"If you're a little girl in Oklahoma wearing sweatpants and a cutoff T-shirt, I see you," stand-up comic Fortune Feimster calls out to little gay kids like she once was in her first-ever Netflix special, Sweet and Salty, which began airing in late January. A veteran comedian and actress who's appeared on Chelsea Lately,The Mindy Project, and most recently on The L Word: Generation Q, Feimster offers a set that includes regaling audiences with tales of her family's love of Hooters and has the power to reach people and change lives through her hilarious, heartfelt storytelling.
"I've been getting the most beautiful messages from people just sharing their stories," Feimster tells The Advocate about the response to her special within days of its release. "I'm talking about gay people, straight people, parents... Somebody said they watched it with their kid, their teenager, and after they turned it off, their teenager told the mom that they were gay."
For her special, Feimster delivered what she says is her most personal set to date before a hometown crowd in North Carolina, where her mom, now the head of the local PFLAG, introduced her to a cheering crowd.
"That was a big deal because North Carolina oftentimes gets a bad rep because it's in the South, and the South is usually thought of to be more conservative and not as accepting of gay people," Feimster says. "I wanted to show people that I am a Southerner, so I'm showing you my experience as a Southern gay person. The South is not just one type of person."
Feimster's Sweet and Salty set touches on her unabashed love of food, growing up as a tomboy and burgeoning lesbian with a mom who was a debutante and who wanted the same for her sweatpants-clad daughter, Girl Scouts, her first experience with a one-piece Speedo during a short stint on the swim team, dating in college, and meeting and falling for the woman who is now her fiancee.
Like that of one of her gay comedy heroes, Ellen DeGeneres, Feimster's humor is imbued with storytelling that, through its queer visibility, is quietly political in terms of its ability to influence hearts and minds.
"I talk a lot in my special about how the lack of representation growing up. I think did contribute a little bit to my coming out later in life," Feimster says. "I'm going to tell you funny stories, not just about being gay, but about my life -- being gay is a part of it."
"If someone out there is hearing this and seeing themselves in any of these stories, that's what I'm hoping I can provide for more people coming up. Because I didn't necessarily get to have that," she adds.
A familiar face on the comedy scene, especially in Los Angeles and at the queer women's event the Dinah Shore Weekend in Palm Springs, Calif., Feimster began at the Groundlings before kickstarting her stand-up career in 2007. At the time, there were plenty of lesbian comics who'd been working the circuits, like Suzanne Westenhoefer, Kate Clinton, Karen Williams, and Marga Gomez. But not many had truly crossed over into mainstream recognition, save for Ellen DeGeneres, who wasn't out at the start of her career.
At the time Feimster dove into her career, there wasn't a well-defined path to mainstream success for lesbian comics. She notes that DeGeneres's coming-out in the late '90s changed the landscape a bit.
"That was a huge thing, but when you talk about representation, you're naming one person," Feimster says. "Then she lost her TV show and didn't work for like four years. It was brutal for her."
Sweet and Salty includes tales of Feimster's early stirrings of gay identity like her love of being a Girl Scout because it was the only place she didn't have to compete with boys for the attention of girls. She jokes that she advocated for creating a badge for giving backrubs (something many who've attended Girl Scout camp can identify with).
Another tear-inducingly funny story involves her birthday, a family trip to a Hooters restaurant, chicken wings, and about eight sets of bouncing "titties." Despite her storytelling being downright funny, Feimster is also continually aware of the power of her visibility. She credits Netflix with offering her the worldwide platform to tell her stories.
Feimster's visibility began to ripple from close to home with her mother, who not long after Feimster came out in her 20s, became an important LGBTQ ally in North Carolina. Her mom continues to be a resource for people in need. Feimster says that just this past Christmas, her mom helped a transgender high school student who'd been kicked out of their home.
"They called my mom because they were like, 'We know she is an active part of the gay and trans community. She put out the bat signal and found housing for this trans teenager,'" Feimster says.
"I never thought that would be my mom's mission in life, but she just took it upon herself seeing she has a daughter who's gay," she adds. "She's learned a lot more about our community, and she's like, 'I'm in a place where people are still learning to accept, and I'm going to try to make that go faster and I'm going to try to help people.'"
Feimster's platform has increased exponentially with her Netflix show, and although she primarily reaches people through anecdotal humor and her lived experience, she doesn't shy away from making the occasional political statement on social media when it comes to human/LGBTQ rights.
"First and foremost, I'm a comedian. My job is to try and make people laugh," Feimster says. "But I have to sometimes remind people I'm still human, and if you see injustices around you or the other group suffering, I'm always going to stand up for the underdog or for the people that don't have a voice."