What the L?


By Kate Clinton

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What the L? is a new collection of published and unpublished writings that showcases Kate Clinton’s gifts as one of the all-time favorite lesbian comics. Like Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell, Clinton is a nationally acclaimed quick-witted, laugh-out-loud funny comic whose hilarious takes on everything from gay marriage (“mad vow disease”) and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, to gay Republicans and the War on Terrorism have earned her a devoted following. She has appeared on many television programs, including Good Morning America, Nightline, Entertainment Tonight, and writes monthly columns for Progressive and the Advocate.



“It’s over.”

A huge cheer went up, gay men and lesbians leapt up from their chairs whooping, waving, then throwing their napkins up in the air. With little prompting from me, we all sang, “Happy Days are Here Again,” or at least the four lines we all knew of that old song.

It was January, 1993, Washington DC, and I was emceeing a big raucous dinner sponsored by several national Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender organizations, on the eve of the first inauguration of Bill Clinton. I stood up to the microphone. Instead of “It’s over,” I had planned to say, “Welcome, and thank you all for coming out.”

The spontaneous joy of the moment was in direct proportion to the twelve years of misery we had just lived through. The hugging, kissing, laughing, crying, and partying

felt like the V-J and V-E Day World War II ending celebrations my parents had described.

The next night, after Clinton’s swearing in, I emceed more of the rejoicing at the Triangle Ball. The hotel ballroom was hot, loud and packed with men in tuxedoes festively accessorized for the occasion with rainbow cummerbunds and women in dresses laden with sequins that looked like they had been bought by the pound. Or maybe it was men in dresses, women in tuxes.

My outfit was a gold lamé jacket over a silver shirt. On my head I had tied a black and glittering gold scarf. In pictures of that night, my head looks like a high end bundt cake with spiky hair exploding out the top. I could claim a fashion statement, but in reality, the scarf was to keep my head from exploding.

•    •    •

After eight years of Reagan, who had only once in those years uttered the word AIDS as it cut a wide swathe through our friends, and four years of a George Bush who at the time needed no other identifying numerals, we were stunned to have a president who had reached out to the gay community during his campaign and seemed able to say gay and lesbian often and without any accompanying lip-curling distaste. It was very disorienting. And eventually disappointing.

Saying that the Clinton years were disappointing is a lot like saying, “I’m so disappointed in the patriarchy.” Besides passing NAFTA, failing to reform or begin to reform healthcare, and his triangulating three-ways, his “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell” solution to the problem [for straight people] of gays in the military was no solution at all. His signing of the Defense of Marriage Act seemed to be his way of saving marriage from himself.

Despite the frustrations, the Clinton years were still markedly more welcoming than the previous Reagan/Bush lockout, so gay people came out in droves: professional and amateur gays, Log Cabin Republicans and Stonewall Democrats, rodeo riders, gay cruisers, circuit party gays, gay choraliers, gay ministers, equal-sign gays, openly closeted, sporty, sexy, political and apolitical, academic and redneck, old and young, no, I mean really young, gay people all came out.

Faster than you can say “niche market,” businesses realized they could make money on this newly visible gay population. The gay movement began an affair with the corporate America and, have your rainbow credit cards handy, the gay market was opened for business. On TV, in movies, and in the news, the love that dared not speak its name wouldn’t shut up about it already. During the Clinton impeachment, in poll after poll, the American people inadvertently validated employment nondiscrimination claims, when they said they didn’t care what he did in the bedroom, or even in the copy room, as long as he did his job. We were at peace; there were surpluses.

What the L happened?

This essay collection chronicles what happened to lots of Ls: lesbians, liberals, leftists, lawyers, Ellen, lifestylists, leaders, lords, liars, lapsed Catholics, lovers, and losers in the reign of W. Of course the seeds of many losses were sown in BC, the Bill Clinton years: corporate scandals, economic policies that led to a politics of resentment; gay rights bills stalled in state legislatures; increased antigay violence; and Clinton’s self-serving tack to the right that killed many a progressive reform. Those were the good old days.

This collection is written from the perspective of, to paraphrase a certain former governor of New Jersey, a Lesbian American. Moi. Pardon my freedom. I’ve been both for quite some time now. Being a lesbian is one of the most interesting things I have ever chosen to do. I love my country and I hate what’s happening.

I mean “What the L?” not in a pessimistic, shocked and awed, bug-eyed, incredulous, leaving-the-country, headshakingly sad, somebody-always-ends-up-in-fears recitation of a slimily slicked series of unfortunate current events tone, but rather, in a buoyant, smartass, get-a-load-of-this, relentlessly optimistic, might-as-well-live “What the L?” tone. A leap of faith, if you will. And I will.

How the L did we get lulled into thinking it was over? What the L do we do to make sure it doesn’t happen again? How the L are we going to survive? In my personal homeland terrorist survival kit, in addition to the canned goods, some Clarins anti-wrinkle gravity creams and, of course, batteries, I have made sure there has always been a good stock of L-rations, i.e., laughter.

Humor has taken quite a hit lately— from the preemptively self-deprecating, shoulder-bouncing, heh-heh-heh single entendred, nicknaming beevis Bush humor; to the big time derisively side-mouthed, butthead Cheney sarcasm; to the uncertain irony after September 11th; to the new p.c. of patriotic censorship; to the people against smiling fundamentalists; to the passively silent L.O.L. of forwarded cyber-humor lists; to the elimination humor of the last comic standing; to the gut-busters at FAUX news.

With the exception of the writing of Molly Ivins and the first fifteen minutes of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, comedy has not been pretty. Or very funny.

But I believe humor will get us through.

For a long time I have claimed a lot for humor [see “Making Light” Afterword]. Why the L stop now? I am a faith-based comic. In addition to the frivolous, salutary pleasure of laughing, I believe in the power of laughter to subvert authority and promote democracy. Laughter takes the tyranny of the lies we are told and told and told and it blows them apart. I espouse humor activism. Sometimes when I am sitting in lectures or debates, eavesdropping on or engaging in conversation in which I am forced to listen to huge steaming piles of lying illogic, I try not to go silent but to be a witness for truth. I laugh. I snort. Really hoot and say, “That’s so funny . . . oh, you mean it.” The laugh, with perhaps a satisfying but not mandatory dishy two-snap dismissal, destroys the fragile edifice of credibility holding up the story and messes with the confidence of the storyteller. Although there is a reckless relief in the release of laughter, it is not dissolute. It powers speech, a call to action and with it, a demand for change.

Because, turns out, like that mission accomplished thing, it is so not over.



The Clinton years were like being on comedy cruise controlprosperity, peace, sex scandals. Ho hum. Since the junta/coup/selection of 2000, it is as if the muse has been shouting, “You want material? I’ll give you material!” It is an effort to keep up. To quote President Rain Man in the debates, “It’s a hard job.” I could not make this stuff up. I should write in italics, so you would have to read at a quizzical, head-tilted angle. What is made upfrom pooling your tax rebate checks to managing your anger; from starting impeachment proceedings to dressing for surveillance; from marching for the hormone/and to dumping Slimfast in the harboris an attempt to make the best of a bad situation. What has been good for me, has been bad for us.


Silly me. Bush was elected. War is the answer. A little torture is a good thing. Ditto racial profiling. I’ve got to learn to kick back and enjoy this White House effect. What was I thinking? What’s that sound I hear? The Constitution being shredded? Whoopee! Confetti!

Of course I’m bitter that I was not offered the USO gig to entertain the troops at holiday time. No, that went to “the new Bob Hope,” Wayne Newton. Unless there is an elite troop of altacockers special forces in Afghanistan we don’t know about, which would be brilliant and unexpected, I would think that ’N Sync, Missy Misdemeanor Eliot, or Britney Spears would be a better choice. And I was just getting over my hurt feelings about not being asked to open for the Pope in his recent tour of Grease.

Since 9-11, I have been doing my own version of a USO tour performing throughout the country. Did I already mention I love my country? When I leave the house, on a road trip or even on an errand, my own strict Dress for Success code has been replaced by Dress for Surveillance. You like to look your best for the cameras. When I was first searched at airport security, I actually felt relieved they were surveilling the less obvious suspects, larger older white gals like myself. After my fourth random wanding [not in the Harry Potter sense] from a lovely woman at O’Hare, I learned a new meaning of heightened state of alert.

And the troops are traumatized. At the beginning of every show, I have always thanked people for coming out, implying out of the closet. Now I mean out of the house. Since the polarized red/blue presidential selection process last November, I have found it harder to come out as a justice-loving progressive than as a lesbian. In the summer, before the WTC attacks [did I already mention I loathed them?], people were nervous during the Bush bash section of my show. I pretended those who got up to leave had small bladders or had to have a smoke.

After 9-11, I was asked to appear at a Women’s Breakfast the day before the almost overlooked NYC Democratic mayoral runoff. It was a powerfully diverse gathering of women— African-American, Asian-American, Latina, labor, political, organizers, activists. I was proud to be there and remarked that it was such a relief to be among women after days of watching men talking to other men about men, only men. The men had not yet picked up and played the convenient “we are freeing the Afghan women oppressed under the Taliban” card.

In a throwaway line, I referred to George Bin Bush. “Bin” as in “son of.” The women in the audience did not bat an eye. But some reporter for the New York Post there picked it up, challenged the Ferrer people with it, and printed it the next day. My manager called me, frantic from phone threats, and my website was flamed with e-threats. Now I know what it takes to get in the Post.

No telling, if my remarks have already gotten me onto the list of offending comments compiled by Lon Cheney’s “Committee to Protect American Civilization,” not to be confused with “The Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.” That’s Bill Bennett. Cheney runs the Committee out of the secure and undisclosed bunker she shares with her husband, the Veep. It’s a duck blind in Eastern PA. Todd Gitlin, professor at NYU, is on the list for the highly inflammatory statement, “There is a lot of skepticism about America’s policy of going to war.” Sometimes I like to imagine Tipper Gore getting away with a committee like that.

Now I find myself approaching political material in my shows much as I approached the Golden Gate Bridge that day on tour when Gray Davis warned of possible, highly probable terrorist attacks. I take a deep breath and floor it.



If I had a dollar for each time someone has said to me, “You must be having a great time with all this material,” referring to the unpleasantness in Florida, I would have at least $200. No, wait, after a full and fair recount, it’s $203.47.

To paraphrase the Queen, it’s been a tempus horribilis. Sure, sure, while others returned to work, my day job forced me to watch, read, listen, and click through the most nauseating pile of pookie since a protracted summer garbage strike in New York City. (That last analogy was my homage to the loopy late-night work of Dan Rather.)

Despite a lifelong commitment to nonviolence, my thoughts turned less toward humor and more toward homicide. As the Pretenders unearth more cadaverous white men for The Nightly News of the Living Dead— Marlin Fitzwater Lives!— one thing you can conclude is that Republicans have mastered the secrets of cryogenics.

If you knew what I have fantasized doing to Jim Baker and his hair plugs, for starters, you would be shocked. Perhaps not.

Instead of writing witty, sophisticated bons mots, I found myself screaming adult things like “Liar, liar, pants on fire” at anyone on Fox “We Will Decide Who’s President” News. I find no solace in the Weather Channel because Florida still dangles there.

As a fourth- or fifth-string pundit on CNN and MSNBC, I have been called in several times to “give us some humor” in the last two or three minutes of a so-called news hour. Networks went through so many guest commentators they had to pass emergency hygiene guidelines for the proper care and cleaning of earpieces.

As I sat in the guest chair and watched the clock tick down to the fifty-seventh minute of the hour because someone could not stop blathering on about the legitimacy of the Banana Republicans, I considered telling Myles O’Brien that I was spending an unnatural amount of time in bed with Greta Van Susteren. But then I fantasized about pressing my face into the camera and screaming, “Death to the corporate media conglomerates! Jeb Bush had an affair with Katherine Harris!! Rupert Murdoch is the Antichrist!”

One of the reasons we were told we had to rush to crown George Duh is that we were the laughingstock of the world. Oh, like that’s something new. The only difference is that whereas before our arrogance only merited a British tut tut, a French eye roll, or a Serbian smirk, now there is open guffawing. And remember what Duh said in the so-called debates: Africa just doesn’t count.

Of course, the linguistic possibilities of “Bush and Dick” would be enough for me to put it on comedy cruise control for the next four years. It’s important to turn crises into opportunities and until the time I find some humor in all this, I have taken my $203.47 and preemptively formed The Permanent Standing Committee to Impeach Bush (TPSCTIB). Those who join from Florida get bonus double miles. It is modeled after the The Permanent Republican Committee of Sore Losers to Impeach Clinton that believed the presidency is a government entitlement program for Republicans and are still really steamed by the impertinent election of Bill Clinton.

Send any scurrilous personal Duh details, unverified Bush brushes, cockamamie conspiracy theories, or innuendos to TPSCTIB at kate@kateclinton.com and we will assign our own relentless Starr Chamber investigator to verify your claim, weeks after we post it. Remember, there is no shelf life to a really juicy bit.

Please note: TPSCTIB will not accept any of those dire e-lists of terrible things about Texas under Governor Duh. They didn’t scare anyone. The opposite proved true: He’s horrible. We can prove it. Let’s elect him. Poor Molly Ivins, Shrub chronicler from way back, was like a modern-day Cassandra.

I’ve already got Bush Fatigue. Not the good kind.



After one hundred days of Bush, has it only been that long? I find I have almost no room for pride. Rage. Not pride. I was raised Irish-Catholic and in my family, if you had an emotion, you went to your room. I suppose my therapist would be pleased with my progress. And if my therapist were Lorraine Bracco, therapist to the Sopranos, the other extended family in the news, I would want to please her.

I remember myself in the pre-GWB years as a fairly omni-emotional gal. Mad. Sad. Glad. I could do them all, multilayered and on a good day, simultaneously. Now I’m mono-emotional. I’m a huge energy-draining Rage Rover. I range from the very adult, snarky “I know you are, but what am I?” through the bitterly sarcastic “Oh, I bet you do, Bush Boy,” to hop-spitting, vein-popping, homicidal fury, “Where’s my Uzi, mother?” I’m a humvee of venom and I don’t know where to park it.

It got so bad I had to call in the anger management people. They assured me that the anger I was experiencing was in direct proportion to the perversion of pride around me. Pride is losing the popular vote by 500,000 or more and stealing the electoral votes from the state run by your brother, another of the pride of the Bush scions, and then acting as if you’ve got a popular mandate.

Pride is ramming a Japanese boat with your submarine and acting as if it was because you had a late lunch.

Pride is doing bombing practice on Vieques just because you can. Pride is spying on another country, and getting caught and called on it. All China wanted was a phone call and an apology. We’ve all had exes like that. That would have been a great call, Prep in chief: “Wazzzup? Crouching ti-ger, hidden li-on, wazzup?”

Pride is saying, “I wasn’t there to welcome our spies home because I didn’t want to disturb their personal tender moment,” carried for hours on CNN. Meaning, “I’ve got four days of fishing at my bass pond in Crawford planned. No way I’m going.”

Pride are those preemptive strikes of self-deprecating humor, which are nonetheless posited on a very large self. Whooee, lookit what I said. I’m an idiot. But I’m your idiot. And the dining press correspondents fall for it every time.

Then there’s the whole pride of lyings. About who is really in charge, about the arsenic in the water, the salmonella in the meat, about who really benefits from the tax cut, about the estate tax, about the family DUIs, about the real plan for abortion and family planning funding, about those charter schools, about the drilling in Alaska, about workers rights, about the tokenathon for minorities, gays, women in the administration.

There’s been so much yanking, it’s a wonder he did away with those repetitive motion protections.

But I suppose anger is better than numbness. Although nothing can shut down my friends faster than my shrieking, “Did you hear what he said about Africa?” [Trick question, he never says anything about Africa.] They sigh and respond wearily, “I only watch ‘The West Wing,’” as if it were their new spiritual practice of detachment.

I don’t want to be annoying like some kind of Comic Cassandra, pointing out that these guys are wearing Stetsons and they’re dragging a big wooden horse into the center of town. So I’m trying a new tack. Replace anger with faith. I’m a faith-based comic. Faith that this is the last blast of the blasted straight white guys. Faith that they won’t take us all down with them when they go. It’s dicey. They say pride goeth before the fall and at the rate they’re going, it could go before summer time shares start.

So I’m forming my own church. The Kate Clinton Full Gospel Choir Urban Lesbian Swat Team and Marching Band. We hope to get some of those big federal funds. It will help to underwrite our Gay Pride Tour and the robes. Watch for us in a pride parade near you. We’re right behind the horse.



The first week in July, I replaced the vacationing Dick Cavett as narrator in The Rocky Horror Show on Broadway. My old high school teaching skills came right back to me, since it was my job to ride herd on a raucously interactive audience who had grown up on midnight art house showings of the movie.

Parents brought their young kids to the theater and on ancient ritualized cues, yelled out the most scabrous things at me, at the cast. Their children sat gape mouthed at their parental units spewing obscenities, forbidden to them. Brad. Asshole! Janet. Slut!

It was, in an airtight, uptight first world, wonderfully, riotously transgressive. I encourage people to continue the tradition, and give a shout out whenever they hear the names of George or Dick or Rummy or any of the other horrors ranged before us. And I mean no insult to assholes.

All of July, I breathlessly awaited the debut of the “New” CNN. Formerly Clinton Nook News, now Conduit [slut!] the get-to-the-point nutwork proclaimed desperately, “We’re doing things different!” Forgoing adverbs? Muzzling Tucker [asshole!] Carlson? Doing some actual investigative journalism to honor the memory of Katherine Graham by finding out what really happened to J. H. Hatfield, author of Fortunate Son, the Bush exposé conveniently squelched just before the election, who died of natural causes at 43? Silly me. Sap!

Just as the corn was getting high as a GOP elephant’s eye, but before it was charred by whatever that was that fell from the sky— old Mir chunks? That long lost Mars Probe? Nonraptured evangelicals? Shards of the ABM treaty?— I began celebrating the imminent arrival of my tax rebate check by doing voluntary rolling blackouts with Jenna and Barbara. Whoopee!

The tax rebate is a lot like Bush [I can’t hear you!] down in some rough and faux tumbleweed Texas watering hole, buying a round of drinks for everyone. They used to do it right on election day, but what with that unfortunate mess in sonny’s Florida, it was unseemly.

It cost the IRS thirty million bucks to send out notices of that old punchline, “the check is in the mail.” It’s not just Dick who’s fibbing better, because it turns out, the kickbacks are not for everyone.

The transparent vote buying made me so livid, I improperly tore the three-sided perforated line on my notice when it arrived in the mail. I believe I made some chads. I loathe those who cavalierly say that $300 will buy them a moderately priced dinner in the Hamptons. Three hundred dollars is a huge needed cash influx for some people. As if they will ever see it.

We’ve started our own rebate renegade group, our motto is, “Payback is a bitch, so be one.” We’re pooling our money and going to choose one of the following group plans: Pay Dick Cheney’s utility bill. Old Tick is hooked up each night to his recharger and it costs. He wants the Navy, last I heard, one of those pesky government groups, to pay it for him. Hi, Sailor! Want to see my three-pronged adapter? We’ll pay it, so the Navy doesn’t have to do private fundraising luncheons on crowded submarines.

Underwrite a month of Weight Watchers in the White House. Started in May, the group chaired by Mr. Karen Hughes, meets every Tuesday, and has lost a total of 150 pounds. Help them lose 180 ugly pounds and impeach George Bush.

Hire our own private investigator to find out what did happen to J. H. Hatfield. We will not hire any investigators from the DC area. They are busy. They might get more done if they didn’t spend so much time being interviewed by “fair and balanced” FAUX news.

Make little sachet bags for the Salvation Army Kettles come holiday time. I can’t tell you everything that’s in the goodie bag, suffice it to say that the aroma will be more fecal than faith based. And who knew a truck load of elephant dung could cost so much?


On Sale
May 20, 2005
Page Count
284 pages
Da Capo Press

Kate Clinton

About the Author

KATE CLINTON has appeared on Comedy Central, Lifetime, Oxygen, MSNBC, CNN, and CSpan. She writes monthly columns for the Advocate and The Progressive, and has contributed to the New York Times and George magazine, among others. A former writer for The Rosie O’Donnell Show, Clinton also has released seven comedy albums. She lives in New York City.

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