Jill of all trades

From the Emmy red carpet to phlebotomy school, out comic Margaret Smith always has a plan

RICH LOPEZ  | Staff Writer
lopez@dallasvoice.com

comedy

LAUGHING LESBIAN | Former Ellen writer and newly-minted Texan Margaret Smith steers clear of gay jokes.

For someone who’s been in a Martin Scorsese film (a bit part in GoodFellas), written a book about single motherhood and won six Emmys, it’s hard to find out much about comedian Margaret Smith. Her bios online are mostly mirror images of each other, and don’t even think of checking the social networks — she’s not on them.

“I think I’m the only person I know that’s not on Facebook,” she says. “People from way back pop on there.

If I haven’t seen them in so long, there’s probably a reason. Really, I’m just lazy. A friend of mine told me that there is only one YouTube video of me out there. ”

But the recent transplant to Texas (she moved to Austin with her two children last year) and former Ellen

DeGeneres joke writer is busy working on her stand-up again, so her focus isn’t likely on who her next friend request is from. Instead, it’s figuring where her next paycheck might come from. And that could be anywhere from telling jokes to drawing blood. Fortunately, she’ll be doing the former this weekend at Backdoor Comedy.

“I’ve sort of been ticking around, wondering what I want to do with the rest of my life,” Smith says. “After Ellen, I moved to Austin and became a phlebotomist, but then I couldn’t find a job doing that! People don’t want a joke and a poke — just the joke. I did some open mic stuff and got a writing job here. I liked it.”

Smith picked up several of her Emmys writing for The Ellen DeGeneres Show, leaving just before the writer’s strike of 2007. That move forced Smith to rethink her career strategy. With the strike, a writing gig wasn’t an option. Stand-up comedy was, but custody issues of her two sons forced Smith to move, either to Atlanta or Austin; the latter won. She became a Texan last year.

“I wasn’t gonna go anywhere without my kids,” she says. “But things were different in Austin. I was in a different arena of comedians and there was none of the Hollywood shit going on. It was kind of refreshing.”

Although she’s driving up I-35 for a Friday and Saturday performance, she might stick around Dallas to spend Sunday at the State Fair. She was thrilled at the idea of fried butter and fried margaritas.

“If I get invited and someone is willing to go with me, then I’d stick around,” she says. “With all that fried stuff, I guess I better serve up some fried jokes, huh?”

Most of Smith’s shtick relates to her experience with her family and as a single mom to two boys. She jokes about taking her son to get tested for ADD; it turned out he was fine — she was the one with the problem. She deadpans her family’s supportive nature of her comic memoir, What Was I Thinking, was evident in how they passed it around eight times rather than buy each family member their own copy.

But the out comedian doesn’t joke too much on the gay stuff, which she calls “not that funny and a little dirty.” Besides, not having dated anyone in over six years, she’s a little detached from the scene.

“What’s funny about being a lezzie? “ she quips. “I talk about dating guys when I was in my 20s but  I think those experiences are funny. Jokes about women can get easily graphic and I’d never do that onstage. Gay or straight, the crowd may not relate and start to disconnect. But I did receive the best compliment in the women’s restroom when this lady asked me if I had a tampon. I just wanted to make out with her because I’m too old to have one!”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 14, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Savagely better

BETTER ALL THE TIME | Dan Savage, right, and his partner Terry Miller offered a helping voice for LGBT youth during a rash of suicides with the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign. The campaign has grown that the couple has turned it into a book. Savage comes to Dallas to talk up the book and likely, some sex.

Giving advice on sex or telling LGBT youth it gets better, people listen to Dan Savage

Sex advice guru Dan Savage — whose column/podcast/iPhone-iPod app Savage Love has made him the queer Dear Abby — founded and launched the It Gets Better Project (ItGetsBetter.org) in September 2010 with husband Terry Miller via its first YouTube video. At the time, he never expected that it would go as far as it has in sheer numbers (10,000-plus and counting) and input from across the globe and social strata: President Obama’s video went up just a month later, and Fort Worth Councilman Joel Burns was attributed with expanding the cause when his (unrelated) heartfelt confessional went viral.

Now the book companion, It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living (Dutton; $21.95), edited by Savage and Miller, drops, featuring all-new essays by the likes of David Sedaris, Kate Clinton, Michael Cunningham and Alison Bechdel, as well as video transcriptions and expanded essays from high-profile personalities and everyday folks alike.

Savage, who serves as editorial director for Seattle’s The Stranger weekly and recently shot a TV series pilot for MTV (he’s awaiting word on whether it’s being picked up), spoke about the book, where he turns for advice, and the next social-sexual mission on his agenda.

— Lawrence Ferber


Dallas Voice: How does this book further the It Gets Better mission and message? Dan Savage: The book includes pieces from people who haven’t made videos. It also creates another way for kids who need to hear these messages to find them. I’ve written books before, and you never really know where a book is going to wind up. Sometimes they wind up in school libraries; I’ve gotten notes from people who stumbled across my book The Kid in the Himalayas. The Internet has tremendous reach, of course, and kids are wired and tech savvy, but not all kids have access to the Internet and not all kids want to leave a browser history that might incriminate them. So this gives another way to reach a lot of kids.

Who would you like to see contribute an It Gets Better video or message but hasn’t yet? I would love for the prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, to make one. I would like to see — and am not surprised we have not seen — a video from a prominent Republican elected official. There has been not one. I wish every politician would make one.

Look at New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. He made a video where he said we welcome everybody — LGBT youth have a home in New York if where you’re at is not welcoming you. At the same time that he released that video, he slashed funding for the Ali Forney Center, which is a shelter for LGBT teens, and he was called out for his hypocrisy. People were able to use the video to shame him and he reversed [his decision] and re-funded the center. So calling in these chits, and being able to hold the people to the promises they made in their videos, is valuable.

That said, for me the most important videos are the ones from people no one’s ever heard of — average, everyday LGBT folks reaching out and sharing their joy with LGBT kids who may be having trouble picturing a future for themselves. Queer kids know there are gay celebrities out there, and straight celebs and politicians who are fine with gay people, but what some of them are having trouble picturing is how they get from being a bullied, miserable 14-year-old gay kid whose family is also tormenting them to a happy, secure, loved and perhaps, reconciled with their family gay adult.

What are the next steps in It Gets Better’s future? There’s a good body of videos and we want to archive and tag them so they’re more easily searched. There are a lot by trans people, but you can’t always tell which just by looking at the thumbnail images, so we would need to make them easier to break out into playlists and search. We’re working on that now. The mission after that is to make sure that five to 10 years from now, once this moment of such intense media interest has passed, that kids who are 5 today and going to be 15 then and don’t know about the website can find their way there. We have to make sure that there is enough money raised to host and maintain the website and awareness about it in schools and where kids are at.

As a sex advice columnist, who do you look to or read for sex advice? I read a lot of sex columns. I like In & Out, Caroline Hax, Dear Prudence, Margo Howard. If you go to TheStranger.com/Savage, there’s a blogroll called “Want a Second Opinion?” which is links to other columns I approve of and enjoy.

So what is the one issue when it comes to our sex lives that you have made your number one mission to change through your work? I just want people to be more realistic about monogamy. People’s expectations about what a long-term relationships is like are so in conflict with what LTRs are actually like that a lot of decent, fine, functional relationships have ended because people had irrational expectations. If we can change expectations we can save a lot of relationships. Life-long sexual monogamy and the expectation that an LTR is always going to be this extraordinarily passionate fuck-fest sets us all up for disappointment.

And is there one strategy you are taking to go about that? It’s an issue that constantly comes up. Sexual dissatisfaction, mismatched libidos, unmet sexual needs, people being cut off sexually by their spouses after they have children. I’m in the position often of recommending what I describe as “the least worst option.” I think if the choice is a nasty divorce that upends the lives of four to five people and family or a little discreet infidelity that makes it possible for that family to remain intact and otherwise completely functional, I’m for infidelity.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 25, 2011.

—  John Wright

Don’t let story of David Kato’s murder die

HARDY HABERMAN  |  Flagging Left

A few months ago when I wrote about the draconian anti-homosexual laws being passed in Uganda, I had an ominous feeling that it would be the beginning of a very real nightmare for LGBT people in that African country.

Unfortunately, that is coming to pass.

LGBT activist David Kato was murdered, not by a sniper from a distance, but by an individual who brutally beat him to death with a hammer.

A Ugandan publication had published his photo and that of other LGBT activists on the front page; above the picture were the words “Hang Them.”

Already, the authorities in Uganda are trying to cloud the issue with talk of “thieves and gangs.” But to call his death anything but the hate crime it was is ludicrous.

Beating someone to death with a hammer is up close and personal and comes from a hate-filled rage.

Much of that rage has been fueled by clergy in Uganda. One man in particular — Martin Ssempa, a man with the dubious title of “reverend.”

If you don’t think you know him, you most likely do. Ssempa was the speaker in the YouTube video that went viral last year. In that clip he is describing how gay men “eat the pooh-pooh.”

Though to us it might have seemed comical and worthy of ridicule, in Uganda, Ssempa’s words are taken seriously.

Ssempa is a well-known preacher in Uganda, and he has a lot of well-funded U.S. ties. You see, anti-gay evangelists who can’t find an audience for their hate here in this country have fanned out to proselytize in countries where their message might have more traction.

Rick Warren, the author of “A Purpose Driven Life,” was one of Ssempa’s supporters. Though he now distances himself from the Uganda situation, funds from Warren’s church helped fuel this mess. U.S. evangelicals and the ex-gay movement are big players in Ssempa’s push.

Ssempa has wrapped his hate in the banner of AIDS activism. But don’t be fooled. His brand of activism led him to burn cases of condoms “in Jesus’ name” and to sponsor gatherings with U.S. speakers like Scott Lively, who blames homosexuals for the Nazi Holocaust.

Other U.S. interlopers include Don Schmierer, who is on the board of Exodus International and who spoke at a conference in Kampala in March, 2009, where he endorsed the anti-homosexual laws that caused such an international stir.

Now as David Kato is being laid to rest the controversy continues.

A pastor speaking at his funeral lashed out at homosexuality, prompting a strong reaction from Kato’s friends. Scuffles broke out before the event was over.

Things turned so ugly that villagers refused to bury his body, and it was up to his friends to carry the coffin to the grave and complete the burial themselves.
And all this just adds fuel to the fires in Uganda.

It is unfortunate that those fires have been stoked by citizens of the U.S. who traveled to Uganda to inflame passions there. Worse, this crime is going to fall from the front pages as events in Egypt take center stage in news from Africa. Besides, the story is somewhat old news, and falls well outside the attention span of U.S. news audiences.

That’s why it is up to the LGBT media to keep this urgent human rights story alive.

Hardy Haberman is a longtime local LGBT activist and a member of Stonewall Democrats of Dallas. His blog is at http://dungeondiary.blogspot.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition Feb. 4, 2011.

—  John Wright

Joel Burns live at noon on CNN

Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns, aka the Prince of Cowtown, will be on CNN today to talk about the “It Gets Better” speech he made Tuesday that’s gone totally super-viral since then. In case you’re wondering, at last check, the YouTube video had more than half a million views. Which is why it’s kinda hard to believe Burns has only 1,129 followers on Twitter.

UPDATE: GLAAD reports on additional appearances by Burns:

-Joel’s video was played on MSNBC last night during The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.

-We’re told that earlier this morning Joel’s message was broadcast as a package piece for CBS’ The Early Show.

-At approximately 1:00 EST, Joel will be interviewed LIVE by Ali Velshi, host of CNN’s Newsroom.  We’ve been told that Joel’s video will play in its entirety (13 minutes), with a 12-20 minute interview to follow.

-At approximately 3:30 EST, Joel will be interviewed LIVE on MSNBC.

-Tonight at 10:00 EST, ABC’s 20/20 has said they will feature Joel’s video during a four-part special on bullying.

—  John Wright