The UK’s first LGBTQ+ comedy contest is changing the industry: ‘People laugh with you, not at you’

In 2005, lesbian comedian Zoe Lyons was fed up. A year on from winning a Funny Women award, she was on the UK’s stand-up circuit, touring the country. She consistently found herself as the only woman, and certainly the only queer woman, on comedy line-ups. 

“It was bad enough in a lot of the audience’s eyes if you’re a woman, and then as a gay woman? It was pretty tough,” she tells PinkNews. “I found it incredibly hard.”

Eventually, she had enough. In October that year she set up Bent Double, a monthly LGBTQ+ comedy night in her home town, Brighton. “The only reason I started running it was because I was sick of turning up and being (a) the only queer person on the bill, or (b) the only woman,” she recalls. “I wanted an environment where people can turn up and perform what [they] want to perform.”

Zoe Lyons set up a monthly comedy night in Brighton. (Supplied)

Almost two decades on, such inclusive environments have become far more common. Later this week, Lyons will join a number of other prominent LGBTQ+ comedians, including Jonny Woo and Jen Brister, in judging the LGBTQ+ New Comedian of the Year competition, hosted by Comedy Bloomers.

Now in its third year, the contest has helped launch the careers of dozens of queer comics across the country.

Caitlin Powell (who uses she/they pronouns), the comedian and co-host of the Queers Gone By podcast (which she hosts alongside RuPaul’s Drag Race UK favourite Kate Butch), is one of this year’s finalists. Their comedy career began while at university, during a period she identified as straight and cisgender.

After a few years on the stand-up circuit, “I had a bit of a queer crisis and took some time out, and realised I’m a lot more gay than I thought”, she says. “Then I came back to comedy. Stand-up has been a real way of me working through my own identity.”

Powell has performed for audiences who are both largely straight, and largely queer (the UK’s first permanent LGBTQ+ comedy club and festival launched last year). There is a difference. 

“When you’re gigging around the country, there are some times where there can be a moment of anxiety,” they continue. “Like: ‘Can I say that? How open can I be? Is there a joke I need to cut?’ [When the line-up is largely queer acts], it’s nice to not have that concern.”

LGBTQ+ New Comedian of the Year finalist Caitlin Powell. (Supplied)

Fab Goualin, another comedian in the contest, agrees. He only started performing last September, after a successful turn as an emcee at a friend’s wedding led to guests suggesting he give stand-up a try.

He’s performed at roughly 30 gigs across the country, but already knows why performing for an LGBTQ+ audience, with other queer comics, is special. 

“There’s definitely a certain confidence that’s unlocked, and there’s a fear that isn’t there,” he says. “I’ve definitely done some shows where – not that I’m like, ‘Oh, everybody’s a homophobe in this room’ – but it just feels a little bit less friendly,” Goualin says.

When you’re in a room full of queers, both in the audience and waiting in the wings for their turn on the stage, jokes about being LGBTQ+ just land a little better.

“I love it, because people get the jokes, and they’re laughing with you, as opposed to at you,” he says.

In recent years, big-name comedians such as Matt Rife, Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais have drawn criticism for aiming some of their jokes at the trans community. Despite a backlash, they’ve all received new comedy specials on streaming services such as Netflix. The mainstream comedy industry still doesn’t always feel like a place where queer comics can expect to be respected.

At queer comedy nights, and through initiatives such as the LGBTQ+ New Comedian of the Year contest, that respect will be given. 

Performing in front of a queer audience unlocks Fab Goualin’s confidence. (Supplied)

“It’s about having a space where people are in on the joke,” Goualin adds. “If you’re in on the joke, it’s funnier to you, and too often queer people in comedy are the butt of the joke – no pun intended.”

It wasn’t long ago that a queer act on a comedy line-up – if there was one – would be expected by largely heterosexual audiences to make cheap jabs about their own sexuality. That was how you got them on your side. In recent times, that’s changed: queer comics aren’t expected, at least as much, to focus on sex or coming out

“What I’ve noticed in queer comedy and in the competition as well,” says Powell, “is that a lot of people are not necessarily doing jokes about being queer, but we have a queer lens through which we view the world.

“That gives us a unique perspective. We’re not having to [make] fun of our own identity, but kind of leading an audience and going: ‘This is how we see the world, come with us’. It’s really refreshing.”

In the past, where a line-up did feature a queer comedian, it was usually a cisgender, gay white male. The majority of the nine Comedy Bloomers finalists aren’t men: they’re women or gender-diverse. It’s reflective of a trend that’s been seen in comedy for a while, says Lyons. Women, including queer women, are getting more space. 

“I’m very grateful now when I walk into a room, and I’m not the odd one out,” she says. Although for Marty Gleeson, another of this year’s finalists, performing at non-queer venues can still come with a hearty dose of misogyny from the audience.

Marty Gleeson still finds misogyny among non-queer audiences. (Tatiana Galic)

“That stigma is sometimes still there,” she says. “You’re a woman comedian, and you go off and someone says to you after a gig, ‘Oh, you’re really funny… for a woman’. And you’re like: ‘Oh, thank you so much, sweet angel’.”

Being able to perform in a space where you’re almost certainly going to avoid such remarks, however they’re intended, is an obvious positive. “It’s more like a safe space, I guess, for some people who are more outwardly queer,” Gleeson adds. “It’s also a chance and an opportunity to meet your peers.”

While the competition might be just that, a competition, being surrounded by other queer talent makes it feel more light-hearted, with more of a focus on community.

“Everybody in comedy, you’re kind of in a family. But when it comes to queer comedy, you’re in a slightly smaller family, so there’s even a heightened level of camaraderie,” Goualin reflects.

There’s no worrying about the jokes being told, how the audience might response to queerness, whether you’re going to be fighting other LGBTQ+ people for that one tick-box spot on a line-up. If there’s a prize at the end of it too, that’s a bonus.

“Spaces like this competition are an opportunity for us to be completely unapologetically queer, and really showcase and celebrate our queerness within a community,” Powell says. 

“The queer community is a really funny community. We often come together through humour. It’s cool to see us being lifted up and celebrated.”

The LGBTQ+ New Comedian of the Year final will take place at London’s Clapham Grand on Tuesday (11 June). Tickets are available now.

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