Family, friends and fans are mourning the loss of Denver comedian Jordan Wieleba. Rushed to the hospital after a severe asthma attack left her comatose last week, she remained unresponsive and unaware of the well-wishing throngs of visitors she received. Few knew of the seriousness of her circumstances; Wieleba herself had tweeted mordantly about her condition earlier that day. But her prognosis was far more dire than anyone had anticipated, and she was taken off life support on Thursday, September 8.
The outpouring of support was swift and heartfelt. Comedians expressed their sorrow with blogs, podcasts and hand-drawn portraits. Her Facebook page has evolved into a memorial where hundreds of mourners continue to post their tributes. Her friends scoured her Twitter feed, retweeting her best gems from months past.
"Jordan's father and I were touched beyond words by the support and love we have been given by the comedic community," says Cindy Wieleba, Jordan's mother. "We had no idea that Jordan was a mentor, teacher and supporter to so many people. She was truly blessed to have made the friends she had."
A respected leader in the comedy community, Jordan made up a quarter of the standup supergroup Pussy Bros, ran a number of showcases, and lent her unwavering support to her peers. Unlike many comedians of her skill level, she'd diligently attend shows she had nothing to do with, laughing when she thought something was funny in defiance of hostile or empty rooms.
A festival favorite, Wieleba was a featured performer at Toronto's She Dot Comedy Festival, Chicago's Comedy Exposition and Boston's Women in Comedy Festival. Her considerable talents also included graphic design (Wieleba made eye-catching posters for all of her shows) and music (Wieleba was a punk-scene veteran who played guitar in the band Forth Yeer Freshman). She illustrated the book Sharing the Good News: A Positive Model for Coming Out as Transgender, helping provide the guidance she hadn't found for the next generation of trans youths and their families. She was a fearlessly loyal advocate, not just for the comedy scene, the trans community or her friends in need, but for anyone who needed help.
I want to release a split 7-inch but I don't think anyone will appreciate the irony— Jordan Wieleba (@jordancomedy) August 30, 2016
It's difficult to shake the feeling that Jordan was cruelly wrenched away when she still had so much left to give. Even reading her schedule is heartbreaking. She would've competed in the semi-finals of the Comedy Works New Faces Contest this week, before flying to New York for the Cinder Block Comedy Festival. Her monthly standup and burlesque hybrid showcase, Something Fabulous, was slated for September 25. She'd raised over $3,000 for her confirmation surgery on GoFundMe.
In 2011, after 32 years restricted by clothes, pronouns and codified gender norms that didn't fit, Wieleba came out and began the process of undergoing her transition. Casting social pressure aside to live your truth is an act of tremendous bravery, even more so when it's done in the public eye. In addition to close-minded criticism, Jordan endured a regimen of hormone therapy she compared to a second puberty. But she kept hitting open mics, kept putting on shows and, most important, kept getting funnier and funnier. Before she underwent her transition, her one-liners were witty but impersonal. After, it quickly became clear that she'd struck comedic gold by mining her unique experiences for laughs.
"Finding your voice" is an essential milestone in the career of every comedian, but nobody found it quite so heroically as Jordan Wieleba. Considering that we live in a country that still tries to regulate which bathroom trans people can use, each time she took the mic represented an act of bravery, a refusal to be silenced. She knew that standup put her, somewhat unfairly, in the role of ambassador to pre-dominantly cis-gender crowds, and she took on that responsibility without flinching.
Wieleba found a renewed sense of purpose in activism, becoming an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQ community, donating her time and efforts to notable causes like The Gathering Place, The GLBT Colorado Center, Urban Peak and Slutwalk Denver. Not surprisingly, no one described her meaningful activism better than Wieleba herself. The following words, written shortly after the Orlando massacre, encapsulate the home she found in the trans community and her hopes for the future.
I didn’t just find myself when I came out, I found the world I want to live in. I’ve seen the bond that the LGBTQ community has, the same bond based in the violence and hatred against us we’ve all experienced. We celebrate ourselves and we celebrate the freedom to be ourselves. We see hate every day whether it is on the news, on social media or simply walking down the street. This will not destroy us, this will not disintegrate our compassion. This makes us stronger, people outside of our community – our straight and cis allies – will see that and provide us shoulders to stand on and shout from. The world is facing tragedy right now. Let us not let the beauty of human resilience fade but grow. Be a friend, be an ally, be educated, be informed. Be human.
Even her career ambitions dovetailed with her altruism. Most comedy albums — even independent ones— are created with the intention of drawing a profit, but Wieleba not only released Estrogentrification as a free download, she donated all the proceeds from ticket sales of the recording to LGBTQ youth programs.
In a Westword interview before the recording, I asked why she wasn't keeping the money, and she replied: "I didn’t have that opportunity when I was a kid. Had there been something like that, I might not have waited so long to come out. These kids are being brought up in an environment where they’re told it’s okay to be themselves. That’s such an incredible, amazing thing to me. I want to make sure that I help as much as I can to make sure those programs continue and get the recognition they deserve."
Jordan was my friend. I admired her standup and celebrated her triumphs. For me, her presence was always a relief: "Thank God Wieleba is here so I'll have someone to talk to," I'd think whenever we occupied the same lineup or showed up at the same event. I was proud to book her on my show and prouder still when she booked me on her much better show.
It's been a week and it still hasn't set in that I'll never see her — with her cool-kid tattoos and the devastating side eye that she never wielded with malice — again.
We have a tendency to lionize the departed, to assuage our own despair with rose-tinted memories that highlight their best qualities, but that isn't the case with Jordan Wieleba. She really was that generous and lovely. She really did win hearts and crush stages with a conqueror's might. Her bravery cannot be overstated. Her kindness still reverberates through the hearts of everyone touched by it.
Grief never truly relents; it only becomes more familiar with the passage of time. However, anyone grieving for Jordan Wieleba can alleviate some of that sorrow by taking action, by donating time or funds to LGBTQ advocacy groups aiming to make things better for the young generation she cared so deeply about. They can stream her album again when they miss the sound of her voice, surprised by how quickly laughter washes away their tears. Despite the heartrending knowledge that she's been robbed of the bright future awaiting her, we can take some comfort knowing that Jordan Wieleba was fully actualized. She'd triumphed over more struggle and accomplished more on her own than most of us could imagine. Her self-acceptance was hard-earned, and therefore unshakeable.
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Since Jordan has always been a better closer, I'll return to her Orlando post for the last word:
I look in the mirror and see a person looking back at me every day, a person I didn’t necessarily think I’d ever see. I like that person. I genuinely like that person. I like the way she holds herself. I like the confidence you can see behind her muted green eyes. She has seen me at my worst and she has seen me at my best. She is a person that makes me happy and I am so thrilled I get to spend the rest of my life with her. I wish everyone could look into that mirror.
In lieu of flowers, the Wieleba family requests that donations be made in Jordan's name to the National Jewish Hospital's Fund to Cure Asthma.