Olivia Haidar moved into her Toyota Sienna van to save money while she pursues comedy.
Olivia Haidar moved into her Toyota Sienna van to save money while she pursues comedy.
Danny Liao

Comedian Olivia Haidar Found Creative Freedom by Living in a Van

From the stage of the Clubhouse in East Hollywood, comedian Olivia Haidar delivers a stinging joke to the crowd: "I am a homeless, Middle Eastern, transgender woman, so if anyone is thinking about murdering anyone tonight — come and see me after the show." She adds, "I'm your best bet in the hate-crime triple crown."

The joke is typical of her style: dark and sardonic; self-deprecatory with a hint of nostalgia. Coolly weaving the microphone cord through her painted fingertips, Haidar measuredly walks the audience through the trans experience, from dating and social issues to her adventures in her current residence: a red Toyota Sienna minivan.

The 29-year-old Indiana native grew up in a low-income household, living in a trailer behind her grandmother's farm. To escape the stress of an abusive stepfather, the self-proclaimed "history and religion type of nerd" tore her way through horror movies and books. With her life in a constant state of flux, movement was the norm for Haidar.

"I would go on a lot of family trips, spent a lot of time with my relatives and stuff — traveling was a big part of my youth. Traveling has always been a bit of a bug."

After high school, Haidar kept it up. Wanting to move to L.A., she listlessly bounced back and forth between Chicago and Indiana while her dysphoria grew in time with her depression. It was then that 25-year-old Haidar happened upon a study about people with gender dysphoria who didn't pursue transition — and the life-threatening danger that amplified at every stage of their life.

"[The study] wasn't framing it in the traditional trans narrative, the stereotype of a boy wearing pink and playing with Barbies," Haidar says. "I grew up in the country. I played in the woods. The study spoke to me, my situation, and I went for it."

Concurrently, another narrative developed: Haidar's journey as a stand-up. In March 2014, she finally moved to L.A. and, after a short-lived job at the ArcLight Cinemas in Sherman Oaks, decided her best financial move was to cut her lodging costs. Haidar put a mattress in the back of her mom's red Sienna and began writing during the day and hitting open mics at night.

Haidar has always been a traveler.
Haidar has always been a traveler.
Danny Liao

Three years later, the van can be seen parked in open spaces around Silver Lake. It's been robbed from, stolen from and broken into. The dichotomy between Haidar's homelessness by day and comedy renown by night isn't lost on her, but she is resolved to focus on the day-to-day: finding places to shave, staying connected by phone and keeping out of harm's way. In the long term, Haidar is working toward having gender reassignment surgery, recording a podcast (when she gets electricity) and continuously pushing herself to be a better stand-up.

"If there's one thing that's driven me to improve, it's the conversations I've had with other queer or marginalized people after a good set," Haidar says. "People come up to me and say, 'I never hear about the gross side of being queer. Or the messed-up shit.' It's validating, that these issues have affected their life in another way. That's really why I'm here."

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