When actor, writer and comedian Hannah Gadsby arrives in Sydney to perform in the Mardi Gras Comedy Gala - appearing alongside Ireland’s Panti Bliss, American star Bridget Everett and fellow local Tom Ballard - it will be her first visit during the city’s globally-renowned queer festival.
“[This is] usually when I start touring, but also before that I was poor and quite scared of crowds,” she reveals. “I’m looking forward to it, but it’s quite hectic, really, isn’t it? I never shook the small country town out of me.”
Currently on tour with Nanette, Gadsby insists is her last straight-up stand-up gig (though her management may beg to differ), she says: “it’s been ten years, I’m bored.”
The show takes audiences back to her formative high school years in north-western Tasmania, where she discovered her love of art history while taking shelter from homophobic bullying in the school library. “I don’t l think I’d be as much of a nerd if I hadn’t been so terrified,” she says.
Gadsby was drawn to the visual aspect of the library’s art books. It’s also where, as a closeted teen, she got her first fix of female nudity in all its beauty, an ulterior motive she suspects she shares with some of Europe’s celebrated old masters. “You know, looking back as an older person, I think, ‘hey guys, I know what you’ve been doing for a thousand years. Come on fellas. Stop trying to sell that as high art, you bloody pervs.”
With several art documentaries for the ABC under her belt, including Hannah Gadsby's OZ, it’s an enduring passion for Gadsby, but Nanette also deals with the darker side of those days ensconced in the library, in her ever-candid, inimitably dry fashion. The crescendo of fury surrounding the now-aborted marriage equality plebiscite brought back painful memories of the raging debate over decriminalising homosexuality in Tasmania in the mid-90s, a ‘crime’ then punishable by up to 21 years in jail.
“It’s only in hindsight I realise that growing up and coming to terms with your sexuality during that kind of debate is incredibly unusual,” Gadsby says. “When you talk to people from other regional places, they’re like, ‘well, it was a big secret, no one really talked about it.’ Whereas I grew up and everyone was talking about it.”
It was the numbers game that really took its toll. “Where I was from on the north-west coast, 70 per cent of people were in favour of maintaining the laws, which meant 70 per cent of people going, ‘yeah, we’ll keep gays illegal thank you.’ And the 30 per cent that did approve, they still used the kind of language that would be called incredibly homophobic now. I realise now, no wonder I didn’t blossom.”
It’s why she took to Facebook last year to condemn the plebiscite and reveal the harmful effect of the Tasmanian debate on her mental health. As she said then, “Every day of my life I deal with the effects of anxiety and low self-esteem. It is not nearly as debilitating as it used to be but I don’t imagine I will ever be truly free of it. Just imagine how brilliant I could have been if I hadn’t been given such a shit show at such a vulnerable time in my life.”
On top of familiar arguments about religious persecution and the encroachment on schooling, Gadsby could see many of the same players raising their ugly heads, with Tasmanian LNP Senator Eric Abetz a repeat offender and newspaper columnist Miranda Devine taking on the mantle once held by her father Frank. That said, she also points out neither side covered itself in glory, then or now. “The left wing shouting wasn’t helpful either, on the ground. I think about the shaming that went on from both sides.”
Gadsby argues it’s vitally important that in forwarding the progress of LGBTIQ+ rights we don’t simply scream over our detractors. “Attitudes in Tasmania have actually changed,” she says. “You know, it’s a small island, we had to really look each other in the eye. That’s one thing we’re really missing in this debate. Nobody’s talking humanly to one another.”
Her mother’s long journey to come to terms with her sexuality, another aspect touched on in Nanette, is a prime example of positivity lost amidst the hullabaloo. “The politics of that debate played a cruel game with families. My mum’s a very funny, sharp lady, and I look at it from her point of view and what it must have been like for her. She’s had some real profound insights she’s shared with me about that. I think that’s a more important part of the story; we need to hear how the bigots come good, because yelling at bigots won’t make them not bigots.”
Part of that journey is acknowledging a rarely spoken-about, psychologically thorny part of the queer experience: internalised homophobia, particularly while still closeted. “Just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you’re not homophobic. The positive place eventually wins out, but it’s quite a traumatic time coming out, not just for your family, but you’re also unpeeling all these layers that you didn’t even know were there.”
With Josh Thomas calling time on Please Like Me, which Gadsby both wrote for and co-starred in, she’s currently focusing on a new art doco on the history of the nude in art, turning full circle back to that library, as well as a memoir about those teenage years. She greatly admires fellow actor, comedian and writer Magda Szubanksi’s powerful family history Reckoning.
As she moves away from overtly comic writing, Gadsby hopes to bring audiences along with her, noting that Nanette already surprises some. “It’s an adult show,” she says. “As I was writing it, I thought, ‘I can’t be fucked writing gags, because I’m kind of furious, in my slow, country way. When people go to a comedy show, there’s an expectation that they wanna forget about things, but fuck that, you’ve got cats on YouTube now, you can watch that you lazy pricks. If you wanna see a bloke down the pub, go down the fucking pub.”
Only half-joking that she’s devastated about being overlooked by the recent Cosmopolitan Pride issue in favour of 26-year-old Caitlin Stasey (Szubanksi didn’t make the grade either), Gadsby notes she’s fast approaching the “invisible woman” age.
“That’s the sort of thing I’m edging at with the show,” she says. “We need to hear stories from older women. There’s a wealth of wisdom and real resilience there, but they’re silenced. I think as a culture we really need to search our stories more. It’s why we find it so easy to lock away refugees, because their stories have been blocked. We don’t know who they are.”
She continues, “You can shut down a religious bigot with a dinosaur bone, but that won’t do anything. Stories appeal to humanity. That’s why Magda’s was such a great book. It’s a really important contribution.”
Hopefully Gadsby’s will be too. “Well, if I finish writing it,” she laughs. “I’m a pretty good procrastinator.”
SBS will be streaming the 2017 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade live on Saturday, March 4 on SBS On Demand, and will then air our Mardi Gras special event - with commentary from our hosts, behind-the-scenes action and exclusive interviews - on Sunday March 5. In the meantime, you can keep up with all our Mardi Gras content here.