Not long after coming out as a lesbian in both her personal and public lives, Houston-based comedian Vickie Shaw had an onstage epiphany. She was performing her gay jokes in a straight club for one of the first times.
"There was a big group of good ol' boys and their girlfriends who were having a big time, drinking, having fun," she remembers. "I thought to myself, 'If I'm ever going to have a problem, this is going to [be] it.'"
Shaw, 53, was midway through a bit about worrying about her kids being asked, "Is your mom gay?" And just as she was delivering the punch line, one of the boys she'd singled out earlier yelled, "What the hell difference does it make?"
"And the audience applauded," Shaw recalls, "and it was almost like an affirmation. And what I really felt bad about was, I had bigoted myself against this group of people. Right away I had thought, 'Oh, these rednecks are going to get out of hand.' But it was me being the bigot."
Shaw says she was a stay-at-home mother and wife and member of the Republican Women's Club and PTA before coming out as a lesbian — and as a stand-up comedian — in the mid-'90s. For her, the two life changes are inextricably linked.
"Comedy was one of the catalysts [for coming out]," she says.
Today, readers of Curve Magazine, a popular lesbian publication, have ranked Shaw among the funniest lesbians in America.
Her co-performer, Los Angeles-based Jennie McNulty, has also made Curve's list. And McNulty agrees with Shaw that comedy has an uncanny ability to push the truth to the surface.
"The truth is always the funniest thing," she says. "Some of the stuff that really happens you can't even write."
It is with that philosophy that McNulty, who says that her age is none of your business, approaches her stand-up as well as her biweekly Internet show Walk Funny With ... featured on afterellen.com. On each program, she interviews guests (usually other funny women) while taking a stroll.
McNulty doesn't concern herself with how audiences may react to her coming out on stage.
"It's all about whether or not you make people laugh," she says. "Whether you're gay or straight, I'm going to make you laugh. I hope."
When asked if she's feeling at all apprehensive about performing in Colorado Springs, considering its shaky track record on tolerance, McNulty laughs.
"I was unaware of that reputation," she says, "but I'm actually kind of excited about that now."