Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Kelli Dunham, Comic, New York City

“Yeah, I get called for beauty blog interviews all the time,” quips Kelli Dunham, comic, author, queer organizer, and ex-nun. “I’m turning them down now.” But with a CD titled Almost Pretty (watch the hilarious story of the CD's title here), is it any wonder we connected? Cohost of LGBT storytelling series Queer Memoir and round-table comedy-talk show Juxtapositions, Kelli has entertained audiences from the legendary Stonewall Inn to Citibank corporate headquarters, always keeping her vibrant, savvy humor on edge. We talked about the masculine privilege granted to butch women, the time renowned gender theorist Kate Bornstein called her handsome, and where a woman can find a decent barber in this town. In her own words:
 

On Desirability and Handsomeness
After my mom saw me perform for the first time in a long while, I remember her saying, “So, Kelli, I have a question—” you know that when you preface a question with a question, it’s never good—“in your subculture, are you considered...desirable?” I didn’t know she knew what a subculture was! She was genuinely confused; it was the first time she’d seen me perform in so long. But I think she’d noticed the kind of girlfriends I’d had over the years, and what they look like, and I think it had never occurred to her that how I look actually has some social currency in “my subculture.” So I said, “Yeah, Mom, actually I am considered desirable in my subculture.” And she said, “Oh! Oh. Oh.” People have an assumption that since femininity must be the default of beauty, that to not be what’s considered feminine must be ugly. It becomes the logical conclusion. So when she was presented with new information by seeing me interact with people, perhaps by observing sexual agency—she has eyes, she can observe social patterns—she realized, “Wow, it seems like my daughter is desirable in some way.” She was checking for facts against her assumptions. I think when she heard me say that, yes, I actually am attractive to others of my species, then all the things she’d been observing kind of clicked.

I don’t really identify with the term beauty. But Kate Bornstein was the first person to call me handsomeI had a very short buzz cut at that time—it was seven or eight years ago, she rubbed my head and said “Oh, you’re just such a handsome boi.” And I remember being shocked—in addition to it being Kate Bornstein saying it, it just made me feel like...Wow, I’m handsome. That was very life-affirming, and I think it gave me a level of hope. I had a lot of good experiences growing up focused on what I could do, but as far as, Hmm, I’m really enjoying looking at you—that hadn’t really been the kind of experience I’d had. So I felt like, Okay, if Kate Bornstein finds me handsome, I bet there are other people who do. As it turns out, I am desirable in my subculture.

As I’ve become comfortable in my gender identity, I’ve become okay with the word beauty, but I think it was challenging to me before—in part because it was always used as a measuring stick, as in, “You could be really pretty if you _______.” I was a fat kid, and growing up as a fat kid people would compliment your face, the whole “Oh, you have such a pretty face” thing. But as a fat kid, you definitely don’t want to hear anything about your face, because it’s a backhanded compliment. It’s possible now that there are all sorts of ways that people interact with me because I’ve got these sort of delicate features—I never liked my nose, but my girlfriend says “That’s the kind of nose people pay $10,000 to get”—instead of looking rougher. If I was wearing what I’m wearing now—a sweatshirt that’s seven years old, completely inappropriate shorts, old tennis shoes—but had irregular or asymmetrical features, maybe people would be interacting with me differently. I wouldn’t really know, though—that’s what privilege is, when you have something you don’t recognize.

On Boi Couture
I’d always thought that dress-up clothes were feminine clothes, and therefore uncomfortable and not really me. My mom loved dressing my sister and me in matching outfits, and it was the '70s so there are all these pictures of me in bright pink with a bow and a silk collar. I felt like I was wearing a bear suit or something. When I started realizing that wearing masculine clothes was an option for me, the idea of dressing up became positive. I like nerdy accessories—I have these cheap tennis shoes shoes that have pink laces, and the uppers look like the front of a composition notebook, that speckled black. They’re cute as hell, but because they cost $15 there’s no support at all, so sometimes I just put them in my bag and wear them at an event. My girlfriend makes fun of me, saying they’re my equivalent of spike heels.

When I get dressed up, a tie is one of those things that makes me straighten my shoulders. The first time you put on a tie, it feels amazing. It’s a gender marker that people find very confrontational. There are ties in traditional women’s clothing, but you’re not really trying to wear a tie. I imagine that’s something to do with male privilege, specifically the kind of man who wears a tie. It’s like, “Are you trying to be that kind of person? You couldn’t possibly be that kind of person.” Some masculine women specifically stay away from traditional men’s power wear when they go to job interviews, because they feel it’s too confrontational. But my girlfriend [who presents as feminine] has a power suit that’s just like a dude’s suit! She had a tailor for it, but it’s just a dude’s suit. It works much better for her than it would for me.

I wrote a couple of children’s books, and my publisher assigned me a publicist. She was trying to book me on The Bonnie Hunt Show to talk about kids and their bodies, and everything was going great. The producer loved me and we’re all three on the phone, and they said, “Oh, do you have a video you could send us?” I said, “Absolutely.” The producer hangs up and I’m just talking to the publicist, and I say, “You’ve seen a picture of me, right?” And she says, “No, but I’m Googling right now...oh my!” Needless to say, I didn’t end up on The Bonnie Hunt Show. Anyway, one of the videos that I had was me performing in a tie, and they said, “You have to lose the tie.” I said, “You need to understand, if you want me to wear a dress, I’m going to look more uncomfortable.” Forcing people into a different gender presentation than what they identify with generates awkwardness for all involved. The hilarious thing was that at that point my hair was completely close-cropped, almost shiny on the sides, and I had piercings. But the tie, the tie! She’s wearing a tie!

On Barbershops
A new haircut is a butch accessory. I have to go to a barbershop to get my hair cut, and trying to get it short enough is always an ordeal. I usually go for a 1 or a 2 on the clippers, but I used to say I’d like a 0 when I was in suburban areas, because then they’d actually use a 1 or a 2. They’re scared that they’re going to cut off your hair and you’re going to be like, “Ahhh! It’s too short!” They think that a woman wouldn’t really know the barbershop vocabulary, even though I’d memorized it. And actually, you can’t really do that in New York, because in New York they’ll listen to you. When there’s some kind of language barrier, I’ll just go in and say, “Fleet Week.”

Going with another butch to the barbershop is definitely less intimidating than going by yourself. There are certain places where it feels totally cool, and other places where it’s not cool at all, so you have to figure it out. And it’s always a different experience if you pass, if the person thinks you’re a guy or a kid. I look for something that doesn’t say “Barbershop for men” or something like that—some places will actually have that. I don’t know if they could refuse the service, but the person is gonna have a razor in their hand, so it just makes sense to not push too much. If I see both young and old guys in there, that’s a clue, and if I see a mixture of straight and gay guys working there, that’s another. Once I found that I could navigate that stuff myself and develop the skills to judge a barbershop from the outside, and once people could see that I know the vocabulary, that was satisfying. It feels like a rite of passage, and it’s such a simple thing. Your boyfriend probably doesn’t come home and tell you, “Wow, I finally went to the barber, and it was awesome!”

On Butch Privilege
A friend of mine who transitioned said, “Wow, being a fat man is so much easier than being a fat woman.” When I had longer hair, I definitely got more “fat-ass” insults on the street, and since I’ve had a spectrum of body sizes I’ve had an interesting exercise in how people react to body sizes. There are ways in which there’s a protective space formed around masculinity. I can’t even remember the last time someone tried to engage me in diet talk. Like in that split second of someone being, “Hey, let’s talk about Atkins!” they look at me and are like, “Well, maybe she’d rather talk about baseball...” Which is a toss-up. I don’t really like to talk about baseball either. Butch women have some masculine privilege. I mean, we’re also liable to get beat up or knifed on the street, but there is some masculine privilege. Even when people think I’m a 15-year-old boy, there are benefits to that.

With comedy, I might have run into more appearance-related issues if I’d stayed in mainstream comedy. When I get onstage in mainstream clubs, people don’t know what gender I am. I almost always have to address it up-front because otherwise they’ll be like, “Oh, she looks like a 12-year-old boy.” And they laugh throughout the gender stuff, but I think that’s because I’m so deliberately addressing it. If I just got up and said, “Hey, I’m gonna tell some jokes about my cat! Men and women are so different! Say, what’s up with hats?” perhaps there would be more resistance to it. I do think there’s a lot of pressure on female comics to talk in a self-deprecating way about their bodies, but because I look the way I look it’s different for me. I’m addressing it directly, and some people will say, “Oh, that’s a great schtick you have.” I’m thinking, This is a schtick?

6 comments:

  1. Whoooooooo! Great post!

    "They think that a woman wouldn’t really know the barbershop vocabulary, even though I’d memorized it."

    Yep yep.

    The Bonnie Hunt Show story is particularly endearing.

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  2. Isn't she fantastic?! I was fascinated by the barbershop talk, particularly by how barbers in New York seem to trust more that a woman would know the vocabulary enough to ask for what she actually wants.

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  3. Nice post. I've had interesting but uplifting experiences at my black barbershop.

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  4. Hi Candace! I've wondered how barbershops of various races and ethnicities would handle female clients; Kelli mentioned that she's had strong mixed reactions at Dominican barbershops--been both treated well and not so much. I feel like "interesting but uplifting" ain't bad!

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  5. Whoa, I had never stopped to consider this sort of thing before. I have visited barbershops and once had mine buzzed in a number 4...didn't get any grief from the barber.

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  6. Interesting, Terri! I don't know your personal history but I know that on your blog you definitely appear feminine, which is read as straight--I'm wondering if the barber picked up on that and thought it odd but didn't feel the confrontation one might if you were presenting as masculine. I hope that's not it, though--I hope your former barber is just enlightened!

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