Category Archives: LGBT

Killing All The Right People

In a 1987 episode of Designing Women, a show about four interior decorators in Atlanta, the titular characters discover a good friend is gay and dying of AIDS. They are naturally distraught, but one of their customers is smug and satisfied. In a diatribe about how AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality, the bigoted belle screeches “as far as I’m concerned this disease has one thing going for it: it’s killing all the right people.” The indomitable Julia Sugarbaker, played by Dixie Carter (who herself was a lifelong conservative), reads the woman the Riot Act, throwing her out of her business to applause from the studio audience. It’s one of the most powerful television moments of the 1980s.

I’ve been thinking about that scene a lot since yesterday, when three things occurred which might not seem entirely connected, but are. Larry Kramer, the legendary gay rights and AIDS activist, passed away, aged 84. Then, the nation reached a grizzly milestone: 100,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. As this was happening, President Trump retweeted a video of a supporter mirthfully telling a crowd of likeminded Red Hats that “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” No, really. See for yourself.

What do these things have in common? Two of them tell us a lot about the dangerous times in which we find ourselves. One of them shows us the way forward.

None of us exist in a vacuum, least of all the President of the United States. His acolytes will insist that the president did not watch the video, or that the “Cowboys for Trump” leader who said Democrats are only good when dead was being hyperbolic, or that he clarified that he didn’t “mean it in the physical sense” but rather in the “political sense.” It doesn’t matter. The gun-toting militiamen heard what they heard, what we all heard.

It is a nifty little trick of theirs, to walk back statements or send coded messages which provide plausible deniability. As the author and academic Reece Jones pointed out this week, these far-right terrorist groups have developed their own vernacular and symbols, such as wearing aloha shirts as a way of signaling their desire for a second Civil War. The cowboy Red Hat said what he meant, the President amplified it and thanked him for it, and his supporters heard what they were meant to hear: “The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat. I don’t mean that literally… wink, wink.”

Of course, sometimes they escalate beyond coded language. Earlier this week, an effigy of Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, was hung from a tree by a far-right militia group. In 2018, a Trump supporter was arrested for planning a bombing campaign against Democratic officials. Back 2011, Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot when a gunman opened fire on an event she was holding in her district. Six were killed that day, including a federal judge, a congressional staffer, and a nine-year-old girl. I guess they’re good Democrats, now.

This callous indifference of Trump and some of his supporters to the lives of those who do not look and think like them should not surprise anyone. We probably crossed the threshold into a six-digit coronavirus body count weeks ago, but it officially happened yesterday. The president, who had time to tweet his thanks to a man who believes the opposition party is better dead than alive, did not acknowledge the somber and gut-wrenching news until this morning.

Why did it take the President so long to comment?  Well, it’s a remarkably cogent tweet, striking the right tone and without any grammatical errors or random capitalization, indicating that Trump probably had some help composing it. Perhaps the staffer charged with making him sound human was out yesterday. More likely, though, it is simply that he did not care.

The President did, however, care enough to endorse the notion that the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat, and this pandemic has killed a lot of Democrats. The New York Times recently ran an article comparing how the coronavirus has disproportionately affected blue states, as well as Black people and Latino people, who are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. The President and Congressional Republicans have refused federal aid to states like New York and Illinois, callously labeling much-needed help for ailing Americans as a “blue state bailout.” These Americans are largely Democrats, though, and the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat. So blue states get nothing, and the death toll rises. After all, like AIDS in the 80s, it’s killing all the right people.

Which brings me to Larry Kramer. Best known as the confrontational, unapologetic founder of ACT UP, Kramer never minced his words. “Some reporter called me ‘the angriest gay man in the world’ or some such,” he once said. “Well, it stuck, but I realized it was very useful.” He used that anger to draw attention to a plague which ravished the gay community, but also to the innate bigotry of many Americans, especially those in power. “Too many people hate the people that AIDS most affects, gay people and people of colour,” he wrote, listing ten hard-learned lessons from the AIDS epidemic.

These lessons are still relevant today as Americans face the bleak truth that the president hates half the country and is literally willing to let them die. We must harness our righteous anger at a man and a movement which threatens our lives and sneers at our deaths. We must defeat not only Trump, and not only Trumpism, but a literal plague they are weaponizing against us. We must stand up and say, quite simply, “enough. Our lives matter.”

A sublot of “Killing All The Right People” is Mary Jo (played brilliantly by Annie Potts) reluctantly being forced to publicly advocate for birth control to be offered at her daughter’s school. In a moving speech towards the end of the episode, she chokes back tears as she speaks to a crowd of parents, and to her dying friend. “I think that it really shouldn’t matter what your personal views are about birth control, because you see, we’re not just talking about preventing births anymore,” she says. “We’re talking about preventing deaths. 85,00 Americans have died, and we’re still debating. Well, for me, this debate is over.”

For me, too, this debate is over. Donald Trump does not care about coronavirus deaths because he thinks the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat, and right now COVID-19 is disproportionately killing Democrats, or at least people who fit his perception of Democrats. We cannot allow this callousness, this hate, to continue to permeate our politics and our nation. We can’t argue over our right to life. Instead, we must do as Larry Kramer did and fight like hell for it, because the only good Democrat isn’t a dead one. The only good Democrat is an angry one.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan

Requiem for Pete Buttigieg

“Being open about my sexual orientation at school – and the hell that goes along with it – is not only the right thing to do, but the only thing to do.” I wrote those words in my diary in 2003. I was running for student body president as the only openly gay student in my sleepy little town in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. I had come out my sophomore year, and the daily crucible of homophobic slurs and threats of violence I experienced taught me that victory was a longshot.

I ran anyway.

17 years later, Pete Buttigieg didn’t become the first openly gay president. Tonight, following a blistering defeat in South Carolina, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana suspended his campaign for the Democratic nomination. As an ardent supporter of Mayor Pete, and as a gay man, I am heartbroken—as are millions of others like me, gay and straight, who felt inspired by his candidacy.

I mourn for what we were denied. The sight of an openly gay man, his husband holding the Bible, take the oath of office. White House Christmas cards with a smiling, happy same-sex couple (and possibly their children; the Buttigiegs are young enough to start a family). The inspiring rhetoric and cool-as-a-cucumber disposition which made him feel to millions of people the ablest and best hands in which to place the country. I lament the fact that thousands of volunteers and grassroots supporters around the country are feeling as heartbroken as I am, disappointed and forlorn and unsure of what to do now that the man we all believed should be president won’t be.

Yet I am heartened by what we have accomplished. Growing up, the only political role models I had were Barney Frank, a surly and stalwart old Democrat who has written eloquently about his own struggles coming out, and Harvey Milk, who was shot. That was it. At the time I mounted my campaign for student body president, no state had legalized gay marriage. Another entry in my diary from that autumn screams that “gay marriage band struck down by a court in Massachusetts!” It was a watershed moment, one that inspired a 17-year-old gay boy to keep his chin up, that it might get better.

Watching Mayor Pete speak tonight felt a lot like that. “We send a message to every kid wondering if whatever marks them as different, means they are somehow destined to be less than—to see that someone who once felt that exact same way, become a leading American presidential candidate with his husband at his side,” he said. I thought of all the 17-year-old gay kids watching him as he spoke, as he kissed his husband in front of a row of American flags draped along a stage, a loving same-sex couple who could have been our first same-sex first couple.

They would see there on that stage a middle-class, middle-American gay man who dared to dream bigger than anyone thought he had a right to dream. No one can say Americans won’t vote for a gay man for president; Pete Buttigieg, a gay man, won the Iowa caucus. He outperformed senators and governors and in three states a former vice president. He had the audacity to think America was ready for an openly gay president his husband, the first gentleman, and America proved that even if it isn’t there yet, it’s further along than many of us imagined.

At the risk of being premature—he’s not even 40, and his future is bright—this is the legacy of Pete Buttigieg. Someone always has to go first, and for gay Americans, now someone has. If voters ever had any doubt that a gay candidate could be as articulate, as unifying, as electable as a straight candidate, Mayor Pete proved them wrong. Much like Shirley Chisolm’s historic 1972 run blazed a trail for women and people of colour, Mayor Pete has laid a path for future candidates to follow. It doesn’t mean it will be easy, or it will happen in 2024 (as some supporters chanted as Mayor Pete spoke) but a precedent has been set, an apprehension calmed, a fear assuaged. It’s no longer a question of if a gay man can be elected president, but rather when.

I lost my bid for student body president in 2003. Years later, I got a message from one of my high school teachers. “You made this school a better and more accepting place,” she said. “What you did mattered.” It was one of the most touching messages I have ever received, to know that in my own small way, I changed at least a little part of the world.

I hope Pete Buttigieg feels that way tonight. He should be proud of what he has accomplished. I know I am. His campaign may have ended, but his story has only just begun. Watching it unfold, I have never been prouder to be a gay American.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan

 

On Phillip Schofield and remembering my own coming out

 

In a very moving statement released on Twitter this morning, and in an equally moving segment on This Morning, Phillip Schofield came out as gay. Married for 27 years to his wife Stephanie, they have two daughters. By Schofield’s own account his wife and children have been nothing but supportive. This can’t have been easy for the 57-year-old ITV presenter, who has worked in British media for over 30 years, but he has handled it with grace, humility, aplomb.

I am always curious about gay men’s journeys to self-acceptance and, in many cases, self-awareness. I think I always knew I was gay. One of my earliest memories is, aged five or six, getting butterflies when the boy next door grabbed my hand. Of course I didn’t know what that meant or have a name for it, but I knew I felt differently about him than about my other friends.

Later in childhood, I had what I can only retroactively identify as a major crush on my best friend Kyle. He spent summers with his dad, who lived down the street, and I would count down the days until he arrived from Arkansas. My other friends would get jealous and angry as, all summer long, I neglected them for Kyle (an unfortunate pattern that would, shamefully, continue into early adulthood). He and I would spend hours playing with other children, but often alone as well. It was all very chaste and innocent—we couldn’t have been older than ten—but when he would “rescue” me as we played Power Rangers I always felt a tingling, sinking feeling in my chest and stomach which (again, only later in life) could I identify as “puppy love.”

I came out to myself around 14, and to the rest of the world—including my family—at 15. This was in 2001, when teenagers coming out was still a rarity and depictions of LGBT people in popular culture even rarer. Yet there was very little angst around my decision. Once I realized I was gay there was no self-torture, no self-hate. It was almost as though realizing, for the first time and to some mild surprise but no great consequence, that I had a freckle on my leg. “Oh, never noticed that before. Wonder when that happened. Oh shit, it’s almost time for Dawson’s Creek, don’t want to miss that!”

Coming out to my family was not easy—I don’t think it’s every an easy process—but as I would learn from LGBT people in later years much easier than most comings out, especially as a teen and especially in the early 00s. I was out at school, which meant my brother (who was in the same year as I) was the first to know. He shrugged it off and, actually, never brought it up until I finally did about a year after he found out.

The decision to tell my parents was a weighty one. We had gone to an amusement park the Saturday before. My mom and my little sister commented on the attractive boys they saw, while my dad and my brother talked about girls. Realizing I could never have a conversation like that with either, and feeling like I was missing out, I decided to tell them. I went to school that Monday, discussed it with my friends and, plucking up the courage from them, told my parents that evening. They took it well—as well as two working-class Midwestern parents could take such news in 2001—and that, save for a few further conversations over the next few weeks—really was that. (As a bit of trivia, it was Monday, 10 September 2001 – the day before 9/11. There’s a personal narrative to be written about that week in my life, I’m sure.)

At the time, it took a lot of courage. I was trembling as I sat them down. No matter who you are, coming out is never easy. In the back of your mind is always a fear of rejection and hate. Looking back on it now, though, after nearly two decades and hundreds of conversations with other LGBT people who have come out, I see that it was a relatively painless process for me. Over the years, I have wondered why my coming out was so easy compared to so many others. There were no other gay people in my family, at least not that we knew of. My family wasn’t particularly leftwing. My parents didn’t have gay friends—though they liked Ellen DeGeneres, and I always suspect she helped a lot. So what made the difference here? I have a few ideas:

  1. I was raised to be self-assured and independent: my parents and grandparents instilled a confidence in me that has served me well through life. They always encouraged me to do what I want, to take risks, to not be afraid of the consequences (within reason), and to make my own way.
  2. I was deeply introspective, even as a child: I’ve always lived in my head, even as a kid. I had friends, but the bulk of my time was spent playing alone. When you spend so much time with yourself, you can’t help but to get to know yourself on a deep and intimate level. I once knew a man who, at 23, only just realized he was gay. He saw a sex therapist because he couldn’t perform in the bedroom with women and even entertained that he might be asexual. That he was attracted to other guys never crossed his mind. I couldn’t imagine not knowing such a basic truth about yourself, but for many gay men same-sex attraction is so buried in their subconscious they don’t recognize it until years later. (It’s important to note that I’m not saying this is Phillip Schofield’s story. I don’t know what his story is, though I’d love to one day hear it.)
  3. I knew other LGBT kids: The autumn of 2001 was a tumultuous time in my life – among other things, I came out, 9/11 happened, and I moved from Ohio to Kentucky – but when I came out I was still living with my parents in Dayton. I was not the first student to come out at Walter E. Stebbins High School. My freshman year there was some drama when, if I remember correctly, a bisexual senior girl left her girlfriend for a football player. There was a sophomore who wore nail polish and lipstick and was openly gay. There were others, too, who blazed the trail for me. And then of course, there was the internet. AOL chat rooms, TeenOpenDiary, message boards—they all helped me find community with other gay people, some of whom were just coming out like me and others who had been out for years. I knew that coming out wasn’t the end of the world, but the beginning of living authentically, because I had others who lived that truth.
  4. We weren’t a religious family: We believed in God, I think, but we were not devout Christians. The one time I remember my parents talking about God was when, one December, my mom got mad at me and my siblings for not wanting to watch a program about God. It was about God promising to come for Christmas, then never showing up, except that He did three times in the form of three different needy people. I didn’t want to watch not because it was about God but because the thought of God showing up on my doorstep terrified me. We never went to church as a family, though my sister and I did go to church with friends, but being raised outside a faith tradition meant that I had little fear that my parents were going to beat me with a Bible or send me to a conversion camp or throw me out. I didn’t have the anxiety of grappling with my “mortal sin” because I was never taught that being gay was a mortal sin.
  5. My family believes in fairness and kindness: I think this might be the most important. Despite all the teenage “ugh I hate my parents” temper tantrums, I knew they were ultimately kind and decent people. I mentioned Ellen earlier. My mom and I used to watch her sitcom together. When she came out, I was upset because the character had never been gay before. Later I made a homophobic joke about her name, calling her “Ellen Degenerate” – a word I didn’t know what it meant but must have learned from some bigot on the television or radio (I don’t know who, but I’ve always blamed Rush Limbaugh), because I knew it wasn’t good and had to do with her sexuality. My mom snapped at me “don’t call her that,” the message being “gay people aren’t degenerates.” That stuck.

It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I was relentlessly bullied in my Kentucky high school. My father worried I would get AIDS. My mother said “obviously we are disappointed” when I came out (though she has since apologized profusely for the hurt those words caused and doesn’t herself remember saying them). There were stumbling blocks and learning curves for all of us. But we got there quicker than most.

Every LGBT person’s journey is different. Mine is but one of millions, and this short essay is far from the entire story. Some people had a much harder time of things than I did. Some probably had it easier. Certainly, the cultural circumstances in which we come out matter a great deal, and I benefited from coming out at the beginning of what was to be a rapid shift in public opinion on gay rights which began with Ellen and Matthew Shepherd and continues right up to today with Pete Buttigieg and now Phillip Schofield.

Ultimately, the only point of this is to share a little of my own story, which I’ve been thinking about since Schofield’s announcement. My life got a lot better after I came out. I hope Phillip Schofield’s does too.

Thoughts on that woman who wouldn’t vote for Pete Buttigieg because he’s gay

 

I can’t stop thinking about this viral video of an Iowa voter asking to change her vote after she discovered Pete Buttigieg is gay. My first thought was “where the hell has this woman been?” The fact that Pete Buttigieg is gay has been plastered everywhere. Hell, I’ve written about Pete’s sexuality and what his historic run means to me as a gay man at least three different times. My second thought was “I hope every single person who says Pete isn’t gay enough sees this and realizes that if he’s gay enough to experience homophobia he’s gay enough for them to shut up about it.” Then, my third thought was “I bet they’d say ‘see, that woman didn’t even know Pete is gay!’ as proof that he’s just a straight-acting poser who isn’t gay enough.”

That video bothered me. That woman’s homophobia is something I’m familiar with. As a gay teen coming of age in eastern Kentucky, I experienced my fair share of that. When I ran for class president my senior year there were people who wouldn’t vote for me because I’m gay. I had more than one person—friends, classmates, family members, a teacher—tell me I’m going to hell and will burn for eternity. They all insisted they said it out of love. Maybe they did. It still felt a lot like hate, though.

That video inspired me too, though. Nikki van den Heever is the woman being credited on Twitter as the precinct captain who calmly, patiently, and thoughtfully tried to explain to our bigoted friend why Pete’s sexuality doesn’t matter. She was articulate and compassionate—both towards Pete and towards the woman who didn’t want to vote for a gay man. It brought to mind another woman, Crystal O’Connor, from Buttigieg’s home state of Indiana. You might remember her as one of the owners of Memories Pizza, a small family business in Walkerton which became the center of the 2015 Indiana RFRA controversy when O’Connor said she wouldn’t cater pizzas to a gay wedding.

That’s a homophobic opinion, to be sure, but something about the way the O’Connors were treated has always bothered me. For one, why were they even asked? Who in general wants pizza at a wedding? Not gay people, I’ll tell you that. (Okay, maybe I would, but I really like pizza.) And did it really further the cause of gay rights to publicly humiliate and cancel them for expressing an opinion when asked? The vitriolic reaction they received has always troubled me, but my concerns are mitigated by the fact they made bank off the controversy, receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in a GoFundMe campaign. I guess homophobia pays well.

I much prefer the way van den Heever handled the caucusgoer. She kept her cool, explained her position, didn’t belittle or condescend, and contained a situation which could have gotten ugly. She expressed respect for the woman’s right to hold a different opinion without ever actually saying she respected the opinion—because respecting the right to be homophobic is one thing, but respecting homophobia is quite another.

From what I’ve seen, no one has doxed our homophobic friend. No one has sent her death threats. No one has threatened to ruin her business. Of course, no one has raised close to a million for her either, so maybe she feels like the loser here. I would.

I can’t get that woman out of my head though. She seemed so ordinary, like the type of woman you’d meet at a rummage sale or chat to in line at the grocery store. She wasn’t a foaming-at-the-mouth homophobe ready to go out and bash a gay. She was your grandma, or your auntie, or you. A nice Midwestern woman who just happens to not like gay people.

It’s not justifying homophobia. Thinking of that woman, though, and thinking of Memories Pizza, and thinking about all the people in my life who have felt emboldened to condemn me to Hell for daring to love another man, I keep thinking about how nice they were. How well-intentioned. How they genuinely thought they were the good guys, that they were doing the right thing. When the religious right talks about “deeply held beliefs” vis-à-vis opposing gay rights, they’re not blowing smoke up your ass. They really do believe in the righteousness of their cause.

That’s both reassuring and concerning. They don’t think they’re being hateful, which counts for something, or at least is better than intending to be hateful. But on the other hand, how many people out there are so convinced they are right that they would be willing to refuse to sell pizza to a gay couple or refuse to vote for a gay candidate. I know the answer. Most gay people know the answer.

Which brings me back to the “Pete’s not gay enough” crowd. Pete’s clearly gay enough to have a homophobic Iowan refuse to support him. He’s gay enough to where, if he held Chasten’s hand as he walked down a rural road he might here homophobic slurs. He’s gay enough to have felt the suffocating pressure of life in the closet. He’s gay enough to know the liberation that comes from leaving it.

I’m a Christian who is gay. I’d like to sit down with that woman and have a conversation. I doubt I’d change her mind, but I might at least be able to convince her that voting for a gay man isn’t a mortal sin. Orthodox religious people are here and they’re not going anywhere. Gay people are here and we’re not going anywhere. The country is plenty big for both of us, if we can just establish a baseline of respect.

I don’t need every evangelical to believe I am fine the way God made me; my value isn’t tied up in what Intolerant in Iowa thinks, but is derived from my own self-worth and my God. I do need them to accept that I have a right to exist in the public life of this country, though. Similarly, as much as we’d like to stamp out these homophobic attitudes, gay people need to accept that we’re not going to win over everybody. Some people are just stubbornly prejudiced, though they wouldn’t consider themselves prejudiced at all. They really do feel that strongly. Browbeating them into submission isn’t a long-term solution.

Mayor Pete himself is running a campaign on bringing the country together and overcoming differences of opinion. He would probably be hurt by what that woman said, just as any gay man would be—more, maybe, since she’s saying it about him—but having read Shortest Way Home (in which Mayor Pete briefly writes about Memories Pizza), I don’t think he’d want us attacking her or her faith. (Not that anyone I’ve seen has. I’m just making a point.)

Still, I wonder if that woman knows any gay people. She probably does, though she might not know she does. I wonder what they think seeing her doggedly decide Pete Buttigieg isn’t worthy of being president after learning he is gay? I feel bad for them. I also hope they’ll pull her aside, maybe over a cup of coffee, and come out to her (if they haven’t already). I hope they’ll share a little of their struggle and listen as she shares a little of hers. Studies show tolerance and acceptance of gay people increases if you know gay people. Maybe she just needs a little call-in. SI mean, she’s participating in the Democratic caucus, so she’s clearly not a lost cause.

It hurts me that a woman who thought Pete was the candidate for her changed his mind just because she found out he’s gay. That speaks to the level of homophobia still present in much of this country, a homophobia many gay people experience on a daily basis. We’ve come a long way since I came out in 2001, but we’ve still got further to go. I’m heartened, though, to think that Pete Buttigieg might have won the Iowa caucus. If he didn’t win, he did very, very well. Love trumps hate, and Iowans have shown that just because one homophobic woman won’t back Pete because he’s gay, for many more people it isn’t an issue. That’s encouraging. We should hold on to that.

Skylar Baker-Jordan has been writing about UK and US politics for more than a decade. His work as appeared at The Independent, Salon, Huff Post UK, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter or become a supporter by contributing to his Patreon account.

20 questions with… EastSiders creator and star Kit Williamson

Most people will have first met Kit Williamson when he starred as Ed Gifford on the Emmy-winning series Mad Men, but now he’s best known as the creator, writer, producer, and director of EastSiders, the Emmy-nominated web series about a group of LGBT friends living, loving, and often lying in Los Angeles. Its fourth and final season premiered on Netflix last year, and a new documentary about the creation and production of this seminal show was released last month.

EastSiders is for many Millennial gay men what Thirtysomething was to our parents in the 1980s—an honest look at our lives, our failures, and our world. This isn’t the sanitized version of gay life often presented in mainstream media. Williamson’s writing is fearless, tackling everything from toxic masculinity to STIs to, most notably,

Central Park Van Hansis and Kit Williamson

Van Hansis as Thom and Kit Williamson as Cal in EastSiders

nonmonogamy. In doing so, he’s created fleshed-out characters the likes of which are rarely seen on television but are frequently found in gay villages across America. This is a show by the queer community, for the queer community.

Kit Williamson was kind enough to answer some questions about his work on the show, from the roller coaster ride main characters Thom and Cal take over the course of four turbulent seasons to the importance of queer cinema to scene-stealing Kathy’s (Constance Wu) thoughts on Cats. If you haven’t seen EastSiders—and you really should—beware of spoilers below.

 

Skylar Baker-Jordan: First of all, congratulations on an amazing run and an amazing fourth season. How does it feel now that it’s over?

Kit Williamson: It’s bittersweet but the response has been really satisfying—we wanted to end things in the right way and I really hope that we did!

SBJ: I first watched EastSiders when it was on YouTube, before the first season was even complete. I was living in Chicago at the time, and spending a lot of time in London, and remember thinking just how authentic these characters felt. I hope you won’t bristle at the comparison, but really reminded me of Lena Dunham’s Girls—raw, unflinching, zeitgeisty—but for gay men. How important was it to depict gay men as we really are—warts and all?

 KW: I’ll take that as a compliment! Clifford (Jake Choi) actually tells Thom (Van Hansis) that his writing is like “The Velvet Rage as written by Lena Dunham for Modern Love.” One of the primary reasons I wanted to make the show was because I was frustrated with the ubiquitousness of unrealistically aspirational queer characters. It’s important to have role models, but equally important to tell stories about characters with flaws and complexities that blow up their lives and pick up the pieces. Otherwise, you run the risk of making people who make mistakes feel isolated and alone and broken compared to the perfect lives they see on TV. But we all make mistakes and we all feel isolated and alone and broken sometimes.

SBJ: So many of the actors are LGBT. Was this intentional, and did it add to the authenticity of the series?

It was absolutely my intention to create an unapologetically queer universe, because TV networks don’t seem to want to greenlight this kind of story. It’s great that we finally have a seat at the table in mainstream media, but it’s equally important to tell stories about issues that impact our community without worrying what a mainstream audience will think about those issues.

SBJ: Crowdfunding was so instrumental to the success of the show, but as you point out in the documentary, there are many limitations to producing a series this way. How is crowdfunding changing the nature of Hollywood—for better and for worse?

I think crowdfunding has allowed independent content creators to take their careers into their own hands—you don’t actually have to wait for the industry to give you its stamp of approval in order to go out there and make art. I don’t know what the long-term ramifications will be, but indie television is only growing; Sundance, Tribeca and SXSW are all programming episodic blocks and the market is growing.

SBJ: We’re both from the south (you’re from Jackson, Mississippi; I’m from rural Kentucky). I’ve since moved back south, but like you, I ran off to the big city in my twenties and found the experience liberating.  What would you say to LGBT kids living in Mississippi or Kentucky now, who might watch EastSiders and think “That’s the life for me?”

KW: I’m glad that I left but a part of me will always wonder how my life would have turned out if I had stayed. I now know many out, proud LGBT people who live in my home state and I’m absolutely in awe of them. The world is changing, even in Mississippi, and all of the progress we’ve made in the south is thanks to them.

SBJ: I find the road trip arc the most narratively compelling of the entire series, because it is so character driven. In the documentary, though, you talk about the struggles you had shooting the road trip scenes in season three, from homophobia to just simply logistical and financial constraints. Why was it important to you to take these characters out of the city and force them on the road despite how hard it was to film?

I really do want to Make America Gay Again. I was really inspired by the idea of staking a claim to the tradition of the great American road trip movie. If you’ve never driven across the country it’s hard to wrap your head around just how vast it is—this country is almost the same size as Europe, and the culture varies wildly from state to state.

SBJ: Speaking of the road trip, one of my favorite scenes is in episode 3×5, when Thom and Cal are sitting by the campfire. The episode is titled “Our Own Private Idaho,” so I assume you were conscious of My Own Private Idaho as you wrote, blocked, and shot the scene which mimics the famous campfire scene from that film (even down to the conversation Cal and Thom have, which echoes that of River Phoenix’s and Keanu Reeves’ characters in MOPI). How important has gay cinema been to your development as a filmmaker?

KW: I honestly don’t know if I would be here if I hadn’t discovered gay cinema. Representation is transformative, and it gave me the tools to envision a future for myself. It’s also given me a purpose—I hope my work can empower others the way that queer cinema empowered me growing up.

SBJ: One of the most relatable arcs, to me, is the struggles Thom and Cal have as artists—the ups and downs and the side hustles so many of us have. Why did you decide to make Thom, a writer, and Cal, a photographer, both artists?

 KW: Thom and Cal are both observers, struggling to make sense of the world around them as queer artists. This theme is really fully realized in their role in season 4—at this point they’ve worked through most of their issues and are really just debating the future of their relationship. It’s not really a question of if they’ll break up, just what kind of commitment they’re both looking for. And they’re watching the other relationships around them attempt to navigate these questions, just like the audience is. In many ways the final season is a dialectic on love.

SBJ: After three seasons of portraying Ian dating women, in season four starts seeing and fucking men (and we find out he has done so in the past). Why explore Ian’s same-sex attraction now?

KW: This storyline has always been something I’ve been interested in exploring, but I’ll

John Halbach

John Halbach as Ian in EastSiders

be honest that my hand was forced because Brianna Brown got pregnant and asked us to limit her involvement, and ABC wouldn’t release Constance Wu. It’s become a bit of a recurring theme that every season I’ve had to write multiple versions of the script for Ian. I’m really happy with how the storyline came out, and the feedback has been incredible.

SBJ: I want to talk about Quincy’s issues with Douglas and drag. I cheered when Quincy’s mom and later Ian asked him what he expected when he started dating Douglas. What was Quincy expecting his relationship with Douglas to be like, and why was this storyline—about drag and masculinity—important to you?

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Willam Belli as Douglas/Amber Alert in EastSiders

KW: When we first meet Quincy, he’s kind of the headliner of the parties that he throws, but as Douglas starts getting more and more successful as a drag queen Quincy gets relegated to booking his gigs. By season 4, he’s basically there to hold Amber Alert’s purse, and that’s hard for him. He and Douglas are also pretty different in that Quincy loves to play dress up in certain contexts, but also wants to put on boy drag and take pictures for Facebook. They fought about this as early as season 2, when Douglas wants to wear a dress to Cal’s gallery opening because he has a gig afterwards. I really wanted to explore something a little bit more complex than the typical “masc for masc” story, where the waters are muddy. Nobody would accuse Quincy of being a self-hating dude bro, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t worried what his mother might think about him getting married to a drag queen. We didn’t ask to be burdened with these kinds of insecurities as queer people—they were battered into us by society as kids. I wanted to examine the different ways people process with and work through those insecurities.

SBJ: One of the prevailing themes of the series is monogamy vs open relationships. Obviously one of the central struggles of the show is Thom and Cal learning to navigate an open relationship, but there’s less discussion (nuanced or explicit) about the pros and cons of monogamy. (We get a little of it with Derek and Jeremy in season four with regards to marriage and children.) Why was it important to you to show an open relationship, and is it a more realistic approach for modern couples?

KW: I think monogamy, even in queer relationships, is usually assumed to be the default, complete with all of the baggage of heteronormativity. Cal and Thom’s entire arc in season 1 is about them attempting to force themselves into a mold that they don’t fit. Jeremy and Derrick are kind of the opposite; their dynamic isn’t working, but it has nothing to do with either of them wanting to sleep with other people. I wanted to represent as many different kinds of queer relationships as I could to show that there is no one “correct” way to be in love.

SBJ: Jeremy and Derek have the most traditional love story of anyone on the show, ending up with the lovely home and even a child. In hindsight, it was clear from season one that Jeremy wanted just that. Is this sort of modern, urban love story—lonely gay guy falls in love with the handsome doctor, adopts a child, and lives happily ever after—a fairytale or do you think it can really happen?

KW: I loved subverting the idea of “the other woman” with Jeremy. Kathy even calls him “Jezebel” in season one. So having him end up in the most traditional partnership was a

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Matthew McKelligon as Jeremy and Scout Burke as Sam in EastSiders

fun arc to navigate. That said, I don’t think their story is a fairytale—they were on the verge of breaking up before the adoption went through, and like all the characters, they still have a lot of things to work through if they’re going to be happy. Otherwise Jeremy’s fear that he’s become a “Big Little Lies” wife just might become his reality.

SBJ: In season one and two, Cal is reluctant and uncomfortable opening the relationship, but by the end of season four it seems Thom’s the one having doubts about the arrangement. I never really believed that Cal was completely comfortable with it, though. Was he?

KW: I think Thom finally gets a taste of his own medicine in season 4—the problem for both of them isn’t really sleeping with other people, is poor communication and callous disregard for the other person’s feelings. When Cal throws up his hands and starts behaving like Thom, I think it teaches Thom how his selfishness has hurt his partner through the years. Everyone’s a little bit selfish—we’re all human—but you always have to consider your partner’s needs.

SBJ: One of the most interesting and frustrating moments of season four was, for me, when Cal wants to “make love” and Thom invites Jared over. I just wanted to shout at Thom “not now!” Thom is almost preternaturally incapable of reading Cal’s emotions or figuring out his needs. Do you think they were, as Thom later said to Cal, just “fuckbuddies” by that point, or was there still love there?

KW: I think people have an incredible ability to justify bad behavior, especially when they’re holding onto grievances. Thom was jealous that Cal got to act out a sexual fantasy on the day he was flying back from NY, and decided that meant he got to act however he wanted—but he’s not reading the room, and he misses a real opportunity for them to reconnect and work through their feelings. This really puts them both into a place where they aren’t communicating, and they don’t really hash things out until the second to last episode. I think they’re avoiding the subject because they love each other—we often avoid dealing with the real shit because we’re afraid of hurting the people we care about and end up accidentally hurting them as a result.

SBJ: The contradictions in Cal are really fascinating to me, especially this season. He was pissed when Thom hooked up with Clifford in New York but ends up doing the same thing with Logan a year or so later in almost a perfect role reversal. He says he doesn’t believe in marriage yet craves intimacy and commitment in a way Thom almost seems incapable of giving him. Both Thom and Cal are very complex characters and very well written. I guess my question here is can you explain to me where you think these contradictions arise from (if you even agree they’re contradictions), and why it was so important to show such layered and flawed characters?

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Jake Choi as Clifford and Van Hansis as Thom in EastSiders


KW: I think it’s important to take into account how much has happened between Thom/Clifford and Cal/Logan. Basically their “rules” have eroded so much that they’re almost nonexistent, so there’s no betrayal there—but Cal should obviously have considered how Thom would feel to come home and find him with another guy. Both Thom and Cal’s journey is really about them figuring out exactly how they feel about all of these issues—it’s possible to want opposite things at the same time, and that’s a tricky thing to navigate.

SBJ: I feel like I’ve bashed Thom a lot here, but I found him extremely compelling (and Van Hansis is just a phenomenal actor). Why didn’t we explore more of Thom’s backstory to discover what it was that made him so broken?

We hint at it a lot in season 3, in his scenes with Arlen the drifter in episode 3×02 and the campfire scene in episode 3×05. They connect in part because they’re broken in the same way. We don’t see a lot of Thom’s relationship with his family because he doesn’t really have a relationship with his family; the absence of those characters is intentional. That’s made him really self-protective, and there’s a fine line between self-protective and self-centered.

SBJ: Has Kathy seen the new Cats film and, if so, what did she think of it?

KW: She fucking loved it. And honestly, she could’ve saved that movie.

SBJ: What was your favorite or most memorable moment on set?

KW: The wedding was really magical; we had 100 kickstarter backers on set as extras and it was such an amazing full circle moment getting to meet these people who helped make the show exist.

SBJ: What’s next from Kit Williamson?

KW: Stay tuned! I have a movie and a new series in development that I can hopefully talk about soon. Mostly I just want to keep telling queer stories.

SBJ: Despite their love, Thom and Cal really have a knack for hurting one another. Do you think these crazy kids make it?

KW: It’s not about the destination, it’s the journey. They’ve loved each other through thick and thin for 7 years—to me, no matter what happens next, they’ve already “made it.”

EastSiders is streaming now on Netflix

Skylar Baker-Jordan has been writing about UK and US politics for more than a decade. His work as appeared at The Independent, Salon, Huff Post UK, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter or become a supporter by contributing to his Patreon account.

Pete Buttigieg, Hillary Clinton, and who gets to show emotion in American politics

Last night the New York Times editorial board endorsed Senator Amy Klobuchar and/or Senator Elizabeth Warren for the Democratic nomination. Leaving aside the arguments for and against each of these candidates as well as the arguments over whether endorsing two candidates makes sense (I think it does), I want to—quelle surprise—talk about Pete Buttigieg. Chiefly, I want to talk about Mayor Pete, emotiveness, and who gets to be expressive in American politics and culture.

First, let’s get something out of the way. I am supporting Pete Buttigieg for president. I think the New York Times’ interview was at times very unfair to him, especially Binyamin Appelbaum’s outright lies about his time as a consultant for McKinsey. I am not happy with the Times’ endorsement, though I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Mayor Pete was the fourth-place pick of the editorial board (behind Warren, Klobuchar, and erstwhile candidate Senator Cory Booker).

With that said, there was an exchange that I think is worth discussing in a bit more detail than I’ve seen discussed elsewhere. In response to Appelbaum asking whether he feels the same anger a lot of young people feel about the state of the country, Mayor Pete answered that “while I may not be as emotive sometimes about my sense of anger or frustration or injustice – and I would argue that some people are given more room to be emotive than others – I would not be doing any of this if I were not propelled by a level of passion.” While debating the pros and cons of each candidate (as shown on The Weekly), Michelle Cottle complained that “Pete talking about how he doesn’t emote as much as some, that’s a real problem. I mean voters love that ‘I feel your pain’ stuff,” prompting Lauren Kelley to rightly point out “he also almost surely would be painted in some unfair way if the gay man on the trail was overly emotional, right? I mean, it’s a bind.”

Indeed, it is a bind – one in which many gay men have found themselves. I don’t know if Pete Buttigieg meant to imply that others have more leeway to be emotive because he’s gay or not (he never expressly says), and I understand the point Cottle was making. Voters really do love a passionate, emotive candidate – think Bill Clinton, think Bernie Sanders, think Donald Trump – though Barack Obama showed that sometimes cool-as-a-cucumber works, too.  But Kelley raises a point that I think is important to make, if not about Mayor Pete specifically, about politics and business in general. Who gets to be emotive, and who gets dismissed when they’re emotive, is something worth discussing.

Gay men have long been portrayed as flamboyant and dramatic, from Nathan Lane’s character in The Birdcage to Jack McFarlane in Will and Grace right on up to Cam on Modern Family. There’s nothing wrong with being flamboyant and dramatic—lots of gay men (myself included, frankly) are, just as lots of all sorts of people are. For a long time, though, the stock character of the gay “drama queen” was the predominant depiction of gay men in pop culture, and that image has become a stereotype of gay men in general. The problem arises not because some gay men are dramatic, emotional, emotive, or flamboyant, but because the straight world assumes that when a gay man is dramatic, emotional, emotive, or flamboyant it is because he is gay and that is, inherently, a bad thing.

As I said above, I’m an expressive and sometimes flamboyant gay man. I’ve never felt any shame in this. One of my nicknames among my friends in high school—given in good nature— was “Bitchy Diva Queen.” (The other was “Zazu,” because I always knew the gossip.) The nickname itself didn’t bother me. The way my emotions were often dismissed because of it, though, did. I developed a thick skin back then—you had to as an openly gay boy in a southeastern Kentucky high school in the early 00s—but when something really did upset me, such as sophomore year, when a group of bullies apparently planned to attack me, my genuine fear, anger, or hurt was dismissed as being “overly dramatic” by my friends, my classmates, and even the administration.

This attitude followed me into adulthood. I was heavily involved in student government during college. During one contentious meeting at a retreat, frustrated, I got up to go smoke (a filthy habit, I know). This was allowed considering how long the meeting was going; people were taking breaks as needed. I walked quickly and with purpose (as I always do, a product of trying to make it from one class to the next without getting attacked in high school), hurrying outside to light a cigarette. The next thing I know the student body president—my boss, as her chief of staff— is outside chastising me for “storming out.” When I tried to explain that I simply needed a cigarette, she wouldn’t hear it, dressing me down for being so dramatic.

Even into the professional world, even in a big blue dot like Chicago, this attitude has prevailed. When I was in meetings with management at the corporate headquarters of a large American mortgage company, I often felt dismissed if I showed even a hint of emotion. One well-meaning boss, who herself could often be heard cussing and screaming from her desk, suggested that I “tone it down” a bit. Another not well-meaning—and to no one’s surprise, male—boss told me to “stop being a diva and stop complaining,” even though I was one of several employees—though the only gay man—raising concerns that day.

Learning to keep cool is an important skill for anyone of any background, because sometimes you can’t just fly off the handle—and sometimes you won’t want to. I’ll be the first to admit there have been times that I have let my emotions get the better of me, when people had every right to pull me aside and tell me to chill out. I think that’s happened to most of us. For many years, this was compounded by an undiagnosed anxiety disorder which I only discovered I had in my late twenties. But time and again, people have somehow linked my emotiveness with my sexuality, othering me in the process.

This is why it matters who gets to be emotive and who does not. Hillary Clinton famously had a similar problem in 2008, when she was first accused of being cold and unfeeling. When she did show emotion at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, she was pilloried for it. “ A common first instinct was to treat the episode as a ploy, a calculated effort to ‘humanize’ the candidate—an interpretation that depended heavily on its having been somehow staged or faked,” Hendrik Hertzberg wrote at the time in The New Yorker, “but the authenticity of Clinton’s emotion was apparent to anyone who took the time to study the many replays with an open mind…”

Hillary Clinton herself has addressed this double standard several times. In 2016, she told the viral photography project Humans of New York she “had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.” In her 2017 memoir What Happened, she rightly called this “another variant on the impossible balancing act” women must perform in order to show enough emotion to be quote-unquote likable while not showing so much that they’re thought of as quote-unquote shrill or overwrought. “If we’re too composed, we’re cold or fake. But if we say what we think without caution, we get slammed for it,” she writes. “Can you blame us for feeling like we can’t win, no matter what we do?”

I suspect the similar double standard experienced by Hillary Clinton and—it must be said, to a lesser degree—Pete Buttigieg is rooted in the same patriarchal, misogynist notions about how women and gay men behave. It’s why when a straight man gets angry, he’s “passionate,” when a gay man gets angry, he’s “dramatic,” and when a woman gets angry, she’s “hysterical.” This is further compounded by race, with tropes such as the “angry black woman” making it even more difficult for Black women specifically, and women of colour more generally, to be allowed space to have and show emotions without ridicule or prejudice. Black men, too, are often viewed as angry or violet where white men aren’t, as a 2017 American Psychological Association study reveals.

Homophobic, sexist, and racist double standards influence how we perceive people’s emotions and emotiveness. Mayor Pete never says why he can’t be as emotive as others, nor does he say who gets to be more emotive than he does. Zooming out from him and looking at the culture more broadly, though, it’s clear that in America, not everyone is equally free to express themselves. So long as stereotypes and double standards continue to affect who gets to show emotion and how that emotion is perceived, we should all remember that sometimes a candidate is guarded not because they aren’t passionate, but because they aren’t allowed to be.

Skylar Baker-Jordan has been writing about UK and US politics for more than a decade. His work as appeared at The Independent, Salon, Huff Post UK, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee. Follow him on Twitter or become a supporter by contributing to his Patreon account.

On Pete Buttigieg, my Independent column, and whether I hate myself for being gay (spoiler: I do not)

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The author, centre, participating in a gay rights march in Lakeview, Chicago, in 2013. Photo: Brittany Sowacke/Redeye

On Friday, the Independent published an think piece I wrote entitled “If one more polyamorous coastal ‘queer’ tells me Pete Buttigieg isn’t gay enough, I’ll scream. He is – and so am I.” This article was in response to a few different “Pete’s the wrong kind of gay” articles I’ve seen over the past year, but the one that I used as my news hook was the most recent, by Buzzfeed’s Shannon Keating. I took issue with her views on Mayor Pete being an insufficient representation of the “queer” community, implying that “orgy attending, polyamorous Brooklyn bottom queens” (her words) are somehow more radical or more appropriate representations of the LGBT people than a boring old cis gay man like Mayor Pete.

The response has been largely positive. There are a lot of people out there who were clearly hungry for someone to state the obvious—that there is no right or wrong way to be gay, that being a “queer” doesn’t make you better than someone who just identifies as “gay,” and that Mayor Pete is and always has been gay enough.

Others disagreed. Some did so in good faith, and I had some respectful debates and constructive conversations both publicly on social media and in DMs. Others were cruel, telling me to throw myself off a freeway overpass or hoping I choke to death. Somewhere in between there lies the people I’m going to address in this blog—the people who decided that because I’m sick and tired of a certain subset of the LGBT community deciding who is and isn’t sufficiently “queer” I must be a self-loathing gay man with oodles of internalised homophobia.

Before we get to that, though, I want to make explicit what this blog isn’t going to address. I am not going to discuss Pete Buttigieg’s politics or policies. They are worth debating, but another day. I am not going to offer a treatise on the word “queer” and my thoughts on it. Again, that’s worth discussing, but this is not the time. And I am not going to call anyone out by name, as that would serve no real purpose.

I do want to briefly discuss a few points—and when I say briefly, I do mean briefly, because it is Sunday and I have zero desire to litigate these ad nauseum again—which have been brought up over the past 48 hours.

  • Am I a self-hating queer with internalised homophobia? To begin with, I don’t identify as queer, I identify as gay. That is important to me, because I have spent most of my life fighting to live openly and proudly and without fear as a gay man. I came out at 15, in 2001, which means I have spent more of my life out of the closet than in the closet. I experienced a crucible of homophobia every single day of high school, being called “faggot,” “fudgepacker,” “homo,” and, yes, “queer.” Far from internalising that homophobia, I rejected it and toxic masculinity to became even more unabashedly myself.
  • You criticised people for being too gay. No one can be “too gay,” because the only requirement for being gay is same-sex attraction. But if we’re talking about being camp, well, I have long worn makeup, had long hair—I went through an unfortunate phase where I thought teasing it was a good idea (“higher the hair, the closer to God”)—and have even been known to squeeze my ass into some women’s capris or baby tees because why the fuck not, they’re cute. I will rock out to some Cheryl or Kelly Clarkson or Steps. I have no problem living my authentic self and camping it up.
  • You hate queer culture. Do I enjoy all aspects of “queer culture?” No. I’m not a big fan of nightclubs in general, and no, I have never been in an orgy (though I’m not sure that is really a unique part of queer culture as straights can do this too). I don’t watch RuPaul’s Drag Race (though I have, and I enjoyed it) and I’ve not seen the reboot of Queer Eye. I prefer country to techno. I am at best a casual fan of Carly Rae Jepsen. These are all superficial markers of what it means to be gay, though, and if this is what the people who have said I hate “queer culture” means, well, I don’t hate it, but it’s not my cup of tea. I’m still hella gay, because I sleep with men. That’s it. That’s the only reason.
  • You used homophobic language. I didn’t. I was riffing off Shannon Keating’s own language, specifically the part where she refers to “typical orgy-attending, polyamorous Brooklyn bottom queens.” It is interesting that no one took exception to a woman (I assume a “queer” woman, but I don’t know that) using this language, but when a gay man snarkily uses nearly similar language to counter the notion that these people are somehow the moral or political arbiters of gayness—no one is, not them, not me, not even Sir Ian McKellan—I am pilloried. I find many (not all, and maybe not even most) people who made this comment read my article in bad faith and used it to make a political point or discredit me without engaging in my broader point, which is that no one gets to decide who is and isn’t doing homosexuality right.
  • You are insulting anyone who isn’t gay like you. That was not my intention, and I’m sorry if it came across that way. I could have made clearer I was sarcastically using Keating’s own language in my article. I accept that point. But let me make it clear that no one should judge anyone for their lifestyle, presuming they’re not hurting anyone else. Identify how you want, live how you want, sleep with who you want, and snort what you want. I don’t care. Just don’t think any of those things make you a better gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person who doesn’t.
  • You don’t represent queer politics. This is true. I do not represent queer politics. I do not wish to represent queer politics. I think if you asked 30 different people what queer politics are, you’d get at least 15 different answers. I represent me, and my body of work speaks for itself. You are more than welcome to read it here at this website or at Muckrack, where my portfolio goes back several years.
  • You’re not radical enough. I’m a socialist. I want nationalised healthcare free at the point of access (not just “Medicare for All”). I want open borders. I want to nationalise utilities and end the fossil fuel industry. I want every American woman to be able to get an abortion if they want. I want to completely restructure the racist institution of policing if not abolish it and start from scratch. I have been championing these issues for years now. I also want to get married, maybe have kids, and live a quiet life with my family and my writing. I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive. If you do, that’s your problem, not mine.

This is by no means an exhaustive or all-encapsulating list, nor is it everything I want to say on the subject or think about certain issues. But it’s enough for now. I will start referring anyone who calls me self-loathing, or accuses me of having internalized homophobia, to this blog. Because here’s the thing, folks—by assuming that I’m self-hating because I wrote one piece in which I told you to stop telling people they’re not gay enough, you’re proving my point. Not every gay man likes the same things you do. That doesn’t mean they’re not properly gay.

Pete Buttigieg and the Equality Town Hall show how far we’ve come in the fight for LGBT rights

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Pete Buttigieg and Anderson Cooper shake hands at CNN’s Equality Town Hall on 10 October 2019. Photo: The Advocate/GETTY IMAGES

I went to the courthouse for my 18th birthday. Full of excitement and the promise of America, I proudly filled out my first voter registration card, marking “D” for Democrat. It was 2004, and as a young, openly gay American, I was ready to cast my ballot against the homophobic policies of George W Bush.

That didn’t happen. Instead, Bush coasted to re-election using lesbian and gay Americans as a wedge issue. Campaigning on a platform which included amending the US Constitution to explicitly prohibit same-sex marriage, Bush was aided by equally odious state amendments which drove evangelicals to the polls in record numbers.

In Kentucky, where I lived at the time, I spent the summer and fall of that year knocking on doors, introducing myself as a gay man. It was a daunting task, but one I felt obligated to undertake. My community was under attack, and I was compelled to defend it.

During those long afternoons walking the streets of Bowling Green, I had many people tell me they opposed my equality. Some asked me to repent my sins. Still others slammed doors in my face. There were the occasional supporters, and I even happened to knock on the door of an older gay couple. Mostly, though, I was met with unabashed homophobia.

Fifteen years later, it’s hard to remember specific conversations. One, though, has always stuck with me. She was, she told me, a mother with a son not much older than me. Perhaps because of that she engaged me for longer than most people cared to. She would be voting for the amendment, she told me in the most apologetic tone, but she hoped it wouldn’t discourage me. “You’re going to win,” she said. “I see it with my son. Your side won’t win this year, but it will eventually.”

I thought about that woman last night as I watched the CNN Equality Town Hall, a forum in which Democratic presidential candidates answered questions from the LGBT community about issues that affect us. There were many moving moments, but none stood out to me more than when Pete Buttigieg spoke about struggling to come out as gay: “What it was like was a civil war, because I knew I was different long before I was ready to say that I was gay, and long before I was able to acknowledge that was something that I didn’t have power over.”

That moment was a watershed moment in LGBT and American history. On national television, an openly gay presidential candidate stood with one of the evening’s two openly gay moderators—both among the nation’s most respected journalists—and told the country what it was like to struggle with your sexuality. Simply put, that has never happened before.

Today is the annual Coming Out Day. Around the world, LGBT people are discussing what it means to finally kick open the closet door and be your authentic self. Some are taking the opportunity to actually do it. Last night, all those people—whether out and proud for decades or just peeking out the door—got to see a viable candidate for US President tell us his story.

It’s easy to dismiss how historic this moment is. Marriage equality is the law of the land, and LGBT people are more mainstream and visible than ever. We’ve come a long way in a very short amount of time.

Because of this, many people—even within the LGBT community—want to downplay, or do not see, how important last night was. Protestors advocating for more action to curb violence against transgender women of colour interrupted as Mayor Pete was being introduced. Later, he was asked whether he is “gay enough” to advocate for our community, as though there is any litmus test beyond being exclusively attracted to the same sex. “When somebody is weighing whether to come out or just come to terms with who they are, it’s really important for them to know that they’re going to be accepted,” he answered. “There is no right or wrong way to be gay, to be queer, to be trans.”

Ending violence against trans women and discussions of diversity within our community are important. However, we should pause to reflect on just how much we’ve accomplished. An LGBT person asking an openly gay candidate for president whether he’s gay enough to represent our community is a stark contrast to where we were just four presidential elections ago. Let’s take a moment to savour that.

Mayor Pete might not win the presidency, but it doesn’t matter. He has already made history. His candidacy, and the forum we had last night, is a testament to the progress we have made in the fight for equality for all Americans. Thinking back to that woman on the doorstep all those years ago, I don’t know if we can claim victory yet, but last night, it sure felt like we were winning.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a writer based in North Carolina. He has previously written for The Independent, Salon, The Daily Dot, and more.

My Dale Peck Problem

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Mayor Pete Buttigieg and his husband, Chasten Buttigieg. Photo: Michael Conroy/AP Images/Business Insider

I’ve had a few days to reflect on Dale Peck’s infamous piece for The New Republic. Bowing to pressure, the website deleted the article, but the internet is forever and you can read it here. Peck spends a full third of the piece speculating on Pete Buttigieg’s sexual role and says, in short, he is unfit for office because he’s going to be a randy old git once he gets to the White House. It was inappropriate, at best, and homophobic, at worst.

The article opens with an asinine and, frankly, pointless anecdote about a run-in with a stalkerish twink in 90s Manhattan. It’s only after this trip down memory lane that, whether you agree with them or not, Peck levels fair critiques of Mayor Pete and his policies. It’s after this, though, that we get into the controversial and problematic bits.

Before we talk about them, let’s state the obvious: Dale Peck is gay. I’ve seen people respond to this fact in three unique ways. One is to say it makes his homophobia even worse. Another is to claim it voids any accusations of homophobia. The final is to shrug it off entirely.

I don’t know if Peck being gay makes it any worse, but it doesn’t mean he can’t himself be an Aunt Mary, the gay version of an Uncle Tom and, ironically, what he accuses Pete Buttigieg of being. And it certainly matters that Dale Peck is gay. Because, whether we want to admit it or not, Dale Peck just spoke to America the way a great many gay men speak to one another, about men generally and about Pete Buttigieg specifically.

Mayor Pete’s historic run for the White House has, undoubtedly, inspired a great many gay men—myself included. I watched his announcement in South Bend and had tears in my eyes. As a gay man, only slightly younger than Mayor Pete, raised in a neighbouring state, I saw in him a lot of my hopes and dreams. The thought of the first couple, Pete and his darling husband, Chasten, moving into the White House, and them possibly adopting children while there, of the world seeing a loving gay couple represent the free world, was and is deeply moving in a way I cannot fully explain.

So a lot of gay people are extremely protective of Mayor Pete (and, by extension, Chasten), some of us so even as we are concerned with his politics. Reading Peck’s column, I found myself nodding along in parts. For the past 30 years gay men, and Americans in general, have been failed by the neoliberal policies of Pete Buttigieg and many of the Democratic candidates. There are concerns about his response to police brutality. There are concerns about his devotion to capitalism. There are concerns about his foreign policy (and lack of any true experience with foreign policy). All of these are fair critiques of Mayor Pete, and had Peck stuck with policy, I wouldn’t be writing this now.

Instead, Peck made it personal. The line that has gotten Peck in the most trouble is about whether Pete Buttigieg is a top or a bottom (and honestly, if I have to explain to you what that means, you’re reading the wrong blog):

The only thing that distinguishes the mayor of South Bend from all those other well-educated reasonably intelligent white dudes who wanna be president is what he does with his dick (and possibly his ass, although I get a definite top-by-default vibe from him, which is to say that I bet he thinks about getting fucked but he’s too uptight to do it)

Yikes. That’s bad. Other than President Clinton, I can’t think of another time there’s been this kind of graphic speculation about a president or presidential candidate’s sex life in a mainstream national publication. There is a reason for that: it is entirely inappropriate.

That doesn’t mean curious minds don’t want to know. Peck’s musings on whether Mayor Pete is a top or a bottom is something many, many gay men across this nation have wondered privately. The topic has undoubtedly come up from West Hollywood to Chelsea, Boystown to Little Montrose. I should know; I’ve had this discussion with gay friends myself.

But the key word, here, is privately. The discussions gay men have over thumping music in gay clubs or at private dinner parties in swanky condos are a far, far cry from the pages of a national magazine. Many gay men understand, as Peck clearly doesn’t, that some things we talk about amongst ourselves should perhaps not be discussed outside the community—and certainly not publicly.

It is also important to note that when most gay men discuss these things with their gay friends, it isn’t done maliciously. We’re not trying to weaponize gay sex against Mayor Pete. We’re not trying to be salacious for clicks or put in the forefront of the American consciousness what Pete Buttigieg does in the bedroom when what Americans ought to be concerned with is what he’s going to do in the Oval Office.

Are we being catty? Perhaps. Are we being crass? Yes. Are we being homophobic? No.

To me, though, that isn’t even the worst thing Peck said or did. Speculating on the sex life of a presidential candidate is sophomoric and tasteless, but the implication that a gay president wouldn’t be able to keep his dick in his pants is straight-up homophobic. Peck mentions the noted phenomenon of gay men going through a sort of “second adolescence” once they final come out. I’m going to level with you, I don’t know if there is any sociological or psychological evidence to back this up, but it is certainly a truism in much of the gay community—mostly older gays.

But it is not a truism to me.

Mayor Pete did not publicly come out until a few years ago. Relatively soon after coming out, he married Chasten. He hasn’t dated anyone else publicly. All of this, to Peck, is deeply suspect.

Is Chasten his first love, as Peck suggests? I don’t know, because I don’t know Mayor Pete. We’re not besties. We’ve never even met. Was he out to family or friends before 2015? I don’t know. Maybe. Did he date before that? I don’t know. Nor do I care.

And I think, here, we come to a great generational divide. I am 33, only a few years younger than Mayor Pete. I came out in 2001, when I was 15. My gay adolescence was my adolescence. To put that in perspective, I have now been openly gay for more of my life than I was in the closet. A lot of gay men Peck’s age couldn’t say that until they were in their 40s or 50s.

When I came out all those years ago, gay marriage was not legal in any state. But I still saw myself growing up, marrying a man, settling down, and having kids. That was what I wanted. Sleeping my way from coast to coast did not factor into my life plans. I came out after Ellen, after Will & Grace, while Queer as Folk was originally airing. Jack McPhee had a boyfriend on Dawson’s Creek. Bianca Montgomery had a girlfriend on All My Children. Gay was going mainstream, and I benefited from that. As such, my beliefs in what my life could look like were shaped by a burgeoning acceptance.

Peck’s… was not. He came out and came of age at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Homophobia was served carte blanche across this land, even in cities like New York. Gay men, and gay culture, was more subversive and immersive, and the rights of passage he and countless gay men experienced were deeply affecting. “I’m not saying I don’t want him to shave his chest or do Molly or try being the lucky Pierre… [t]these are rights of passage for a lot of gay men, and it fuels many aspects of gay culture,” Peck writes.

Except, it doesn’t anymore, at least not for many, many of us. I don’t even know what a lucky Pierre is, and frankly I’m kind of nervous to google it on a work laptop. For a great many gay men, our rights of passage include our first kiss. Our first date. Our first marriage. It doesn’t include tricking our way from Chicago to New York and leafletting in Times Square before partying at Fire Island.

There’s nothing wrong with leafletting or Fire Island. But it isn’t the only way to be gay. As I said, I don’t know what Mayor Pete’s story is. Maybe Chasten is his first love. Maybe he really wasn’t out before 2015. So what? The times have changed. Gays have been domesticated.

In fact, domesticated gays have always existed, living quiet lives in little houses with cute gardens in places like Knoxville and Spokane and, yes, South Bend. They’ve never been to a circuit party. They’ve never snorted cocaine off the belly of a go-go dancer. They’ve never had sex in a port-o-potty at Pride. And that’s just fine!

Just because Mayor Pete came out and married in his 30s doesn’t mean he’s missed out on anything. Not all of us feel like we have. I know that I have 14 years as an out gay man on him, but I see nothing in Mayor Pete that tells me he’s about to have a “gay adolescence” or, what we’d be calling it he were a straight man, a midlife crisis. That stereotype is reductive, it is harmful, and it is wrong.

There is this notion among some in the gay community that if you are not a political gay, you are not a proper gay. By political gay I don’t mean a gay politician—which Mayor Pete is—but rather a gay rights activist who is pounding the pavement and making sure everyone knows being gay is still goddamn hard and a fireable offence in many states. These types of gays are vital to the community, and I count myself as one of them. I am gay before I am just about anything else.

But there is, and long has been, another type of gay man. This type of gay man lives in the heartland, or at least outside major urban centres, and goes to work every day. He’s a cornfed, all-American boy, who marries the boy next door and raises his little dogs and hopes to one day start a family. Maybe he served in the armed forces. Maybe he went to college to study accountancy. He might go to the gay bar, but only if it doesn’t conflict with a family barbecue. He is the majority of gay Americans.

It’s what we ought to want. We didn’t fight for 50 years so that gay men can’t live happy, settled lives. That was the point. You can argue about whether it’s too heteronormative, about whether we’re losing community as a result of assimilation into straight society, about whether this is really liberationist. But at the end of the day we fought for gay men to live their truths out loud, and for a great many of us, that truth is personified by Pete and Chasten Buttigieg. If they’re not a testament to our achievements, I don’t know what is.

The gay community must do more to protect young gay boys from sexual exploitation

 

Earlier this month, news broke that Ralph Shortey, a Republican Oklahoma state senator and prominent Donald Trump supporter was charged with engaging in child prostitution for soliciting sex from an underage boy on Instagram and Kik, social media apps popular with teenagers. Shortey was found with the boy (whose name is withheld for privacy) in a motel.

There are plenty of cases in Britain of boys being sexually exploited.. 2014 murder of Breck Bednar, a 14-year-old boy from Essex who was groomed by a 19-year-old man before being killed in a “sadistic and sexual” act of violence stunned the nation.  British boys as young as 10 were the victims of a prolific Canadian paedophile who used the internet to prey on boys around the world. And earlier this year, Colin Gregg – the heir to the Greggs bakery fortune – was alleged to have molested four boys over the period of three decades.

These cases are not isolated incidents. A 2014 study funded by the Nuffield Foundation and conducted by NatCen and the University College London found that 1 in 3 exploited children supported by the children’s charity Barnardo’s is a young man, a startling statistic that shows boys and young men are far more vulnerable to exploitation than many would think. “Society is miserably and unacceptably failing sexually exploited boys and young men,” Javed Khan, the chief executive of Barnardo’s, told the BBC at the time. “The telltale signs are being missed because of a lack of awareness and stereotypes about the nature of this form of abuse.”

We don’t frequently think of boys as being sexually exploited, in part because girls are viewed as so much more vulnerable and in part because boys are often so reluctant to come forward, fearing that doing so will make them appear weak or emasculated. Yet boys and young men, particularly young gay and bisexual men, are often the targets of sexual predation. SaferKids, an app which notifies parents if their children download one of thousands of apps where they could fall victim to sexual predators, over a dozen examples of children being sexually exploited by men they met on Grindr alone.

This isn’t to say that this is solely an issue effecting gay and bisexual boys and young men, nor is it to imply that perpetrators are often gay and bisexual men. All boys and young men, regardless of sexual orientation, are vulnerable – and sexual orientation does not a predator make. A 2014 report by the West Sussex County Council actually shows that the majority of the boys who sought help from Yorkshire MESMAC’s BLAST programme identified as straight. (Yorkshire MESMAC  is “one of the oldest and largest sexual health organisations “in the UK, and their BLAST programme works specifically with boys who are victims of or vulnerable to sexual exploitation.)

“It’s not someone’s sexual orientation that puts them at risk,” the report reads. “It’s their circumstances, the situation they’re in and their beliefs.” A teenage boy who seeks a boyfriend his own age is much less likely to be exploited than a boy who seeks an older woman for sex. But, the report adds, “gay and bisexual young people and those questioning their sexual orientation may be particularly vulnerable to being sexually exploited if parents do not support them, and if schools do not provide adequate information and support that is relevant to them.”

We can’t even get LGBT-inclusive sex and relationship educated mandated in British schools, and LGBT young people represent up to 24% of the British homeless population – a startlingly disproportionate share when compared to the overall demographics, and evidence that many kids still face rejection at home. Homeless boys are more likely to be exploited for sex or prostitution, but even those kids who aren’t kicked out of their homes are likely to turn to apps such as Grindr, Scruff, and Recon to connect with other gay men.

This is normal and fine. When I was a gay teen coming of age in a small Kentucky town, chat rooms were my only opportunity to talk with other gay people. The problem with Grindr, Scruff, and Recon is that they are apps tailored specifically to hook gay men up with sex – a perfectly acceptable purpose but not one that should include minor children.

Grindr was sued because of the lack of age verification, but a court found that it wasn’t liable. Likewise, Tinder also has no real age verification. This means that the onus is on individual users to verify the age of any potential sexual partners – and that doesn’t always stop the sexual exploitation of boys and young men, regardless of sexual orientation.

While there are no easy answers to end the exploitation of boys and young men, there are a few things that can be done to help prevent children from being victimised. Schools need to include LGBT people in sexual and relationship education, but they also need to do a better job of teaching boys about the dangers of grooming (particularly online) and that they, too, can be sexually exploited. We need to eliminate the stigma around being a male victim, which includes combatting the notions that sleeping with someone older is “cool” and that being abused is emasculating or in any way the victim’s fault.

We need more support services for boys and young men who come forward as victims, and we need the police to actually follow up when parents lodge a complaint that their child is being groomed. The parents of Breck Bednar received a payout from the Surrey Police because they “lacked knowledge of dealing with grooming concerns.” Had they known what to do, Breck might still be alive.

In the meantime, the rest of us need to stay vigilant. These are our children, and we have a responsibility to protect them from sexual exploitation. We can no longer fail to spot vulnerable boys on an app for grown men. They don’t belong there.

These boys are our boys. It’s time we protect them.