Mary Jane French recalls her first time at an open-mic night. She was 16 and without a driver's license in Sterling, an "aggressively suburban" neighborhood of Loudoun County. A friend from Parkview High School drove her to a Fairfax bar, and a supportive host gave her five minutes with the microphone.
"I brought up a legal pad, took the mic out of the stand, and didn't look up at all," she says. The hardest part wasn't writing the jokes or delivering them, she says, but "having the nerve to walk into an establishment and say 'I'm performing.'"
Nerve is a defining characteristic of French, who at that time was still presenting as a teenage boy.
In the years since, she's sharpened her stand-up in Richmond while coming to terms with her identity as a transgender woman. That meant coming out fully to herself, family and friends, and beginning a physical transition.
"If I wasn't using comedy to get at these emotions, I'd have to be very melodramatic," she says. "Comedy is coping."
Now a student at Virginia Commonwealth University, French is making a name for herself as a comedian and aspiring filmmaker — and not shying from material drawn from her experience.
One recent Wednesday night, guy after guy stands up at McCormack's Irish Pub in Shockoe Bottom and tries to make people laugh with varying success. They talk about their inadequacies with women, online dating, and adventures in pornography. A lot of jokes rely on familiar tropes such as, 'Why can't I get a girlfriend?' or 'Why does my girlfriend suck?' Then French stands up.
"First things first, let me address this whole beard, B-cup combination that I'm rocking," she says. "I am a transgender woman. And, if at this point you still don't know what that is, I am so glad to hear you came out of your coma."
Like a lot of comedy, French's material is deeply personal and often self-deprecating.
"Times have changed, people," she says. "Used to be that a bearded woman could roll into town, set up shop, charge two bits a gander, make a comfortable living. Now I have to write jokes."
"I'm just saying, I'm all for progress, but there's money in objectification."
In a half-hour special filmed at her house in May, French delves further into the dark comedy of her life, finding humor in people's reaction to her appearance.
Her jokes mingle with educative bits on what transgender is: "Essentially what that means is that I grew up with a hormone imbalance, which is perfectly normal," she says — "for women who are born with a penis and testicles."
She rushes to explain that her physical transition is her own: "There are plenty of transgender people who are perfectly comfortable with the equipment they're born with."
This truth is evident to her, but she knows there's plenty of misconception — and a focus on physical attributes that place transgender people on a rigid gender binary of male or female.
"I don't want to contribute to someone's transphobia," French says in an interview. And she wants people to know: "Hey, you can have a beard and still be a lady."
Writing and delivering jokes publicly has helped channel the stress of the past few years, she says: "Comedy hacks away at the layer of isolation," and framing bouts of suicidal depression as comedy has been therapeutic. With stand-up, professional support, and hormone therapy, she characterizes her mental state as "an actively improving situation."
In person, French is frenetic with passionate energy. Her arms expand to describe plans for film projects, and her foot bounces with the frequency of her thoughts.
A rising junior in the cinema program, French had her first taste of filmmaking in high school, producing a sketch comedy show. "Everyone looked like light beams with haircuts" in the video, she says, laughing.
A few months ago, she and fellow students created an extracurricular short film about social anxiety. It screened at Gallery5, and they're submitting it to festivals.
She says the stand-up community has been supportive of her transition, and "it's easy to distance myself from anyone who's weird about it."
French acknowledges self-censoring transgender jokes at a chain comedy club in Short Pump on the advice of other comics, but she feels mostly accepted in Richmond.
There's Rosmy, a nonprofit support group for LGBT youth, which French took advantage of until aging out of its programs at 21. And changing her gender on her driver's license was simple, if demeaning. French says a Motor Vehicles Department manager was training a new employee and kept using the male pronoun to describe her in the third person.
And, while no one's physically threatened her, she is vigilant and self-protective about situations where people's prejudices have turned violent against the transgender community.
"I'm afraid to be around kids because of the looks I get from parents," she says. "Which sucks because I used to work with kids. I'm good with kids." She also avoids public bathrooms, listing local hangout spots she prefers because of their single-stall restrooms.
Legally, Virginia remains a scary place to be, because it's permissible to hire and fire someone based on sexual and gender identity.
French eventually hopes to direct television sitcoms and produce her own sketch comedies, but she worries about her ability to find employment in the state, given her transgender status. With two more years at VCU and energy to spare, she's trying to "generate as much content as possible" in and out of school.
"I'm just forcing myself onto people and hoping they don't stop me," she says in the special.
She's also creating an informal support group for viewers. She received positive feedback from the online special from across the country and transgender people have approached her at open-mic nights to thank her for sharing.
"I've never been good being closeted about anything," she says, laughing. S