Punch-Line Politics

Riki Wilchins's ''one trans show'' takes her from serious to stand-up, but her mission stays the same

Interview by Will O'Bryan
Photography by Todd Franson
Published on December 10, 2009, 1:25am | Comments

Two transgender rabbis walk into a bar....

Wait, scratch that.

Riki Wilchins, among the most prominent voices in America's gender-identity discourse, has taken a new turn -- to comedy. But it's not the sort of routine that might play in the Catskills, circa 1950.

Instead, the D.C.-based Wilchins, who headed the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition (GenderPAC) through the first decade of the century and was lauded by Time magazine in 2001 as a civic innovator, is playing for laughs politically with her "one trans show," The MANgina Monologues.

"I'm angry," says the self-identified "gender queer" activist. "It's just that the anger is coming out in humor. If you're angry, you can yell at people, or you can get people to laugh at your anger. I'm choosing part two. It opens up a lot of doors."

Onstage, Wilchins's humor doesn't sound too angry. She mocks the hoops the medical establishment forces people seeking gender-reassignment surgery jump through. Perhaps rhinoplasty candidates should be forced to live a couple years in the role of a small-nosed person before being eligible for that nose job.

Riki Wilchins
Riki Wilchins
(Photo by Todd Franson)

Or, as Wilchins walks her audience through world of such surgeries, she segues into genuinely educational material about intersex babies and the clitoris. It could be tragic, but we're back to laughs: "As a woman, I can now confirm personally, most guys couldn't find the clit without help if you put landing lights on it. Which my surgeons actually considered. I loved the idea of a better sex life, but didn't think I could handle the big electric bills."

This line of levity might come as a surprise for some who recall a much more serious Wilchins. Elizabeth Birch, former head of the Human Rights Campaign, remembers sparring with Wilchins over policy in years past. Now she's a fan of the funny lady.

"One can always count on Riki Wilchins to go where no person has ever gone before," says Birch. "Now she's bringing that same courage to stand-up.... Everyone's dying to ask a transgender person, 'What's it like?' Riki brings it all up and puts in on the table. She brings her colorful and wry sense of humor to the stage, and it's very funny."

So far, Wilchins has performed her act just twice, with another show to follow Saturday, Dec. 12. There's talk of possibly bringing the act to the D.C. Jewish Community Center come spring. Really, it's still a matter of Wilchins trying stand-up on for size and seeing if it's a good fit.

But with a chance to get her message out, Wilchins seems more than satisfied, both with reaching an audience and with her own evolution.

"To some extent, being known as a transgender comedian is the point of the exercise. Which actually is a pretty big turn when you think about it, because when I transitioned, my doctors were very big on 'You have to pass to be a successful woman.' So if you made fun of me 20 years ago for not passing, I would've broken down in tears. Now I go up there and out myself all night and make jokes about it. It's a pretty big shift."

METRO WEEKLY: Tell me about that first performance. How was it?

RIKI WILCHINS: Scary. My college speaking, which is supposed to be about theory, had degenerated into pretty much stand-up. At a certain point, I started thinking, "Why not just do it as stand-up?" But I'd never actually done stand-up comedy. The scary thing is, if you're giving a speech on theory and you make a joke and nobody laughs, you just go back to talking theory. No one says anything. With stand-up, they expect to laugh. And if they're not laughing in the first five or 10 minutes, you're in trouble. That's the scary part: You have to be funny.

MW: So why do it?

WILCHINS: We've walked on eggshells so long with trans stuff. In some cases, for good reason. But I think there's a time when it's okay to laugh. We've reached that tipping point. I can make a lot of the points I want to make about transgender experience by getting people to laugh, instead of standing up and being angry and edgy.

When I started trying to work the material into an act, I didn't realize how hard that is. It looks so easy when you see comedians do it, but it's a lot of work. Like I told a friend of mine, you not only have to be a playwright, but you also have to be an actor, and in addition you have to be funny. It's three different hats you have to wear simultaneously -- and they all have to be good.

MW: And comedy audiences can be particularly harsh. It's a venue that welcomes heckling. Have you experienced that?

WILCHINS: That hasn't happened -- yet. I'm getting prepared for that. You get heckled in this business. The first time, I'll probably break down in tears and leave the stage. But the next time I'm up there, it'll be part of the routine and I'll make fun of it.

MW: How have your audiences responded to The MANgina Monologues?

WILCHINS: The first audience was, I would say, at least half friends. In that way, it was less intimidating. [Wilchens's dog barks.] I hope you won't quote her.

The first audience was less intimidating because I knew I had a friendly crowd. The second one, which we just did, we actually forgot to publicize it till the last minute. But people did come. We packed the room. We had 80 people. It was standing-room-only. But I only knew three people in the room. There wasn't a laugh to be heard for the first five minutes. You could hear a pin drop. I'm telling my best jokes and crickets are chirping. It took them at least five minutes to figure me out, to figure out it was okay to laugh. And then the room was rocking. Toward the end, we were just having a blast. But it took 'em the first five minutes to figure out it's okay to laugh at the trans jokes.

MW: Did you have to find some new courage to make this move to stand-up?

WILCHINS: No. People have been telling me for years to do stand-up because I love entertaining people. For years, I've said I'm not interested. You have to develop material, you have to practice. It's a profession. It's not something you can do just casually: Oh, I'll just do an hour's worth of stand-up.

What finally gelled for me was realizing I had a topic that was bigger than me, and wanting to communicate it. Right before I got up there, I was getting nauseous -- as I do before every single time I speak in public -- and then I thought, "You know what? I don't care if they laugh. I have a story to tell and I'm going to tell it."

I read a whole bunch of books on stand-up, because I never studied it formally. The best piece of advice I read was, "Have something to say."

I realize I can't do regular stand-up: bump-bump-joke, bump-bump-joke, about my mother-in-law and how women shop. I'm up there because I am passionate about transgender politics and transgender experience and transgender oppression. That's why I want to be up there. It's a way to educate people about how gender-queer folks get hurt.

On another level, when they didn't laugh when I got up there, I was upset. But I just looked at them and said screw it, you're going to hear this anyway. Even if you don't laugh at anything, you're going to hear everything I have to say, because it's message material for me. It's not just telling a joke about something. It's a way to communicate. This is a way to educate people. They're laughing, but they're getting the message.

Someone came up after and said, "I laughed, but you made me think. I learned a lot." And that's the whole point. If you can get up and get people upset, you get a limited audience and people are like, "Oh, that angry tranny Riki Wilchins." But if you can get people to laugh, you get a much bigger audience of people. Especially this last time, there were a lot of straight people. They walk out going, "Oh, my God, I didn't know that happened to intersex kids." That's what I want. I want them to hear it and get it and not feel put off by it.

MW: Reading about stand-up and what goes into this, are there other comedians, specifically, whose work you admire? What you're trying to accomplish reminds me of Lenny Bruce.

WILCHINS: He's an inspiration. I must've read How to Talk Dirty and Influence People three times. I've always wanted to be Lenny Bruce. I've just never had a topic that made me as passionate as he was about racial and sexual hypocrisy in America in the '50s. This I'm passionate about. I never found that trigger to get up there, grab the microphone and talk to people about it.

MW: Till now. What changed?

WILCHINS: It's a really great question. I think things happen at particular points in time for reasons. Can you use the word weltanschauung? It's part of the zeitgeist, if you will.

Riki Wilchins
Riki Wilchins
(Photo by Todd Franson)

You know, 10 years ago I was at a courthouse in Falls City, Neb., holding a vigil outside the trial for the murder of Brandon Teena. [Gay press] wouldn't even cover Brandon Teena because the story wasn't "gay." That was 10 years ago. That's where the movement was. People wouldn't say "transgender." There was this huge fight. It wasn't covered in the gay press. It wasn't covered in the straight press. It's not that people are dying at a slower rate -- if anything, I think people are dying at a slightly faster rate. The thing is, it's out there. There's coverage. People know about it. Even the president said at one point, "lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender," addressing the [Human Rights Campaign] National Dinner. The wheel has turned. The question is what's the next step? I think the next step now is getting it out to a wider audience. The stand-up is a way to address a wider audience.

MW: Revisiting the past decade, there was your role heading the Gender Public Advocacy Coalition (GenderPAC). Has that completely wound down?

WILCHINS: GenderPAC has basically transitioned out of existence. I think what happened was that things we did 10 years ago that were cutting edge, basically they succeeded. Now, 200-some corporations include gender identity and expression in the EEO policies. We used to have a "congressional diversity pledge" to sign because there was no [Employment Non-Discrimination Act] that included gender [identity]. Now ENDA's up there. We had 11 national lobby days on Capitol Hill. A key focus was hate-crimes legislation. The president just signed it. We wanted to energize college youth, because kids are so on top of this gender thing, and we've built a network of over 50 college chapters with hundreds of youth. Choice USA now runs that. We did a hate-crimes report to track all of the murders, 50 Under 30. That's now integrated as part of the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project report in New York.

These things that 10 years ago no one was doing them, they were completely cutting edge, have become mainstream inside the movement. Now it's time to look at ways to address people outside the movement. Humor and comedy is a way to invite a larger audience.

MW: Do you plan to tailor the act much? Will a mainstream audience need more Trans 101?

WILCHINS: The whole routine is a Transgender 101. It tracks the arc of a transition. It starts out with doctors, and then changing your name, then having to live in the role, having the surgery, coming out to your parents and so forth.

Most of it starts out making fun of me. Then inside of it is a sting: It goes back and makes fun of the gender system that makes all these ridiculous things necessary to live as a transgender person in America in the year 2009. You learn what it's like from my experience, and you learn how crazy the system is. But you do it by laughing instead of someone up there yelling.

MW: Are there aspects of transgender identity that might be too sophisticated to turn into comedy?

WILCHINS: There's just stuff that's really painful. I'd love to do something that informs people about [anti-]transgender violence. I haven't figured out a way to do that, to honor it and yet still get some kind of humor out of it. That's something probably Lenny Bruce could've done. He found a way to make racial prejudice funny and get people to think about it. I haven't found a way to do that. I can't do it with transgender violence, yet I feel that's something that needs to be part of the act. One day, maybe I'll figure it out, but it has to be funny. This is a comedy act. It all has to be funny in the end. And it has to make people think while they laugh -- not just think.

I think gay people are ready to laugh at trans. We've taught them to walk on eggshells and be politically correct for 10 years. That's part of the reason they laugh. They're ready to laugh when they find us, because we've all been painfully correct about learning the whole discourse around transgender.

MW: Some of your material is mined from pretty personal stuff. I always regarded you as a fairly private person.

WILCHINS: I am.

MW: But now you're onstage talking about gender surgery and orgasms.

WILCHINS: The stage is the best kind of privacy. There's nothing more private than being onstage with a microphone. It's just you and the microphone. I can't explain it. I love talking with audiences. It's totally intimate. It's a conversation. I don't really view stand-up as comedy per se. It is comedy, obviously -- you're talking and they're laughing. But it's a conversation with friends. You're talking with them about really intimate stuff. But they have the same problems I do, in many ways. They just don't know it. They think that trans people are this strange thing out there. If you looked at a lot of the experiences, a lot of people have had various parts of the same experience. They just don't talk about it.

They may not have had the experience of having sex-reassignment surgery, but they've probably had the experience of being humiliated by a doctor who asked them to jump through ridiculous hoops when all they wanted was help. Or having to explain something difficult to their parents, or getting wanded by airport security. These are common experiences. You just have to mine the humor. That's part of the genius of comedy: It allows you to see the commonality. People don't laugh at things that are different. People laugh at things that are the same.

And I'm not afraid of a microphone. A microphone is a very comfortable place. I have a lot of affection for audiences, for people. In some ways, it's more comfortable to be up there talking. It's actually harder for me to be in a room of five or six people, talking face to face. I have no idea why.

On a stage, you're in control of it. You can't control whether they laugh or not, but you're in control of the material. They're not asking the questions. I'm posing the questions myself and I decide how to answer them.

MW: You told me earlier that one of the people advising you on your act is Elizabeth Birch. How has she been helpful?

WILCHINS: Elizabeth suggested you have to use terminology the audience will understand. She said to me, "Part of the reason people don't get you is they don't know how to take you. You're not showing up in 'high femme' or trying to appear as something. You have to kind of get them over that hump." She's an inspiration. She's given me a lot of ideas. She's critiqued part of it. She was in the front row for the first performance, which is a marvelous bit of serendipity, since 10 years ago I was yelling at her from across the table at HRC.

MW: The topic?

WILCHINS: ENDA. I was very full of myself and self-righteous, and I was yelling at her. So it was really cool for her to be there.

MW: Self-righteous? Has that edge mellowed?

WILCHINS: I suppose we all mellow with age. I think I've learned to try to be more effective. There are only a limited number of venues that will have you when you yell at them. There's a lot larger number of venues that will have you when you make them laugh. You can be equally angry, you just get a larger audience.

I think I was partly at fault for making people walk on eggshells. [Laughs.] I did a lot of protesting and picketing back then.

MW: Do you wish somebody had suggested back then that you lighten up?

WILCHINS: They did.

MW: What was your reply?

WILCHINS: "Fuck you." [Laughs.] Anger is a completely appropriate response to some questions. Anger is a way to open doors. As doors start to open, we need to find additional avenues to engage people. One way to engage people and to get them to sing your song without realizing it is to get them to laugh. When they laugh, they're on your side.

Even if they don't agree with you, or they're not sure they got everything, if they laugh they're on your side. And that's the whole point of this: to get people on our side, and to get people thinking about the gender system and why it's so crazy and why it hurts queers and gay people and kids and women -- everybody. That's the universality of this. When you go back to the pain of trans people, it's a universal pain. We all get shit on by the gender system at some point, and we all have to deal with it. Trans people are just the most extreme and most visible instance of it.
That's why the jokes in the routine are universal. It taps into something we've all had to deal with. And it needs to be talked about. I don't mean talked about in the sense when every comedian gets up there and goes, "Men and women are so different, ha ha ha," and tells 20 jokes. This is about the bullshit.

MW: What invitation do you have for readers to come see you perform The MANgina Monologues? What can you promise them?

WILCHINS: I promise them they'll laugh. They'll have a good time. They'll know more about gender than when they walked in. What I hope that people really do at the end is feel they've connected. Transgender experience is often way out there -- the Jerry Springer-ization of it. Hopefully they'll feel they connected in some way, and they've heard something that relates to their own experience. We're all in this gender system together. We created the craziness, and we can also tear the craziness down. We just have to have a good laugh first.

Riki Wilchins peforms The MANgina Monolgues, "A One Trans Show," Saturday, Dec. 12, at 11 p.m. at Busboys and Poets, 1025 5th St. NW. Suggested donation is $5. Limited seating. A preview has been posted on YouTube.com.


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