"Comedy is the island of misfit toys," says stand-up comic Sarah Maywalt. "We're all broken some way or we wouldn't be here." Maywalt is one among a tiny minority of comedians who are openly transgender. When Sydney comedian—and one-third of Australian musical comedy act Axis of Awesome—Jordan Raskopoulos came out as trans in February, she was noticeable for being one of the first and arguably the most high-profile comic to do so.
As one-third of the Australian musical comedy act Axis of Awesome, Raskopoulos' videos attract millions of YouTube viewers—and her obligatory coming-out video, posted a month ago, has already had over a quarter of a million views. Last year, American comic Will Franken also announced that he would begin living as a woman, though he chose to detransition in December for personal reasons.
"If I gig for someone for the first time, I make a point of not mentioning that I am trans," says Laura Monmoth, 34, who has been performing comedy for three years. "I have yet to see a promoter recoil in horror as I arrive." In her early days as a stand-up, Monmoth was known as Kris and had yet to transition. As she puts it, and as she titles the section of her act in which she explicitly discusses her former identity, "Kris was a dick." Like the other performers to whom I speak, Monmoth has consistently used comedy as a "defence mechanism," finding herself most comfortable when on- not offstage. Comedians are notorious for creating characters and alternative personalities into which they vanish. But for transgender comics, feeling a pressure to conform to their biological gender is precisely the conflict they face initially.
As a child between the ages of two and six, Monmoth was far more comfortable around female friends. But being packed off to an all-boys school "ruined everything": "It turns out that tucking in the communal shower is frowned upon. Who knew?" At school, says Monmoth, she would recite Rowan Atkinson routines in a bid to stay popular: "Comedy protected me."
For Sarah Maywalt, 37, a formative moment occurred when she was around four. "The pre-school apparently had a unisex bathroom," she says, "because when I was introduced to the toilets in the bathroom I was told that the urinal was the 'boys' toilet' and the regular bowl toilet was the 'girls' toilet'." One day Maywalt needed a poop, as four-year-olds often do. So, panicking that if she used the toilet supposedly intended for girls, people would discover she was a girl, she believed she had only one option. She "took a dump in the urinal."
Maywalt didn't even know until the 90s what it meant to be a trans person. "I had managed to lie to myself about my transness while at the same time building a dossier of evidence to eventually prove to myself it was really possible." She went "full-time" as a woman in April 2010 after informing her HR department at work.
Monmoth took "another fifteen years, two breakdowns, a marriage, a daughter, and a complete self-destruction of my life" to formally come out as transgender. After she came out, she looked to her comedy bubble to accept her new persona: "I stood up at the gig I regularly compered and destroyed all the material I had spent years writing."
Comics and comedy promoters have been supportive since her transition. When she "came out properly" in 2014 to fellow comedian Michael Crump, he wasn't shocked, and his offer of love and support helped her realize that the process might not be so scary after all. In her home town of West Bromwich, England, however, "deviation from the norm is considered a threat" and she therefore "shimmies her way through the locals" to avoid confrontation.
Maywalt, who lives in Brooklyn, has been in comedy for ten years and says that performing has forced her to be more open about her gender. "Worrying about comedy was a wonderful break from worrying about how I walk and talk. Comedy is where I channel my anger and frustration in a way that won't send me to Riker's. I don't know if I could have transitioned without it." The constant stage time and compulsion to gig prevented Maywalt from becoming a recluse. "The stage is where I'm happiest," she says.
Though she says that the comedy industry is "welcoming of strangeness," it can still be as conservative as any other institution. Auditioning for the famed comedy club Comic Strip Live, Maywalt was told by Eddie Murphy's former manager that she shouldn't talk about herself as it wouldn't get her on Letterman. The world wasn't "ready," he explained.
Robin Tran first acknowledged that she was trans last February, at the age of 29. She was playing some girly pop music in her car and, for a change, didn't roll the window up out of embarrassment. All of her childhood suspicions crystallized into a moment of clarity. "I felt free," she tells me. "And I cried for a full half-hour. My entire life suddenly made sense."
Tran was the first employee in her company's history ever to come out as trans. She left because the harassment she faced was too severe to handle. Is comedy any better? "It's extremely cathartic because I get to express myself and people have to listen. But it's more difficult because it's scarier to be out in public, especially when I don't have a carpool buddy." But yes, she says, the industry itself is accepting of gender fluidity. "They are some of the most supportive people in the world. For the vast majority of comedians and the comedy industry, their thoughts are, 'Hey, if you're funny, we don't care how you want to live your life.'"
Though Tran says that her treatment of transgender issues in her stand-up means that audiences are educated and perhaps more likely to treat trans individuals fairly, it doesn't mean the process is easy for the stand-up in question. Every trans person negotiates new and personal ways of living as their authentic selves—comedians just tend to do it in the limelight.
"Without realizing it at the time, I had previously always been playing a character onstage, which is why I was so confident," says Tran. "It has taken me a while to recapture that confidence because there's no more character. I have no more walls up. Everything I do is completely vulnerable. There's just me."