Karen Williams has been practicing Nichiren Buddhism for 35 years and performing standup comedy for 22. There's a deep connection between the two vocations.
“I got the courage to be out and to be a lesbian comic–and to continue to be who I am as a human being, manifesting my full potential–based on everything that I'm learning from Buddhism,” she says.
“One of the things I learned about my life in the course of my Buddhist practice was that I have a lot of fears,” Williams says, “and these fears were keeping me from living the life I wanted to live.” So she decided to work through her own fears by conquering number one on most everyone's list: public speaking. “And I decided I was going to just take it to the nth degree and make people laugh,” she adds.
Williams' comic sensibilities were nurtured early on, at home. “My family was as dysfunctional as the next but there was this underpinning of being able to laugh at situations,” she recalls. “And both of my parents are very funny.”
She remembers listening to “blue comics,” such as Redd Foxx, Slappy White and Moms Mable. “I think in black culture there's just a strong identification with comedy,” Williams says. “That influence was always there.”
Now 53, Williams got married when she was just 19. Then, as she puts it, she was “feminized” in the early '70s.
The Bronx native attended a one-time meeting of the National Black Feminist's Organization in New York City, where she met many African American lesbians. She struck up a relationship with one and wound up divorcing her husband.
“I don't think people realize that it wasn't quite the shock value that people presume it was,” she says. “That stuff was pretty common in the seventies. I even remember Newsweek or Time had a cover story on runaway wives.”
Williams says her husband was floored when she told him she was gay, “but we were friends so there was just this acceptance of me finding out who I am.”
“It's important to point out,” Williams adds, “that there just aren't these same fine-line distinctions within African American culture between gay and straight. It wasn't until some of us, by being part of the women's community, got exposed to a white version of the feminist movement–and white women who hadn't talked to their parents in 19 or 20 years–that we saw more distinct lines. That's less likely to happen in the Black community.”
“I don't know a lot of black lesbian separatists,” Williams continues. “They exist, but you'll still find their brother coming over to their home. Our family connections are so strong.” Williams has three sons and eight grandchildren. She and her ex-husband remain friends to this day.
Williams moved to the San Francisco Bay Area after her divorce. Once she had decided to challenge herself to stand before people and get them to laugh, she wrote herself “a little act” and rehearsed it for her friends.
One day an acquaintance came by and said he was going to be performing comedy at a club out by the Oakland airport. “I burst out with ‘I do comedy too,'” Williams recalls, “and all my friends were like, ‘No, you don't!'”
But her new friend agreed to give her five minutes of his act at this club, which was housed within an inn that had rooms with red heart-shaped beds and mirrors on the ceiling. “As Marga [Gomez] says, they used to put the women on last and we performed to drunks and tables and chairs,” Williams says.
“I went on at midnight and maybe five people were listening,” she recalls. But she wasn't discouraged: “I was dressed up like a model in this beautiful outfit, and I got my five minutes and I felt fantastic.”