In my roughly two years doing stand-up, I’ve discovered being trans femme impacts the way I get to exist both on and off stage as a comedian. Everything about my comedy is influenced (and often limited) by transness. My stage persona, the type of material I get to perform, and where I get to tell it. I’ve had to adjust to audiences’ expectations of what it means to be a trans woman, rather than my own sense of who I am outside the gender binary.
The more I performed, the blurrier that line between persona and self became, and the less I felt like the person I became on stage was someone I wanted to be. I don’t have any trans elders in my life (comedians or otherwise) to show me how to walk this performative tightrope of identity. That’s part of the reason I’ve taken a hiatus from standup — I’m afraid of how easy it is to fall.
In pursuit of that guidance, I arranged a conversation with three of the hardest-working women in comedy, Dhalia Belle, Esther Fallick, and KJ Whitehead. Each of them individually has roughly a decade of experience in the industry. Navigating the world of comedy before the idea of transness was widely understood in mainstream American society — let alone the cornerstone of a culture war we didn’t agree to be soldiers in. I wanted to explore our shared, yet unique, experiences of being trans femme in an industry where masculinity is rewarded. As I become more visibly femme, people treat me differently (comics and audiences alike) though I’m unsure how conscious that shift is. For better and worse, they treat me like a woman.
Last year, I had the privilege of performing on an Autostraddle fundraiser show with KJ, a Chicago-based comedian with two specials available, Khaos and The Haggard Unicorn. Esther is a Brooklyn-based musical powerhouse with her one-woman show Esther Fallick Updates Her Book, and the new all-trans-femme show she co-hosts with Riylan Mills, All Doll Bill. The only comic I hadn’t met prior to this conversation was Dhalia Belle, a Portland stand-up and writer best known for her letter in The Guardian to a certain transphobic comedian.
As far as trans comedians go, I’m incredibly lucky. I started doing stand-up in Brooklyn as a masc-leaning nonbinary person. I couldn’t be in a better place to be either trans or a comedian individually, let alone both. Outside of that bubble of community trans comics have created for ourselves, whether it’s in another city, over the river into Manhattan, or even at another show at the same venue, I’m often reminded how vast the distance between our worlds is. The same jokes I tell from night to night land differently depending on how much the room believes not just my own understanding of my gender, but in the concept of transness at all.
In isolation, this was insanity-inducing, a collective gaslighting that I’d always been treated this way. Talking to other trans femmes, I realized how common my experience is. Like me, all three women I spoke to have gone through their transition on stage, in the public eye. Dhalia was using he/him pronouns when she started stand-up. “Then once that became too silly, I switched to they/them pronouns.” Only at the encouragement of Riley Silverman, another trans comic, did she come out. When KJ initially transitioned to using they/them pronouns, the shift in her outward expression forced her to consider how audiences perceive her. “I have to explain myself. That’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned. Now, after almost 10 years of doing this, I still have to explain myself. And it… it gets exhausting.” The call fell quiet for a moment.
In the silence, my mind flipped through every joke that didn’t land, every show I bombed, and every audience member who rolled their eyes and crossed their arms the moment the word trans left my lips. We all know the soul-draining labor of crafting a set that doesn’t just have to be funny, it has to justify our very existence. “That’s so real,” Esther agreed, the relief of validation in our shared experience flooding the call. “It’s frustrating how the first thing you have to do is talk about your transness”
And we do. In stand-up, I’ve gotten advice on how to win over an audience: At the top of your set, point out the weird thing in the room. This helps take a distracting feature most of the audience probably noticed with curiosity or confusion, and turn it into the butt of a joke. It’s more difficult to achieve when the strange, distracting thing isn’t a piece of art on the wall — it’s you. Other comics just get to walk up on stage, but everyone agreed, trans femmes have to reach a certain level of performed gender before we’ll even be listened to. “I just want to get on stage and tell jokes,” Dhalia said. “If I don’t present unquestionably and unmistakably high femme, the jokes just feel weird for [the audience].”
I agree wholeheartedly. We shouldn’t have to be anything other than a good comedian to be embraced by an audience as easily as any cis person. Going on stage as a trans woman feels like fighting a war on two fronts: proving yourself as a comic and as a woman. If you have an off night on either one, an audience won’t hesitate to turn against you. “You can’t afford to be half-assed,” KJ agreed. “You have to be a master of your craft before you even get on stage.”
This constant hurdle forces comics with marginalized identities to hold ourselves to unreasonable standards. “I try to be so talented anyone who wants to be transphobic says, ‘Well, she’s a once-in-a-generation talent’” said Esther. However, the confidence that comes with accepting yourself can feel paradoxical when you have so few peers. “On the one hand, I have to work a lot harder. On the other, there are so few trans women on stage. I’m already interesting and captivating. [After transitioning] it was easy for me to just be like, ‘I’m enough’.”
Comedy has been a way for Esther to regain a little control of people’s perception of her. “For five to ten minutes I get to control how this audience sees my transness in a way I can’t on the subway.” That control, however, usually depends on how much the audience is willing to accept your personhood — and transphobia is only one barrier to an audience.
KJ pointed out the unique difficulty for Black trans women both in white queer comedy spaces and Black male-dominated rooms. “Often in cases where I find myself [with a bad audience], it’s not because I’m trans, it’s because I’m Black. If it’s not because I’m Black, it’s because I’m trans.”
Dhalia tried to do a 20-minute set where she didn’t bring up queerness at all. She didn’t have long hair and she wasn’t wearing makeup. “A straight couple in the audience audibly had a conversation throughout my entire set to decide what my gender was. They would just be like, ‘but, it had a purse, but it had a beard shadow, but —’”
The pronoun “it” made us all flinch. It was a harsh reminder some people don’t even consider us human.
However, Dhalia doesn’t just let transphobes go unpunished. “I have a series of jokes where the punchline is technically trans tragedy, but I make it my victory. It tends to break the audience. They’re like, ‘This bitch just does not care. We can be as hostile as we want, and she’s still going to turn it into a celebration for herself.’ I dig that hole as deep as I possibly can until the audience breaks out of sheer humor, shock, or discomfort. I struggled with it for over 30 years — they can handle 20 minutes.”
When I asked how she emotionally navigates those situations, Dhalia said something heartbreaking. ”I’m used to people being shitty. I just focused on the people actually paying attention.”
It’s a mindset I admire deeply, one I’ve been trying to carry off-stage. I find it easier in my daily life, where I’ve built a community of queer people around me. Even still, that focus is something I struggle with and always have. In my short career, this isn’t the first hiatus I’ve taken from comedy. The last time was nearly a year ago after an audience got angrier the longer I stayed on stage. In situations like that, I aspire to be more like Dhalia.
In reality, when a man in the front row start furiously muttering something to the woman next to him, my panic kicked in and I ended my set early. I didn’t do standup for two months after that, too afraid to exist publicly as a trans person. I’m still ashamed of that, of letting hate push me away from something I love — something I’ve found myself caught in again. And though I shouldn’t have to, I’m ashamed of how I represented trans people as a community in front of not just the audience, but the booker and the other comics.
In response to Dhalia’s approach, KJ mentioned this important, representational factor only marginalized comics need to consider. “I get a little nervous to keep [putting down transphobes in the audience] because say that doesn’t go well. [The producers are] gonna hold you to certain standards they wouldn’t hold the cishets to. You’re the first to be outed when it comes to being booked again. That’s why I get nervous.”
Dhalia agreed, noting the potential risk that comes with her response. “You also don’t wanna prevent other trans comics coming up after you from getting booked at that club.”
In all honesty, this is something I usually don’t have to be hyper-aware of when I’m performing live, both because of my privilege as a white trans person, and because I rarely venture outside of Brooklyn anymore. I’m in a progressive comedy scene, where trans people (including myself) run shows, and a lot of cis showrunners are actively booking more trans comedians. On the rare occasion I get booked outside of Brooklyn, I’ve learned to minimize the amount of trans material I do. I feel the need to prove to them trans people are funny for reasons other than our transness.
Even if the audience doesn’t respond well, KJ prides herself on being kind both to the audience and the showrunners. “If it doesn’t work out in front of the audience, at least the producer knows I’m professional and they would book me again. I’m putting on a show on stage and offstage.” This constant performance is exhausting for her to balance. “I still wanna work, but at the same time I have to speak up for myself.” Perhaps it was that exact exhaustion that led her to start her own queer mics and showcases in a world where only cishet white men got stage time. “There was something in me that decided — NO, I’m gonna be here and I’m going to demand the same respect anyone else gets.”
Throughout our conversation, each comedian referenced the difficulties of comedy still being primarily dominated by cishet men. Even among other women, queer people, or trans people; stand-up is a field where masculinity is rewarded and femininity is dismissed, if not punished. My charming, playfully awkward persona was embraced when I was masc-presenting, but as I’ve moved into new stages of my career and transition, I’ve found more and more people unwilling to even humor me. Even in left-leaning rooms, the subtle misogyny of being in a male-dominated industry is inescapable. For Black trans women, this is only compounded with misogynoir. “I am a woman before I am trans,” Dhalia said. “I am definitely a Black woman before I am trans. And I am definitely a silly bitch more than I am trans.”
Dhalia started stand-up in Portland in 2013. When she invited trans women to her shows, no one would show up. They wanted to support her, sure, but felt comedy wasn’t a space they would be welcomed in. A decade later, on the other side of the country, Esther is having a similar experience. She has a hard time getting trans people to come to her shows because many still feel like comedy just isn’t for them — even at a one-woman show about being trans.
Wanting to make space for herself and others is also what drove Dhalia to pursue comedy in the first place. “I started doing comedy at 34, when my life expectancy was another two years. Once I hit 37, I officially stopped giving a fuck [about] what anyone [thought]. Outliving your life expectancy makes it real easy to not care.”
I couldn’t help myself but gush in admiration of these women who made it possible for someone like me to even get on stage. “And I appreciate that.” Dhalia playfully waved away my praise. “But it also breaks my heart. We’re not breaking new ground.” During the pandemic over Zoom, Dhalia met other Black trans women who’d been doing comedy for decades. “What troubles me is that ground was broken 30 years ago and no one seems to know, including our own community.”
For the first time since I started doing stand-up, I knew definitively I wasn’t alone. We let the final moments of our conversation breathe, none of us in a rush to leave this rare experience of pure trans joy. Prior to writing this article, I was reluctant to identify as anything other than trans femme, afraid of the expectations that come with being a woman, both on stage and off. Earlier in our conversation, Esther spoke about being “enough” as trans women — Are we feminine enough? Are we pretty enough? Are we funny enough? and KJ had a simple truth on that.
“We are enough. We are all enough by default.”
It’s something I often forget, that being perfect and being enough are not the same. The unreasonable expectations I hold myself to, both in comedy and in life, are products of a world — of an industry — that was created without me in mind. Speaking to these women helped me remember why I wanted to be a comedian. To be understood, to be laughed with rather than laughed at. Even in the face of everything we discussed, our call was filled with laughter, support, and love. We held space for each other to joke about our pain without pity and without shame. And now, I get to share it with you, to bring you in on the joke, in hopes it helps you feel less alone too.
Check out the first part of this conversation where Rowan spoke to three trans masculine folks in comedy about how their transness has informed and influenced their careers.