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The Lost Year: Coming out — over the phone, to your mom, across a language barrier

“I can’t do any of my old standup comedy. And I don’t want to do it. I literally am starting over from scratch.”

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

This is The Lost Year, a series of stories about our lived experiences in 2020, as told to Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff.

One group that’s been particularly hard hit by quarantine is live performers, people who can no longer get up on stage in front of an excited audience to put on a show. Standup comedians, especially, have struggled during the pandemic, since so much of developing their jokes stems from seeing what an audience responds to.

Nina, a standup comic living in Los Angeles, has an even bigger set of concerns: She’s a trans woman who self-accepted and started taking hormones in 2019 but didn’t come out publicly until well into quarantine, which means she hasn’t yet performed as her authentic self. She’s spent the past several months writing lots and lots of new material, much of which revolves around her experiences as a newly out trans woman — but she has no idea whether any of it will work with audiences.

She’s also had to navigate the experience of coming out to a mother who speaks limited English, while she herself speaks limited Vietnamese. Nina couldn’t simply travel to visit her mother, which would have been her preference, and instead had to work up the nerve for a fraught phone call.

Here’s Nina’s story, as she told it to me.

With standup, you need constant feedback. You’ll think a joke is really funny, and then you’ll do it onstage and it bombs hard. Social media is kind of a barometer, but so often I’ve had the confidence from “This joke got over 100 likes on social media” — and then I go onstage and it does not translate.

There have been virtual open mics, but I’ve been lazy in that regard. So I’m writing a lot, because I’m at home and have nothing else to do. A lot of the jokes that I have, I’m not sure where they stand. I love them all, but the true test is sharing them onstage. Some things just don’t translate to in-person joke-telling. That’s why I’m so antsy to get onstage and see what actually works. How mortifying would it be if nothing does?

I started really writing jokes about being trans in quarantine. It was very therapeutic. I had been writing this stuff for a while now because I was closeted for a long time, but I wasn’t able to even post it online. It felt very freeing. All of a sudden, it was like opening a dam and doing nothing about trans material. And quarantine kind of forced me to keep writing all of this material that I had been keeping to myself.

I even made a joke about how I was only doing trans material, like my set list would only say “TRANS” on it. I fear that I’m being annoying, but I love it so much. I feel free to express any opinion or idea that I want to, whereas before it felt like I was holding back this major part of myself. I don’t know if these jokes are funny yet, but I like the fact that I can write them. So maybe quarantine was a blessing. That feels horrible to say, but I’ve been so productive.

I started hormones on December 23, 2019. So I was medically transitioning before quarantine was happening. My plan was that I wanted to look more feminine and feel more comfortable in my body before claiming my identity. That’s not necessary, but it felt comfortable for me. The changes would be subtle, because I would see people every day. I had to start wearing sports bras to work in March, when I had been on hormones for three months. I didn’t want anyone knowing anything. It was nerve-wracking trying to remain closeted while seeing everybody all the time.

Then quarantine happened and people didn’t see me for four or five months. I got to transition at my own pace, and it felt safer. But when people started seeing me again, I almost felt more pressure to come out. While the pressure was off, I think I got lazy with my transition a little bit. If I had been at work all the time and I was out, I probably would have worked on my voice and presentation more. I finally came out [publicly] in October, but I had been on hormones for almost a year while closeted.

When I did come out, no one remarked that they had noticed anything, not one person. I presented femininely for most of my adult life, but people just thought I was a feminine dude. They were blind to it, even when it was getting pretty obvious. I was wearing makeup! I don’t know if people assumed I was a quirky dude or what. Maybe they just didn’t want to say anything.

But coming out to family was a lot different, whether you’re in quarantine or not. This year was tricky. I wanted to tell them in person, but there was a language barrier. I’m not very good at speaking Vietnamese, and my mom’s not very good at speaking English. My plan originally was to write a letter, just to fully articulate things so there wasn’t any misunderstanding.

Then the plan was to come out to my cousin and have her act as my voice, since she speaks Vietnamese fluently. But it was just too far removed, so I ended up calling my mom after mulling it over for so long. I’m glad I did it like that because it allowed me to connect to her. It was an emotional conversation, and she ended up not really understanding. Maybe a letter could have been better in that regard, but she could tell me how she felt, and I could expand on something she didn’t get.

I just had a follow-up phone call with her, and every time I have a conversation with her, I’m always, like, “That went really well!” And then she’ll call me “son” later. She does it in the sweetest way, too! “I love you, son!” with all these heart emojis.

For me, a lot of the agony of calling her was the anticipation. By the time I did come out to her, it was the fourth phone call, which was so agonizing because every time, it would take me so long to push that little green phone-call button. The first time I did it, she was at work. So I told her to call me back when she had time to talk. She calls me back. I’m super nervous, working up the energy to come out again. And she’s, like, “Hey, I just want to let you know I don’t have time to talk right now, but I will call you when I can.” I was, like, “All right. Great. Thanks.” So by the time I finally did come out to her, it wasn’t really agonizing. I was like, “Let’s get this over with.”

Even if I wasn’t transitioning, I would miss the stage. But especially with this, I can’t do any of my old material. And I don’t even want to do it. I literally am starting over from scratch, and I can’t perform. It’s maddening. I miss the immediate feedback of if a joke works or not. Parts of it are a little indescribable. Whenever a joke does work, it’s very euphoric to see people laughing, instead of getting a thumbs-up online. There’s a directness to it that you can’t get online.

I did do a couple of in-person open mics before quarantine happened, and the trans jokes played really well. Some of that has to do with how there’s not that many trans comedians, so it’s a unique take, which is a big part of the battle for people’s attention. If you’re not being funny, at least be interesting. And then you’re at least engaging the audience. As soon as I go up onstage and come out as trans, I have everyone’s attention. But that’s why I’m not trusting of those reactions. People were extra engaged, and they might have laughed at very mediocre jokes. I’ve just been burned too many times. I’m constantly doubting myself. Especially with new material, I’ll come in confident and real hot, and then I just get crushed.

The fear that I’m super rusty is at the forefront of my brain. People say, “Oh, you have to hit a certain number of stages a week, and if you don’t, you’re going to get rusty.” But none of us are hitting the stages like that, so there’s a comforting thought that we’re all on the same level. That’s part of the competitive side of me. But I am rusty. I’m so rusty.

Oh! I just thought of one of my new jokes: By not transitioning earlier, I feel like I lost my childhood. But transitioning as an adult during quarantine at least gives me the awkward experience of a middle school girl coming back from summer break with boobs.

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