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Inspiring Thursday: Hannah Gadsby

This month, in celebration of Pride, we’re posting stories of inspiring women who are activists in the LGBTQ+ community. Queer heroes aren’t often given the recognition they deserve, but pride is a protest: by raising our voices, we can make sure that they aren’t forgotten.

Hannah Gadsby was born in 1978 in Tasmania, Australia, where homosexuality was considered a crime until 1997. Hannah, a comedian and a butch-presenting lesbian woman, was always at odds with her hometown.  She explains her upbringing in a distinctly homophobic community:

“By the time I identified as being gay, it was too late. I was already homophobic, and you do not get to just flick a switch on that. No, what you do is you internalize that homophobia and you learn to hate yourself […] When you soak a child in shame, they cannot develop the neurological pathways that carry thoughts… you know, carry thoughts of self-worth” (Nanette).

Leaving her hometown for mainland Australia, Gadsby studied art history at the Australian National University in Canberra, where she felt less isolated by her identity. After graduation, she struggled with her mental and physical health, which made it almost impossible to find sustainable employment, and at one point left her homeless. In 2006, she reconnected with her then estranged family for support. This was also when she found the stage, and the beginning of her comedy career. Gadsby entered Raw Comedy, an Australian competition for emerging comedians — and she won.

Gadsby skyrocketed to international fame after her show “Nanette,” became a Netflix special in June 2018. By then a seasoned comedian, Gadsby was accustomed to stand-up, but “Nanette” takes a different form.

A feminist and LGBTQ+ activist, Gadsby often pulls these perspectives into political commentary, despite backlash and audience “feedback” that her more feminist revelations don’t belong in comedy. Gadsby is a victim of physical and sexual assault, and her experience of trauma and gender-based violence is something that she doesn’t shy away from in performance.

“Nanette” makes this clear, and it also highlights a new attitude in her comedy: Gadsby is no longer willing to use self deprecating humour — the humour that gay women and other minority comedians are so often drawn to — to get a laugh. She explains,

“Do you understand what self deprecation means when It comes from someone that’s already in the margins? It’s not humility, it’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak, in order to seek permission to speak. And I simply will not do that anymore. Not to myself or anyone who identifies with me… and if that means that my comedy career is over, then so be it” (Nanette).

The second half of “Nanette” deals honestly and directly with issues of sexism, homophobia, trauma and discrimination. Gadsby’s personally and politically charged discourse garnered a lot of hatred from many spectators (often men) who complained that Nannette is not actually a comedy show, because it’s critically engaged in social commentary. Gadsby takes this in stride, acknowledging that comedic tropes and stereotypes are not often accepting of people who look like she does.

In “Nanette,” she explains, “this is bigger… than homosexuality. This is about how we conduct debate in public about sensitive things. It’s toxic, it’s juvenile, it’s destructive. We think it’s more important to be right than it is to appeal to the humanity of people we disagree with” (Nanette).

Polarized political and social discourse detracts from productive conversations, and each of us must find an individual identity within our communities. Gadsby talks about her understanding of sexuality at a young age, when the only representation she saw of LGBTQ+ people was in the Sydney Mardi Gras parade, which portrayed “her people” as necessarily hypersexualized, loud and raucous. She talks about finding a place for herself as a quiet, shy and introverted lesbian woman — a contradiction she humorously acknowledges in her profession as a stand-up comic, making a living by speaking in public.

Shortly before the release of “Nanette,” Gadsby learned that she has autism, which is part of what makes her shy, introverted and sensitive. Highly sensitive to loud noises and uncomfortable in overcrowded spaces, Gadsby says that having a better understanding of her brain and its complexity allows her to draw boundaries and advocate for herself in conflict. She’s taken to wearing an Octopus pin on her lapel. The octopus has eight brains distributed throughout its body — an analogy for Hannah’s neurodiversity.

In a recent interview with Variety Magazine, Gadsby talks about her relationship to Pride and the celebration of her identity. Although Pride celebrations are not necessarily her natural environment, Gadsby is still navigating the complexities of sexuality and the LGBTQ+ community, albeit from a quieter place. She explains, “I think what I have, and it’s something I’ve had to work really hard at, is an absence of shame. That feels more important to me than an active position of pride” (Variety).

Gadsby’s next show, “Douglas,” is currently touring internationally, and will be released on Netflix in 2020.

By Katie Clarke, WAVE Intern

Sources

Floyd, Thomas. “How is Hannah Gadsby following up ‘Nanette’? By talking about life after ‘Nanette.’” The Washington Post. June 24, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/express/2019/06/24/how-is-hannah-gadsby-following-up-nanette-by-talking-about-life-after-nanette/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.def30f0dbc35

Framke, Caroline. “Hannah Gadsby Found Pride Through ‘An Absense of Shame.’ Variety. June 2019. https://variety.com/2019/tv/features/hannah-gadsby-nanette-netflix-lgbt-1203245400/

Hannah Gadsby: Nanette. Directed by Jon Olb and Madeleine Parry, performance by Hannah Gadsby, Guesswork Television, 2018.

McManus, Emily. “How Hannah Gadsby broke comedy.” TEDBlog. TED Conferences, April 18, 2019. https://blog.ted.com/how-hannah-gadsby-broke-comedy/

Rota, Genevieve. “Success came ‘at such a price’: Hannah Gadsby opens up to Leigh Sales.” The Sydney Morning Herald. February 5, 2019. https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/tv-and-radio/success-came-at-such-a-price-hannah-gadsby-opens-up-to-leigh-sales-20190205-p50vw1.html

Wright, Tony. “Why Hannah Gadsby is retiring from comedy after ‘Nanette.’ The Sydney Morning Herald. June 30, 2017. https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/comedy/why-hannah-gadsby-is-retiring-from-comedy-after-nanette-20170628-gx0313.html