Jesse Helms and Rush Limbaugh, you'd better sit down: Gay comedians are suddenly cropping up everywhere, and about a dozen of them are making inroads into the mainstream. There's comedian-commentator Kate Clinton, age 46, discussing gays in the military on Nightline and opening her own one-woman Off Broadway show, Out Is In, this month. There's Frank Maya, 38, teaching straight audiences at the Manhattan comedy mecca Caroline's how to say ''FAB- ulous!'' like a real gay man. And there's the famously controversial Lea DeLaria, 35, making a watershed appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show earlier this year as the first openly gay comic to break the late-night talk-show barrier. ''It's the 1990s,'' she announced joyously. ''It's hip to be queer, and I'm a bi-i-i-i-ig dyke!''
And this month brings another milestone: Out There, the first all-gay stand-up comedy special, airs throughout December on cable's Comedy Central channel. Hosted by DeLaria, the show features the deadpan Marga Gomez, who's in her early 30s, commenting on TV: ''Just gay men and lesbians (are watching) Love Connection,'' she says, ''because it makes us feel good about our lives.'' HIV-positive Steve Moore, 39, jokes about his condition. The all-black comedy group Pomo Afro Homos peddles a Fierce Black Drag Queen kit in a QVC parody. And boy-next-door type Bob Smith, 34, confesses to experimenting with heterosexuality in college: ''I slept with a straight guy,'' he says. ''I was really drunk.''
But why now? And why stand-up comedy, a medium notorious for political incorrectness, misogyny, and homophobia? For one thing, there's a glut of American comedy clubs in desperate need of fresh material. ''Audiences have been saturated with straight white comics who all sound alike and talk about the same things, like airplane food,'' explains comedian Jaffe Cohen, 40, who formed the groundbreaking comedy trio Funny Gay Males in 1989 with Smith and Danny McWilliams.
At the same time, the ongoing AIDS crisis and the gay community's response to it has grabbed media attention and helped make straight audiences more receptive to gays and gay issues. Openly gay Scott Thompson, 35, satirizes gay life as part of the Canadian sketch troupe the Kids in the Hall on CBS; Melrose Place and Roseanne have brought gay characters to prime time; GET, a year-old gay-oriented television network, expands to five cities this month; and a team of celebrities, including k.d. lang, RuPaul, and entertainment mogul David Geffen, are living well out of the closet.
All comics mine the same areascurrent events, religion, dating, but gay comics do it with a fresh twist. On Out There, Suzanne Westenhoefer, 32, wonders if a ban on gays in the the military isn't such a bad idea. ''You be careful!'' she says sarcastically, pretending to wave goodbye to soldiers marching off to war. ''We'll take care of your wives.'' And for gay comics, childhood is a mother lode of material. In his one-man show, Paying for the Pool, Maya recalls the moment he came out to his parents: ''My father was so upset. We're Catholic. He took me to see the local priest, who is also gay. We spent two hours in his room listening to Judy Garland records.'' The Funny Gay Males are laughing at their own early years in Growing Up Gay, a partly autobiographical book slated for release in June 1995 by Hyperiona division of Disney.
Comedians have come out of the closet in part to counter the antigay humor of their peers. Maya says that when he took up stand-up in 1989, ''There was so much gay bashing. Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay were very popular, but there were no other voices out there.'' But gay comedians aren't fooling themselves; universal acceptance is still years away. ''A lot of comics say they're playing the mainstream, and (in fact) they're playing gay-comedy night at the Improv in L.A.,'' says Westenhoefer. Comedy clubs ''are tossing us a bone.'' Gay comics have yet to sit on the sofas of Jay Leno or David Letterman.
And not everyone is laughing. Not long ago, DeLaria encountered protests during an appearance at a state college in Maine. ''They tried to shout me down,'' she says, ''but they couldn't, so they got up and left.'' After the show, one of the protesters stopped DeLaria on her way out. ''I came up here to protest you,'' she told the comedian, ''but I had a wonderful time. I'm leaving with a different idea about gays.'' Recalling the story, DeLaria lets loose a victory smile and says, ''That's what it's all about.''