16 | From Closet to Comedy

Meet our Guest

Elizabeth Collins was raised by gay men in the South during the 1990’s. This is why she is now a standup comedian and writer. Her one person show, “Raised By Gays and Turned Out OK!” premiered at the Hollywood Fringe in 2015, and was called by one of LA’s toughest critics, “extremely funny.” The show has since gone on to San Francisco, Houston, Bakersfield, and Santa Barbara. She has published stories, essays and articles about being queerspawn in places such as Vice, Marie Claire, Slate, Salon and McSweeney’s. When she isn’t writing or telling jokes, she is leading the LA Chapter of COLAGE, a national organization for the children of LGBTQ parents. You can learn more about her here: www.elizabethcollins.com.

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Episode Transcript

Emily: The first time I publicly spoke about my family, I was 13 and the crowd was a room of LGBTQ parents and their children, so to say, not a tough crowd. And when I was 16 I was fed up with how people were talking about LGBTQ parents on a radio program. I called in to put a voice to the real children of LGBTQ folks who are actually out there. I called in and it was terrifying, but I learned a lot and I knew then that I had to keep speaking out. People with LGBTQ parents have been around for as long as there have been LGBTQ people and speaking out has gotten easier for some over the years. But for someone like me who grew up before and during harsh debates about marriage equality, the right to parent, the basic human rights of LGBTQ people, the speaking out isn’t always easy. That’s why I am such a fan of Elizabeth Collins. Elizabeth is a comedian, storyteller and writer living in LA. Her one person show Raised by Gays and Turned Out Okay, premiered at the Hollywood Fringe festival in June 2015, just on the cusp of national marriage equality. And I haven’t had the pleasure yet of seeing her perform, but I have read many of her fantastic articles. It’s hard enough to just speak out about having LGBTQ parents when you don’t know how the people around you will react. And it’s even harder to be really real and honest about it, to talk about the joy and the hard stuff. And Elizabeth just does that brilliantly, both talking about the challenging and the great things about our families and also going in front of I think, imagine potentially tough crowds. So I am excited to have Elizabeth on the show today to talk about speaking out and to talk about her experiences. Welcome Elizabeth.

Elizabeth: Thanks for having me.

Emily: So just to start us off, how do you describe your family and who’s in your family?

Elizabeth: I have a mom and a dad. They were married until I was about 11 and then my dad came out and he lived with his partner, Dale, who I considered a second father until I was about 20. So I have a mom and two dads. I’m married to a husband and we have a toddler together, named Axel.

Emily: Do you remember when you started telling your family story, speaking in more public ways about having gay dads?

Elizabeth: Yeah, it was not until I was into my thirties and I moved to LA and I was taking a comedy class cause I knew I always wanted to do standup comedy, but I was finally just giving it a shot. I never had any intention of talking about my family. I didn’t realize it was something people even wanted to hear, which sounds so silly now. But at the time it just didn’t occur to me. And then we had a thing in class where we would just talk about our day. We wouldn’t even try to tell real jokes. And I told a story about how my dad called me at work, asked me about my bra size, because he worked at a place where they were having a sale on bras. And this is not a situation where it was like, you know, no one else’s dad is calling them at work. So people just died laughing and it’s just so different. I decided to start telling stories and jokes about my dad and the response I got was interesting because I had made people laugh before, but this was different. It was like something no one had heard before. People hadn’t really heard and they were just interested in, it was just funny because it was so unusual too.

Emily: Did you get reactions that were different when telling it in front of a class versus a small group, I’m assuming that you had told somebody more on a one-on-one level of your friends. Were there differences between telling one person and bigger spaces?

Elizabeth: Oh yeah. When I was in high school and I lived with my dad and Dale, obviously if people were coming to the house, sometimes I wouldn’t tell people and they would just ask, are they gay? And I’d say, Yeah, and then some people would be like, that’s cool. And I lived in Texas, so I think even though I had a lot of open minded friends, there was this air, it was in the 90s too, that his is kind of a forbidden family. So I didn’t shout it from the rooftops, but I didn’t necessarily lie about it. I did have some friends that asked the questions – is one more like the mom and more like the dad. I did get a lot of different responses. And then when I was in my twenties, I joined a very strict Christian Church that believed homosexuality was a sin. And I didn’t necessarily hide it. I wasn’t going to lie about it, but I wasn’t going around shouting from the rooftops. So for me in a lot of ways, it wasn’t until I was in my thirties when it became something I talked about regularly and started to identify with and realize that it’s such a part of who I was and my identity and my lifestyle.

Emily: That’s a big change then from keeping it so personal to writing a whole show about it. So what is it about comedy that was the right medium for you?

Speaker 3: Well, I think comedy and comedians are people who’ve been through some sort of shame and humiliation and comedy gives them an opportunity to laugh at that shame and humiliation and rejoice in it. And I think that’s what happens. I think it’s not just that I have a gay dad, I have a crazy gay dad. I think that’s part of why I was always scared to talk about my family, to not be seen. Not just because my dad was gay, but because he wasn’t a perfect role model of a gay dad. For many years. I thought it was my dad’s story and not mine. But when I go back and I look at all these things I went through, I realized that I had a unique experience too because he’s gay, because I lived in a queer family. And to be able to express those times I was faced with humiliation and shame in our community. Not that I deserve to be shamed or should have been ashamed, but just because society did shame us. Like what it was like to go to the grocery store in Columbia, South Carolina with a white dad and a black dad. That was an experience. It was always kind of embarrassing. I always felt like people were looking at us. Being raised by a dad, period, is kind of weird as a girl. So I think that those types of things that might be common to some families but more unique because my dad was gay, like there’s lots of people with interracial parents and there’s people being raised by a dad. But then you add that other element to it and it makes a difference.

Emily: Do you have any favorite reactions or strong memories of people reacting to you? Telling your story on stage.

Elizabeth: I was worried if heterosexual audiences would find it funny. I was worried LGBTQ parents wouldn’t like it because they would think I’m putting a bad face on LGBTQ parenting. But I think they loved it because everyone loves to hear family stories. If you can hear stories that are family like yours, I think people enjoy that. So I think whenever I meet people like that, that’s always the most heartwarming for me.

Emily: Was it hard to get comfortable telling those harder stories? I know that for many years, the stories I chose to tell and the way I chose to answer the questions of peers or if I was speaking in public was very much like, oh no, my family is great, everything’s wonderful. It felt like I had to bottle up the realness of real families. Were you worried about the reaction from the LGBTQ community that you’re kind of letting the secret out that gay parents are human beings? And our families are complicated.

Elizabeth: It was an evolution that happened. It was an evolution that happened, where I started to realize some of the dysfunction in our family was due to homophobia. And that’s why I needed to talk about it too. Everybody’s going to have problems, but I think I think there are certain dysfunctions that are probably unique to LGBTQ families. Because they’re marginalized. So I felt like I should share this and I don’t have to feel ashamed about it. Because it’s not that my dad is bad and not a good dad all the time because he’s gay, but because the world didn’t accept him for being gay. And that’s something I say a lot. Because when you’re marginalized, you’re entire life, it creates a lot of trauma and I think a lot of things come from that. A lot of the dysfunctions in our family came from that.

Emily: One of your pieces really stuck out to me – when you were writing about Dale and your relationship with Dale, who is your father’s ex, who was second dad for you for a number of years. And really speaks true to me too. So I had a person who was my parent for the first four years of my life. My moms were together from for many years before my biological mom started actually pursuing the road to having children. And then when I was four they broke up and she remained in my life and we did the very typical divorced family thing of every other weekend know I would go to her house. But eventually she took a step back from parenting and she’s still in my life and still someone I’m close with, but took that step back from being a parent and it was hard. I want to talk more about that particular piece. What motivated you to write that?

Elizabeth: My dad and Dale separated when I was 20. And then I was in my twenties. I don’t think a lot of people in their twenties, some do, but I didn’t really think about my parents. I was busy in school. I worked full time and was in school full time and that’s when I was very religious too, so I went to church all the time. I didn’t know what my relationship was to Dale when they separated. What is my, not my relationship, but my role here? Can I call Dale? It’s very complicated and weird. And then when I started doing my comedy and talking about my dad and Dale all the time, it started to bring up for me how important he was and a consciousness of how much he was a part of my life for a very long time. I think it was something I set to the side, because there wasn’t a language and because it wasn’t accepted. I just had to be like, oh, he was just a little more than a roommate. But in my heart he was a lot more than a roommate. He was like a second dad. So it took me a while to really realize it. And like you said, I don’t think we have a language for it because it’s an LGBTQ family. They can’t get married, or I mean they can now, but the time they couldn’t get married. There just wasn’t defined roles for how that works. So I think it was just very painful for me to realize I had someone that was like a father, but I didn’t have a relationship with them. And part of that was because of not having a language, not having defined roles. And then finally getting to see him was just, it was so validating because I had this feeling in my heart that he was more than just some roommate. But I didn’t know until I was face to face with him and he even said I’m going to see my daughter today and I just felt validated like, yes, he was a dad to me. Yes, we had all that time together and it’s special.

Emily: Have there been topics that you have chosen not to write about? You’ve pushed some envelopes in talking about LGBTQ families and your own experience. Are there other things that you still are not comfortable touching yet?

Elizabeth: I think if it’s anything that has to do with only my dad. If it’s something that’s his story and not my story. If feel tempted to talk about it because he’s an interesting person, there’s so much about his life that’s interesting. But I feel that’s his story. And when it comes to something to do with the way I was raised, that’s because of him, then I feel like that’s free territory. I feel like it’s taken many years, but even things I thought I would never tell anyone. I thought I didn’t ever want to tell people that my dad kicked me out. Because I just think it is one of the most terrible things you can do to a child. And the minute I tell people my dad kicked me out once, they’re not going to like him. But for some reason, no matter what my dad did, people just think he’s the greatest. And we obviously worked through all those things over time. I was afraid to say anything he did that was really bad. I think one of the worst things, besides kicking me out, is when he even cheated on Dale. That was something where I just thought, oh my gosh, that’s the worst thing. I would never want to tell anyone that. I feel like I’ve already said the worst things that he ever did. So I don’t think there is any territory yet that I haven’t been willing to talk about, unless it’s something that’s specifically his story and not mine.

Emily: Would you tell him ahead of time before something was published or before you added something to your show? And if you did, what were his reactions like?

Elizabeth: Well before I did my show, I took him out to brunch and I told him I was going to do a show. And then I told him what the bad parts were. I told him what the worst things were. And he was actually more worried about my husband’s family seeing it because he wanted them to think he was great and not to know about any of our family’s dirty secrets. But when he saw the show, he laughed the whole time. He enjoyed it. I think in the show I showed that these dysfunctions happen for a reason. Like I said earlier, my dad might’ve just been a person that made bad decisions, but I think it’s really hard to make good decisions when you’re a gay man forced to live a lie for your whole life. And we worked through everything too. So I think I show some triumphs and humor and help make those stories easier to digest for people. Plus other people don’t have perfect families. I think other people can relate to some of the stories. But he was fine with it. I think he was always nervous if my husband’s mom would see it or something, but they’ve never seen it. But they know I do comedy and they know I talk about my dad.

Emily: That’s, that’s funny of the keeping up the appearances with the in-laws being the key point.

Elizabeth: Yeah. He didn’t care if there was an entire TV show and he was famous and everyone knew everything, just as long as my mother in law didn’t watch it.

Emily: You had mentioned this earlier and even in your bio on your website, you talk about living heteronormatively now (I hear you there). What does that like for you to be deeply connected to an identity of having grown up with gay dads and now living a life that for some might seem at odds with that? Being married with a kid.

Elizabeth: I’m glad you asked that because it is something I think about a lot but I haven’t really written about or talked about because part of me thinks, well why should it matter? I mean, if you’re straight and you marry someone, why should it matter? Why should be different? But I think being raised in a queer family, I do have different values and different ways of living that I think I feel in my marriage. For example, not too long ago, someone that I know through COLAGE, an organization for people with LGBTQ parents, invited me over to his aunt’s house for some dinner and I wanted to go and my husband was like, you don’t know these people, you’ve never met them. It made me realize throughout my life, because of the way our family had to create family, I created family through strangers, through meeting people we barely knew because we couldn’t be around our own family. I just realized that it’s just in me to create family in a different way than it is in my husband to create family. My way of creating family is strangers and people in the community. Even if I just met them, you know? Yes, I’m going to go out and have dinner at the house. Where for him, his parents are separated, but they all live in the same town. They’ve lived in the same town their whole life. He’s got an enormous family so he doesn’t have to go out and create family. So that’s one way I would say that I feel different every once in a while.

Emily: Yeah. And I wonder, even just the chores around the house. I know hearing about other people and who did what in their house and how a lot of it fell into traditional gender roles for my friends. In my house it was whoever was basically willing to do that chore, whoever was least resistant to that chore, ended up doing it. And that is something that is completely natural to me. So the idea of being in a relationship with or having a partner who expected something different was just never going to work. I felt very lucky when I started dating Tristan, who became my husband now, I remember meeting him and seeing what he was like in his beliefs and how he saw gender and equality and justice. I was like, okay, but you have to have had gay parents. I just did not believe that two straight parents could make somebody like him. That just didn’t make any sense to me because the only comparisons that I had to people who could be so broad and open and flexible and not care about gender roles were people with gay families. That was the model that I had.

Elizabeth: I feel a lot of that when you get married and you have a kid. I think gender roles come into play a lot and I think it exposes a lot of how you were raised, which I doing. I’m coming to terms with that all the time. It is weird because in some ways I hurt myself because it goes back to when my dad raised me, being sexist and stuff that I think I tend to fall into traditional roles when I probably shouldn’t be. And so I have to find out, am I doing this because I think I’m supposed to be doing this or doing this because somebody’s got to do it or what. So I think about it, how I think of that. I’m really struck when you said that because I feel like gender roles, I think about it all the time, especially since we had a kid, I think it’s harder to try to establish who does what. And I do feel like I’m in default a lot and I try to wonder if that’s because of the way we were raised or if that’s just me being paranoid about it because my husband’s a great guy. I hesitate to talk about it cause he does a lot. But I think just my own way of doing things, if I just fall into that default on my own because the way I was raised. And also being a part of a church for a good portion of my twenties where that was the gender expectation too. So sometimes I just fall on the gender expectations on my own without any help. I think about it a lot in raising a son. I think about wanting to not do that. I want him to see me and his father is equal partners in everything.

Emily: In one of your pieces you talked about your dad and his role as a grandfather. The article is the ‘Grand-Manny’. How did becoming a grandparent change your dad and your relationship?

Elizabeth: A lot because my dad had a difficult life, very difficult upbringing. Because he was gay, he was bullied at school. He had problems with his own family. And then the divorce. When a gay person comes out later and they try to be in a relationship, it’s like starting over again. He’s had a very difficult life emotionally, but he’s also had a very difficult life physically. He’s had health problems ever since I could remember. And he was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 50, on top of a slew of health problems. So I think that it improved our relationship because he always wanted to be a grandpa. And then when Axel was born, it gave him a whole, these were his words, a new lease on life. It just gave them something to look forward to every day. He gave him something to do and I think his health improved. And to take care of our son just brought so much happiness. And I think because my dad went through so much, sometimes I felt like I was a parent in my life. I think whenever I had a kid and my dad was helping me with that, it was like for the first time in a long time, it felt like my dad was being a parent. And then he was doing something for me and he was helping me and that was a big load off my shoulders. I love my dad and I always wanted to help him, but it gets exhausting when you want someone to be there for you and you’re always there them instead. So when Axel was born, I think those roles reversed and it made it easier for me not to feel like a burden and just to feel like we could be friends and enjoy each other’s company and not feel like I was trying to help him with this or help him with that. Or be all the many different roles I felt like had to be for him.

Emily: I know that you recently lost your dad. My heart is really with you and your family. If you’re okay talking about it, how has that impacted your memories of growing up with your dad or what you knew about your dad?

Elizabeth: Not really, not yet. I think it’s just too early. He passed away about two months ago. I think it will eventually because going through his things, I’m learning other things about him. They’re funny. I don’t think it will affect it too much, especially because I’ve written so much and I performed some much, I kind of mined my memory to a degree where I have all the memories I’m going to have and I’ve thought about them a lot. I think some of the things will probably be the more recent memories, but I don’t know. It makes me grateful. I feel grateful for the memories we had. Even though I do talk a lot about my dad and our dysfunction, I have to say for the most part, it’s part of the reason we made it through all of this dysfunction is my dad is a great guy. He’s so much fun and he’s a memorable person and I really appreciate that we took every chance we could to make memories and could do things because we knew he wasn’t going to live forever. He had an illness. Unfortunately, we’re not sure if he died of that illness or just the flu, and he went a little bit sooner than we’d like. But I think we knew it wasn’t going to be much longer. And so we did do everything. We went to South Africa together. We saw Barbara Streisand. We did everything that we wanted to do together. I have very few regrets. I have to say that.

Emily: Your dad and came out and your parents divorced when you were 11. So do you have any advice or thoughts for anyone who’s going through something like that now?

Elizabeth: Yeah, I would say find other people that have through it before and become friends with them and talk to them even if you don’t think you need it. Because I think when I was younger and I was going through it, I thought I was fine and handling it fine and it didn’t matter. And it wasn’t until I was in my thirties I went back and I just see how much all these things affected me and how lonely I was because I was the only person going through all of it. And even my brother I wasn’t very close to, so I was the only person experiencing all these things by myself. And it wasn’t till I was well into my thirties that I was connecting with people. And it’s the most amazing feeling when you meet someone else who has a family like yours. I would make that a priority if you’re going through something to find other people that have gone through it too.

Emily: Absolutely. I want to echo that strongly. Any advice for people out there, especially young people with LGBTQ parents who want to tell their story or want to get on stage and tell their story someday?

Elizabeth: Do it! You can take classes online. There’s tons of classes online. And it depends on what city you live in, but there is a lot of them. There’s a show called The Moth, where anyone can go up and tell stories. It’s a giant. I would just find the opportunities in your community to tell stories or just write it or anything. Because I think the more I write about it, the more I just express myself. I just feel better because of the complexity. I’m feeling these words from Kaley Fry, who leads COLAGE, that it helps when someone can hold your complexity. And I feel like through writing, through expressing myself and people receiving that, it makes me feel real. I don’t even know any other word to explain it. When you don’t have a language, when there’s no examples of you out there in the world, you can feel like you don’t exist or you’re experience doesn’t exist. And then whenever you go out and can share it with somebody, it’s the best feeling in the world.