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"Does sexuality matter in the comedy business?" I asked Suzanne Westenhoefer, who has been credited as the first lesbian comic to come "out" in mainstream comedy.
"I started my career as a lesbian before I was a comic," she said, "and started as an activist before I was a lesbian. I was one of those people in high school who would get into arguments with the sociology teacher and stand up for the 'misfits,' of which I was one of." Making a stand was what seemed to drive her forward.
Westenhoefer did not always identify as a lesbian, however. Early on she felt that she was out of the mainstream but it didn't occur to her that she was gay until she was 19. "It was such a shock when it occurred to me, and then I thought, 'Oh! Totally awesome!' and that led to 'Oh, my God, I'm gay and we're not equal to other people! Where's the protest marches?'"
After college, Westenhoefer went to New York to pursue an acting career. "Did you always want to be an actress?" we wanted to know.
"I never wanted to be anything else. Ask my mother or my sisters and they will tell you that. I went from walking and talking to wanting to be an entertainer. I was that kid that would sing a song or do something funny at family gatherings. I remember early on performing and getting really positive responses." She added, "I have always wanted to sing and act and tell jokes and be the center of attention for as long as I can remember."
As strong as the "entertainer" urge was, it wasn't clear to her that comedy would be how it would manifest. "My mom knew, however. She just recently pointed out that as a child I would memorize bits and pieces of comedy albums like George Carlin, Lily Tomlin or Robert Klein and then I would add lines to their bits to make it 'more.' "
In 1990, Westenhoefer was in New York, tending bar, performing at some small comedy clubs and talking about being a lesbian in her act.
"The first time I ever got up on the comedy stage was July of 1990. I had entered a comedy contest and I was doing it openly queer and there was nobody doing it in any of the straight clubs at the time. I really thought I was bad ass."
Six months later, in January 1991, Westenhoefer was approached by the producers of the "Sally Jessie Raphael Show" to appear in a segment called "Lesbians Who Don't Look Like Lesbians," which in the early 90's was still a pretty shocking subject. Though she didn't do an act on the program, she was introduced as the first openly lesbian comic.
When it was pointed out that a title like that would never fly today, Westenhoefer responded, "We were breaking the stereotype back then so we weren't offended. Today, nobody would ever do it, but back then, we were saying, 'This is how we grow, this is how we change minds, this is OK." Westenhoefer continued, "It was historical. Look at us 19 years later, still talking about it."
After being introduced as the "openly lesbian comic," Westenhoefer was inundated with mail and requests from comedy clubs and talk shows. She appeared on shows such as "Geraldo" and "Ricki Lake."
"Today, it wouldn't be much of a story, but again, 19 years ago it was insanity that someone would say that they're gay, joke about it, laugh about it and say, 'Too bad for you that you're not. That's why I am so special.' "
"Is your act directed toward the gay and lesbian community," we asked.
"Not at all," Westenhoefer she answered. "If a Caucasian watches a black comedian like Chris Rock, we can still laugh our asses off even though his jokes talk about life as a black man. A black person may identify with the joke premise, but it is still universally funny."
We asked her if she thought society was coming closer to a sexuality-neutral world.
"Equality is going at a snail's pace. It is for the blacks, Asians and other minorities but being a 'straight white male' is still the accepted norm in this country and still the ruler. Nowhere in the world is there a perfect gender or color equality. We still are fallible human beings that are scared of things that are not like us." But Westenhoefer said she does see signs of change especially in the realm of religion. "Even though the church tends to propagate an 'us and them' stance, I do shows all over the country attended by hundreds of gays, where after the show, they hug and tell each other, 'See you at church tomorrow.' So there are some changes being made."
Westenhoefer was asked how she felt when Ellen Degeneres "came out" and why everyone thought it was such a controversial move when Westenhoefer had done it so many years before.
"The path we took was very different. Ellen's coming out was much more of a risk as she already had a very successful career that was at stake when she announced that she was gay. Comics like Kate Clinton and I did the 'scary, brave thing' by telling everyone in the beginning of our career, but we didn't risk an established career and power base. We didn't put anyone's job on the line. What Kate and I did allowed Ellen to do what she did, which allowed Rosie [O'Donnell] and so many others, which ultimately led to Wanda Sykes getting her own show without much fanfare."
Westenhoefer married her longtime partner, Jennifer Houston, in California in 2008 and includes her in much of her act onstage. We wondered if that bothered Houston.
"Anyone who knows me as intimately as she does absolutely has to know that there is no assumption of privacy," she said with a laugh.
"I think if you are going to be involved in my life, especially at that level, it doesn't take much to know that you have no privacy. So, those that are close to me, including my family and friends, aren't afraid that I would say something totally inappropriate. The only ones close to me that would have a right to protest would be my family and my first partner during the first year because they didn't know that this was a possibility early on."
Westenhoefer will appear March 19 at 8 p.m. at the Center for Spiritual Awareness, 1275 Starboard Road, West Sacramento. For more information, call 916-374-9177.
The Comedy Guy
Steven Bloom is the founder of SacramentoComedy.Com, the Official Guide to Sacramento Comedy. This website is dedicated to interviews, comedian bios, videos and consolidating all of the Sacramento comedy events to a single site. You can send your questions directly to The Comedy Guy at Steven@SacramentoComedy.Com