Thank God for Hannah Gadsby
by Chay Collins
I wrote an essay for The Bi-ble: New Testimonials titled ‘Thank God For Straight Male Artists’ detailing how my journey of exploring my bisexuality wasn’t because I saw myself represented on screen, but because of mainstream artists pushing at the fringes of queerness. One important moment I did not detail though was my coming out, and for that thank god for Hannah Gadsby.
In 2011, forced by a new Tory government and a Lib Dem betrayal, a gap year was off the table for people of my age, if we wanted a cheaper university education we had to apply that year. We had no time to figure out what we wanted to do with our lives, we just had to do it. Suddenly that summer before university felt like an important trial period for someone who hadn’t stepped out of their village home for more than a week. A closeted survival state uplifted for a test of whether I could actually go out into the world.
A good friend suggested going to Edinburgh, they knew an American company that used a massive group of interns to flyer for them and in return you’d get free board and a pass to see a bunch of shows. About thirty of us were crammed into a flat for a month, the show we were flyering for was genuinely hilarious and awe inspiring and our little gang went out every night rubbing shoulders with performers. I drank Murphy’s stout exclusively, except when offered anything else for free or cheap. The group had a diverse range of folk but most were Americans and amongst them a couple of out and comfortable gay men. I was in particular awe of the pianist and band leader of the show, he was so self-assured. He had been with his partner for a long time and was travelling the world doing what he loved, he lived his life with an effortless smoothness and calm whereas I, at the time, was confused and lost and needed booze just to get me through a conversation. In all the years I flyered with this group, I never did kiss a man and only one woman, I was extremely uncomfortable with any sexuality.
The cast got to know me over a few years of me working with them every summer, they enjoyed my self-deprecating british wit. Eventually they felt assured enough to ask me who I might fancy amongst the other interns. The cast must have known I wasn’t straight, asking about women and men. I politely denied either, deflecting the conversation, as really I had crushes on everyone.
One night me and another intern went to a midnight Best of the Fringe show and performing for ten minutes was Hannah Gadsby. I think the only woman and gay person doing material. I barely remember any of her jokes except one:
“My brother asked me, ‘how do you know you don’t like men if you haven’t tried them?’ Well… I said back to him ‘how do you know you don’t like men if you haven’t tried them?”
For a gay or straight person the answer is that you just know, but for someone who doesn’t know at all this logic made me ask myself – How do I know?
After university I spent a year in the countryside looking at a blank Tinder; I had no friends close by and no space of my own in which to explore myself. It was obvious that I had to move somewhere completely foreign.
At a new job in London, my colleagues started to discuss who the hottest person was in the brand new hit show Empire. One woman argued that Cookie, Tarij P. Henson, was the hottest and I couldn’t help but agree; she made me feel comfortable enough to mention Jamal [redacted] was also hot.
One night, whilst out for work drinks, someone labeled me bisexual without me having ever said it and it felt right. I nodded and drank my pint. I was out in London in my new life and for a moment I could breathe. I didn’t feel any rush to come out to my parents though, I thought they’d know once I got a boyfriend. I didn’t like the amount of pressure put on the rite of passage of coming out, I agreed with John Waters that it was “square” to do so. Someone naturally labeled me correctly and everyone else would eventually just see, I didn’t need to do anything at all. Back in the countryside I tried Dutch courage to come out but instead it soaked more shame in. If someone tried to do the work and labeled me as gay I vehemontly denied it, technically it was true but really I did it to feel safe.
I had to stop drinking for many reasons, one was sleeping with people I didn’t want to sleep with, another was to learn how to socialise without it and believe in my own abilities. I had moved into my new flat with my best friend, we had come out as non-binary to each other simultaneously. However they had just entered into a new relationship, which kept them away a lot of the time. I was alone in a flat with anxiety and without my normal social lubricant so I whittled away my time with television. That friend had left their Amazon Prime signed into my computer though and I found Please Like Me. The show Please Like Me is an Australian sit-com created by Josh Thomas & Thomas Ward. It follows four seasons after Josh comes out as gay and his mum tries to kill herself. Bar a weak first season, a couple of duff episodes, and some problematic aspects, the show as a whole was a poignant voicing of a generation. The show’s moments of elation and heartbreak are so powerful and grounded in complete reality. In season two, Hannah Gadsby enters the show, her character is a dead-pan delight. She is a patient in a mental institution with Josh’s mum but soon becomes friends with her and the entire cast. I loved the show so much and to fill more of the endless sober days, I would watch behind the scenes featurettes on Youtube, one titled ‘Coming Out’. In it, all the cast discuss their coming out experiences with Gadsby telling the same joke thatI had heard seven years prior. Finally remembering her, I started watching all the stand-up I could find of her on Youtube. Her rhythm of self-deprecation was so titillating, and I could empathise with putting myself down. Google stole my data and said she was performing at the Leicester Square Theatre so I bought tickets for me and my Australian friend.
I didn’t know that this show, inauspiciously titled Nanette, was the show that was to become a cultural phenomenon. Because I no longer felt confident enough to socialise in the atmosphere of Edinburgh, I was unaware that it had won the best comedy show that year. Those good times were frozen in my stasis of development, of not being able to say out loud who I liked. So I only thought Nanette would be a good laugh.
Naively we were in the second row in the centre at the same eyeline that Gadsby would be. She came out that night looking a bit disheveled, tired, and was a little off. I’d eventually know this was because of the emotional demands of performing this show daily, actually giving her bronchitis. She started the show with twenty minutes of existing material that I had heard before, repeating all those Youtube bits, running through her greatest hits. We all chuckled, for some hearing some new jokes and for others, and us, the comfort of hearing a known joke performed live and with skill.
If you don’t know the show, it takes a turn. Key to the show is Gadsby doing those greatest hits which are mostly self-depreciation. One of the jokes centres on a story where Gadsby receives homophobia at a bus stop. The joke works and elicits laughter, but Gadsby starts to deconstruct the nature of comedy and a person like herself doing stand-up. Later in the show she tells the rest of the story at the bus stop and how it didn’t actually end at the punchline, it ended with her getting beaten. She states that she is quitting comedy, but really it is a pronouncement of self-respect. No longer will she make herself the butt of the joke to relieve other’s tension. She, as a person outside the norm, has been deemed to be an instigator of tension and she won’t accept it anymore. Shame will not be a part of her. I was in tears staring at Gadsby, my whole life shifting in an irreversible way. Gadsby ends her show asking for her story to be looked after, that her story was our story, and our story hers. That was a massive responsibility.
When I arrived home I was still shaking. Still sobbing, I messaged a friend of mine:
“Have you ever seen a show that might have changed everything in your life?”
“Not sure. You saw something good?”
“Yes I saw something life changing. I don’t mean that hyperbolically”
“Cool, so it changed you for the better?”
“I hope so, I either change or I reduce into nothing, these are my options”
“That seems a bit extreme, I don’t know the exact nature of the change you’ve experienced but current Chay was okay and worth keeping around”
“Current Chay was filled with shame, current Chay was not out to their family and should be, current Chay thought art was about suffering, current Chay didn’t know how much the world is just in trauma and shit, or current Chay did but was just soaked in shame”
“I see. So you’re going to make changes to address these points?”
The morning after, I pulled my socks up. I rang my mum and came out. Not everyone should or needs to do this but even with so much fear in my heart I felt safe enough by having a support network, felt safe enough that I wouldn’t do anything drunk and stupid and felt safe, just safe. I finally felt connected.
Chay Collins is a London based creator. Their debut novella Tumours was published in 2017 by Ampersand Publishing. In 2019 they had an essay published in Monstrous Regiment’s The Bi-ble: New Testimonials. They have had other writing appear in films, zines and online. Find Chay on twitter @chaycollinsyes