Arts·Year In Review

Hannah Gadsby inspired me to finally seek therapy. Now I think I know how to be a queer artist

In 2018, "Nanette" taught me that to be a queer artist is to hold up an unflattering mirror — and I'm never looking back.

Nanette taught me that to be a queer artist is to hold up an unflattering mirror — and I'm never looking back

Hannah Gadsby in Nanette. (Netflix)

At the end of June, I sat in bed for two hours sobbing myself silly after watching Hannah Gadsby's Nanette. I had given in to Netflix FOMO after receiving the 20th or so text saying, "Shawn, you've gotta watch it right now." It was almost midnight when I pressed play on the viral comedy special, and as the credits rolled, I wished those iMessages had come with a millennial trigger warning.

I woke up the next morning and immediately re-watched it from start to finish. I sobbed — again. I repeated this process until my eyes ran dry and my heart no longer ached. I watched and watched it until I could critique the piece as a peer, analyzing Gadsby's structure, form and delivery. Nanette is a work of art that will withstand the test of time, not so much as a work of stand-up but as a work of testimony. (This is my humble opinion and many of the purists working in rigid comedy clubs are free to disagree with me.)

With Nanette, Gadsby set a new benchmark for all solo performers and comedians who create long-form comedy: comedy that weaves both a yarn and considers a takeaway message. (This summer, expect all fringe festivals to be loaded with one-person shows helmed by creators who have "pulled up their socks.") To a performer like me, who has struggled in the margins of comedy, Nanette felt like a deeply personal letter from one artist to another; it served as a declaration to all queer performers of a certain age that we no longer have to suffer or exploit ourselves to be seen. 

Shawn Hitchins. (Adam Bolton)

I am a part of a generation of queer performers and entertainers who are waking up in their own lives, connecting the dots in reverse and examining the social circumstances that led to a career in the arts. We are a cohort of aging creators who sought safety and stability in an industry that is anything but safe or stable. We are mid-level artists witnessing younger queer performers unapologetically occupy spaces and stages that were inaccessible to us a decade ago. It is a bittersweet rite of passage. 

The next generation will experience more than the previous; the generation after will benefit from even greater opportunity; the final generation will have endless stage time (but will never know what a polar bear or ice cap looks like because of climate change)...and so on.

Nanette was the final push for me to seek therapy, to confront old wounds and to start the process of taking responsibility for being present in my own experience — to develop a new way of navigating my experiences instead of reacting (and creating) from a place that is anchored in '90s small-town trauma.

Nanette was the final push for me to seek therapy, to confront old wounds and to start the process of taking responsibility for being present in my own experience — to develop a new way of navigating my experiences instead of reacting (and creating) from a place that is anchored in '90s small-town trauma.- Shawn Hitchins

Note: I was not experiencing a mental health crisis but a crisis of spirit. "Fuck, Shawn!" exclaimed my friends with an eye roll. "Can't you just have a mental breakdown like the rest of us?" No. No, I can't. Booking an appointment with a professional was a big step toward dealing with an ancient broken heart needing to be healed.

My therapist's office is located in a two-storey, 1970s-era office building in midtown Toronto. At the top of the main staircase is a triptych of small businesses: an accountant, a fortune teller and my therapist sandwiched in between. 

"The accountant deals with the past, I deal with the present and the tarot reader deals with the future," jokes Cathie, my therapist.

Over the past few months, Cathie and I have worked through my childhood, my relationship with my father, adult disappointments, career challenges and an impetuous marriage proposal from an gorgeous American that ended in disaster. Cathie was a first responder following the recent sudden death of Matthew, my ex-partner, best friend, muse and creative collaborator. 2018 was a hurricane of life, and I am very grateful that I have had the means, access to resources and space necessary to weather this storm with support.

Therapy is like cleaning out a linen closet. But instead of quickly sorting and pitching everything over the course of a rainy afternoon, the process demands that you allow things to sprawl over the floor for months at a time. It is a slow, week-by-week process of deciding what to keep, what to discard, what to repair, what has value, what once worked but no longer does. It's about sitting with chaos and allowing things to be unsightly. Therapy, for me, is about ripping off the hinges to the closet and exposing the mess.

Because life is messy. And our stories should be too. One of the challenges of using your own experience as material is the pressure to gift-wrap narratives for audiences to make them more palatable — to preserve living relationships in amber in a flattering way. But I'm no longer concerned with that.

To be a queer artist now is to hold up an unflattering mirror. It is to offer testimonials in whatever form we express ourselves — to create work that challenges an audience to wake up and examine how they contribute to systems of needless suffering, without hand-holding or apology.

I am part of a generation of queer performers and entertainers who are waking up in their own lives, connecting the dots in reverse and examining the social circumstances that led to a career in the arts. We are a cohort of aging creators who sought safety and stability in an industry that is anything but safe or stable.- Shawn Hitchins

Queers are no longer willing to suffer through systems of abuse, injustice and oppression for "material" or a "good story." We are no longer willing to digest trauma, absorb the toxic parts and process it as a pre-chewed amuse-bouche for lazy, often straight audiences. We are done being the public service reminders for basic compassion and empathy to our fellow human beings. We are done doing the work for others.

It is an extraordinary time to be a queer storyteller and creator. Our narratives are front and centre at book retailers, in primetime TV slots and, as Nanette showed us, at the top of the landing pages of streaming services. It is time to further plump our queer experiences so that our are lives are three-dimensional.

It's time for nuance, grit and the unfiltered truth through testimonials. Because audiences know that we love to dance, have sex and transform spaces — but how do we heal, grieve or create a family? What are our stories of failure and redemption? What do our divorces look like? What do our deaths look like, outside of narratives of suicide or overdose? How do we create rituals and include spiritual practices? What are the mundane day-to-day activities that make our lives as equally boring and messy as everyone else's?

These are the questions that I ask myself as I sharpen my pencil and pull up my own socks in preparation for 2019.

About the Author

Shawn Hitchins is an award-winning author and entertainer. His comedy special Ginger Nation currently airs on OUTtv, and his book A Brief History of Oversharing is available through major retailers across Canada.