EXCLUSIVE: Netflix continues a turn in the barrel with today’s staff walkout to protest displeasure with Dave Chappelle’s The Closer. Across the dial, HBO has upcoming an episode of its reality series We’re Here airing November 1 that was filmed in Selma, Alabama. A trio of people — trans, gay and the mother of a lesbian who was murdered — describing the difficulties of living LGBTQ+ lives in the South, the episode is an antidote to the polarizing Chappelle Netflix special. And with the inclusion of several women who were foot soldiers in that march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1965 that galvanized the civil rights movement, you can see similarities between that struggle and the ones that We’re Here focuses on.
We’re Here just began its second season, with Bob the Drag Queen, Eureka O’Hara & Shangela reprising as the trio dispatched to Red State locations in America to mentor three locals to participate in a one-night drag show. These are people accustomed to keeping their true selves concealed, for fear of losing their standing in the community, or facing danger. Their drag show prep involves stories of hardship, trauma, rejection from their families, violence and attempted suicides. It is a cathartic affair as the subjects get to live out loud, if only for an evening.
Deadline spoke with We’re Here co-star Bob the Drag Queen about the Selma episode and the Chappelle special. He felt it was unfair to base most of a special on the comic’s limited association with the trans community. Most of that was negative, save for Chappelle’s touching story of Daphne Dorman, a trans woman and a fellow comedian from the San Francisco area that he befriended and asked to open some of his shows. She died by suicide in 2019 and Chappelle said he established a trust fund for Dorman’s daughter.
“At one point he talked about his friend Daphne and his audience had a human experience, but it feels like it didn’t take,” Bob told Deadline. “It didn’t take because he was not acknowledging other people just like Daphne who are also having these human experiences. He seems to see the validity of trans people through whether or not they support him.
“I understand that Dave Chappelle is a comedian and his main goal is to get people to laugh,” said Bob. “But there was maybe a lack of acknowledgement that there are Black queer people. He would talk about the Black movement versus the queer movement, as if they are not intertwined, as if there are not a lot of queer people who are part of the Black Lives Matter movement. As we know, Black Lives Matters was started by a lesbian. He talks about the queer movement as if there are no Black people in it, but what about Marcia P. Johnson and Dr. Angela Davis? They are all big parts of moving the needle forward.
“Dave Chappelle’s influence is wide, vast and undeniable. When he comes forward and feels it is appropriate to make fun of trans people, a lot of his followers just agree with him,” Bob said. “And then, they do it too. It’s one of those things where I wish Dave Chappelle could acknowledge his hand in perpetuating violence towards trans people.”
To Bob, the Selma trip was a homecoming – he lived in Alabama for a time – and while the city is remembered for its seminal role in the civil rights movement of the ‘60s, it is now a depressed city with boarded-up stores. Members of the LGBTQ+ community have found that living in the shadows is the best way to get through. The We’re Here trio aims to change that. “They need to see gay people onstage, owning their power, even for just one night,” said Shangela Laquifa. “Ooh, Selma needs drag, honey!”
As Bob adds in introducing the episode: “My freedom as a Black queer person is directly linked to Selma. Directly. I don’t think Selma will ever forget what happened on the Edmund Pettis Bridge and I don’t think they should…Selma’s story extends beyond Bloody Sunday, because the struggle for people of color, and queer people, they’re not mutually exclusive.”
How moving was it to meet with several of the townsfolk who still call themselves the “foot soldiers” who endured brutal beatings at the hands of state troopers and sheriff’s deputies ordered to stop the march on the bridge? When ABC interrupted the broadcast of Judgment at Nuremberg to broadcast the brutal treatment of protestors, the juxtaposition of Nazi bigotry that led to the Holocaust and the racism on display in America that day shocked the 50 million viewers watching the movie. Congress soon passed the Voting Rights Act and LBJ signed it into law, months after the incident called “Bloody Sunday.” Every struggle against oppression is different, but Bob the Drag Queen said one of the most touching aspects of the Selma trip was meeting with survivors of the march and finding some connective tissue there.
“I was really moved by my experience there,” Bob said, “just being around these remarkable people who had directly affected my trajectory as a Black person, able to freely and happily express myself. What was nice was these women really acknowledged the intersectionality. It was hard to watch someone recount that but it was moving and deeply inspirational on a thousand levels. I don’t have the words to describe what it was like.”
Chappelle might have felt his encounter with his transgender standup comedian friend was a version of catharsis, but Bob feels Chappelle did nothing positive with it.
“The conversation about Black people and queer people is particularly exhausting for Black queer people, because there seems to not be any real acknowledgment that we exist, or are navigating these spaces,” Bob said. “At one point during Dave Chappelle’s special he mentions the anti-trans bathroom bill in North Carolina, and the audience just cheered. I think the reason they did that is they felt they were in a safe place where they could openly acknowledge they’re happy there are laws against trans people. Dave Chappelle says, ‘No, no, I’m not happy about that.’ But it has become unclear what Dave Chappelle is interested in. He calls himself a transphobe several times in the special. He is an undeniably talented comedian who is very good at making people laugh. There are times he will get very close to providing insight, without making fun of queer people or trans people. And then he ends his special with, stop punching down on my people, as if trans people were somehow punching down on the Black community, and as if there were not Black people within that community. It’s just really odd false equivalency.”
Much like the way the Selma march put the subject of racial segregation front and center, Bob said that an unwitting byproduct of Chappelle’s special is that it has brought the issue of trans rights to the discussion table.
“Dave Chappelle is clearly trying to be salacious and that definitely worked, in that it is pushing a conversation in the public eye about what it means to poke fun at trans people.” Bob said. “I’m really intrigued by that and I will say that in the past year this probably has done the most to advance this conversation, quite frankly.”
Asked whether this was something Chappelle planned, Bob sounded doubtful: “I don’t think I have the ability to comment on Dave Chappelle’s intelligence or his IQ. He is smart, but I don’t think this was what he was trying to do. Dave Chappelle is a very honest comedian who says what he is feeling. If his aim was to [create conversation about trans issues], he probably would have said it. He also openly brags about beating up women in this special…it is a really odd special. He openly jokes and brags about beating up a woman in a nightclub.”
The Selma episode of We’re Here airs November 1.
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