By Joshua Watkins
Hollywood has always been the feeding ground for heterosexual white men. Lately, though, the topic seems to be garnering a lot more attention than usual. The struggles of minorities are evident, going beyond The Academy and the Los Angeles city limits.
Local film and comedy scenes suffer from similar problems. Take Austin, Texas, for example, a city that relishes in being liberal and accepting of all walks of life. Step into a comedy club on any given night, and you may find one or two women, maybe a few people of color, maybe one queer person. What’s more obvious is the sea of white heterosexual men that fill the room.
In the midst of #OscarsSoWhite and #WhiteHollywood, there are those vigilant performers making strides in their communities. Those who are sexualized or profiled by race or given demeaning roles. Those who push through the feeling of being an outcast, because they know the importance of change coming through hard work and consistency. Those that provide a refreshing opinion that maybe hasn’t been heard before.
Sydney Turner is one of the vigilant. A black bisexual woman pursuing a comedy career in the Caucasian sea of Austin, Texas. She remembers what has inspired her to keep going, and she has set goals that mirror those of the greats. Turner is making strides in the LGBT community both on and off the stage.
Joshua Watkins: Can you remember your first time on stage? What was going through your head?
Sydney Turner: My first time on stage was terrifying. I wish I could say everything clicked into place and I felt totally at home, but I was really scared. I almost didn’t show up for my first improv performance. I’m glad I did, though. It was after the show that I really felt great and like I had accomplished something to be proud of.
You have an interesting history with social anxiety—can you tell me more about that and how it has affected your life as a performer?
My anxiety still pops up. Especially in the green room or as I’m preparing to go out on stage. But doing some breathing exercises or talking to myself in the bathroom is still a far cry from my childhood and teen years. I suffered from Selective Mutism from ages 2–17. I couldn’t speak to anyone outside of my immediate family. Now I talk on stage in front of a room full of strangers.
If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be?
I know it sounds cliché, but it gets better and this too shall pass. I think just about every kid needs to hear those things.
And if you could share one tip—anything at all—with another minority trying to climb the comedy ladder, what would it be?
Don’t give up and don’t shut up. There’s an audience for your story, too.
Who has had specific impacts on your life, and who are your biggest inspirations?
George Carlin was the first comedian who I truly became a fan of. I used to listen to his stand-up and read every book of his I could get my hands on in middle school. David Sedaris really inspired me to add more humor into the writing I was already doing in high school. And of course Amy Poehler and Tina Fey’s careers are inspiring to me, as well as what Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson are doing.
What are you most proud of as an artist?
This isn’t comedy-related, but my most recent creative writing professor used my favorite author’s name—James Baldwin—when discussing my work, and I literally cried for about an hour.
I know firsthand that coming to terms with your sexuality is not always easy. How was that for you? Do you remember your experience coming out?
I was very lucky to grow up where I did. It wasn’t until I left my hometown that I realized how grateful I needed to be. Amherst, Massachusetts, isn’t perfect, but I felt the most comfortable there and the most supported. We learned about all types of families in first grade, and I had out gay and lesbian teachers throughout my schooling. I butted heads a little at home and am less comfortable being out around my family. As for my coming-out experience—it was received very positively, as many of my friends were GLBTQ, too. I do remember when my mom found my Myspace profile, where I was also out as bi, and that wasn’t received as positively, even though my mom was very supportive of her gay and lesbian friends and coworkers. She’s come around since then, though.
Has there been a specific event in your life that has been pivotal in creating the person you are today?
Losing my father to heart disease in 2007 and my best friend to suicide a few years later. Those two events really changed me—destroyed me—and then made me whole again.
I know that you’ve been fighting for equal rights since you were a teenager. What specific social or political issues are you particularly passionate about?
I’m passionate about lowering the suicide rate for LGBT youth, amplifying the voices of people of color, and animal rights.
Do your views translate into your performances?
They can definitely come through in my improv and my writing. That’s one thing that can be difficult in reciting lines written by someone else. I’ve learned to be careful about what projects I attach myself to.
What is the most challenging part of being a bisexual, African-American woman in a comedy scene that’s dominated by straight, white men?
Being seen as not a real comedian—being sexualized constantly or being valued only as a token, not on your own merit. It can also be a little discouraging to not see many other people in the scene who look like me. It can feel like you don’t really belong, but that also kind of encourages me to stick around and keep working, because that’s the only way I can change that.
Tell me something about yourself that most people wouldn’t know.
Nowadays, most people who have met me post-high-school graduation don’t know about my past with anxiety. It’s not something I’m ashamed of—and it’s something I speak on at length on my YouTube channel, but it also doesn’t come up much on its own. To some extent, I am proud of that. A lot of people are surprised by my past, because I’m so loud and out there now. I think that’s a testament to how working in retail and doing improv have helped me burst out of that box.
What are you currently working on?
I’m a part of a sketch troupe that performs at the New Movement Theater here in Austin. We have one or two shows a month there. Aside from that, I’m just writing, writing, writing.
Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten?
Five years from now, I want to be making at least some money from my creative pursuits. Even if it means I still have a “day job.” Ten years from now, I see myself as an international comedian superstar with an animal sanctuary somewhere in Canada.
If I ask you to define yourself as an individual—not as Sydney, but as someone who knows you better than anyone else—how would you define yourself?
Resilient, outspoken, and stubborn as f**k.