The only thing more fun than watching Lady Bunny onstage in her newest hit show, Trans-Jester, is having a long, laugh-filled lunch with her in the Village. I was lucky enough to do that recently and it was beyond anything I had expected. She is like your best friend that you shared secrets and got into mischief with in high-school. But behind the makeup, bouffants & jokes is a very astute and sharp mind that is famous for her Facebook posts on politics and culture. Bunny has definitely informed this writer about the presidential candidates issues and clarified the ever-changing alphabet soup of acronyms that identify the queer community. Her show takes on this topic, among many other combustible talking points, with her trademark Laugh-In style and bawdy humor. Between spitting our lunch out from laughing so much, Bunny got serious with what Trans-Jester is all about.
TR: The title of the show truly rings on point. You've taken the most topical and misunderstood conversation of the day and turned it on it's head with your own bawdy comedic style. How did Trans-Jester come about and what are people saying about it?
LB: I always like to try out bits and pieces of any new act in other cities--just like a real Broadway show with out of town try-outs. Once I've got plenty of surefire material, I present the show in New York. I want to make sure my act is together before I bomb in front of my peers! As in my other shows, this one combines fun drag numbers with my typically raunchy comedy. But there is also a message about the epidemic of political correctness. They've just made Dick Van Dyke change his name to Penis Van Lesbian, fer chrissakes! I cut my teeth performing in front of drunk gays in late night clubs, where the most outrageous things we said and did were celebrated. But when mainstream comics won't perform for college audiences because they're so PC, we're losing our sense of humor and becoming a bunch of precious crybabies. College students give their teachers a list of trigger words which they can never hear or it might trigger -that's an education? For example, if you can't hear the word 'rape,' then you can't ever study history, psychology, sociology, criminology and some literature. Do these kids think they are going to be shielded from dreaded words when they graduate and can't control what is said in their surroundings? I mean, rape is never funny--unless you're being raped by a clown! Someone took me to task on Twitter for making a joke about Bill Cosby, saying that I shouldn't even joke about rape. So like I said, rape is never funny--unless you are being raped by a clown because that visual is funny if done in the context of a comedian's act. So I wasn't mocking a rape victim's plight--the joke targeted the rapist, Bill Cosby. This seems to be a recent shift. Remember late night comedians joking about Michael Jackson's alleged penchant for sex with kids? They weren't advocating pedophilia by joking about Jacko.
A reviewer came to see the show and called a number about Caitlyn Jenner "transphobic." That word means that I hate and fear trans--and nothing could be further from the truth. Many of my closest friendships are with trans women. But I have every right to mock Caitlyn, this dunce who reached out to Ted Cruz to be his "trans ambassador." I respect Cait's transition into anything she wants, but I just wish she would transition out of the Republican party which seeks to destroy the rights of the LGBT community she is trying to join. And why can't I joke about Caitlyn Jenner without being transphobic? She seems clueless, is a crashing bore who has to cast her friends to give her own show some life, and she is actually confusing many of the trans women I know who do not see her as representative of trans. Does anyone remember the In Living Color skit in which the two black queens did the movie reviews with three snaps up in a Z formation? Did they mock homosexual stereotypes? Sure. And it was hysterical. As was the SNL skit starring Julia Sweeney as Pat, the character who made everyone uncomfortable because "she" was of indeterminate gender. GLAAD would shut that show down in 2016. My view is that the world needs to laugh--that's another reason wanted to create Trans-Jester. We all need to laugh right now. When I performed Trans-Jester in San Francisco, I told a joke about Syrian refugees. After the show, a lady introduced herself saying "I'm from Syria." I was waiting for a lecture but instead, she told me we have a saying in my country which translates to the best humor comes from the worst tragedies. Laughter has always been a way to take a break from the harshness of reality.
TR: What has political correctness done to queer culture?
LB: I think it's deeply divided us. Look at the name of our community now - LGBTIQA. In this show, I examine how these letters came to be added. And then end up singing that "My generation fought for medicine with AIDS, your generation quibbles over silly names" in a parody of I'm Still Here. Look, these hate states are popping up all over the place. If we can't decide on our name, how can we possibly defeat our bigoted, evangelical deeply entrenched enemies? We've spent years finding ourselves with new words like gender queer, gender fluid, homonormative, etc. I'm a 53 year old queen who has been out since puberty and I'm struggling to keep up with the terms. A new law in New York protects those who identify as "hir" or "zir" in the workplace. And while I'm glad they are protected, I've never met one zir! Knock! Knock! Who's zir?
Here's another thing that goofed me last summer. A Brooklyn festival scheduled a screening of Paris is Burning. Because the promoters booked bands which would appeal to white people, some black trans activists screamed bloody murder for a boycott of the event. To me, this was bizarre. They gripe about how trans actors have to play trans roles, yet then try to shut down a screening of a beloved documentary--one of the only ones about trans people of color--because they don't like the accompanying musical acts? Right! Shut down your own culture and that's a win? Oh, and if trans actors are supposed to play trans roles, why is Laverne Cox playing a "sweet transvestite" in Rocky Horror Picture Show and taking a role away from a drag queen? Or does it not work both ways?
But it isn't just queer culture. Look at the meltdowns over cultural appropriation. Everyone screams foul when J-Lo wears something inspired by native peoples. Beyonce was just criticized for wearing Bollywood-inspired facial jewelry. Who cares? The earth's climate is reaching the point of disaster and you are melting down online because Katy Perry wore a kimono? Since I grew up in Tennessee at the foothills of the Appalachians, should I be forced to perform only bluegrass? Should the jewish guy who wrote the soul masterpiece from the Dreamgirls anthem, And I Am Telling You, which launched the careers of Jennifer Hudson and Jennifer Holliday not have written it? Should Leontyne Price be forbidden from performing opera because her race didn't invent it? Where do we draw the line? And the thing that really drives me insane is that some will dismiss everything I say because technically, I am a privileged, cisgender white male. And while I admit that white privilege surely has colored my outlook, it also doesn't always mean that I'm wrong because of it. As far as PC types who denounce me as a cisgender male who knows no suffering, I beg to differ. First of all, you don't know how cisgender or male I am. I was called ma'am twice today out of drag. So maybe I'm trans and don't even require hormone or surgeries to "pass." If you are opening up the gender umbrella to include zirs, please don't dream that you're going to close it on me because you think you know what I am. When even I don't! I definitely do not identify as male and refuse to be dismissed because I don't want to chop off my genitals. In Trans-Jester, I do discuss my own gender dysphoria and of the humorous situations it has led to. I tend to go for the straight-identifying or confused guys. And I after I get through with them, they are REALLY confused.
Look, if I am speaking at a gay pride event as I will this year in Seattle, Toronto, Providence,Reno, Birmingham and Shreveport, I say gay and lesbian instead of fag and dyke. There is a time and place for everything. That's why I put on the ticket sales site that this show is for those not bothered by irreverent humor. Sometimes, I like gross out humor. So I can tone it down for different events as needed. But I think a raucous and outspoken drag queen on the stage of Stonewall, where gay rights began in this country, is a perfect voice to discuss where we now are with our quest for equality. I'll tell you one thing for sure - the riots at Stonewall would never have happened if establishment gays hadn't been outspoken against the status quo. If our community truly celebrates diversity, then don't take away my place as a trash-talking, outrageous drag! The gutsy, no holds barred attitude of Stonewall participants instigated gay rights in this country. Now, Obama has announced he's to landmark the venue. My arthritis is getting so bad that they could just bronze me and stick me in the square! And landmarked? Stonewall Inn looks more like it's been land-mined! But I love that about it. I'm a resident of the West Village and neither Stonewall nor I got the memo about gentrification.
TR: I noticed that not everyone in your audience had walkers or were wearing Depends. In fact a few of them were under 75! To what do you attribute attracting this younger more diverse audience?
I've been stunned by the younger audiences I've gotten. I expected gay New Yorkers familiar with my work to check it out, since I only do a new show once every two years or so. A couple of real girls in their twenties came and we chatted at length after the show. One said that she was afraid to discuss things like this because she was female. I gagged. She was no more than 24, and so beautiful that even I was getting lost in the hypnotic pools of her gorgeous, enormous eyes, as she looked seriously into my bloodshot eyes with four pairs of lashes and caked with make-up. A beauty like this was definitely at the top of the line when it comes to pussy power, yet she felt freed by a drag queen opening this discussion for her. I think PC word police are stifling discussion about sensitive topics. I also feel that when we come face to face, labels mean less if we treat each other with respect. We, and mostly young people, sit on social media and use emoticons to convey feelings along with typed words. People miss the inflection and meaning words have when spoken, and without the inflection and context, can be easily misconstrued. This is why I think people who are transitioning really do benefit from getting out and hearing the words in my show being used by an old heifer like me. The drag community has always been the closest to the trans community and can show them the history and culture of those words instead of reading slurs like "Die, cis-scum!" being hurled at them online. Since drags and trans share dressing rooms to get ready at clubs, all drag queens have seen sisters decide to grow out their hair and nails, start hormones and live as women. We know about everything--the surgeries, the silicone, the prostitution-- which is a route many take to pay for expensive procedures--and we fully accept and even celebrate trans people. I think word has gotten out to the young trans community that there's this old fossil at Stonewall laying it all out for them, and they're curious to see what it's all about.
Also, I'm very vocal in my support of Bernie Sanders, and spend quite a lot of time on my blog bot extolling the virtues of his platform and explaining why I dislike Hillary. Many gays my age reflexively support Hillary, and view my support of Bernie as "divisive." Well, you can use divisive as a bad word, or you can understand that a primary is exactly the right time to weigh up the differences between the only two choices. But even I needed a laugh break from this toxic election, which is apparently even breaking up spouses. I discuss gender politics in this show, but not the election. Still, a lot of younger people who feel frustrated that many older folks don't criticize Hillary's pandering and corruption, so they are actually turning up to Trans-Jester, with no knowledge of Wigstock or my past. They know me as the Bernie Sanders drag queen--Lady Bernie! And they often thank me for my passionate Bernie boosting. At one show, they were chanting what I thought was "Bunny!, Bunny!" at the show's end. They were actually chanting Bernie!--hoping I'd make this show a Bernie rally. I won't. But if more conservative, establishment guys plan to skip this show because I will never fall in line with the deeply flawed candidate that is Hillary, I am thrilled to develop a new, younger, politically aware audience which is both straight and gay. The show was supposed to end in April, and due to sold out crowds and frequent standing ovations, we're now running indefinitely. I'd like to imagine that Hillary supporters would like to laugh at a funny performance, regardless of my personal politics. I'm just happy that this show has struck a nerve with our community and that I can turn a highly-charged and divisive topic into an hour of comedy because I've always found that laughing is the best way to diffuse any disagreement.