Carl Nassib—former All-America football player for Penn State, who has since played in the NFL on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Cleveland Browns, and currently the Las Vegas Raiders—came out as gay earlier this week in a video in which he also announced he had made a large donation to the Trevor Project, and explained why people ought to also donate to the largest non-profit organization dedicated to the prevention of suicide among LGBTQ youth.
Members of his own team and leaders within the National Football League management immediately chimed in with messages of support and congratulations. The internet erupted with other people reacting with encouragement—given that other gay NFL players have never felt it was safe to come out, and the only gay player who was out before he was drafted was not met with anything that could be described as a welcoming attitude from the league just seven years ago.
So it was a bit of a surprise that the league seemed to be reacting supportively.
Not everyone reacted quite so well: While NFL player Carl Nassib comes out, homophobes go overboard pretending that they don’t care.
All of those homophobes have been screaming that they don’t care, and then making the angry bad attempts at sexual insults. Coincidentally, on one of my other blogs, another homophobe sent me some angry messages in response to my posting of several Pride Month images. The phrase, “No one f—ing cares!” was repeated several times in those messages, too.
First, anyone who angrily yells or posts a comment asserting that “No one cares” when a queer person expresses anything about their lives, has just admitted that they care entirely way too much. They have also admitted that they are hateful bigots who lose their temper any time they are reminded that not everyone is straight.
Nassib responded to the people those (disingenuous) questions asking why he has to make an announcement. “Studies have shown that all it takes is one accepting adult to decrease the risk of an LGBTQ kid attempting suicide by 40%. Whether you’re a friend, a parent, a coach, or a teammate — you can be that person.”
One of the first studies to show that was published by the George H.W. Bush administration. Bush tasked the National Institutes of Health with determining how to reduce teen suicide, and the conclusion was that the most teen suicides would be if parents were encouraged to tell their children that they would still love and accept them if they were gay.
This is one of the reasons I say every year around National Coming Out Day and during Pride Month that queer adults should be out. It makes your life better not to constantly hiding a secret and fearing discovering, but it also makes it more likely that younger queer people will live—period.
So, I’m happy for Nassib. Even if it does mean that I have to reinstate the search on my DVR to record Raiders games, again.
It’s the fifth anniversary of the worst mass killing of queer people in U.S. history. Before the 49 victims of the Pulse massacre, the worst single event had been the UpStairs Lounge arson attack on June 24, 1973 in New Orleans.
I see that certain news sites and deplorables are once again trying to push the narrative that this event was a hate crime directed against queer people. I explained why they are wrong last year: Four years after the Pulse massacre and don’t feel the need to re-hash everything, other than to point out the the shooter’s own father was one of the people who thought the club had been picked because of how much his son hated queer people and that his son had ranted a lot the week before the shooting about how marriage equality was proof that American culture had embraced evil.
On this night five years ago, a lot of people were at Pulse celebrating Latinx Night as one of several Pride Month activities at the bar. They went out to have fun, to dance, to be with other queer people. To celebrate life. To celebrate Pride. To celebrate the concept that love is love.
Forty-nine of them never came home that night. I don’t personally know any of them, but when I am reminded of that night, I cry just as hard as a did when I was first reading news reports of the even the next morning. Because queer people are my tribe. Queer people are my community.
And the biggest fear I have had since realizing I was gay, is that some day a hater is going to kill me or someone I love because we’re queer.
Four years later, the Pulse massacre is still a gut punch.
A few years ago I wrote a blog post about, among other things, why white folks such as myself should amplify the voices of people of color when they talk about matters of concern to their communities: Queer Plus, or Intersectionality Isn’t Just a Noun — more adventures in dictionaries. So, when Lil Nas X released his new single, "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" along with its even more creative/compelling music video, I figured that since the them was about coming out as a gay man within the African-American community and reconciling the teachings of his childhood church with his lived reality, my job was not to pontificate, but share links. So a couple of weeks ago I linked to the video and to two articles about it in the Friday Five.
I thought the video spoke for itself, though the two articles did offer some context.
I thought my work here was done. Until this week when a news site I read just about every day posted an op-ed about how brilliantly Lil Nas X used the conservative outrage machine to make the video go viral before the single was available to stream or buy.
It started out with a fair assessment, but then things went pear-shaped. Nas and his fans and supporters crossed a line, you see. They (or rather we – I’m an unabashed fan) betrayed our religious neighbors because we failed to understand that those religious people sincerely believe that the devil is literally the source of evil in the world.
When I read that bit, I said "What the f–!" out loud, then re-read the entire paragraph to make sure I was following the guy’s point correctly. On the second reading I noticed another bit that had slipped past me. He notes that recently polling finds that 47% of Americans say that they belong to a church, synagoge, or mosque, and then later he asserts that those 47% of all Americans are the people offended by Lil Nas X’s latest video. But also, yes, he definitely said we were all being insensitive to the sincerely held beliefs of the most conservative religious people who took offense at the video.
Before I explain how bass-ackwards this i, in case you you haven’t seen the video, here is a summary. Young Lil Nas is portrayed in an idyllic field playing a guitar, when a huge sinister serpent whispers in his ear and leads Nas away. A group f blue-heaired drag queens admonish and scold Nas, and eventually he hops on a stipper pole, slides down into into Hell. Where he gives the Devil a lap dance, before stealing the devil’s horns, causing the devil to explode, and then Nas sits on the throne.
Nas, by the way, plays almost every character in the video.
So it’s one way of describing the journey of a queer man raised in a conservative religion. You start out just innocently being yourself. You become aware of desires you have that you have been told are wrong. You get bullied and or rejected by the community of faith. Eventually you realize your truth is stronger than the lies you were told. You embrace your true self. Unfortunately there will always be those who continue to believe the lies, and now they see you as the evil one.
The entire point of that metaphor in the video is that many of the haters believe that the devil is literal and the source of all evil. The entire point is that they tell us – again and again – that we are tools of that literal source of evil. It is part of the dehumanizing process. Queer people, in their minds, don’t deserve rights or respect or even the chance to live because we aren’t actually people, we are merely tools of the devil.
At no point in the writing of the song, the recording of the song, the filming of the video, nor in the writing of the poignant letter to his younger self that accompanies it, did Lil Nas X ever forgot that those bigot sincerely believe in the devil.
It’s not betrayal; it’s holding up a mirror and saying, "This is what you believe? Own it!"
And while we’re on the subject, not all of the Americans who belong to a church or another house of worship are anti-gay bigots and Biblical literalists. A whole lot of progressive, pro-queer straight people belong to and regularly attend church in this country. Not only that, a lot of out and proud queer people do, too.
Once again, a concern troll has looked at an act of self-defense from a bullied, oppressed survival of an abusive religion, and construed it as an unprovoked attack.
I’ve said many times that I’m not an ex-Christian because I just decided one day to give the church the finger. I’m an ex-Christian because the church I was raised in rejected me and actively drove me away. Long before I understood what was different about me, the church told me again and again that queers were abominations to the loathed and punished, spurned and ostracized. While out of the other side of their mouth, they claimed god’s love was unconditional and insisted that they were instruments of that love.
Then, as soon as they see us for who we are, the bullying and abuse begins. Unconditional love is only for people who conform to their beliefs. Now that is betrayal.
Calling their betrayal out, particularly of our childhood selves, is not a betrayal. It is a reckoning.
But I’m tired of explaining why so many bigoted stereotypes, bad representations, tokenism, and the rest are both bad writing and immoral behavior. I’ve written about them before and I’ll surely write about them again, but I’d rather talk about a show that treated its gay character right.
So let’s talk about Julie and the Phantoms.
If you’re not familiar, Julie and the Phantoms was recently released on Netflix, and it’s about a high school girl whose mother has recently died. An aspiring musician in a music program at school, Julie has been unable to bring herself to perform. After getting dropped from the program, she decides to clean out her mother’s music studio as a step in trying to move one. Among her mother’s things, she finds a demo CD for a band she has never heard of. When she puts it in the player, three ghosts are summoned from limbo.
The ghosts are three members of what was a four-member boy band. The three boys died in 1995 after eating bad street food on the night before they were supposed to debut at the Orpheum Theatre.
At first it seems that only Julie can see and hear the boys, but they soon discover that if she is singing with them, everyone can see them and hear their music. With a cover story that the boys are holograms, Julie embarks on a journey to find her voice.
Yes, it’s cheesy, yes it’s a teen musical show. But it is well done and in these troubling times, a story with a big heart is exactly what some of us need.
Warning: There are some spoilers below…
One of the three boys in the band, Alex, is gay. We learn this very early on when one of his bandmates mentions how Alex’s parents weren’t exactly supportive when he came out. That one line is the only point in the show where anything approaching the usual cliched approaches to handling a queer character happens.
Early on the boys meet another ghost, a skateboarding cutie named Willie. It is clear in just a few lines of dialogue the Alex and Willie are attracted with each other and awkwardly flirting. Alex’s two straight bandmates take it in stride. “He is totally into you!” “And he’s cute!” They treat their bandmate’s queerness very matter-of-factly. The dialogue would not have sounded out of place in a more typical show if the object of Alex’s flirtation had been an opposite sex character.
Which is how it should be.
The subplot that Willie is involved in (he is under the thumb of a villainous ghost who is trying to enslave the three band members) doesn’t cross into any of the gay cliches, either. Their roles in the story are based on their personalities, not their sexual orientation. Their orientation is just another fact about them, not the defining characteristic of everything they do and say.
None of the bad things that happen to either of them have anything to do with their orientation. Not even the villain says anything even vaguely homophobic about either one. Neither is killed (I realize they are ghosts, but it is made clear that bad things can happen to ghosts in this fictional world) at the end. Neither of them realizes it would be better to be with an opposite sex person.
If you don’t happen to be queer, none of those statements may sound extraordinary—but trust me, having all of those things be true about a queer character in most works of fiction that aren’t explicitly aimed at a queer audience is an extremely rare event.
Furthermore, neither the show runners nor the network said anything in advance about how “and we have gay characters!” and then expecting to get congratulated on their open-mindedness. That is extremely rare, as well. In fact, that other show I mentioned in the opening paragraphs, not only did the network and people running the show keep crowing about their gay character–they even put such crowing into the mouth of one of the straight characters in the opening episode.
Now, all of this isn’t exactly an accident. The director of Julie and the Phantoms is Kenny Ortega (who is also one of the producers). Ortega is probably most well-known at this point as being the director the first High School Musical TV movie and several of the sequels. You might also recognize his name as the director of 1993’s Hocus Pocus. He in much less famous as being one of a couple of actors who—in 1972 when this was a very risky thing to do in any career, even theatre—came out in the pages of The Advocate, one of the nation’s oldest gay and lesbian publications.
During the press interviews after the release of Julie and the Phantoms, when asked about the characters of Alex and Willie, Ortega has said, “Alex is the character I wish was there for me when I was growing up, and who never appeared.”
Which makes sense. Speaking for myself, as a scared closeted kid growing up I was not interested in seeing stories about gay bashing or coming out and being rejected or the other usual queer story lines. I wanted—needed—to see queer characters living ordinary lives, facing the same challenges and triumphs as all the other characters in those stories.
Which is what Julie and the Phantoms gives us. And I’m so glad it does.
One of the troublesome tropes under discussion was that Old Canard, Bury Your Gays. If you aren’t familiar, the trope refers to the fact that often in fiction, queer characters are killed off and written out of series far more often than non-queers. I wrote about this a few years ago (Invisible or tragically dead… reflections on representation) in a year where over the course of the first 80 days of that TV season, 22% of all the queer regular or recurring characters across all network shows had been killed. And I pointed out that if the same rate of “anyone could die” actually applied across all of the casts of network shows regardless of orientation, that that would mean 2.5 characters being killed every single night of prime time television, and would mean that each season shows would have to replace more than 94% of their casts.
Many people have rightfully pointed out that a major contributor to the problem is that so many series, movies, novels, et cetera have at most one queer character (and rarely a pair of queer characters). In those cases that means that the only representation a show has of nonheterosexual people is erased by one character death. And even in those rare cases where there is a second queer character, since the second character is almost always in some sort of relationship with the first, that means that the sole queer representative left in the series is now an example of the equally bigoted/stereotypical Tragic Backstory Gay.
The lack of adequate representation is only part of the problem. Another very big part of the problem is that many writers think that queer characters are only suitable for queer plotlines, and so once the series has dealt with an incident of homophobia and an relative/friend learning to truly accept and support the queer character, that there is absolutely nothing else one can write for the character so they are now dead weight. But there are folks—most of them members of the queer community or allies—who genuinely think that the lack of realistic numbers of queer characters is the only reason Bury Your Gays is a problem. And unfortunately this causes other problems.
The discussion that I saw this week illustrated this well. One person was explaining what Bury Your Gays means, and went on to express their personal opinion that because they have read or watched so many queer characters get killed off so many times that they just don’t want to ever watch or read such a storyline again.
And people got very angry about that assertion. “How dare you say that I can never kill a queer character in my story!” “How dare you demand representation but also special treatment!” And so on.
Which is absolutely not what the person said.
Let’s switch topics for a minute. I was physically and emotionally abused by my father as a child. For that reason, I find it very difficult to sit through storylines involving abusing characters in stories I read or watch. This means that sometimes I stop watching a series or I put down a book never to pick it up again. I experienced a lot of that in real life and would rather spend my free time (which is what the reading of novels and watching of series or movies is, my free time) on other things. Similarly, many years ago a particular series I and friends were reading seemed to be obsessed with rape (and the gleeful humiliation and torment of vulnerable characters in general) as a plot engine. I decided that I didn’t need anymore of those kinds of scenes in my imagination, and I stopped reading the series (and when the editor of said series later became the author of an international best-selling fantasy series that similarly pruriently reveled in rape and torture, I swore off that, too).
In neither case am I saying that no one has the right to write such stories. Nor am I saying that people who want to read them should be legally banned from doing so. I’m just saying that I am done that that. I don’t want to read that. I exercise my right to choose what I read and watch and will go read and watch something else.
That doesn’t mean that I am weak. It doesn’t mean that I’m fragile. It doesn’t mean that there is something wrong or immature about me. I am making a choice and stating a preference. That’s all.
And yes, I’m generally in sympathy with the commenter who said she’d rather not read any more deaths of queer characters. For 59 years I have read stories in which if gay people like me were included at all we were the depraved villains or the tragic victims. And if I could go another 59 years of life and never, ever read or watch another story in which that happens, I would be happy (and not just because it would be cool to live to be 118 years old).
It’s not that I refuse to read stories where that happens. I do, even when I have been warned, sometimes. And full disclosure: in the series of fantasy novels I’m working on a lot of queer characters have bad things happen to them. In book one a canonically pansexual character appears to die (and his apparent death is quite important to the plot), though it is revealed later he survived. But as the series goes on I kill off an asexual character, a bisexual character, a genderfluid character, and (in flashback) a trans character. So as a queer author I’m doing this. But I also point out that there are a lot of other gay, lesbian, bi, pan, genderfluid, ace, and trans are in the story who don’t come to untimely ends. And as I’ve mentioned in blog posts before, I’m one of those authors who literally cries at the keyboard while writing a death scene, so I don’t take these things lightly.
So I’m saying that it is perfectly reasonable for a reader/viewer to make a decision about what kinds of stories they want to watch. And while writers get to decide what they do in their own stories—readers, viewers, and other writers are allowed to point out if we think they are portraying harmful stereotypes or perpetuating bigotry.
There was a second trope discussion where I felt attacked. People were lamenting the Gayngst trope. This is the tendency of many writers to portray all queer people as being unhappy with their lives, and specifically wishing that they weren’t gay. The people participating in this thread were unhappy with this trope because they were convinced that it is never true. One person asserted that there were no queer people anywhere who, once they got past the questioning stage and realized that they are queer, wished that they weren’t queer.
Which is where I really felt attacked. I realized that I was a gay boy at the age of eleven. Puberty hit like a freight train, as I said in that post, and finally I knew that all those people (including my father, some pastors, numerous teachers, and other adults in my life) who had bullied me for being a sissy, pussy, c*cksucker, and f*ggot had been correct.
I did not magickally become a wildly pro-gay activist at the moment of that realization.
To use the terminology of the the great James Baldwin quoted above, among the filth that I had been forcefed throughout my life up to that time was the absolute certainty that queers like me were going to spent eternity burning in Hell. And, since god is supposedly a Just Creator, we deserved it.
So, yes, I spent the next 13 years of my life frequently crying myself to sleep at night and begging god to take those feelings away.
It wasn’t until I was 24 years old that I started to believe that maybe, just maybe being queer wasn’t a curse that absolutely meant I would never know love, that I would constantly be fighting off depraved urges, and that I would ultimately deserve to be thrown into the Lake of Fire.
I was well past questioning for those years. And it wasn’t until I was 24 that I let a female friend talk me into the notion that maybe I wasn’t gay, but was actually bisexual. I would say that was the beginning of my questioning years, not when I first realized back at age eleven.
If some queer people younger than me really do immediately go from, “I don’t know why I seem to be different than what society expects me to be” to “Hey! It’s great to be queer” than I am very happy for them. I have my doubts that the transition is that instantaneous, but maybe it is.
Regardless, I know for a fact that millions of us spent a number of years mired in that self-loathing. And it isn’t just old fogies like me—earlier this year gay millennial Presidential hopeful Pete Butigeig admitted that “If you had offered me a pill to make me straight” he would have taken it.
So, while Gaynst shouldn’t be the universal portrayal of all queer people in stories and pop cultural, it’s okay to admit that some of us experienced that as part of our process of becoming who we are. And you should be able to criticize the stereotype without also erasing the queer people who experienced coming out differently than you.
It wasn’t until I was 31 years old—literally 20 years after I first realized and understood that I was a gay man—that I finally vomited up enough of that self-loathing and other filth to start walking this earth as if I had a right to be here. And the struggle of getting that point is something which should be honored, not erased.
Lots of other people have written about U.S. Representative John Lewis. He was one of many fighting in the civil rights movement from the Nashville Student Movement in 1960, through the Freedom Rides and beyond. He was one of the “Big Six” organizers of the 1963 March On Washington (and until his death last week, he was the last survivor of the Big Six). He was beaten by police, arrested, had dog set on him, received countless death threats, but he never backed down. And eventually, he became not just an activist, but a member of Congress.
He was an American Hero from early on.
But he became one of my personal heroes in 1996. Bill Clinton had run for President on a promise to bring equal rights to the LGBT community, but instead he caved to pressure from the Republicans, conservative Democrats, and (even more problematic) timid Democrats. Instead of equality, he created the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy for the armed services, which instead of making it easier for queer people to serve, significantly increased the number of discharges for being gay. And he also ultimately signed the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which made it illegal for the federal government to recognized marriages of same-sex couples if states decided to extend those rights, and also exempted states from recognizing those marriages from other states (a clear violation of the Full Faith and Credit clause of the U.S. Constitution).
John Lewis was not one of the timid Democrats. He rose in opposition to the act. He spoke passionately about why he would vote against it.
“This bill is a slap in the face of the Declaration of Independence. It denies gay men and women the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Marriage is a basic human right.”
—Rep. John Lewis, explaining why he was voting against the so-called Defense of Marriage Act in 1996
Unfortunately, the law passed. And we would have to wait for the Supreme Court to finally rule it unconstitutional in 2012.
That wasn’t the only time that John Lewis—a straight Black man, raised in the south, and an ordained Southern Baptist preacher—fought for LGBT rights.
“I have fought too hard and too long against discrimination based on race and color not to stand up against discrimination based on sexual orientation. I’ve heard the reasons for opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples. Cut through the distractions, and they stink of the same fear, hatred, and intolerance I have known in racism and in bigotry.”
—Rep. John Lewis, in an op-ed he wrote for the Boston Globe in 2003
“As a nation, we cannot say we are committed to equality, if we do not mandate equality for every citizen. You cannot have equality for some in America and not equality for all. This is another major step down a very long road toward the realization of a fair and just society. We should embrace the decision of the United States Supreme Court. It is now the law of the land.”
—Rep. John Lewis, commenting after the Supreme Court legalized Marriage Equality in 2015
I had really hoped that Rep. Lewis would live long enough to see us oust the fascist from the White House. I guess we’ll have to do in on our own.
Every time I see another headline about Lewis’s death, tears come to my eyes. We have lost a giant.
Rise in glory, John Lewis.
Rest in power, sir.