Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Funny man Al Rae on coming out at 49

After decades of straight standup, his comedy changed

From what comic Al Rae could tell in the early 1980s, coming out would mean being egged by kids every Halloween, sneaking into bars with blacked-out windows and dying of AIDS. Credit: April Plett

When comedian Al Rae finally came out of the closet at 49 years old, he was particularly distressed by one sort of response he got. “[Some people] thought I was kidding! It’s an insult to my comedy sensibilities!” he half-jokes. “I may sometimes phone people and say dark things, but I wouldn’t do it just to say, ‘My marriage has ended and I’m out of the closet.’ What’s so funny about the idea that I’d be gay and come out?”

“It’s not even the comedy of extremes, where I’m the most overtly heterosexual-seeming person you’d ever meet or, conversely, somebody that everyone always thought was gay and I’m only just now admitting it,” he says.

Based in Winnipeg, Rae’s done standup comedy for more than 30 years and is the founder and creative director of the Winnipeg Comedy Festival. He’s written for such TV shows as Blackfly, Big Sound and the award-winning Little Mosque on the Prairie.

Rae will perform at the upcoming queer comedy night Laugh Out Proud 10, organized by Capital Pride and Yuk Yuk’s.

Since coming out in January 2013, he has been trying to reconcile this new part of his identity with his standup work, which, like most comedians, he performs primarily in venues frequented mostly by heterosexuals. He is also aware there may be a disconnect between him and younger queer audiences, who may not understand why he stayed in the closet so long.

Rae first realized he was gay in the early 1980s while living in Toronto. From what he could tell, coming out would mean being egged by kids every Halloween, sneaking into bars with blacked-out windows and dying of AIDS.

So he lied, got married, and the years passed. He feels some guilt over not being an active, supportive part of the queer community during the AIDS crisis but takes solace from one thing: “At least in my 50 years I didn’t do anything to make myself look like a tremendous hypocrite. I’m not a Republican. To use a political analogy, I voted properly,” he says. “I may have been self-hating, but I didn’t hate the [gay] community.”

Just after Christmas of 2012 it finally all came clear. His daughter had moved out, he was about to turn 50, and he was starting to realize that all kinds of gay relationships were possible, even the sort of committed one he wanted. “It seemed like a new chapter was beginning, and I wanted to change the script,” he says.

A few days after his realization, his friend Carmen Stockton, also a comedian, came for a visit. Rae was taxed, frayed, off-balance, and her visit steadied him. In a candid conversation, he came out to her, and, quite unexpectedly, she responded by coming out to him. She then suggested the idea of a comedy show involving coming-out stories.

The show, called Coming Out Swinging, was the first time Rae outed himself to an audience. It took place that spring at the Gas Station Arts Centre in Winnipeg. “Carmen was there, Elvira Kurt, Darcy Michael and others,” he says. “People would do some standup, and whenever they felt comfortable, they’d throw in their coming-out story. It was very empowering.”

He has experienced a certain amount of euphoria since coming out, but it hasn’t been all back-slapping. It meant the end of a 23-year marriage and the need for an overhaul of his material. “One thing standup relies on is the good graces and buy-in of the audience,” he says. “And since my act is autobiographical, for the first time since I started doing comedy, I have something not in common with, on average, 99 percent of my audience.”

“If I’m doing an eight- or 10-minute set and it’s primarily around meeting somebody, dating or that kind of stuff, by having that partner be all of a sudden same-sex, I’ve created this new dynamic with the audience,” he says. “They have to try to filter it. In a perfect world, this would be academic, but the reality is that people find this hard to do, and there’s this kind of division, and there are limits to what people want to hear.”

Not everyone liked what they heard at a show he did a year after coming out, around Christmas 2013. Among the comments he heard were “I was okay with it, but a few people weren’t too comfortable with the gay thing” or “We wish we’d known going in.”

More often, straight audiences will define Rae as the “gay comic” or his performance as a “gay act.” “I don’t consider myself a gay comic, but people come out of shows saying things like ‘That last guy was great’ or ‘That older guy was great,’ and now [with regard to my act] ‘That gay guy was pretty good,’” he says. “That kind of labelling is pretty new to me.”

Rae should get some relief from his upcoming performance at Laugh Out Proud in Ottawa. It is also a notable occasion for him in that it’ll be his first Pride performance since exiting the closet. The show is hosted by Elvira Kurt, who is also the icon marshal in the parade. The headliner is Jessica Kirson, and Jodie McNamara will perform.

While it’s a relief to perform in spaces set aside for queer comedy, Rae has no intention of avoiding straighter gigs. Rather, he intends to stick it out, and it sounds like his straight audiences are going to see a bolder, more in-your-face Rae. “As you get older, you give less of a shit about what people think, and you’re more able to be candid about things. A lot of audiences will respond to that commitment even if they disagree with you,” he says. “I’m trying to move toward being more candid like that and seeing how I want to use my life, career and experiences as a subject of my standup material.”