Out performer goes from convent to comedy

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Kelli Dunham Photo Credit: Morgan H. Goode

Genderqueer ex-nun and comedian Kelli Dunham released her new comedy album, “Not the Gym Teacher” this month. The title references the many times she is mistaken for the gym teacher, though she is actually the school nurse. 

But let’s unpack the ex-nun thing first, as you usually don’t see a holy calling as a preamble to queer standup comedy. 

Dunham left the New York convent when she was 26 years old and moved to Philadelphia, where her sister lived. She moved into a place on the Main Line with someone she had volunteered with before joining the convent. At some point, she realized “Oh, I’m gay! That explains everything.” After that, she did what many young LGBTQ folks do.

“I joined a gay softball league and got a therapist and all those important things. But I always wanted to be a comic. The sisters used to say sometimes ‘Oh, you think you’re funny?’ I think I’m kind of funny even though you don’t think I’m funny.”

Thus, her transition from nun to comedian began. While her life is very different now, she said, “Everything I was looking for then, I still value now — building communities, feeling like you’re making a difference in the world. That’s still on my plate. It looks pretty different, and I have a different hairstyle now. “

Her first tour went hand-in-hand with that philosophy. After moving to New York and trying to hone her craft in heterosexual cis-male dominated spaces and catering to audiences of varying degrees of acceptance, she thought of an idea to curate community — a tour she called “House Concerts of Resistance.”

Her idea was to tie house performances to a progressive cause. She would perform for free if folks would give her the space to do so, and the hosts could use it as a fundraiser. 

“I posted [my idea] on Facebook. Five hours later, I had an entire tour booked of preview concerts, where I could work out material. That was amazing. People had a great time, and it created this lovely community. People got to enjoy each other.”

Dunham said house concerts allow her and her audiences to gather and enjoy the art of comedy in non-traditional spaces, free of homophobic language and jokes at the expense of one’s lived experience.

“Our people, we don’t trust stand up comedy,” she said. “Queer people have been the brunt of standup comedy.”

People who wouldn’t otherwise attend a comedy show feel safe and comfortable in Dunham’s spaces, she said. And the spaces come in all forms. 

“Somebody I went to Bible College with is allowing me to use the basement of his church, which is going to be really interesting… . In April I’m going to Florida, Texas and Mississippi.”

Queer comedy in the reddest of states? How audacious and bold!

“That was part of the plan,” she said. “I was a queer kid at a Bible college. That was not a smooth time in my life.”

She wanted to visit red states to provide access to queer comedy and life. Dunham also put a call out to Christian colleges and Bible colleges to let LGBTQ students know about her performances.

Dunham acknowledges that a true comedy utopia is still a ways off for a plethora of people but said comedians exiting mainstream venues to move forward. 

“Comedy, in general, is behind the times,” she said. “I know some queer-identified folks who are on the road doing regular comedy clubs. But the difficulty is that people are just coming to see the headlining comedian. They are not necessarily coming to see the queer comedian. So that limits you in the material that you can do. I’ve feel lucky that I’ve been able to pick and choose. A lot of female comics have stopped doing road tours because people are sexually assaulted in the comedy condo. I haven’t had anything like that happen to me, but it’s happened. It’s really not a great scene for anyone. I’m enjoying the alternative.”

Dunham said she doesn’t know if women and queer folks stepping away from comedy clubs and creating their own spaces or attending more accepting spaces will change anything, but she’s hopeful. 

In the meantime, Dunham is focusing on balancing her job as a school nurse and making people laugh about all the things that happen in and around her life.    

“People tease me for looking like a gym teacher, but really our gym teacher is way cooler than me,” she said. “People can relate to all 50-year-old butches looking the same. I am mistaken for Lea DeLaria all the time even though I probably weigh 60 pounds more than her, and she’s at least three inches taller than me and 10 years older — and our comedy styles are nothing alike. But I guess all chubby middle-aged butches look the same.”

Dunham added that masculine women are often mistaken for those much younger — like a ninth-grade boy. She said these tropes are well-known in the LGBTQ community and “people enjoy hearing their experience held up, and their story told.”

Kelli Dunham’s new comedy album, “Not the Gym Teacher” is out now. For more information, visit www.kellidunham.com. Dunham uses she/her pronouns.