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D.C. Trans woman’s killers could be free in 3 years in a plea deal

“A plea bargain from first-degree murder to voluntary manslaughter is a miscarriage of justice”

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Deeniquia ‘Dee Dee’ Dodds was killed on July 4, 2016. (Photo via Facebook)

WASHINGTON – A D.C. LGBTQ anti-violence group will be submitting a community impact statement for a D.C. Superior Court judge scheduled to sentence two men on Dec. 10 for the July 4, 2016, shooting death of transgender woman Deeniquia “Dee Dee” Dodds in a case D.C. police listed as a hate crime.

Stephania Mahdi, chair of the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community’s Anti-Violence Project, told the Washington Blade the project has been in contact with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for D.C., which is prosecuting the case against the two defendants set to be sentenced this week, to arrange for the submission of a statement on the impact the murder of Dodds has had on the community.

The impact statement would also apply to the sentencing of two other men charged in the Dodds murder case who are scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 20.

The Dec. 10 sentencing for Jolonta Little, 30, and Monte T. Johnson, 25, was set to take place a little over two months after Little and Johnson pleaded guilty on Sept. 30 to a single count of voluntary manslaughter as part of a plea bargain deal offered by prosecutors.

In exchange for the guilty plea for voluntary manslaughter, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed to drop the charge of first-degree murder while armed originally brought against the two men. The plea agreement also called for dropping additional charges against them in connection with the Dodds murder, including robbery while armed, possession of a firearm during a crime of violence, and unlawful possession of a firearm.

In addition, the plea agreement includes a promise by prosecutors to ask D.C. Superior Court Judge Milton C. Lee, who is presiding over the case, to issue a sentence of eight years in prison for both men. Under the D.C. criminal code, a conviction on a voluntary manslaughter charge carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

Johnson has been held without bond for five years and three months since his arrest in the Dodds case in September 2016. Little has been held without bond since his arrest for the Dodds murder in February 2017. Courthouse observers say that judges almost always give defendants credit for time served prior to their sentencing, a development that would likely result in the two men being released in about three years.

The plea deal for the two men came two and a half years after a D.C. Superior Court jury became deadlocked and could not reach a verdict on the first-degree murder charges against Johnson and Little following a month-long trial, prompting Judge Lee to declare a mistrial on March 6, 2019.

The two other men charged in Dodds’ murder, Shareem Hall, 27, and his brother, Cyheme Hall, 25, accepted a separate plea bargain offer by prosecutors shortly before the start of the 2019 trial in which they pled guilty to second-degree murder. Both testified at Johnson and Little’s the trial as government witnesses.

In dramatic testimony, Cyheme Hall told the jury that it was Johnson who fatally shot Dodds in the neck at point blank range after he said she grabbed the barrel of Johnson’s handgun as Johnson and Hall attempted to rob her on Division Ave., N.E., near where she lived. Hall testified that the plan among the four men to rob Dodds did not include the intent to kill her.

In his testimony, Hall said that on the day of Dodd’s murder, he and the other three men made plans to commit armed robberies for cash in areas of D.C. where trans women, some of whom were sex workers, congregated. He testified that the four men got into a car driven by Little and searched the streets for victims they didn’t expect to offer resistance.

D.C. police and the U.S. Attorney’s office initially designated the murder charge against Little and Johnson as an anti-trans hate crime offense based on findings by homicide detectives that the men were targeting trans women for armed robberies. But during Johnson and Little’s trial, Judge Lee dismissed the hate crime designation at the request of defense attorneys on grounds that there was insufficient evidence to support a hate crime designation.

At the request of prosecutors, Judge Lee scheduled a second trial for Johnson and Little on the murder charge for Feb. 25, 2020. But court records show the trial date was postponed to June 22, 2020, and postponed several more times – to Jan 11, 2021, and later to Feb. 17, 2022, due to COVID-related restrictions before the plea bargain offer was agreed to in September of this year.  The public court records do not show why the trial was postponed the first few times prior to the start of COVID restrictions on court proceedings.

Legal observers have said long delays in trials, especially murder trials, often make it more difficult for prosecutors to obtain a conviction because memories of key witnesses sometimes become faulty several years after a crime was committed.

“The D.C. Anti-Violence Project is disappointed to hear about the unfortunate proceedings in the case to bring justice for Dee Dee Dodds,” Mahdi, the Anti-Violence Project’s chair, told the Blade in a statement.

“A plea bargain from first-degree murder to voluntary manslaughter as well as a reduction of years in sentencing from 30 to 8 communicates not only a miscarriage of justice, but a message of penalization for victims who attempt to protect themselves during a violent assault,” Mahdi said. “The continual impact of reducing the culpability of perpetrators who target members of specifically identified communities sends a malicious message to criminals that certain groups of people are easier targets with lenient consequences,” she said.

“As a result of this pattern, the D.C. community has failed to defend the life and civil rights of Dee Dee Dodds and leaves criminally targeted LGBTQ+ community and other cultural identity communities critically undervalued by stewards of justice in the nation’s capital,” Mahdi concluded.  

William Miller, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, has declined to disclose the reason why prosecutors decided to offer Johnson and Little the plea bargain deal rather than petition the court for a second trial for the two men on the first-degree murder charge.

Attorneys familiar with cases like this, where a jury becomes deadlocked, have said prosecutors sometimes decide to offer a plea deal rather than go to trial again out of concern that another jury could find a defendant not guilty on all charges.

During the trial, defense attorneys told the jury that the Hall brothers were habitual liars and there were inconsistencies in their testimony. They argued that the Halls’ motives were aimed strictly at saying what prosecutors wanted them to say so they could get off with a lighter sentence.

The two prosecutors participating in the trial disputed those claims, arguing that government witnesses provided strong evidence that Johnson and Little should be found guilty of first-degree murder and other related charges.

Before the jury announced it was irreconcilably deadlocked on the murder charges, the jury announced it found Little not guilty of seven separate counts of possession of a firearm during a crime of violence and found Johnson not guilty of five counts of possession of a firearm during a crime of violence.

District of Columbia

‘Smoke-in’ at Russia’s D.C. embassy protests Griner incarceration

Brittney Griner is now going to be sitting in a Russian slave labor camp for the next nine years after this appeal was denied

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Activists inflated a giant 'joint' outside the Russian Embassy in D.C. calling for Brittney Griner's release & freedom for the Russian people. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – A small group of activists staged a protest in front of the Russian Embassy in D.C. on Thursday to protest the imprisonment of WNBA star Brittney Griner. The protest included a giant inflated “joint” and activists smoking marijuana at the gate along Wisconsin Avenue.

A Russian appellate court on Tuesday upheld Griner’s 9 1/2 year sentence to a penal colony following her conviction for smuggling drugs into the country. The vaping cartridge for which she was convicted is well within the legal limit of cannabis products to carry in D.C.

“I am outraged that Brittney Griner is now going to be sitting in a Russian slave labor camp for the next nine years after this appeal was denied,” activist Adam Eidinger told reporters.

“I know I’m not the only one that’s outraged,” Eidinger said as he raised a handful of cannabis plant material into the air. “I’m holding cannabis plants that grow in the District of Columbia lawfully in our backyards.”

Eidinger continued, “Brittney Griner is not a drug smuggler. She is not someone who is trying to corrupt the Russian children. It is simply her fate as a political pawn in this horrific war on Ukraine.”

Eidinger pointed to the Cyrillic writing on the inflated joint, “this message right here says it all: Free Brittney Griner and the Russians from Putin. He’s kidnapped this country and now he’s kidnapped a beloved American citizen and I think Americans need to start speaking out. We need to stop holding our tongues. The Russians have kidnapped a beloved American hero!”

A number of Secret Service officers ensured the activists remained on the sidewalk, but Eidinger insisted that their actions were legal.

Following the statement to the press, activists smoked marijuana at the gates of the Russian Embassy.

Activists Adam Eidinger and Pamela Wexler smoke marijuana in front of the Russian Embassy on Thursday, Oct. 28 to protest the imprisonment of U.S. WNBA star Brittney Griner.
(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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District of Columbia

D.C.’s Children’s Hospital targeted by Libs of TikTok over trans care

Anti-LGBTQ+ right-wing Twitter account cited incorrect claims by hospital employee about female to male trans surgery

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D.C.’s Children’s National Hospital (Screenshot/YouTube)

WASHINGTON – D.C.’s Children’s National Hospital has become the target of threatening phone calls, email messages and social media postings after a widely read far-right Twitter account known as Libs of Tiktok posted an incorrect report claiming the hospital routinely performs hysterectomies on transgender patients under the age of 18.

Libs of TikTok founder Chaya Raichik included in her Aug. 25 posting audio recordings of two Children’s National Hospital telephone operators who the hospital says incorrectly stated that a transgender boy as young as 16 would be eligible for a hysterectomy.

“We do not and have never provided gender-affirming surgery for anyone under the age of 18,” according to an emailed statement the hospital media office sent to the Blade.  “In fact, in D.C. you cannot perform a hysterectomy in a minor without a court order,” the statement says.

“We do not provide hormone therapy to children before puberty begins,” the statement continues. “Care is individualized for each patent and always involves families making decisions in coordination with a team of highly trained pediatric specialists,” it says.

“None of the people who were secretly recorded by this activist group deliver care to our patients,” says the statement. “The information in the recording is not accurate. To reiterate, we do not and have never performed gender affirming hysterectomies on minors,” it says.

The statement added, “Since the spreading of misinformation on Twitter, we have been the target of a large volume of hostile phone calls, social media messages and emails.”

The Washington Post has reported that the harassment encountered by the hospital has included social media posts suggesting that it be bombed, and its doctors placed in a woodchipper.

According to the Children’s National Hospital’s statement; “Children’s National Hospital is committed to fostering a welcoming and inclusive environment for all and to serving our LGBTQ+ patients and families in the full spectrum of their care.”

Threats and harassing calls and email messages were directed at Boston’s Children’s Hospital earlier this month over what the hospital says were similar false claims on social media that it was performing hysterectomies on transgender youth under the age of 18.

Libs of TikTok, which has often promoted “groomer” discourse that falsely linked LGBTQ teachers and parents to pedophilia, began to make a variety of false claims regarding Boston Children’s. One allegation included the lie about Children’s offering gender-affirming hysterectomies to children under 18 years old.

Journalist Martha Bebinger with WBUR,  Boston’s NPR news station, noted the campaign started last week with criticism of a video posted on the hospital’s website about hysterectomies. Several conservative social media accounts shared posts about the video on Twitter. The hospital performs hysterectomies on patients 18 and older, but not on children as some of the posts claimed.

“We condemn these attacks in the strongest possible terms, and we reject the false narratives upon which they are based,” Boston Children’s said in a statement. “We are working with law enforcement to protect our clinicians, staff, patients, families and the broader Boston Children’s Hospital community and hold the offenders accountable,” the statement added.

For over two years, a Brooklyn real estate agent and fanatical adherent of far-right extremist ideology, Chaya Raichik, has wreaked havoc via her social media accounts ‘Libs of Tik Tok’, attacking LGBTQ+ people with special emphasis on spreading lies and propaganda about transgender people.

When Raichik attacked Boston Children’s Hospital, spreading lies and falsehoods about the healthcare facility’s treatment of transgender youth. Her ‘call to arms’ was then joined by conservative journalist and anti-LGBTQ+ activist Christopher Rufo and The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh, a vehement anti-Trans pundit.

The resulting chaos including death threats against Children’s clinicians and staff was acknowledged by a spokesperson for the Boston Police who told the Blade that officials had stepped up security to augment the efforts by the hospital to protect its staff and that an investigation had been launched.

The United States Department of Justice has also launched an investigation into the threats according to an announcement by the United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Rachael Rollins.

In a lengthy statement issued by GLAAD, the organization wrote:

“Libs of TikTok is synonymous with maliciously targeting LGBTQ organizations, people, and allies by posting lies, misinformation, and blatant hate,” said a GLAAD spokesperson. “Meta and Twitter continue to profit from accounts like Libs of TikTok as doctors and staff members of Boston Children’s Hospital, and other providers of healthcare to transgender people, receive death threats and hate.

“These companies are complicit in hosting content which expresses malicious falsehoods and which incite anti-LGBTQ hate. This is the latest in a long pattern of blatant inaction from the platforms to content that directly leads to the recent rise in real world violence and harassment facing LGBTQ people.” 

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District of Columbia

Tennessee man utters threats against DC hotel workers with a gun

He made the threats that the workers were from “the faggot part of D.C. and that his gun is only for “faggots and pussies”

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Photo Credit: Washington Metropolitan Police Department, District of Columbia

WASHINGTON – A 21-year-old man arrested by D.C. police on Aug. 24 at the Lyle Hotel near Dupont Circle for allegedly threatening two hotel workers with a handgun stated at the time he made the threats that the workers were from “the faggot part of D.C. and that his gun is only for faggots and pussies,” according to an arrest affidavit filed in D.C. Superior Court.

Court charging documents show that Dylan Nation, a resident of Ooltewah, Tenn., and who was a guest at the hotel at the time of the incident, was charged with Assault With A Dangerous Weapon, Possession of A Firearm During a Crime of Violence, and Carrying a Pistol Without a License.

The arrest affidavit filed by D.C. police says the incident began about 1:20 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 24, when a hotel security worker observed Nation, who is identified in the affidavit as the suspect, engaged in a verbal altercation with a woman identified as his girlfriend outside the hotel, which is located at 1731 New Hampshire Ave., N.W. The affidavit says the security worker “stepped in” to deescalate the altercation and escorted Nation and the girlfriend back into the hotel lobby.

Lyle Hotel (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Once inside Nation told the security worker, who is listed in the affidavit as Complainant 1, and another person the affidavit identifies as Complainant 2, that he needed to go to his car in the hotel parking lot to get some face wash. According to the affidavit, Complainant 2 escorted Nation to the parking lot where Nation allegedly removed a handgun from the glove compartment of his car.

The affidavit says the girlfriend, meanwhile, told Complainant 1, the security worker, that Nation had a gun in his car, prompting Complainant 1 to go to the parking lot, where he observed Complainant 2 attempting to persuade Nation to put the gun back in the car.

“Complainant 1 sees a black handgun in the Suspect’s left hand and tells the Suspect that guns are not allowed in the hotel and that he must leave it in his car,” the affidavit states. “Complainant 1 stated that while in the back parking lot the Suspect points the gun at him and tells him he will blow his skull off,” the affidavit continues.

“Complainant 1 then reaches for the gun and takes it out of the Suspect’s hand,” the affidavit says, after which it says Complainant 1 walked back to the hotel lobby, removed the bullets from the gun, and asked someone to call police. The affidavit does not say whether Nation struggled to resist giving up his gun or passively allowed the hotel worker to take it from him.

The gun is identified in the affidavit as a Glock 23 .40 caliber handgun.

The affidavit next describes both Nation and Complainant 1 standing in front of the hotel, with Nation demanding that he get his gun back. It says Complainant 1 refused to return the gun and told Nation that police had been called. Minutes later, when sirens from arriving police cars were heard, Nation attempted to flee the scene, running north on New Hampshire Avenue.

“Complainant 1 ran after him and tackled him in front of 1806 New Hampshire Avenue Northwest,” the affidavit says. “While holding the Suspect down a marked MPD cruiser stopped and an officer ran over and placed the suspect in handcuffs. Complainant 1 immediately told the officer that the suspect had pointed a gun at him,” the affidavit says.

It says D.C. police obtained a security camera video from the hotel that also included an audio recording in which the voices of the hotel workers and Nation could be heard during part of the altercation.

“In the video you can hear the Defendant’s voice arguing with the Complainants about having a gun and that he should put it in the car for everyone’s safety,” the affidavit states. “The Defendant refuses, then starts to talk about not being safe around the Complainants and that the Complainants are not tough because they are from the faggot part of D.C. and that his gun is only for faggots and pussies,” says the affidavit.

It concludes by saying Nation waived his right not to talk to police detectives following his arrest and that he denied he ever took a gun from his car and pointed it at anyone in a threatening way.

Court records show that at a presentment hearing on the day of Nation’s arrest on Aug. 24, Superior Court Judge Dorsey Jones ordered Nation held without bond pending a preliminary hearing scheduled for 11:00 a.m. Friday, Aug. 26.

The initial D.C. police incident report does not list the incident as a suspected hate crime.

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District of Columbia

Gay couple assaulted in D.C. by teens shouting ‘monkeypox faggots’

The men were treated and released at Howard University Hospital for head and facial bruises, with one receiving stitches for a deep cut

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Photo credit: Washington Metropolitan Police Dept/Facebook

WASHINGTON – Two young men appearing in their late teens shouted the words “monkeypox faggots” at a gay male couple walking along 7th Street, N.W. in the city’s Shaw neighborhood on Sunday, Aug. 7, before punching the two men in the face and head in an incident that D.C. police have called a suspected hate crime.

The gay men were treated and released at Howard University Hospital for head and facial bruises, with one of the two receiving stitches for a deep cut on his upper lip, according to one of the victims who spoke to the Washington Blade.

The victim, an Alexandria resident who asked that he and his partner, a D.C. resident, not be identified by name, said the attackers were part of a group of four or five young men appearing to be between 17 and 19 years old and two young women accompanying them. He said the group crossed paths with the gay couple around 5:40 p.m. in front of a store on the 1700 block of 7th Street, N.W., as the couple was walking to a nearby bus stop on Rhode Island Avenue.

The victim who spoke to the Blade said a nearby witness called D.C. police, who arrived within a few minutes as the two attackers and the other young men with them fled the scene. He said although an ambulance arrived on the scene, one of the police officers drove the couple to nearby Howard University Hospital, where they spent about six hours in the emergency room.

The couple had spent part of that 90+ degree day at the city’s Banneker Pool and later stopped at the Kiki gay bar on U Street, N.W. before taking what the victim who spoke to the Blade said was a leisurely walk from Kiki via 7th Street on their way to the bus stop, where they planned to take the bus to his boyfriend’s Northeast D.C. house.

As the couple walked south on 7th Street about a block from their destination on Rhode Island Avenue they crossed paths with the group of teenagers in front of a store that a D.C. police report says was at 1731 7th St., N.W.

“They were about 17 to 19 years old,” the victim who spoke to the Blade said. “And one of them started saying stuff like, hey, look at these monkeypox faggots and some not so nice stuff like that,” he said.

Two persons of interest considered possible suspects in the Sunday, Aug. 7 assault of a gay couple on the 1700 block of 7th Street, N.W. Police ask anyone who recognizes one or both individuals to contact police at 202-727-9099.
(Image courtesy of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department)

“We turned around to walk away and one of them came up behind me and got my attention and then sucker punched me and then hit me again and then hit my boyfriend in the face,” the victim said. “And another person hit him in the face as well,” he said. “And then someone across the street called the cops. And then the cops came, and they scattered off.”

To the couple’s surprise, the two young women remained on the scene and apologized for the actions by the guys they were with.

“So, I said something like thanks for the apology, but this is the kind of people you hang out with,” the victim recounted. “And one of them said their dad was gay, and they kind of walked away before the cops got there,” he said. “It was nice of them to apologize I guess for the other people.”

The D.C. police report lists the incident as having two offenses, a simple assault against the two men and a misdemeanor destruction of property related to the destruction of a pair of sunglasses worn by one of the two men that were damaged in the assault against him.

The report also lists the incident as a suspected “Sexual orientation – Anti-Gay” hate crime.

As in all incidents of violent crime, D.C. police call on members of the public to contact the police with information about an incident like this to call police at 202-727-9099 or text a tip to the department’s TEXT TIP LINE at 50411.

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District of Columbia

D.C. LGBTQ+ community services center closes after finances collapse

Earlier this year the entire Board of Directors had resigned, raising the question of whether Casa Ruby could legally operate without a board

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Ruby Corado (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – Casa Ruby, the D.C. LGBTQ community services center that provided transitional housing services for homeless LGBTQ youth and adults and support for LGBTQ immigrants, has shut down all of its programs after it lost most of its city funding, one of its few remaining employees told the Washington Blade.

Tania Cordova, a Casa Ruby official who has coordinated the group’s LGBTQ immigrant services program, said a failure to pay the rent for Casa Ruby’s offices and rental homes for its transitional housing program made it impossible for the remaining staff of about 10 employees to continue any of the group’s programs.

The Casa Ruby shutdown this week took place nine months after Ruby Corado, the group’s founder and longtime executive director, resigned last October. She announced her resignation less than a week after the D.C. Department of Human Services disclosed it would not renew an annual Casa Ruby grant of what was said to be $850,000 to operate a low-barrier shelter for LGBTQ people.

At the time of her resignation, Corado said Casa Ruby’s then-Government Affairs Director Alexis Blackmon would assume the position of interim executive director while a search took place for a permanent director. But Blackmon resigned from the interim position a short time later and Casa Ruby announced that Jackie Franco, one of its managers, would serve as interim leader for the group with the title of Chief of Staff.

According to Cordova and others familiar with Casa Ruby, who spoke on condition of not being identified, Corado retained full control of Casa Ruby’s finances and made all key decisions despite her claim to have resigned. Cordova and other Casa Ruby staffers have also pointed out that Corado since the time of her announced resignation has spent most of her time in El Salvador operating, among other things, a Casa Ruby she opened in the capital city of San Salvador.

Corado told the Blade in an interview in May that the Casa Ruby board approved the creation of the Casa Ruby in El Salvador. Among its objectives, Corado said, was to provide services for LGBTQ Salvadorans so that they would not be forced to immigrate to the U.S.

Neither Corado nor Franco could immediately be reached this week for comment on the claim by the Casa Ruby staff that they had shut down the D.C. Casa Ruby’s operations.

One source familiar with the D.C. Casa Ruby said there were only about 10 staff members left as of June of this year. Cordova said that as of earlier this year, the entire Casa Ruby Board of Directors had resigned, raising the question of whether Casa Ruby could legally operate without a board.  

The Washington Post reported this week that Casa Ruby employed as many as 100 people as of 2020, eight years after Corado founded the group in 2012.

In its 2020 IRS 990 finance report, which all nonprofit organizations are required to file each year, Casa Ruby reported its total revenue for the year was $4,161,905, with most of the funds coming from D.C. government grants. The 2020 report, the latest one the IRS has released, also shows that Corado’s salary and total compensation for that year was $260,416.

Casa Ruby sources said the group filed a request for an extension of the deadline for filing 2021 IRS 990 report because Corado had not provided the needed financial information. The sources said that while the D.C. government has withheld several hundred thousand dollars in grants for Casa Ruby in the past year or two due to “noncompliance” with the terms of the grants, Casa Ruby has continued to receive funds from private donors. And the staff has not been informed by Corado, according to the sources, on how the private donor funds have been used.

In her interview with the Blade in May, Corado said she believes the Department of Human Services, which has provided much of Casa Ruby’s D.C. government funding, as well as the mayor’s office, was retaliating against her for her outspoken criticism of the city’s handling of programs for the homeless and other programs.

The Department of Human Services has not responded to repeated requests by the Blade for its specific reasons for determining that Casa Ruby was not in compliance with the DHS grants, which prompted DHS to cut off its funds for those grants.

The Menkiti Group, the company that owns the building at 7325 Georgia Ave., N.W., which Casa Ruby used as its headquarters and for the low barrier shelter, claims in a Landlord Tenant Court filing that Casa Ruby owes the company over $1 million in unpaid rent and late fees, among other expenses. Corado told the Blade last year that she withheld some of the rent in a dispute over what she said was the owner’s failure to maintain the building that led to multiple violations in the city’s fire and building code.

A spokesperson for the company told the Blade last year that Corado agreed to a lease that holds the tenant responsible for all needed repairs for the building. Casa Ruby has since moved out of that building.

The landlord for two smaller buildings in the Dupont Circle area in which Casa Ruby rented space have also filed eviction notices for failure to pay the rent.

Cordova said that the Union Temple Baptist Church, which rented four small townhouses to Casa Ruby where Cordova helped to operate the group’s LGBTQ immigrant services program, filed for eviction in court over failure by Casa Ruby to pay the rent. The church owns the buildings. Cordova said the immigrant occupants of the buildings as well as she, who lived in one of them, were forced to move out.

“Everything is closed,” Cordova said. “Nobody is going there to get services because there is nobody to provide the services,” she said. “We don’t have an office, we don’t have office supplies, we don’t have an internet. How are we going to provide services?”

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District of Columbia

D.C.’s Duke Ellington arts school theater not renamed after Chappelle

The renaming was postponed after anti-transgender jokes in Chappelle’s Netflix special “The Closer” sparked controversy

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The Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Washington D.C. (Photo Credit: The Duke Ellington School for the Arts )

WASHINGTON – The Duke Ellington School for the Arts on Monday officially renamed its theater, but not after Dave Chappelle, the school’s most famous alumni, as had been expected.

The renaming was initially scheduled for Nov. 23, 2021, it was postponed after anti-transgender jokes in Chappelle’s Netflix special “The Closer” sparked controversy. Chappelle himself eventually helped choose a different name for the theater, saying that he did not want students to feel upset with his name being on it, since “the idea that my name will be turned into an instrument of someone else’s perceived oppression is untenable to me.”

The theater is now called the Theater for Artistic Freedom and Expression, and in an interview with NBC4, Chappelle said that he chose to highlight artistic freedom because “that’s what I would want for myself, and that’s what I want for every student that goes to this school.”

“And I do feel like if that’s threatened, then the society at large is threatened,” Chappelle said. “If artists feel stifled, then everyone’s stifled. And I feel like artists have a responsibility to really be true to their art right now.”

Dave Chappelle (Photo by Mathieu Bitton)

Chappelle has previously included anti-trans jokes in his comedic repertoire.

He has previously made jokes about former President Trump’s decision to ban trans service members from the military and the possibility of Caitlyn Jenner posing nude on the cover of Sports Illustrated. However, in a one-on-one interview with the Washington Blade in August 2017, Chappelle denied being transphobic. 

“I wouldn’t consider myself that because I’m not even sure what the term means,” Chappelle said. “I’m not an obstructionist of anybody’s lifestyle, as long as it doesn’t hurt me or people I love and I don’t believe that lifestyle does.” 

Chappelle also called North Carolina’s House Bill 2, which prohibited trans people from using public restrooms consistent with their gender identity as “fucking absurd” and “clearly a mean-spirited law” designed to deny trans people their basic humanity. 

While Chappelle has at times defended the LGBTQ community and has denied being transphobic, trans activists and students at the Ellington School alike have expressed discomfort with his apparent lack of understanding and empathy about the ways his jokes harm trans people. 

“I appreciate a good joke as much as anyone. But when jokes lead to dehumanization, violence and death aimed at trans people, that’s when a line has been crossed and it has to be called out,” the late-Monica Roberts, a trans activist of color from Houston, said in response to Chappelle’s comments to the Blade.

In light of this controversy, which has only gained more airtime since “The Closer” premiered in 2021, Chappelle chose to take the focus off of himself by supporting an alternate name for the Ellington School’s theater. Currently, students at Duke Ellington — many of whom are LGBTQ — have access to “listening sessions” planned by the administration in which they can air their thoughts about the theater’s renaming.

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