Beyond Ellen and Rosie: Comedy’s Hidden Lesbian History

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This article is more than 8 years old.

By Kelly Anneken

Many people think of Ellen Degeneres as the first openly gay female comic, even though her sexual identity didn’t work its way into her act until two years after her very public coming out party in 1998.  Both Rosie O’Donnell and Wanda Sykes are lesbian stand-ups, but neither of them addressed their sexuality until their careers were already well-established.  It certainly seems like the path to success for Sapphic funny women is to keep their orientation buttoned up and then announce their LGBT street cred after they’ve landed a sitcom, talk show, or HBO special.  However, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find a bunch of hilarious humorsexuals who were out and proud long before being queer found mainstream acceptance.

In many ways, bisexual comic and jill-of-all-trades Sandra Bernhard is the godmother of comedy’s “queer invasion” of the '80s and '90s. She made a big splash at LA’s Comedy Store in the late 1970s and was a supporting player on the short-lived Richard Pryor Show, but she is best known for her portrayal of the openly gay Nancy Bartlett on the sitcom Roseanne from 1991-97.  Starting in 1985, Bernhard began writing and performing one-woman shows that blended her provocative, dramatic jokes with sweeping covers of popular music and fantastic tales of her encounters with Hollywood glitterati (Bernhard is rumored to have had a dalliance with Madonna and even appeared in Queen Madge’s racy film, Truth or Dare).  Despite her success across a variety of platforms, the bohemian Berhnard took a DIY approach to recording and distributing her live performances, selling homemade CD-Rs in the lobby after her shows.

Both Judy Gold and Suzanne Westenhoefer tried standup for the first time on a dare.  Gold was a music student at Rutgers University when the comedy bug bit in the early 1980s, and the neurotic New Yorker spent the next two decades treading familiar material -- her relationships with her Jewish mother and her spouse, having children of her own -- with a queer twist.  Gold won two Emmys for her work as a writer/producer on The Rosie O’Donnell Show and has been twice nominated for The American Comedy Awards’ funniest female comic.


A decade after Gold got her start, Westenhoefer made her first television appearance on an episode Sally Jesse Raphael called “Breaking the Lesbian Stereotype: Lesbians Who Don’t Look Like Lesbians.” Soon after, Westenhoefer was able to actually showcase her snappy, sarcastic comedy skills on Comedy Central.  In 1994, she became the first openly gay comic to host her own HBO comedy special and, in 2003, her appearance on Late Night with David Letterman marked the first appearance of an out gay comic on the CBS show (better late than never, Dave!).

Lea DeLaria (a.k.a. “Big Boo,” Orange Is the New Black’s butchest bad girl) got her start as a stand-up comedian and bebop jazz singer at a gay open mic night in 1980s San Francisco.  Early in her career, DeLaria channeled her rapid-fire delivery and manic energy into a character known only as “that f*****g d*ke,” but eventually sanded down her profane schtick and began performing under her own name.  DeLaria primarily focused on lesbian and feminist issues, deflating stereotypes, poking fun at the quirks of relationships, and breaking up her act with audience participation sing-alongs  and scat numbers.  With her 1993 appearance on The Arsenio Hall show, she made history as the first openly gay comic to appear on a late-night talk show.  Later that year, she hosted Comedy Central’s very first all-gay showcase, Out There.  A true Renaissance woman, DeLaria has also appeared on Broadway in productions of On the Town and The Rocky Horror Show.

Political comedian Kate Clinton is as outspoken as they come.  Since getting her start in 1981, the high school teacher turned “fumerist” (or “feminist humorist”) has been prolific, with 10 comedy specials spanning four decades under her belt.  Clinton’s clipped, erudite delivery makes the barbs she aims at the political machine and even gay culture sting long after her performances end. Clinton was also profiled in the documentary Laughing Matters alongside other queer comics (including Westenhoefer). The film featured standup sets, as well as Clinton’s reactions to Ellen’s coming out and her affirmation that lesbian comedy had been alive and well long before 1998.  A passionate advocate for LGBT causes, Clinton has been a regular columnist for The Progressive, The Advocate, and now blogs for The Huffington Post.

For extra credit, check out these other fantastic queer comedy trailblazers: Marga Gomez, Gina Yashere, Karen Williams, Rhona Cameron, Maggie Cassella, and Lynn Lavner.

Thanks in part to the pioneering punch lines of their predecessors, mainstream acceptance of LGBT performers of all kinds is at an all-time high. Now, bright young queer stand-ups like Cameron Esposito, Erin Judge, Janine Brito, Chelsea Shorte, Bethany Black, Ever Mainard, Karinda Dobbins, and Erin Foley are free to take the nation’s stages by storm with material that touches on sexual identity without being defined by it.  And that’s something to take pride in.