Jasmine Pierre says she welcomed the catcalls hurled her way by a man she passed on the street one day. She jokes that being called “bitch” makes her day. The black-haired, 26-year-old transgender woman genuinely appreciates someone recognizing her correct gender.
Pierre tells the story to seven other transgender people gathered for TRANSforming Your Pain Into Comedy, a stand-up comedy course offered at the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
Every Saturday for more than a month, they attend the class, taught by comedian Adam Barnhardt with help from Jeff Husbands. The course culminates in each student performing a stand-up routine at the Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip.
The class isn't just about becoming a stand-up comic. It also acts as therapy.
Many of the students recently moved to Los Angeles to live in a more accepting area. Danielle Paris, a painter, says, “I’m from Greensboro, North Carolina, but I moved to L.A. because I really had to pee,” she jokes, referring to that state's so-called “bathroom bill.” The students range from college age to middle age.
“Stand-up comedy is something I never thought of doing in a million years,” Paris says of the class. But she saw an email from the LGBT Center, and was drawn in by the possibility of shedding a different light on her history. Past traumas still haunt Paris. She grew up in a Baptist community and when she came out as trans, her family and friends disowned her. Despite feeling intimidated by performing comedy, she joined in the hope that it would be helpful in a bigger way.
Other students express similar anxieties about performing in public. Kevin Kline, who works as a minister, says, “It’s scarier than shit,” while talking in front of the class.
Each class begins with students speaking into a microphone about their respective weeks. The teachers stress that the students don't have to be funny during this time, they just have to be honest.
“When you talk about things that you’re going through, the more personal it is, the more everybody relates to it,” Barnhardt says during class. “It doesn’t matter who, what, whatever — it doesn’t matter. If you’re a human being, if you have a heartbeat, it becomes universal.”
It isn't until later in the class that sensitive material transforms into comedy. At that point, Barnhardt helps students carefully map their jokes on a whiteboard to figure out the punchline. But the bigger emphasis seems to be on making students feel relaxed.
During one session, Barnhardt has the students line up and look into one another’s eyes. They have to keep eye contact for a few minutes. “Whatever comes up, comes up,” Barnhardt tells everyone. The exercise is intended to help them feel comfortable with vulnerability.
Afterward, Forrest Hotler, a college student, starts to cry. She says that it's the first time she's ever “looked into another transgender person’s eyes.”
Being around other trans people also influenced Roxy Crimson, who works at Microsoft and recently moved from Seattle. “To be thrown into the class together and then have to stand up in front of a microphone and tell our deepest darkest secrets with a comedy twist, it really makes it easy to get to know each other and to bond,” she says. Crimson found that the support groups she had sought out in the past were depressing.
“Not to say that that's a bad thing. But this [the comedy class] is more fun,” she says. “Like, the teacher says that you kind of have to laugh at yourself and kind of not take yourself too seriously or else you’d cry your eyes out.”
The class allows students to explore what is for some a new identity. Olive Goanta says she only felt comfortable being called they/them before the class started. She felt using female pronouns was moving too fast. But participating in the class changed that.
“I said I was a trans girl, so they [the other students] would always call me ‘she.’ I decided not to correct them,” Goanta says. “Because it felt good even though it was a little fast for me.”
At times the humor is light. Participants joke about their work and other mundanities, but more often, the subject matter is difficult.
Paris jokes about calling the suicide hotline after contemplating killing herself on Christmas a few years ago. “I really struggled to find any humor in it,” she says, determined to make it work as material.
“It’s something that so many trans people do struggle with,” Paris says. “This is a very real part of what we go through.” Ultimately, she figured out how to make it funny.
Onstage, Paris recalls telling the suicide hotline operator how alone and overwhelmed she felt. The operator paused for a moment, then said, "Well, is there anybody you could call?" The audience roars with laughter.
Barnhardt says talking about transgender experiences is important for the audience, too: “Any topics we talk about usually in comedy, it will normalize it, so what you’re actually doing in speaking your truth about [being] trans is normalizing it."
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Barnhardt says that he fought hard to do the same with his gay identity. He made jokes about his sexuality back when being gay was much less accepted.
Even the simple act of showing up for class can occasionally be difficult for students. One student, Sarah Khoury, apologizes for coming late, explaining she couldn’t leave her apartment. Khoury was dressed as a woman but her landlord, who was outside, only knows her as a man. She didn’t want to risk the landlord finding she's transgender. Most of the students seem to think the experience of participating in the class is worth any such personal discomfort. Crimson says it gave her more confidence.
“As a newly transitioned, trying-to-figure-out-who-I-am person, I get nervous just walking on the street, let alone getting on a stage,” she says. “But if I can conquer a stage, I can conquer the streets. You can pretty much do anything if you can handle this.”
The next TRANSforming Your Pain Into Comedy class will take place July 8-August 12 at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Village at Ed Gould Plaza with the Comedy Store Showcase on August 27. translounge.org.