Saying It Loud

updated 05/10/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/10/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

She's here, she's queer, and she's telling the world to get used to it

TELL ME GOD DOESN'T LOVE QUEERS!" exults the woman with tattoos and a nose ring as she marches with the buoyant throng down Pennsylvania Avenue. Suddenly she breaks from the procession, jumps into the arms of an unsuspecting bystander and plants a kiss on her neck. From every direction onlookers whoop with delight. "Lea! Lea!" shouts a fan. "Oh, my god! It's Lea DeLaria!"

To most of America, the name may mean nothing. But to the hundreds of thousands of men and women who crowded into the nation-capital on April 25 for the gay and lesbian march on Washington, the 34-year-old comedian, chosen to help emcee the event, is the right woman in the right place at the right time. Shouting to the crowd on the Mall, she offers a strong, outrageous comeback to the attitudes that have galvanized the marchers—attitudes expressed by a single, hostile sign reading: "Fags Are Worthy of Death." Bellows DeLaria defiantly: "I'm a dyyyykkkkke!"

A regular on the gay comedy circuit for more than 10 years. DeLaria broke mainstream ground in March with her appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show. "I invited her here tonight because of what she does standing up," said Hall, "and not what she does lying down." And yet DeLaria was invited because of what she does lying down. "My act has always been about being queer," she says. Anything else, she adds, "would be like Richard Pry-or not talking about being black."

Growing up in a Catholic family in Belleville, Ill., DeLaria says she always knew that she was gay. "I was the littlest bull dyke," she says. "We used to play Star Trek, and the other girls would fight over who was going to play Captain Kirk's girlfriend. I, of course, was always Captain Kirk." At St. Mary's elementary school she had crushes on the nuns. "My favorite was 6'9" and weighed about 395 lbs.," says DeLaria. "She was like Dick Butkus in drag. I thought she was gorgeous." Lea later dated boys in high school and didn't tell a soul her secret until she was 17.

At Illinois Wesleyan University, DeLaria spent most of her time "drinking and smoking pot" and dropped out alter only a semester with a 1.0 GPA. (Three and a half years ago, she finally sought help for a drinking problem, and she remains sober.) In 1980 she moved to San Francisco and performed in lesbian Comedy plays. Six wars later she took her life and her act to Provincetown, Mass. But when her parents—Robert, a retired social worker, and Jerry, a housewife—asked if they could see her show, she realized there was something she needed to do. "While I told the whole world I was gay," she says, "I hadn't told my parents." The news wasn't exactly a surprise. "We'd figured it out shortly before she left home," says Jerry. She adds, "I don't believe in homosexuality. But she's my daughter and I believe in her."

Not everyone, DeLaria knows, is so lucky. Her own girlfriend, a Canadian she met last summer in Province-town, has not yet told her parents she is gay. DeLaria doesn't let on how much she will miss her as she packs her bags to move to Santa Monica, closer to TV projects—one of which she hopes might catch a certain someone's eye. "My entire act was written to impress Sigourney Weaver," she jokes. "This is the year I'm going to get that babe." After playing dark garrets, DeLaria is thrilled Hollywood is calling. "I'm doing what I've always wanted to do," she says. "Not only that, I like what I see when I look in my mirror. I don't have to hide anything."

TIM ALLIS
SUE CARSWELL in Washington

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