As a stand-up comedian, Joan Riviera Simoncelli wants fellow comics to have the freedom to entertain audiences however they see fit. To her mind, nothing should be off limits. People need to laugh.
“The week after my mom died, I went on stage and made jokes about her death,” the San Antonio-area comedian told the San Antonio Current during a recent interview. “When you walk through that door, the gloves come off.”
As a transgender, intersex humanitarian, however, Simoncelli is disappointed in superstar comic Dave Chappelle and his latest Netflix special The Closer. There wouldn’t be as much controversy about his transgender-themed material today, she said, if he’d bothered to learn what he was talking about.
“In the special, [Chappelle] said he was rich and famous,” she said. “It’s just a shame he couldn’t take some of that money and educate himself about the LGBTQIA people. We’re not a community. We’re not gypsies or some little tribe. We’re America.”
Simoncelli, a Cibolo resident, said she “gets the joke” when Chappelle jabs at LGBTQ+ people about glory holes and “frumpy dykes” on the special. She understands why people laugh, but she doesn’t like it that Chappelle paints with broad strokes. It’s more complicated than just ridiculing pronouns.
“When he says he wants the transgender community to stop punching down, there’s no way transgender minorities are doing that,” Simoncelli said. “I understand that comedy is an art form, but it’s beautiful when you can use it and not hurt people. You always have to be responsible for what you say on stage.”
When Chappelle makes comments like “gay people are minorities, until they need to be white again,” Simoncelli said it proves he has a narrow view of who LGBTQ+ people are. Certainly, his statement doesn’t ring true to a woman of color like her.
When Simoncelli started in the comedy industry nearly 40 years ago, she said she wasn’t allowed to say she was transgender at venues where she performed. Club owners told her to keep it to herself.
“I was told once that if [the audience] ever found out [I was transgender], I should run out the back door and keep running,” she said. “That’s the fear that we come from.”
Simoncelli doesn’t find anything funny about walking into a comedy club restroom and seeing that someone has defaced one of her posters by drawing a penis on her dress. That’s the kind of lazy mockery comedians have been using onstage for decades, she added.
“You can only hear so many Caitlyn Jenner jokes,” she said. “[Chappelle] should see what the life of a transgender person is like. He needs to find out who they are before he makes jokes about them.”
What’s more, Chappelle’s refusal to take responsibility for the things he jokes about frustrates Simoncelli as an LGBTQ+ advocate. She’s not saying that jokes about trans people should be off limits. Instead, her point is that comedians should stop treating trans people like the “villains of a horror movie” such as Psycho or The Silence of the Lambs.
“Transgender people, intersex people, hermaphrodites, we’ve been beaten down so badly,” she said. “[Chappelle] needs so much more education, and it’s not only him — look at Kevin Hart and the media in general. They’re not considering the person who might be thinking about killing themselves.”
Simoncelli, however, is thinking about those people, which is why she’s involved in Texas politics these days. Currently, she serves as executive committee woman for Texas Democrat Senate District 19, where she’s fighting for the rights of LGBTQ+ people across the state.
“Before Chappelle became rich and famous, we were already the butt of all the jokes,” Simoncelli said. “Now, Chappelle is just lashing out. But I’m not going to let him, or society, label me. This world is full of different people. Dave Chappelle should know that. This isn’t the 1970s anymore. He needs to take the heat for what he says.”
Simoncelli will perform at the Artisan Distillery Craft Bar, 402 Austin St., on December 4 at 8 p.m. For more information, visit artisancraftbar.com.