The Humanist Community at Harvard, the American Humanist Association, and the Harvard Community of Humanists, Atheists, and Agnostics presented their 6th Annual Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award for Cultural Humanism on February 20 to comedian, actor, marathon runner, and aspiring mayor of London (2020) Eddie Izzard.
Following a short performance, Izzard took time for audience questions; here are some highlights:
You often use comedy to take on some pretty serious issues in the world. How do you find a balance?
Some people would say I haven’t found that balance. My gods are Monty Python. I do intelligent, stupid, stupid, intelligent, smart, stupid. That’s the edge that I play.
As I started getting into standup, I realized I needed to talk about something. I discovered history was there, and no one was going into history—I may as well dive in there. And I told everyone I was a transvestite, and got these nails, and came out when I was 23. I’m not trying to preach; I’m trying to encourage. Some people always walk out, I know that. I think you just have to try it and see what happens. In the end, I’m trying to make myself laugh. I’m trying to inform myself and see things.
Like I pointed out in the show Circle, this thing from the Catholic Church was to eat the body of Christ and then drink the blood of Christ. Now I know Christian religions were dropped on top of pagan religions. “Pagan” is a word that’s mongrel, that’s been demonized—and “pagan” sounds like “stupid religions.” But they were the religions that people had—the Greek and the Roman gods and all that. When they dropped Christianity on top, I think these things came along. I started arguing that it looks like drinking the blood could have been old vampirism, and eating the body is cannibalism.
That sounds pretty heavy duty. God would have been there saying, “Hang on there. No, don’t do that. What are you doing?” But the idea of drinking the blood of Christ and eating the body of Christ, and no one is going, isn’t that kind of vampiric and cannibalistic? So, I pointed that out.
I think transvestites are designed to find these things out. I didn’t get to a psychiatrist so in the end when I was coming out, I did a lot of self-analysis. I used that self-analysis on the rest of my life. So on one hand you have analysis, on the other hand you have instinct, and you try to go forward with a positive heart.
In an interview you said that being transgender was a gift. Could you elaborate?
When I first came out, I went to a transsexual/transgender support group, where I was talking to a transvestite lawyer. He said, “I’m looking at it as a gift.” So I thought of this as a positive way of looking at it. It is actually a gift because women talk to me in a different way. If I had more makeup on and was more girly, I think I’d be more sensitive to it, but I’m able to walk around in heels and nails and not give a monkey’s blok about it.
If you are an alternative sexuality, you have to look at it as a gift or otherwise it’s going to grind you down. In the end, I’m a much more positive person for having come out.
How old were you when you realized you were a transvestite?
Was there any particular person or specific event that inspired you to come out?
I was a student in my first year at Sheffield University. I thought I’d go to the student medical center. I told the doctor, “I’m a transvestite. Are there things you can do about that?” He said, “you get a referral to a psychiatrist,” and he was going to send me an appointment. Nothing came through. So I went back again and said, “Remember me?” He said, “Oh nothing’s come through. I’ll get right on that and make sure it happens.”
Still nothing came through. I could have been dead—not a great piece of work by this guy.
(In all the films, the transvestites hang themselves twenty minutes in. No, let’s have all the alternative sexuality people who are existing at the end of the film and all the straight people are dead—we’re in there with the feral dogs.)
Then I told an ex-girlfriend, whose brother was gay. I said it out loud, I told one person and then I felt, I’ve got to come out. So two years later I came out.
Just be friendly, supportive, and be positive. Don’t just go, “Oh my God!” But you could say, “Well, I wouldn’t wear that.” If blokes get in a dress, they don’t have anyone to bounce off—to say, you know, that’s not going to work.
More recently you’ve been appearing in what you call “boy mode.” Is there a particular reason for that?
Me being boy mode or girl mode has no difference on a performance or the way I live my life. I’ve been trying to be an actor from the age of seven. There is a perception thing. I can see show-runners, producers and directors if they go, “Oh the transvestite guy, I don’t know how that fits.” It gets as very fine as that. I kind of walk a tightrope now. I’m tactical. I tell everyone I’m a transvestite. It’s like if you’re gay, you don’t have go around having sex everywhere just to prove it. I’m just wearing what I wear, and I look kind of blokeish.
If I looked like Marilyn Monroe, actually I’d just throw anything on and a bit of eyeliner, and everyone would think I’m really girly. I also appreciate some of the boy aspects of me cause I am 100% boy, plus extra girl. That’s the weird thing. I’ve just sent off my dad’s genome and my genome and we’re going to compare them. But within it, there will be the transvestite, trans—well, I call transgender the whole group.
And then there’s transvestite and transsexual, which I believe are the same thing but it depends whether you take hormones to move yourself from transvestite to transsexual. The next person has a different thing saying, “No it’s not that. This is the name of it.” It’s a bit like where gay and lesbian were back in the 1950s.
How I’m looking is me trying to work out the best way of getting everything I’m trying to get in this life because there could be another one, but at the moment I’m only banking on this life. I don’t believe in the invisible bloke upstairs.
I was an agnostic for a long time just in case He came down—the End of Days, here it is, Rapture time! And I would have said, “Well I was never not on your team.” I would have just argued my way into heaven.
But I thought, let’s put the chips on the table. Let’s just jump to light-speed and get over that. And then if there is an End of Days, I’m stuffed and it doesn’t matter. I’ve just decided I’m going to live it. And that’s what it was. I suddenly realized I was hiding behind myself and it was best to just come out in front. It’s kind of like being a transvestite. I think gradually people just move on over that.
When did you realize you are a humanist?
I am getting this award as a humanist but… I said I was an atheist in 2008. I remember hearing about the humanists and I always thought of myself as a human being. I don’t know. This is a difficult question to answer. It was probably in my thirties I said I could be a humanist. Before that I was a bit too egocentric.
Why does humanism or atheism matter to you?
It’s common sense that leads to humanism. Generally I like people until they tell me they’re fascists. I then go, “I don’t know what to do with you.” It’s the logical place to be. That and just giving a damn about people. I call myself a spiritual atheist—I don’t believe in gods. I believe in us and that’s how it works.
How would describe yourself as a student or observer of religion?
I’ve become a student of life really. I look for patterns and came up with a theory which history plus change in society multiplied by the change in technology equals the future.
It’s a bit of a glib equation, but humanity keeps repeating things. We have a Hitler and then we had Milošević. Why did that happen? Then you factor in the change in society. No elected government—or even dictatorships—are saying, “let’s have slavery.” No one is putting it forward as a sensible idea.
The Arab uprisings came through Twitter, Facebook, and the internet. So if you put in all that, you should be able to estimate the future. I look at patterns and waves. I looked inside myself to work out why I was transvestite and what was going on. I didn’t come to any conclusions but I dumped guilt and shame.
How to you reconcile believing in human goodness in this time of genocide?
If you add up all the Nazis in World War II who started this out, they were in the tens of thousands. Even now, there’s seven billion of us. One person with a gun can do a hell of a lot of damage and death. It’s all the others, the ones who aren’t picking up guns that I’m talking about.
Notice how people inside the cities tend to vote Democratic. You go outside the cities and it tends all to go Republican. There’s something about living next to each other. I believe the melting pot is the thing that can save the world. I also think there’s a ticking clock. If we don’t get a free and fair world by the end of this century, we might not make it because someone will invent something that size of a pea that will destroy a city. Hitler spent a lot of time trying to persuade people to be really negative. So I’m going to do the opposite, and encourage people to be positive.
How consciously do you think of your comedy as educational?
I’m just going for entertainment. People used to say my humor is rather gentle. I remember listening to Bill Hicks, who was later on taking on bigger subjects using surreal and political comedy. I realized coming out of Bill Hicks that I’ve got to take on bigger subjects. I’m not trying to educate but I’m encouraging and informing.
How do you respond to those who say, if you don’t believe in God, then you can’t have a good sense of right and wrong?
This implies you need the invisible bloke to tell you how right and wrong happens. There’s no proof of that because it means that all native tribes should be bad. Also, who was this this invisible person? Can’t he just turn up? We’ve got a few questions. If he knows about good and bad, why didn’t he use any of his powers to stop Hitler? He could have just made it so Hitler’s head came off.
A full video of Izzard’s performance and Q&A can be viewed here. In March 2013, Izzard begins a worldwide comedy tour aptly named Force Majeure. This article originally appeard in Religion Dispatches.