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San Diego’s Comic-Con brought out the queer stars and superheroes

A rainbow of nerds and celebs from every comic media

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Nafessa Williams, who stars in ‘Black Lightning’ is the first African American superShero. (Photo by Jeff Hitchcock via Wikimedia Commons)

The 49th annual Comic-Con, the world’s biggest comic book and geek culture convention, showcased LGBTQ panels focusing on inclusion in Hollywood, and offered sneak peaks at upcoming gay storylines and inclusive casting news.

“Summer is usually one of San Diego’s busiest times, with the Pride Festival and Comic Con happening nearly back-to-back and bringing thousands of visitors to the area. No two events bring as much energy, excitement and fun to our city,” Hard Rock Hotel’s Rana Kay told Los Angeles Blade. “Our location across from the Convention Center put us right in the thick of Comic Con. It’s four straight days of parties, celebrities and fans!”

These days, there was more gender-fluid cosplay than ever before, with men dressed up as Wonder Woman and women attending Comic Con as Iron Man and Batman.

Best of all, no attendee seemed to care that the cosplay doesn’t adhere to traditional male/female roles.

“The public awareness of gender versus biological sex, respecting people’s pronouns has impacted our culture in a good way,” said Xander Jeanneret, who was wearing a sticker from Skybound Entertainment, which illustrated the pronouns he wanted to be addressed as.

“For the most part, nerds are very accepting people.”

There were a number of  LGBTQ-related panels, like “Transformation Magic: Transgender Life in Comics from Street Level to the Stratosphere,” which addressed how trans comic creators are creating original content and their financial and creative challenges.

Also, there was a panel discussion about the portrayal of queer characters in LGBTQ graphic novels for kids: ie developing authentic stories to comics as a safe space for all identities. 
“With all these panels, it really seemed like Comic Con welcomes the LGBTQ community with open arms,” said Jeanneret.

One of the biggest LGBT casting announcements came from the producers of The CW/Warner Bros. Television’s hit drama, “Supergirl.” The DC Super Hero series will debut TV’s first transgender superShero. Transgender activist Nicole Maines (“Royal Pains,” “The Trans List,” “Becoming Nicole” book) will join the show in the series regular role of Nia Nal, aka Dreamer. 

In a statement to the press, Nia is described as the newest addition to the CatCo reporting team, “a soulful young transgender woman with a fierce drive to protect others, Nia’s journey this season means fulfilling her destiny as the superhero Dreamer.”

At night there were numerous parties, including Entertainment Weekly’s annual closing night party at FLOAT at the Hard Rock Hotel.  The most anticipated party of Comic-Con, this year’s bash featured activations from presenting sponsor HBO, a photo booth from participating sponsor Instagram and tunes from DJ Michelle Pesce.

“I love Comic-Con for so many reasons; probably the most because it’s an amazing mix of people, with tons of fantastic cosplay and LGBT fans really pushing the envelope on gender-bending fun, both at the show and the events all around the Gaslamp area,” said Rick Rhoades.

During the EW party, Nafessa Williams, who stars in “Black Lightning” is the first African American superShero, talked with Los Angeles Blade about her role.

“Representation is important. What I find most rewarding about this role is when young gay black women tell me that after seeing my character onscreen, they feel normal and safe to be out as a lesbian,” Williams said.

She added: “That’s my only job as an actor,: to take on jobs that are going to inspire. We gotta be who we are unapologetically.”

“Black Lightning” season 2 will premiere on The CW on Oct. 9.

Williams is a superShero in real life too.

“I have always wanted to fly. I have lived in the West Coast for years, to be able to get there quickly would be great. I think I could help save the world if I could fly. We don’t have a lot of time, and if we can get to people who are in need quicker, then maybe we can solve some issues,” Williams said.

During the panel for Netflix’s “Voltron: Legendary Defender” the showrunner, Lauren Montgomery, announced that the lead character will be getting a partner this season.

“It’s something that’s been part of his character from the get-go,” added executive producer, Joaquim Dos Santos, who said  that the news was delayed due to their strategy of shifting around the character backstories, along with the decision to not kill off Shiro.
When a fan asked if Shiro and Adam was gay or bisexual, Dos Santos said: “They’re in a relationship.”

The superhero series returns on August 10th.

Malcolm Venable, gay senior editor at TV Guide, attended his very first Comic-Con.

“It was eye-opening, to say the least. I’m not exaggerating when I say I was changed,” he enthused.

“Historically, when it comes to huge events, I have covered — let’s just call it what it is — snootier and more exclusive fare like New York Fashion Week, the Grammys and other award shows where the crowd is peacocking and low-key competing with one another for best outfit, best connection to get backstage and so on. And I saw that at Comic-Con, for sure, but I was most struck by the openness, the welcoming atmosphere and the sense of inclusion that felt natural, not forced,” he acknowledged.

Venable loved the inclusive vibe.

“Everyone was super friendly and respectful; it felt like the black and brown people, women, people with physical disabilities and the LGBTQ people were welcomed with respect, open arms and smiles. I was expecting to spend my days colliding into sweaty nerds but ended up finding a little slice of nirvana where everyone could be themselves,” he noted.

“I can’t recall seeing much specifically LGBTQ cosplay, but there was some representation in panels: from ‘Black Lightning’s’ black lesbian character to the news that there might be a queer love triangle on ‘Riverdale.’”

“There could be more — I was actually hoping to see more queer cosplay — but when I saw a gang of Asian girls dressed as backup dancers from Beyonce’s legendary Coachella performance, I squealed with delight,” he quipped. “It clicked for me: Comic Con is, for fans, a place to celebrate identity, revel in feeling like an outsider  and reject conforming, which is the queerest thing ever. I can’t wait to go back!”

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Movies

‘Cured’ beautifully chronicles fight for dignity

New doc revisits APA designation of homosexuality as a sickness

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Disguised as ‘Dr. H. Anonymous’ in an oversized tuxedo and distorted Nixon mask, Dr. John Fryer sent shock waves through the APA’s 1972 convention. (Photo by Kay Tobin; courtesy Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library)

At the 1970 American Psychiatric Association convention, in front of 10,000 professional members, LGBTQ activists had a single rejoinder to decades of APA designation of homosexuality as a sickness in need of treatment: “There is no ‘cure’ for that which is not a disease.” It marked the first direct clash with a psychiatric profession that had classified homosexuality as a mental disorder and advised everything from talk therapy to psychologically destructive shock therapy to “cure” homosexuality. 

After Stonewall, gay activists concluded that the classification of homosexuality as a mental illness by the APA would hold back the advancement of the gay rights movement. To secure equality, activists knew they had to debunk the idea that they are sick. 

The struggle to remove homosexuality from the APA’s definition of mental illness is beautifully chronicled in the forthcoming documentary “Cured” — beautifully because the filmmakers contrast erroneous characterizations of homosexuality by mid-century psychiatrists with mid-century photographs that bore witness to gay people’s actual nature. 

Getting the APA to change required more than storming conferences. Gay activists, for instance, pinpointed sympathetic young psychiatrists who could act to reform the APA from within and helped them win seats on the Board of Trustees. Meanwhile, the culture was changing. In the 1970s, gay visibility was growing, which boosted the campaign to end the sickness label. 

At its 1972 convention, the APA offered a platform to gay rights activists Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings. The duo invited Dr. John Fryer to testify about what it was like to be a gay psychiatrist. Fearing damage to his reputation (he had previously lost a position for being gay), Fryer donned a mask and adopted the title H. Anonymous. Despite his cloaked persona, his testimony was, in the words of one attendee, a “game-changer.” 

Fryer spoke as a gay man with “real flesh and blood stand[ing] up before this organization and ask[ing] to be listened to” and evoked the great emotional toll of being forced to live in the closet — “this is the greatest loss: our honest humanity.” The tide was turning but the intransigent faction needed a few more kicks. Representing a new generation of psychiatrists, Dr. Charles Silverstein would lay down the gauntlet: The APA could either continue to promote “undocumented theories that have unjustly harmed a great number of people” or accept the genuine science that being gay was no illness. At the next year’s convention, in a final clash between opposing sides, Gay Activist Alliance member Ronald Gold pointed out the absurdity that a medical practice predicated on making sick people well was making “gay people sick.” The APA ended its mental illness classification in 1974. 

“Cured” represents a growing awareness of the history of “curing” homosexuality. Netflix recently premiered “Pray Away” about the so-called “ex-gays” who promoted conversion therapy, the destructive practice by fundamentalist Christian quacks. The film “Boy Erased” (2018) took a similar sledgehammer to conversion therapy. 

Precisely because of the long-term ill-effects of stigmatizing gay consciousness, the LGBTQ community has in recent years targeted conversion therapy. Twenty states have banned conversion therapy for minors, and an additional five states have enacted partial bans. 

Although thoroughly discredited by medical professionals, including the APA, conversion therapy continues to harm thousands of youths each year. While “Cured” is instructive for LGBTQ activists combatting conversion therapy nationwide, it has an even more important lesson. 

“There isn’t anything wrong with them, so there can’t be anything wrong with me,” is how one gay man remembers feeling upon entering a gay bar, witnessing convivial gay men and realizing it was time to ditch his homophobic shrink and embrace himself. 

It struck a deep chord with me because I had a similar epiphany as a young man. Feeling my way around my sexuality as a grad student in New York, it all finally came together one night at a Greenwich bar as I sat across from two gay men and chatted about traveling and career ambitions. I am doing nothing wrong, I thought. It made no sense to be afraid of living my life as a gay man.

Our determination to live openly remains a potent inspiration for those still struggling with acceptance, and the strongest rebuke of those who would seek to erase us. 

“Cured” premieres on PBS on Oct. 11. 

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Books

A bisexual coming-of-age tale with heart

‘Things We Couldn’t Say’ offers pleasant surprises

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(Book cover image courtesy of Scholastic)

‘Things We Couldn’t Say’
By Jay Coles
c.2021, Scholastic $18.99/320 pages

You’d like an explanation, please.

Why something is done or not, why permission is denied, you’d like to hear a simple reason. You’ve been asking “Why?” since you were two years old but now the older you get, the more urgent is the need to know – although, in the new book “Things We Couldn’t Say” by Jay Coles, there could be a dozen becauses.

Sometimes, mostly when he didn’t need it to happen, Giovanni Zucker’s birth mother took over his thoughts.

It wasn’t as though she was the only thing he had to think about. Gio was an important part of the basketball team at Ben Davis High School; in fact, when he thought about college, he hoped for a basketball scholarship. He had classes to study for, two best friends he wanted to hang out with, a little brother who was his reason to get up in the morning, and a father who was always pushing for help at the church he ran. As for his romantic life, there wasn’t much to report: Gio dated girls and he’d dated guys and he was kinda feeling like he liked guys more.

So no, he didn’t want to think about his birth mother. The woman who walked out on the family when Gio was a little kid didn’t deserve his consideration at all. There was just no time for the first woman who broke his heart.

It was nice to have distractions from his thoughts. Gio’s best friends had his back. He knew pretty much everybody in his Indianapolis neighborhood. And the guy who moved across the street, a fellow b-baller named David, was becoming a good friend.

A very good friend. David was bisexual, too.

But just as their relationship was beginning, the unthinkable happened: Gio’s birth mother reached out, emailed him, wanted to meet with him, and he was torn. She said she had “reasons” for abandoning him all those years ago, and her truth was not what he’d imagined.

There are a lot of pleasant surprises inside “Things We Couldn’t Say.”

From the start, author Jay Coles gives his main character a great support system, and that’s a uniquely good thing. Gio enjoys the company of people who want the best for him, and it’s refreshing that even the ones who are villains do heroic things.

Everyone in this book, in fact, has heart, and that softens the drama that Coles adds – which leads to another nice surprise: there’s no overload of screeching drama here. Overwrought teen conflict is all but absent; even potential angsts that Gio might notice in his urban neighborhood are mentioned but not belabored. This helps keep readers focused on a fine, relatable, and very realistic coming-of-age story line.

This book is aimed at readers ages 12-and-up, but beware that there are a few gently explicit, but responsibly written, pages that might not be appropriate for kids in the lower target range. For older kids and adults, though, “Things We Couldn’t Say” offers plenty of reasons to love it.

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Television

Father & Trans son musical duo make history on NBC’s ‘The Voice’

“I do have a special connection to the concept of a Blind Audition where the only thing that matters is the art and who the person is inside”

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Jim and Sasha Allen performing on NBC's The Voice, Sept. 21, 2021 (Screenshot via NBC)

BURBANK – The unique folksy blend of the voices in a sweet rendition of the John Denver classic song “Leaving on a Jet Plane” this week on NBC’s The Voice, caused celebrity judges Kelly Clarkson and Ariana Grande to mash their buttons and turn their chairs around and face the performance.

Unbeknownst to the entire panel of judges, which also includes John Legend and Blake Shelton, they were witnessing a bit of history for the reality musical talent search television show. On stage was 57-year-old music teacher Jim Allen and his son Sasha- the moment was groundbreaking as the 19-year-old teen singer is a Trans male.

In the pre-performance video profile, the younger Allen reflected “I do have a special connection to the concept of a Blind Audition, where the only thing that matters is the art and who the person is inside.” Allen went on to detail more of his background; “I was born female, and I never felt comfortable, and it ate away at me the more I grew up.”

The pair from Newtown, Connecticut have an obvious deep bond. Referring to his kid, the elder Allen said: ““It’s a parent’s job to listen to your child, even when it’s hard to understand them,” he then added. “And that brought forth extreme sadness at not having understood what he had been going through for years. […] While it is such a big and extraordinary thing to absorb, there are fundamental things that don’t change about a person. And it’s nice to be at that point where, you know, it’s not a big deal.”

Jim and Sasha Allen (Screenshot via NBC)

“I remember at night just laying in bed and thinking, ‘If I could just wake up as a completely different person, I would do it. I would give up everything I have to be able to live in peace and live comfortably without being tormented internally.’ I used to write in notebooks, ‘I feel like a boy. I want this so bad.’ And I’d shred it up into such tiny pieces, because I was so scared for anybody to know,” the younger Allen shared.

“The only way to feel like me was to transition to male. I dealt with a lot of hateful comments, whether it was from my classmates or from teachers. I wouldn’t have been able to get through high school without music and without art to express what I was going through,” he said.

Duo Jim and Sasha Allen Sing John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” | The Voice Blind Auditions 2021:

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