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Origins of the Colorado Queer Comedy Festival

“Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” – Victor Borge

Ren Dawe, lead organizer of the Colorado Queer Comedy Festival, shares his sentiments about queer comedy and origin of this new event.

Performer submissions are open now! Click here to apply.

A few years ago, I heard a transphobic joke. While not the first time I’d heard a rude joke featuring a slur related to my identity, this one stung in a different way. I heard it on Netflix, by one of the premier comedians of our time. Even without naming them, I’m sure a handful of professional entertainers come to mind, because it is so culturally ingrained to use queerphobia as a cheap construction of humor instead of actually delving into the queer experience as a rich source of hilarity. This is precisely the predicament queer entertainers, artists, and creatives find ourselves in today, and it is a genuine access issue for LGBTQ+ peoples working in the industry and attempting to express themselves as a whole. 

Upon hearing this joke, I was heartbroken. How could someone that had brought me so much joy in the past, especially during the dark moments of my transition as a trans man, be so smart about the ridiculousness of the world and spew such simple ignorance about me and my community? It was bad enough to hear it on the news that people thought I was more than an outcast–that I was a social deformity, a defect in society, a nuisance that should be eradicated. It then brought a whole new level of pain when I heard it in a space that is supposed to elicit joy and explore misconception. I was sad, I was angry, I was indignant, and I was frustrated that my life–something that I knew to be amusingly ludicrous and illuminating–be the subject of so much hatred following such a bad joke. And, suddenly, I became very determined to prove to the world otherwise. I decided I wanted to tell good trans jokes that were funny for everyone, not because they weren’t dark or dirty or downright crass, but because they were true in illuminating the absurdity I’d experienced in our binary-obsessed society. I set my sights on an open mic at a smoky pub in Atlanta, Georgia, and I went. 

As a cis-passing trans person, everyone just thought I was some random white guy, and I was largely left alone. There were dozens of trans jokes (bad ones), sexist jokes (also bad ones), and generally a sentiment that queer people lacked something intrinsic to even be in on the joke at all. I steeled myself for hecklers, or potentially a more dangerous encounter in the parking lot after, and took the mic. My opening line is pretty simple: “Hi y’all, my name is Ren, and I’m trans. Which means I was born a woman, and now, people ask me if I have a dick all the time.” 

Laughter. And 5 minutes went by, more laughter, some awkward silences, and an undeniable sense of control. Nobody dared to actually heckle me, a real live trans person in the wild. Immediately following my set, a shift occurred: the trans jokes changed. Suddenly, comedians were interested in the reality of the trans experience, and not just in othering transness itself. Afterwards, comedians and attendees approached me, shaking my hand, sharing the jokes they liked best in my set, and asking me if I’d stay in town longer for a real gig. I’ll never forget one comic waxing poetic about my content (which was rough, to say the least) and he said “man, you’re going places.” I was absolutely euphoric–and shocked. How could it be that 5 minutes ago all these people were verified transphobes, and now they were entreating me to be a friend and ally? I still ask myself these questions, but I have a few answers–it is because laughter creates a sense of alliance, because humor is a social lubricant, because we all want to be in on the joke. Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.

After moving to Colorado and surviving a pandemic, I revived my comedy dreams and stepped into the Denver scene. I was once again welcomed with open arms, was floored by hearing good trans jokes start to surface from cis comedians, and I even found other queer comics. After getting a few gigs and meeting more than a few wonderful people, I started to hear more and more queer comedians expressing their feelings of tokenism being their only avenue to book bigger gigs, feeling disallowed to explore content outside their designated demographical trope, and struggling to gain entry into the “big leagues” of statewide festivals which actually pay moderate wages.

Despite these hurdles, LGBTQ+ performers have pressed on in bars, clubs, open mics, and pallet shows in defiance of unfair treatment and selection. Promoting queer stories isn’t just beneficial for our community–it’s a critical tool in our work in educating allies on inclusivity. Time and time again, I’ve had “straight” allies approach me after shows to express their enjoyment of content focused on the trans experience. I’ve even had people convey that their minds had been changed, that they realized policies barring queer existence from public spaces (that they previously supported) would mean obstructing my jokes from ever seeing the light of stage. This drastic change in opinion, that had occurred in a matter of minutes, has brought me new friends from unexpected places and positions. It has proven to me that comedy is activism, that humor is one of the most powerful tools we have against bigotry, and that laughter can unite us when our country is hellbent on dividing us. It is much easier to learn to laugh together than it is to persist fighting one another.

That’s when I approached Dr. Bruce Parker, Deputy Director of Out Boulder County, who had enthusiastically sponsored Queer Circus—a variety show showcasing queer comedians, dancers, actors, poets, and musicians—during Boulder County Pride 2023. After selling out the house at the illustrious Junkyard Social Club, and hearing the community’s touching feedback on how the event promoted queer joy in a whole new way, we avidly started to discuss the idea of a statewide event focused on comedy for queers and by queers (queer jokes for queer folks, if you will). And so the Colorado Queer Comedy Festival was born.The need for this kind of event is clear and evident. Humor brings us together, risible storytelling helps us transmute pain into ecstasy.  Queer joy is a direct act of resistance, and comedy allows us the opportunity for dialogue that other platforms fail at achieving—in the words of John Cleese: “laughter is a force of democracy.” Queer comedy is direct action. 

The 2024 Colorado Queer Comedy Festival will be held scheduled for October 3-6, 2024 in Boulder, Denver, and Fort Collins, Colorado. We know that good jokes save lives, and OBC knows that the time of silencing and ridiculing of our community is over. Join us this year, and hopefully many more to come, as we bring the best and the brightest LGBTQIA+ comedians into the spotlight. All are welcome. 


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