In the era of 'safe spaces,' has comedy become any safer for queer comedians?
We asked queer standup comics what changes, if any, they've seen in comedy clubs
I've done stand-up in a lot of different venues as a gay comedian. I have performed in bars, in basements, in people's homes and in Irish pubs in hard-to-locate strip malls. I have performed in restaurants where people did not know their Cobb salad would be accompanied by me talking into a mic a mere few feet away from them. I have driven 13 hours to a so-called comedy festival to find only a handful of people in attendance. Not every venue is ideal for stand-up. Not every venue is ideal for a queer person, either.
As a gay comedian, feeling like the odd one out in a new space is a sensation you get used to. You can never be sure if your queerness is going to be welcomed. So when I arrived at an open mic at a new venue down the street from my house, I didn't think much of it when there were no female comedians (red flag), let alone queer performers that I knew of. Then the host took the stage.
Practically every other word out of his mouth was a homophobic slur. He started the open mic with a schoolyard bully's impression of a gay person. By the end of the night I was shouting at the bar owner and host on the street as they yelled back at me. It wasn't pretty. When I realized the bar had a rainbow flag sticker on the front of their window, the only colour I saw was red.
I took the bar manager aside and screamed at him loud enough for the whole block to hear. By that time, the open mic host was in my face, telling me I was just "too sensitive" and that "words don't matter." Eventually other comedians at the show separated us; straight comedians who awkwardly stated inside that they were "sorry I had to hear that." I wondered — would they have said anything if I wasn't there?
I walked home with the host still yelling at me from afar. As soon as I walked in the door to my house, I started crying in front of my partner. I wasn't sad or hurt — I was livid.
I know that as a white gay man, my experience at the open mic will probably be one of the few times I'll experience such overt discrimination in comparison to my BIPOC peers. But the whole experience left me with the crushing feeling that maybe stand-up comedy hasn't advanced as far as I thought. We've been told that this is an era of listening and learning — that this great pause would offer an opportunity for transformation into a more understanding society for marginalized folks in the arts. So is this "new normal" an age of greater understanding in comedy — or one where hateful comedians are given just as much space?
The concept of safe spaces has always been one of great debate in the queer comedy community.
"I used to believe in the idea of a 'safe space,' but I'm not sure that I do anymore," says Susan Waycik, a comedy producer who puts on live stand-up and variety shows all over Toronto, most of which cater to a queer audience. "It's impossible for me to promise a safe space to every marginalized person when as a white, cis woman I'm still unlearning my own biases."
I've noticed a few of my favourite queer performers have stopped performing altogether post-pandemic. Queer people are known to be resilient, and although I can't speak for all queer comedians, I wonder if some queer performers are just too tired of navigating their own boundaries in comedy in order to return.
"I felt that queer artists were a lot more wary to jump back into things," says Waycik. "And I think that just partially comes from the queer community having a history of protecting our vulnerable."
As anxiety-inducing as the pandemic has been, it's also been a gestation period of self-discovery — fertile ground for a comedian like Al Val. Val, who had previously identified as genderqueer, began transitioning and undergoing HRT therapy during the pandemic. Embracing her transgender identity coincided with a time when the debate around trans jokes has been reignited by Dave Chappelle's latest comedy special The Closer, but the controversy doesn't seem to have shaken her confidence as a performer.
"Jokes can be 'just jokes' or they can be a powerful tool, depending heavily on the comic's intent," she says. "I've seen too many cases of a comic hiding behind a flimsy 'I'm just joking' shield while they calculatedly lob incendiary bombs from behind it."
Tamara Shevon, a Toronto-based Black and bisexual comedian who is always a crowd favourite, is another performer who emerged from the pandemic feeling stronger and more confident. But as a Black artist, she recognizes that the changes that were promised during the height of the BLM movement have not exactly trickled down to comedy shows and spaces.
"I think it was nice that people were more aware of what has been happening to Black people in the arts, but the reality of the situation is that we are still very much tokenized," she says.
"People are not booking Black people because that is genuinely who they want on their shows usually — we are booked because it makes bookers look better."
It seems the debate around safe spaces for queer comedians is becoming less about deeming certain venues "safe" and more about making things safer in general for everyone, not just queer people.
"Any safe space, to me, starts with the staff," says Val. "A 'safe space' is a place where I know that I will be supported and protected by the people running the place. It takes a level of trust that goes beyond hanging rainbow flags in your venue's window."
Shevon puts it perhaps most concisely and simply: "I think the key to safe spaces is communication."
I've seen too many cases of a comic hiding behind a flimsy 'I'm just joking' shield while they calculatedly lob incendiary bombs from behind it.- Al Val, comedian
Maybe the new generation of comedians don't need safe spaces — they just need to build their confidence to be able to face the unknown of a performance or venue, which is an undeniable reality of stand-up. "I don't prep myself for certain rooms," says Shevon. "I just try to be the same comic no matter where I go, and I find that makes performing in different rooms a lot easier."
Tin Lorica, a queer Filipino comedian from Vancouver, shares this sentiment. "It's just so nice to hear fun and sexy material and [comedians] being carefree during these times," they say. "I don't even need the comedy to be moralistic or didactic. Visibility with an empowering element is so important."
Maybe this is the best way to make comedy safer for queer people: for queer comedians to keep putting themselves out there in new and exciting ways.
A few weeks later, I met with the venue owner from the open mic for a coffee. I apologized for my behaviour that night, and he apologized too. I learned he had implemented some rules to keep the previous events from that night from happening again. They weren't much, and they were vague enough that I'm not sure anything will really change. But just having the conversation face-to-face felt like progress. He wondered if he should take the rainbow flag off his window. I told him he could keep it.