Dina Nina Martinez-Rutherford: Life Transformed

By Emily Mills | Photography by Hillary Schave

Dina Nina Martinez-Rutherford is a funny lady, it’s true. The longtime stand-up comedian is a lot of other things, too: entrepreneur, spiritual seeker, public servant. The founder of Lady Laughs Comedy, a training and event production company focused on lifting up women and people from marginalized communities in the comedy scene, Martinez-Rutherford is also very busy.

Born and raised in Texas, Martinez-Rutherford’s road to Madison was a winding one. She initially found
herself traveling the country as a small group pastor for non-denominational evangelical churches, and was eventually assigned to go to Sydney, Australia, to “plant” a new church there. It proved to be a turning point for her, however, as years of internal searching and external battles with church authority figures finally opened her eyes to a more authentic path.

“I truly believed and tried really hard, tried to pray that gay away,” she says with a rueful chuckle. “There was finally a point where I was just so done jumping through hoops. I was done. I finally was just like, ‘I’m just me.’”

Instead of crossing an ocean to plant a church, Martinez-Rutherford headed to Los Angeles, where she spent 10 years building her career as a stand-up comic.

LA, she says, gave her the space to really find herself.

“I was far enough away from my family and from religion. It was still scary, because there’s always that religious voice in your head that says, ‘No, that’s wrong.’” Martinez-Rutherford says. “But I was standing on a corner
waiting for a bus one day and I had this sort of connection with the divine. I realized that I was scared, but the voice told me, ‘You need to be yourself.’ Be visible, because it could help someone in the middle of the country see themselves and not want to kill themselves. It was liberating. I took my first shot of HRT [hormone replacement therapy] in January of 2007. And all the things I was scared of didn’t happen! For the first time, I understood the way I thought, the way I felt, more than I’d ever known. Right from that first moment, I just started feeling better about who I was and how I showed up in the world.”

It was at the urging of her best friend that she took a chance and eventually made the move to Madison.

“I figured I’d move to the middle of the country and either someone would marry me or murder me, but neither one has happened!” she jokes. Instead, she says she found “I could breathe.” She discovered a community through working at Monty’s Blue Plate Diner, where she immediately met another trans person on staff and built friendships with regular customers that have lasted to this day.

Since then, Martinez-Rutherford has built something of her own mini comedy empire in town, launching Lady Laughs Comedy as a home base for teaching all-comers everything from stand-up to improv to sketch comedy, and throwing a comedy festival that spotlights local and regional and national women and LGBTQ+ folks in an industry still dominated by white men.

Another turning point came in the wake of the Club Q shooting in Colorado in February 2022. It was a moment that finally galvanized Martinez-Rutherford into action, doing something she’d been urging others to do for years: become civically engaged. In late 2022, she officially threw her hat in the ring to run for District 15 alder, focusing her platform on LGBTQ+ rights, access to affordable housing and other issues especially important for people working in the service and other low-income industries. Happily, Martinez-Rutherford claimed victory in the April 2023 election.

“The deeper I get, the more I see the problems in more places than I ever wanted to,” she muses. “As someone who struggles, I will say this a million times, I know what it’s like to eat rice for an entire month. That’s a problem! It’s not just trans people that are experiencing it, it’s all of us. I want to find ways to make that better.”

Read more of the Life Transformed stories here.

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