Know your past live your future

Hannah Gadsby by Amelia Abraham

Hannah Gadsby by Amelia Abraham

Illustration by Sam Russell Walker

Amelia Abraham (b. 1991) is a journalist from London. Having worked as a commissioning editor at VICE and Refinery29, she is now writing freelance and working on her first book for Picador, ‘Queer Intentions’, to be released in 2019. Her main interest is LGBTQ+ culture and identity politics, and she has written for The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, The Sunday Times, The New Statesman, ES Magazine, VICE, i-D, Dazed and British Vogue.

Hannah Gadsby is an Australian comedian. I hadn’t heard of her until a couple of weeks ago, when people started to tell me I had to watch her stand up set Nanette and that I had to do it ASAP… one person at first, then a dozen. When people tell me I have to do things, like watch Game of Thrones or take up yoga, say, I usually resolve never to do them, even if they might be good for me. I like to think of this trait in myself as “queer defiance” rather than stubbornness with a bit of laziness thrown in – but when I eventually relented and watched Gadsby’s stand up set, I was reminded of what “queer defiance” actually means. It is Gadsby’s anger, harnessed for good.  

Gadsby was born in Tasmania, growing up in the country’s Bible Belt as a teenager in the 1990s. During this time – as she explains in Nanette – Tasmania was debating whether to legalise homosexuality (it was eventually legalised there in 1997) – and she endured the public discourse that unfolded. 70% of people in Tasmania believed that homosexuality should remain illegal, she says. They thought it was an unforgivable sin, and this was a sentiment that Gadsby internalised. “By the time I realised I was gay I was already homophobic,” she says, explaining that she grew up “soaking in shame in the closet”, closets helping you remain hidden of course, but not making you immune to public condemnation.

When Gadsby left for mainland Australia – “pack up your AIDS in a suitcase and fuck off to Mardi Gras” she was told, albeit not in so many words –  she studied History of Art and Curation in college, and later merged her talent for comedy with her love of art history by running comedy tours in the National Gallery of Victoria. As a standup, she made a name for herself as a master of self-deprecation, and as a rare gem: a butch lesbian comic who joked about being queer but who straight audiences felt comfortable around. Her jokes made them feel like they were laughing with her, not at her, something that Gadsby, for a long time, perhaps took for granted.

Which brings us back to Nanette, the show that got her noticed the world over, first performed at Edinburgh Fringe in 2017 (where it won Best Comedy) and later filmed at the Sydney Opera House for Netflix. Nanette is a stand up routine about many things: homosexuality, gender, art history, #MeToo and the art of stand up comedy itself. But predominantly, it is a show about storytelling; the stories we tell ourselves to overcome trauma, the stories we accept as immutable or as old as time, and the stories that would have been beneficial for her to see growing up. In it, Gadsby explains how she used her coming out story as subject matter for previous standup sets, attempting to merge tragedy with comedy – something we so often do as queer people, a tribute to our ingenuity but also a way to deal with the pain of it all.

About half way into Nanette, Gadsby explains that she’s come to realise the joke isn’t funny anymore. That she no longer wants to play on her queerness as the punchline. That she’s grown up and realised that self-deprecation is only further asserting her victim status in a world where her identity is marginalised enough. She gives us an example, too. At the beginning of Nanette, she had told a joke at the expense of a homophobic man who thought he caught her hitting on his girlfriend. “He was right,” she jokes. But towards the end of the set, she brings up the joke again, explaining that she couldn’t tell the real story, or at least the ending, because it wouldn’t have been funny. The real ending was much, much darker.

In this sense, Nanette is Gadsby finally telling the whole story. Which isn’t to say it’s not funny – it’s utterly hilarious in parts – but it is not just a comedy special. It is so much more: a manifesto for how queer and gender nonconforming people can better respect themselves, an empowering speech to inspire those who have apologised for being who they are. And as it nears the end, Gadsby’s anger becoming increasingly palpable, she slowly locates her target: men who abuse their power – particularly white, heterosexual men. Trump, Cosby, Weinstein, we all know of their crimes, and yet when Gadsby furiously reminds us that “these men are not the exception they are the rule” it suddenly feels like a rule we no longer have to obey. This is Gadsby’s queer defiance.

The comedian has claimed that Nanette is to be her last standup show. If that’s true, it is a mighty swansong, the curtain call for a career that many of us missed out on to begin with, but is still there for us to explore all the same. While Nanette made her famous, Gadsby has performed almost twenty different standup sets over more than a decade. I plan to start searching for them tomorrow. At the end of Nanette she tells her audience: “I needed my story told and heard”. Well, now it has been. The lesson we should take from it is that we have power over our own narratives too, women, queer people, outsiders.  

Sam Russell Walker is an Illustrator based in Glasgow. He graduated from the Glasgow School of Art in 2015 and his work is inspired by film, pop culture, the human form, plants and fashion. His process is also heavily influenced by the act of mark making and creating textures through this process. 

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