Like many of the activists and allies at the Netflix walkout protest in Hollywood on Wednesday, Robin only found out about the rally a couple days ago, but knew right away that she had to be there. As a trans woman, she’s seen plenty of transphobic humor in media while growing up, and even though she hasn’t seen the Dave Chappelle stand-up special “The Closer” that sparked the protest, she thinks that kind of humor needs to be in the past.
“I would just love to see more trans stories being told on Netflix,” said Robin, a video game industry worker and member of the Game Workers of Southern California who asked not to use her last name. “I remember growing up seeing the ‘man in a dress’ gag in practically every romantic comedy that I watched. It’s 2021 and I think we’re a little bit better than this.”
Robin was one of the roughly 200 people who gathered on Wednesday just south of Sunset and Vine near Netflix’s Hollywood office in support of the streaming giant’s trans workers — and to protest what they say is a dismissive and even dangerous attitude toward transgender lives in film, TV and specials like Chappelle’s stand-up act.
“Your jokes are promoting hateful and discriminatory behavior, and that is what is hurting us,” David Huggard, aka Eureka O’Hara from “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” told rally-goers. “Whether your trans, whether you’re nonbinary, whether you’re a white person who can step into this world with a greater amount of privilege. So it is my responsibility as someone with that privilege to speak up for people who don’t have the ability to speak without the chance of getting shot.”
Several Netflix employees who walked out of their jobs on Wednesday to attend the rally declined to be quoted for this story, citing a fear of reprisal from a company that has disciplined workers in the last week for acting out in response to the Chappelle special. Still, several told TheWrap hey felt compelled to stand in solidarity with their trans co-workers after CEO Ted Sarandos publicly defended Chappelle amid the backlash to the transphobic jokes made in “The Closer.” (On Tuesday, he admitted he “screwed up” his response to the issue.)
One activist who did speak on the microphone was B. Pagels-Minor, the former Netflix data worker who has served as one of the lead organizers of recent protests and was fired by the company last week for what the company said were damaging leaks of internal company data to Bloomberg. While Pagels-Minor has denied being directly responsible for the leaks — a claim that Netflix pushed back on again on Wednesday — they appeared with rally organizer Ashlee Marie Preston to read out the demands from Trans*, the collective of Netflix employees demanding change from Netflix’s leadership.
“As most of you know, I’m 33 weeks pregnant. And when I thought about why I was participating in, it’s that my son does not grow up with content that hates me,” Pagels-Minor said. “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 am valued and I am an important person as well.”
The group’s demands include a disclaimer card before any program on Netflix that features transphobic content, a new fund to specifically develop shows by and starring trans and nonbinary talent both above and below the line, and hiring trans and NB individuals – especially those of color – in leadership and content executive roles. “Transparent” creator Joey Soloway went further, demanding that Netflix “immediately” add a trans individual to its board of directors.
Preston called on the streamer to do better for its transgender employees — and audience. “It’s violent to make members of the transgender community who work for your company participate in the oppression of their own community, and we’re here to disrupt that and stand in solidarity with the employees,” she said. “We are in this digital prison they built in for us. They got us hooked on social media, they got us hooked on streaming and they got us hooked on these digital spaces that make us think digital activism is enough when we aren’t here in the analog.”
While the atmosphere at the rally on Wednesday was mostly supportive of the trans community, roughly six pro-Chappelle counter-protesters showed up early on, holding signs reading “I Like Jokes” and “#TeamTERF,” a reference to trans-exclusionary radical feminist. One of the counter-protesters attempted to disrupt Preston’s opening speech by walking into the group gathered around the mic before he was pulled back; he later trying to shout over the speeches.
Though the protesters were mostly ignored by the speakers, one trans man who took the mic addressed their presence after they had dispersed: “I hope that one day you are able to love yourselves the way we are able to love the people that we truly are.”
For two hours, several trans and nonbinary Hollywood workers came forward to speak their minds and vent their frustration. One speaker, who did not share his name, discussed how he fell into a deep depression after he was fired from a TV production after coming out as a trans man. Another called out a culture in Hollywood and nationwide that has made trans language and the use of nonbinary pronouns a common part of internet culture but does not turn that into on-the-ground organizing in defense of trans lives, particularly Black trans lives.
Preston again reiterated the need for public protests in support of trans lives, and trans livelihood. “This isn’t just about Netflix,” Preston told the crowd. “It’s about a corporate culture that manipulates the algorithmic sciences to distort the way that we perceive ourselves.”
At a rally where jokes and the power of comedy was so frequently discussed, Konstantine Anthony was one speaker who knew a thing or two about jokes. An improv comedian for 20 years, Anthony serves now on the city council in Burbank, where Netflix announced last year it was opening its first animation studio.
“They needed a token cis white guy to speak and I pulled the short straw,” he quipped to the crowd, also joking about how he was going to get in trouble as a SAG-AFTRA member for pirating Chappelle’s special. But Anthony turned serious on how one of the first lessons for comedians is to “always punch up,” and how he felt that Chappelle and Netflix were failing to live up to that standard.
“It’s so important to remember that everyone’s not here because Netflix released a Chappelle special. We’re here because the CEO not only defended that special but his company has fired a trans employee,” Anthony told TheWrap on the sidelines. “Netflix must reinstate that employee and answer the demands that Trans* have put forth.”
For Robin, the activism that the Chappelle special has stirred up offers a sign that the tide may be shifting at least within the entertainment industry. “There is so much misogyny within both games and Hollywood as a whole, and it becomes twice as worse for trans people,” she said, “but I really feel hopeful that this is the time when the community is going to stand together and say, ‘This is not acceptable anymore, and we need to have a voice.'”