(CNN)Cameron Esposito is a comedian, but for a brief moment in time, she wanted to be a priest.
“I don’t know what I thought was going to happen that the Pope was going to let me be a priest,” Esposito recalls. “Just me, ’cause I like collars.”
Raised in a Catholic family in the suburbs of Chicago, she studied theology as a young woman. Her pulpit pursuits ultimately did not come to fruition, but in Esposito’s estimation, telling jokes for a living isn’t all that dissimilar to celebrating mass.
“I talk to people about what’s important in the world while they drink wine,” she says.
As stand-up comedian, writer, actor and podcast host, Esposito delivers a warm and autobiographical ministry of laughter. Her performances are energetic, honest and, by design, unapologetic.
“I’ve never apologized for being a woman, for being gay, for being kind of butch, masculine of center. I am into it. Like, I like who I am,” Esposito says. “I think sometimes that has been challenging for folks.”
Her brand of comedy is what makes Esposito one of the brightest and boldest voices on the scene.
In “Rape Jokes,” her most recent comedy special, Esposito’s ability to balance the hilarious with the poignant is on full display. Amid a light-hearted set that includes a story about a mortifying medical emergency and anecdotes about her upbringing, she shares her experience as a survivor of sexual assault.
The story lands like a skillfully flown helicopter in an open field — unavoidable and with admirable grace.
Her goal, she says, is to reframe assault as a lived experience instead of a topic for quips about perpetrators trying to reclaim their careers.
“It just felt to me, if I tell my story that will be irrefutably in the record. Like, here’s a person speaking on their own behalf,” Esposito says about the show’s origin. “And if I titled it, ‘Rape Jokes,’ maybe the number one Google result for the term rape jokes will be this special and not some coverage of some stupid, half-delivered punchline.”
Esposito made the special available for free on her website with the option of donating to RAINN, an anti-sexual violence organization. She has raised more than $85,000 since “Rape Jokes” debuted in June.
Esposito’s work, along with the success of Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette,” have sparked conversations about emerging queer talent and praise for their fresh comedic perspectives. But Esposito says voices like hers have always existed.
“I always want to remind folks when they talk about how exciting it is that, ‘Oh, these voices are coming from nowhere.’ It’s, like, no, these voices were silenced. These voices were here and folks were out there doing the work and selling tickets and being funny and those in the mainstream were opting out of listening.”
Esposito welcomes everyone to opt in.
“I’m a queer person, I’m super out about it. That doesn’t mean that whoever you are, you’re not invited to my show,” she says. “You are invited to come in the audience and hang out and laugh at these jokes.”
And in comedy clubs across the country, Esposito says she’s found that Americans aren’t as different and divided as we may seem.
“I think there’s this idea that it’s… only two parties and they are never in the same room. And it’s, like, no, we’re in the same breakroom getting coffee, and we’re on the same job site, and we’re at the same restaurants eating,” Esposito explains. “Marginalized folks, immigrants, queer folks, people of color, we are everywhere. We are your neighbors, so you should care about us. You already do.”
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