Updated: July 21 | Posted: July 20
After several days of widespread public backlash on social media, phone calls and emails from disapproving patrons, performers and venue staff, First Avenue canceled the Dave Chappelle show it had scheduled for Wednesday night, just hours before the comedian was scheduled to take the stage.
Chappelle has a reputation of mocking transgender people in his standup routines, which critics say has no place in a venue that’s LGBTQ-owned, hosts annual Pride parties and sells branded merch with rainbow accents in June.
Along with the cancelation news, First Avenue, which owns and operates five other Twin Cities venues, shared an apology statement on the booking via Facebook and Twitter on Wednesday afternoon saying it “lost sight of the impact this would have.”
MPR News spoke with First Avenue employees who said a vast majority of its event staff who work security, take tickets, serve drinks and other duties are within the LGBTQ community and that they remain angry and hurt by the club booking Chappelle in the first place.
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“It’s really a slap in the face to a lot of employees. They say that companies hang up queer flags in June and burn them in July, and that’s exactly what it feels like First Avenue is doing right now,” said Spencer Gosewisch who is trans femme and has worked First Avenue events for almost a year.
First Avenue declined to comment beyond the apology statement.
The Varsity Theater, now owned by Live Nation, will now host Chappelle instead, kicking off five sold-out shows over the next three days. Community members protested outside of the Dinkytown venue Wednesday night. The Star Tribune’s review of Chappelle’s first Varsity show notes that during his set, he called the protesters “transgender lunatics.”
The event was first announced Monday. Staff say their many emails expressing concern about the show went largely ignored by management. First Avenue also disabled comments on its Facebook post about the show after a handful of negative reactions.
Chappelle’s transphobic jokes vary from invalidating the existence of trans people to joking about trans women’s bodies. In one special he compared being transgender to wearing blackface. The comedian continues to defend and perform the material despite years of callouts, insisting that his views on gender are biological facts.
Local nonprofit Reclaim was set to receive the proceeds from First Avenue’s 2022 pride shirts, but announced Wednesday it would no longer accept donations from the venue due to Chappelle’s “transphobic rhetoric that has directly harmed the queer and trans community we serve.” Reclaim focuses on mental health services for queer and trans youth.
Ian Sutherland says their feelings about their employer’s actions haven’t changed since the show got canceled. Sutherland is queer and trans and has worked as a sound engineer and stage manager at First Avenue for three years.
“Nothing’s been fixed. Nothing feels better,” Sutherland said Wednesday afternoon.
For Sutherland, the cancelation wasn’t enough, and the apology read as saving face. They’d like to see First Avenue take more action to make this right, as well as a meaningful conversation with staff. Employees received an email with the same statement shared on social media, and nothing else, Sutherland said.
Event staff expressed that booking Chappelle was a violation of the club’s own code of conduct, which prohibits discrimination and, among other things, transphobia in its venues.
When asked about working there moving forward, Grace Healey said they care deeply about First Avenue and want to keep working there to help make it safe for everyone. Healey is trans and has worked events there for six years.
Gosewisch says she thought First Avenue prioritizing the safety of its staff and guests was what made its venues different from others and that she expected better from her workplace.
“I think that corporate upper management thinks they can get away with a lot and ride off of performative actions … because they think that we depend upon them for independent music venues,” she said. “But Minneapolis is ripe with opportunities for independent musicians in small venues. If this is the kind of priority that safety takes in their minds, we don’t need them unless they change.”
Correction (July 20, 2022): An earlier version of this story misspelled Spencer Gosewisch’s last name. The story has been updated.