By Chloe Melas and Josh Campbell, CNN
Approximately 65 demonstrators, including Netflix employees and supporters of the transgender community, protested outside of the company’s offices in Los Angeles on Wednesday.
Employees began streaming out of the building at 10:30a PT in protest of Dave Chappelle’s “The Closer” comedy special, which has been criticized as transphobic by the transgender community and others.
Demonstrators who spoke to CNN expressed their disappointment in Chappelle and the way Netflix has handled the controversy surrounding comments in his show.
“What comedians say in a comedy show does matter and it does have real world consequences,” Bridget Sampson said. “I didn’t have a problem with most of his humor but to say gender is real and to align with TERFs, (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) who want to deny the reality and existence of transgender people being the gender that they truly are in their mind and heart is very, very harmful.” Sampson, who is not a Netflix employee and has a transgender daughter, said she only took issue with Chappelle proclaiming himself “team TERF.”
Matthew Brough, protesting in support of Netflix employees, told CNN he’s extremely disappointed in Netflix for giving Chappelle a platform.
“Everyone should have a voice, I believe in free speech but I also believe that words are harmful — words can lead to violence,” Brough said. “This is not only about people’s feelings getting hurt or political correctness, this is about the threats of violence that people in the trans community face every single day.”
Chappelle’s special comes during a historic year for anti-transgender legislation, introduced in at least 33 states, and less than a year after a record-high number of transgender people, most of them trans women of color, were killed.
Netflix employees and organizers calling themselves Team Trans* are asking for more trans and non-binary individuals in executive level positions at Netflix and want the company to create a fund to support trans and non-binary talent, according to The Verge.
Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos has not addressed the demonstration but did tell Variety in an interview published Tuesday that he “screwed up” when it came to how he has handled criticism of the special.
“I screwed up that internal communication,” Sarandos told the publication. “I did that, and I screwed it up in two ways. First and foremost, I should have led with a lot more humanity. Meaning, I had a group of employees who were definitely feeling pain and hurt from a decision we made. And I think that needs to be acknowledged up front before you get into the nuts and bolts of anything. I didn’t do that. That was uncharacteristic for me, and it was moving fast and we were trying to answer some really specific questions that were floating. We landed with some things that were much more blanket and matter-of-fact that are not at all accurate.”
After Chapelle’s special debuted on Netflix on Oct. 5, Sarandos acknowledged Chappelle’s provocative language in an emails to staff obtained by Variety, but defended the platform’s commitment to artistic freedom and said the special didn’t cross the line to incite violence.
“We have a strong belief that content on screen doesn’t translate into real-world harm,” Sarandos wrote.
CNN has not independently verified the emails from Sarandos. When reached by CNN last week, a spokesperson for Netflix said: “Our employees are encouraged to disagree openly and we support their right to do so.”
GLAAD, the LGBTQ media advocacy organization, voiced concern about Chappelle’s comments in “The Closer” and pushed back on the position Sarandos took in his notes to staff.
“GLAAD was founded 36 years ago because media representation has consequences for LGBTQ people. Authentic media stories about LGBTQ lives have been cited as directly responsible for increasing public support for issues like marriage equality,” GLAAD said in a statement to CNN last week. “But film and TV have also been filled with stereotypes and misinformation about us for decades, leading to real world harm, especially for trans people and LGBTQ people of color. Ironically, the documentary Disclosure on Netflix demonstrates this quite clearly.”
Comedian Hannah Gadsby also criticized the response from Sarandos, which referenced her own Netflix specials.
“Hey Ted Sarandos! Just a quick note to let you know that I would prefer if you didn’t drag my name into your mess,” she tweeted. “Now I have to deal with even more of the hate and anger that Dave Chappelle’s fans like to unleash on me every time Dave gets 20 million dollars to process his emotionally stunted partial word view.”
Three Netflix employees were suspended amid the controversy for attending an executive-level meeting without permission. They were subsequently reinstated. One employee was fired last week for sharing “confidential, commercially sensitive information” about the special to Bloomberg.
“We understand this employee may have been motivated by disappointment and hurt with Netflix, but maintaining a culture of trust and transparency is core to our company,” a Netflix spokesperson said.
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CNN’s Scottie Andrew and Lisa France contributed to this story.