After she came out, Sabrina Jalees’s Muslim relatives “broke up” with her.
SABRINA JALEES: THE BROWNLISTED TOUR at Innis Town Hall (2 Sussex), Friday (June 14), 8 pm. $20. sabrinajalees.com.
Not long ago, Sabrina Jalees realized that it doesn't always get better - at least as far as her Muslim relatives are concerned.
Just before the holidays, the Toronto-born, Brooklyn-based stand-up comic came out to her extended family via email. In a horrific experience she chronicled in a Huffington Post article, they broke up with her.
"I was cut off," says Jalees, who's of Pakistani and Swiss background, lounging in an interview room at the NOW offices. "Cousins defriended me. My aunts cancelled a party that was going to be at my parents' house, presumably to be at a ‘less gay' home."
Jalees can joke about it now, but you can tell the pain lingers. She's been out to her parents for a decade, and they attended her same-sex wedding last year in New York.
"My parents are amazing; they're heroes and champions," she says. "My dad is like, ‘So what - she's gay. Your kid's got bad breath!'"
Some relatives have since come around, and the silver lining, she says, is that she can now be totally open and honest, and even angry about the injustice.
"In North America it's not okay to make people feel shitty for being different," she says. "If someone were to make fun of an aunt for wearing the hijab, I'd defend her and say that's wrong. It's a part of her identity."
One of the ironies in all this is that when Jalees left Toronto four years ago for the U.S., she wasn't out in her act.
"Maybe I felt like I had to leave to come out," she says. "But, hey, I was doing stand-up before I even realized I was gay."
True enough. Jalees burst onto the scene at 16 in 2001, taking on post-9/11 anxiety with her "I'm a brown Muslim girl" material.
"I got a lot of opportunities very quickly," she says, including hosting a YTV show, a regular gig commenting on videos on MuchMusic's Video On Trial and a column in a national newspaper.
Figuring out the scene south of the border was a little tougher.
"I couldn't just do the stuff I did in Toronto," she says. "I had to be fresh. Suddenly I was performing with comics who got onstage three or four times a night. And I realized that in New York you have to impress other comics. They will get you into rooms in the back of bars on the Lower East Side or the West Village that industry goes to."
Working on new material meant being honest with herself - and eventually coming out.
"That opened the floodgates to my new voice," she says. "I talk about other things, of course. But something was holding me back before. It was like my toilet was clogged and now it flushes. How's that for a metaphor?"
In her Brownlisted Tour, which takes her from Vancouver to St. John's this summer, Jalees jokes about getting married, taking acting lessons and U.S.-style fame.
"Listen, if Ke$ha can become famous, then anyone can," she says. "They're just giving it away. And while we're at it, what's up with Amanda Bynes's wig?"
While she's getting comfortable performing for jaded New York hipsters, coming out to Middle America was a challenge.
"At first I was awkward, but I realized that the more confident I felt, the better a show went," she says. "Middle America is Republican and Christian - they're just as ‘What? A gay?' as Muslims. But eventually they stopped looking at me as if I were a Sudoku puzzle."
After the HuffPo piece ran, Jalees got lots of warm cyber responses, including an invitation to join a queer-friendly mosque.
But the ultra-powerful Ellen DeGeneres, whom she mentions in the article, hasn't reached out - yet.
"I think she's waiting for the right time to have me on the show."