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Lessons from Joan Rivers

As gay icons go, they don’t get much bigger—or louder—than Joan Rivers. You want to talk bitchy? She wrote the book, literally. Listening to her critique a celebrity’s fashion sense, you couldn’t help but be reminded of your own dinner conversations with friends or chatter at the bar. And there was something more than a wee bit familiar about her obsession with great grooming and impeccable style.

Okay, I’m borrowing some well-worn notions about what it means to be gay. But what’s undeniable was the chord Rivers struck within the LGBT community almost from the moment she rose to fame. She was, after all, on the outside looking in—no one’s idea, certainly when she came up, of what a lady should be. She was brash, loud, irreverent and utterly fearless.

In a world that had a lot less tolerance for outsiders than it does today, the comedienne had to struggle for acceptance of the artist she was. Gay people and others who didn’t conform to society’s norms got that. And they rewarded Rivers—who died unexpectedly at 81 on Sept. 4—with their unshakeable loyalty.

She never forgot their faith in her and often remarked, with her signature abandon: “I always know if I get eight gay men in the front row, it’s going to be a great show.” Rivers was a champion of issues important to the LGBT community. She even went so far as to preside at the wedding of a same-sex couple (yes, ordained minister was but one of the many titles possessed by the actress, TV host, author, etc.).

I was lucky to interview Rivers for a magazine Q&A early in my career. She was quick, bright and, unlike many people in comedy who only elicit laughs from a script, naturally funny. I’ll never forget her response, without missing a beat, when I asked if there were a question she’d always wished a reporter would pose. Her simple reply: “May we see you naked?”

My personal proof of the Rivers thoughtfulness so widely spoken about when she died came shortly after my interview was published. She’d found my home address and sent a handwritten thank-you note on her personal stationery. (It’s a note I’ve kept and tell my partner to treasure as I do should anything ever happen to me.)
From then on, she greeted me as an old friend if I ventured backstage for a hello after one of her performances.

She was desperate to get her shows just right and welcomed any suggestions on making them sharper. On one occasion, she thanked me profusely when I suggested a line would have more impact if she used a different product name—I won’t go into detail—in one of her jokes about gay men. She could be merciless with us and we loved it, knowing we were in on the joke, that she batted those mile-long eyelashes at us with nothing but pure affection.

What I’ll miss about Joan Rivers is the same thing a lot of others within the LGBT community will, too: her openness about the person she was. She didn’t strive for a political correctness that, coming from her, would have felt totally inauthentic. Yes, she crossed the line now and then, and a few of her one-liners could be just too biting for some.

But as she told me all those years ago: “I love it when I’m in a theatre situation, and maybe three percent come out totally shocked. That means you’re still pushing barriers. When everybody loves you, you’re finished.”

No, Joan, you weren’t universally loved. But among those whose path through life has been more curvy than straight and narrow, you’ll always hold a special place. Yes, you could be a bitch, but you were always our bitch.

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