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Genderqueer Comic Kelli Dunham On Getting (Thee) Away From a Nunnery

Kelli Dunham

Kelli Dunham didn’t take the typical trajectory to becoming a stand-up comedian. The queer author, registered nurse, and former nun (that’s not a joke) grew up in a small rural town in Wisconsin with a population of about 1,500 — “if you count the cows,” she quips.

"I do not think that I heard the word lesbian probably until I was almost a teenager, maybe 12 or 13,” recalls Dunham. “I don’t even know it was a thing you could be."

In retrospect, she realizes she occasionally experienced queer folks reaching out to her as a child without even realizing it.

"I lived in a rural area of Wisconsin, and there was something called the Ice Age Trail," says Dunham. "Our driveway was actually part of the Ice Age Trail—now, we were not allowed to call it the Ice Age Trail…[my mom] believed in the Great Flood—so we called it the Great Flood Trail."

Dunham remembers sometimes seeing people she now realizes were probably "a butch-femme couple" traveling the trail, who seemed to recognize her burgeoning queerness and would say "Hi," or check in on her. "Those were like, my only queer role models,” she recalls.

A sheltered, religious childhood wasn’t Dunham’s only obstacle to becoming the out and proud "nonbinary trans-masc butch" she is today. She took a slight detour — through a convent.

From a young age, Dunham was "a tender-hearted, genderqueer, crunchy granola child" who loved animals, the environment, and helping others. These qualities eventually led her to charity work in Haiti in her 20s, where, after attending a very conservative Christian high school and Bible college, she decided to become a nun. She recalls with a laugh how she never really fit in with the other sisters due to her "insufficient docility."

"Mother Teresa, actually, when she came to the Bronx to give us our habits, she’s like, ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Oh, I’m Sister Kelli.’ And she’s like, ‘Oh—I’ve heard [about] you.'"

Eventually, Dunham had a come-to-Jesus moment (pun intended) when she found herself stealing feminine hygiene products from a women’s shelter the convent was working with. The act occurred out of frustration with the "wadded-up diapers" nuns had to use when menstruating.

"I was like, I don’t know who I want to be in this situation, but I know who I don’t want to be — and that’s a person who steals tampons from a homeless woman," recalls Dunham.

After some soul-searching, she decided to approach her headmistress at the convent to discuss her dilemma.

"I asked them, 'Well, I don’t know—do you guys think this is working out?' And my mistress was like, 'Let me think about that. No.' They were relieved." After leaving the convent, Dunham moved to Philadelphia, went back to school and received her RN degree, joined a softball team, and set forth in life as a "26-year-old baby dyke." She details much of her life experiences in her book of humorous personal essays, Freak of Nurture (Topside Press, 2013).

Aside from being a former nun, a nurse, a journalist, and a stand-up comedian, Dunham is an award-winning author of several books, including two popular nonfiction texts for kids, The Boy’s Body Book and The Girl’s Body Book (both with the subtitle Everything You Need to Know for Growing Up YOU).

When it comes to her writing as well as her comedy, nothing is off-limits — even the deaths of two former lovers to cancer (or the cats they left behind). After all, comedy, says Dunham, "really is just the manifestation of reality."

This philosophy rings true when listening to Not the Gym Teacher, Dunham’s new hilariously honest comedy album covering everything from being mistaken for the gym teacher (rather than the school nurse) to the high art phenomena of feline social media accounts.

Dunham’s big heart has only grown. It seems there’s not a project that she’s involved with that does not benefit a progressive cause. Her current "house tour," in which she literally performs at small, informal venues such as people’s homes or local businesses and churches, has helped raise funds for numerous nonprofits — including Planned Parenthood and Grand Rapids Trans Foundation.

"Who knew there was a trans foundation in Grand Rapids, Mich.?" jokes Dunham.

Dunham is also cofounder and co-curator of the popular award-winning LGBTQ storytelling series "Queer Memoir" as well as "Organ Recital," the storytelling festival and series about bodies, health, and health care. She was honored by the White House (under the last administration, she is quick to clarify) for contributions to LGBTQ and other causes.

For more info on the House Concerts for the Resistance tour and all of her projects, visit KelliDunham.com.

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