I was first introduced to Sam Killermann when his TED talk was played at a discussion about gender here in Austin. Killermann is the man behind “It’s Pronounced Metrosexual,” a touring comedy show about gender and sexuality. You might also know him from the Genderbread Person, an educational meme which frequently makes a circuit around social media (or, if you aren’t familiar with it, go look at it right now. I’ll wait).
What many Texans might not realize, however, is that Killermann lives right here in Austin. While he grew up in the Midwest, he moved to Austin three years ago, after finishing his Masters in higher Education (with a focus on Student Affairs, Student Development, and Cognitive Development theory) from Bowling Green University. Killermann called Austin an “intangible support system,” saying, “I don’t think I’d be able to do what I do anywhere else. The culture is so affirming and encouraging. Everyone here cares about these things. Everyone is working on little projects. Living elsewhere I wouldn’t have done most of what I do.”
While Killlermann said none of what he studied in school directly relates to his current work, he uses his knowledge in an indirect and meaningful way. “It looks like I took a left turn, but I don’t feel that way,” he said, calling the events which led him to his current work a “perfect storm.”
Killermann was a Theatre minor in his undergraduate studies at Purdue University, as well as doing stand-up comedy for 8 years and having an interest in graphic design. In graduate school, he created University programs, as well as doing safe zone and “diversity” trainings. Killermann was always trying to bring social justice into his work with first year programs. He said all his passions and talents have ended up working together, but that it all came together in hindsight, rather than being planned. “I could never have known I’d be doing what I do now.”
Speaking of his work, Killermann said, “the people doing social justice had prerequisites. I thought you had to have those things and be that type of person.” What he found, instead was that “whatever you want to do, your skills, passions, and talents can work for this. There isn’t a ‘right’ way.”
So what does he do, exactly? A lot of things, it turns out. Killermann said he works 100 hours a week and actually enjoys waiting in line at the airport when traveling because that’s his only time to sit and think. In addition to touring around the country for “It’s Pronounced Metrosexual,” Sam travels to promote his book, The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook: A Guide to Gender. Killermann said he flew 48 times last year, and 30-something times so far this year, with the majority of those trips happening from Aug-Nov or Feb-Mar. “While I enjoy it, I will keep doing it,” he said. He mostly performs above the Mason-Dixon line, having only performed in Texas 3 times. “It’s not my choice; it’s Texas’ choice,” he said. “I’d like to perform here more.”
During his downtime, Killermann does what he calls “social good projects.” After 2 months of performing “It’s Pronounced Metrosexual,” he said that kind of work was dominating his life more than the show itself. The show is how he makes rent, but these “passion projects” fill the rest of his time, and anything not for the show itself is free. “Other working comics veg when they’re home. I could never do that. I like doing things which might make someone else’s life better. It makes my life better and more productive.” He is currently working on 36 projects and said, “I would probably have snapped by now” without the help of his manager, who works out all the details so Killermann can focus on creativity.
Killermann is currently working on another show called “Becoming a Man Sam.” This show is about gender in childhood, trying to fulfil expectations, and about being more comfortable abandoning all that and not fitting into the binary box of “man.” The show is about his own struggle with masculinity and “man-ness,” but will still be rooted in comedy. Additionally, he is also working on research for another book to add to the The Social Justice Advocate’s Handbook series. “I just do stuff,” he said. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. I keep making things I think are good and if other people think it’s good – great. There are plenty of things people don’t know about. The most important thing is to make someone else completely unashamed of who they are. All of the projects are in some way guided by that idea.”
One of Killermann’s more controverial projects is “Dear White, Straight, Cisgender, Man People: You are Privileged,” an open letter to those who balk when asked to “check your privilege.” Killermann said when he published the piece, he was called an “Uncle Tom,” like he betrayed his birthright or something. He admitted that “there’s a lot of venom in ‘straight, white, cis’ these days.
“It’s tough to engage people of privilege when they feel like they are being accused of being who they are, because people receive and feel guilty and shameful. It’s hard to talk about it – especially on the Internet. Honestly, I think the backlash is good. When some people who have never had to engage their identities do it, that’s a huge step.”
During our talk, Killermann spoke to the difficulties of working mostly on-line. “One of the weirdest things working on the Internet is that it’s super fucked up. It’s the most poisonous place to exist.”
Killermann said some weeks, he gets 10,000 emails, most of which are death threats or people saying, “you should kill yourself. People are so hateful,” he said. “It’s a sad shared experience.”
While a lot of people write or laugh off this kind of behavior as trolling, Sam believes that only perpetuates it. Sam wrote a piece about this issue called, “I’ve Not Given You Consent,” and has recevied positive feedback and affirmation from peers about it.
Killermann said working on the Internet can be nice, sometimes, too. Some of his work has gotten over a billion downloads, which he says is too big a number to rationalize. “I get e-mails from people across the world,” he said. “It’s super affirming. It makes it all worth it.”
“Doing what I do is really amazing,” Killermann said. “In the last five years there’s been so much change for the better.” He mentioned Laverne Cox making it onto the cover of TIME as a prime example of this change, saying, “that would have been impossible in the 90s.”
“Society is in so many ways healthier now. There are so many negative headlines only because people are talking about this so much.”
Killermann was recently in San Francisco to give a presentation at Stanford University. There, he met a man who worked with Harvey Milk who said the recent changes feel like the second wave of sexuality liberation. This man told Sam that he gave the first presentation at Stanford on other sexualities years ago, and was so pleased that it’s commonplace now.
“We’re on the verge of something,” Killermann said. “I’m optimistic despite the death threats.”
This article was originally published by The Horn on 06/25/2014.