Comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer helps Lesbian Health Initiative Houston celebrate milestone anniversaries at Valentine gala
by Nancy Ford
Twenty years ago as the gay community was nearly exclusively focused on the fight against HIV/AIDS, a group of concerned Houston lesbians recognized the need to identify and respond to health threats facing their own community, like breast cancer, depression, and overall lack of medical services. From their efforts, Lesbian Health Initiative was born. Ten years later those same women, with the assistance of many more, recognized the need to raise big money to support their mission. That’s when LHI’s annual Celebration of Love was born.
“This is such an important annual event for LHI and the LGBT women we serve, as well as for the LGBT community and our supporters,” says Liz James, LHI’s chief executive officer. “We’re expecting another sellout crowd!”
James estimates that 400ish women will be in attendance at LHI’s chief fundraiser supporting the group’s bi-annual, lifesaving health fairs. Houston Mayor Annise Parker and First Lady Kathy Hubbard are expected to be among the revelers.
The milestone double-anniversary event is scheduled February 11 at DoubleTree Hotel Houston Downtown, and honors Dorothy Weston Gibbons,
co-founder and chief executive officer of The Rose, a long-term breast-health provider for women who rely on LHI’s services.
“LGBT women’s lives have been and will continue to be saved through the mammograms and other breast-health services provided through and with the LHI/Rose partnership,” James says.
With cocktails, a formal dinner, dancing to DJ Melle Mel, and Austin-based singer-songwriter Ginger Leigh emceeing, James promises “an elegant, entertaining, and fun event.”
Making the evening even more special, acclaimed comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer returns to headline the gala’s entertainment.
In 1991, Westenhoefer made history by being the first openly gay or lesbian comedian on television while appearing on an episode of the daytime talk show hosted by Sally Jesse Raphael—a distinction most people believe was achieved much later by Ellen DeGeneres or Rosie O’Donnell.
“I like to think that I got to open some doors, and I hope I get to open some more,” Westenhoefer says modestly. “There are people who think that Ellen DeGeneres was the first openly gay comedian. Kate Clinton must be somewhere weeping!”
Westenhoefer long ago stopped trying to make sense of the historical rewrite. “It is what it is,” she says in a recent conversation with OutSmart. “I just want the opportunity to keep working and to keep going with the message.
“It is what it is,” she repeats, chuckling. “Sometimes the people who go first lay the pavement, and then get walked over.”
If Westenhoefer harbors any resid-
ual bitterness, she is masterful at concealing it.
“I’m just glad I still get to work, and this is my job, and I love it,” she reasons. “It used to bother me that it felt like Ellen was seemingly the only openly gay person ever. Now I’m just glad that she’s on every day and Middle America loves her. That part makes her extraordinary for our community, and you know it and I know it. So I have to just let it go.”
Westenhoefer’s ability to “let it go” serves her well from a professional perspective.
“I’ve had such a ridiculous last two years,” she says. “I’ve been through a breakup, divorce, back surgery,” the comic says, blithely checking off her sources of new material. “My show is all over the place right now.”
This is not the first time Westenhoefer has brought her show to LHI’s annual gala. She’s visited Houston several times in support of it, as well as other LGBT causes.
“I’m a sucker for a good fundraiser,” she says. “And now, especially as I get older, and my friends and my mom and
my gay sister get older—[with] lesbian health stuff and women’s health, how do you say no?
“I don’t know how you can write this without making me sound like the biggest cheese ball ever,” Westenhoefer continues, “but at my heart I’m still that activist girl in my ACT UP T-shirt. I’m still, very deeply, a feminist.
“I know right now I don’t sound like a fun-loving comedian, and I hate that, but it’s really true! I am that person who every single day believes that we can still do something to change things and we should never stop.
“I’m that person,” she repeats. “Isn’t that awful? But then I get onstage, and I’m so skeptical. That’s what makes me the comic.”
Prior to her LHI gig, Westenhoefer talks with OutSmart about television, her bachelorette status, and this job she loves so much.
Nancy Ford: Did you know that LHI is raffling an adorable pink scooter at the dance that will go perfectly with your current press photos?
Suzanne Westenhoefer: Is it a scooter or is it a Vespa? I don’t know the difference anyway. Isn’t there one you have to get a motorcycle license for?
Probably. This one is a Vitacci Retro 50cc, four-stroke scooter [valued at $1,450, courtesy of Apollo Scooters].
Is it possible you’re just making words up?
It is possible, but in this case I’m not. The dance is going to be a lot of fun. And what’s hotter than a lesbian on a little pink scooter?
Very little. However, for me, I need to see a big lesbian on a nice Harley. There’s a very good possibility that I’m a femme bottom. [Both laugh] One of my best friends and her partner in New Jersey are Harley Davidson girls. I’ve never been on any of them. I’m an all-talk-and-no-action girl from way back.
So, speaking of no action, you’re single now, right? That’s something new.
[Laughs] This is my first time, since I was a gay girl in 1981, living alone. My first time ever. It’s interesting, very interesting. I understand now why lesbians who live alone get a little weird and get so many cats. [Laughs] Oh, don’t become a multiple cat lesbian. Please don’t!
I’m not. So far. I’m just saying I can see how it can happen so quickly.
You’ve been doing stand-up for a long time. Is it easier to do out comedy, now that so many people are doing it, or more challenging?
Honestly, I think it’s becoming more challenging, because you can’t just say ‘I’m openly gay’ and that gets you in the door. You’ve got to be as funny as every other comic. I think there was a time when just being an openly gay comic got you work, and now that’s not the way it is anymore. Now, you’ve got to compete with everyone else and be just as good.
I think that’s good for us, you know what I mean? You really have to be able to bring it now, no matter what your thing is. If you’re gay or black or Latino, it doesn’t matter anymore.
It’s kind of like the proliferation of gay characters on TV now—
Yes, they’re not quite the same old stereotypes. And when they are stereotypes, they’re like any other one.
So, we’re not so special anymore?
I liked it when we were special. I thought that was fun. I miss that part of it.
It’s like we’ve activist-ed ourselves right out of jobs.
Well, out of being special. I liked it when the Pride Parade was an actual march and it counted for something. That kind of thing.
Speaking of TV, have you ever considered doing a reality TV show?
I’ve tried everything; we never give up. It’s a straight person’s world, television is, and in the gay person’s [television] world, I think we know [the programming] is mostly what appeals to straight people and boys. It’s just that way.
So let’s start a lesbian TV network!
I am not an entrepreneur. I say this all the time: I’m not a producer, but if you gather up the money and you create it, I’m there. And I’ll even help you find some smart people to run it. But I don’t have that entrepreneurial spirit. You know, there are women—and I have great admiration for them—who are, like, “Let’s start a company!” I’m the person who says, “Go for it! See ya later!” I’m a comic. That’s what I do.
Have you ever been asked to do a show that you’ve turned down for political reasons?
I don’t think so. And it’s not the reverse of that—it’s not because I did it anyway. The only thing I have been asked to do, and continue to be asked to do, is to make my act either completely not gay, or a lot less gay in order to get on some seriously awesome national television. But ultimately in my mind, while that exposure would be great, it kind of ruins the whole idea of what I did in the first place.
Well, it’s not who you are.
It’s like a step a backwards. It upsets my agent badly [laughs], but that’s the whole point of what I’m saying and what I’m doing. The whole idea of Pride. The whole idea of not hiding.
So it is true that I’m missing, and have missed, some pretty major television opportunities—I’m not going to pretend. They’ll say, “Well, you don’t have to talk about your relationship or being gay. Just do stuff about your dog or your cat or regular stuff about travel—you know, in other words, just be generic.” But I can’t do that because the whole point is that people see, even if I’m generic, that—guess what?—I’m a big ol’ lez, too.
I’ve never been in the closet for anybody. I’m not going to start now. It’s not going to happen.
I turned 50 this year; I am not a fool. Obviously, I realized that I probably stunted my career. I like to call it the Pink Ceiling. I may have reached the Pink Ceiling because of it. I’m just glad there are people who get it.
But I have the best job in the world, you know what I mean? Look at what I do: I travel. People take care of me. I love meeting new people. I get paid just to stand up and make people laugh. Are you f–king kidding me? How is that not the world’s greatest job? I pretty much call my own shots, I don’t have to do the nine-to-five thing of the corporate intrigue, the corporate nightmare—
You’re starting to piss me off.
I know. But I have a great job and I’m not going to bitch about it.
Lesbian Health Initiative Houston’s 10th Annual Celebration of Love
February 11, 6 p.m.
DoubleTree Houston Hotel Downtown
400 Dallas St.