Interview: Sandra Bernhard says 'it’s inspiring' to come to St. Pete Pride 'because there’s something at stake'

She plays Palladium Theater on June 12.

click to enlarge Sandra Bernhard - Press Handout
Press Handout
Sandra Bernhard
For one night only and as part of St Pete Pride’s 20th-anniversary programming, the iconic Sandra Bernhard will perform live at Palladium Theater on Sunday, June 12.

A pioneer of the one-woman show, Bernhard will bring a completely unique and raucous mix of cabaret, stand-up, rock-n-roll, and social commentary to her live stage performance. From her groundbreaking 1990s role as a bisexual woman on "Roseanne" to her recent role as an HIV activist nurse in the FX series "Pose," Bernhard has been on the cultural frontlines of the queer community for decades, delivering her singular brand of irreverent, intellectually-informed comedy and social commentary.

She spoke with St Pete Pride from her home in New York City.
What does it mean to you to perform in St. Pete at a moment when Florida is an epicenter for anti-LGBTQ backlash and cultur- al upheaval, from the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ legislation to book-banning initiatives?

Prides have always been a great place to go and perform but because of the times we’re living in, it’s inspiring and exciting to be coming down to Florida and doing gay pride  because there’s something at stake and that always means a lot for all of us. So many times at gay pride it’s like –‘Gay pride! Woo woo!’ – and there’s nothing really anchoring it. But to have it actually be a time when everything is being challenged, and crushed... it’s just great because it’s always so much more inspiring. I think people come out to see a show looking for the artist to recalibrate them and unite them and I think that’s what I’ve always been good at when I’m at my best. And when things are at a lull and people aren’t as engaged, it’s hard to get them motivated. I think it’s going to be a really important night.

You’ve always been someone who’s wanted to blow up traditional categories within society - including within the queer community. Does this recent shift in the LGBTQ community toward a wide spectrum of identities and self-concepts feel like something of a realization of what you’ve hoped for?

Yeah, in theory. But it also gets exhausting when you’re being corrected all the time, you know, to use the right pronouns and language. It’s like – we’re all a little more complicated than that! So you gotta know when you have an ally in somebody who’s been in the trenches before there was any sort of you know, deeper understanding of it. You just gotta say: ‘I’m gonna let this lady do her thing!’ So it’s a dual sort of experience. But any time people are thinking and intellectual- izing, I think it’s a great thing. And I think that people have to know and be steeped in history. So I think it’s all a good reflection of people just going a lot deeper than they ever have before.
As an ‘elder stateswoman’ in the LGBTQ movement, when you think about your art and your work, what do you feel like you can lend to the conversation that a young 20-something might not be able to? What do you feel like your voice is at this stage of your life, using the platform that you have?

I think it’s what it’s always been. I feel like I’m a warrior and that I have this sort of energy to fight the fight in a way that a lot of people don’t: I don’t fold, I don’t bend, I don’t break. I’m just sort of like: Let’s get on with it! Let’s get into the trenches. Let’s fucking make this shit happen, you know? Let’s shoot down the enemy – I mean the enemies are flying overhead – let’s fucking bring ‘em down! It’s like, you gotta get tough, buck up, get on with the fucking show. You know, that’s always been my attitude, and I feel like all the people I’ve looked up to and respected over the years have that sort of stamina: the Lily Tomlins, the Gloria Steinems, the list is a mile long... Jane Fonda. Chrissie Hynde... just women who are like, ‘get on with the shit!’ You know? So it’s just like, let’s dispense with the parsing and get on with the battle.

On the series "Pose," you play an HIV nurse and activist. Having lived in New York in the 80s during the AIDS crisis – losing friends, being an activist – what did it mean to you personally to go back into that space for your role and to have a platform to show young people today what it was like?

It was emotional. A lot of emotion on set. I mean sometimes more for me than even other people because you know, a lot of the younger performers, MJ and everybody – they’re in their 20s and 30s. But I think it united everybody on the set and it gave everybody the opportunity to look at their own life and where they’ve arrived to. So it was like this full circle experience [for them]: to be trans and respected and taken care of and celebrated. And for me, it was just the opportunity to reflect all the emotion and the experience I had at the time and say, wow, you know, here we are telling the story in a way, we’re now looking back in the rear-view mirror, we can be, you know, triumphant.

During your decades being in the queer community and being an activist, there’s been so much progress on big-ticket items like marriage equality. What do you think are the highest stakes issues in the current moment?

I think it’s very fundamental and elemental. It’s more cultural and ideological than it is legislative. I think that we have to get to a place, as a culture, where we’re willing to give up some of our notions about what makes America great. You know, whether that’s having guns that are absurd, or being on the planet in a way that just breaks the spirit of our environment. And the fact that that some of the politicians and the patriarchy still feel that if they can control women and women’s bodies and their decisions as to what to do in terms of birth control and abortion... they think that if they can control it then things will stay the same and they’ll maintain their power.

I don’t know what it’s going to take to break them – and to also have them see that it’s a win-win for everybody, when you’re willing to let go of some of this shit, and are willing to go: okay, I’m gonna make this little bit of sacrifice. I’m not gonna be the king of every minute of my day. I’m gonna let other people live and thrive. I think it’s just really about trying to communicate with the patriarchy - and the women who support the patriarchy, which always shocks me! – and find a way that says, we’ve all just gotta take a collective breath and stop this bullshit. So I think that’s the biggest battle right now, and I think we’re in it, I think we’re deep in it. And I can’t say that I know one brush stroke that’s gonna fix it, but certainly all of us and all who are willing to do the work, know what needs to happen and have the conversations, if people are willing to have them. But unfortunately, a lot of people just aren’t willing to talk. It’s hardcore. It’s exhausting.

What should people expect at your St Pete Pride show at the Palladium?

It’ll be a powerhouse night! It’ll just be me standing on stage. You know, when I’m singing, it’ll be pared down to me and Mitch [musical director] blasting out a real assortment of eclectic songs - I’ll be covering all kinds of material. Yes, I’ll be hitting people with the obvious a little bit, then then there’s also poetry and emotion from the past two years that have come together into the show. It’s reflective, it’s introspective, it’s funny, it’s quirky. It’s not about fame or celebrity. I mean, it’s really personal. And it’s also about how we all got through the past two years, through my lens. I just love it – I love the material; I love talking about you know, just crazy quirky things that I’ve observed in the midst of all this.