As a little boy, transplanted to D.C. from Evergreen, N.C., Sampson McCormick already loved comedy. It might be a gift today, but it wasn't necessarily in elementary school.
''I never got suspended for fighting," he says. "I always got suspended because I used to take over the class. My principal, Miss Franklin, used to always tell me, 'You're either going to be a comedian or a drag queen.'''
Sampson's first standup routine came in fifth grade. ''I stood up in class and did 10 minutes. Making fun of the teachers, talking about the shitty lunch and spoiled milk, and O.J. Simpson – I don't know how that got in there.''
His comic calling has continued, particularly with his show, Don't Make Me Take Off My Earrings, as well as a channel on YouTube that's ventured into more serious territory – like getting an HIV test – but still with Sampson's humor shining through.
Sampson isn't always going for the laughs, though. He's testified before the D.C. City Council about hate crimes. He's promoted community dialogue in town-hall events. And sometimes he's just centering himself in the kitchen – boasting about his homemade barbeque sauce.
Whatever the situation, Sampson – who uses his first name to promote himself – speaks his mind. It's a strength that comes from surviving childhood abuse, homelessness and other crosses that have been his to bear. It's easy to imagine where the community may have lost him along the way, but his strength has had him turn tragedy into comedy, sharing stages with Kate Clinton and Karen Williams. And on Aug. 27, he'll be grabbing the mike for his new show, Catch It, Bitch!, with a portion of proceeds benefiting the Wanda Alston House, a transitional home for LGBT youth.
''I'm going to talk about society, about sexuality,'' he says, though he's expecting a bit more sophistication than he sometimes gets with his non-gay audiences.
''When I talk about sex,'' he laughs, ''straight people are like, 'Yeah! How do you have sex? Are you into fisting?' What? Where is this coming from?''
METRO WEEKLY: I heard you talk a couple years ago about getting harassed at a bus stop in Southeast. You sort of jokingly used the phrase ''heterosexual panic defense.'' What happened?
SAMPSON MCCORMICK: We were out there at the bus stop talking. I had just had a birthday party. There were two lesbians with me and another guy. Really big, butch lesbians -- they travel with me, I feed them barbeque and they protect me. It all works out.
So we're out there and I think it was three boys who came up, talking about me and my other friend. They acted like they'd never seen gay people at the bus stop before. ''Look at your faggot asses.'' ''Faggot motherfuckers.'' Under their breath and everything.
I call myself a guerilla fighter for gay rights, so if somebody says that word, I'm like, ''Excuse me? What was that?'' I feel like there needs to be a gay super hero. I'm about two seconds away from carrying a big dildo in my bag and knocking the shit out of somebody. A rainbow-colored dildo. An a rainbow cape. And some little high heels and a tiara. ''Homo Man'' or something.
So we're out there and they just started calling us names. Then one of them actually started pushing one of my friends. Oh, no. No, no, no. The two lesbians were like, ''We're kicking ass.'' They jacked those boys up. One of 'em got away. The lesbians sat on one of them. We held 'em until the cops got there.
MW: What did the police say when they arrived?
MCCORMICK: ''What is going on out here? Why are you kids being silly? Come on, it's late.''
We said, ''No. This happened. This is clearly a bias crime. Can you send the [Gay & Lesbian Liaison Unit]?'' They were like, ''What is that? There's no such thing. We have an Asian Liaison Unit.''
I was like, ''Are you fucking kidding me?'' This was probably 2009. They let them go. Then, talking to us, talking to my lesbian friends, they were like, ''Do you want to be called a boy? You got a moustache. You're all sitting on people like you're men.'' It was like they were on joke time. It was like we disturbed them from eating donuts. They were like, ''Gay people beat up some straight people.'' Ha, ha, ha. I was like, since it's so funny, how about ''heterosexual panic defense''? They didn't get the joke. They didn't know what ''gay panic defense'' was. ''We don't know what that is. We don't know what the 'GLLU' is. Y'all just need to go home.''
MW: You must've been reminded of this with the lesbians attacked on 14th Street, with the officers apparently not taking their report.
MCCORMICK: The police don't do shit. That's why I'm very adamant about people doing whatever they need to do to protect themselves. It's sad that the people sworn to protect us do the most harm of all by not addressing these situations, by not reporting them, by not even being open-minded enough to look at these situations for what they are. Or even investigating them for what they could be.
It's to the point – and I know this is wrong – I don't even get involved in other police situations. If I see somebody running from the police, ''Did you see anything?'' ''No.'' Because if you can't solve our crimes, I can't help you solve nobody else's crimes. It's not right. It's not a solution. But I've gotten to the point that I've become disturbed by the police. That you have officers who are uneducated about the issue, and then on top of that also have their own biases about sexuality, it creates a whole separate dilemma than what happened on 14th Street. At least that got reported. But other things happen and it's like, ''You're not bleeding. Go on home.''
MW: Have you never had a good interaction with the police? Not even at a community forum or something like that?
MCCORMICK: If you want to count them dumb looks they be giving you. ''Okay, we're going to do better.'' I guess that counts.
MW: Sorry to bring this up, but you knew Lashai Mclean?
MCCORMICK: Yes. Just like, ''Hey, girl, how you doing?'' Not like we talked on the phone all the time. The D.C. gay community is pretty small. Everybody kind of knows everybody. And one of my friends, he likes to date transgender women, so through him I used to meet different people.
I knew [Tyli'a] NaNa Boo [Mack] as well. I went to her funeral, and it was a positive experience. It was at [Luther Place Memorial Church] over on Vermont Avenue. It's an affirming church. Everyone was there. People were able to reflect on her life and the positive aspects of who she was. She had straight people up there speaking very highly of her – straight guys who looked like they sold drugs and stuff. Her mother got up there and said, ''We're going to seek to find what happened.'' She said it as part of the community. She said ''we'' as part of the community. That was a very good service.
I got to Lashai's funeral expecting the same thing. When I got in, that's what I saw: People speaking highly of her. People were talking about what a wonderful person she was. People were singing songs. The mood seemed a little bit different, but different people have different associations. One of the deacons, I guess, got up and said he knew her. ''She embraced who she was. Only God can judge.'' I was like, I can take that. It's better than what someone else might say. Another deacon got up there and he's, ''I talked to Myles. Y'all call him 'Lashai.' I call him 'Myles.' That's who he was. Love the Lord, but realize he had to accept these consequences for living this lifestyle.'' Really? Another pastor got up: ''Myles had to die so that we could have this meeting today so that your souls can be saved.'' Then he started to get more pointed about it. Basically, without saying it, he was saying that Lashai went to hell. And people started like, ''Fuck that,'' and they were just getting up and walking out.
MW: Did you think about joining them?
MCCORMICK: I did, but I wanted to see how far he was going to go. I was appalled. It was almost like an epiphany – a bad one – that let me know that this shit still goes on. And it doesn't need to go unchecked. That was a travesty.
I get so emotional. [Tearing.] This is why when I get onstage I'm like, ''Fuck those motherfuckers!'' [Laughs.] Oh, my. I need to lay off the soymilk. It's got those female hormones. I just had a glass. I'm growing some ovaries and being emotional and having hot flashes.
MW: Speaking of churches, your standup about being black in the gay church is really popular, at least judging by the YouTube hits. What church do you actually belong to?
MCCORMICK: I go to too many doggone churches. [Laughs.] I belong to Covenant Baptist Church and I belong to Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, D.C. That was my first safety net when I was dealing with religion and suicide and all those different things.
MW: What happened?
MCCORMICK: I was dealing with three or four different things at one time. I was 23 or 24.
I went through a really hard breakup. It was as much a divorce as a gay relationship could've gotten then. This was about two and a half years ago. He was cheating, but we were working through those things. I was doing the Broadway Comedy Club, there almost every week. His excuse for cheating was I wasn't home enough. So I quit that gig, and that was one of the dumbest decisions I've ever made in my career.
MW: Is that why the relationship ended?
MCCORMICK: We broke up because boyfriend went crazy. On the way to work one day, this girl stopped him at the bus stop. ''I want to invite you to my church.'' He's very friendly, so he was like, ''Okay.'' She tricked him into going to a singles meet-and-greet. He was like, ''Oh, I'm not interested. I have a male partner.'' I think it was a Baptist church, and they flipped out. ''You need to get baptized today!'' They had him filling out all kinds of paperwork to join the church. Basically, she was like, ''That's a sin, what you're doing.''
I didn't think much of it. I calmed him down. But she still stayed in contact with him – because girlfriend wanted my man bad. It started to deteriorate our relationship further. A born-again Jezebel, that's what she was. It got to a point where I was like, ''Don't call him no more. Don't send him any more text messages. Just go to hell.'' She thought she was home-wrecking for Jesus. And he became very religious. He would get up and read the Bible to me at night. He wrote his own book of the Bible one night. He wouldn't sleep in the bed with me, so I made him sleep in the bathtub. Ultimately, that broke up our relationship.
After we broke up, it was dark because I felt for the first time in my life – and I never told anybody this – that I felt guilty about being gay. I started developing anxiety. I started to look at God differently because I thought I was going to hell. I would be in bed and night and I would see pages of the Bible burning in my head.
So that whole year, leading up to Don't Make Me Take Off My Earrings was a pretty depressing time for me. But it was almost like I died and was reborn. It made me a lot stronger. I started going to MCC. And that's what ultimately got me involved in activism. Being involved with progressive churches, they were like, ''You should join us for this political cause.'' Going through that situation allowed me to see other injustices.
As I've grown older, I've become less religious and more spiritual. As I think do a lot of people who actually realize they have a choice. My family will probably kick me in the ass for that. I used to know the Bible like the back of my hand.
Everybody has something that they believe in. I'm still a spiritual person.
MW: As far as your family, how were you raised?
MCCORMICK: I'm my mother's only child. My father has other children. I had a sister before I was born, who died. My mother used to tease me and say, ''Maybe you're her reincarnation.''
It was definitely a challenge [coming out]. As one of my friends says, I had to allow her to come into me coming out. At first, I got outed. There was this girl who liked me. She wanted me to marry her. I was 17 and she was 19. I told her I was dating this guy in my high school. About a week later, I get a call from my mother while I'm out with my best friend, telling me to come home. ''Why?'' ''You just come home right now! She told me you're out fucking boys! You're a homosexual! Come home right now!''
I was terrified. My mother had fried all this chicken – she was mad. Anytime my mother cooks like that, she's mad. Gravy, chicken, sweet potatoes, collared greens, corn bread, black-eyed peas. She'd diced up everything and thrown stuff into pots. I knew she was pissed when she diced up them collared greens. Momma minced them greens? She's pissed. I ate it while I was having the coming-out conversation with her.
There was a time when she was praying for me every night, making me drink anointing oil, cooking my food in anointing oil, making me drink holy water, praying for me. Oh, God. She wouldn't let me watch Sex and the City. She wouldn't let me drink Kool-Aid because she thought it was making me ''sweet.''
MW: I've seen a clip of the two of you, and she seems just fine now.
MCCORMICK: She's the best. She's my biggest fag-hag. She's a big hit at The Fireplace. She's a big hit at Ziegfeld's with the drag queens. But she's terrified of the dancers in Secrets.
MW: Growing up was just the two of you?
MCCORMICK: From the time I was 5 till about 11, I had a very abusive stepfather. Especially from about 9, he used to beat me. I knew I was gay. He knew I was gay. He would see me looking at boys and he would slap me. He would punch me. There were some nights my mother had to pull him off me. As I got older, I started trying to fight him back.
I think the last straw – and they were having issues, too – was she got up one night and saw me boiling some water. I was going to throw it on him while he was asleep. She knew there was a situation. My momma's going to kill me for this, but I'm going to go on and say it: She said she was in the trunk of his car one day and she found high heels and wigs and stuff. She thinks he was doing drag. Anybody that hates somebody that much for being gay, they've got to be doing something.
MW: So you were his ''gay demon''?
MCCORMICK: I think so. But they broke up, and he was the breadwinner. It got to a point where we exhausted all of our resources and connections and everything that we had. We were getting government assistance, but that's not enough.
I remember one day, I come home from school and my mother was like, ''Don't take your book bag off. At 4 o'clock they're putting us out.'' I was 11 years old. They came and put all of our stuff out at the front of the complex. Then you come back late at night and you see people picking through your shit. [Laughs.] We got everything that we could, put it in the back of her Geo Storm. We slept in that car every bit of three months.
MW: You were still going to school?
MCCORMICK: I was still going to school, washing up at McDonald's in the morning. We'd go in the Wendy's bathroom and lock those doors and strip down butt-naked. [Laughs.] One day I forgot to lock the door and this man came in the bathroom and saw my butt-naked black ass in there with the hand soap, just going for it. He was like, ''Oh, my Lord!'' [Laughs.] Good thing he wasn't a priest.
We were sleeping in parking lots at hospitals, at churches. A lot of time security would make us move, so my mother would just drive around all night. Those were long boring days, sitting in that car down at Hains Point. Just sitting in the car looking at people drive past, looking at the water. There used to be a store down there, Super Fresh, and we'd get meat and bread there and just sit in the car and eat sandwiches all day.
We moved in with somebody my mother met, who became like my play aunt. We stayed there for a year, and then that lady lost the house. During the time we were there, my mother sold that car. So we were out on the street again, and this time we didn't have a car. This time we were sleeping on Metro buses. My mother used to clean people's houses. I'd get up on Saturday and try to do homework, and she'd be like, ''We got to go to Bethesda and clean these people's houses.'' We would clean three or four houses in a day for $60 apiece, and that would be our food money and hotel money for the night, for two nights.
We went to a homeless shelter over in Southeast and we were there for a few months, and somebody stole all our clothes from us. And you had to be in by a certain time or they would write you up – three times and you were back out on the street. My mother got very upset with those people. ''We're out there trying to work. You keep writing us up. Our clothes are gone. Fuck y'all.'' I was about 15 and we walked out of there. My mother took everything in her savings account and we went and stayed at this hotel on New York Avenue. From there, things started to get better. I spent all of my 11th grade in that hotel. We used to have hookers and stuff outside. I got solicited for blowjobs more than ever. Crackheads were out there. And those are really friendly people. That experience allow me to know people. Like that's the first time I ever met a ''tranny.'' Everybody was staying there.
MW: Is that part of your life a painful memory?
MCCORMICK: We got through it. It was a tough time. We had each other. I don't know how I would handle it now. We were very, very strong people to have gone through that. I really didn't have a childhood because of that.
MW: You've got an obvious reason to want to support the Wanda Alston House.
MCCORMICK: Wanda Alston House is one of my favorite organizations, so I try to give back to them. They change a lot of people's lives. I like that the house is very educational. And then Transgender Health Empowerment, which [operates] the house, that they have a drop-in center where people can come take a bath, get help – I'm pretty sure they've saved a lot of lives.
MW: Through the tough childhood, the turbulence in adulthood, how do you hold onto your sense of humor?
MCCORMICK: Alcohol. [Laughs.] And talking to drag queens. Being active. Not all my comedy is activist-driven, but I do address a lot of social issues. Sometimes you just get so pissed off. I would talk about stuff and it was almost like a sermon. ''This is great what you're doing, but when's the punch line?'' So I found a way to incorporate [the activism] at the end of the show. Or have somebody else pass out something so that it's still going to get said. But something funny might happen at an activist meeting, and it creates a segue.
MW: What are some things going on with your career right now?
MCCORMICK: I have a cookbook and a cooking show coming out: Cooking for Bitches Who Want To Keep Their Men Happy. It's a lot of campy, gay-themed recipes: Collard Queens, Stay Away from My Man Potato Salad. I'm working on a ''dramedy,'' Chronicles of a Butch Queen. When I get cast to do stuff, they're like, ''Improv! Be funny!'' No, I want to do some Waiting to Exhale type shit. I want to burn a car up. I have one book out now, available on my website, called Taboo Village: A Perspective On Being Gay In Black America.
MW: With the path your life's taken so far, I'm wondering if you're fearless. You've conquered a lot. Does anything scare you?
MCCORMICK: I'm afraid of stupid people. You never know the depth of someone's stupidity. Some people are so stupid that they will spend all their time down at the City Council building trying to deprive people of their right to get married. They'll go do what that man did at the Holocaust museum, shooting those people. They'll preach an anti-trans sermon because they don't understand a mental issue that allows these people to embody who they really are. Things are what they are, but stupid people scare me more than anything. Stupidity is deep and it can be violent. That's the simplest way I can put it.
MW: To end on something a little more upbeat, can you give me a little secret about yourself? Something most people don't know?
MCCORMICK: I think I put it all on the table for people. What you see is what you get. I don't hide anything from anybody. I don't need people thinking I'm bipolar. If I'm sad, I let people know I'm sad. If I'm happy, people know I'm happy.
Sampson McCormick performs his standup comedy show, Catch It, Bitch!, with a portion of proceeds benefiting Wanda Alston House, Saturday, Aug. 27, at 8 p.m., at Lace, 2214 Rhode Island Ave. NE. Tickets are $10 in advance, available at sampsoncomedy.eventbrite.com, or $15 at the door.