Unconventional Lesbians Turn Their Gender Identity Issues into Comedy

Cate Gary (left) and Robin Tran
Cate Gary (left) and Robin Tran
Alycia Aragon

Cate Gary was at work on February 3rd, 2015 when she received a Facebook message from her then-boyfriend, Robert Tran.

“Hey baby, I’m a woman, I love you!” it read.

One year later, Gary spends a few nights a week making the rounds at local Orange County and LA comedy clubs as one-half of her comedy duo, Unconventional Lesbians, with her now-girlfriend Robin Tran.

Gary and Tran met at an open mic at Costa Mesa’s Starlight Theatre back in 2012. Tran approached Gary after one of her jokes, telling her she was “really self-aware for a 19-year-old.” Gary was 30.

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“I thought she was cute, but I was this shy, 27-year-old virgin,” Tran said. “We would see each other around open mics a lot, and we’d flirt with each other when we took turns onstage, but offstage we wouldn’t talk.”

It was only after reading some self-help books and engaging in cognitive behavioral therapy that Tran gained enough confidence to ask Gary out on a real date, all jokes aside. She accepted. Tran would go on to finally lose his virginity, then move into Gary’s Tustin apartment, and before the two of them knew it, they’d been dating for three years.

But assigned gender roles and societal expectations placed a strain on their otherwise stress-free relationship. Tran needed constant affirmation from Gary that he was man enough for her, and at one point began bulking up at his workplace’s gym to feel more masculine. The couple struggled with maintaining a public image that was completely inauthentic to who they were in private.

“At home, Cate always held me because I’m smaller, and I like to feel safe,” Tran said. “But when we were in public, there was this pressure I felt that I had to be the one to hold her and stand up for her, and it didn’t feel natural.”

Tran’s identity issues filled him with suicidal self-loathing, causing so much friction in their relationship that one day Gary asked, “do you love me as much as you hate yourself?” He didn’t. But he wanted to. Tran began taking antidepressants.

One day Rilo Kiley’s “Science vs. Romance” –– one of Tran’s favorite songs –– came on the radio while Tran was driving. Rather than rolling up his windows and lowering the volume, which he always did when he wanted to enjoy “girly” songs, Tran blasted the music. Without warning, specific memories from his childhood flashed before his eyes: being caught and chastised by his parents for playing with dolls, holding his friends’ purses and wearing their jewelry tucked underneath his sleeves, eagerly putting on makeup for drama class and leaving it on for days.

“When I said ‘I’m a woman’ out loud, and it made sense, I felt that my life finally made sense,” Tran said. Still sitting in her car, she began typing out a message to Gary on Facebook.

Their relationship instantly improved. Gary took Tran clothes and makeup shopping, where Tran selected a pink blouse and skirt that had her smiling at her reflection for the first time. Seeing how free her girlfriend felt inspired Gary to explore her masculine side, starting with cutting off her long hair that friends and family always admired but she secretly hated. Tran even fell back in love with comedy, incorporating her “triple minority” identity as a transgender, lesbian, Asian American woman into her stand-up. Then a friend suggested the couple combine their jokes to tell the story of their relationship. Unconventional Lesbians was born.

Since their first performance as a duo in September, Unconventional Lesbians has gained the attention of local comedians and critics, who’ve called the show “deeply offensive yet strangely heartwarming.” Gary and Tran cite Anchor Bar in Costa Mesa and Max Bloom’s Cafe Noir in Fullerton as their favorite OC open mic spots, though they’d love to raise a large enough following to perform in theaters and eventually, go on tour.

“It’s the honest and positive, but not corny story of us,” Tran said as to why their show’s achieved so much popularity the last few months. “And while it’s important to know all the struggles trans people have to go through, it’s like, why are the negative stories the only ones being told? I want to hear about the trans woman that is blossoming, and the partner that has stayed by her side.”

“We kept trying to fit into the mold of what other people were doing,” Gary said. “It just never worked for us.”

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