To count the F-bombs Belleville native and “Orange Is The New Black” actress Lea DeLaria dropped on stage at Lindenwood University-Belleville’s auditorium Tuesday evening, you’d need the fingers on everyone’s hands in the room.
But there was a point to the profanity: DeLaria, who is openly gay and has lived and performed “out” for decades, has embraced what makes her, her. And she said we should do the same.
When I grew up, I never saw anybody like me, which is why it’s important for me to be out.
Belleville native Lea DeLaria
“(This presentation) is geared toward college students,” she said. “So for those of you are here and aren’t a college student, good luck. You might hear some things that are going to freak you out, but it’s OK.”
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When comics point to generational gaps, they often do so to poke fun at elders. DeLaria, 57, pointed to the differences between generations as a source of hope, saying that she never would have guessed so much about the way society thought about, and treated, the LGBTQ community would change in her lifetime. After all, it was only in 1982 that she suffered a vicious beating at the hands of a homophobe who called her a “dyke” on a San Francisco subway, injuring her so badly she was hospitalized for several days.
And it was only in 1993 that DeLaria appeared on The Arsenio Hall Show as the first openly gay comedian featured on a live, late night talk show.
“When I grew up, I never saw anybody like me, which is why it’s important for me to be out,” she said. “In my wildest dreams I never thought I would wake up in my own lifetime to see the Supreme Court of the United States say, ‘Oh yes, you have equality.’ It’s shocking to me how far we’ve come, it’s amazing to me how far we’ve come.”
1993 The year Lea DeLaria appeared on The Arsenio Hall show. She was the first openly gay comedian featured on late night television.
Most Millennials know DeLaria from her role as Carrie “Big Boo” Black on the Netflix series “Orange Is The New Black,” but she’s been well known as a controversial, trailblazing figure on stage, television and film for decades.
In addition to her breakout appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show, she’s appeared on over two dozen television shows, acted in seven films and has played Broadway.
She’s also an accomplished jazz artist. An album of David Bowie cover songs titled “House of David,” which was released this June, was her fifth studio album.
It was her expertise as a jazz vocalist that brought down the house Tuesday, first paraphrasing the lyrics of Louis Armstrong’s “I Wish You Were Dead, You Rascal, You” as she held up signs—one read “DOMA” for the Defence of Marriage Act and another said “Prop 8”—before tearing the signs to pieces and throwing the scraps on the floor.
I never thought I’d see the day I’d come back and be welcomed back with such open arms by everyone in town. I’m humbled by it.
Belleville native Lea DeLaria
Those were laws and anti-gay measures that have been defeated in recent years and represented progressive work the LGBTQ so far had accomplished.
Then, still singing, she held up signs that read “Kim Davis”—the county clerk in Kentucky who cited religious beliefs in her refusal to issue same-sex marriage licenses there—and “Donald Trump.” Those signs, she said, represented work left to do. She tore them up and discarded them like the others.
“I never thought I’d see the day I’d come back and be welcomed back with such open arms by everyone in town. I’m humbled by it,” she said.
DeLaria said at the beginning of her lecture—though she admitted it was more a stand-up routine than anything else—that she was targeting a younger crowd with her message. But college students and Millennials were far from the only attendees.
Kathy Hicks, a 56-year-old East St. Louis resident who is enrolled at LU-B, said she took a lot from DeLaria’s message even though she’s not a traditional university student and not a part of the generation DeLaria targets when she speaks at colleges.
“It was encouraging. With me being a 56-year-old woman that’s come back to get her bachelor’s degree, and I’m in class with students that are 18, 19, 20 years old, that first semester blew me away,” Hicks said. “But now I’m an honor student. (DeLaria) gives me more motivation to just keep on, that I can go ahead and get that degree.”