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Allison Grillo: Not “The Transgender Comedian”

Photo courtesy Devon Walker

Allison Grillo, a comedian, brought her unique hybrid show to Northampton Community College Oct. 20th, performing an act that was part comedy, part talk on gender and sexuality, while sprinkled with a lot of self-reflection.

“Great, I got to the podium before the clapping stopped,” Grillo said at the open of her hour-long show, entitled An Awkward Pause. It was one of several moments of self-deprecating levity, mixing humor about her past, digressions, and call-backs; typical comic devices, but with a twist.

Grillo, a New Jersey native, was assigned male at birth, and received sexual reassignment surgery 8 years ago.

Showing many black-and-white slides of her family during Pause, she fell upon one of her as a young boy. “This is the day I knew there was something different about me. First day of kindergarten, dressed up, wearing that tie.” Grillo hated wearing ties, and it contributed to a larger revelation as time went by. “Growing up I thought I had a secret,” she told the audience at NCC.

Her sexual preference is lesbian, “theoretically” she said, a nod to the complications of identity and labels.

Grillo joked about “the crushing weight of expectations” she had experienced growing up. Grillo was “in the closet” in her youth, and came out after her father passed away. An only child, she said her mother accepted her when told how Grillo felt about her gender. “That helped,” but it was a long road to get to the comfort she feels today.

Grillo earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She joked about having “a double major in denial and repression” in college, but she only received the English degree.

The comedian is “a proud member of the LGBT community,” a result of her time in San Francisco, where she moved in her forties. She said she found support, a sense of community. It was there that she decided, after first feeling trepidation, to undergo sexual reassignment surgery.

“Support is important because you should know there are people like you,” she said. And Grillo had that in San Francisco. Grillo, a self-professed “fearful person,” said her message was not to be afraid— especially in situations of gender identity. “Sometimes if you have nothing to lose you have the freedom to do whatever you want.”

Now living in New York City, Grillo made another choice in her fifties: becoming a standup comedian. “You know, two steps forward, one step backwards.” The humorist found her niche giving these hybrid comedy shows/gender issues talks when colleges started bringing her to campuses to perform. Now she does “about 8 a year.” Still, Grillo longs for the day when she is no longer “the transgender comedian,” and simply “Allison Grillo: Comedian.”

“But that’s why colleges want me at the moment. That’s how I make my living.”

She says she spent a good amount of time writing about gender and sexuality during her stay at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but finds during her college appearances now college students ask more questions about her sexuality. “College students want to know about my sexuality, but I care about identity.”

As if on purpose, a man walked in to the presentation late, excusing himself. Grillo made a joke of it, saying it was okay, introduced herself, stating she was “The transgender comedian.” The man took his seat with a “nice to meet you.”

“Don’t worry,” Grillo said to the man, “I’m not going to ask you about your sexual identity. It’s bulls**t.”