A self-described “political humorist”, Kate Clinton is a pioneer in the LGBT community as a stand-up comedian, author and political activist. Kate has been performing nationally since 1981 including hundreds of comedy dates and several Off-Broadway runs. Her nearly three decade long career has produced a staggering eight comedy albums and three books, including What the L? and Don’t Get Me Started. Her latest, I Told You So, is a collection of essays culled & expanded from her blogs originally published in The Huffington Post, The Progressive, Bilerico, NYC Up & Out, Beacon Broadside, in addition to her own personal blog. Be sure to catch her around the country in 2010 as she launches the Lady HaHa tour.
Jess: Which essay in I Told You is your favorite or are you most proud of?
Kate: I think the essay about the coat that I had written and revised for Progressive magazine … the last line is “News to gay Catholics, the Church hates your guts. You might as well leave.” Actually I’m kind of proud that it caused a few cancellations of subscriptions, as is my editor. So I wrote that, and I think it’s probably one of the more challenging parts of my routine and work for people is to question religion. That’s sort of a final frontier and I think a really critical one. So I’m proud of that. I’m happy that I was able to include some of the longer personal pieces, like The Church and the Confessional, and my own experience in the Church… I was also happy to put in some of the ones that are just about friends and family, like my dear friend Eric who had died and what we all went through. Even though he had been with his dear partner for 16 years, and what it was like to have the coroner and the funeral director wanted to get permission from his mom, who was a lovely woman, but she didn’t even want to bypass the partner. So you know, that whole trauma… I was glad to get that in. Because, I think that a lot of times you can talk political concepts and ideology but to be able to illustrate the effect that ideology has on actual people is really important.
“I feel comforted in having just normal disappointment in my president instead of the despair that I had for the last eight years, which was like a giant cement block on my chest most days.”
Jess: Who are your favorite authors? Do you have a favorite collection of essays?
Kate: Annie Dillard’s writing has been very important to me. And Adrienne Rich has been very critical to my early, early thinking, and I go back to her even now. I recently re-read Compulsory Heterosexuality. Molly Ivins as always, I miss her terribly, I think her writing is wonderful. Also, Katha Pollitt, who writes for The Nation and is also a wonderful poet. Sometimes her stuff just knocks me out, and I think one of my favorites was years ago, you know she’s so pro-choice and she gets wonderfully livid and sarcastic when women’s choice is threatened, and she suggested that we do a tax on sperm. [laughing] I mean, she’s very, very funny and you know just really, really sarcastic sometimes.
Jess: Who are some of your favorite current comedians, gay and straight?
Kate: I would have to say that I know it’s a whole series of wonderful back writers, but Stephen Colbert makes me howl generally, as does Jon Stewart. I’m certainly not happy that it’s mostly all men writers, but I think that for Jon Stewart especially, at least on a weekly basis, he’s like a class in rhetoric and he really shows people how to take things apart. I remember he did a thing on the use of the question mark, which allows you to introduce a thought and not take any responsibility. He just ran some of the crawls that appear on Fox News, like ‘Is Hillary Clinton a bitch?’ But like they introduce the idea that Hilary Clinton is a bitch, BUT they have a question mark so they don’t take any responsibility. So many nights he will show people…apparently no one is learning how to take things apart anymore in physics class, or in any kind of rhetoric class, so I think it’s just an amazing important civic service to do this and to make you laugh. I mean how wonderful is that? That’s what I aspire to. In terms of gay comedians, I always have enjoyed, and have really enjoyed watching her grow over the years is Julie Goldman.
Kate: She kills me. I mean, in her show, absolutely. On the Big Gay Sketch Show, absolutely… but in person, she makes me pass liquid through my nose on a regular basis. In public.
Jess: I like that she’s different from the rest of the pack. She sort of makes her own lane & I adore that.
Kate: I LOVE how angry she is. I mean, I think it’s critical. If you’re not angry, then something’s wrong. But I love how she does it. I love her body. She really throws herself into it. I’ve learned a lot watching her, I really have.
Jess: Does your act get a different reaction when performing in Provincetown, as opposed to say, St. Louis? Do you modify the act depending on the audience, if it’s a gay or mixed audience?
Kate: I might reorganize or shuffle some things… and in an audience that I think might not know me, you kind of warm up to it. I usually do a long, like a 90 minute show, but in Provincetown I only have an hour because we need to have the area clear for the drag queens. So, I jump into it more quickly. And in Provincetown, I’m also trying out a lot of new stuff. But on the road, I don’t leave anything out, but I might reorder it. This is something I learned from high school English teaching, you establish your trust level, and then you can hit ’em. And then they’re like, “What did you say?”
Kate: I don’t know about you, but I’ve really been struck by the level of unbelievable patriotism that people are experiencing because Obama hasn’t changed everything immediately. There’s really no time for that. He’s up against a lot, he’s got a lot on his plate. You know, we just have to push him, of course, but also I won’t tolerate anyone badmouthing him right now. So I think it’s about optimism, continued optimism.
Jess: What was your reaction to the failure of the gay marriage bill to pass through the New York Senate?
Kate: Well, I think the New York legislature first of all is probably right up there with one of the most dysfunctional legislatures in the country. I would actually want to have a contest. I was actually at a big gay political victory fund conference and I suggested we have a contest to see who has the most dysfunctional legislature. But New York is right up there. There’s a whole lot of backroom stuff that went on you know, if the Republicans had said they would come with it, they would vote for it if they could guarantee a certain number of Democratic votes. So there’s a whole lot of backroom dealing, but mostly I’m furious. I’m furious at the power of all these Catholic bishops and officials. I really think they have no business in it, and if they do, then tax them, tax the Church. And I also did find it abhorrent that the Republicans just sat there and didn’t say anything. So, I would say – livid.
Jess: Do you know any gay Republicans?
Kate: Yes, I do know gay Republicans. Their last holdout was you know I’m a cultural moderate but I believe in the financial principles of the Republican party, which I think have been completely discredited. I don’t think they have a leg to stand on. But the gay Republicans I know who are, god bless ’em, committed to remaining in the Republican party and changing it from within, I applaud that. It’s nothing I would ever do. Even though my girlfriend has on occasion said we should declare ourselves Republican and go to Republican convention and say you know, “I’m gay and I support abortion and I’m against war and I’m still a Republican what are you going to do about it.”
Jess: How do you think we’re doing as a community in the face of setbacks like Prop 8, Maine & New York. I mean, if we can’t win in New York or California, I think that’s very frightening. We’re moving backward.
Kate: You know, I think the assumption was ‘”We’re California… we’re New York of course this is going to pass.” And I think we underestimated the force against us. And the more success we have, the bigger the push. If you get discouraged by what we’re up against, it’s only because we’re doing a good job. We’re out there, there’s a reaction. I think we underestimated how much door to door organizing we needed to do. And you know, Maine did it. Maine really did a lot of work, and I think that was really discouraging, too. But again, it was the organizing power of the Church. It’s going to happen, it just infuriates me that we’ve put our equality to trick or treating. Like we have to go door to door begging. That makes me insane. But I think it’s all, it’s part of the process. It’s just part of the national conversation about the full moral equality of gay people.
Jess: Do you feel like it’s even worthwhile spending energy feeling disappointment over Obama?
Kate: Oh, I think it’s lovely. I feel comforted in having just normal disappointment in my president instead of the despair that I had for the last eight years, which was like a giant cement block on my chest most days. So, it’s sort of a relief. It’s understandable, he doesn’t get where he got by not being in politics. And politics is all about horse trading and compromise and all that stuff. However, I do resent being lectured to about how I don’t understand the process, and this is how we have to do it. I do believe in moral leadership, not only from Obama but from senators and supposed allies. I am getting angrier and angrier during this interview. thank you [laughter].
Jess: We’re all so focused on gay marriage and repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, what else do you think we should be fighting for as a community?
Kate: I think that a really important thing is anti-violence. That includes and goes over a number of issues that don’t seem related. First of all, anti-violence in education. We have made progress making safer schools for LGBT youth, but there is still too much homelessness for kids tht come out and have no place to go. There’s too much bullying in schools.
“I think one of the critical things as LGBT people that we have to know is that each one of us is a really important part of making a change historically.”
Anti-violence is a health issue. HIV and AIDS people are still experiencing the violence of not getting adequate health care of not being able to find it. And it’s also a health issue for transgender people who are trying to get the procedures that they need to get done and are experiencing just kind of, you know, going nowhere in the healthcare system. And then just pure violence out in the street. And I would take it all the way up to the issue of gays in the military and questioning the whole militaristic notion that we as a country have. If we’re going to be capitalists, let’s be capitalists and don’t send in drones and bombs, just build a mall. Build a mall and have them buy things, it’s pacified us, it could work there.
Jess: Are there any particular moments that stand our for you as an activist in the past 40 years?
Kate: You know as I review the year, I think my favorite activity was saging the White House. The night before the inauguration, we met at Dupont Circle, 2,000 of us, and we staged the White House as if it were a crime scene to get ready for Obama. That was so much fun. And now we know we should’ve also done Congress. But on a personal level, when I look at my year, I just think oh it was so much fun. And you know I think over the 40 years, I would say, I think Stonewall and the celebration around Stonewall this year really made me totally in awe of those early, early gay activists, who just came out and were in their American psychological association and said being homosexual is not a mental illness. I mean, to stand up back then and do what they did is pretty astounding.
I think another huge benchmark in the last 40 years was the struggle, and the continuing struggle, against AIDS and HIV. And the transformational work that so many people did to transform getting drugs to people and getting drug protocols happening. I think it was really critical for transformational for the way we do things in health care for some people. I think that was a really important time. I think that it was important because it was so life and death, to have the sense that you could really change things. i think that is the sense that is often lost now. Everything is so diffuse and atomized that people don’t think they can make a difference. But I think one of the critical things as LGBT people that we have to know is that each one of us is a really important part of making a change historically. You don’t know until you do it and then you meet people who have done it. And then you decide that’s what you want to do. The march on Washington in October was spectacular! People were pissed and they had a new way of organizing, and they really believe that they can make a change. And I think that’s critical. I think that was one of the things that I will always be very very happy in my early feminism was a clear understanding that I was a part of history.
Jess: I know in my early 20s, I was not a political person at all.. it just wasn’t on my radar. Probably with the election and Prop 8, I have felt a change in myself. Also being part of Autostraddle has really brought that out in me. I really feel differently than I did even five years ago, just in my own life.
Kate: I don’t think that people know how sexy it is. It’s totally so hot, you know. If we could get that across, cause you’re like with people.
Jess: It’s because everyone is so passionate.
Kate: Yeah, and there’s like affairs aplenty. I just love it. But I don’t think that people really know that. Maybe that’s the way we get energized, I don’t know, but it’s hot, it’s really hot.
Jess: As far as representation in media, it’s been about a year since The L Word ended. I know that there have been several attempts to get another lesbian-centric show on the air and even the gay networks weren’t interested. Why do you think that even the gay networks aren’t interested, let alone Showtime and HBO?
Kate: I think sexism is huge still. I think it’s that gay men sell, or gay men buy. It gets right down to money. But I think the next thing is pretty much consistent with the amazing sea change in format that we’re experiencing. i think that lesbians are making films about themselves and distributing them in ways that nobody sees. That kind of thing bubbles up, it just takes a while. I know the frustrations and now the constraints of money. “Oh we don’t have money for that, I don’t know if you noticed but we’re in a recession.” Well yes I have, but you keep doing shows about men for men. When we say gay, we mean lesbian too. it doesn’t work for me.
Jess: But I don’t think that there’s any question that The L Word was more profitable for Showtime than Queer As Folk was.
Kate: Right, well that’s a great point. I don’t know, I think that there’s sort of an occasion, and good old capitalism, well the guys that are running it have a willful denying of what actually happened.
Jess: So, what’s next after the new tour?
Kate: You know, the book is coming out in paperback, which I am very excited about. And we have some plans for expanding and doing a makeover of our website and doing some new things. I’m going to continue touring and continue doing benefits for my favorite organizations. And just keep talking and hope to last a long time. I’d like to be the George Burns of the gay movement.