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O. C. LIVE

For Westenhoefer, Gay Activism Is Being Herself

February 08, 1996|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As an openly lesbian comedian, Suzanne Westenhoefer is used to fielding naive questions from comedy fans.

"People used to ask, 'You're not really gay, right? That's just your act?' " said Westenhoefer, who began working as a stand-up comic nearly six years ago. "That just kills me. Like I would pretend to be . . .

"They're [also] under the assumption that I want to sleep with every single woman," she said. "I had one relationship with one woman for 10 years, and we broke up. Now I've been with my lover for almost four years, and I'm, like, monogamous, married, committed."

One reason Westenhoefer (who will appear at the Coach House on Friday) chose to acknowledge onstage that she's lesbian was to help dispel myths surrounding gays and lesbians.

In 1990, that decision hardly seemed to represent a savvy career move for a comic trying to break into the mainstream. Yet after winning an amateur-night contest at a New York City piano bar that same year, the barmaid's comedy career began to grow by leaps and bounds.

Within two months, Westenhoefer was getting paid for gigs; within a year she was headlining her own one-hour show in Manhattan.

In 1993 Westenhoefer became the first lesbian comedian to star in her own HBO special, which was nominated for a cable ACE Award. Now she's one of the highest-profile gay performers in the country, having appeared on more than a dozen television programs from the since-canceled "The Jon Stewart Show" to "Sally Jesse Raphael."

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These days, a gay person or character in movies and television isn't the rarity it once was.

"In the mid-'80s, we used to tape shows that had a gay reference or moment and pass it around because it was such a big deal," said Westenhoefer, a native of Lancaster County, Pa. "Before that there was nothing.

"Now almost every television show has to have the obligatory gay neighbor or gay moment," she said. "We live in a straight world. So it's really nice to see your life represented once in a while and not in a negative and horrible way, but in a regular, normal way.'

Westenhoefer, 34, believes that television has helped her become a mainstream performer. Now she hopes to move into film and television as an actress.

Unlike most stand-up comics, Westenhoefer has academic training in drama. She has a bachelor's degree in theater from Pennsylvania's Clarion University. Recently she moved from Ohio to Los Angeles to further her acting.

While she said she would like to play a lesbian character, perhaps in an ensemble sitcom, Westenhoefer is not averse to taking parts as heterosexual characters.

She's taking acting classes five nights a week and spends her weekends traveling the country as a stand-up comedian. She has the luxury of knowing that if her acting plans fall through, she can make a healthy living playing for laughs on stage.

"If you compare myself with my women comic friends who aren't gay, I make an unbelievably comfortable living," says Westenhoefer. "I never have to schlep to the clubs and get $10 a night. I go and do a show, and 800 or 1,300 people show up. I make a lot of money. I can do that the rest of my life.

"There's a built-in audience for me," she said. "It's not like me and my acting. If I get really despondent and I think there's no reason to be in L.A. and I don't want to audition, I can say, "[Forget] it--I'm just going to perform for gay people."

She also said she's usually able to win over any type of audience with her personal humor about being a lesbian in a straight world.

"I'm trying to open hearts," she said. "Opening one's mind is something people choose to do or don't choose to do. But you can open most hearts up. You can make them feel that you're just a person too who's trying to go about your business. You [can make them feel] that you're not really trying to make all kids gay or break down the American family or all the other things we're supposedly responsible for doing."

In 1993, Westenhoefer performed for five weeks at a comedy club in Dallas. The engagement turned out fine.

"It was just unbelievably fun," she said. "They were very freaked out when I first came out and said, 'I'm a lesbian.' But I would do about a 30-minute set, and they would be mine at the end. They were loving it.

"They would come up and say, 'We're not gay, but we thought you were great.' I love it when they apologize for being straight! It's adorable."

* Who: Suzanne Westenhoefer.

* When: Friday at 8 p.m.

* Where: Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.

* Whereabouts: Take Interstate 5 to the Camino Capistrano exit and turn left onto Camino Capistrano. The Coach House is in the Esplanade Plaza.

* Wherewithal: $15.

* Where to call: (714) 496-8930.

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