There was a good 10-year stretch, from 1981 to 1991, in which Eddie Murphy was arguably the most successful comedian on the planet. And he spent a significant chunk of that decade making fun of gay men.
A decade, mind you, that also ran concurrently with the height of the AIDS epidemic. As hundreds of thousands of Americans — many of them gay men — were dying, Murphy was making a very good living mocking the community. To be fair, Murphy has since said he looks back on those jokes and cringes, and it’s not as if he was the only funnyman doing this.
In fact, Bob Hope made an AIDS-related joke during the centenary rededication of the Statue of Liberty in front of the French president and his wife. They did not laugh. The Reagans did.
And some of y’all think the LGBTQ community is made of a bunch of sensitive snowflakes, but in fact even though some of the biggest celebrities in the world and the most powerful man on the planet were laughing at our deaths, we still made it to the other side.
At one point during Murphy’s 1987 comedy special “Raw,” he talked about the criticism he was receiving from the LGBTQ community for his homophobic jokes and suggested he was the victim. “It’s nothing like having a nation of fags looking for you,” he quipped. “I can’t travel the country freely no more. I can’t go to San Francisco, they got 24-hour homo-watch waiting for me at the airport.” For those who may not recall, 1987 was also the first year Reagan gave a speech about AIDS, seven years after the first known death from the syndrome.
Why am I bringing all of this up now?
Because Dave Chappelle posted a video on Instagram this week and one of his lines reminded me of “Raw.” In addressing the controversy surrounding his Netflix special “The Closer,” Chappelle said this: “It’s been said in the press that I was invited to speak to the transgender employees at Netflix, and I refused. That is not true. If they had invited me, I would have accepted it, although I am confused about what we’re speaking about. 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. Well, it seems like I’m the only one that can’t go to the office anymore.”
Just this week, the Twitter account for Rep. Jim Banks was suspended after he purposefully misgendered Dr. Rachel Levine, the first transgender four-star admiral. In the same news cycle, Texas banned transgender girls from competing on girls sports teams. According to the Human Rights Campaign, last year was the deadliest on record for transgender and gender nonconforming people.
Oh, and last week a Texas state representative sought clarification from his attorney general on the legality of same-sex marriage. In 2021. Six years after the Supreme Court settled the question nationwide.
The point is, Chappelle attempted the same switcheroo that his idol Murphy pulled decades before: mock the vulnerable, then play victim when called out for it.
Please don’t take this observation to mean I want him “canceled.” I do not. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Chappelle is brilliant. But that doesn’t mean he bats a thousand. No one does.
Murphy and Hope whiffed with their jokes about AIDS in the 1980s. Those jokes aren’t outdated. To say that would suggest there was a point in time at which it was OK. It was never OK. It was just accepted. It no longer is, and guess what, Murphy is still able to make people laugh without having to mock people dying of AIDS.
Today, just 42% of Americans say they personally know someone who is transgender, which means nearly 60% of the country relies on media images and news reports for exposure. That’s assuming they want to learn about transgender people at all.
It’s not Chappelle’s job to be an ally, though I am happy to hear he’s not opposed to being one. It’s not his job to inform his audience about the anti-LGBTQ laws that exists or the ones in the pipeline. As a comedian, his only job is to make us laugh. But I wonder whether he cares how he makes people laugh.
Once upon a time it was funny to laugh at a group of people dying in the streets by the thousands. Churches wouldn’t hold funerals. Funeral homes wouldn’t bury bodies. Good times.
Today, in most of the country, it is still legal to fire someone solely for being LGBTQ. A year ago, transgender people were still banned from serving in the military. And Chappelle said he is afraid of being canceled? Please. It looks more like he’s afraid of being held accountable for what he deems OK to laugh at.