Comedian Monica Palacios Lives A Chicana Lesbian Life
While some of the most celebrated comics working today are openly gay – Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O’Donnell, and Wanda Sykes, to name a few – it was not always the case.
Comedy clubs and open mic nights have not been immune to homophobia and bigotry, which makes Monica Palacios’ decision in 1982 to come out, on-stage, as a Chicana lesbian all the more groundbreaking.
For the last 30 years, Palacios has gained success as a comedian, writer, teacher and performer, including over 200 performances, several television and radio appearances, inclusion in Out Magazine's "Out 100" list, and awards including the National Gay and Lesbian Performance Award. All throughout, her work has featured a particular brand of humor that places her identity – Chicana and lesbian – firmly at the center.
Yet despite the seemingly narrow range of the subject matter, the message is universal. Her arena is the ridiculousness of life – from tales of domestic life with her girlfriend, to the perils of Internet porn – and she conveys these truths in order to find common ground.
This weekend, Palacios celebrates 30 years of taboo-breaking performance with “Queer Chicana Soul,” a retrospective show at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica, Calif.
She sat down with Neon Tommy to discuss her career, comedy and what's in store for the next 30 years.
Why the strict emphasis on being called a ‘Chicana lesbian’ in your biography, website and overall comedy routine?
I say ‘Chicana lesbian’ – and always both, never one and not the other - because we don’t hear and see these words. I’m all about promoting onstage what usually remains in the shadows or margins.
How would you describe ‘Chicana’ to someone who has limited knowledge of the word?
Chicana refers to a woman whose family originates in Mexico but was born in the United States. I embrace ‘Chicana’ because it is political, but I only started using it in the early 1980s, when I came out onstage.
Did you have reservations about coming out as a lesbian onstage?
For a couple of minutes.
How did you come out?
I had performed in San Francisco at a club in the Haight-Asbury district. But I had heard of a gay and lesbian cabaret, so I checked out the venue. It was a big decision: I knew that if I performed there, I’d be known as a lesbian comic. But at the cabaret, I felt I was safe, and when you are safe, you are a better performer.
How do you approach performance?
I grew up in a household of performers, and humor was always a big deal. In comedy, my mom and dad were my role models, because I would see them being funny, singing songs with their compadres and commadres.
How did your family take to your coming out onstage?
I come from a loving family, and I always knew I had their support. They were mostly concerned about my safety, especially since onstage, as an out comic, anybody could come and take a swipe at me. But they saw my confidence and seriousness. I’m sure they wish I wasn’t out on stage, but I continued being successful.
What were you doing before working as a comic?
When I was 19 and 20, I started going to clubs by myself and observing comedians. I’d sit in the back, nurse my 7up, and say, ‘I can do that.’ At that age, I also began practicing and testing jokes with friends and family. Sometimes I’d perform in front of the mirror, by myself.
Starting out, did you ever bomb as a performer?
The big bomb of my career happened here in Los Angeles. I didn’t want to go straight to the comedy clubs, but if you want to make a sensation in LA, you have to do the comedy clubs. My friend urged me and secured a gig at an open mic night by pretending to be my agent. I showed up, and Guido the bouncer was up in my face and harassingme when I was trying to get in. He asked me where I was from – and I said, ‘San Francisco.’ He said, ‘Oh, so are you gay?’ I knew I had a choice: I could say, ‘Yes, I’m gay,’ and I wouldn’t be let on stage, or, ‘No, I’m straight,’ and I could go on. I was afraid, so I said, ‘No, I’m not gay.’ As I said it, I could feet myself disappearing. I walked in and I went and bombed. I did my three minutes – because in open mic, that’s all you get – and I just felt like I was from Jupiter. I finished, finally, and go off stage and just started to cry. I went to the public phone, called my friend, asked her to come pick me up. After that horrific experience, I don’t ever go to spaces that don’t embrace me, or love me, but rather, spaces that let me be creative.
How does your activism play into your writing and comedy?
My being an out, Chicana lesbian is activism. Many Chicana lesbians are more serious about activism though. I get it – Chicana lesbians have to defend themselves. We’re constantly fighting. But traditional activism puts people on the defensive, while comedy puts people at ease. When people are at east, they listen with open ears. It’s a better way to get the message across.
How do you want the audience to feel after a show?
I’m showing Chicana lesbian life – that’s my message. When they leave, I want them to be hopeful and to feel good about themselves.
Who are your comedic influences?
There are many, but I particularly admire Steve Martin – he can exaggerate the truth and show us ridiculousness. That’s what I try to do today: I highlight the truth and show us the ridiculousness. It’s fun and I get off on it.
Monica Palacios' "Queer Chicana Soul" plays at Highways Performance Space on October 12 and 13 at 8:30 p.m. For more information, visit here.