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From Catholicism to comedy: Cameron Esposito charts journey in memoir

In “Save Yourself,” the lesbian comedian opens up about her past devotion to religion, her subsequent clawing out of it and what she learned along the way.
Image: Cameron Esposito
Cameron Esposito performs onstage during Vulture Festival Presented By AT&T at Dynasty Typewriter At The Hayworth on Nov. 10, 2019 in Los Angeles, Calif.Rachel Murray / Getty Images file

On Easter Sunday, lesbian comedian Cameron Esposito paid homage to her queer family and her Catholic roots in two colorful Instagram posts. Dressed in over-the-top, rainbow-striped religious regalia, she bestowed a poignant but hopeful message to her followers in one of them.

“To my queer folks raised in non-queer-affirming Christian faiths who wonder where our place is today: We are the risen, who have stepped out of our tombs. Keep rising, pals. Keep rising,” she wrote.

The posts, which sit at the intersection of her current identity and her religious past, come on the heels of her bestselling memoir, “Save Yourself,” which charts her long, queer journey from Catholicism to comedy. The title, deep with meaning for Esposito, explores how she safely navigated the hills and valleys of growing up gay, while being raised in a deeply Catholic suburb of Chicago, where she was taught if she played by the rules, God would save her.

A series of (often hilarious) observations and recollections, “Save Yourself” is a deep dive into Esposito's ingrained devotion to Catholicism and her subsequent clawing out of it, which both contributed to her becoming who she is today, which, among other things, includes being a nationally known comedian.

The memoir outlines how she went so far as to major in theology at a Catholic college where homosexuality could be grounds for expulsion. She wanted to be a priest, and a standout passage in the book reads, “Being a Eucharistic minister is the closest you can get to being a priest if you're a woman. You can be a nun if you're a woman, but nuns don't get to stand on the stage, er, altar,and talk to the congregation about their opinions. Stand-up comics do, though.”

In an interview with NBC News, Esposito described “Save Yourself” as the story her younger self needed to read.

“I really love myself as a younger person a lot more than I did before writing this book,” she said. “I felt so wrong as a child and had a lot of shame, and then I had the opportunity to be like, ‘Oh, I was kind of awesome.’”

Now, she said she regularly looks at awkward old photos of herself and recommends other queer people do the same. “I see them every day, and I'm reminded that this isn't really a shameful person.”

A pandemic-friendly book tour

Before Esposito’s memoir was released March 24, she was fully prepared for a “Save Yourself” book tour — but then the coronavirus pandemic shut down the world. When her in-person promotion hopes fell through, like the rest of us, she turned to social media and Zoom. Over the past several weeks, she’s been wrangling queer wordsmiths and fellow memoirists — including Jacob Tobia, Michelle Tea, Lydia Polgreen and Roxane Gay — for “in conversation” virtual chats.

“Everybody who's been speaking with me, I know personally, and that's been really nice at a time like this,” she said. “It's amazing that we live in a time when there's other formats that exist. It actually becomes even bigger, in a sense, in how you're connecting with people.”

Esposito's Instagram followers were encouraged to download Zoom meeting IDs and join in, thus salvaging her book tour in a way she'd never imagined. She also went out of her way, repeatedly, to draw attention to platforms such as Libro.fm and Kobo — services that funnel sales back to local booksellers who wrestle to compete with Amazon.

“I mean, I'm a small business owner myself, right?” Esposito asked. “To be a comic is to be a small business owner. So I certainly understand the sorts of pressures that a small business owner would be thinking about right now, and also folks who work in the gig economy. If there's no gig to do, we aren't really protected in a larger way.”

The airplane oxygen mask rule

Amid the pandemic, it hasn’t just been small businesses and gig workers that Esposito has been trying to protect: She was also faced with a health crisis that hit dangerously close to home after her live-in partner, Katy, contracted what doctors presumed to be COVID-19.

As her memoir attests, Esposito has spent a long time learning to abide by the airplane oxygen mask rule: Put your own mask on first before assisting others. Katy’s illness made Esposito put this lesson to the test, as she struggled not to play caretaker for Katy, who had to be quarantined, away from Esposito, in the Los Angeles home they share. Esposito wrote about the harrowing experience in an op-ed published in Refinery29 last month.

Esposito has had to actively practice that self-love RuPaul is always talking about, which now includes taking care of herself, so she can be there for Katy in the long run.

“I think there will always be a stutter step between what the world thinks you are and who you realize you are,” Esposito said of queer people’s journey to self-love and the refusal to succumb to whatever oppressive perception the outside world may impose on you.

Loving and caring for yourself, she stressed, has the ultimate effect of benefiting others, though she lamented that this is not taught in schools, particularly not the Catholic schools she attended.

“The queer experience is really beautiful,” she said. “We have an ability to figure out who we are and to try to connect with our true selves. That will remain. It's why we will still have a culture that's ours. It's why we will still have pride parades.”

And if those parades need to be on Zoom, Esposito seems ready to lead the charge.

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