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A conversation with Rick Chavez Zbur: it’s about service to others

“In order to improve the lives of LGBTQ people, we need to focus on all the vulnerable communities that we’re a part of”

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Rick Chavez Zbur (center) (Photo Credit: Lindsay Melanie Photography)

LOS ANGELES – Rick Chavez Zbur has left Equality California, the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization, much different than he found it. The group has quadrupled in size, been at the forefront of passing some of the most progressive LGBTQ+ rights bills in the country and taking on the Trump administration.

Earlier this month he passed the reins over to a new leadership team led by Tony Hoang who succeeded him as Executive Director on October 16, 2021.  

Zbur is proud of his work at Equality California. From passing legislation that made PrEP and Pap available to challenging the Trump administration’s trans military ban, he was upfront and center for it all — championing social justice for the whole LGBTQ+ community, even when there were questions about if that model would work. 

“Will your membership and your base continue supporting an organization that has much more of a social justice mission?” Zbur recalls hearing when he took over Equality California in 2014. 

He tells the Blade he thinks the stereotypes and misperceptions about the LGBTQ+ community being primarily white and affluent led to the skepticism. But “that’s not the case,” he said. “Our community supports equality, and everyone understands that in order to improve the lives of LGBTQ people, we need to focus on all the vulnerable communities that we’re a part of.”

Now, Zbur is ready for a new challenge: running for Assembly District 50. The death of his sister Jackie, who lost her three year battle with ALS in September 2020, was at the forefront of his decision. He recalls his sister sitting him down to make him promise he would try to find some way of doing something in public service. 

“Since Jackie passed, I’ve thought long and hard about the next phase of my life — how I can make the greatest impact on the toughest issues our communities face: healthcare, the environment, civil rights and economic inequality,” he writes on his campaign website

One of the most significant factors contributing to his decision was watching his sister’s struggle financially after her diagnosis. 

“By the time she got ill, she had saved up enough to put down a down payment on a very modest two bedroom condo and was starting to save for her retirement,” said Zbur. “And then she got sick. When that happened, she couldn’t work anymore, so she quickly got on Social Security disability, which was $2,100 a month. — it was barely enough to pay her mortgage. She quickly spent down her savings, and that’s when I started helping her.”

“I was, luckily, someone with great privilege and had those years of savings from when I was at Latham & Watkins as an attorney, but what do what do average people do when they’re in similar circumstances, if they don’t have the resources themselves or someone in their family, they can sort of step up?” he said. “That’s part of the reason why we have so many people in wheelchairs that are sitting out on the streets.”

Since he was a child, Zbur has been interested in politics, handing out literature at polling places with his father when he was as young as 10 years old. “I remember watching the 1968 Democratic convention as a kid and just being glued to the tube,” he said. “I always thought that I would do something in government somehow.” 

How he would come to work in politics was less clear, however. Zbur grew up in a rural farming community in New Mexico. His father, Richard Thomas Zbur, dropped out of high school to support his family. He would later join the Air Force and serve in the Korean War before moving to New Mexico. Zbur’s mother, Erlinda Chavez, came from poor farmers who lived in the Rio Grande Valley for generations. 

His father attended college in New Mexico and graduate school in Utah, largely thanks to the GI bill. Zbur and his family ended up moving back to New Mexico to care for his aging grandparents. The farm and parents taught him the values of hard work — values he learned well as he became the first person in his small hometown to attend an Ivy League university.

“I mean, they didn’t even administer the ACT or the SAT because there were not enough kids in my graduating class,” he said. 

Growing up in rural New Mexico also brought its fair share of problems. “I think I knew back in my bones that I was probably gay,” said Zbur. “The farm community was really oppressive — you couldn’t admit that you were gay.”

“I wanted to get out,” he said. 

He wouldn’t start to reckon with the fact he was gay until law school. “I just wouldn’t even let myself think about it because of my background, coming from this little farm community,” he said. “It was just something that was viewed with such a stigma that I wouldn’t even let myself go there. But as I started getting older, I started grappling with it. I had my first relationship, and I told my sister and a few friends.”

In realizing he was gay, he also realized there was not a clear path forward in government. “Other than Harvey Milk, who seemed really far away, no one in the country could run and win as an openly gay person.”

After graduating from Yale and Harvard Law School, Rick moved to Los Angeles and joined Latham & Watkins, one of the nation’s most respected law firms. He stayed for over 25 years, becoming one of California’s leading environmental and government law attorneys. He didn’t think much about politics much during his first few years at the firm — that was until the AIDS epidemic. 

“I was just angry about it,” said Zbur. ” And I was a relatively idealistic, unsophisticated, young person, and I decided that I was going to try to take my Congressman out.”

He lost the race, not realizing how difficult it would be to defeat a sitting incumbent, but he did win the Democratic primary. “I decided that I tried the government service thing, and now I was going to go back and just really try to contribute through the organizations that I cared about,” he said. 

Since then, Zbur says he has learned plenty of lessons and feels more than ready to serve the people of Assembly District 50.

“It’ll be an honor and a privilege to be able to serve the community in this capacity,” he said. “Should I have the privilege of being elected.”

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Secretary Buttigieg’s son back home after spending Halloween in hospital

“After 3 weeks in and out of hospitals, 125 miles in an ambulance, and a terrifying week on a ventilator, Gus is home”

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U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, husband Chasten and son Gus (Photo Credit: Chasten Buttigieg)

WASHINGTON – U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten Buttigieg, shared that their son Joseph Augustus, referred to as Gus, is home from the hospital after spending weeks in and out of the hospital. 

“After 3 weeks in and out of hospitals, 125 miles in an ambulance, and a terrifying week on a ventilator, Gus is home, smiling, and doing great!” Chasten Buttigieg tweeted. “We’re so relieved, thankful, and excited for him and Penelope to take DC by storm! Thank you so much for all of the love and prayers.”

He also thanked “the countless medical professionals who helped Gus (and his dads and sister) along the way. We are so grateful for your tenderness and care.”

The Buttigieg’s revealed last week that Gus had to spend Halloween in the hospital after falling ill. 

“As you can see, we’re spending this Halloween in the hospital,” Chasten wrote on Twitter at the time. “Gus has been having a rough go of it but we’re headed in the right direction. We’re so thankful for all of the love and support shown to our family these last few months.”

The couple has still not revealed why their son was hospitalized. 

In September, the couple revealed that they welcomed two babies, Joseph August and Penelope Rose, to their family.

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Secretary Buttigieg spends Halloween in hospital with ill son

The couple did not reveal why their son was hospitalized

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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg & husband Chasten via Twitter

WASHINGTON — U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and his husband Chasten Buttigieg spent Halloween in the hospital after their son Joseph August, referred to as Gus, fell ill. 

“As you can see, we’re spending this Halloween in the hospital,” Chasten wrote on Twitter. “Gus has been having a rough go of it but we’re headed in the right direction. We’re so thankful for all of the love and support shown to our family these last few months.”

The couple did not reveal why their son was hospitalized.

The Buttigieg’s revealed in September that they welcomed two babies, Joseph August and Penelope Rose, to their family.

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I Am a Queer Filmmaker: Can I tell you my story?

I think the best way to eradicate the anti-LGBTQ hatred that persists around the world is to show the breadth of queer people’s humanity

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James Patrick Nelson (Courtesy of the author)

By James Patrick Nelson | BROOKLYN – Our community has made enormous progress in recent years. We are living in a time of unprecedented queer visibility, which empowers us to keep moving forward, and to heal the scars that linger from our recent past.

“Be Will instead of Jack.”

Screenshot of Eric McCormack (Will) and Sean Hayes (Jack) in “Will and Grace”

When I was 14-years-old, “Will and Grace” was a cultural phenomenon — the first queer-led show to attract a world-wide audience. The night I came out to my father, he told me, “Be Will instead of Jack”. At the time, I dismissed this as a harmless laugh-line.

But looking back, it reveals how limited representation fuels internalized homophobia. Apart from being openly femme-shaming, the comment made it sound like there were only two “types” of gay people — flaming or passing.

High school photo of me, shortly after coming out.

And I knew I didn’t fit into either category. I knew my identity was more nuanced and complex than the archetypes on TV. But at that age, having never seen myself reflected on screen, I bought into the idea that there were only a handful of ways to be gay. And so, I spent a lot of my youth struggling to fit in, always feeling like I needed to change something about my body or my voice or my fashion, if I wanted to be part of the club.

But then 2020 offered me a lot of introspection, and I realized I don’t have to fit into a mold. All of the fabulous nuances of my identity are all part of my queerness. And I don’t have to change myself to be part of a community. When I make art and tell stories, I get to build communities, founded on love and authenticity.

Will and Jack are not the only options. There are countless ways to be gay!

Representation Matters

The question remains, how do queer people learn to cherish the remarkable nuances of our identities if we rarely see nuanced, authentic portraits of ourselves on screen?

Cover Image of the Advocate article linked below

Of course, there’s a big difference between nuance and authenticity. Scores of actors have been nominated for Oscars for giving nuanced performances of queer characters. In 2018, the majority of actors who won an Oscar were playing a queer character.

But in these widely distributed films… the actors have always been straight.

No one is saying that an actor has to be exactly like his character in every way, or that talent is a secondary concern. The debate is about access and equality! While queer characters appear with increasing frequency, queer actors are so rarely given the spotlight, despite the authenticity they would bring.

Wikipedia chart listing leading actresses who’ve been nominated for Oscars for queer roles.

When queer stories are populated with straight actors, and geared toward the perceived sensibilities of a straight audience, they often perpetuate unconscious stereotypes.

Queer characters in leading roles are usually in turmoil about their sexuality. And if they have a love interest, they’re always hetero-presenting and meet an unattainable standard of beauty.

Straight people get how painful it is to live in a culture that tells us we have to look a certain way to be loved. Imagine that compounded with the idea that you have to pass as straight to be worthy of love in the first place.

After all, “Be Will instead of Jack” could also be interpreted as “Be more like the one who’s played by a straight actor.”

This pervasive heterosexism means the rest of us never see a healthy or affirming reflection of ourselves. So what’s to be done?

We have to tell our own stories

In recent years, American television has generally done a better job than American cinema at showcasing LGBTQ+ people in leading roles.

For Years to Come” creative references.

Some of my favorites are “Work in Progress” on Showtime, “Please Like Me” on Hulu, and “Feel Good” on Netflix, all examples of LGBTQ+ artists creating and starring in semi-autobiographical stories — a huge inspiration.

I’ve been a working professional actor my entire life, I’ve been screenwriting for about six years, and I’ve recently started producing my own work. I spent 2020 writing and developing a number of film/TV projects, all focused on queer protagonists and majority-queer ensembles.

Recent queer-centric work for stage and film (Clockwise: Waking Up, Speak What We Feel, For Years to Come, Immortal Longings, and Without Touch).

I realized recently that both of the produced feature films I’ve written were sparked by perspectives rooted in my queer-identity. But in both cases, I let the queerness get buried, and the films suffered as a result. From now on, I’m determined to lean into my queerness as a catalyst for my work.

Queer filmmakers don’t have to wait to be picked. We don’t need anyone’s permission. We need to start telling our own stories — here’s one of mine.

When my mother was dying, I found out my father was a porn director.


For Years to Come” poster art. Photo by Evan Smith.

In 2010, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. She received in-home hospice care, and I went home to be with her. I knew it was the last time I’d ever see her, so we had a lot of candid conversations. I sat on the bed and asked her about her childhood, her dreams, her regrets, the men she dated before my father — everything!

She freely admitted she spent a lot of her life complaining about the small stuff, like she had all the time in the world. But as I sat with her on the bed, she was more peaceful than I’d ever seen her. She didn’t want to waste any more time. She was thankful for the sunshine and the breeze and the smiles on our faces.

So of course, I adopted this same spirit of frankness with my father. He and I were driving to Costco one day, and I was asking him questions — and he casually mentioned that back in the day, he was a highly paid writer-director of porn!

My head spun around. This was the last thing I expected from the humble man who I remembered painting the fence, watering the lawn, and driving me to school. I was flabbergasted by these two new realities — My mother is dying, and my father’s a porn director!

For Years to Come” visual references. See citations above.

When a parent dies, your narrative about them changes. If you idolized them, they become vulnerable. If you were angry at them, their faults become easy to forgive. Either way, they become a very different person. In this case, my narrative about both my parents got turned upside down at the same time!

After years of development — and a pandemic, which heightened my urgency to make art about grief and healing — I’m finally telling my story in an episodic dramedy called “For Years to Come,” the story of a young gay man who falls in love with his dead mother’s hospice nurse, while struggling to reconcile with his elderly father, who’s secretly a porn director.

Left: Director/Editor Micah Stuart; Center: Me with Co-Producer Jay DeYonker; Right: DP Dennis Zanatta

The Queerness is Not the Conflict

Now, you might be wondering, “What does any of that have to do with being gay?” And the answer is… nothing, really. And that’s exactly the point. What I want to see are stories in which queer people are central characters, but their queerness is not the central conflict.

For Years to Come” poster art. Original photo by Taylor Noel.

Cis-het audiences can relate to stories about losing a parent or finding love. If they can go beyond passive sympathy (watching queer people struggle with “queer problems”), and lean into active empathy (seeing themselves in a queer protagonist)… that feels like genuine progress toward equality.

Meanwhile, queer audiences are hungry for these kind of stories! We want to see ourselves reflected without a filter and without an apology. We’re tired of sitting on the margins. We are the stars of our own lives, and our lives are about more than just the struggles of coming out. We are richly complex, multi-faceted human beings, with endlessly diverse and distinct experiences, and we deserve to be seen, for all that we are.

I think the best way to eradicate the anti-LGBTQ hatred that persists around the world is to show the breadth of queer people’s humanity, in full-throated, heartfelt stories about all that makes us unique, and all we have in common.

For Years to Come” is a vibrant and irreverent story about people redefining themselves and opening their hearts to each other. My creative team and I go into production this winter, and we’re beyond excited to share our story with you! Visit this link to learn more.

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James Patrick Nelson is a Queer writer-actor-poet-filmmaker loving life in NYC.

www.james-patrick-nelson.com

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The preceding article was previously published by Prism & Pen– Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling and is republished by permission.

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