Protesters demand accountability from Netflix after Chappelle backlash spurs walkout

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Transgender Netflix employees and their allies gathered Wednesday morning on Vine Street in Los Angeles to protest the streaming giant's decision to release Dave Chappelle's controversial new comedy special. Some of the comedian's supporters showed up too.

Chappelle fans, with signs featuring phrases such as “Jokes are funny” and “Dave is funny,” squared off with walkout participants with posters that read “Support, uplift, protect trans voices” and “Gender is NOT a fact. Educate yourself.”

Rallying cries such as “What do we want? Accountability! When do we want it? Now!” largely drowned out chants from those defending Netflix and Chappelle.

In the weeks leading up to Wednesday's walkout, a cascade of backlash, protests within Netflix, suspensions and defensive statements from the company have erupted in response to Chappelle's "The Closer," which features transphobic remarks and other insensitive commentary by the comedian.

Demonstrators began arriving outside the Netflix office on Vine around 10 a.m. Wednesday and chanted, "Trans lives matter." Counterprotesters toted signs advocating for “free speech” and bearing anti-trans rhetoric.

"I'm here to support the Black trans people who Dave Chappelle has belittled and erased," said protester Lily Weaver, a 34-year-old union attorney from Koreatown. "I'm here to support the Black, pregnant employee that Netflix fired for standing up to them. It is absolutely disgraceful that Netflix is profiting off of transphobia.

"I think that [Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos] has really embarrassed himself by dismissing his employees," Weaver added. "The company has embarrassed itself by retaliating against workers who spoke out. And I would encourage Mr. Sarandos to listen to the people who work for him."

In a statement provided to The Times, a spokesperson for 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.”

A person wearing sunglasses points at a crowd
"Transparent" creator and director Joey Soloway speaks to demonstrators at Wednesday's rally in support of Netflix employees. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Among the speakers at Wednesday’s rally was “Transparent” creator and director Joey Soloway, who advocated for trans creators to tell their own stories and challenged Netflix to appoint a trans person to its board “this f— week.”

Soloway also directly addressed Chappelle’s divisive choice to identify as “team TERF” in defense of “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling, who has been labeled a trans-exclusionary radical feminist for repeatedly expressing anti-trans sentiments.

“There’s no both sides here,” Soloway said. “Trans-exclusionary radical politics means that bodies and gender and sexual identity must always line up as J.K. Rowling thinks they should, [which] means the same thing as saying trans people aren't real people, that trans people are half a person.”

Applause erupted from the crowd as ex-Netflix employee B. Pagels-Minor stepped up to the mic. Pagels-Minor, a former leader of Netflix’s Black@ and Trans* employee resource groups, was fired by the company last week for allegedly leaking sensitive information to the press amid the Chappelle fallout. Pagels-Minor has denied the allegation.

“As most of you know, I'm 33 weeks pregnant,” Pagels-Minor said. “And when I thought about why I'm participating in this, it’s [so] that my son does not grow up with content that says that it hates me. 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'm valued, and I'm an important person.”

Demonstrators hold up black signs
Demonstrators hold signs at a rally supporting Netflix employees Wednesday outside the company's office in L.A. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

A list of walkout demands reviewed last week by The Times asks the company to set aside a fund supporting trans and nonbinary talent and to attach a disclaimer to "The Closer" saying it “contains transphobic language, misogyny, homophobia, and hate speech," among other requests.

"We will be addressing the list of firm asks ... then we'll talk about how we plan to execute that," said rally organizer Ashlee Marie Preston. "The conversation that we're having today, more than anything, is about the emergence of what I'm calling a 'hate economy,' and it is the capitalization of harm and violence that exists online and onscreen ... and the ways in which algorithmic science is being manipulated to take advantage of those moments and to profit from it."

At one point during the walkout proceedings, a Chappelle follower named Vito Gesualdi attempted to break the circle of demonstrators and disrupt Preston's speech, yelling, "I'm just here for the jokes!"

A couple of people restrained Gesualdi before the 30-year-old comedian could reach Preston. Someone broke Gesualdi's "Jokes are funny" sign in half before the San Gabriel resident was escorted away.

"I'm just here to let people know that I like jokes and I enjoy Dave Chappelle's comedy," said Gesualdi. "I think [the protesters] should get a sense of humor."

At the end of the rally, participants clapped, cheered, whistled and shouted "Team Trans! Team Trans!" as a sea of Netflix employees walked onto the scene. Some of the staffers, who declined to speak with press, wore pink-and-blue "Team Trans*" T-shirts in solidarity with the employee resource group leading the walkout.

"You all are some of the most courageous people that I have seen in a long time," Preston told the Netflix workers in the crowd. "Not only are you doing the right thing in a moment where it's crucial ... but you are preserving the legacy for those who come after you."

In a follow-up interview with The Times, Pagels-Minor said it was a "nice final act" to show up for the members of Trans* and read out the group's demands.

"The fact that there were so many people who came out to support the trans community and to talk about how important it is to have content that affirms trans lives — I thought that was amazing," Pagels-Minor said. "In fact, the crowd was so big that I literally don't know how many people were there. ... It feels really good."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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