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Finding His Place :: EDGE Chats with Gay Humorist Judah Leblang

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Aug 25, 2011

If the name Judah Leblang sounds familiar, it may be because you're read his column "Life in the Slow Lane" in Bay Windows. Or, you might have heard him relating an anecdote from his life on the radio.

Leblang's book "Finding My Place" is a collection of his autobiographical essays. Funny, painful, and poignant by turns, the stories he tells underscore the absurdities that make life as a gay man in America so fraught and explore family dynamics that are deep in emotional resonance and wide in their generous encompassing of non-blood kin who are none the less part of the fold.

Just as much a part of the stories as family is the theme of home. Leblang hails from Cleveland -- a city he notes, with a tinge of bitterness, that is better known for a river that had a tendency to catch fire than for its cultural aspects. Then, he laments, there's the pain of being a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Cleveland's baseball team, the Indians. ("The pain of being an Indians fan is never ending," Leblang told EDGE. "Being an Indians fan is like being a Red Sox fan before 2004. We haven't had our redemption.")

The tall, lanky Leblang gave a reading in Cambridge not too long ago. He was one of two featured authors who presented their work at the event, which had been organized by Jewish group Keshet, an advocacy group for GLBT Jews. Leblang, who used to work as an ASL interpreter, did a little of his own sign language in the course of his reading, but left most of the ASL interpretation to another signing professional who had been hired for the occasion.

The occasional bit of ASL was only part of Leblang's overall animation. His reading was punctuated with gesticulations as he related the story of his grandfather, who ran a drug store in a Polish neighborhood for many years, read aloud an account about his deaf uncle, a sports fan named Jerry, or recounted buying a baseball hat in Florida emblazoned with the letters "WWJD" -- which the Jewish Leblang took to refer to a local radio station. (The natives warmed up to him considerably once he started wearing the hat.)

A few weeks later, meeting EDGE at a bagel shop, Leblang was just as lively. EDGE wondered about his energetic personal presence and if it was easy to get that across to a radio audience.

"The reading you saw was the first time that I actually had an interpreter and there were a few deaf people there," Leblang said. "It was actually a really exciting experience for me, because that-the Deaf world and my love for American Sign Language -- used to be a big part of my life. I've never had that opportunity before, having an interpreter at my reading, because generally I set them up. It's through a bookstore, and you've got to pay the interpreter, I would end up losing money on the deal and the store would usually not spring for that. This was a good opportunity.

"With the radio stuff, I actually feel like our voices are so expressive that" it's not an issue, Leblang continued. "The challenge for me with radio is that I can't move around when I'm recording. That is a little bit difficult for me because I'm used to using my body -- I imagine that's what you're referring to, I tend to move around. I don't know how much of that is because I used to be an interpreter, and how much is a matter of being Jewish. I think it's a combination of the worlds that I come from.

"I feel like, if the material is good, the voice can convey it," the writer added. "I've actually gotten really good feedback about my voice, even from people in radio."

Gay comic writers who feature on the radio as well as in print are not a completely unknown quantity: Just look at David Sedaris. EDGE asked about Leblang's career on the airwaves.

"I don't know how much of a career it is, but I listened to NPR a lot, and years ago I would listen to these commentaries, and I would think, 'I could do that, but nobody's asked me,' " Leblang recounted.

"I finished a graduate program at Lesley in 2003 and I had written a number of these short vignettes, some of which are in the book. I was interested in trying to record some of these pieces, maybe make a CD and try to get them on some radio stations. I didn't really know how the process worked, but I was referred to this guy, a local radio producer in Somerville named Robert Smyth. He's done a lot of work in the storytelling community. He used to have a bookstore and he still has a small press, Yellow Moon Press, which is based in Somerville.

"I went in and asked him a few questions, then I started to learn a lot more about the process of recording and all the potential expenses involved," Leblang continued. "I ended up working with him and producing a very basic CD with some of my pieces, and in the meantime found out a little more about how one might go about getting on the radio. Eventually, I was able to get two pieces on an NPR station at Kent State University, outside of Cleveland, and because a lot of my pieces have a local angle there, they broadcast several more.

"Then a number of my pieces got picked up by a producer in Albany, at WAMC, which is the NPR [radio] station that covers western New England and northeast New York. They have a syndicated show called 'The Health Show,' which is broadcast on between 150 and 200 stations around the country, for which I don't get paid, but it's good exposure. The first piece he broadcast was about my grandfather with the drug store. After that, I'd just go directly to him and say, 'Hey, I've got this idea," or sometimes I'll send him the text, and if he likes it, I'll go ahead and record it. He's broadcast five or six of my pieces in the last five years."

Still, seeing a writer -- especially a storyteller like Leblang -- in person is an experience unto itself.

"I do a lot of readings, and having the book has given me a good platform and a way into it," Leblang said. "I like doing that. A lot of writers don't, but for me, that's the reward for having written the book."

Next: From the Lonely Work of Writing to a One Man Show


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