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Butch dyke comic Delaria boasts new album, roasts Ellen

By Jeff Walsh, Oasis Editor

I was happy when I heard Ellen Degeneres was going to come out as a lesbian on her show this year. I had always watched her show, even as it struggled with various cast switches to try and find itself. I truly think Ellen is funny, which is why it pains me to say that this season has been the most frustrating to watch.

Ellen's character, to me, has always been a lesbian. There was never an episode that ever made you doubt she was a lesbian. So, when it was finally going to be brought out into the open, I thought that would be great. I also thought it would happen a little quicker.

Gay rights advocates have always said that everyone knows when it is right for them to come out. So, despite her weekly hints and attempts to come out over the past year, it seems Ellen miraculously is going to find the courage during May sweeps, the major ratings period for the networks.

Open lesbian singers Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang will appear on the episode. Oprah Winfrey will be Ellen's therapist and Laura Dern will be Ellen's new girlfriend. After waiting a whole season, I find myself wishing Oprah was going to be Ellen's girlfriend at least, but I digress. Immediately after the episode airs, Ellen will appear on a news magazine show and, one speculates, come out herself.

Of course, doubting the sincerity of her coming out is not currently acceptable. GLAAD, formerly a media watchdog group, gushes over Ellen like a love-struck teenager. They are hosting "Come Out With Ellen" parties nationwide to celebrate. The gay press is so excited about it, one almost gets the idea that they would consider putting Ellen in cover stories and front page articles. I mean, think about this... someone homosexual actually on the cover of a gay magazine. The concept astounds me.

Admittedly, I will have a tape in my VCR April 30, and I will probably enjoy the episode, because I truly like Ellen, always have. I just remember back a few years ago when people came out because of personal and not marketing decisions.

This was abundantly clear when I interviewed Lea Delaria. Who, you say? Delaria is the anti-Ellen, a big, butch dyke comedian whose new album "Box Lunch" will be released on Rising Star Records this month. It is her first of a three-record deal with the company. She's recording a jazz vocal album later this year.

Taped at Josie's Cabaret and Juice Joint in San Francisco, "Box Lunch" offers a dizzying, whirlwind view into Delaria's comic brilliance which has earned her the "bad girl of lesbian comedy" title. I also love any comic whereby I can show up last to a general admission show and be guaranteed a front row seat.

Delaria gained national prominence when she ran onto Arsenio Hall's talk show and told the crowd that "it's hip to be gay in the 90s and I'm a big dyke." She has gone on to other acting roles, such as hitting on Goldie Hawn in a lesbian bar in "First Wives' Club" and will star in an independent movie "Homo Heights" this summer. In an Oasis exclusive, Delaria said she is part of a new gay sketch comedy series being developed at Showtime. "I'm not at liberty to pass out any names at the moment. You know them all, the right people were hired. I feel really good about it. It's going to be a great show," she says.

So, what does someone like Delaria, who has been out professionally from day one, go through when they watch Ellen's show nowadays?

"I am gritting my teeth, because it is just so duplicitous to me. Again, the gay community is just embracing it and just coveting it and thinking it's a wonderful thing that her 'character' is coming out of the closet, but she isn't... I mean, come on. Where is the courage in the act of coming out?" asks Delaria.

"To me, it is a mad grab for money, that's what it's all about. It's not helping me. If she wants to help me, if that's her big thing, then she should come out of the closet, not her character. That's all I'm saying," she says. "Having a character be gay in a sitcom, we have millions of them. Having a lead character be gay in a sitcom, well, the first one that I recall was "Love, Sidney," and that was back in the 70s. What about "Brothers"? There have always been lead characters who were gay in sitcoms. They're a dime a dozen. They're in every show, played mostly by straight people. So, I don't see how Ellen coming out of the closet furthers our cause unless it's Ellen Degeneres coming out of the closet, not Ellen Morgan."

Queer pecking orders

Delaria says Ellen-mania points out a larger issue in the gay community, the pecking order that both the gay community and the gay press have adopted.

"First, we seem to worship straight people who support us, like Roseanne, Judith Light, Cybill Shepherd. You can look on the cover of every gay magazine right now and everyone on the cover is straight. I think Ebony would never put a white person on the cover of their magazine, and we need to start examining that," Delaria says.

"Then, the next in the pecking order, is people who were in the closet, became famous, and waited for other people to make it safe for them to come out, and then they came out," she says. "I don't want to knock them, because people can only be where they are. If they're not ready to come out, they're not ready to come out. And bless them for coming out now."

Delaria says the next in the pecking order is mailmen, doctors, lawyers, shipping agents, pretty much any regular person in the gay community. "And then somewhere down at the bottom of the list, we have gay people who have always been out as entertainers and performers," she says, seriously.

Doing a quick mental inventory, you'll find Delaria is right. Scott Thompson, formerly of Kids in the Hall and now a regular on the Larry Sanders show, rarely gets a mention in the gay press. Andy Bell, lead singer of Erasure, can still score an album review in the gay press, but I can't recall the last interview I've read with him, and I'm a press junkie. RuPaul has a new calendar, VH-1 show, radio station slot in New York City, album and can barely break her way into the gay press for more than an album review. Ellen, however, was recently given a standing ovation at a GLAAD awards dinner for her courage.

"It can be really hard," Delaria says. "I have friends that I hang out with, like Scott Thompson, who is one of my closest friends, and I'm starting to become friends with Sandy Bernhardt. We've all been out forever, and it gets kind of hard because no one says 'Good for you, Scott. Good for you, Lea. Good for you, Sandy. Here's an award for recognition.' You're sitting there and they give out artistic integrity awards to these people who have been in the closet forever. What was their integrity about? Because, my integrity was saying I was a dyke from moment one."

"Going back to the butch thing, how could I hide? I'm not Ellen Degeneres, I can't pass," she says. "Although, I have to say... who the fuck thinks Ellen is straight, Ray Charles? But she can still get by with it, because she's an 80's kind of dyke, with that whole androgyny thing. That's not my thing."

Growing up butch

Delaria says there is a big difference between a lesbian growing up butch as opposed to growing up femme.

"When you're a butch dyke and you're growing up, nobody knows whether you're a boy or a girl. That happens to me everyday. Every day, somebody calls me 'sir.' Even in San Francisco, no matter where I am," she says. "I just had a show in South Carolina and I was in the bathroom at the airport. True story. So, I'm in there and I'm washing my hands and this little old lady walks in, sees me and stops. She looks at the door, and then she looks back at me and then runs out of the bathroom.

"And the next thing I know, this security guard comes in and he's like 'All right, buddy, what are you doing in here?' And I said, 'Well, sir, I have a womb. What are you doing in here?'" Delaria says, laughing. "So, basically, in a nutshell, femme dykes pass and butch dykes don't. Even femme dykes have sort of a goddess worship that sort of surround them that comes from society, with this 'lesbian chic' kind of thing. And butch dykes don't.

"We're that dirty little secret you want to sweep under the carpet, like drag queens or nellie fags, so we get negative stuff from society and our own people," she says. "I've had people say to me -- I won't say who their names are, but they are famous people -- they have said, 'You're perpetuating a stereotype about lesbians as being truck drivers and masculine.' But, you know, we are. What's wrong with being truck drivers and masculine? I just am, I'm a butch dyke and that's the way it is."

Delaria still remembers her first crush when she was a little babydyke.

"I think I was four years old, and I had a crush on June Lockhart on Lassie. And then she had to wear that tight spandex outfit on Lost in Space and I was in six-year-old heaven. Totally," she says, laughing. "I think that's how I knew I was gay, because I got that exposure to Dr. Zachary Smith, who was the first queer character ever. You know he was gay, because every time Will Robinson would bend over, the robot would go 'Warning, Will Robinson. Warning.'"

Challenging societal norms

My second exposure to Delaria, after Arsenio, was at the March on Washington in 1993. It was my first gay event ever, and I actually got to meet Delaria because we stayed at the same hotel in D.C. One day later, and a lot of people across the nation had heard of her. The media went crazy after Delaria, on a stage in front of the Capitol, said she was glad about Clinton being elected because there was finally a first lady in the White House that she wanted to sleep with. I can't recall, but I seem to remember Delaria using the effword. In "Box Lunch," Delaria admits that she is older now, and looking back on that moment, she now views it differently. Now she wants Chelsea.

After the March on Washington, I bought Delaria's first album "Bulldyke in a China Shop." I immediately put it on and started laughing, until... she started singing. Delaria, a trained jazz vocalist, fuses be-bop jazz and comedy in her live shows. The fag in me adapted quickly to the music, and she does have a great voice. But I still wasn't sure how the two came together.

"I've been doing this for 15 years and there's always been music in my act," she says. "Because I'm so in-your-face, so wild and so loud, I deal with a lot of harsh words because I think we live in a harsh reality. I had been a jazz singer before, professionally since I was 16, so I would put music in to give people a break, because they couldn't take that much of my constant berating.

"When you're speaking to me as a human being, the effwords and the peewords and the ceewords don't just fly out of my mouth. As a human, I'm not like that. I can speak with the best of them," she says. "But on stage, in trying to make points about things, the reason why I have a foul mouth is that women aren't allowed to have a foul mouth. Women aren't supposed to have a foul mouth. They're not supposed to spit and holler."

"So, when I get on-stage and do that, I'm challenging the norm of what women are allowed to be. And, it gets harsh for some people who don't get it," she says. "People are used to gay comics talking about their sexuality, but not used to them talking about sex. And that's a big difference, and women aren't supposed to talk about sex.

"In our community, we have all these people who are told for so long that it's bad to be gay, to be homosexual, so when I'm up there talking about sex, they're dealing with a lot of internalized homophobia and those are the people who don't like me. I know exactly where it comes from. It's not about a matter of taste or not taste, it comes down to the things that are reinforced by society, where you live, where women and gays aren't allowed to be or talk about being sexual creatures," she says. "I have a perfect understanding for these people, I don't hate them. I'm hoping they can achieve some growth in their life so they aren't so consumed with their homophobia."

Delaria says that her act, if anything, has calmed down since she began doing stand-up 15 years ago.

"In the beginning, I was even worse. I was 22 years old. I was out of control, screaming and yelling," she says. "When I first started, I didn't even perform under the name Lea Delaria. I performed under the name Fucking Dyke, and I became extremely famous overnight in San Francisco.

"I'd be walking down the street and somebody would say "You fucking dyke," and I wouldn't know if they were a fan or somebody just giving me my dyke shit," she says. "You see what my energy is like now, imagine me at 22.

Changing hearts and minds

Her advice to other young bulldykes is simple: "What you got to do is you got to go out and meet that femme. For the young bulldyke out there, go out and get yourself a femme."

Not being a lesbian, I ask her if all dykes tend to pair off as butch-femme.

"Everybody does whatever they want, but me, I don't do the fag thing. I'm not a butch dyke looking for a butch dyke, that's not what I do. I'm definitely a daddy in search of a little girl," she says, with an evil grin.

Delaria is not in search of a little acceptance from the gay community, though. She could care less.

"I think there are sects of people, who are gay men and lesbians rather than dykes and fags, who find me extremely offensive," she says. "And do you know the difference between a dyke and a lesbian? It's about $50,000. These would be the quote-unquote house niggers. The masters treated them good, so they don't have any reason for me to be railing like the working class, Italian bulldyke that I am."

"That's what it comes down to, it's not just that I'm butch. I'm also Italian. I'm also working class. And my perspectives and my perceptions come from that. I haven't had it so good," Delaria says. "Sure, you look at my life now. I have some money, I have a nice car, I live in a beautiful home. But I'm true to my roots, be they my working class roots or my queer community roots. I know what I think politically and that's what I do.

"But I know they don't like me and you didn't see many empty seats in there tonight. There are a lot of people that do like me, that do like the things that I say, that do get it and do agree with it. I'm not here to please the gay community," she says. "When they want to hold me up to some role model status, that's not my job, man. I'm not a role model. My job is to make a difference, make a change, to express ideas, I'm a comic. And I come from the old 80s school of comedy.

"I'm not just going to make people laugh. I can do that, I've done it and I have fun with that, but I really am saying things up there and trying to change people's perspectives. If you can do that, change even one person's perspective, then you've made a difference, you've made a change in this world," she says. "When I go into a college campus, and I do my show, these frat boys are watching me and they're laughing. They're going to think twice before they bash a fag. They're not going to bash a fag so easily, because they related to me, and that's a big thing."

The View from Queer

The gay community seems to divide itself along two camps: the assimilationists and the people who want to accept that we are culturally different because we are queer. Delaria says this is not a new trend, but it is one that causes us the most grief as a community, because it pits us against ourselves and makes us easier targets.

"I'm not here to assimilate into society and become part of this society. I think that we should live in a society where different cultures and behaviors should be acceptable, so we should be this sort-of patchwork quilt rather than this blanket," she says. "So, for me, assimilation is not an option. Society won't let me assimilate. Look at me! I'm a big, bad butch dyke. It's not an option for me. If you want to do it, that's fine for you. I'm not making any judgments over it.

"But as a movement as a whole, that sort of concept of 'we're just like everybody else,' that's what gets us in trouble. Because we're not, we're clearly not," she says. "And when we say those things, that's when the radical right puts together the homosexual agenda and says 'They say they're like everyone else, but look!' We're not. We're just not. What we need to do is start saying: We are queer. If you're uncomfortable with that word, then, I am gay. And gay people are a lot of different people. I'm also a member of the ghetto inside the ghetto. I'm also an S/M dyke, a daddy. So, there's even more of a thing that happens. I'm not rushing to assimilate anywhere."

So, how does Delaria think she would be different today if she would assimilate into society.

"I would be 50 pounds lighter... my hair would be long and ...," she waits a beat, looks up at me over her glasses and smiles, "I would have Ellen's show."

[Editor's note: This interview and article were written in March, prior to Ellen Degeneres officially coming out as lesbian in a recent Time magazine. Although some material is dated by that article, nearly everything still remains relevant. Pictures of Lea used in this article, aside from the one closest to this text donated to Oasis by Kent Taylor]