transphobia is Not a Joke.” Ashlee Marie Preston, a media personality who organized the event, said that she and other organizers had invited Chappelle to speak to them and were rebuffed.
“We’re up against a the emergence of hate economy,” said Preston. “And there is this manipulation of algorithmic science that distorts the way that we perceive ourselves and others. And I think that companies like Netflix, Facebook, and Instagram, they play into it, and they monetize on it. And so I think that this is important to show up today.”
Counter-protesters were also out in full force, bearing signs with messages like “Jokes Are Funny,” and “Netflix Don’t Cancel Free Speech.” At times the situation threatened to devolve as counter-protestors pushed up against trans speakers. One man’s “Jokes Are Funny” sign was ripped out of his hand by a pro-trans protestor and split in half, leaving him with a stick and little else. Crowd members said he was wielding a weapon and asked for his removal. Chappelle’s supporters said they were demonstrating in support of free speech.
“We are protesting this walkout. They have the right to do it, but we have the right to standup for Dave Chappelle and his freedom of expression,” said Gigi LaRoux, who identified herself as a supporter of comedy. “This boils down to equality, and if people want equality they to be put on the same level as anybody else. Comedians are equal opportunity destroyers. You can’t pick and choose who you’re going to make fun of.“
A subset of counter-protestors, primarily comprised of white women, shouted anti-trans catchphrases, saying, “self-love, not surgery,” which appeared to be a dismissive reference to gender reassignment procedures.
In “The Closer,” Chappelle makes several jokes that critics say are transphobic, such as wondering whether there is “even such a thing as a woman or man or anything anymore.” At times, Chappelle takes pains to deny he is prejudiced, such as sharing an anecdote about befriending trans comic Daphne Dorman, who committed suicide in 2019. But he also talks about getting in an altercation with a lesbian, while also aligning himself on “Team TERF” (referring to “trans-exclusionary radical feminist”) with “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling, who has made anti-trans comments in the past.
It wasn’t always clear which members of the crowd were on the Netflix payroll. A trio of protesters identifying themselves as “game workers” held signs saying trans people have their full support. Netflix leaders Reed Hastings and Ted Sarandos have said that gaming is a major growth sector for Netflix in the coming years. Other employees, wearing Netflix swag, said they were members of the staff, but declined to talk to press.
The event attracted some high-profile talent, including “Transparent” creator Joey Soloway, who argued that Chappelle’s jokes crossed a line.
“Trans people are in the middle of a holocaust,” Soloway said in an address to the crowd. “Apartheid, murder, a state of emergency, human rights crisis, there’s a mental health crisis. There’s a suicide crisis, a bullying crisis, an anxiety, depression, self-hatred state of emergency crisis. But trans people are also out here dreaming. Dreaming of safety, dreaming to be alive, to be human, to belong and to have some time, which is privilege.”
“The line is simple: stop making things worse,” Soloway added. Soloway also called on Netflix to appoint a trans person to the board “this fucking week.”
Netflix’s top executives has stood by Chappelle in messages to staff and pushed back on suggestions that the comic’s special could inspire violence against the trans community in a series of staff-wide memos that only exacerbated tensions. Sarandos later expressed regret for that internal communication, saying he “screwed it up” and “should have led with a lot more humanity.”
Netflix’s handling of the public relations crisis has also strained its relationships with top talent. Comedian Hannah Gadsby, whose specials “Nanette” and “Douglas” are on Netflix, released a scathing statement on Instagram, slamming for Sarandos for mentioning her name in his original note to staff. ““You didn’t pay me nearly enough to deal with the real world consequences of the hate speech dog whistling you refuse to acknowledge, Ted,” she wrote. “F**k you and your amoral algorithm cult.” Elliot Page, the star of the streamer’s “Umbrella Academy,” released a statement of support prior to the walkout. “I stand with the trans, nonbinary, and BIPOC employees at Netflix fighting for more and better trans stories and a more inclusive workplace,” Page tweeted.
In a statement prior to the walkout, Netflix said, “We value our trans colleagues and allies, and understand the deep hurt that’s been caused. We respect the decision of any employee who chooses to walk out, and recognize we have much more work to do both within Netflix and in our content.”
Last week, Netflix fired B. Pagels-Minor, a non-binary employee the company claims shared information on the economics behind and viewership of “The Closer” with Bloomberg. Pagels-Minor was among the speakers at the event. They read out a list of demands, calling on Netflix to invest more money on trans and non-binary content and to support more trans and non-binary creators. Pagels-Minor and other activists said that Netflix programming that has anti-trans messages should have warnings.
“I want my child to grow up in a world where they see that their parent, a Black trans person because I exist contrary to what the special says, contrary to what many people say, that I am valued and that I am an important person,” said Pagels-Minor.