Once a teacher, lesbian comic offers lessons with laughs

April 15, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

Kate Clinton has been out of the classroom for some time but still sees herself as a teacher.

In fact, the comedian attributes her stage skills more to eight years as a high school English teacher than to the subsequent dozen years as a performer. Best known for her discussion of the gay awareness movement, as well as a sharp political bent, Ms. Clinton will bring her show, "Out Is In," to Shriver Hall at Johns Hopkins University tomorrow night.

"It's a very tough audience," says Ms. Clinton of teaching high school in the Boston suburbs. "I had juniors and seniors, and some of the seniors were already accepted at college and just about done. This is the test of a great teacher, if you can keep them interested."

In a recent telephone interview from her home on Cape Cod, where she recently began toiling on a book, Ms. Clinton says "both gay and straight students of mine have come to shows, and they're just really happy for me."

She was not "out" as a teacher, notes Ms. Clinton, whom the Los Angeles Times dubbed "the lesbian you want to take home to meet your parents."

She publicly acknowledged her sexual orientation when she started playing comedy clubs. She broke the news in 1981 at a club in Syracuse.

"When you're a comedian, you talk about what you know, and that's what I was doing. I was coming out. For a lot of gay and lesbian people, they were just shocked to hear anybody talk about it," she says of her early years in comedy.

She finds the process of developing an act much like teaching.

"I prepare the same way," she explains. "I find that doing a show -- especially as I've been performing more for large audiences that don't have a gay frame of reference -- I really have to give more background. When I taught, so much of it was laying the background for the learning."

Born in upstate New York, she came from a family that preached: "Sex is dirty, save it for someone you love."

Ms. Clinton scripts her act and memorizes the material, an ability she attributes "probably to Catholic training, when we had to memorize everything -- I never thought that would come in handy."

She estimates that half the material in "Out Is In" deals with gay issues, "although it's sort of an overlay. It's clear that I frequently give things a lesbian look-see, but you know, I think it's accessible to people."

A sample: On the new military policy on homosexuality, she cites the movie "The Crying Game," contending, "that's where 'don't ask don't tell' really worked."

During the early years in comedy clubs, Ms. Clinton says, she often was advised to "do more on politics than that lesbian material." Yet, as she's gained prominence -- appearing on "The Arsenio Hall Show," "Good Morning America," "Nightline," "Entertainment Tonight" and as host of the PBS series "In the Life" -- her lesbian material is more in demand.

Is she making progress in her serious effort to teach tolerance through her comedy?

"I think I am involved in a time of history of kind of a quantum leap, from kind of a sub-culture to more of a visibility of gay and lesbian issues," she says cautiously.

"I know there are gay and lesbian people in North Dakota who turn on 'Geraldo' . . . and at least they're able to hear the words 'gay and lesbian' and know that they're not alone. But the problem with that is there's a false sense of security. People think, 'It's on television, and therefore we've accomplished something.' Now is the real work."

As she was buoyed by last year's gay march on Washington, Ms. Clinton says she was disappointed by President Clinton's policy on gays in the military.

She comes back to teaching. "It's about education. This is what we're in, the education and the talking about it."

KATE CLINTON

What: "Out Is In"

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Where: Shriver Hall, Johns Hopkins University Homewood Campus, 3400 N. Charles St.

Tickets: $17.50

Call: (410) 516-5473

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