Kelli Dunham: Really funny person. Really serious subjects.

Kelli Dunham speaks into microphone
Kelli Dunham. (Photo: Lauren Dukes)

It’s Lesbian Visibility Week! So I thought I’d feature a lesbian who has been a fixture in the LGBTQ+ community since many of you were baby queers. 

Kelli Dunham is a comedian and writer and co-founder of the first Philly Dyke March. Dunham is a 2015 White House Champions of Change nominee (under the Obama administration) and was named to the Velvet Park Magazine’s 25 Significant LGBT Leaders in 2016 as well as to the Campus Pride Hotlist. You may have also seen Dunham on Showtime and the Discovery Channel or MC’ing any number of Pride events. Dunham is also an RN and the author of seven books of humorous non-fiction, including two children’s books. Dunham’s comedy albums have included “I am NOT a 12 Year Old Boy,” “Almost Pretty,” “Why Is the Fat One Always Angry,” “Gender Envy” and “Not The Gym Teacher.” Dunham’s newest one-person show, “Second Helping: Two Dead Lovers, Dead Funny” is playing one night only on May 3 at the William Way LGBT Community Center. I caught up with them ahead of their performance. Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What’s your day been like?
Good, I was outside this morning flyering for the show. I have three shows in New York. I haven’t done that in a while. We used to put up flyers all the time, I remember the Philly Dyke March putting up thousands of flyers. Now, I have to put where I hung them in my phone so I can be conscientious and go back and get them. I don’t want to litter, so it’s twice as much work. I also just put together a little mini trampoline, which I thought was a little bit more mini than it actually is. It’s almost as tall as I am, which is kind of big for a New York apartment. But I’m trying to get an endorphin mood lifter in my space! 

Sounds good. Let’s get to you. Where are you from?
Originally, I’m from Wisconsin. But I like to say, I spent my queer adolescence in Philly. I lived in Philly from 1996 to 2006. After coming out, it was like my second childhood, my happy one.

What was life like in Wisconsin?
I’m the youngest of either five or seven, depending on how you’re counting. We grew up in a really rural area that was very stoic, Germanic. Comedian Kate Clinton would say about her Buffalo childhood, “If you had an emotion, you had to go to your room.” And that’s similar, any complaints to my dad were met with, “You know, most people are just about as happy as they make up their minds they’re gonna be.” We were very feral. We had a lot of chores, but like most kids back then, we had absolutely no supervision. So we had a lot of fun as well.

The good old days!
[Laughing] Well, I also got hit by a car when I was a kid, so there were some drawbacks but yeah, mostly good memories. I worked in a high school for a long time, and would say to the kids, “If you’re only playing video games together, I’m not sure you’re making memories. In 20 years, do you want to be sharing, “Remember that time when you and I went to your house and played video games for 12 hours?”

I’m always taken by the fact that there’s never a time when no one knows where they are. It seems so invasive in a way, like a big brother (or mother) kind of thing.
I know. I would leave for school in the morning, then go to after school activities, and my mother wouldn’t see me until dinnertime and they had no idea where you were. I feel like that’s less worrisome. They were like, “Oh well, they’re either safe or not, no use worrying.”

So what did the folks do?
My dad wanted to be a farmer, but he realized that farming in Michigan meant being broke. So he had an actual job in town though his heart wasn’t into it. When I was older, my mom worked as an assistant to somebody who did interior design. That was very high society for Wisconsin, you know. She wanted to be  the working class Elizabeth Taylor. She was married something like nine times. 

What’s a good family memory?
There was an ice storm when I was in third or fourth grade and we didn’t have any electricity for 12 days. This was in Wisconsin pre climate change, so it was very cold. We all moved into the living room where there was a fireplace. All of the kids and my parents — we all slept in there together and cooked over an open fire. It was like “Little House on the Prairie.” I remember my mom made chili in the fireplace! I don’t know how. She was just magical that way.

What were you like as a kid?
I looked exactly like I look now! If you look at pictures of me, I look exactly the same, just with more wrinkles. In fact, I’m practically wearing the same shirt that I was wearing in my 12-year-old school picture. I liked skateboarding. And I always wanted to be a stand up comic from the time I knew that stand-up comedy was a thing. I remember one time, my mom picked me up from Girl Scouts, and said, “Your dad’s gonna let you stay up late to watch the Steve Martin special.” I remember feeling a little embarrassed for him with the arrow-through-the-head jokes, but I also remember thinking like, “Wow, he filled a stadium. So comedy is a thing you can actually do for a job.” And from that moment on, that’s what I wanted to do. On the walk home from school, there were cows on each side of the road and I always used to tell them jokes on my way home. FYI, they were not the worst crowds I’ve ever had, by far.

What’s a time when being funny either got you in trouble or got you out of trouble?
I was the youngest by quite a bit. I have a sister who’s 19 months older than me, but everyone else is much older than me. They were really like my parents. When she was in ninth grade, my sister used to come to my parent teacher conferences! I feel like making my siblings laugh, especially my brothers, made them see me as an actual person despite the age difference.

That makes sense. So what got you from Wisconsin to Philadelphia?
I’ve lived in all sorts of different places. I was a nun in New York for a while. When I left the convent, my aspirant mistress was just standing there tapping her little foot going, “all right, well, where do you want a bus ticket to?” And I was like, “I don’t know.” I thought the convent was the end of the road for me. I didn’t have a plan B but my sister lived in Philly so I asked her if I could stay with her for a little bit. I wanted to be closer to her and once I got here, I really, really liked it. I had no job skills at all, so I knew I needed to go back to school. Philly was a good place to restart. 

What’s something we would be surprised to know about convent life?
I feel like most things are surprising about it, because most people don’t know much about nuns anymore. Well, this is kind of a funny little thing. You were never allowed to go out by yourself. We only went out two by two, and you weren’t supposed to chat with each other. You were supposed to pray the rosary the whole time. I always really liked it when I got to go out with this one sister who I think had a little bit of a crush on me. She would always let us talk instead of praying. And that was always my favorite thing, just being able to chat. [Laughing] It’s such a low bar of happiness, you know?

I remember when the book, “Lesbian Nuns” came out. It was scandalous at the time, but it made sense to me. I think if I was born in the era where you pretty much had to get married and have kids, I may have opted to marry the big J instead myself!
Yeah, they updated and re-released it and I was actually featured in the new foreword. Originally, I had so much shame about it, I just felt embarrassed because like, who’s a nun now? I worked with Jane Cordova not too long ago. She’s since passed, but there’s a line where she said, “The convent was our boot camp for learning social change.” And of course there were lesbians that were attracted to nun life just to avoid getting married. That wasn’t my case. I was just looking for something that made sense, but I’ll say that having that reflected back to me was like, ‘Oh, I’m not a mixup’. But for a lot of women, joining a convent was their only access to education. With a lot of the teaching orders, you can even get a master’s degree! 

There’s something I didn’t know. What spurred you to go into convent life in the first place? 
[Laughing] Well, here’s a warning — if you’re from a dysfunctional family and haven’t had much therapy, think twice about making a major life decision like becoming a nun. But I’ll say I was looking for community, and I was looking for purpose and it had both those things. And everything that I was looking for is still important for me now, but the queer community is my convent now.

Let’s fast forward a little bit. What was your coming out experience with your family?
So, I came out in Philly. I was staying with a friend and it was when I was trying to get a job and go back to school. Actually, I think I’d already started my job working for Project Home. The friend lived out in the suburbs, Malvern, so I had to take the regional rail to the bus and then from there, I had a long walk down Lancaster Ave. One day, I was walking and thinking about all the ins and outs of my life, being raised evangelical Christian then converting to Catholicism to be a nun — all that. I just had this moment of like, “Oh, I’m a lesbian. Oh, oh, that makes everything make sense.” It was just kind of as simple as that. I came out to my sister, and she was really lovely about it. All my siblings were lovely about it. [Laughing] My brother was like, “Yeah, no kidding.” And then I came out to my mom, and she ripped up my birth certificate and sent it to me. 

Yeah, but time changes things. She died two years ago, and I was the one at her bedside. We stuck it out and figured it out. I think she watched a lot of Ellen! 

That’s great. You were one of the co-founders of the first Philly Dyke March. Tell me about that.
I was looking for a place to plug in and I knew that volunteering is always the best way to make friends. Some of those folks are still my lifelong friends, people like Gloria Casarez, who passed away but we stayed friends until the day she died. To some extent, we weren’t sure what we were trying to create. We just wanted people to show up and it was my first experience of really creating a community space as a form of activism. Just watching people, so happy to be in that space, and realizing that the creative space is activism, you know?

Kelli Dunham headshot

Let’s talk about your seafaring life. I understand that you spent some time living on a boat at Penn’s Landing.
Yeah, I lived between pier three and pier five. When I was a kid, I always wanted to live in a houseboat and I was able to buy one here in Philly. I lived there for three or four years, and it was fantastic.

What were the pros and cons?
I have to say, it got pretty cold during the winter. During the summer, it was lovely. But during the winter, it was halfway between camping and homelessness. But it was fantastic. There are two kinds of people who want to live on boats. You have the people who want to be a little bit off the grid, and then there are the men who lost the house in the divorce! Those folks don’t have a lot in common. But I really loved it. I mean, I watched the sunrise and sunset every night and it was beautiful. I had two cats on the boat, which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend but the cats had a great life. I built them an overhang so they could be safe on the top deck. They got to bask in the sun and watch seabirds all day. I have to say that’s the happiest I’ve ever made cats for sure.

Switching gears, you were in Edinburgh for a while. Were you able to understand anything anybody said? It’s a different kind of English isn’t it?
It’s funny. In 1986, I worked at a camp where we had a lot of exchange folks, mostly from around the UK, but some from Scotland. There was a girl from Glasgow, and I spent about three or four weeks with her so I began to understand and had to translate for her to other people. Anytime she tried to get on the phone, she was like, “They’re never going to understand me!” In ’96 I did some shows in Edinburgh. It was a great experience. The show was the one I’m going to be performing here — “Second Helping: Two Dead Lovers, Dead Funny” —and she came to the show! She was like, “See, I was training you for this!”  

So let’s segue right into that. Tell me a little bit about the show.
Second Helping: Two Dead Lovers, Dead Funny” is ostensibly about…well, it has a lot of death in it but it’s not about death. It is really about learning to ask for and accept help. My situation is pretty specific, losing two partners in a row to cancer before age 40. But the struggle to ask for help and to accept is pretty universal. I hardly ever run into anyone who’s like, “Oh, no, I’m great at asking for help.” So it’s about having that conversation about it. 

It was interesting. A lot of teenagers started coming to the show in Edinburgh, and I was like, “Wow, these teenagers want to come to this show about death?” I was super glad to have them there. But I’d think, “Why are you guys here?” They would come and they would bring their friends the next day. And I’d think, “You want to see this show? Twice? Really? Okay”. But it turned out it was because the show is about learning how to not just do caregiving, one partner for another, but as a group, right, doing mutual group caregiving. And so it’s about building an actual physical manifestation of community and for kids who came out into TikTok, it almost seemed like they were like, “Oh, I can’t even imagine having 30 gay friends,” which is a little sad actually. So I would tell them, “You can.” It’s not impossible but you have to put things in motion. So in many ways, it’s about a love letter to queer community. 

Is it a mixture of comedy and drama?
I mean, it’s funny, but it gets a little less funny as it goes on. I put the two dead lovers in the title so there’s no surprises. That probably takes away from the dramatic effect but I don’t want to do that to people. “Oh no, there’s a dead lover. Oh no! The second one died too.” I feel like that would be a little like a hate crime. I mean — even when people come in knowing it — when I say Cheryl developed Hodgkin’s lymphoma, they get upset. [Laughing] I feel so bad I want to go out and give the audience a hug. So there is obviously some loss. It does have that tragic part. But also, it is very funny, because I’m a comedian. And also because both women that I was involved with were very funny. And I think if you’re talking about things that are dramatic or serious and are being honest, real life is pretty funny by itself. And often the more intense things are, the more that’s true. 

When I started comedy, I was a very typical stand up comic — jokes like, “Butch? Femme? It’s all about who kicks the cat off the bed.” That kind of thing, which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. I was making heavy jokes of light things but now I feel like my comedy is more about making light of heavy things.

I like it. So let’s do some rapid fire questions. Something you’d do if you weren’t afraid (if you knew it couldn’t hurt you). Other than skydiving. Everybody says skydiving so you can’t use that. Or bungee jumping…
I don’t know, take LSD.

Ha! That’s my answer! I’m always shocked that in almost 20 years of asking, no one’s ever come up with that for an answer. You’re the only person. I think of the music of the ’60s and ’70s with Stevie Wonder and the Beatles and you can tell they were all tripping. It would be interesting to experience it, but it’s not something I’d ever try ordinarily.
Yeah, especially with chemical ones, like LSD. It seems the potential for something very bad happening is too great. But if it was perfectly safe, it might be interesting. 

Your best celebrity encounter?
Oh! I was performing at New Jersey Pride with Debbie Gibson and she winked at me. She was a little flirtatious, that Debbie. I know she didn’t mean anything by it, but I appreciated it. It was a very neighborly gesture. 

Any notable relatives?
My grandmother was quite notable — allegedly. She taught ages K-8th grade in a one-room schoolhouse. The story goes that when the 8th grade boys started acting up, she would challenge them to an arm wrestle and if she lost, they could do whatever they liked but if she won, they’d have to behave. She always won. That’s the legend. 

What three words would your friends use to describe you?
Stubborn, generous and enthusiastic. 

Any tattoos? 
Yes, I have a few. I have one on my chest that was designed for me by my partner Heather before she passed away. It has stars around it and the black ink used for them was mixed with her ashes so my tattoo is filled with a part of her. [Laughing] When I first did that, I thought, “Oh, I’m never going to have sex again. People are going to be put off by it.” But it turns out lesbians love it. They find it romantic! 

My first tattoo was a dolphin jumping over a wave. I had one Gen Z kid say, “I like your vintage-styled tattoo” and I’m like, “No, this is vintage.” And I have the 1998 Dyke March logo on my arm! It’s a rabbit with a thing that says Dyke March. The only problem is that there’s a white area in the middle which accidentally looks like a penis!

I did notice that! OK, last question: A favorite quote?
Sure. It’s from Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement and it’s, “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”

Kelli Dunham will perform “Second Helping: Two Dead Lovers, Dead Funny” at 7 p.m. on May 3 at William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St. For more information, visit For more on Dunham, visit

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