Sabrina Jalees on “Portrait of a Serial Monogamist” and writing queer storylines on NBC’s “Crowded”

AE: Did the Canadian context change anything for you?

SJ: I think being Canadian helped me because Canada legalized gay marriage way before America did.

 

AE: Well I was going to say, we’re somewhat similar in age and my parents are also immigrants. I just know that when I found out about myself, I never had to worry about, “This means I can’t get married.”

SJ: That’s an interesting thing too because, especially for immigrant parents, that’s like a huge thing to have the government saying that gay marriage is legal or not. Because you move to a new country, and there’s these new rules, and you usually left a country because the rules there were like crappy.  So we never had to come out in a time where we couldn’t visualize being married.

 

AE: Back to your hesitance to come out. Did it have to do with your audience as well?

SJ: It was everything. On one level it was the idea of I come out and then all of a sudden all these roles that I auditioned for where the reality of these characters is that they’re straight, or an aspect of the character is that they’re straight–in general I thought that it would pigeonhole me. I also got advice from some comics that were older. Like one, in particular, I remember sitting down and talking to them, and they were like, “Yeah, don’t come out. It’ll be bad.” And based on their era and how they came up, that was the right advice for them to give based on their life experience. But something that I’ve realized since coming out is that it’s like this universal lesson that nothing good comes from being completely risk averse. You’ve got to take risks, and you’ve got to get closer to your truth.
 

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AE: How would you say your career has grown since coming out?

SJ: When I came out on stage it opened the floodgates for all of these real things that I was blocking myself from talking about. Whether they had to do with me being gay or not. I just sort of duct tape closed this creative passageway, and then ripped the duct tape open and all of these little chunky monkeys came out. And that’s when people started paying more attention to me in New York City and where I started to feel like I fit in there. Because New York has a very competitive stand-up scene and I think for the first couple of years there was a denial for me, where I was like, “Well, I have made it in Canada, so I don’t really need to try hard here. Everyone’s going to flock to me.” And in humbling myself and dropping the material I had and starting over, that was going to be the only way to get good enough to contend.

I still had to polish my set. It’s not like I all of a sudden came out and everything came to me, but I came out and the world opened up for me, in terms of I was moving in the right direction. There was no world in which I could go to New York City and keep talking vaguely about my life and doing an impression of my father and get the kind of opportunities that are now open to me.

 

AE: Since you brought him up, how proud are you of your dad? We got to know more about your family life when you spoke about acceptance on Ishrad Manji’s Moral Courage channel.

SJ: I’m so happy that they were able to capture that time with my father and I, because when these really crappy things happen in your life, like at the time, obviously since you watched the video you know that I came out, and my extended Muslim family was very not having it and not interested in having me. Time has brought people back down to earth and sort of the reality is we’re family and they obviously, obviously they want me around. I don’t mean to show off. But there was over a year of pain and it was tragic, and I’m so proud of the way my father handled all of that. And my mother. They were both in a position where they could’ve easily–it would’ve been easier for them to like make peace with everyone and wait it out. Wait until they wanted to come around and talk to me. In standing by my side and basically saying, “If you don’t want her in your life, you’re not going to get me,” they put pressure on my extended family to really think about the decision they were making. And I don’t think one of those people, in terms of my extended family that have reached out and we’ve made amends, I don’t think any of them are doing it solely because they want a relationship with my father. I think that pressure forced them to really realize that they were making a mistake. You know, looking back, I think, despite how hurtful everything was, I have a lot of understanding for the way that they acted.

 

AE: Do you feel in any way that you’re a queer Muslim role model?

SJ: It’s interesting because the Muslim thing­–my mother’s white, my dad’s brown. His family is Muslim. He can be identified as Muslim because the whole family is quite anchored in Islam. But personally, I think it would be silly for me to identify as Muslim. But then at the same time, I grew up immersed in that culture.

I guess so the answer is no and yes. No in the way of like I’m not this Muslim poster girl by any means, just ask my family. But in terms of being a role model, I do like that. As a person, I do like that role.