BY EMMANUEL GARCIA
From the Tonight Show to political cartoon drawings, political humor has always played an important part of the way we perceive our government, but no one has mastered the role of political stand-up like comedienne Kate Clinton. She honed her skills teaching high school, but after she left in 1981, she flourished not only as a comedian but as an actress, humorist, panelist, and writer.
Kate Clinton used her stand-up to establish herself within the LGBT community and has also achieved mainstream success. She has traveled across the country doing stand-up for two decades, bringing her show on the road—to the people and for the people. In case you missed her most recent visit to Chicago, she has also released album compilations of her performances. Her most recent release, The Marrying Kind, hit stores Aug. 3. It marks her seventh hysterical CD release with 90 minutes of smart laughter.
In addition to her comedy, Clinton writes monthly columns for The Progressive and The Advocate. She was also a writer on The Rosie O'Donnell Show during its launch in 1996. She lends her views on GLBT and other issues as a commentator on CNN, C-Span, MSNBC, or other shows like Entertainment Tonight.
Taking time away from election crunch, Clinton talks with me about coming out, The L Word, and what she'll be doing on Nov. 2, 2004.
Emmanuel Garcia: The name of this magazine is Identity, how do you identify?
Kate Clinton: (giggles) The person you want to sit with at dinner.
EG: I do! Let's talk about your new CD, The Marrying Kind. What sets this one apart from your previous comedy CDs?
KC: It is more political, but I think [it] used to be if you talked about gay issues, they were separated from the mainstream. Now you can talk about gay issues and they're very much the mainstream. So, in a way, it's still very gay, but because of all the work we've done organizing and educating over the years ... what used to be far-out ideas are very much within mainstream conversation.
EG: When did you come out?
KC: Well aren't there many levels? I probably—when I was eight or nine—just thought, 'Hmmm. There's something different about me.' I remember saying to my father, 'I really love my girlfriends,' and he said, 'well we're all supposed to love our friends.' And I was like, 'I really, really love my girlfriends!'
I came out late really, when I was 28, and I got involved with a woman who was a Quaker. We slept together and the next day she said, 'Well, I was just talking to my sister and I told her all about it,' and I said, 'You did!', and she said 'Well, yeah, why not?' I really think that was the beginning of my coming out in a really public and positive way, because I had been involved with other little Catholic girls.
EG: How do you think the coming-out experience has changed?
KC: I think there still is that moment where you realize, 'Oh my god I think I'm gay.' And I don't think that will ever change. What I would love to have change is when young men and women realize that they're gay and the next thought isn't suicide. That's usually when I think, yeah we've done our work, but it still happens.
EG: How did your parents react?
KC: I never came out to my mom because she was very ill. I think when I was strong enough being gay, she had Parkinson's and she couldn't speak. We would've fought, and it just didn't seem fair. When I came out to my father, although he'd been portrayed as very authoritarian, he was actually very sweet and liberal. Basically, what he said was, 'I just want you to be happy, safe and I want you to get healthcare!' (We both Laugh)
EG: That's doable! When you first started doing stand-up did you imagine having this platform?
KC: You know, if you had told me when I left teaching that I was going to be a stand-up comic and I would make my living that way, and I would be able to buy things, no, I didn't. But those early years my life was very organic—not like the produce. I was a comedian, I traveled, but I also had wonderful friends who supported me and welcomed me back home when I would go on month-long road trips. It was my work, but it was my life. I think the platform I have now certainly is a product of just showing up, but it's also a product of all the incredible gay and lesbian organizing that people have been doing for the past two centuries.
EG: Did people just always think you were funny and tell you, 'You know you should do comedy'?
KC: They did. It was really in the beginning of the comedy club boom. I really started saying, 'I want to try it,' but my best friend booked me at a club and she said, 'You're on in a month, and I don't want to hear about it anymore.' So, I did my first show and invited all my friends to this little club in Syracuse, New York. It was very wonderful. Then, a couple of weeks later, I did another show in Boston, and it wasn't all my friends! But really the experience of teaching high school English was very good primer. That's a tough audience. If they don't like what you wear, forget it!
EG: Gays and lesbians have become far more visible in the media in the past two years, but some complain that the depictions of gays and lesbians, like the Queer Eye, perpetuate stereotypes. Should gays and lesbians be concerned about these portrayals?
KC: Well aren't they grumpy! I think, compared to the portrayal of the sad suicidal lesbian or the young gay boy tortured by his peers, we could use a little humor. ... What we are experiencing is more portrayal of gays and lesbians, so one portrayal doesn't have to do everything. I could see why some people would be upset, but it's just a matter of getting more portrayals, and it has to start somewhere. I would do almost anything to watch that Megan Mullally!
EG: Of all the gays and lesbians on TV and in movies, do you have a favorite?
KC: Of course we are all watching The L Word. We're dying for the new episodes to start in February. It's really a hoot to have our own dramatic series. People get together and have dinner parties— it's almost like a sporting event. I think it's a total cultural phenomenon, and I come from years ago [when] if something was gay on television you could talk about it for five years 'cause there wouldn't be another thing. We would be like, 'Did you see Lily Tomlin? She wore purple!' The fact that we aren't all trying to decode the underlying message is pretty outstanding.
EG: What will you being doing Nov. 2?
KC: I'll be trying to stay positive. My niece who is a fabulous 25 years old is organizing for America Coming Together in Philadelphia. I think I'll vote and go help drive people to the polls.
EG: How do you think John Kerry has done in these debates?
KC: I think he's doing wonderfully. I think that the people ... are seeing a really thoughtful long-serving public servant. So, I think the debates have been really good for him, and you know the bar is set so low with George Bush that if he doesn't bust into flames it's like he won [the debate].
EG: You have been with your partner for 16 years. Any plans on getting married?
KC: No, actually. I'd like to think that I wouldn't have even if I were straight. If there is ever a federal statute that we get everything that straight people do, fine, but I absolutely support and have had a blast in weddings of friends of mine.
EG: Well, you can actually officiate weddings now, right?
KC: I can. Thank God no one's really asked me 'cause I get terribly silly at these things.
EG: Your partner [Urvashi Vaid] is an attorney and activist. How has she influenced you?
KC: She also has an extraordinary, wonderful sense of humor. I think what she has given me is content. I can't believe the stuff she knows. ... She really can contextualize something in the history of the gay movement or the history of civil rights, and that's been wonderful.
EG: How does she deal with you being a celebrity?
KC: (stutters) I am? Fine, especially if you get an occasional upgrade.
EG: Your long-time friend Melissa Ethridge recently announced she has breast cancer. What are your thoughts?
KC: I feel terrible. It's quite the road, but she did find it early, and that's wonderful. She has done a lot of wonderful work for breast cancer awareness. Inadvertently, this is breast cancer awareness month [October], and she has reminded everyone to get that mammogram, do self exams, and just be aware.
EG: What do you think is the most pressing issue in our community?
KC: Nuclear Proliferation! (laughs) No, I think there is enormous energy in our community. ... I think one of the pressing needs is to give people a way to do work, not just write checks—to join an organization against the anti-gay marriage amendment and to really be on the ground and do that kind of work. I think the challenge is to make our local and national organizations help them to be able to use those talents for them. I think that was one of the wonderful things about the activism of ACT UP! There were people who really plugged in, and they plugged in at their strength. There were people who were incredible advertising designers and amazing scientists, and they contributed. I think that's one of the incredible challenges. I think it's important to remind people we are pretty much a part of history ... and there is still a lot of work. I just got a little tear in my eye. Didn't you? That was just amazing.
EG: Awww. Do you ever get tired of talking about gay issues? Is there a point when you say I don't want to talk about gay marriage today?
KC: Very early on, I heard Adrienne Rich. She's an extraordinary poet, and she said the thing is that if you're involved in movement building, you have to be willing to—even though you've moved on—keep talking about the origins of things. Even if you are at P in the alphabet, sometimes you still have to go back and talk about the ABC's.
EG: What is your favorite quote?
KC: Oh, it's currently my favorite quote. It's from Mae West: 'Most want to protect me, can't figure out from what?' I mean, there's George Bush talking about terror, but excuse me, it happened when you were in charge and he gets away with it.
EG: Well, he's just so consistent in bringing up the same issue over and over.
KC: Some people would call that obsessive compulsive disorder. If other people want to call it that, fine!
Emmanuel Garcia is at www.emmanuelgarcia.com