As a queer comedian who gets on stage every week, sometimes every night, and talks about her life, there really isn’t much room for me to be shy. With the inevitable sharing of my life that comes from comedy, some who see me perform feel closer to me, while others feel annoyance or animosity. “God, why does she talk about her vagina so much?” is what I assume a lot of those annoyed people say. And in all fairness, I do talk about my vagina a lot. And I call it a vagina. I use the anatomical words instead of slang in the hopes that these words will work their way BACK into vernacular as the glorious words they are! I’m not sure why the word labia makes people uncomfortable… maybe that will be my next essay. But today, I’m here to talk about what made me this way. What compels me to use humor to get through the most uncomfortable moments of my life? What makes me want to go on stage and tell you about my two week relationship that ended with a three week break up? Or my favorite froyo toppings? Or my thong issues with Victoria’s Secret? Comedy is an outlet for our frustrations and fears and joys that we can’t seem to fully express elsewhere. And for me, I’ve been using a stage for years for this catharsis. My highly tuned skills of making people laugh may seem crass to you, but believe me, they were honed in the cramped, sea foam green halls of St. John the Baptist School in Western New York, where humor was what saved me from years of torment.
I was a quiet kid. In the second grade, my mom was called in for a special student teacher conference. The nun who taught me was named Sister Jeanette, a petite women with stern brown eyes and octagonal glasses. I can still feel her look of disappointment when I used too much glue on the construction paper feathers for my Thanksgiving turkey. Her bizarre ability to know if your skirt was more than two inches above the knee was truly a superpower. This fierce passion for rules led to her concern for my progress, and she told my mother, “I think you should hold Brooke back for at least a year. She never talks, and I think she has a developmental disorder. We here at the school don’t have much you can use for treatment, but she should be held back or she will have serious social issues and will have trouble connecting with others in her adult life.” My mom was shocked… I was so talkative at home. What my mom didn’t know was that I had developed a crippling fear of talking at school and being overheard, being made fun of, being ridiculed. This fear literally paralyzed me from participating… in anything. My mom kindly thanked Sister Jeanette, but told her she would not be putting me through the second grade again. Sister Jeanette recommended putting me in speech therapy at the school over lunch as a compromise. My mom reluctantly agreed to try it out.
Speech therapy in Catholic school in the 1980’s looked a little something like this: a couple seven and eight year olds would lumber into the church rectory connected to the school and sit at a long table already set up for bingo that night. Then the rectory director (say that five times fast) who had NO training in speech or development education would sit with us. Our therapy? Saying the rosary aloud. That’s it. The Our Father was a particular favorite to put on repeat because it was so long and it gave the rectory lady a chance to glance at her crossword. I was in speech therapy with my ultimate bully, Adam James. Adam liked to call me a dyke, especially when I got nosebleeds in the middle of class. In retrospect, his jab was extremely accurate, but when I was eight, I didn’t know what that word meant. I would angrily scream back at him, “You’re the dyke!” and he would laugh. Something about Adam told me that he knew what that word meant, and something told me he didn’t have as great a childhood as me. Kids know those things even if they can’t express them, but they read social cues. Adam was gruff and mean, but in speech therapy, something happened that changed the way I looked at Adam forever.
The first day, we shuffled into the bingo tables and opened up our lunches. I had a pale pink lunchbox with a matching thermos, and Adam had a brown paper bag. We ate in silence for ten minutes, with Adam periodically kicking my shins under the table. I knew better than to react. My mom always told me not to give the bullies the satisfaction. But my mom didn’t know the excruciating pain of little boys’ boots against bare shins. I digress. We started therapy with the Our Father, and I went first. My speech was slow and methodical, like I was chewing my ham sandwich instead of speaking syllables. When I finished, the rectory lady (who we will call Mrs. R.) said, “Good job, little boy,” and didn’t even glance up from her crossword. I took this, of course, as a sign of absolute success. I was so good at praying, she didn’t even need to look up! I am such a pro. Then it was Adam’s turn, but he refused to start. Mrs. R. sighed and put down her crossword. We were interrupting her lunch with our speech problems. “Adam. Say the Our Father.” “This is stupid, I’m not gonna do it.” This went on for about five minutes. I stared at my thermos, the ponies on the side faded into peeling outlines of themselves, and patiently braced myself for another shin kick. “Adam, you cannot leave therapy unless you have said at least one Our Father and one Hail Mary.” It was like speech therapy combined with confession – the worst. Finally, Adam burst. “I DON’T KNOW THE OUR FATHER.” Everyone was silent for a moment. “Prayers are stupid, anyway.”
My mom had prayed with me every night growing up. When she was out of town for business, my dad would come in and pray with us, even though I know he didn’t drink the Catholic kool-aid. He did it for my mom, and he did it for us. I sat there thinking, how did he not know the Our Father? Did his parents not teach it to him? The wave of panic I had felt for myself as Adam’s anger built up evaporated into pity. I was really lucky. Not to have parents that prayed with me, but to have parents that tucked me into bed every night no matter what. I had a feeling Adam didn’t get that much attention at home. I left speech therapy that day, and made a decision to stop ignoring Adam. I started to quip back at him with funny retorts… that usually involved fart noises. I have always been classy like that.
The sunset of Adam’s reign of torment came as elementary school ended. It was time for a new bully to arise in middle school. A.J. Giordano. What a gem. I started fighting back with humor instead of silence, much to the disappointment of my mother. But my humor saved me way more than silence did. I would say 50% of the time it worked… which is way better than my former percentage of .01%.
I could sit here and list all my bullies, but what’s the point? Their names are irrelevant, but their impact on me was profound. We all come from different places in life, and have different advantages. Not everyone is coming into each environment on the same page, and sometimes it takes a little humor to bring people together. Or at least, to keep someone from kicking your shins for the billionth time.
There are still kids out there who get called dyke, but nowadays they have google, and they know exactly what they are being called. I didn’t have a youth center I could turn to when I had questions or needed help. Fortunately for me, I had a supportive family, but not every kid is so lucky. When Kaleidoscope Youth Center asked me to emcee their Garden Party on September 27th, I was absolutely elated. Why? Well, for one, I love a good party. But I also am thrilled that kids like me have a place to go that isn’t a church rectory where they sit in the dark and recite prayers. While that can be fun, kids need mentors and peers to connect to that understand the challenges facing children today. And sometimes, those connections save lives.
More information on the 2015 Garden Party can be found here.