{ICYMI} Standing Up for Healing Laughter, Harm Reduction and Men’s Recovery

by Victor B. De Los Santos

In the nonprofit world, we are incessantly looking for that special event that will exemplify the organization’s culture and frankly, an event that people want to attend. I do admit, it’s fun to dress up once in a while in a bow tie and eat a $150 piece of chicken. I’ll even wake up at the crack of dawn for that special nonprofit (Recovery Cafe) to connect with more than one thousand people who are Standing in the Gap for individuals on a journey of recovery. Using the power of social media, I put the word out to my colleagues asking for suggestions for comedians who could help take this event from concept to reality and help introduce new friends to PHRA’s mission and of course help raise money. The answer — Gay Uncle Jeffrey.

Victor : Okay, I’m here with a Gay Uncle Jeffrey. Hello. Thank you for meeting me.

Gay Uncle Jeffery: Thank you.

Victor: As I mentioned, you’re going to be a highlighted in the Collab+ positive article, which is an article where a person or a private entity joins forces with the nonprofit world to create change. I have some questions for you starting with, where does the name “Gay Uncle Jeffrey” come from?

GUJ: I don’t know that I have one specific answer. I am a gay uncle. I think there are a number of different stories that I’ve been aware of my entire life, but especially in my adult life where there was a gay uncle that people refer to, either in their family. Sometimes I hear writers or celebrities talk about a gay uncle who exposed them to things in the world that they might not otherwise been exposed to. Often, that’s the more fun relative, the relative who was knowledgeable about the arts and the relative who shows people how to cook, or to sew, or to do things like that. In my family, I was an uncle to several children, and one in particular who herself had children who I played a much bigger role in their lives. My husband and I both call ourselves gay uncles or “guncles”. We were more father figures, but when I decided to do a show, I wanted to do a show that would expose people to some pop culture things that I thought may have a bigger significance in history than just being light and fluffy. If you connect some dots, I thought this is a really good opportunity to use the term “gay uncle”. I wanted to create a show that will expose other people, gay youth or also non-gay youth to a different world, a world unlike what they may get just by being in their regular day to day family. I don’t want to put down anything. I don’t want to say that families are boring or mainstream, but often they’re not exposed to some of the things that I think are really fabulous about life and I just liked that opportunity. So, I used that. I thought it was a catchy name – the title – so I called it The Gay Uncle Time. I put the name ‘the’ in front of it because a lot of drag queens at the time or using ‘the’ when they were on social media. I’m not quite sure why, but I liked the sound of it, so I put that in front of it. That’s where “gay uncle” came from.

Victor: So, how long have you been doing comedy and what first inspired you to get involved in that type of business?

GUJ: I’ve been doing comedy for about seven years. That started late in life and I started because I had thought about doing it my entire life. I guess in a way I’ve been doing comedy my entire life, but not necessarily on a stage. Whenever I had the opportunity to talk in front of groups of people or to be part of a group, I took on the role of being humorous or the funny person and when I hit middle age and realized of all the things I had never done in life, some of the more obvious ones that I had wanted to do: artwork, comedy, acting. My life took a different turn and I ended up being in the nonprofit world for most of my career and when I became older, 50 (laughs) and looked at all the things that were happening in my life and all the things that I had not done yet. Like “It’s time to do these things” and face fears. There are always fears; there are always reasons why somebody shouldn’t do something. But most of the time they boil down to fear or discomfort. And at the age of 50, I was tired of living in fear.

Victor: Yeah. I remember, I first saw you, I believe four years ago, you did a large show during pride in the U-District at the theater there, the Neptune. I believe I’ve seen you perform a dozen times since then.

GUJ: Yeah, probably. I’ve had the chance to do a couple of those there along the way. They were fun. That’s one of my favorite places.

Victor: I hope they’ll bring that back to pride. And I liked that it was a part of the Pride Week. That was a nice event. Our theme for the magazine for the fall is kind of a social justice theme. The magazine’s goal and mission is to encourage action. We want to encourage people to unite with their community, essentially standing up for things they believe in. So, I know you stand up for healing laughter and for harm reduction and men’s recovery, and we’ll get to that just a little bit, but what do you stand up for now in your life?

GUJ: I think I’ve always focused on the same issues that are important to me. I want fairness and kindness in the world. I want people to take care of one another. I don’t want people to be pitted against one another. I think that there are adequate resources in the world that we should be distributing automatically. Sounds like I’m screaming a socialist or communist manifesto – and not that I’m necessarily against that – but I do think that there should be a more equal distribution of things that are our needs. They’re just human essential. That’s something I’ve always believed.

Victor:: I believe it’s been three years now since I was I was the Development Director People’s Harm Reduction Alliance. They’re a very unique organization. as you know. They do a needle exchange and they hand out clean “utensils” if you may, to reduce the Hepatitis-C rates. I was in charge of creating a new event for them and it was really hard for me to figure out exactly what to do. And then it popped in my head that, “you know, everyone loves comedy!” For them, I couldn’t just do that typical gala. Their population was not a group that was going to go to a sit-down dinner with the expensive rubber chicken. I thought, what if we did a standup for harm reduction and I immediately thought of you. So, I contacted you and from our conversations, the “Stand Up for Harm Reduction” came about. Can you explain that event a little bit and is that your third or fourth?

GUJ: It seems like I just finished my third.

Victor:: What’s that been like for you?

GUJ: It’s been wonderful from the get go. I was really excited to be asked to do that. In general, I love doing benefit shows and especially for causes I believe in. It always feels like – an “honor” sounds kind cheap-ish, but it’s just always kind of a little thrill when I get asked to perform. I can use this thing that I love doing to help other people. The organization helps such a unique need and one that doesn’t get discussed as much. I met with the folks from the organization and it was so clear that their biggest concern was everybody deserves love, respect, health and safety. I can’t argue with that mission in any way.

Victor: Shiloh is probably one of the top five nicest people I’ve ever met in my entire life.

GUJ: It’s almost too much to believe. When it’s so authentic, when it comes from nothing at all that and is just pure heart.

Victor: He really feels that it’s all about just love. You know, that person needs to be valued as a human being in order for them to move forward in any capacity. I mean, heroin has 90 percent relapse rate, so realistically, what are you going to do? You can’t say abstinence only because if they’re going to, they’re going to relapse, then that’s when the deaths will happen. My philosophy is you can’t do an intervention on a corpse. So, we need to love people and protect them. I love being involved. Switching gears, another organization you stand up for is Room Circus Medical Clowning. They probably have one of the coolest missions I’ve ever seen. What has been your experience with them and your tour you did at the Children’s Hospital?

GUJ: That’s kind of what made me really want to do it. They offered an opportunity to go see the work that they did, so you could follow a couple of people around, one of whom is a clown. It was pretty incredible to see the immediate impact that it had. There was a child – there was a mother – who just looked like she was having the worst day of her life. She had several children, one of them was a patient there and there was just so much activity. It seemed out of control for her and then the clown came in and completely changed the mood of the child and everyone in the waiting room. It was as if this calmness came over everybody, and this joy. You just saw the people smiling. And that’s a pretty wonderful sensation – seeing children smile has always been my favorite thing. But to see children who are suffering from a very serious illness, getting some moments of joy in their life is wonderful. I was really glad to be asked to participate in that. I was able to not just tell jokes but tell a brief history, humorously. I’m using drawings and paintings that I did in my Gay Uncle Time shows and the shows that have sprung from that. It’s original artwork I use to illustrate the story.
Victor: Wow, that answer hits their mission smack on the head. It sounds like standing up and to UNITE is a Good a Thing!” A third non-profit you have supported was Immanuel Community Services and the Gay People in Seattle (GPiS) Facebook group. You did a Christmas show down at the Discovery Center that was a GPIS social and a “friend-raiser” for Immanuel Community Services (ICS) Men’s Shelter Recovery Program.

GUJ: I remember that well. It was a lot of fun. And that was one of the rare opportunities that I had to perform for a gay male audience. I think it was all gay men. I don’t remember if there were women. I think a lot of folks think I perform for a strictly gay audience and nothing could be further from the truth. When I started, gay audiences were the hardest ones for me to connect with. I feel like I’ve crossed that hurdle now.

Victor:: One thing I want to touch on is your artistic ability. Correct me if I’m wrong. Do you create art that is referenced in the show?

GUJ: Correct.

Victor: Okay. How did that start?

GUJ: When I started Gay Uncle Time, I had an idea to do a show based on the book and the film Valley of the Dolls. I have a background in art, that’s what I studied in in college, but never used. The fact that I was doing this show for a small audience when it started in a basement of a hipster dive-bar took away so many of the risks that had made me fearful of doing this in the past.

Victor: I won a couple of the paintings at an auction, from when you did the clown project and I get compliments every time someone comes to my house.

GUJ: That makes me feel really good. I have been able to donate paintings to organizations. It’s just another way for me to be able to be involved.
Victor:: If you could UNITE for dinner with any individuals you create in your show, who would you choose?

GUJ: For dinner? This is a great question. The majority of the people in my show are women, which I didn’t realize until someone in the audience came to me and said, “I love the fact that you always focus so much on women.” I’ve done a number of paintings of Marlon Brando. I’m a huge fan. I’m so fascinated by his career and his work. Another would be Tom Waits. I did a whole show focusing on one of his albums “Nighthawks at the Diner”, which I’m taking to fringe festivals around the country.

Victor: What advice would you like to give to an LGBTQ student that’s maybe just starting college or getting ready to get involved in college in the Seattle area. What would Gay Uncle Jeffrey say to them?

GUJ: See Uncle Jeffrey’s Op-Ed piece in this issue to find-out!

There you have it friends. Whatever social issue ignites your fire, the message Gay Uncle Jeffrey is pretty clear: everyone deserves love, respect, health and safety. Whether it’s a stand-up comic or your affinity for a certain cause, remember: show up, engage, remain teachable.

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