Should Patton Oswalt Have to Answer for Dave Chappelle’s Transphobia?

Should we consider a photo with Chappelle to be a tacit endorsement of his beliefs?

Patton Oswalt attends Apple's "Ted Lasso" Season 2 Premiere at Pacific Design Center on July 15, 2021 in West Hollywood, California.
Patton Oswalt at the premiere of "Ted Lasso" Season 2 on July 15, 2021 in West Hollywood, California.

Over the weekend, like many of us, Patton Oswalt shared a photo from his New Year’s Eve festivities to social media. But unlike our mundane snaps of snack tables or socially distanced outdoor gatherings to ring in 2022, the comedian’s post sparked some controversy.

Oswalt shared a photo of himself posing with longtime friend Dave Chappelle, captioning it, “Finished me [sic] set at @mccawhall and got a text from @davechappelle. Come over to the arena he’s performing in next door and do a guest set. Why not? I waved good-bye to this hell-year with a genius I started comedy with 34 years ago. He works an arena like he’s talking to one person and charming their skin off. Anyway, I ended the year with a real friend and a deep laugh. Can’t ask for much more.”

Many of Oswalt’s followers responded with comments, some of which were subsequently deleted by the comic, calling him out for associating himself with Chappelle after the latter’s controversial transphobic comments in his recent Netflix special The Closer. Eventually, Oswalt put up another post clarifying his relationship with Chappelle while also apologizing for not considering “the hurt this would cause.”

“I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time this New Year’s Eve,” he wrote. “We’ve known each other since we’re teens. He’s a fellow comedian, the funniest I’ve ever met. I wanted to post a pic & an IG story about it — so I did. The friend is Dave Chappelle. Thirty four YEARS we’ve been friends. He’s refocused and refined ideas a lot of us took as settled about race & history & Life On Planet Earth and spun them around with a phrase or punchline … But we also 100% disagree about transgender rights & representation. I support trans peoples’ rights — ANYONE’S rights — to live safely in the world as their fullest selves.”

“For all the things he’s helped ME evolve on, I’ll always disagree with where he stands NOW on transgender issues,” he continued. “But I also don’t believe a seeker like him is done evolving, learning. You know someone that long, see the struggles and changes, it’s impossible to cut them off. Impossible not to be hopeful and open and cheer them on. Also, I’ve been carrying a LOT of guilt about friends I’ve cut off, who had views with which I couldn’t agree, or changed in ways I couldn’t live with. Sometimes I wonder — did I and others cutting them off make them dig their heels in deeper, fuel their ignorance with a nitro-boost of resentment and spite? I’m an LGBTQ ally. I’m a loyal friend. There’s friction in those traits that I need to reconcile myself, and not let cause feels of betrayal in ANYONE else. And I’m sorry, truly sorry, that I didn’t consider the hurt this would cause. Or the DEPTH of that hurt.”

That’s a fairly reasonable, measured response to an admittedly complicated issue, and it begs the question: should Oswalt be expected to completely cut ties with Chappelle simply because they disagree? Is it fair of us to make him answer for his friend’s problematic beliefs?

In some cases, it’s more cut and dry. Last spring, Seth Rogen revealed he had cut ties with longtime friend and collaborator James Franco over the allegations of sexual misconduct made against Franco. Obviously in instances of sexual abuse or other crimes like domestic violence, the right thing to do is denounce and distance oneself from the perpetrator. But should we expect someone like Chappelle to be shunned entirely for some ill-advised, problematic punchlines?

It’s hard to say. If Oswalt were posing with, say, Mel Gibson — someone whose anti-Semitism and racism have been well-documented for decades now — he’d rightly be torn apart. But is Chappelle’s transpobia complicated by the fact that it’s shrouded in attempts at humor? Is there a difference between protesting trans people’s right to use a public bathroom and making lazy, hateful jokes about their genitalia? Oswalt seems to think he can help Chappelle realize the error of his ways and eventually come around, but how long are we expected to wait around hoping that happens?

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