By Rachel Dowd
Originally published on Advocate.com May 12 2009 12:00 AM ET
Carol Leifer is hard to pigeonhole. That's strange when you consider the former Seinfeld writer is a 52-year-old lesbian Jewish stand-up comedian from Long Island. That should be pretty easy to peg. But Leifer likes to mix it up. She's amassed an impressive résumé producing or writing for The Larry Sanders Show , Saturday Night Live, and The Ellen Show (post-coming out). She's headlined her own HBO specials, appeared on The Tonight Show (with both Johnny Carson and Jay Leno), Late Night With David Letterman , and Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, and in March released her first book, When You Lie About Your Age, the Terrorists Win . Oh, and she used to be straight -- married to a man, dated Paul Reiser and Jerry Seinfeld, straight. Here, Leifer talks about the evolution to gay, being a lesbian mom, and why getting older isn't such a bad thing.
Advocate.com: So you turn 40, and like a co-ed in college, suddenly have the desire for a lesbian fling. I'm suspicious. Carol Leifer: It wasn't just a desire, it was urgent. And I think in retrospect, maybe it was my sexuality saying, "We need to go in a different direction. That needs to happenâ€¦now." But I did go into it thinking this would be a fun fling and a great story and brief. The last thing I expected was to fall in love with this person [partner Lori Wolf] and be sitting here almost 13 years later and have a child together.
Lori initially said that she didn't want to be your midlife sex-ed experiment. When do you think she knew that you weren't going back to the other side?It took a while before we knew this was something that was going to stick. It was really big adjustments on both sides, because I had to reconcile myself now as a gay person. I didn't expect this experience to redefine me and have this profound impact on my life. So I had to adjust to that and Lori had to adjust to that too. I give Lori a lot of credit for hanging in there with me. Getting involved with a woman who has never had a relationship with a woman before is a really risky, scary thing.
Did you have to reconcile how society was going to see you as a gay person or how you saw yourself?Both. It's very weird going from being in the majority for most of your life to, oh, now I'm part of the minority. Now I can see what it's like to be hated and what it's like not to be equal. I know what it's like to not have someone hate you purely because you are in love with someone of the same sex. I think I have that much more empathy and passion for the cause now. I've been on the other side, which is like, Hey, you want to get married? Let's run to Vegas, it'll take three seconds and nobody cares. And then there was coming out to my parents.
At 40. Do you think that was any easier than it would have been 20 years earlier?Coming out for anybody is a big deal, but coming out to your parents when you're 40? That was a lot of emotional drama. So much of that was the not coming out -- it was the agonizing for months leading up to it. Then my parents were so loving and amazing about it, the floodgates of tension just released. My mother is a shrink, and my dad, who's not here anymore, they're lefty liberals. I remember when I came out, my mother saying, "Finding love is a gift from God. There should just be tears of joy here." I know privately they needed to have their adjustment over it. But they're so loving, they left their own work to be done privately.
So why the agony?The agony was feeling that being gay would disappoint them. Maybe I was projecting. The other advantage I had coming out was that there are other gay members of my family -- on both sides. I think that helped a lot. And in a certain way it's a generational thing. Twenty years before I came out, it really would have been taboo and maybe shameful. But it's really changed.
And your parents had met Lori previously, so you knew they liked her at least.The fact that Lori is Jewish and my ex-husband was not -- add a thousand points. The power of religion is always funny to me. A guy who's not Jewish versus a woman who is Jewish? Oh, we'll take the woman. When I came out, my mother immediately said, "I knew that you two were a couple." Lori had come with me six months earlier to have a noncancerous -- thank God -- tumor removed from my breast. We took a walk around the neighborhood and my mother said she knew just from the way we were walking. The stuff you think you can hide, you can't. You can't hide a connection.
The party line says that we're born gay or straight. But in the book, you talk about it being an evolution for you. Did you become gay?I can only speak from my own experience -- and I spent a lot of years in therapy about this -- but I do think sexuality can be a fluid thing for some people. I don't think I was born gay. I had very powerful relationships with men, emotionally and sexually. And I never felt I was hiding being gay. I know what love is, and when I met Lori, I fell in love with her. I have to say the quality of our intimacy is way different than any relationship I had before with men.
How so?There's something in the quality of being with another woman. I've found a place that works for me better. Just the emotional aspect of our relationship is on a different level than the emotional aspects I had before with men.
For example, you went from being married to a man and not wanting kids to adopting your son Bruno at 50 with a woman.I know I'm a much better mother now than I would have been in my 20s or 30s. I want to encourage people with this book to adopt or have children later in life because I've just hit the point in my evolution where I think I can do the best job. And it's amazing what having a child does to a relationship. Lori is the full-time parent of our relationship. As much as I loved her as a person and a partner, I watch her be a mother to our child and think, Boy, did I pick a winner. She's phenomenal. It's really wonderful when you see your partner also be this amazing parent. You just love them that much more.
What makes you a better mother now?I feel I have a better outlook on life. I was always afraid of getting older. I remember when I was a kid, I'd do the math to find out how old I would be in the year 2000, and think, Aggh, I'll be 43, all shriveled up. You think you're formed at 40, but you can still grow and change and become. You can keep evolving as a person. I found the love of my life after 40 -- I didn't know it was going to be a woman, but I still found her. Had a child, got Bat Mitzvahed at 45 and rediscovered my faith, became an animal person. All these wonderful things happened. The whole pace of my life is different. I used to feel that my life ran me. Now -- to borrow a Seinfeld phrase -- I'm mistress of my domain. I know my priorities. I know what's important. Spending time with my son is a non-brainer. If I have to say no to things that maybe before I would have agonized about, it's easy. I care so much less about so much more. I'm not scared of getting older. I love it.
And what about the argument, popular with evangelical Christians, that two moms don't cut it?It's so disappointing when you hear the far right say, "Every child deserves a mom and a dad." Are you living in the world? Where do you get off? I think Bruno is so lucky to have two parents. These states that don't allow gays to adopt, and the children who could be finding great homes, but because of people's bigotry, they don't....it's the biggest shame in the world. A good parent is a good parent. And Lori is as good a ball player as any guy, so he doesn't need a male figure for sports. We've got that covered. I know we're good parents.
In your book, you say that when it becomes legal to marry, you and Lori will take the plunge. There was a brief window here in California, but you didn't marry. Why not?It was the greatest October of our lives last year. We went to so many gay weddings, it was like living in a wonderland. But I had a feeling that Prop. 8 was going to pass, and I wasn't prepared for that depression. Lori and I are hold-outs. We want to wait for the gold standard of marriage, when marriage is recognized on the federal level -- equal for everybody. Gay marriage will happen, because the younger generation is different. They are going to be writing the rules and those rules are going to be in our favor. The dinosaurs are dying off.
And yet, they don't seem to be dying quietly. How much homophobia have you encountered?Your first piece of hate mail will change you. After I did Oprah [on March 25], I got the "You will burn in hell" letter. I thought I was prepared for something like that, but even 13 years in, it's still a kick in the face. How can someone hate me who doesn't know me? How can someone hate me after seeing me on a show where I'm so happy and I'm saying I'm living the best part of my life?
What other reactions have you gotten about your book?I went on The View , and I talked about having a partner for 12 years, and the audience applauded. I'll bet you there were plenty of women in that audience who would have voted against gay marriage and against gays adopting. It's one baby step at a time. I did Mike Huckabee's show, and his audience is obviously very conservative. They have a section called "The Hot Seat" where I got to ask him some questions. And I said, "Why do you feel people like myself shouldn't be able to adopt?" And he said, "Well when you phrase it that way, you make it so personal." Exactly. The more we're out there talking about our lives, our relationships, about our children, our families, it chips away at people. I got a few Facebook messages after that, saying, "Dear Carol, I am your typical conservative and I love Mike Huckabee, but I think gays should be able to adopt." You put a human face on it, and it's hard to discriminate, because you're talking about a real person. The only thing that's been disappointing in my press tour is that there's a misguided impression that, "Oh, you're 40 and it didn't work out with men, so you go to women." That's so off-the-map wrong.
They clearly don't realize you have two senior Chihuahuas named Cagney and Lacey. That's all lesbian.Sadly Lacey passed away a couple of weeks ago. But we've already adopted another senior Chihuahua named Mini Mo. She's 13, and they're bonding beautifully.
Has being gay changed your comedy?When I first started talking about being gay onstage I felt it wasn't working. The audience was like, You seem straight and now you're talking about being gay, what? I just kind of gave it up. But now I think I wasn't completely owning it, because it works completely now. I talk about having been married, and then I met this woman and my life spun around and we've been together for almost 13 years. And the audience always still applauds when I say how long we've been together, which is pretty amazing for a comedy club. I own it so much now. It wasn't the audience. It was me.
Your book is interesting because it's funny, but it's also heartfelt and inspirational. Ever think you need to bitter up your comedy?To be mean gratuitously has never been my thing. I can be snarky and cynical but not mean. There are so many parts of the book that I really do hope are inspirational. We are still changing and growing and the best part of you can still be around the corner.