Sunday 15 June 2014

Interview with Alison Grillo

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Alison Grillo, a New York City comedian, guest on NBC's Last Comic Standing in 2010, named by The Advocate as one of “Five Hottest Transgender Comics of 2013” and one of "Seven LGBT Comics You Should Not Have Missed in 2011," and a celebrity judge of the 2013 NYC Pride March. Hello Alison! 
Alison: Hi, Monika. I like the way you spell your name with a k.
Monika: This is how my name is written in my mother tongue. Could you say a few words about yourself?
Alison: I do stand-up comedy, sometimes about trans-related issues, sometimes about general issues involving the phenomena of our lives as humans. I like to read literature from 100 or so years ago, go to movies, including those at New York City’s Film Forum, and take long walks in the City.
Sundays will sometimes find me in a pew of a Methodist church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where I’ll be struggling with questions of spirituality, seeking comfort and guidance in the preacher’s sermon, and very often mentally critiquing his/her rhetorical project.
Monika: Do you often tell transgender jokes?
Alison: I did nothing but those sorts of jokes for the first year or so of my career, before spreading my wings and exploring the comic possibilities of other things about myself, such as my checkered work history, my parents, my romantic misadventures, my love of literature and language, and my feelings about being an only child. Most of my funniest jokes tend to be related to transsexuality. Perhaps that will always be the case. But perhaps not.

Monika: You used to joke that you once worked as a waitress and before that, you were a waiter…
Alison: It was one of the few jobs I’ve enjoyed in a very immediate way. I have always craved food, and you can get a lot of it free in the kitchen of a restaurant. I worked in a friendly little neighborhood bar/restaurant on Beacon Street, in Boston. The place was called Crossroads. This was many years ago. But ‘Roads is still there.
Though remodeled, and under new management, it’s still in many ways the same old unpretentious and welcoming place. On the oak-finished walls hang the same old photographs of the staff and the regular patrons from years past, and I’m still in some of the photos.
Monika: Could you elaborate more on your most successful shows and performances?
Alison: For the past few years I’ve been fixated on the college market, and this past spring I performed at eleven colleges and universities. College gigs give you plenty of time to do your thing. You also get an abundance of audience goodwill, the chance to travel, and other rewards. Two of my shows this spring were in Colorado, a big, very scenic, and still-somewhat-wild state that captured my imagination.
Closer to home, I performed at the University of Scranton, a Jesuit institution. I received a lot of laughs and support, and I emerged from the experience with a new respect for institutions with a Catholic identity. Another memorable show was at Beloit College (Wisconsin), a very cool, very brainy liberal arts institution, populated largely by the sons and daughters of college professors, artists, and others of that ilk. The venue was professional and stylish, the audience was lively, and the post-show conversations I had with students and other members of the Beloit community were intellectually stimulating. A very special weekend, if a bit cold! (This was January.)

Taking the stage at Wheelock College (Boston, October 2012).

While I’m bragging, my friend Mike Motz and I did a monthly staged talk show for almost a year at the Broadway Comedy Club, and once at the People’s Improv Theater. It was called Jokes ‘n’ Gender. We had great fun, but drawing a consistently good crowd was difficult. There is too much competition in New York City.
Finally, the twelve-minute video about my college work, Big Girl on Campus (done with Mike Motz’s invaluable assistance), is perhaps my all-time favorite creative accomplishment, and a great introduction to me and my work.
Monika: Is there anything like transgender art? What does it mean to be a transgender artist?
Alison: Yes, there’s something like transgender art. It’s called, “art.” The struggle of the artist is to be true to one’s self (or to discover what that self is), to avoid nonsense and phoniness, to see deep connections in people, objects and ideas, and to banish fear, self-doubt, and loneliness.
Sure, trans art seems unique, and perhaps is now fashionable, or soon will be, but it’s related to the endless search for identity, which artists have been doing for some time. As artists exploring gender and sexuality, we can be franker than could our forebears. 
Monika: At the time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Alison: Mine were the other women in the organization Transgender San Francisco, of which I was a member during my West Coast years. They were women with whom I enjoyed much in common. Some of the group’s more experienced women had “gone all the way” (full-time female presentation, sexual reassignment surgery, etc.).
One, in her previous life, had been a fighter pilot in Desert Storm, which seemed to me very cool. Some of my peers evinced a continuing romantic interest in women; we were becoming lesbians. Though I sometimes thought of TGSF as a “dress-up club,” for many women it was more than that. One by one my peers started taking hormones and going full-time. Eventually, I went that path myself.

Bad Hair Day at Black Rock
(Grand Junction, Colorado, April 2014).

Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Alison: Telling my mother that I was about to see a gender therapist and that I would probably start to take estrogen.
My mother was not exactly pleased, but she made the necessary adjustments. She began to regard me as her daughter -- or at least she would use the word. Our relationship grew stronger.
But physically she was in decline, and she would pass away three years later after she and her new daughter had had a couple of good Christmases together. I should also say that recovery from sexual reassignment was longer, tricker, and scarier than I had imagined, and the process (and other factors, including my mom’s death) forced me to battle depression like never before. Becoming a stand-up comic was part of my recovery.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in American society?
Alison: It seems to get better and better every day! We have increased visibility of trans women, and what seems like an increasing acceptance of them, and we even have more laws to protect trans women and to make it easier to change names and gender on passports, birth certificates, and whatnot.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Alison: I think we’re already halfway across the frontier -- at least in the U.S. Oh, yes, the rest of the world... there is definitely work to be done in protecting the rights -- even the lives -- of women in certain other places that don’t enjoy the liberality that comes with the West’s wealth, power, and relative security. I have strong political views, although I don’t get many laughs from political humor. If I’m not the butt of a joke, people rarely laugh. Next question... 

Monika: A few weeks ago Jared Leto received his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "Dallas Buyers Club" as transgender Rayon. What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far? 
Alison: Many of them do not seem very flattering. It would be better if trans people had more opportunities to portray themselves, rather than have non-trans actors and writers do the job. It’s still relatively socially acceptable to ridicule transsexual people, especially if it makes someone laugh. That’s changing, but not fast enough, in my mind.
I understand that it’s important to have a sense of humor about oneself, but there is also political correctness to consider. Political correctness leads to more respect for one another. Entertainment and respect are sometimes at cross-purposes. By the way, I don’t dig the word tr--ny, and if a non-trans comic uses it when I am around, I will usually “correct” that person. Actually, I don’t dig it when trans people use it, either. As a comedian, I don’t have a very consistent sense of humor. But who does?
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities? Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Alison: When I moved to San Francisco, it was with the hope of marching in the great LGBT parade down Market Street. And I did it! The parade was an exciting, all-consuming event that took over the city. If there had simply been a T parade, it wouldn’t have been as big, and it would have had a different feel. You see what I’m driving at? I’ve always been basically okay with transsexual people being allied with others. Sure, there are downsides -- some rather narrow-minded, reactionary people just plain don’t like gays, and thus may not like us because we’re allied with gays.
Also, matters of sexual preference are different from our own quest, which involves identity. They’re different, mind you, but related. What I’m trying to say is, everyone in the whole LGBTQIA alphabet soup is involved in changing societal perceptions of what it means to be a man, a woman, a human being. Sexuality and gender both dwell in realms of people’s deepest hopes and fears. It makes sense for us to be allied with the LGBs, even if they seem, especially the LGs, to get most of the glory.
As a comedian, many of my best bookings have been in “gay” shows. Sure, I can make straight people laugh, but getting booked in their shows is often problematic. Politics is what it is. And politics is about alliances. And alliances are often about working with people who are a little bit different.

Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Alison: As indicated by my answer to the previous question, I find myself participating in the politics of show business, rather than the kind that makes the world a better place in a much more direct way. I was somewhat active in politics as a San Franciscan: the politics of queer identity, the politics of opposing the Iraqi war, the politics of social justice in general. But I’m sorry to say that the demands of trying to make it as a stand-up comic, as well as the basic day-to-day demands of living in a place like New York City, trump all that other stuff.
Actually, I did do an Occupy Wall Street demonstration once, marched in an anti-stop-and-frisk parade, and this past Christmas Eve volunteered at my church’s homeless shelter. My heart’s in the right place, but I’m usually otherwise engaged. I take no pleasure in saying that.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Alison: I’m trying to love myself. It’s not easy. Self-love -- so simple-sounding, but really so problematic -- is at the heart of life’s journey. As for romantic love, well, I got a lot more sex back when I was playing for the other team. Men will sometimes come on to me, which is fine, but I’m just not interested. Women do not show much interest at all. I wonder how dateable I am... but it’s not just a trans thing. Age probably figures into the equation. Anyway, I definitely need to get out more.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Alison: For me, black is the new black, and will always be the new black. I like to think of myself as stylish, but in a classic way -- credit my mother for this. Also, when I was college age, the preppy look was big, and that sensibility has not left me.
I tend to overdress for the weather, and I never, ever wear flip-flops. If money were no object, I would present to the world the image of an intelligent, somewhat quirky, mildly repressed (but potentially open to sexual exploration) girl with money. 
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Alison: That’s a good idea, and I could probably write a decent memoir if I put my mind to it. But since the difficult period referenced in the “hardest thing” question above, I haven’t been able to focus on anything more sustained than the writing one does for stand-up comedy. I have a literary background and am proud of a bunch of stories published in literary magazines, but my life as a “serious writer” got derailed, and it won’t be on track again anytime soon. 
Monika: Are you working on any new project now?
Alison: I’ve revamped my website (such a chore!) and now I’m video editing: mainly, a travelogue of my adventures at various colleges during the recently completed semester. It will make for fun viewing when I hit the college circuit again in the fall.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Alison: Get therapy. Find community. Transition your own way -- without undue worry about what other people think. Do it at your own pace. Don’t be afraid.
Monika: Alison, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Alison Grillo.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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