Just in case you’re unaware, every Sunday night on Showtime, just after The L Word: Generation Q airs, there is another queer-centered television show you should be watching. It’s called Work in Progress, and it’s semi-autobiographical. The show features comedian Abby McEnany playing a version of herself: a fat (her word), middle-aged (45 on the show, 52 in real life) queer dyke (also her words) with mental illness. At the show’s outset, Abby gives her life 180 days to get better. Otherwise, she tells her therapist, she will kill herself.
Dark premise notwithstanding, Work in Progress is warm, funny, openhearted, and curious, and the first-season finale airs this coming weekend. Its portrayals of three-dimensional, gender-nonconforming queer people (yes, more than one!) have won it praise from viewers, as have its frank depictions of obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, and Showtime recently renewed it for a second season. The Cut recently spoke to McEnany about creating TV space for someone like her where there was none, bathroom anxiety, and every queer person’s favorite/least favorite subject: labels.
First, congratulations on getting picked up for a second season!
Thank you! I got a call, and I was like, “What?!!” I’m new to all of this, and the fact that we got a chance, and nobody knows who I am … we’re just so lucky they’re giving us more episodes. They’ve been lovely.
Have you been trying to break into TV for a long time?
Yeah, I mean, I auditioned for a few things. First of all, I’m a horrible auditioner, which probably isn’t a good thing to say, but I am. Then there aren’t … tons of roles for someone like me, I would say?
[Laughs] I know, right? Even for commercials. I remember growing up thinking, Why would an actor do commercials? And then it’s like, Oh, I need to pay my fuckin’ bills. So I would also audition for commercials, and that was hilarious, because they don’t want a fat woman selling burgers. I never got anything, which is fine. I really wanted to act and perform, and I was like, “You have to create your own stuff.” That was the only way I was going to work.
What weren’t you seeing in queer entertainment that you wanted to see or create with your show?
I wanted to see what queer life looks like to me. The fact that they have a fat, gray-haired, masculine dyke as a lead in an amazing premium-cable-network show is amazing. It’s funny: People are like, “It’s a queer show.” And of course it’s a queer show, but I don’t want it to be pigeonholed. This is really a story about human beings and struggle and mental illness and community and suicidal thoughts and family.
But yeah, my queer world isn’t rail thin. And that’s not a dig — there are certainly very beautiful, rail-thin lesbians. The world in Chicago, where I live, is filled with real queers that would not usually be seen in a TV show. Ugh. I’m bad at this. Do you know what I mean?
Totally. It’s hard not to force “lesbian” shows to compete, even when they’re so different. Like it’s you versus The L Word: Generation Q.
It’s interesting — I think people have wanted me to say bad things about The L Word, and I have nothing bad to say about it. I think it’s beautiful that two very different shows are together. I got to go to The L Word: Generation Q premiere out in L.A., and I hadn’t seen it before, and it’s amazing. These are just two views of queer life, and those are infinite. The fact that we both have the opportunity to be on the same network is awesome.
Do you keep tabs on the internet reaction to the show?
I’m not on social media because of my mental illness. I don’t need more things to drive me to despair. That’s not to say I don’t still sometimes dive in. I’ve heard so many lovely things. [Leans into the recorder] Don’t worry, bigots. I know you’re out there.
I’m sure we also got some stuff wrong. There’s so much we can learn from what we did, and hopefully we can continue learning and growing and telling good stories. There’s so much vitriol [online]. You do one thing wrong and you become a villain, and people are like, “She said this, and that makes her X.” I always want to say, “Look, I’m here to learn. I want to be better.”
I think you addressed some of that intra-community conflict really elegantly in the show, especially with Chris [the character who becomes Abby’s boyfriend].
When I started dating Alex [Abby’s former partner who inspired “Chris”], it was back in 2010, and trans visibility was different then. An acquaintance of mine asked if I was dating anybody. Usually I’m single, and I think being single is great, and I think TV shows that say you can only be happy with a partner are absolute fucking bullshit and really bad for society. PSA. But anyway, I said, “Yeah, I am. His name’s Alex. He’s a young trans man who lives in D.C.” And she was like, “Well, I guess you’re not a lesbian anymore.” I was like, Where is that coming from? Who cares? Why are we setting up these boundaries?
In the early ’90s, I was in this direct-action group. When I first came out, I identified as bisexual, and there was this lesbian caucus, and I wasn’t allowed to go to their meetings because I was bi. One of the most staunch people, who said only “real” lesbians could go — now she’s married to a man.
Which is fine! Love who you want to love!
I think how you feel about other people’s identity often says more about how you feel about your own. And one thing Abby is really secure in is her/your identity.
I have no shame about that. I don’t have shame about my gender expression or my sexuality as it stands today. Who knows? People ask me what my pronouns are and I say, “She/her, currently.” I think the idea of fluidity is so beautiful, and that’s really helped me figure out that it’s not just gay, lesbian, bisexual. People do try to put you in a box. I came up with “queer dyke” as something for myself that makes sense to me. The second I started dating Alex, I was like, “Yeah, I can’t call myself a lesbian, because that’s denying his identity. He’s a man.” I like the idea of “queer” because you can be fluid. So I say I’m queer but dyke-identified.
I think part of what people are responding to so positively is your character’s cheerful approach to new information. She’s been out for ages but isn’t afraid of new queer terminology.
When Chris takes me to this big queer party, we show this beautiful community of acceptance. There are fat people that are celebrated, and not just white folks, and not just cis folks. You see a charades scene in the pilot, and all those folks are real friends of mine, and that’s what it was when I came out — white and cis. Especially in a city or a metropolitan area, that’s not what it is now. We can all learn from that.
I want to talk about the bathroom episode, in which your character is routinely confronted for not “belonging” in the women’s bathroom. I saw a lot of people really connecting to that, including my wife, and it’s something gender-conforming people like me just don’t think about.
When I tell people I’m afraid to use public bathrooms, they don’t get it. It’s a huge part of my life. I used to do a piece for my one-woman storytelling show about the ten steps to using the bathroom if you look like me. One would be: Go in and say hi to everyone. A lot of it is self-preservation. I’m a fairly sensitive person, and when I get mean looks, it hurts me. It’s scary. Sometimes it’s just fuckin’ exhausting to exist, and to be in places where you feel like you don’t belong. So it was important to show that.
Have you ever confronted anyone like you do on the show?
The only time I really yelled at somebody was at the Minneapolis airport — Larry Craig’s airport. Before my flight, a woman walked into the bathroom, looked at me washing my hands, went “humph!,” and turned around and stomped out. I was like, Oh God. Because of my OCD, I still had to wash my hands for another two or three minutes. I finished, and she came in, and she yelled, “This is the ladies’ room!” I looked at her and I yelled, “I’M A LADY!” I’d just had it, you know? She looks up and goes, “Well, of course you are.” She didn’t know what to say. I was like, “OPEN YOUR MIND!” Part of it felt good, but I don’t want to be causing scenes. I just want to go in and be a human being that has to pee.