Tag Archives: lgbt

Words on Walford: Fortnight of 13 – 24 April 2020

Has the pandemic changed the way anyone else watches EastEnders? I used to watch every night, but lately I’ve been saving up four episodes (or what would be a week’s worth in normal times) and binging them at the weekend. In some ways this is nice—Friday night was spent in Walford, for example, and I made an event of it—but then I go two weeks without seeing my favourite show and dodging spoilers, which isn’t easy given how many EastEnders stars and fans I follow on social media.

I touched on the decision to move to two episodes a week in my last blog but didn’t discuss it in depth because I didn’t see much point. I still don’t—the producers were left with an impossible choice and are making the best of a bad situation, which I respect—but I do wonder how this change will affect future viewing habits. I don’t know if I’ll go back to watching every night or if I’ll continue to binge at the weekend. It might not matter; iPlayer has already revolutionised how we watch tv. Then, it might: will people used to getting only two episodes a week go back to demanding four? After all, our attention spans are getting shorter, not longer. Might two episodes a week be all people want to commit to once our hectic lives resume?

This was certainly seen as a justification for cancelling my favourite American soap opera, All My Children, back in 2011. Executives at ABC didn’t feel people wanted an hour-long drama five days a week anymore. Of course, British soaps are a different beast in so many ways so the analogy is far from perfect, and I don’t think any of the British soaps are in any danger of being cancelled. This is all idle speculation on my part. Still, if and how the pandemic changes our viewing habits will be interesting to see going forward.

Until then, there’s still a lot to unpack from the last fortnight in Albert Square.

From the moment Iqra convinced Ash to go to Vinny’s party, I knew it would be trouble. Nothing good comes from convincing your partner to go to a party they don’t want to attend, especially when it is thrown by a family member. It’s like Iqra has learned nothing from her year in Albert Square.

That party was very confusing to me. At first, I thought it was just a way for Vinny to show Ruby his sick beats. Turns out there were drugs there, though I’m still not entirely sure I understand why. Was Vinny selling the drugs? Were people just doing drugs (as they’re wont to do at a party/rave)? What was Dotty’s role in all this? I freely admit it might just be me who missed these things—the flashing lights and loud music made it difficult for me to follow what was happening, just as it would have in real life (I’m not a nightclub kind of guy). Still, I was left with more questions than answers.

Still, a couple things were clear to me—both regarding the Panesars. One is, as has been hinted before, this is not a family to mess with. So much has happened since last autumn that it’s easy to forget the Panesar brothers first came on the scene by kidnapping Lola in revenge for Ben stealing Kheerat’s car. This is a family of violent gangsters on par with the Mitchells. Now we know they also do, or sell, drugs (again, unclear on what was happening there). We know that they don’t keep this a secret, that it’s a family operation which even Ash was, if not involved with, okay with—she lied to the police and paid off the homophobic guy Vinny (understandably, if not rightfully) beat up with aplomb. I mean, in those moments I saw in Ash Panesar everything Louise Mitchell wishes she was.

So did Iqra, and that is bound to cause problems for the couple going forward. While their row over Ash’s behaviour was resolved with “I love you” this week, it’s clear that the Panesars and their seedy dealings are going to continue to drive a wedge between the couple. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—soap is nothing without conflict—but it does raise some questions in my mind, specifically regarding Ash. It made no sense to me that Ash would suddenly act like a stone-cold thug when that is not what we’ve seen before, and it made even less sense to me that she would subsequently warn Iqra not to make her choose between her and her family. This is a woman who spent years avoiding her family, to the point or changing her name—have they ever addressed why she was Ash Kaur, now Ash Panesar?)—so I felt like I got whiplash watching how quickly her personality changed. Was it the booze? Is something else going on with Ash? I hope the show explains this change soon.

Still, I’m glad to see Iqra and Ash getting screen time. They’re one of my favourite couples, and both Priya Davdra and Gurlaine Kaur Garcha are capable actresses and just a delight to watch. More of them, please.

The other big development to come from this party was Keegan’s arrest. After months of issues with racist coppers, his storyline has finally reached a rapid boil with his arrest in the melee outside. I’ve been very glad to see EastEnders tackling this storyline, and I think they’re handling it very well. Keegan is one of the most interesting characters of the past decade, and Zack Morris is such a talented young actor. I love seeing him front-and-centre where he belongs.

There’s a lot to unpack here, though, and frankly I could write an entire entry on Keegan. So, let’s start with the smallest. That near-riot outside the party escalated very quickly and was very clearly just a plot device to get Keegan arrested. That the police were called I understand—Ruby warned Vinny that Marsha (whom I have never heard of before now but want to know everything about) would call them—but that instead of dispersing the crowd threw bricks at them I don’t get.

Still, as a plot device it worked, and Keegan was arrested for something he didn’t do. Perhaps coincidentally, this all happened because of a party thrown by Vinny, who was the first character to mention to Keegan that the cops were targeting him because of his race. That is clearly what is happening here, even if the police officers themselves don’t seem to think so.

Too often we think of racism as only being outward projections of hate—burning crosses, racial epithets, violent hate crimes, overt discrimination—when in reality it is much deeper and more pernicious. People can be racist in little ways, ways they might not even be aware of. Ever cross the street when you see a Black person walking? Ever make an assumption about someone’s intelligence or education because their name or accent sounds “Black?” Ever hear about a violent crime and assume the perpetrator must be BME? These are just a few examples of subconscious prejudice. We live in a society which teaches us that Black people are danger, or less intelligent, or more prone to violent crime, and even if we don’t want to we internalise those messages.

Denise Fox understands this, which is why she was more sympathetic to Keegan than Jack. It is important that Denise is the one siding with Keegan here, too, because Denise has never been one to let Keegan’s shitty behaviour pass without comment. Keep in mind that in their first meeting Denise slapped Keegan for being a disrespectful brat. Denise now being one of Keegan’s allies—and, I suspect we’ll see, his fiercest—is telling. She understands what he’s going through better than almost anyone else in Walford. She also has, in the eyes of both the audience and her neighbours, moral authority. Denise is unflinchingly fair, so if she says “nah, this is some racist bullshit,” it carries an added weight. I’m not saying it should be this way, mind you; Keegan saying “this is racist” ought to have been enough.

No one wants to admit they might be even a little bit racist, though. Zack Morris himself tweeted earlier this month that “[t]this storyline isn’t about ‘racist police.’ [I]t’s about the unconscious bias that is imbedded within society when it comes to black people.” He’s right, and I think the story is even more interesting and relevant because they are tackling these subconscious biases. It would have been so easy to make these police officers foaming-at-the-mouth racists, but by bringing Jack Branning into it, we’re meant to see how even people we think of as “good guys” can have subconscious prejudice.

Full disclosure: I’ve never liked Jack Branning, even as I love Scott Maslen and the way he plays the role. He’s smug and self-righteous. But most viewers think of him as a “good guy.” His unwillingness to believe Keegan, then, indicates to the audience that even those of us who see ourselves as decent, non-racist people can, in fact, be unaware of our own racial biases. I am very excited to see how this storyline plays out over the coming weeks, especially as Keegan and Denise deal with their white partners’ inability to see their point-of-view, and I continue to commend EastEnders for tackling this important topic with sensitivity and nuance.

This feels like a good place to leave off, even though there is so much else to discuss. I’ll put some of it in my stray observations section, but most of them could do with much more analysis. There was just so much happening in the last fortnight, it is hard to narrow down what to write about in detail. The past four episodes are the best since the 35th anniversary, and everyone at EastEnders should be very proud of the work they’re doing. The show is in rare form, and I cannot wait to see what happens next.

Stray observations: I got a distinct 90s feel from these episodes, with the way that they went from one conversation to another in the Square and the market. I liked it. I really like the sense of community which has returned to the show. Chantelle’s scene with Kheerat in the caff felt forced. I know they’re going to end up having an affair, but I’m not yet convinced. Mikayla coming back was random enough, but for her to now be so upset about the son who tried to kill her (and who she said she never wanted to see again) feels like a heel-turn. She’s Leo’s mum, so I guess no matter what he did she would be sad he died, but Christ alive, this feels contrived. I also feel like Gray and Whitney are destined for an affair. It’s going to happen. Ugh, Whit really does have the worst taste in men. “Ugh, like at what point does Whit decide to become a nun or a political lesbian?” is literally a line from my notes. MORE RUBY PLEASE. Louisa Lytton is so sorely underused. Tiff getting the ring Keanu gave to Louise seems like a bad omen. Tommy’s dyslexia storyline will be interesting, and Davood Ghadami was very good in his scenes with Shay Crotty. Glad Sharon’s going away to see Michelle; her and Phil should not get back together. Where the hell was Bernie in all the Keegan drama? Tiff could have used her best friend and Keegan could have used his sister. Honestly, they need to use Clair Norris a lot more than they do. I feel like Oates and Sen just don’t know what to do with Bernadette, but I love Bernie and want more of her. Did anybody else notice the cups from the caff got a jaunty redesign? Love the Rainie and Stuart scenes. They’re so good together. Ricky Champ and Tanya Franks are so charming and imbue such humanity into two broken characters. It’s a pleasure to see them act together. Jean thinking Daniel was in the box had me howling with laughter!

Scene of the fortnight: Rainie asking Max for a divorce and not knowing Ruby’s name. I know I didn’t talk much about Rainie and Stuart, but they really were a highlight of the week.

Line of the fortnight: “I only blow on my husband’s dice.” – CHANTELLE!

Performance of the fortnight: Zack Morris as Keegan Baker. Just absolutely broke my heart. I love both Zack Morris as an actor and Keegan Baker as a character so, so much.

Character of the fortnight: Ash Kaur Panesar. She really surprised me this week and is clearly more complex (and messed up) than any of us realised. I’m looking forward to learning more about Ash and her crazy family.

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

 

 

How Modern Family changed American television

When Modern Family won the 2010 Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series, I was livid. A derivative show which mashed the mocumentary-style of The Office up with the formulaic family sitcom (a la Everybody Loves Raymond), I couldn’t see how it could it could possibly rank as more “outstanding” than Glee, another nominee in its first season which revolutionized what we thought television could be. Inclusive, ingenious, and in more than one way groundbreaking, Ryan Murphy’s dramedy about a misfit show was far more deserving than yet another show about a (mostly) white upper-middle-class family.

I still think Glee deserved the 2010 Emmy, but having watched Modern Family over the years, my opinion of it as “trite and derivative” has changed. As the sitcom aired its series finale last night, I began to consider its place in the annals of television history. Far from being just another boring sitcom about rich white people, I have come to appreciate that, in its own quiet yet hilarious way, Modern Family helped pave the way for more diverse representations of American families. Indeed, it challenged the notion of what “family” even is in modern America.

Back in 2009, when both Glee and Modern Family debuted, they were notable for including two types of characters up to that point rarely seen in American scripted television: gay me and Latinas. For Glee, this was central to the show’s identity from the very first episode. Inclusion became its raison d’etre. Sometimes that felt heavy-handed, but even when it was more subtle, the writers were loud and proud about their intention to make sure this show represented as many people as possible.

Modern Family took a more subtle, but no less effective, approach. The first episode centers in part around gay couple Mitch and Cam revealing that they have adopted a baby girl from Vietnam. The reveal—in which Cam (played hilariously by Eric Stonestreet) holds up his daughter, Lily, under a spotlight as “Circle of Life” blasts over his home sound system—is both gut-busting hilarious and incredibly moving. It is also very, very camp—a trope the show never shied away from but never exploited.

Herein lies the beauty of Modern Family. Mitch and Cam are not the sanitized Jack McPhees of Dawson’s Creek nor the one-dimensional stock character of Will & Grace’s Jack McFarland. These characters are gay—they’re written with gay sensibility, they have mostly other gay friends, their cultural references are familiar to any gay man (even if they aren’t always familiar to straight audiences)—but they aren’t defined exclusively by their sexuality. Like many real gay men, they both embrace some things which would be considered “stereotypical” (a love of show tunes, matching silk robes, Cam’s flair for the dramatic) but also defy them (Cam is an ex-football player and current coach; Mitch has a dry wit and low tolerance for tomfoolery).

The show was perhaps less successful in avoiding stereotypes with Gloria (Sofia Vergara), the beautiful Latina and second wife of Pritchard family patriarch Jay (Ed O’Neill). Many jokes in the early years revolved around the other, white characters’ inability to understand her accent, her supposed criminal past in Columbia, and relied on objectifying her in some ways which, only a decade later, feel incredibly sexist and dated. Yet Gloria was mostly treated by the writers and therefore the other characters as an integral part of the family. When she was portrayed as an outsider, it was usually alongside Cam and Phil (Ty Burrell), the other characters who had married into the family.

She, too, developed into a more complex and interesting character than the stock character of the fiery Latina she might have been in less able hands. Because of this, Modern Family was able to explore the immigrant experience with compassion and heart, even as immigrants were being vilified by politicians and even the President.

What truly made Mitch, Cam, and Gloria—and by extension, Modern Family—so revolutionary, though, was that they were loved and accepted by their immediate relatives. That dynamic—an extended, blended family consisting of characters diverse both in demographics and personality—was as central to the show as inclusion was to Glee, and it is arguably just as important. It’s hard to quantify just what impact these characters had on American society, but as The Atlantic reported in 2015, some people who previously opposed gay marriage attributed their change of heart to Mitch and Cam.

In that way, at least, the Pritchetts and the Dunphys have left an indelible mark on American society.  They loved one another as much as any family. The show wasn’t always the most innovative, but it was warm, cozy, and often funny, like that Christmas sweater your grandmother knitted you which you pretend to sneer at but secretly wear when the winter is just a little too dark and cold.

The series finale was a fitting coda, as the family moved on, being split across continents and oceans as they all went their seperate ways. Though filmed months before the current pandemic, it felt incredibly prescient watching these characters struggle with the idea that their tight-knit family would be seperated, with no idea when they might again be together. At a time when we all wish we could—but can’t—be with our crazy uncles, uptight sisters, or grumpy grandpas, it was comforting to spend one last night with Family.

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.

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

Matthew McKelligon Scout Burke

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?

Jake Choi Van Hansis

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.

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.

Stop calling me the liberal elite

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The author and friends leading a gay rights march through Chicago in 2013. Photo: Brittany Sowacke/Red Eye

In the days after the general election, I said that I am no longer American. This was prompted by the seeming consensus that to be American one must live in an exurb or rural area somewhere not on a coast. But I have changed my mind. While the media narrative surrounding the rise of fascism in America is, largely, that we on the left have ignored white working class people in favour of the metropolitan liberal elite. The Telegraph even has a fun little quiz where you can figure out if you’re part of the liberal elite.

Let me tell you why this is bullshit.

I am the white working class. I was raised in the Rust Belt by the descendants of Appalachian peasants (and make no mistake, that’s what they were) who migrated out of Kentucky and Tennessee to the factories of the Midwest. Aged 15, I moved back to the coalfields of Eastern Kentucky and then later went on to spend seven wonderful years in Bowling Green, a small city best known for manufacturing Corvettes and once appearing in a Martina McBride music video. Then I moved to Chicago.

Since then, I’ve been told I’m part of the metropolitan elite by people as disparate as the ballet dancer Jack Thorpe-Baker and my own sister. I’m out of touch, they say. I don’t know what “real” America or “real Britain” is feeling, what they need. I’m a gay urban journalist who exists on two continents, or more specifically in two global cities, who enjoys opera and musicals and has a diverse group of friends. I don’t get “real” America, like in Dayton, Ohio (where I was raised) or Sheffield, England (where I just came from). I don’t understand their anxieties, their concerns, or their way of life.

Except, you know, I do. Because I am them. I come from them. And despite having gotten a university education, I am still a part of them.

Your ignorance ignores this. I’ve been told by so many Americans this week to “mind my own business” because the geotag on my tweets says “Walthamstow, London.” Newsflash: Americans travel. They even move abroad. Just because I’m across the ocean doesn’t mean it isn’t my country too. But this illustrates the ignorance and narrow worldview of so many people who voted for that vile man. They can’t fathom an American would ever travel, let alone move, abroad.

I get it. Globalisation and free trade have left behind many, many people in Middle America and Middle England. They’re understandably angry. But this vote wasn’t about economic anxiety, as the media would have us believe. The voter demographics coming out show us that white working class Americans largely broke for Clinton. Rather, college educated white people put Trump just over the threshold in states like Wisconsin and Michigan to get him more electoral votes than Clinton. So stop saying poor white people did this. They didn’t.

Racist white people did this.

This election was about one thing: who gets to be American. Everyone who says this election was “a backlash against the establishment” really means it was a backlash against diverse, cosmopolitan values which are radiating from cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. It’s a reaction against the browning and queering of the country.

Every single person who says I am not a “real” American, that I am not capable of understanding what “real” Americans think or feel or need can kindly fuck off. I’m as real an American as any one of you. Even by the nativist sentiments of the alt-right, I’m as American as Toby Keith eating apple pie in the back of a Dodge pickup while wrapped in the stars and stripes. My ancestors have been in America since before the Revolution. One of them, at least, fought for the Union in the Civil War. We have been farmers, coal miners, factory workers and, yes, now a journalist. My grandparents grew up without running water or indoor plumbing, raised my father up enough to where he got a technical degree, and then I went to a four-year university. I am the definition of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and embracing the American dream. You don’t get to take that away from me just because I have a more open mind and bigger heart than you.

When people say that this election was about everyday Americans taking their country back, about draining the swamp, they don’t mean that it was about taking it back from Wall Street lobbyists and career politicians. If so, Trump’s rhetoric and transition team would look very, very different. No, this was about taking it back from queer people like me and my Black and undocumented friends. This wasn’t about taking the country back from special interests but from marginalised people making marginal gains in equality.

It also ignores who “everyday Americans” are. “Everyday Americans” include my friend Lily, a Latina single mom who risks losing head-of-household status because of that vile man. “Everyday Americans” include my friend Ajala, a Black woman in St Louis who could lose reproductive healthcare if Planned Parenthood funding is cut. “Everyday Americans” includes my friends Theresa and Sara, a married lesbian couple who just had twins but must now fear that marriage equality will be repealed. “Everyday Americans” include my Dominican nieces whom my sister insists on calling “Spanish” and ignoring their ethnicity and reality as Black-appearing Americans. “Everyday Americans” includes me, a university educated, internationally travelled gay man who does not have time for your bullshit definition of “everyday Americans.”

I’m sick of being told that because I live in a city I am somehow less American than others. I’m tired of hearing that because I like opera and read books and write for the internet and don’t think that people speaking Spanish is that big a deal I’m somehow less American than someone who never left my hometown. I am American and nothing you say will take that away from me. Chicagoans and New Yorkers are as American as Alabamans and Nebraskans.

The problem with the focus on the white working class is twofold. Firstly, it ignores people like me, who grew up solidly working class (or in many cases who are still working class) but aren’t raging bigots who think voting for a proto-fascist is a good idea. Secondly, it pretends we’re the only group in the country.

We. Are. Not.

Black Americans, Latino Americans, Queer Americans, Muslim Americans are just as American as we are. White working class – or to broaden that out, white straight people in general – don’t get to decide who is American or what constitutes an “authentic” American experience. Because there has never been only one American experience. Since our founding we have had a myriad of beliefs, experiences, and cultures. Ask the immigrant Alexander Hamilton, or the slaveholding Thomas Jefferson, or our eighth president, Martin Van Buren, whose first language was Dutch – NOT English.

America has never been homogenous. It’s long been white supremacist and heterosexist, but it has never been defined by just one experience.

So stop calling me the metropolitan liberal elite. I go to work every day. I pay my taxes (unlike our president-elect). I pulled myself up by my bootstraps. And just because I don’t think like a racist doesn’t mean I am not a real American.

I am not the liberal elite. I am an American. And it is my goddamn country too.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His work has appeared at the Advocate, Salon, the Daily Dot, the Gay UK Magazine, Pink News, and elsewhere. He is currently pursuing a visa to emigrate to the UK.

*Editorial note: This blog refers to President-Elect Trump as “that vile man” as we cannot bring ourselves to call him anything else.

An open letter to Trump voters, from a gay American

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A protester holds a sign outside Trump Tower and International Hotel in Chicago. Photo: CNN

Dear friends who voted for that vile man*,

I am angry, and I hate you. It would be disingenuous for me to say anything else. The other night I said I hope you die. I meant it. I’m not sure I do now, but at the time I did. I hate you for voting for a man who wants to ban my Muslim friends from entering the United States, deport my undocumented Latino friends, allow the police to shoot my Black friends with impunity, and ruin America’s standing on the world stage. People will lose food stamps, social security benefits, medical coverage, and more under that vile man. People will suffer, and people will die, and I hate you because you are complicit in it.

I also hate that I hate you. I’ve never hated people like this before. I’ve never looked at an entire group of people and found no redeeming quality, no humanity, no commonality. I’ve never looked at you – my family, my friends, my neighbours – and thought of you as the enemy. Political opponents, sure, but not enemies. You were always my fellow Americans, no matter what. Now I think the country would be much better off if you all kindly fucked off.

I’ve been working through these feelings for several days now. I’ve called someone very close to me a bigot and a racist, and she has called me the same. She doesn’t see my point of view, and I certainly can’t fathom hers. This is not a good place for us to be as a family, as a country. But alas, it’s where we are. I hate this person whose blood I share.

Because I’m consumed with a hatred that in 30 years on this earth I’ve never before experienced, I sought out spiritual guidance. Christ commands us to love one another, to turn the other cheek, and as a Christian the hate I feel troubles and saddens me. I needed to make sense of why I feel this way, and how I can move forward with it, even if I can’t move past it.

But before we talk about me, I want to talk about you. Chiefly, why I hate you. Because you seem to genuinely be baffled, and I think you need to understand a few things about where many of us who are so visibly upset about that vile man are coming from. You see, this isn’t politics; it’s personal. We feel personally assaulted, targeted, and threatened by him. This is a man who hasn’t really spoken about policy, but people. Ban Muslims. Deports Latinos. Overturn gay marriage. Discriminate against trans people. Many of you complain about “identity politics,” yet you’re the ones who voted for a man who attacked our identities, the very core of who we are. This isn’t about tax codes, or the economy, or regulations, or Obamacare. This is about who gets to be American and who doesn’t. This is about who is viewed as equal and who isn’t. This is about who gets to feel safe and who doesn’t.

To say that we simply have different opinions is wrong. I have different opinions with people on whether we should reinstate Glass-Steagall, or whether an assault weapons ban is the right way to curb American violence. We do not have different opinions on whether gay kids should be subjected to the torture of conversion therapy (something our new Vice President-elect thinks) or gay people should be discriminated against (something our New Vice President-elect enacted into law). We do not have different opinions on whether Muslims should be banned, or families separated by deportation, or Black people shot. That’s not a difference of opinion. It’s a difference of principles. It’s a difference of morality.

Maybe you didn’t vote for that vile man because of, but in spite of these things. It doesn’t matter. You’ve shown you’re willing to throw me and millions of fellow Americans under the bus to advance your narrow interests. You are willing to sacrifice my basic rights and safety in order to… what? Feel like you’re still in charge of America? That your position as a white person or a straight person or a man is still at the top of the totem pole? Equality isn’t oppression, but you’ve shown me you think it is. You might not hate me, but you have shown you don’t give a damn about me.

Many of you who voted for that vile man are straight, white, and Christian. Most of you, even. You’re not personally attacked by him because of who you are. You might have thought Hillary Clinton was going to take your guns, or was a lying crook, or was owned by Wall Street, but none of that constituted an attack on your personhood or humanity. And that is the difference here. That vile man is a direct threat not to my politics, but to my life. To my freedom. To my place in America.

America. The nation of my birth. A nation I no longer feel welcomed in. Or safe in. I’m in Britain right now, and I’m afraid to go home. I never want to go home (I love this place), but now I’m frightened to get on the plane. I don’t know what awaits me. You think I’m being hyperbolic? Look at the rash of hate crimes, of gay men being beaten and intimidated, and tell me I shouldn’t be afraid. If you do, you won’t be saying it with a straight face, but with straight privilege.

I knew things were bad when my grandmother told me to stay in Britain. In the 15 years I’ve talked of moving here she’s always laughed uncomfortably and said “no, that’s too far away.” Her words on Wednesday night were basically “get the fuck out while you still can.” When a grandmother has to say that to her grandson about the land of the free and the home of the brave, it should give us all pause. America isn’t what we thought it was or should be.

So my hate is justified. My anger is righteous. Thinking it wasn’t, I sought spiritual guidance from a Methodist minister, whom I met with earlier at Sheffield Cathedral. Being in a house of God, where the Holy Spirit dwells and peace is present, I was able to talk through my feelings of guilt and fear. I don’t like hating you. It makes me feel so alienated from God. It makes me scared that I am capable of such evil feelings myself. You’ve brought that out in me. But speaking with him, I realised that my feelings were a natural reaction to the oppression you’ve thrust upon me. They are something I am going to have to learn to live with, at least for the time being. Turning the other cheek does not mean being a doormat. I will learn to forgive you, even as I fight you, because Jesus did both – he turned the other cheek as he flipped the tables in the temple.

This minister reminded me of the story of Jesus in the wilderness. How He went there without a map or an idea of how to acclimate or what was coming next, and how He was tested but ultimately made in the wilderness. This is my wilderness. Jesus learned things about himself and the world that he didn’t like and didn’t know. I am now doing the same. But just as Jesus came out stronger, so shall I. The first lesson I’m learning is there are ways to express it that are less horrible than saying I hope you die, even if maybe on some level I do. That level is not God’s level, and I’m trying to rise to God’s level.

As chance may have it, today is Remembrance Day – or Veterans’ Day back in America. I met with this minister at 10:30, and at 11:00 the country paused for a two minutes’ silence to remember those who gave their lives fighting fascism in the First and Second World Wars. They laid down their lives for justice and for liberty. While reflecting and praying, I realised that if they could make the ultimate sacrifice, I could learn to move forward in Christ while also fighting for a righteous cause. I can be both a Christian and a soldier against this new brand of fascism you have bestowed upon us. I can love you by showing you basic human compassion and empathy while also thinking you’re a racist, sexist, bigot. I won’t wish anything bad upon you, but I won’t wish you success. Not when your success comes at the expense of so many marginalised people. Love isn’t unconditional acceptance, but basic decency. Something you have shown you lack.

I don’t know when I’m going to feel up to talking to someone who voted for that vile man again. It won’t be anytime soon. I’m very sorry, but you need to understand and respect it. Chances are you probably don’t want to speak to me either though. We’re divided, and you divided us. You attacked us. You endorsed racism, homophobia, and fascism. And until you own it, I don’t want very much to do with you unless you can show me tangible proof things are going to be okay. So far, none of you have. None of you can.

This is where we’re at. I hate you, and you at best don’t care about me. I’m sorry it’s come to this. I really am. Maybe we can all move forward together at some point, but today is not that day.

Sincerely,

Skylar

Skylar Baker-Jordan is an American writer based in Chicago whose work has appeared at Salon, The Daily Dot, The Advocate, and elsewhere. He is currently pursuing a visa to move to the United Kingdom.

 *Editor’s note: this blog, until further notice, has chosen to refer to Donald Trump simply as “that vile man” because we cannot bring ourselves to call him “president-elect”

Orlando was a homophobic terrorist attack. Let’s own it.

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Image: heavy.com

 

I am heartbroken, and I am weeping.

This has been one of the hardest days of my life, on par with the day my friend Garic (a proud gay Marine) died, and 9/11. As a gay American, this assault on our freedoms and very right to exist is in many ways too much to bear. The only things that have gotten me through today are the outpouring of support from friends and family, my bae, and my neighbour’s five-year-old son whose innocence and precociousness was a welcome respite from the nonstop coverage of how someone wanted to kill people like me just for being people like me.

That’s what sets this massacre apart from Columbine, or from Virginia Tech, or from even Newtown. Those were indiscriminate killings. This was not. It was targeted, like Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, not randomly, but specifically. Emmanuel was targeted because its congregants were Black. Pulse was targeted because its patrons were queer.

So imagine my horror when, watching Sky Papers, I saw Julia Hartley-Brewer and presenter Mark Longhurst berate out-gay columnist Owen Jones for calling the attack what it is – a homophobic terrorist attack. They talked over him and spoke down to him whenever he tried to raise the homophobic nature of the massacre, insisting it was on par with what happened at Paris’ Bataclan. To Hartley-Brewer and Longhurst, this was just an attack on a Western club. To Jones and the rest of the LGBT community, it’s much, much more.

Straight people, I get it. You’re feeling this loss deeply. You’re appalled by what happened in Orlando. And you should be. Only a truly evil human being wouldn’t be mortified and distraught by this carnage. But, if I may, let me explain to you why LGBT people are feeling this much move viscerally than you ever could.

Gay clubs are our safe spaces. No, not safe spaces in the way they’re employed at universities, but literal safe spaces. They’re places we can go and be unabashedly ourselves without fear of reprisal or straight gazes judging or gawking at us. It was an LGBT bar—the Stonewall—that birthed the modern LGBT rights movement. It has long been a place for us to congregate, find and build community, and mobilise for our civil rights. There’s a reason Boystown was my first stop when I moved to Chicago. I’ve met some of my best friends in the world, my London family, in Soho. Gay clubs aren’t just safe spaces, they’re sacred spaces.

Yes, we know Daesh (aka ISIS) has targeted other venues before. We know they hate our nightlife, our freedoms, and our culture. But this wasn’t a random choice. Even Republican Senator Marco Rubio, no friend to the gay community, has acknowledged that we were singled out and specifically attacked because of who we are. This was an attack not just on liberty, not just on democracy, but specifically on LGBT people. Our hard-won rights, our cherished spaces, and our very identities were targeted. And 50 people lost their lives not because they were Americans, but because they were lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or an ally.

This was an attack on who we are. It was calculated. Specific. Intentional. Someone wanted us dead because we’re LGBT. Straight people, I’m sorry, but you can’t understand the immense sadness and vulnerability we are now feeling. No one has ever targeted you because you love the opposite sex. Maybe they’ve targeted you for other reasons, so you can sympathise, but they’ve not targeted you for this. While this is your tragedy because it’s all our tragedy, it is specifically my tragedy. It is specifically LGBT America’s tragedy. And you need to recognise that nuance.

Calling this a homophobic and transphobic terrorist attack does not detract from the tragedy. It enhances it, because it shows just how vile and truly bigoted the shooter was, targeting some of the most vulnerable people in society. It doesn’t detract from the tragedy of the Bataclan, it simply acknowledges a difference in target and a possible shift in Daesh strategy. The Pulse represented what’s best about America, so it brought out the worst in Daesh. It’s okay to say that.

Make no mistake, this is about LGBT people. We might not have a monopoly on this grief, but it most certainly belongs to us. This was our community targeted. These were our lives taken. And they weren’t taken because of the red, white, and blue. They were taken because of the rainbow. And I need you to understand that. We’re not saying you can’t be sad, or angry, or feeling this deeply. We’re saying that you can’t possibly feel the innate violation and vulnerability that we feel.

Gay clubs are where we go to escape the judgments and hatred of the broader society. We retreat into the darkness of a club, behind closed doors, to be unabashedly ourselves because we so often can’t in the light of day. For so many of us, the gay club is the one place we felt intrinsically safe. That has been taken from us, and it raises bigger questions. If we’re not safe in Boystown or Soho, where the fuck are we safe?

This was an assault on the most fundamental part of me. These people weren’t just targeted for being Americans. They were targeted because of who they loved. They were targeted because they were viewed as subhuman, worse than animals. They were targeted because of a hateful ideology and straight supremacy. And it’s really, really easy to say “well yeah, Daesh throws gay people off roofs.” Because they do.

Yet on the same day as the massacre at Pulse, a white American was on his way to do harm to LGBT people at the Los Angeles Pride Parade. So don’t you dare use this, as Donald Trump has, to justify persecution of our Muslim brethren. There are LGBT Muslims too, and they are targeted as violently as we were. And let’s not forget that it was a white Christian who targeted lesbian bars in Atlanta in 1996. It was a straight Christian who killed three people at the Admiral Duncan. It wasn’t Daesh who lynched Matthew Shepherd. This is about Daesh, and I won’t pretend it isn’t. There’s got to be time and space to talk about radical Islamic terrorism and homophobia.

But this is also about us.  The outpouring of grief from the likes of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who spent so much time and energy fighting gay marriage in Florida, is frustrating. I respect the fact that Bondi, Governor Rick Scott, and Marco Rubio were probably sincere. But they’re also deeply hypocritical. These people have spent their careers denying LGBT Americans equality. When Pam Bondi said she stood with the LGBT community, all I could wonder is why we have to die to have your solidarity? It would be nice to have it in life, too.

So as LGBT America mourns the loss of our siblings at Pulse, please give us the space to lead the national grieving. Take your cues from us. This is more than just a terrorist attack. It’s a hate crime. It was meant to terrify the LGBT community. And it has, it really has.

But we are strong. We fought for our rights on the streets outside Stonewall, in the Castro, in the prairies of Wyoming. We will keep fighting. LGBT Americans are, after all, Americans. And we never back down when someone threatens our hard-won freedoms. We’ve come too far to be cowed by one attack. LGBT Americans, and America as a country, will rise from these ashes and continue to fight for equality, freedom, and liberty.

I am a proud gay American.

Equal at last: A few thoughts on what the SCOTUS decision means to me as a gay man

Just over a decade ago, I sat weeping as my home state of Kentucky passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions in our fair commonwealth. I was 18 years old, a freshman in college, and had worked tirelessly trying to persuade my fellow Kentuckians to vote against discrimination. I went door-to-door in Bowling Green, talking to voters about what it means to be gay. Some were sympathetic, even understanding. Others were forthright in their opposition to equality. Most were polite. A few were hostile.

I knew we were unlikely to win, but at 18, I think you always have hope that somehow things are going to work out in your favour. That, you know, it can’t possibly be as bad as you think. But it was. 75% of Kentuckians voted to amend the state constitution to bar gay marriage. We were one of many states to do so that year.

As the night crept on, it became clear that not only would the amendment pass, but that President Bush would be re-elected on a platform that was decidedly anti-equality, swept back into the White House by a tide of homophobia he himself had instigated.

I was at my friend Jonathan’s house. We’d recently stopped seeing one another romantically, but it still felt right to be together. He was the gay person I was closest with, and on that night, I desperately wanted another gay person with me. We cried in one another’s arms, taking shots of vodka or gin or whatever was in the house, really. Drinking numbed the pain. Cuddling cured the sense of rejection. America might hate us, but at least we had each other.

A couple days later, I had a conversation with my friend and fellow activist Kelli Persons. “It won’t be our generation that wins marriage,” she told me sombrely. “We may see it in our lifetimes, but it’ll be our grandkids who get it done.”

I agreed. It was a stark juxtaposition to the jubilation I felt when the Massachussets Supreme Judical Court ruled in favour of equality the year before. In November 2003 I was a senior at Leslie County High School, deep in the East Kentucky coal fields. My life was a daily crucible of homophobia, with slurs so violent I still find it hard to believe I made it out unscathed. As a teenager whose only exposure to gay people had been Jack McPhee on Dawson’s Creek, the Massachussets ruling was a complete shock. I had no idea that there was a place in my own country where I was actually viewed as equal before the law.

I decided I had to move there. I applied to colleges there. I got accepted to one.

But fate had different plans, and I ended up at WKU, where on election night 2004, I felt the full weight of bigotry and oppression land upon me like a giant homophobic anvil.

I spent the remainder of my college career fighting for LGBT equality. When the university closed the Outlet, our LGBT resource centre, I pressured the university to reopen and rehouse it, a fight I’m still waging as an alumnus. I became the president of our gay/straight alliance. I helped form a statewide network of LGBT students pushing for fairness in our schools. I spoke at a rally when one of those students was expelled from his university for being gay. I became a vocal supporter of domestic partner benefits for university employees. I cried when, in 2010, that came to pass.

Never did I fathom that five short years a Supreme Court decision would render that whole fight irrelevant. I could only dream as big as health insurance. Never did I imagine our relationships would be granted true equality in this country. Not so soon. Not before I turned 30.

Yet here we are. Something I’ve dreamt of, worked towards, and fought for since I was a teenager is finally a reality. And it feels fucking great. True, I’m not getting married. I’m not engaged. Hell, I’m not even seeing anyone. My most committed relationship is with bourbon. But that doesn’t matter.

You see, this day means something to every gay, lesbian, and bisexual American, regardless of whether or not they’re rushing to the alter. Today, the Supreme Court of the United States of America affirmed to the masses what I have known all along—that I am equal. They didn’t give us the right to marry; they acknowledged that it’s been there from the beginning. I already knew that. Today they pointed it out to the rest of you.

The first time you feel as though you are finally an equal citizen of these United States is a feeling I can’t really describe to anyone who isn’t also experiencing (or hasn’t in the past experienced) such euphoria. There are no words. But there are actions, which may illustrate what it’s like. Here are just a few things I’ve done today:

  • Ran into my office screaming “gay marriage!”
  • Blasted “Born this Way” through half the city
  • Had a mimosa
  • Had another one, bought for me by the straight guys at the bar I always go to cos EQUALITY
  • Cleaned my apartment
  • Did laundry so I’d have a REALLY cute outfit to wear to the gay bars tonight
  • Decided that outfit made me look fat and chose another one
  • Broken down in tears at the convenient store
  • Danced to “Same Love” in my back yard and gave no fucks
  • Shouted “Glory to God!” as I read the decision
  • Chosen a wedding venue (my college campus)
  • Sorta proposed to a British guy
  • Broken down in tears in my car, making it difficult to parallel park
  • Wished my cousin happy birthday
  • Lifted a glass to Harvey Milk, Bayard Rustin, and Ellen Degeneres
  • Cried again

There is still work to be done, I know. We can still be fired for being ourselves in 29 states. My trans siblings, especially my trans siblings of colour, are being murdered in our streets. Kids are still being sent to conversion therapy. “Faggot,” “dyke,” and “gay” are still deployed as insults in high schools throughout the country. And somewhere, right now, while I’m typing this and celebrating, an LGBT child is begging for food or sleeping on the streets. We’ve got a long way to go.

But for today, for just one glorious day, I am focusing on the fact that for once we’ve gotten it right. For once, this country has acknowledged that all men and women, even gay men and women, are created equal. That for once my dignity as not only an American, but a person, has been federally and officially and finally recognised.

Today, as we prepare to celebrate Pride, I am proud. Proud to be gay. Proud to be an American. Proud to be finally, truly, and irrefutably equal.

I don’t need “clarification,” Governor Pence. Indiana’s RFRA is state-sanctioned discrimination.

Governor Mike Pence (R-IN) signs his state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, in the presence of   orthodox religious leaders and far-right lobbyists who championed the bill. Photo: twitter.com/govpencein

Governor Mike Pence (R-IN) signs his state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law, in the presence of orthodox religious leaders and far-right lobbyists who championed the bill. Photo: twitter.com/govpencein

In what the Indianapolis Star calls “the deepest crisis of his political career,” Mike Pence, Indiana’s Republican governor, continues to support his state’s recently passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Speaking to the paper on Saturday, Governor Pence said that whilst he will seek legislation “clarifying” the intent of the law, he stands behind it. The massive backlash, he insists, is due to “misunderstanding driven by misinformation.”

This has been a common refrain among supporters of the RFRAs popping up in state houses throughout the country. To date, 19 states have passed laws similar to the federal one which, as conservatives like to use as a trump card, was signed into law by that Democratic darling President Clinton. (You know, the man who also signed the Defence of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?) Indeed, Governor Pence couldn’t help but mention this fact in a statement released after a private signing of the law, while also citing similar laws in neighbouring states Illinois and Kentucky.

Now, as chance may have it, I live in Illinois, which passed an RFRA in 1998, a year after the Supreme Court ruled the federal RFRA did not apply to the states. However, as the Chicago Tribune reported earlier this week, Illinois lawmakers have balanced RFRA with statewide protections for LGBT people. Before moving to Chicago nearly four years ago, though, I lived a decade in Kentucky, the state I still call home.

Kentucky’s law—passed in 2013—was initially vetoed by Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat. It became law when the General Assembly, including the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, overrode the governor’s veto. But some conservative activists said the law would not have any real consequences for LGBT Kentuckians. This law isn’t going to have an effect they think it’s going to have,” Martin Cothran, of the right-wing Family Foundation of Kentucky, told the Associated Press at the time. “All of the case law is going in the other direction. It’s not going in the direction of over-protecting people’s religious freedom. We’d like to see something a lot stronger than this.”

A year later Cothran’s wish was granted. In a landmark—and now infamous—decision, the US Supreme Court ruled that crafting giant Hobby Lobby could not be mandated to provide contraception to its employees, as it violated the company’s First Amendment right to free expression of religion. In this brave new world where corporations are people, states such as Arizona, Mississippi, and now Indiana were emboldened to pass their own RFRA laws, which broadened the scope of protection to include corporations and businesses. These laws were worded so vaguely that even some Republicans, such as the mayor of Indianapolis and, most famously, former Arizona governor Jan Brewer came out in opposition, the latter vetoing her own state’s RFRA because of fears it could lead to “unintended and negative consequences” and hurt businesses, something that is beginning to happen in Indiana.

But the ability to discriminate against LGBT people is a very intentional consequence of the Indiana bill, despite what Governor Pence says. As Buzzfeed reported, Indiana’s law allows for a RFRA defence even when the government is not party to a lawsuit, which is something the federal RFRA doesn’t do. It also allows this defence to be mounted against any state or local law, which as the potential of invalidating the citywide fairness ordinances a handful of Indiana jurisdictions have passed. This means the potential exists for landlords, hotels, and restaurants to openly discriminate against LGBT people, something which has already begun. A restaurant owner called Ryan phoned an Indiana radio station to say that not only has he already discriminated against gay people, but he intends to do so in the future, as the law allows.

And while Governor Brewer feared “unintended consequences” in Arizona, this was very much the intended consequence in Indiana. Governor Pence invited several right-wing lobbyists who worked to pass the bill to the private signing. One of them was Micah Clark of the American Family Association of Indiana (AFAIN). The Southern Poverty Law Center considers the AFA an anti-LGBT hate group, and AFAIN’s website shares many homophobic and transphobic stories. It also includes a quote from then-Congressman Mike Pence, praising the organisation and its Indiana leader. “I have known and worked with Micah Clark for over a decade,” Pence is quoted, “and I can tell you that you’re standing behind a pro-family, pro-life leader…” (“Pro-family” has long been a conservative dog whistle meaning “anti-LGBT”.)

Another of the lobbyists present at the singing was Eric Miller of Advance America, which not only has a history of transphobic and homophobic rhetoric, but actually posted a blog on its website following the bill’s success, which read in part:

[RFRA] will help protect individuals, Christian businesses and churches from those supporting homosexual marriages and those supporting government recognition and approval of gender identity (male cross-dressers). Here are just three examples:

  • Christian bakers, florists and photographers should not be punished for refusing to participate in a homosexual marriage!
  • A Christian business should not be punished for refusing to allow a man to use the women’s restroom!

  • A church should not be punished because they refuse to let the church be used for a homosexual wedding! [emphasis is original]

It doesn’t get much clearer than that. Governor Pence can repeat himself until he’s blue in the face, but it doesn’t change the fact that Indiana’s RFRA was clearly intended to and will allow discrimination against LGBT Indianans. The Religious Freedom Restoration Acts being passed now—the next battleground is Arkansas—are not meant, as the federal law and the 1998 Illinois law, to protect religious minorities from burdensome government regulations. They are meant to allow merchants operating in the public marketplace to refuse service to those they don’t like.

This law is nothing more than state sanctioned homophobia and transphobia, and no amount of “clarification” will change that.