As an ex nun you've been quoted as saying "being a lesbian stand up road comic is a lot like being a nun, but with more sex and less prayer" How do you feel sexuality and spirituality overlap?
Kelli Dunham is a stand up comic, an RN, a lesbian, an ex nun and an author. Originally from a town with a population under 1600 her mother enrolled her into a Christian Academy and then afterward onto Bible College. After having her fill of that Kelli spent time in Haiti developing activities for kids with disabilities before returning to join the Mission Charities and become a nun. Clearly it didn't work out and instead she became an RN. In 1998 at LGBT writers conference when Kelli was inspired to take her comedic talents to the next level and has never looked back. Her comedy has received rave reviews and she since has published four books: How to Survive and Maybe Even Love Nursing School (FA Davis, 2004), How to Survive and Maybe Even Love Your Life as a Nurse (FA Davis, 2005), The Boy's Body Book: Everything You Need to Know for Growing Up YOU (Applesauce Press, 2007), The Girl's Body Book: Everything You Need to Know for Growing Up YOU (Applesauce Press, 2008)
When they say that you're a "stealth gender non-variant," what do they mean? Also, how does you being a lesbian play into your comedic acts?Stealth gender non variant is a parody of the rigid gender binary ie someone who doesn't fit within the narrow confines of the rigid gender binary is often medicalized as "gender non variant" but in reality lots of people don't fit this narrow binary. Some boys like to play with dolls, some girls like to play with trucks. So the idea is that I am "stealth gender non variant" ie there might be some that would call me gender non variant but because the rigid gender binary is a social construct, I am not really that, ie I am stealth.
Being a lesbian plays into my act in lots of ways. Mostly, because I look like a 12 year old boy but am in actuality an adult female, my act simply happens to me as I walk through life. I get harassed by cops for not being in school. People assume my (feminine looking but same age) lover is my mother, etc.
In addition, I feel like being a sexual minority provides a comedic advantage because as gay people we are outsiders looking in, and we are more able to see the absurdity of the dominant culture.
What prompted you to become a nun?
Wow...is there any thing you do not do? What is your favorite "hat" so to speak?I became a nun because I was looking for a life that made sense considering the state of the world, the degree of injustice of all our systems, and the unfathomable volume of unaddressed human suffering.
Also, the first nun I ever met was carrying a 50 pound bag of concrete over her shoulder. It's hard not to fall in love with that picture.
And there are lots of things I don't do or don't do well...
1. you would NEVER want me on your side in a pop culture competition (I thought the Beatles covered the Carpenter's Ticket to Ride instead of the other way around)
2. I don't do yoga or reiki or meditate or anything else that requires a whole lot of sitting still
3. I don't delete emails. My gmail box currently has 6,079 emails in it.
4. I don't draw well although I really wish I could because I would love to do a lesbian nun graphic novel. I am sure it would sell.
I read your bio on your website but I'm still wondering something. You spent a great amount of your life dedicated to Christianity and being a nun. Why did you quit and move to Philadelphia? (Was it really due to problems with the Missionaries of Charity?)I left the Missionaries of Charity after being held back in pre aspirancy for a year and a half. For those of you not familiar with nun terminology, that's the equivalent of flunking preschool 18 times. The nuns said I had "insufficient docility" and "too much self esteem." How do you argue with that?
I loved the work the Missionaries of Charity do, and the way they live their community lives. But the emphasis on blind obedience and the way they sought suffering as a means of purification seemed positively ludicrous to me, and often not at all in keeping with a mission of love.
They also said I "walked like my shoulder were angry"
Too butch for a bunch of nuns. Go figure.
At one point in your life you were engaged to a man. Have you always been attracted to women or was it something that developed over time?I was always attracted to women, I just didn't know there was a name for it. I was engaged because I thought that's what normal people did. Then I found out there are all sorts of varieties of "normal" and that normality, as a concept, is way overrated anyway.
Did you always know deep down that you were a lesbian or was there a lot of soul searching involved before you actually came to terms with it? As a nun and growing up in a religious home, I would think you would believe that there was something wrong with your urges in the beginning; is this true?I came out shortly after leaving the convent and part of the difficulty of that experience was the feeling that the gift of my life was rejected because I somehow didn't conform to some rather arbitrary and superficial nun standards. Coming into my sexual orientation was just another step of realizing I have a special contribution to make to the world and that I can't make that contribution if I am living an inauthentic life.
Do you find that you're able to use your humor to reach out to younger people? I feel like there are seldom true role models for teens who do not feel like they fit in.I hope so. One of the things I've most enjoyed--and found most poignant-- about performing in prides in rural areas is getting to talk to kids and young folks who are just at the beginning of the coming out process. It's a kind of revelation I think to them, that someone who looks like me can make a living being a stand up comic.
The humor part is essential, but I also always carry a copy of Kate Bornstein's Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks and Other Outlaws. (http://www.hellocruelworld.net/)..because there are certain conversations that really make you worry about a kid, and it's good for them to have some hope in their hands.
Who is your favorite comedian? Who do you look up to or are inspired by in the comic realm?My favorite comic, the person who gives me hope for intelligent, edgy, progressive stand up is Eddie Izzard. He is a genius.
I also very much enjoy folks like Kate Clinton, Demetri Martin and Richard Wright.
Have you done anything in preparation for finishing the last 500 miles of your tour on foot, bike, skateboard and pogo stick? Do you have any plans for announcing, and possibly videotaping, when you’re doing those parts of the tour? I think it’s a great idea!Well I recently injured my knee and I am in a long leg cast for the next six weeks. Crutches, no weight bearing! That part of the tour, unfortunately, is indefinitely postponed.
What is your process like for writing? Do you find your work develops organically out of events in your life or do you sit down everyday and write regardless of inspiration?Especially when I first started, I would absolutely sit down and write every day. I do try to take stand up seriously and work at it like it's a job...because it is. But also, I have found as my stand up ears and eyes have developed, a lot of my work comes naturally out of being present in the world around me. It's a real blessing you know, to see the world in this way. A bad day isn't just a bad day, it's material! A weird interaction on the subway is comic gold!
6000 emails in your inbox, ahhh a fellow email pack rat, we could be BFFs.
Do you think the somewhat negative experience as a nun has jaded your religious outlook at all? Has your spirituality changed or evolved since leaving the habit (Everything I know about nun terms came from Sister Act 2 and The Trouble with Angels).I don't know that it was exactly my experience in the convent that made me feel jaded about organized religion, it just made me question my place in it. I'm not at all sorry I made the attempt to be a Missionary of Charity, there were things I learned there that I couldn't have learned anyplace else. And I would still be wondering, "should I have at least given it a try?"
My friends still say "if Kelli ever goes missing, check the convent" and that's true. I still have dreams of going back, although sometimes they are nightmares.
My spirituality has definitely changed since I was a nun, but I think the basic tenets are more or less the same. I try and do two things every day: 1. think kind thoughts and act on them 2. be thankful.
Are you still in contact with your (um, for lack of better wording) former nun comrades, and how did they react to your leaving and coming out? Did they support you?I was not in contact with any of the current Missionaries of Charity, that kind of contact between ex nuns and current nuns is not allowed in that particular order. I did for some time keep in contact with another sister who left, but we lost track of each other five years ago. Sister Carmel, email me if you're out there!
The answer may well be in your blog/site/bio but if it is I missed it. How do you identify religiously these days?I don't really identify with any particular religious practice these days, although I listed the sum of my personal practice in another question (1.think kind thoughts and act on them 2. be thankful) . I do actually attend church, Unity Fellowship Church in Brooklyn.[http://ufcnyc.org/blog/] UFC is a social justice ministry with an amazing group of people that I am just getting to know. I don't really identify as Christian, but I have learned a lot through UFC and feel really grateful to have something like a church home.
As a comic and a lesbian I'd love your perspective on something that seems to get folks up in arms on a regular basis.
How offensive do you, personally, find it when someone uses the word gay in that eighties way of implying they find something ridiculous or not to their liking or silly or stupid or whatever they mean to imply? For example: Dude, those pants are SO gay!Well of all the things people do and all the ridiculous ways people use language to hurt one another, it's certainly not the worst. On the other hand, I have mostly heard young people use it, against one another, and young gay folks are already incredibly vulnerable: we know that suicide rate for gay teenagers is much greater than their heterosexual counterparts.
It would just as easy to replace the adjective gay with more a descriptive and actually accurate adjective. I am not sure why people balk at such a simple change.
Since no one has asked yet...
Do you use sex toys? If so, what's your favorite?I do indeed use sex toys. I don't know that I have a favorite although I do believe every female should be given a hitachi vibrator at the onset of puberty.
In your childrens books, and in your opinion what age is appropriate to begin discussing gender and sexual preference?The thing is, if you try consciously to NOT enforce gender roles/identities of the dominant culture and NOT enforce heterosexuality, there won't be any need to have some special "some people are gay" talk.
People attribute heterosexuality to babies as soon as they come out of the womb: think about the phrase "oh yeah, she's gonna break boys' hearts when she grows up." Why not substitute "boys'or girls' hearts?"
Okay, I'm gonna put you on the spot here: as an ex-nun, a medical professional, a lesbian and a comedian, what're your thoughts on the so-called 'Catholic Kama Sutra' that's been in the news lately?
Also, what're your thoughts on the late, great Bill Hicks?I hadn't heard of this, so thanks for the link.
Well I think anything (well anything that is safe, sane and consensual) that makes people enjoy sex more HOORAY! And the thing is, some folks are just going to be Catholic. And they are going to want to follow Catholic teachings. So for them to have their own sex manual, with fun things they can do without feeling guilty, I say bully for them.
I wouldn't want to live by the damn thing. But hey. Different strokes for different folks and all that.
What a great life! I applaud your courage. So few people can bring themselves to jump off that proverbial cliff to take the plunge into living their bliss. What inspired you to leave your life as a nun to follow your dream? And where did you find the strength to cope with the transition? Kudos to you.Hmmm I think initially after I left the convent I wasn't inspired at all. I was discouraged, depressed, and felt like my life was over. Thankfully, I fell in with a really good group of folks in Philly and had what was very much a second adolescence. I experimented with different jobs, went back to school. got involved in activism and began to see that I had unique gifts to give to the world. It definitely took me a while to get my life back together but it was really my queer community that made it possible.
Sometimes when people ask this question they are asking "how can I find the courage to follow my bliss?" Then I use the analogy of the method my sister and I used to get ourselves into the freezing cold water at lake where we used to vacation in Northern Michigan. We would throw our floaties in (air mattress or inner tube) and then be forced to go in to rescue them. Got something you really want to do? Tell your friends you are doing it. Schedule it. Promote it. Put yourself where something is more important that your fear. You don't have to feel confident to do anything...you simply have to do it. Often the confidence comes after.
Do you have a new book in the works? Any hints at what you’ll be publishing next?I have lots of things in the works. Right now I am shopping a proposal called Grief Sucks which is a irreverent guide to the bereavement process. So much of what is written for people who have had a loved one die is schmaltzy, sentimental, contrived and unhelpful. I am have envisioned something that includes advice for bereaved folks BY bereaved folks, but with a healthy dose of the humor and often sarcasm that is part of the world of loss. Well, my world of loss.
I am also working on the book version of my one woman show, Pudding Day, about the life I shared with the woman I called “my Queen,” burlesque diva and activist Heather MacAllister who died in 2007. I describe the one woman show as "part stand up comedy, party sit down tragedy with love and body fluids in the cracks in between." The book will include more detail that doesn't fit into a one hour show, and will include a large epilogue called 'everyone cries on the A train" about my life since Heather's death.
Do you keep in touch with any of the kids you worked with in the past? I imagine that you saw a great need for health and sexuality education while working with children, how much did your missionary work influence your decision to write educational children's books?I wish I had been able to keep in contact with some of the kids I had worked with in Haiti...I've been back to visit but once the kids left the school and moved back to the provinces, it's been hard to find them.
In many ways, the kids' book projects fell into my lap. I was glad for the opportunity but it wasn't anything I had contemplated doing. I was just glad to have a voice in something that was written for kids, and written with respect.
Your bio lists your occupation as comic and author, your education as RN and ex-nun. Do you still work as an RN? What one thing from your book "How to Survive and Maybe Even Love Your Life as a Nurse" (FA Davis, 2005) do you find to be the most important piece of advice/information to those going into the nursing field?I do still work as a nurse a few days a month. I really love the job and it provides some stability and an excellent reality check in my life.
One important piece of advice about going into the nursing field: don't let anyone tell you aren't "right" for nursing if you are convinced it is for you. Yes, there are questions of aptitude to be considered, but there are so many places to practice nursing and so different types of nurses, you can find some place for you. Don't let piercings or tattoos get in the way: there are clinical situations that will embrace you for them!
Are there any fellow comedians you attribute your style to or especially admire?I don't know that my style is like anyone else in particular; I am more of a cerebral comic in that I am not physical and also not loud. I am more of a head scratching, hey how did this happen, gee whiz, storyteller type of comic.
I am a big fan of Eddie Izzard, he inspires me a lot as a genderqueer person, that I can do interesting and smart material and not have to just talk about my appearance or the difference between California and LA.
I also love lesbian comic Kate Clinton. She's smart and political and has been out for almost longer than I've been alive. She paved the way for all the other queer comics after her and continues to perform and travel and keep a busy schedule.
I really admire your obvious commitment to our environment... When you explained that you planned to finish out the last leg of your tour sans plane/train/automobile, did you find that most people reacted positively to the idea?Yes, people really dig this idea. Younger folks, college folks especially are very tuned into the importance of making entertainment more green.
My support company Riot Grrl Ink, has been very encouraging about making good choices for the environment and recently released a carbon footprint neutral CDs by one of their artists (Nervous But Excited). It's awesome that positive steps like this are being taken.
Thank you for responding! The reason why I asked is because I actually thought that it was termed gender variant, a person who is on or off of the gender spectrum. And wow, that must be a work. You must have a fun time with that! Thank you again!Sure, no problem, these question were all interesting to answer. The stealth gender non variant term does get some queries. I like that it gets folks thinking about how the rigid gender binary is enforced within one's own cultural milieu.