Standup helped me embrace myself. It's time to make space for other trans comedians to do the same
How Alice Rose has pushed through transphobia in the comedy industry to find the confident woman within
As a transgender woman, I'm grateful to live in a time of unprecedented trans visibility in arts and media. After decades of flawed and harmful trans representation in film and television, it feels amazing to finally have our stories told the right way. However, as a standup comedian, I still have yet to see someone who looks like me on a major comedy stage. Despite the industry offering considerably more space to cis hetero white men than any marginalized performer, I not only found a way to claim the stage, but to use standup as a way to find acceptance and self-love; now, it's time to make room for more trans comedians to do the same.
I fell into standup comedy quite by accident in the summer of 2017, when the cafe I worked at began hosting a monthly comedy show. Inspired by this, I decided to write some material of my own for an upcoming open mic. Having only recently transitioned, I was still insecure about my appearance, and particularly my voice, so you can imagine how vulnerable I felt standing in front of strangers and speaking into a microphone for the first time. My insecurities came out in my material as well — nearly all of my jokes were self-deprecating, transphobic attacks on myself.
Fortunately, my writing style matured rather quickly, and over my next few shows something magical happened: I learned that I could walk into the roughest bars in town as a visibly queer trans woman, and leave at the end of the night having made a few new friends. I didn't need to rely on the defence mechanism of yelling, "Look at how weird I am!" By simply being myself and sharing my experiences, I was beginning to change people's perspectives of trans women, and challenge commonly held stereotypes about us.
Imagine walking into a crowded sports bar, turning off the hockey game, and yelling, "I'm a woman with a penis. Does anyone have a problem with that?" Trust me, that is not a social experiment you want to conduct unless you're dressed like a goalie. However, that was essentially what I was doing, sometimes three or four nights a week. And I was getting away with it because I had a secret weapon. I had the power to make people laugh, and while their guard was down I could tell them anything I wanted.
This feeling did not last long, however. Despite being able to win over most crowds with relative ease, gaining the acceptance of other comics was an entirely different challenge. Every time I invited friends to see a show that I was on, I knew there was a risk that some of the other comics on the show would make them uncomfortable. More than once I had guests walk out of a show before having a chance to see me. I routinely had to follow transphobic or homophobic acts, or worse, have a comedian take the stage after me only to target me specifically in their tasteless jokes. I have been on gender-balanced shows with comedians complaining about "male comics transitioning to female" for more stage time, had hosts joke about sexually or physically assaulting me, and have even been groped onstage on more than one occasion.
I tried to talk to other comics about my experiences, but their responses always seemed to follow the same sentiment — that it's a rough go, and you simply have to grow a thick skin and put in your hours to earn the respect of your peers. Comedy venues are oversaturated by performers with the exact same worldview; these performers are desperate to claim the best venues as their own, and they know that if they intimidate newcomers enough, those newcomers are unlikely to return.
Most trans people are so defeated by everyday life by the time they arrive at the club that they don't have the emotional energy to fight for their share of the stage.- Alice Rose
I suddenly understood why trans comedians were so rare. We face enough adversity in our everyday lives — why amplify it by drawing attention to ourselves? While other marginalized comedians may be able to "take the business" for long enough to carve out a niche scene for themselves, most trans people are so defeated by everyday life by the time they arrive at the club that they don't have the emotional energy to fight for their share of the stage.
Kyle Brownrigg, a gay Toronto comedian, told me something once after a show that I now repeat to myself backstage before every performance: "It may not always feel like it, but what you are doing is saving lives." By just being present — by showing the world that strong, confident trans people exist — I was helping empower people.
From that night on, I decided two things. First, I was going to continue performing on any stage I could, because I am one of the few trans women daring enough (or perhaps simply spiteful enough) to do it. Coming up, I did not have enough role models in comedy who looked like me or spoke to my experiences, but I believe and hope that I can be that person for others. Second, I decided that I was going to create the comedy scene that I wanted to see in my community. Three years later, this determination has led to a full-time career.
In my very short three years as a comedian, I have already seen tremendous change in the comedy landscape for trans women and transfeminine comics. Ashley Cooper has won over countless stages with her witty and inspiring story of coming out and overcoming transphobia, and has since opened for Sasheer Zamata and Cameron Esposito. Lily Makowski, a transplant to Toronto from Alberta, is winning over audiences across the city with her quirky and insightful observations of gender and stereotypes. Al Val, a veteran Toronto comic who has only recently opened up about their genderfluid identity, was featured on the CBC Gem series The New Wave of Standup with a set they performed en femme at JFL Northwest. And most importantly, I continue to see more and more trans people at open mics and bar shows celebrating our identities.
I fell in love with the art of standup at the exact time that I felt I finally had a story worth telling. Comedy became both my outlet for self-acceptance and my platform to advocate for topics I was passionate about. This love propelled me to an infinitely rewarding career gaining acceptance and visibility through laughter, and creating spaces across Southern Ontario for queer and marginalized comedians to thrive. The industry isn't always kind to people like us, but despite all of the hardships and missed opportunities, mine is a story of success. Our next steps as an industry will be to continue building community building so that future trans comics don't have to struggle like I did. I believe that by working together, we can create more spaces that embrace new and diverse narratives — and find ways to laugh together in the process.