“Reading powerful stories about ourselves is important, and the foundation’s commitment to supporting LGBT artists and writers is vital.”
“When people come up to me after a show and say, ‘You were brilliant,’ I always say ‘That’s because you agree with me.’ But when I get called out at a show I think, ‘Excellent!’”
Kate Clinton’s approach to comedy has never been of the variety to navigate safely through unruffled water. For well over two decades she has observed and commented on the state of American culture and politics from a perspective that, for the most part, put her in the firing line of cultural watchdogs and right wing ideologues. That’s just fine as far as she is concerned.
Her openness about her own sexuality and her unwavering focus on gay and lesbian issues in her comedy routines may have prevented Clinton from becoming a household name, or getting her own talk show. But remaining silent about the issues that are most important to her was never a worthwhile trade off. Having been a leader in the ongoing exchange about gay and lesbian rights for her entire career, she welcomes the accelerating pace of change, even as it presents new challenges.
“It is so exciting,” she says, “When I started, if something gay happened I could talk about it for five years, but now, if I’m stuck circling Newark for two hours, by the time I land I’m behind the curve.”
So then, after all the years, hundreds of shows, eight CDs, three books, talk-show appearances, Broadway performances, and even a few movies, and considering how much things have changed, even (dare we say it) improved, is it time to slow down? Time maybe to downplay the political, and become more mainstream? Hell no.
“I think young people are blown away that we still have these discussions about homophobia,” Clinton replies, acknowledging that while much has changed, there is still a vital role in the expression of gay and lesbian consciousness. “As they come into their own and the old gray hairs die away, it will be less critical, but there is still that personal moment when a young person realizes they are gay. When their next thought is not ‘I should kill myself’ then the work will be done.”
It is the nature and importance of this work that gives the Pioneer Award a special resonance for Clinton. “I came out in a time when feminist presses and writing were critical to me. I believe in the power of words, because that is what made me come out. Reading powerful stories about ourselves is important, and the foundation’s commitment to supporting LGBT artists and writers is vital.”
As a former high-school English teacher, the power of language has a special magnitude to her. In today’s increasingly vitriolic environment of political discourse, she recognizes new challenges and opportunities. “I recognize I want to be careful, but I always want to push people.” She is reflective as she continues, “It is more important than ever. I do more about race now and I can feel people seizing up. It’s as though with the election of Obama people feel that the discussion of race is over, and it’s really only the beginning.”
The razor’s edge between comedy and pedantic punditry is one she masters easily, thanks to her understanding of how words can and should be used.
“What you call someone or name something has consequences in 140 characters, or the novel I hope you write. It is in how it is used intentionally. I’m invested in the power of language to change. When language aids in explaining and understanding each other, it’s good. If it takes away from that, it’s not. We long to know each other and be known.”
—— Photo: S.M. Hayhurst