Today Kate Clinton is a national celebrity, emcees events all over the map and is beloved by all who meet her. Here’s a look at the famous LGBT activist and comedienne before she became a sensation.
She had to visit the Apple store to fix something on her phone a while back. There, in front of everyone, she was pressing her finger on a screen, sliding it to the end, raising it and repeating. She was scrolling through the years, trying to reach the year she was born. She finds it embarrassing, but it’s hard to tell by her looks and disposition that Kate Clinton was born in 1947.
It was in Buffalo, New York, a time and a place, which doesn’t exist anymore. Not for the LGBT community, not for anyone. Clinton was born to an Irish Catholic family, the middle child of five, with two older brothers, a younger sister and brother. Her father worked at a power company, data processing on computers that back then filled up entire rooms. Her mother, in a foreshadowing of Clinton’s future, was an elementary school teacher, but gave it up to be a mother. In lieu of raising five children, Clinton’s mother was an active member in the community and the local church.
The Clinton family lived in a small village right outside of Buffalo.
“You could ride your bike, meet your friends, play all day,” Clinton said. “It was very white, very Catholic. I never encountered any different ethnicities or different foods in my childhood.”
Clinton is known by friends to be grounded and sensible, and at the same time strong. The former, she said she got from her father.
“When I told him I was performing, he was mortified. He couldn’t imagine walking up to a microphone and talking without having to,” Clinton said. Unlike herself her father was a reserved man. “He loved my mother. He didn’t drink. He didn’t smoke. He was really rock steady.”
The latter — being strong — Clinton said she got from her mother.
“Although she wouldn’t say it, she was an early feminist. She was a strong woman. She was always writing letters to editors,” Clinton said. “She was always very proud of me, and what I did — both when I was a teacher and when I traveled.”
Clinton realized she was different as early as her adolescence. But she said that, at the time, there were no words to describe the kinds of feelings she had. She maintains, however, that even though kids today have the language and the exposure to LGBT issues, it’s still hard to come out and face society. She kept her identity hidden for a long time.
“I was really different. I knew that I loved my girlfriend. But there was no language — at the time, there was no overt language against or pro-homosexuality,” she said. “In this really lovely childhood, I was already feeling that I had a secret. That I was being loved by my parents unconditionally, but thought that if they knew this, they wouldn’t love me — it was the classic story of a gay child.”
Regardless of this, Clinton still had her eye on women and girls at an early age. One of her first crushes was Mrs. Hartigan, the next-door neighbor and a friend’s mother.
“At the time, most of the kids were worried about ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but I was worried about ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife,’” Clinton said. ”When I look back on my childhood delineations — I just thought she was so glamorous.”
Clinton went to a Catholic high school in Syracuse, where by that time the family had moved. She would become prom queen, crowned homecoming queen, played on the basketball team, was involved in pep rallies and in the Catholic Youth Organization, and enjoyed studying.
“Honey, if you’re an early lesbian, you’re a total people pleaser,” she said.
Clinton had two boyfriends throughout high school. One was a “wonderful, kooky, guy who was very, very smart.” The other boyfriend came from a family of seven and was also very nice, she said.
“We didn’t drink or smoke or anything like that,” Clinton said of both her athletic boyfriends. She said both relationships involved some kissing, but it never went further. “It was never a struggle — it was very Catholic. Like my mother said to me: Sex is messy, save it for someone you love.”
Clinton wouldn’t come out until after college, during which she also had a few relationships with boys that never materialized into anything. All the while, throughout high school and college, she would have her eyes on girls, always keeping her thoughts to herself, trying to undo some invisible wrong that she didn’t want to accept.
These desires, both for women and of keeping herself hidden, are hard to remember for Clinton. Not because the memories slip away, but because she’s blacked out some of them, in what she calls emotional blackouts. So what she really wanted remained unfulfilled, unrequited. It remained as “just sadness,” Clinton knowing she couldn’t do it and it couldn’t happen — thinking she’d end up an “old, lonely woman.”
Clinton got her degree in education, and would end up teaching high school English for eight years in two different schools. The light at the end of the tunnel came when feminism emboldened lesbians to come out of the closet in the late 70s. She met, through an old friend, some women who were political, social activists. She grew fascinated with them, and, through them, she began thinking about coming out, which she did in 1978. She was 31-years-old.
Then she started smiling during the classes she taught. She went to a meeting of lesbian writers, part of a workshop, and it changed her life. She started writing. It was during this time that a friend suggested she start doing stand-up, sick of hearing Clinton pine about her longing for the stage.
“It was good exercise,” she said about the poetry she used to write. “A good comedic one-liner is like a really great line of poetry.”
She gave a few examples: “She wouldn’t say lesbian if her mouth was full of one.” While doing a routine on being a counselor at a camp and how much they all loved one another but couldn’t do anything, Clinton wrote: “Except we all ate a lot — instead of each other, we ate peach pie.” The lines between poetry, the artistry that pulled her into accepting herself, and comedy began to blur, Clinton finding that they complemented each other.
The next step in her process involved informing her family of her newfound self, a feat easier said than done.
“I never came out to my mother because she was debilitated with Parkinson’s. She was physically unable to do it,” Clinton said, musing that that may just be a rationalization. “By the time I felt strong enough to have that conversation with her, it would have been cruel. I came out to my father after I got sober — part of sobriety says you’re as sick as your secrets — I had to be clear with him. I had not said the word. He knew I was an entertainer and involved with the feminist movement — he said he knew I was a liberal, but not that I was a lesbian.”
Her siblings’ reactions were mixed. Her oldest brother wasn’t happy — he was a Christian fundamentalist. He told her she wouldn’t be able to see his three kids. He would later come around. Another brother was very happy for her. Another brother was more or less accepting. Her younger sister — who always called her a “big, fat queer,” but not in a gay tone — would start calling her a “big, fat millionaire.”
But Clinton takes it all with a smile, forcing you to smile back.
“When family shuns you, enjoy it. They’ll come around. Enjoy the break,” she advised young people considering coming out. “Of course, it was excruciatingly painful, but it worked out. You are not alone. The Catholic God loves you. God loves you. Coming out is the healthiest thing you can do.”
Clinton is the author of three books and continues to work around the country in her role as humorist, a label she said she prefers over lesbian or LGBT — because that’s just the thing Clinton would say.