Dave Chappelle’s “The Closer” and Discussions of Transgender Issues

I have already written about Dave Chappelle’s newest Netflix special titled “The Closer.” But I think Chappelle’s special, and the discourse surrounding it, has opened up a an avenue to further that discourse.

This post was inspired by the following video by Jessie Gender

The above video is a fairly nuanced take on Chappelle’s special from the point of view of a trans woman (watch the full video, not just the first part, before judging for yourself). I think she does what a lot of people on culture war issues don’t do in being charitable when attributing motives to the subject of her criticism. She doesn’t conclude that Chappelle is little more than a malicious transphobe, but instead that he is someone navigating a topic unfamiliar to many people in real time, and that this is something many people can relate to. Her biggest issue, in the end, seems to be that Chappelle is doing this on a large platform, where some of his misconceptions and holes in his understanding can be seized upon by those who are malicious transphobes.

I think this is a valid criticism of anyone navigating complex topics that require nuance. What I take issue with, however, is that a lot of people in the trans community (and I am not saying that Jessie Gender is included in this assessment) seem to expect a person to have a degree in gender studies from Berkeley before they’re allowed to say anything on the subject. The reason usually given is that saying things that could conceivably be misconstrued by the wrong people is as bad as pulling the trigger yourself, that it is an inevitable result of speaking while ignorant that it will directly cause injury or death to trans people. It’s the same sort of “won’t someone please think of the children?” argument utilized by pearl-clutching conservatives. Only instead of the children, it’s “won’t someone please think of the trans people?” The idea being to trot out potential victims to score emotional points and imply that one’s opponent is either intending to cause, or doesn’t care about causing, harm to the potential victim.

I think Chappelle going on stage and working through his thoughts on trans issues is likely more beneficial than detrimental to the trans community. Sure, there will be bad actors who attempt to use some of what Chappelle says to bolster their position by fallacious appeals to Chappelle’s ‘authority’ (i.e. that he’s famous, that he’s black, that he’s often a darling of the left). I think, though, that most people who are around Chappelle’s stage of thinking through these issues would come away from his show with greater sympathy towards the trans community, not less. And with Chappelle, instead of being lectured to by someone they might perceive as condescending or virtue signaling, they can identify with Chappelle as he works through his confusion. Chappelle is someone who thinks just like a regular person being confronted with the growing awareness of trans issues in the past decade or so, and so they’re more likely to find his journey more identifiable and therefore will be more likely to go along with him on that journey.

Another thing from the above video that I think is misleading is when Jessie Gender addresses the issue of detransitioners. Like many transgender activists, she dismisses the 2018 study by Lisa Littman about Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD) on methodological grounds for using self-selection bias. This is a valid criticism of the paper:

A 90-question survey instrument with multiple choice, Likert-type, and open-ended questions was created by the researcher. The survey was designed for parents (respondents) to complete about their adolescent and young adult children. The survey was uploaded onto Survey Monkey (SurveyMonkey, Palo Alto, CA, USA) via an account that was HIPPA-enabled. IRB approval for the study from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, NY was received. Recruitment information with a link to the survey was placed on three websites where parents and professionals had been observed to describe what seemed to be a sudden or rapid onset of gender dysphoria (4thwavenow, transgender trend, and youthtranscriticalprofessionals), although the specific terminology “rapid onset gender dysphoria” did not appear on these websites until the recruitment information using that term was first posted on the sites. Website moderators and potential participants were encouraged to share the recruitment information and link to the survey with any individuals or communities that they thought might include eligible participants to expand the reach of the project through snowball sampling techniques.

This, of course, does not disprove ROGD, but is likely to make it appear more prevalent than it is. What I take some issue with, however, is that Jessie Gender went on to dismiss ROGD by stating that only a small proportion of people detranstion after beginning transition. To support this she sites the popular 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, which also suffers from self-selection bias, and had as one of its criteria for eligibility in the survey that a person identifies as transgender. Thus, the report, while informative in many ways, is certainly not the authority on detransition.

Detransitioning is a tricky issue, but one that can not and should not be ignored. A 2021 study by Jack Turban et al found that around 13% of people who began transitioning went on to detransition. But how often transgender people go on to detransition is not the end of the story. Another issue is why someone would detransition: are they doing it because they realized they were not transgender after all, or are they doing it because of external pressures (e.g. to placate family members or to avoid discrimination)? The Turban study found that almost 83% of detransitioners listed at least one external fact as a reason to detransition while only about 16% listed at least one internal reason (i.e. they realized they identified more with their natal sex). However, a another 2021 study by Elie Vandenbussche found that 70% of detransitioners were doing it because they realized they identified more with their natal sex. Lisa Littman herself found that around 65% of detransitioners listed that they realized they identified more with their natal sex as their reason to detransition. Interestingly, she also found among the 100 detransitioners she surveyed:

Most participants (58.0%) expressed the gender dysphoria was caused by trauma or a mental health condition narrative which included endorsing the response options indicating that their gender dysphoria was caused by something specific, such as a trauma or a mental health condition. More than half of the participants (51.2%) responded that they believe that the process of transitioning delayed or prevented them from dealing with or being treated for trauma or a mental health condition.

My point with this is simply to show that the jury is still out on ROGD. It is important to remember, however, that even if ROGD is a real phenomenon, that does not mean that transgender people don’t exist. What it means, and what I think is the reason the trans community resists the idea that ROGD is real, is that we cannot be uncritically affirming whenever someone declares themselves to be transgender. It would mean having to take a medical and psychiatric approach to affirming someone’s gender identity, as opposed to the trans activist position that a person ought to be fully affirmed the first time they ever utter a word that they might be transgender.

This all becomes an even trickier issue when children are considered. At what age could we say that a person knows they are transgender? What level of affirmation should we give someone who claims to be the opposite gender when they’re 5 years old? 10 years old? 15 years old? Should people at these ages be allowed to choose to take medical interventions?

The party line among trans activists, as I said, is always to be affirming. What the issue of detransition brings up is that choosing to transition might not be the best thing for some proportion of people who declare themselves to be transgender. Surely going through transition will increase the quality of life for a number of the people who transition starting at a young age. And I can understand why a person who is transgender would want to begin transitioning prior to puberty in order to avoid secondary sex characteristics they do not want to develop. But, as I said, that there are a portion of people who transition that then go on to detransition has to be a consideration; they cannot be ignored because it is ideologically inconvenient.

The ideal situation would be if we had at least one of two things (and even better if we had both): 1) the ability to determine, with sufficient accuracy, that a person is actually transgender, and 2) some way of safely delaying puberty without any other harmful effects (i.e. one could delay puberty until 18 or 21 or whatever is determined the age of consent for medical transition, and then if they decide not to, remove the delaying intervention and just have them go through normal puberty at an older age). In both cases, but especially the first one, I think this is the reason that we ought not ignore the science of gender dysphoria. Neuroscience tells us that there is, in fact, a neurological correlate with gender identity, where natal males who identify as female have brains with some female anatomy and biochemistry before ever taking hormones (and vice versa for natal females that identify as male). Surely something in this vein could lead to a more accurate way to determine whether someone is transgender or if they have some other underlying issue.

Anyway, I have sort of gotten into the weeds here a bit. I think if I have to say what the takeaway of this post is, it is twofold:

1) Dave Chappelle should not be condemned, and perhaps should even be praised, for bringing the common person’s perspective and journey on a complicated subject to greater attention. His honesty is likely to cultivate greater, not less, sympathy for transgender people from those who can identify with Chappelle’s perspective. I would even wager that the strong negative response to Chappelle from trans activists has probably done more to make people less sympathetic to transgender people than his special did by creating resentment and painting a picture to the ‘everyman’ that the trans community are all vindictive (I am not saying that this assessment is true, only that it would not be surprising for said ‘everyman’ to arrive at this conclusion if trans activists are their only exposure to trans people). At the very least we should be able to agree (even if you think his approach was wrongheaded or off the mark) that Dave Chappelle does not hate or wish harm on transgender people, just judging by his overall message in “The Closer.”

2) We ought not jump to conclusions about gender dysphoria based on ideology. We need to look at things soberly and objectively in order to help people make decisions for themselves that are most beneficial and least detrimental to their well-being. This means not dismissing or sweeping under the rug inconvenient facts, such as that some people do and will detransition, that this is almost certainly to occur more often if we take on the mindset of always and automatically being uncritically affirming; or that the existence of detransitioners or the possibility that the ROGD phenomenon is real do not mean transgender people don’t exist or that we should ignore a person’s experience when determining the best course of action for them viz transitioning; or that there is tantalizing evidence for a biological cause of gender dysphoria.