Gay comedian Tom Ballard uses humour to shine a light on political issues affecting disenfranchised Australians. Matthew Wade caught up with him to chat about coming out, the LGBTI agenda, and “ripping Bob Katter a new one”.
While comedy was second nature to Tom Ballard as a teenager, his burgeoning same-sex attraction was more difficult to reconcile.
His parents had dropped not-so-subtle hints that it would be okay if he were ‘different’ to his classmates, and he’d seen episodes of Queer as Folk on television, but it wasn’t enough to quash his internalised homophobia.
“But there was a lot of denial and pushing it down, because in my psychopathic world view I saw it as a career hurdle – I didn’t want to be just another gay actor or comic.
“I wanted to stand out, but not in that way, and it was because of all the bullshit negative messaging we get from homophobes in society that make us hate ourselves a bit.”
When he did come out to his parents at the end of high school he says they were predictably supportive, and that he was luckier than many.
“I knew deep down that my parents weren’t going to kick me out of home or disown me,” he says.
“In fact, after I came out to them my mum showed me a book she had bought a year earlier called ‘my child is gay’, so it’s safe to say they already knew.”
As a stand-up comic whose career has spanned global comedy stages, radio, and television, Ballard is aware of the platform he has as an openly gay entertainer.
His comedy often dances between the personal and the political, using humour as an accessible gateway to topical issues such as asylum seekers, Safe Schools, or anti-gay politicians.
During the postal survey last year, he donned a wedding dress on Tonightly – the weeknightly news and current affairs show that he hosts on the ABC – and “ripped Bob Katter a new one”.
However, he doesn’t aim to change lives.
“I’m very suspicious of the idea that my comedy show will turn a One Nation supporter into a Greens voter,” he says.
“But there’s something cool about being in a room with other people and laughing about how fucked up something might be.
“And that can happen regardless of whether a comedian is talking about the minutiae of everyday life or big ideas.
“It was never the great vision for my comedy but after I’d used up all my personal experiences, I found myself getting more interested in politics and social commentary.”
While Tonightly only began airing at the end of last year, the fast-paced show has already received high praise for its writing, performances, and humorous takes on daily news and current affairs – though it isn’t without its detractors.
Ballard says he knew discussing big issues on air would inevitably draw impassioned viewers, but at times his sexuality gives some of them extra ammunition.
“Often if you say something they don’t like they will reach for the word faggot,” he says.
“People who don’t like my politics, think the show is biased, or think I’m unfunny will often tweet me their thoughts.
“Of late we’ve had people take issue with the language we use, which I’ve been told is ‘rude and unacceptable you faggot’… it’s a beautiful irony.”
Despite the marriage equality win in Australia last year, Ballard says we have a long way to go when it comes to full equality for sexual and gender diverse people.
He highlights the politicians in the country who actively seek to wind back anti-discrimination law and stagnate the LGBTI agenda.
“Our right to exist is still an issue,” he says.
“I know a lot of queer people are holding their breath around this religious review, and if that results in the winding back of discrimination laws that would be a real bummer.
“We should use the support we had for marriage equality to double down and remind everyone that we’re here and we’re queer.
“There’s no rest when you’re fighting against people’s fear of difference.”
Unlike fellow gay comics Rhys Nicholson or Joel Creasey, Ballard says he’s less obviously gay or camp, and presents differently to many people’s pre-conceived ideas around what it means to be a gay man.
Because of this, he feels he is helping to challenge the ideas of what it means to be gay.
“No-one should have to pretend to be something they’re not – if you’re a camp, effeminate man you’re okay, and if you’re not that’s also fine,” he says. “We need to get rid of toxic masculinity.”
“Some of the most muscly men I know are gay – I find ideas around how a gay man should act or present boring, because they have no real connection to our lived experience or diversity.”
When it comes to younger generations of LGBTI people, Ballard encourages them to ignore outdated homophobic or transphobic views being spread by people around the country.
“Just keep laughing at them, because they’re ridiculous and their views don’t belong in this century or in our politics,” he says.
“They need to be shown the door. Their views will die out eventually. They have to.”
Tom Ballard will host a Comedy for Good benefit for youth homelessness at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival this year in April. For more information or to buy tickets visit: comedyfestival.com.au.