by Len Lear
I would be willing to bet a year’s pay that Kelli Dunham is the only former Catholic nun in the world who is now a gay standup comedian. Kelli, 51, also earned a nursing degree at Hahnemann University (now Drexel), performed clinical rotations at the old Medical College of Pennsylvania in East Falls and worked for many years in North Philly as a nurse.
Kelli grew up in a rural area outside the very small town of Hartford, Wisconsin. “I see more people now on my way to the subway each morning,” she said, “than living in the entire 10-mile radius around my childhood house.”
Kelli was a member of the Missionary of Charity, “Mother Teresa’s gang o’ nuns.” She was stationed in Harlem and the Bronx, but she was also a full-time volunteer with them from 1991 to 1995 in Haiti, Norristown and Miami and then a nun for two more years. “The Missionaries of Charity have an extremely long, arduous training program, but I was a very bad nun. Because I had ‘too much self-esteem’ and ‘insufficient docility,’ I got held back in pre-aspirancy for almost two years. It was like failing 18 times in pre-school.”
(The Missionaries of Charity work in soup kitchens and run homeless shelters in the U.S. In other countries, they do similar work and also run hospitals, hospices and children’s nutrition centers.)
Why did Kelli decide to leave the convent? “We didn’t use disposable menstrual products, and cleaning non-disposable menstrual products by hand (we didn’t have any washing machines or dryers) was really arduous. One hot summer day we were cleaning the women’s shelter the nuns ran, and I saw a tampon on the top of the dresser and slipped it into my pocket, thinking, ‘Oh, I will just borrow this.’
“But of course, I wasn’t borrowing it. I wasn’t going to return it! And then I realized that the process wasn’t making me holier. Maybe I didn’t know who I was, but I knew who I didn’t want to be: a person who steals a tampon from a homeless person!”
The original impetus for moving to Philly was when Kelli left the convent, her “aspirant mistress” took her to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, “and she was standing there tapping her foot and asking, ‘So, um, where do you want to go?’
“I thought, ‘Well, I like my sister, and she lives in Philadelphia,’ so I got on a bus to Philly and arrived at my sister’s house at like 2 a.m. She had a toddler and a brand new baby and was very patient with me. I stayed in Philly because I made a lot of great friends in the LGBT community and because my niece and nephew and sister were here. I loved being a part of their lives. We lived just 10 blocks apart for the first 10 years of their lives! My nephew is a grown-up dude now and teaches in the Philadelphia public school system. My niece is grown and is a super political nerd in Pittsburgh. And I love Philly!”
So why become a comedian? (I would actually call Kelli much more of a storyteller than a comedian, although she is certainly funny.) “I always wanted to be a comedian since I was a small child. I used to tell jokes to the cows on my way home from where the school bus dropped us off. They were definitely not my worst audience! The trick of comedy is you have to be really bad at it for a while before you can become better, so it wasn’t until I was older until I had the self-confidence to pull it off.”
Kelli has performed at house concerts in West Philly and in South Philly. For years she helped run an LGBT comedy night at a fair trade coffee shop at 13th and Locust. She has emceed a livestock option, performed at cafes, libraries, cat cafés, colleges and nursing conferences, and in Scotland she performed in a cave.
“Lately I’ve been doing a lot of shows in progressive churches, which just goes to show you how much the world has changed because in the ‘90s, the Philly-based progressive Christian magazine The Other Side was the only Christian organization that was supporting LGBT relationships. I also love a college show! Lately I’ve been asked to do funerals and weddings, but I’m slightly better at funerals than weddings.”
When did Kelli realize she was gay? “I always knew I was, as my mom would say, not a regular girl, but I don’t think I even heard the word lesbian until I was almost in my teens. So I didn’t know it was a thing. I do recall looking around at the sisters gathered praying at the statue of Mary when I was a nun and thinking, ‘Wow, I get to be with all these beautiful women all my life.’ It occurred to me that perhaps that wasn’t what everyone else was thinking. But it was a strong hint.”
It has often been said that many comics use humor as a way to deal with sadness or even tragedy. That certainly applies to Kelli. “I have had two partners with cancer who passed away, both at age 38, one after another within a span of five years, and holding both of them as they took their last breaths,” she said. “That sucked for sure. I also feel incredibly privileged to be able to be present for these women at those moments.”
Do female comics have to put up with sexual harassment from male comics? “Yeah; back in the day I got chased around the occasional parking lot and threatened and stuff, which mostly seemed to be about gender presentation rather than sexual orientation. I guess folks don’t mind lesbians, which isn’t exactly my identity but for the sake of the argument, if they fit into their fantasies, but a butch flannel-clad smart aleck isn’t exactly the stuff of most straight men’s fantasies. Thank God.”
Kelli will be among those reading their own essays from the newly released book by Megan Volpert, “Closet Cases: Queers On What We Wear,” on Wednesday, April 8, 6 p.m., at the William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St. She will also appear Friday, April 10, 7 p.m., at Le Cat Café, 2713 E. Girard Ave. in Fairmount.
For more information, visit kellidunham.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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