It was the coldest day of winter in Pittsburgh thus far, -7 degrees to be exact, yet I was internally ablaze as I dialed out to California to chat with comedic and lesbian icon, Suzanne Westenhoefer.  I had long since been a fan of Suzanne’s after attending one of her shows shortly after coming out many years ago.  I saw her as edgy, bold, honest and of course, extremely funny.  What I was oblivious to then was that she was also a trailblazer and a pioneer for equality in her own right.  Like many twenty-somethings I had no idea the significance then or how extraordinary she really was.  I not only had the honor of speaking to Ms. Westenhoefer on behalf of Equal Magazine, I also had the privilege of learning more about her life and fascinating career.  To put it simply; I am in awe of the courageous Queen of (queer) comedy.

Suzanne Westenhoefer was the first openly gay comedian to appear on television.  What’s more impressive is that she made a choice to be out from day one.  She took the stage for the first time in 1990 after being encouraged by adoring patrons at the restaurant where she bartended. “They would tell me I was funny and dared me to try stand-up,” she recalls.  She agreed to do it but only if she could stay true to herself.  “I was an activist so I didn’t want to pretend I wasn’t gay,” said Suzanne.  “It was a very different time in America and it was common for people to lose their jobs for being openly gay, but I decided I had nothing to lose.”  And so she started performing where every comic dreams to make it at some point…New York City.  It was there she began doing what no other comedian was doing at that time; delivering gay-themed material to predominately straight audiences.  And she did it so well that she almost instantly made a name for herself.  Within her first two years of doing stand-up she not only had gay organizations seeking her out, but she was also able to make a living solely by doing shows. That alone is unprecedented in this business.  It wasn’t all so glamorous in the beginning, however, as not everyone was accepting of her lifestyle and her openness on stage.  “People would sometimes walk out of venues,” recalls Suzanne on how some reacted when they discovered she was gay.  Even years later as her popularity increased there were still those who shunned her and her act.  In fact, just over a decade ago Carlow College canceled a sold-out private show days before she was to take the stage after campus officials learned of her being openly gay.  “There were people saying, ‘She’s a sinner, she should die!” Suzanne said.  And although it was a hard time for her she maintained, “The goal was to get that door open and to have it stay open.”  Showing resilience she quickly rebounded from the ordeal and continued on selling out more shows all over the United States.

I also talked to Suzanne about being a woman in the world of comedy and how much harder she believes it is to succeed in a male-dominated business.  “Let’s face it, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival is about the only thing that’s not male-dominated,” quipped Suzanne. “But in comedy it’s very hard in the sense that you had to be five times funnier than the other eight or so male comics at shows to stand out.” 

And that she did to both straight and gay audiences alike.  Her career has spanned over 23 years and has included television appearances on Letterman, HBO, Showtime’s Pride Comedy Jam, LOGO, Bravo and GSN.  She’s performed at theaters, clubs and colleges all over the US and is a staple on Olivia Cruises.

Still I felt the need to ask Suzanne if being out from the start had in fact limited her at all unlike other star comedians such as Ellen DeGeneres and Wanda Sykes who came out later in their careers.  In response she gave a resounding, “ABSOLUTELY!  Do I care?  No. I have no regrets about it.” She explained that she just wanted to work and while she got pigeonholed early on.  “I lost out on many television opportunities and corporate events that could have made me more famous and a lot of money because I refused to be in the closet, but compromising my integrity was never an option.”  While she acknowledges that times have changed and being gay isn’t such a big deal anymore, there is no doubt that she played a part in that evolution.  “The world changed.  I didn’t have to.”

While attending college at Clarion University, Suzanne would occasionally come to Pittsburgh to hang out in the gay bars.

Suzanne’s advice to anyone pursuing a career in comedy – “Know exactly what you are and have a strong voice in one way or another.”

Requests during her stop in Pittsburgh:

  1. “Tell the boys they can come! If they laugh at Kathy Griffin, they will laugh at me.”
  2. “Can we get the Dance Mom lady to come to the show? I’m terrified of her but can we get her?”
  3. “Can I give you a hug?” – I’d like to assume that’s for me, and will be busy shopping for the perfect outfit
Chrissy Costa is a local comedian known for her dry wit, satirical style of comedy, and big earrings. Before doing stand-up she studied sketch comedy at Chicago’s famed Second City. You can follow her on Instragram and Facebook. (She / Her / Hers)