As a comedian, I often get asked strange questions after shows. One recently threw me for a loop. A gentleman in his 50s asked if I always came out during my set. When I responded yes, he asked if I was worried about the threat of physical violence. I laughed. I’m 6 foot 6, 200 pounds, and work out four days a week. Add on the fact that I’ve been in more than my share of fistfights and even had an ex put a knife to my stomach — I think I can handle a comedy crowd. Plus, I live in New York City, which is a beacon of homosexual tolerance, so what do I have to worry about?
Then I did my research. According to a study conducted by 15 antiviolence groups in 16 states — including New York's Anti-Violence Project — hate crimes have been on the rise in New York since 2010, even as they've plummeted around the country. From the murder of Mark Carson in the West Village in May to the recent beating of Michael Felenchak and boyfriend Peter Nortman in Chelsea, hate crimes are all the rage (no pun intended) in the city that never sleeps. In the latter, six men allegedly used brass knuckles on the couple’s faces. I don’t care how big you are, two versus six with brass knucks is not a fair fight. Suddenly my bravado was gone.
All of this is astonishing because I moved to NYC from Arizona, a state whose principal exports are racism, homophobia, and Mexicans. I’ve done shows in small towns like Kingman, Ariz., where 15 percent of the audience walked out because I was talking about gay issues. These are places where even talking about homosexuality is frowned upon, places where the Matthew Shepard stories of the world come to life. Not New York City.
Why the sudden rash of hate crimes? And was that guy right? Should I be scared to tell people I’m gay onstage? In person, I don’t “ping,” as Frank DeCaro recently told me. I read as a heterosexual. But onstage I’m an unapologetic gay man who talks about controversial topics that can make crowds uncomfortable. I peel back the heterosexual veil and make myself a target. Is it time to tone things down for my own good?
To get some perspective on this, I asked Thai Rivera — another Arizona comic, who is one of the biggest gay headliners in the country — if he ever feared for his safety. Like me, Thai is someone whose material could be considered “controversial.” Dealing with topics such as HIV and honest conversations about hard-core drug use, his jokes are the type that can make an audience squirm. Unlike me, though, Thai is obviously gay as soon as he speaks. He’s not a large man. He primarily works in small towns and “redneck rooms.” On paper he seems like someone who should be afraid. Yet he told me he has never once feared physical violence at any of those shows. In fact, when he tells people he’s engaged (even in the most rural areas) he gets applause.
Surprising, right? The "redneck rooms" are for gay marriage and New York City is beating us up. There’s a twist no one saw coming. But it makes sense. If you live in New York City, you are confronted with gay people on a daily basis, including ones who have no problem being in your face about it. Anyone who finds homosexuality morally wrong has no escape. On the streets, on the train, in coffeehouses and restaurants, there’s a whole lotta gay in this city. Plus, the gutting of the Defense of Marriage Act and the shift in the public’s support means not approving of homos puts you on the losing side. That would make anyone angry.
Like wild animals trapped in a corner, these homophobes are striking back out of desperation. They’re using the only weapons they have: violence and fear. Fear that if we choose to live our lives openly, we may face physical ramifications for it. By striking on our home turf — Chelsea, the West Village, and Hell’s Kitchen — they’re hoping we’ll back down. They’re trying to postpone the inevitable. But they forget, physical violence has never stopped change in this country. If anything, it accelerates it.
A comic’s job is to say the things other people wish they could. Gay, straight, black, white, abortion, rape, religion, politics, every time we get onstage we put ourselves in harm’s way — Jim Jeffries once got punched in the face while onstage. It comes with the territory of holding a microphone in our hands. The best comedians have always been unapologetically honest with their audience. Retreating from talking about topics that make people uncomfortable goes against everything the art form stands for.
Being gay is very similar. Anyone who has chosen to live openly as a homosexual has had to come to terms with the fear that “something bad might happen” without ever stepping onstage. The minute we decide to come out to those close to us we face that fear. The idea that we’ll be shunned by our parents or ostracized from close friends is one that haunts every person trapped in the closet. Many don’t escape it. But those who do, who find the strength to face the unknown, often learn that what they feared was not that bad. In fact, many times without that risk they would never truly discover who they are.
Homophobia isn’t going away. There will always be people who think we are an abomination and will try to destroy us. Yet every day gay men and women walk down the street holding hands with their significant others and expressing their love to one another. They know they risk being singled out, beaten up, or killed for being who they are. It doesn’t stop them. They don’t hide.
If they can do it, so can I.
MIKE GILLERMAN is a comedian and writer based in New York City. He can be seen in the San Diego Comedy Festival at the end of the month and he also runs the Elephant Walk Comedy Show in New York City. For more information, go to mikegillermancomedy.com