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Virginia is for Lovers, not political agendas

Did a politician leverage state’s brand for his personal agenda? Looking at ethics of politicians promoting state tourism during elections

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Photograph courtesy of the Virginia Tourism Corporation

By Rachel Scott Everett | RICHMOND – As a Virginian, I’ve always been proud of my state’s motto: “Virginia is for Lovers.”

The iconic slogan first appeared in a 1969 ad campaign for what is now Virginia Tourism Corporation. It was created by Martin and Woltz Inc., which later evolved into The Martin Agency, and has been in use ever since. 

Initially positioning the state as a destination for romance, “Virginia is for Lovers” soon gave way to various interpretations. With so much to experience, Virginia has become a welcoming place for history lovers, food lovers, nature lovers—all kinds of lovers. That’s the premise behind a new national campaign, “Virginia is for…”, developed by The Martin Agency, that launched this spring.

“Virginia is for Lovers” resonates deeply with many—myself included. It’s an example of the power that emotionally driven branding can have on our psyche. In an interview earlier this year, Virginia Tourism brand director Lindsey Norment said the slogan’s popularity remains because “it allows Virginians to make it their own and feel prideful of that.” 

Indeed, love is a powerful driver when it comes to persuading people. Love is inherently welcoming, positive and inclusive.

Love is also apolitical, which is why I was disheartened to see a new Virginia Tourism video prominently featuring Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin.

The stand-alone 60-second promotional piece, titled “Welcome to Virginia,” seems to take cues from The Martin Agency’s flagship campaign, but the format and overall tone are entirely different. More anthemic in feel, it highlights different people speaking directly to camera. The sole elected official, Gov. Youngkin, is a central figure in the video and its primary narrator.

Not long after it begins, Youngkin makes his appearance on camera. Dressed in a crisp white shirt, sleeves rolled up and navy slacks, he walks with a confident stride along the track of the Richmond Raceway. Looking directly at camera, he smiles as he introduces himself.

“In Virginia, there’s a million different ways to say welcome,” he declares. “I’m Governor Glenn Youngkin, and I want to be one of the first.” The words “Governor Glenn Youngkin” accompany him on screen.

Welcome to Virginia:

The video continues as Youngkin provides the voiceover for a series of lifestyle shots featuring an impressively diverse cast of characters. We’re welcomed by different types of Virginians: a long-haired surfer dude with his pals, an edgy millennial bartender serving up a cocktail, and a varied group of barbecue lovers, all ages and races, sitting at the same table. “Bievenido!” a Latino boy exclaims.

Youngkin appears on camera again—this time in the driver’s seat of a race car, looking cool and confident. He offers one last welcome before the video ends, signed off by “Welcome to Virginia” and the “Virginia is for Lovers” logo.

On initial glance, the video might not seem like anything out of the ordinary. To many, it will come across as a fun, upbeat tourism piece for Virginia. 

But is it just a feel-good piece promoting Virginia Tourism? Or did a politician leverage my beloved state’s brand for his own personal agenda?

Certainly it’s not a novel idea that a governor might be in a video to promote state tourism. Last year, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy of Alaska was featured in his state’s tourism marketing campaign. He touted Alaska as a Covid-safe state that was “leading the nation in all the important health metrics,” as an incentive for people to travel there. Later, though, it was revealed that when the ad ran, Alaska actually ranked 30th in the country for vaccination rates.

In 2020, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota appeared in, and narrated, a state tourism ad airing on Fox News. The 30-second ad, which ran for two weeks, cost taxpayers over $800,000. Noem received national publicity upwards of 85 million views, but it’s debatable if state tourism increased. AP News reported that while Google searches for “Kristi Noem” peaked, terms like “South Dakota tourism” and “visit South Dakota” remained stagnant.

But it’s a tourism campaign involving Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey that’s particularly noteworthy. 

In 2013, coming out of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Christie got star billing in his state’s tourism ads. The “Stronger Than the Storm” campaign ran leading up to the gubernatorial election in New Jersey. The campaign itself, along with where it aired and the timing of its release, gave Christie an unexpected platform to hone his brand image and gain greater exposure across key Northeast states.

His opponent, Democratic candidate Barbara Buono, said the ads gave him an unfair advantage, calling it both “supremely arrogant and wildly inappropriate.” Buono lost the election. Two years later, Christie announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential election.

There are important parallels to draw here. 

Last year, Youngkin became the first Republican to win a statewide election in Virginia in over a decade. The former businessman, who had never held elective office, ran a successful campaign by cultivating his own distinct brand, positioning himself as an enthusiastic, moderate candidate who appealed to both forever Trumpers and never Trumpers.

With his can-do attitude and signature red fleece vest, Youngkin portrayed an affable, everyman image—positive, charismatic and relatable. He kept his messaging simple and concise, advocating for broad issues like safety, education and cost of living.

But many claimed that two faces of Glenn Youngkin emerged once elected. Just 10 days into office, he began receiving blowback over new policies in his conservative agenda which didn’t appear to align with his calls for unity or moving the state forward.

Youngkin immediately signed an executive order to root out critical race theory in Virginia, which isn’t mentioned in the Virginia Department of Education’s curriculum (Politifact). Asserting protection of “parental rights,” he also supported measures to regulate explicit content in schools, force teachers to out their LGBTQ+ students, and most recently, restrict the rights of trans students.

Despite publicly distancing himself from Trump during his campaign, he has since hired many veterans of the Trump administration, including a former Trump EPA head who has repeatedly minimized the threat of climate change. Youngkin also plans to withdraw Virginia from a greenhouse gas initiative established to help fight climate change regionally. 

And when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Youngkin reinforced his stance as a “pro-life” governor by pursuing a 15-week abortion ban in Virginia and headlining a pro-life gala in Washington, D.C., for a prominent anti-abortion group.

None of these policies seem to suggest Virginia is moving forward. 

In fact, an opinion piece in The Washington Post states that Youngkin’s culture wars are good for him but bad for Virginia business, causing the state to be viewed as a less welcoming place—an insight that seems to be the antithesis to the “Virginia is for Lovers” brand.

I reached out to Virginia Tourism to get more information, which left me with more questions than answers.

For starters, the video was not created or produced by The Martin Agency, Virginia Tourism’s current agency of record. According to a spokesperson at Virginia Tourism, the concept for the video was developed by Virginia Tourism and produced by POOLHOUSE, the agency behind Youngkin’s winning brand campaign when he ran for governor.

On its website, POOLHOUSE says it creates “bold campaigns that win elections and move people to action.” A Google search reveals the agency has been referred to as a “GOP-focused political ad firm” and a “scrappy Republican ad agency.” Its Instagram feed includes congratulatory posts for Republican politician wins, a recap of its favorite ads for Youngkin, and a quote that speaks to its desire to be “the best political agency in the business.” This year, POOLHOUSE plans to open a D.C. office to pick up advocacy clients and more congressional business.

Officials at Virginia Tourism did not directly respond when asked if they were aware POOLHOUSE was the political ad agency behind Youngkin’s campaign. Instead, they provided the following statement: “POOLHOUSE was selected because of their outstanding creative work and reputation, not only in Virginia but across the country, for producing beautiful videos.” Yet Virginia Tourism also said that when the project was put out to bid, they only received one offer, which resulted in the contract with POOLHOUSE.

POOLHOUSE did not respond to inquiry by phone or email by the time this article was published.

As for the purpose and timing of the video, Virginia Tourism said it is “an evergreen piece to showcase the beautiful state of Virginia and to welcome travelers to Virginia” and it launched on Labor Day weekend “to coincide with a high-impact travel weekend.”

However, its release also coincides with the lead-up to this year’s midterm elections on Nov. 8. Most of the country is holding state legislative elections and there are 36 gubernatorial seats on the ballot. A week after Youngkin shared the “Welcome to Virginia” video in a retweet, he posted a political ad in which he appears promoting Virginia Republican congressional candidate Yesli Vega. According to her website, she is working with POOLHOUSE as well. 

While only in office a few months, Youngkin has been spending a lot of time outside of the state he’s supposed to be governing.

Many news outlets report that he’s actively endorsing Republican politicians running for office in key swing states. So far, he’s expressed support for GOP gubernatorial candidates Paul LePage of Maine, who has an extensive history of racist remarks; Kari Lake of Arizona, who has appeared with Nazi sympathizer and QAnon-linked activists; and Tudor Dixon of Michigan, who opposes abortion even in cases of rape because she believes there’s “healing through the baby.”

These candidates are all part of an alarming trend of election deniers running for governor this year as well.

In preparation to wade into national politics, Youngkin established two political organizations, America’s Spirit and Spirit of Virginia (the latter of which paid for Vega’s ad mentioned above). Both groups can accept contributions of any size to fund Youngkin’s political efforts, which include his campaigning for other GOP candidates, as well as his own self-promotion.

This summer, Youngkin met with Republican megadonors amid hints he’s mulling a White House bid. One of his midterm stops will include Nevada, a 2024 early state for presidential candidate nominations.

After the upset in Virginia, many believe Youngkin’s win gave the GOP a winning blueprint for 2022 and beyond. Part of his strategy included establishing an early media spend to introduce himself and begin building his brand in a campaign as soon as possible.

That campaign, into which Youngkin put $20 million of his own money, was fueled by a robust media buy including 40 TV videos and hundreds of radio, digital and design advertisements, including bumper stickers in multiple languages. Incidentally, Youngkin is considered one of the nation’s richest politicians, with a net worth of $470 million.

“One thing that Youngkin did very smartly was getting started earlier, particularly with media,” POOLHOUSE CEO Will Ritter said in an interview with Fox Business last year. “That means if you’re running in ’22, you need to be thinking how you’re going to get your message to people as soon as possible.”

Indeed, timing, placement and context are important components to launching a brand.

While the “Welcome to Virginia” video has no associated media buy, it will be seen extensively through state-owned platforms such as Virginia Welcome Centers and the state’s nine commercial airports, including major hubs like Dulles International Airport and Reagan National Airport, outside Washington, D.C. Combined, the foot traffic in these areas alone translates to millions of impressions, giving Youngkin unprecedented exposure to a broad, diverse audience made up of travelers from all over the country.

Because the video is intended to be an evergreen piece (meaning relevant for long-term purposes), it has the potential to run during the entire term of Youngkin’s office, as well as the time of his campaigning should he throw his hat (or fleece vest) into the ring in pursuit of the GOP presidential nomination. Like Christie’s “Stronger Than the Storm” campaign, the “Welcome to Virginia” video portrays Youngkin in a positive, heroic way that not only gets his name out, but bolsters his brand on the national stage.

Given all these factors, as well as continued press about Youngkin’s potential political aspirations (which are even making international headlines), it’s not implausible to think that the “Welcome to Virginia” video could be playing a role in a much larger agenda: a long game to establish Youngkin as a viable presidential candidate for 2024 or even 2028.

A recent article in Vanity Fair cautions us not to be fooled by the moderate “suburban dad vibe.” From traditional Republican to culture warrior, Youngkin has become a public advocate of Trump-backed election deniers, which not only normalizes extremists as credible representatives of this country but poses a serious threat to our democracy. 

As a creative professional, it’s been horrifying to come to terms with the role branding is playing in our politics. From misleading messaging to polished image-making, the strategies around crafting a politician’s brand are getting less transparent, more insidious, and farther from the truth.

I care deeply about my country, my home state of Virginia, and my local community in Richmond, which is why I felt compelled to dig deeper into the “Welcome to Virginia” video. 

I don’t like feeling that people in the video may not have been aware of Youngkin’s involvement (or his political agency), or worse, were used for ulterior motives. I don’t want my state to be represented by a polarizing political figure whose brand has been referred to as Trump LightTrump in a red vest, and Trumpism Without Trump.

And I don’t think it’s appropriate for what I perceive to be my tax dollars helping a politician to promote himself for his personal ambitions under the guise of a tourism video—particularly a governor actively working to roll back my rights as a woman and instill countless other antiquated policies that seem at odds with the values of many Virginians, as well as the “Virginia is for Lovers” brand.

When Youngkin was elected, the Human Rights Campaign issued a statement that vowed to fight against his regressive agenda: “Glenn Youngkin’s anti-equality, anti-choice, racist tactics sought to sow fear and confusion, turning Virginian against Virginian for political gain,” said interim president Joni Madison. “Anti-equality extremists will continue to use bigotry to score political points. But we know that history has proven hate-filled electoral strategies ultimately stir the conscience of the nation.”

President Joe Biden also had some choice remarks about Youngkin: “Extremism can come in many forms,” he said at a grassroots event. “It can come in the rage of a mob driven to assault the Capitol. It can come in a smile and a fleece vest.” 

Over the years, I’ve written numerous essays about the power of branding. One of the most successful tactics of brand building is to infiltrate platforms that don’t obviously translate as advertising. It’s why brands take advantage of product placement in popular movies and series television. The “soft sell” exposure not only increases awareness of a brand, it enables people to develop a deep connection to it in a much more organic, natural way. 

In my essay “Canceling the Confederacy,” I explain how the United Daughters of the Confederacy found a way to shape the Confederacy brand by promoting the Lost Cause, a biased perspective of U.S. history, through an unassuming medium: school textbooks. It was an attempt at rewriting history, reinforced by the construction of Confederate monuments, and to this day, many still subscribe to its false narrative. 

And therein lies the danger.

Branding, in all its nuance and subtlety, can distort our perception of what’s real. It can skew or stretch the truth and influence our thoughts on a subliminal level. After all, there’s a fine line between the power of persuasion and the art of deception. And when politicians are involved, be assured it’s even more unclear.

To clarify, the issue at hand is not about a governor appearing in a state tourism video. It’s about Governor Youngkin appearing in a state tourism video produced by his own political agency. It’s about the timing of the video’s release during the lead-up to midterm elections in which he’s actively campaigning for other candidates. And it’s about the exposure this video gives Youngkin to millions of people from all over the country amid talks of his own potential presidential run.

Again, is it just a feel-good piece promoting Virginia Tourism? Or did a politician leverage my beloved state’s brand for his own personal agenda?

Everyone will draw their own conclusions, but it’s my hope that by raising awareness on the role branding plays in our politics, we can better understand the impact it has on our elections and the candidates who are running. 

More than anything, I hope this knowledge empowers us all to make informed choices at the ballot box. The preservation of our democracy may very well depend on it.

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Rachel Scott Everett is co-founder and creative director at EVERGIB, a nomadic creative studio specializing in strategically led advertising and branding. A champion of big ideas and the power of storytelling, Rachel believes creativity can be used as a force for good to improve the world we live in.

********************

The preceding commentary was originally published at Muse by Clio and is republished by permission.

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Commentary

Bed-wetting Dems jumping the gun on Biden

The debate was terrible but it doesn’t mean Trump is inevitable

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President Joe Biden (Screen capture via CNN)

President Biden’s disastrous debate performance last week predictably brought the usual bed-wetting and panicking among Beltway Democrats.  

Yes, the debate was bad and only reinforced many Americans’ concerns about Biden’s mental fitness and ability to do the rigorous job of president into his mid-80s. It’s clear that Biden’s supporters and staff were keeping him away from press conferences and interviews due to their private concerns about his ability to perform. That was a grave mistake. The American public deserves regular access to their president. More press conferences, interviews, and even, perhaps, a competitive primary would have given voters more chances to see Biden up close without the aid of edits or Teleprompters. As the New York Times noted, by this point in his presidency, Barack Obama had given 570 news conferences, Donald Trump had given 468, while Biden gave just 164.

But let’s take a beat and remember a few key factors.

Donald Trump delivered a disastrous debate performance, too, and is nearly as old as Biden. Trump has offered up a bewildering flurry of mental slips, verbal gaffes, and outright nonsense that should alarm everyone. 

When CNN’s Dana Bash asked Trump during the debate if he would do anything to address the climate crisis, his reply included this gem: “We had H2O” during his presidency. Huh? If Biden had said that, Fox News would run it on the hour for a week.

Frankly, I don’t care if Biden made a poo-poo in his pants during the debate. The alternative is a twice-impeached wannabe autocrat who is awaiting sentencing on 34 felony counts. Trump’s Project 2025, which he predictably and falsely denies knowing anything about, would be a war on women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and pretty much anyone who isn’t a white, cis, heterosexual, Christian male. His election would spell the end of our democracy as we know it with Trump and his allies vowing to expel career civil servants by the tens of thousands and replacing them with MAGA loyalists. Trump would round up, imprison, and deport hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Yes, the return of kids in cages. How quickly we forget. He would likely get two more Supreme Court picks following the expected retirements of Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, giving Trump a 5-4 MAGA majority, a truly terrifying prospect.

You can just imagine the Trump toadies who would be members of his Cabinet; think Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, who just reported to prison for contempt of Congress. 

Before you count Biden out, remember that he has surprised us before. His campaign was all but dead until Rep. Jim Clyburn endorsed him in the 2020 race, propelling him to the Democratic nomination over two-dozen opponents. He went on to defeat an incumbent president, never an easy feat, and send Trump packing. 

He skillfully navigated the Jan. 6 crisis. He has since delivered stellar off-the-cuff performances during State of the Union addresses. He expanded NATO and has led the fight against Putin, something that Trump would surely abandon. 

Biden spearheaded, passed, and signed landmark legislation on infrastructure, marriage equality, and gun reform. He championed the American Rescue Plan to finally end the pandemic after more than 1.1 million American deaths under Trump. He signed the CHIPS Act, which has triggered nearly $300 billion in manufacturing investments by American companies. He promised to sign the bipartisan immigration bill authored by right-wing Republican Sen. James Lankford that was derailed only because Trump instructed the sycophantic Mike Johnson to kill it. Biden rejoined the Paris Climate Accords, issued executive orders on abortion, and pardoned all federal offenses for simple marijuana possession. The list goes on. These are not minor achievements, especially given our divided government and divided electorate. Many of these accomplishments came despite predictions that Biden would be a weak president incapable of overcoming division to get anything substantive done. 

By any measure he has been a great president who inherited a disastrous economy, record deficits, and COVID. 

Given this outstanding record, it’s disappointing that gay Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) joined a handful of House Democrats in calling on Biden to withdraw. That was premature. Biden deserves a chance to reset and address the questions about his mental acuity. And if polls are to be believed, all of the battleground states remain within the margin of error so it doesn’t appear the debate proved as disastrous as many first assumed.

If Biden decides to drop out, it should be his decision and it’s unlikely that those few House Democrats will have any influence over it. If he doesn’t drop out, we must all double down to ensure he wins and that the Democrats hold the Senate and retake the House. The country, and our LGBTQ community, can’t afford another Trump term. 

Kevin Naff is editor of the Blade. Reach him at [email protected].

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Vote Democratic or July 4, 2025 will look very different

Biden’s debate performance was bad but the sky is not falling

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(Blade file photo by Michael Key)

As we celebrate the founding of our country, we must recognize the election on Nov. 5 could dramatically change how our country looks in the future. We can debate whether Joe Biden is the best candidate for Democrats on the ticket, but reality is, whoever the Democratic candidate is, they must defeat Donald Trump. Trump is a racist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic pig who was found liable for sexual assault and convicted of 34 felonies. A man who spouts lies every time he opens his mouth. A man who uses Hitler’s words, and said he will be a dictator on his first day in office. A man who said he will seek retribution on any opponent, using the Department of Justice and IRS to do his dirty work. 

Yes, President Joe Biden had a disastrous debate, and many pundits are calling for him to step down as the candidate. They are having a field day doing so, because none of them are involved in the process that would follow. None of them mention the two times in recent history, Democratic presidents chose to not run for a second term, Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman, a Republican won. This time the Republican alternative is the disgusting, evil, Donald Trump. Even the New York Times editorial board, when calling for Biden to step aside as a candidate, wrote, “If the race comes down to a choice between Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, the sitting president would be this board’s unequivocal pick. That is how much of a danger Mr. Trump poses.”

The simple truth is Biden feels he can win, and won’t step aside. The only person who could convince him to do so, is his wife, Jill Biden, and she has shown she will not do that. She reminds me a little of Nancy Reagan, who protected her husband when he had issues with cognition. 

What all Americans need to understand, is no American president makes decisions on their own, without massive consultation with advisers. They don’t meet foreign dignitaries alone, but with advisers. And President Biden has shown he has the most incredible group of advisers around him, maybe with the exception of those who prepared him for this debate. 

I have loads of questions for them. If President Biden had a cold as claimed, why didn’t they tell him to begin his first statement of the debate with an apology to the audience. Something like, “I want to take a moment to apologize to the TV audience on how my voice is today, and how it will sound to you. I have a severe cold and will sound raspier, and slower, but of course feeling a little ill would not keep me from being here today.” It could have changed the tenor of the debate. It would not have excused his poor performance, but may have given people a few thoughts in his favor. Then there was the closing two minutes. How is it possible the president wasn’t coached on ending the debate with the issues he has said he believes will win for Democrats: abortion, climate change, and saving democracy? The debate prep team kept him cloistered for a week; seems they could be sued for malpractice. 

Again, it was a disastrous debate for President Biden. But then rather than what the pundits are saying, grassroots Democrats are responding with money. The Biden campaign reported Saturday that it raised $27 million on Thursday and Friday. The hour after the debate ended was its best grassroots fundraising hour since Biden kicked off his reelection campaign, per the Hill

So contrary to the all the pundits, the sky is not falling. Yes, there is a lot more work to do than before the debate. But the focus for all Democrats, and all decent people, must be to ensure we don’t reelect Trump, because of what he would do to our country. How his election would change us. How if he did what he says, and tries to return all decisions on just about everything, to the states, it is not only women who must be scared. It is Blacks, the LGBTQ+ community, every minority; and young people who will live longest with the results of doing nothing to ameliorate climate change. They should all be very scared.

So happy 4th and here’s to hoping Americans are smart enough to vote correctly, and ensure July 4, 2025 will be just as happy. 

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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As fewer anti-LGBTQ bills pass, the fight gets harder

A growing indifference to suffering that is baked into the legal system

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(Photo by Proxima Studio/Bigstock)

BY RYAN THORESON | In recent years, advocates have faced an unprecedented avalanche of anti-LGBTQ legislation each spring. In 2024, however, the onslaught seems to have faltered somewhat. While hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills were once again introduced, as many state legislative sessions draw to a close, fewer bills have been enacted into law.

While that may seem like cause for celebration, it’s also cause for concern.

To be sure, the slowdown in anti-LGBTQ legislation is welcome. Beginning in 2020, legislation targeting transgender rights in particular had sailed through state legislatures, with the number and scope of hostile bills increasing each year. Unlike earlier years when one or two prominent anti-LGBTQ bills triggered a national pushback that often chastened lawmakers, hundreds of bills have been introduced during legislative sessions in the last four years, often with little debate or scrutiny, and dozens of them zealously passed into law.

Those bills do real damage when they are enacted, cutting LGBTQ people off from material benefits like health care and domestic violence sheltersrecognition by the state, and equal participation in public life. Even when they fail to become law, they have devastating effects on the mental health of LGBTQ people, throwing their lives into disarray and sapping valuable time and energy from LGBTQ communities. This especially affects children, with more than 90 percent of LGBTQ young people in a recent Trevor Project survey reporting that politics had negatively affected their personal well-being.

But the recent slowdown, far from being a positive signal, may well reflect a growing indifference to the suffering of LGBTQ people that is now baked into the political and legal system. Opponents of LGBTQ rights have normalized hostile rhetoric and enacted draconian laws that seemed unthinkable just a couple of years ago, and even ardent supporters of equality find themselves unsure how they might reverse state laws that unapologetically strip away LGBTQ rights.

If anything, it has become apparent that the damage that has been done since 2020 will most likely reverberate for a generation, and the past year shows that restoring and advancing LGBTQ rights will be a painstaking endeavor.

And one sobering reason for the slowing pace of anti-LGBTQ legislation is that, at this point, many conservative states have already stripped away important rights, particularly for transgender children. As of 2024, half of the states in the U.S. prohibit transgender girls from playing school sports, and half have banned or criminalized at least some forms of medically indicated healthcare.

Put differently, lawmakers aren’t targeting some rights this year because they’ve already eviscerated them.

Yet even as the pace of legislation slows, critical rights continue to be stripped away. According to the ACLU, more than 30 anti-LGBTQ bills have been enacted in 2024 — fewer than the 84 enacted in 2023, but still far too many. Among them, Utah and Mississippi restricted transgender people from accessing bathrooms and locker rooms in public schools and other government buildings.

Lawmakers in Ohio overrode the governor’s veto to ban transgender children from receiving gender-affirming care or playing sports consistent with their gender identity. South Carolina and Wyoming similarly enacted blanket bans preventing transgender children from accessing gender-affirming care.

Many of the bills that have been introduced this year sought to expand existing anti-LGBTQ legislation in new ways. Alabama, for example, successfully expanded its bathroom ban from K-12 schools to colleges and universities. Even those that didn’t pass are in many cases likely to be reintroduced after the 2024 election, particularly if anti-LGBTQ lawmakers increase their showing in state legislatures or if governors who are supportive of LGBTQ rights are no longer positioned to veto hostile legislation.

In many states with anti-LGBTQ legislation, administrative and regulatory agencies are being used to curtail LGBTQ rights even further. Florida offers an instructive example. Even after years of anti-LGBTQ legislation, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles took things a step further within its mandate, and decided in 2024 that transgender people could no longer update the gender marker on their driver’s licenses. This echoes recent regulatory crackdowns elsewhere in the United States, from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services investigating parental support for transgender children as child abuse to school boards across the country stripping away lifesaving resources in schools.

And while many believed that courts would provide a bulwark against discriminatory legislation and regulations, in part because of strong Supreme Court precedent to suggest that anti-transgender discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, that has not consistently been the case. Trial courts have largely found in favor of transgender litigants, criticizing the insufficient justification and discriminatory purpose of anti-transgender laws, but some appellate courts have nevertheless allowed the laws to take effect.

Perhaps most alarming, there are advocates and lawmakers who, if in a position to do so, are eager to carry out an even harsher attack on LGBTQ rights. Project 2025, which a group of conservative organizations has drafted as a roadmap for a second Trump administration, promises an even more draconian attack on LGBTQ rights. This would include rolling back existing nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people, reinstating the transgender military ban, and codifying state restrictions on transgender rights at the federal level, in addition to limiting recognition of same-sex relationships.

The anti-LGBTQ backlash may be waning in certain respects — but in other ways, it has only just begun. As we celebrate Pride, LGBTQ people and their allies should be mindful of the need to support those communities whose rights are being eroded, invest in transgender rights organizing, demand that lawmakers prioritize LGBTQ rights, and fight for the independent institutions and protections for basic freedoms that are essential to hold power to account.

Ryan Thoreson is a specialist on LGBTQ rights at Human Rights Watch and teaches at the University of Cincinnati College of Law.

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Lawsuits won’t matter if democracy is lost

Be part of the megaphone that helps voters understand what’s at risk

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The New York Times has a column headlined, “The Resistance to the Trump Administration has Already Started.” It reveals, “A sprawling network of Democratic officials, progressive activists, watchdog groups and ex-Republicans has been taking extraordinary steps to prepare for a potential second Trump presidency, drawn together by the fear that Mr. Trump’s return to power would pose a grave threat not just to their agenda but to American democracy itself.” They are preparing lawsuits for any eventuality. What they are preparing for is the second column in the Times headlined, “If Trump Wins.”

It is because of the second column the time has come for all those in the elite groups who are part of the ‘sprawling network,’ and many others, to come out of their ivory towers, and take to the streets to spread the message across the nation about what happens when democracy dies. They need to do this NOW! Despite what some think, even those groups registered as a 501(c)3 in the tax code, can get involved in politics, just not for any one candidate. They can, and must, speak out and educate voters on what will happen to their rights if Donald Trump wins. While they may not tell people to vote for Joe Biden, they can make it clear what will happen if they stay home and don’t vote, simply by telling them the truth, based on Donald Trump’s words, and the words of his supporters. Tell them what he and his sycophants are saying, what they are preparing to do. Be part of the megaphone that helps voters understand, and then trust them to do the right thing. I trust they will, if they hear, and understand, the truth.

While I can say “Vote for Biden,” a 501(c)3 organization, like some of those the Times writes about, cannot. I ran organizations with that tax status and still went up to Congress and educated staff and members. I would talk about the pros and cons of the bills being considered. I would explain what the implications of a bill were for their constituents, and then let them decide how to vote. Not saying any organization should be as bad as the evangelical pastors whose churches exist under the same tax laws, and get away with actually telling their flock who to vote for. But they must stop thinking, they can’t get out in the community and speak out. 

Preparing their lawsuits for the possibility Trump could win, is fine. Actually, if God-forbid he wins, there will be time from Nov. 5-Jan. 20 to work on them. But stopping Trump from winning by explaining in plain English to the voters why you are doing this, and what could happen to their rights, is an equally, if not more important, use of time prior to the election. Let’s face facts. If Trump is elected, and gets to appoint more judges, all the lawsuits could lose. It will be too late to do much, if our democracy is lost. Trump and his sycophants, his MAGA cult, will laugh you out of court. 

Every one of us needs to spend the next 18 weeks before Nov. 5 reminding voters to listen to what Trump, and his people, are saying and planning — and believe them. They are evil. He has said he will be a dictator. He has said he will use the DOJ to seek revenge against anyone he perceives has wronged him. He said he would have the IRS go after those he doesn’t like. He quotes Hitler. All those lawsuits will lose to that. It’s time for everyone to get their hands dirty, and get in the game. Time to get down in the mud and educate the American people before it’s too late. Those who the Times writes about are smart, and have the ability to explain why they are preparing. Tell the American people what they need to know now, so in essence, all legal preparation won’t have to be used. Do it so the results of the election on Nov. 5 will allow for those legal briefs being diligently prepared, to join Trump and his acolytes, in the dustbin of history. 

I can promise anyone who does this will go down in history as someone who helped save democracy and not just someone who thought they could have an impact after it was lost.

Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.

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Talk, Trust, Test: A Parent’s Guide to HIV Awareness

By having these crucial conversations, you can help the young people in your lives understand the significance of HIV testing

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The first cases of HIV were reported in Los Angeles in June 1981. For 43 years, it has impacted our lives, with thousands still contracting HIV each year. As parents and trusted caregivers, it’s crucial to have open conversations about this reality. 

National HIV Testing Day, observed on June 27, reminds us of the importance of these discussions. This year’s theme, “Level up your self-love: check your status,” emphasizes the need for awareness and proactive steps in knowing one’s HIV status. 

Understanding HIV

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) attacks the immune system, which helps the body fight off infections.  Left untreated, HIV can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). In this condition, the immune system is severely damaged, leaving our bodies highly vulnerable to life-threatening infections, cancers, and diseases.

HIV and Black Youth

Despite only accounting for 12% of the nation’s population, African Americans accounted for nearly half of HIV diagnoses — a trend that’s persisted since the epidemic began in the 1980s.  As of 2020, Black people have developed AIDS at 9.3 times the rate of white people. Lack of healthcare access, social stigma, and misinformation about transmission and prevention contribute to the high rates of HIV in Black communities. Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial to managing HIV, keeping the immune system strong and preventing transmission to others. 

Another way to curb infection rates is to talk to teens and young adults about HIV prevention and treatment. While challenging, having proper counseling and family support helps young people engage more quickly with necessary medical services. In Los Angeles County, 13-24-year-olds had an 80.4% rate of starting medical care within one month of being diagnosed with HIV in 2021. This highlights that a proactive and supportive approach prepares our youth with the knowledge and resources they need to protect themselves.

Tips to Talk to Youth About HIV

Educate Yourself and Your Teen: Make sure you are well-informed about HIV, its transmission, prevention, and treatment. Be prepared to debunk common myths about the realities of living with HIV and how it affects people today. Use credible sources like the CDC and AIDSVu to correct misinformation, reduce stigma and facilitate more informed attitudes. Engage and encourage young people to ask questions and seek further information.

Create a Safe Space: Begin the conversation by choosing a quiet, private setting free from distractions. Use open-ended questions like, “What do you know about HIV?” to gauge their understanding and encourage dialogue. Ensure they know your conversation is confidential and comes from a place of love and concern. This openness fosters trust, making them more likely to share their thoughts and questions.

Prevention and Testing: Explain the importance of using condoms and how medications like PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) and PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) can significantly reduce the risk of HIV transmission. PrEP is taken daily to prevent HIV before exposure, while PEP is used after potential exposure to prevent infection. Also, remind young people that testing is simple, vital for early detection, and available at local health centers like Planned Parenthood.

Take Action Today

By having these crucial conversations, you can help the young people in your lives understand the significance of HIV testing and make informed decisions about their health. To learn more and to make an appointment to get tested, visit pp-la.org or call (800) 576-5544.

Brittinae Phillips, Sr. Education Manager for Planned Parenthood Los Angeles’s Black Health Initiative, manages community outreach and education for parents, college students, and youth.

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Ryan Walters, Libs of TikTok, gay blogger redefine Nex Benedict

Raichik spreads false info including anti-trans pseudoscience about trans identity & experiences that stoke fear, distrust & hatred

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Ryan Walters, Libs of TikTok's Chaya Raichik, gay blogger Chad Felix Greene and Nex Benedict (Los Angeles Blade file photos)

By TJ Payne | LOS ANGELES – A newly amplified twist in Nex Benedict’s narrative only continues to do him and other trans youth harm.  This latest iteration is being driven by Chaya Raichik, the notorious anti-LGBTQ+ creator of Libs of TikTok, her ally Oklahoma’s state Superintendent of its education system Ryan Walters, and Chad Felix Greene a gay blogger who contributes to the far right extremist website Red State.

Raichik’s social media posts and public appearances often focus on demonizing LGBTQ+ people. Raichik spreads false information including anti-trans pseudoscience about transgender identity and experiences that stoke fear, distrust and hatred of trans people.

In a post on X (formerly Twitter), without any consideration to Nex or his family, Raichik shared intimate details regarding the sexual abuse he endured at the hands of his father. Details of which that were known to multiple media outlets, but not considered germane to the suicide of the 16-year-old outside of being one of several contributing factors to his death with the primary areas of focus on the environment in the high school which included ongoing instances of severe transphobic bullying.

Editor’s note: Caution, the following contains transphobic rhetoric and misgendering:

“It’s the suicide lie again. Nex didn’t commit suicide because she was bullied for being LGBTQ. she committed suicide because she suffered from mental health issues and was a victim of sexual abuse by her father. She wrote suicide notes in the weeks before her death and her father was arrested again 2 weeks before she overdosed. Her issues weren’t addressed, she wasn’t helped, and she was suffering” Raichik posted two days ago.

On March 28 Raichik then posted this:

Followed by this post which embedded an article published by the anti-trans gay blogger Chad Felix Greene at the far-right website Red State:

Raichik’s attempt to redefine the circumstances regarding Benedict’s death and the causes was drawn from Greene’s published article wherein he misgendered and dead named Benedict and blamed his death on a “failed legal system, trauma struggles with mental health, and a young girl far too overwhelmed to handle it all on her own.”

This statement fails to leave out one crucial component of Benedict’s life – the harassment and bullying they experienced literally up until the day they died. Let us not forget that this all began with a fight at school, where Benedict was not allowed to use the bathroom that aligned with his gender identity. This is due to the passing of yet another anti-trans bathroom bill. The school (district) chose funding access over the safety of their students. They failed to do their one basic job and that is to protect all of the students, not just some. 

As we continue to learn more about who Nex Benedict was, and what he experienced as a young trans person, it does not surprise me that people like Greene would hop at the opportunity to blame the victim.

Benedict experienced abuse at the hands of his father at a very young age. This is a mitigating factor in his tragic death, but it is in no way the whole story. Anyone attempting to push that narrative is sorely incorrect and is failing to see the intricacies of a trans person’s life and the impact that a volatile and hateful school superintendent (Ryan Walters) can have on young people’s well-being.

Beyond Ryan Walters and his archaic ideology, an entire state that is hostile towards transgender people, with over 60 anti-trans laws introduced in 2024 alone, you cannot deny the overarching themes here. Benedict was not safe. He should have been safe at school, at the very least, and yet the Owasso High School administration failed at this. Benedict was failed more than once in his life and while his past traumas may have played a part in his decision-making, the travesty here is a system that would rather see children die, than change their ways. 

As there are escalating tensions and controversies surrounding not only the death of Benedict, but the treatment of LGBTQ+ students, especially trans and non-binary in Oklahoma schools, Superintendent Ryan Walters’s comments at a State Board of Education meeting on Thursday has further sparked anger among LGBTQ+ advocates.

Referring to the death of Benedict, Walters accused of LGBTQ advocacy groups of exploiting the tragedy for political gain.

“A woke mob formed around the death of a child. They lied. They attacked. Truth has come to light and we will not back down,” Walters said.

“At the time, we had radical left-wing activists who were aided by the fake news media who made outrageous and unfounded claims on the situation from the beginning. These radical groups lied, intentionally so, to push a political narrative,” he added.

“They wanted to use the death of a child to support a political agenda, and I think it’s absolutely disgusting, and you are going to hear these groups, this woke mob, continue to push an agenda and lie to further the most radical agenda this country has ever seen,” Walters alleged.

He then said “I will never back down to a woke mob. I will never lie to our kids or allow a radical agenda to be forced on our kids.” Walters publicly has declared that there are “not multiple genders” and that state’s schools “would not perpetuate what he considers a lie that transgender and nonbinary people exist.”

Since Benedict’s passing, the Indiana-based nonprofit the Rainbow Youth Project which provides LGBTQ+ mental health crisis counseling, has had a 500% increase in calls. Between February 16th and 20th they received 349 calls from Oklahoma, during a time they normally would average 87 calls per week. 69% of those callers mentioned Benedict’s death. 85% said they were experiencing bullying at school, 79% were in fear of their physical safety, and more than 10% were students at Owasso High School, where Benedict attended. 

According to the 2022 U.S Transgender Survey, 60% of 16 and 17-year-old respondents experienced one or more forms of “mistreatment or negative experience, including verbal harassment, physical attacks, online bullying, being denied the ability to dress according to their gender identity/expression, teachers or staff refusing to use chosen name or pronouns, or being denied the use of restrooms or locker rooms matching their gender identity”.

In Oklahoma (U.S Trans Survey, 2015) 46% of those students were verbally harassed, 19% attacked, and 10% sexually assaulted. 17% faced such severe mistreatment that they left school all together. 56% of trans people in Oklahoma avoided using a public restroom because they were afraid of confrontations or other problems they might experience. 

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TJ Payne is an investigative journalist and forensic analyst based in Los Angeles. He is a doctoral candidate at the California School of Forensic Studies, where he is researching the Trans Panic Defense. TJ enjoys exploring abandoned places, napping with his dog Brody, and road trips. 

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What happens now? Autopsy confirms what we already knew

But if we keep pushing, keep organizing, and keep shining our lights on the real villains in America, maybe we can save some of our kids

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Nex Benedict's gravesite in Collinsville, Oklahoma. (Photo By TJ Payne)

By TJ Payne | LOS ANGELES – As my day is coming to an end, in my sweet protective bubble State of California, I am still sitting with Nex Benedict’s autopsy report. Since first reading it while I sipped my black coffee this morning, from the comfort of my couch, I’ve printed it out and shuffled through it several times throughout the day.

Each time I’m left feeling as if I am sinking further into the ground where I’ll eventually shrivel away and be forgotten. As if this were a place where all trans people go to be forgotten, the void if you will. I never want Nex to be forgotten. I never want to forget Nex. Maybe that is why I subject myself to the discomfort of reading his full autopsy report that was released to the public this morning.

It doesn’t come close to what I imagine Nex was feeling for quite some time. It is hard to articulate what it feels like as a transgender person to read through this report though, of a young trans teen. The language used to describe our insides, as we lay on a freezing cold metal table; intact, not unusual, and normal. Why is it that we can’t be described like this in other spaces, instead of being called filth? Instead of being villains, pedophiles, or perverts, why are we not granted this dignity in life, as we are in death? 

Earlier this month, I decided to take it upon myself and visit Owasso, Oklahoma in hopes of meeting those closest to Nex. To get a better sense of the culture, the vibe, even, that pulsed through this small town in the south.

I met with local and national organization leaders who expressed their disgust with the current trend in anti-trans legislation that continues to flood the entirety of the state. Several of them informed me that since Nex’s death, crisis call centers have had a 300%+ increase, with data analysts learning that callers directly referenced Nex’s death. anti-trans legislation, Christian rhetoric, and Ryan Walters as reasons for their calls and suicidal ideation.

A close friend and ex of Nex who met with me shared that “The biggest issue, for trans youth, for LGBTQ youth, for the youth in the state, the biggest issue is Ryan Walters. And the state government. We should not have a state senator calling children, filth. Point blank.”

He was fired up, passionate, and perhaps terrified as he expressed this to me. I understood all of these feelings too well as someone who was adamantly afraid of Trump coming into more power in the 2016 election. 

I also met with three mothers. Mothers of children who have experienced bullying and harassment because of their trans-identities, or their parents being out and queer. These protective mama bears shed tears for their kids having to deal with added stress at school. As if junior high and high school weren’t stressful enough, a transgender student with queer parents is going to be compounded even more than the rest.

I was in awe of such dedicated parents, and such protectiveness. That wasn’t my own experience with my mother- who misgenders me even now, as a nearly 36-year-old man with a beard and exposed chest hair. I wished I could tell these mothers’ kids just how lucky they are, and that they are in good hands, no matter what. I listened to their stories, many full of fear for their kids, but also fear of retaliation from the school, or other community members.

Their emails have gone unanswered for months by the Owasso School District administration, leaving these mothers to make the hard decisions of pulling their kids from school, some transferring to a nearby school, and some trying out homeschooling. Both outcomes blame the child, instead of the adults in positions of power taking even an ounce of accountability. Turning a blind eye to these incidents risks another child slipping through a very small crack in an already badly damaged system. 

I continued talking to residents of Owasso since I returned to Los Angeles. I’ve learned more and more about Nex, and about the injustices he experienced throughout his life before even arriving at Owasso High School.

In all my conversations with friends and family, the fact that Nex experienced trauma was not ignored, but it was not his defining characteristic, as it isn’t for so many of us. It would be ignorant to say that abuse does not impact a person, but it cannot be said how exactly that looked for Nex.

I wanted to learn who this person was, the whole person, and this is part of his story, but I can assure you there is much more to him than all of the darkness that may have clouded him. He loved to cook. Nex’s aunt but legally sister (after he was adopted by Sue Benedict) shared a story with me about Nex coming to Texas to visit her when he was 14.

The family took him to a grocery store and told him to pick out his ingredients of choice and to cook whatever he wanted. He made a magical octopus dish that stunned them all while bonding with his aunt’s partner. While out shopping, Sue picked out an animal skull of some sort, knowing instinctively that he would love it.

He was a defender of his friends and enjoyed play-fighting. Nex was thoughtful and romantic. His favorite band was Ghost, a theatrical metal band that I have come to love now too. He had layers, and intricacies to his being – that includes his gender identity, and the fluidity that comes with that as a young trans person. As a trans person, I can vouch for this process. It is all such a process, a sometimes painful one, and he was barely getting started. He barely had a chance to be Nex. 

We must do better, now. There is no time to dilly-dally or to assume the next generation will take care of our shortcomings. We have to hold people and systems accountable. We have to hold each other accountable. We have to protect one another, hold one another. Because if we don’t, we will continue to lose our youth.

We will have more and more Nex’s, more frequently, more tragically. Nex’s story has placed a microscope on a school district with a rich history of failures, bullying, and now, a child’s death. This is not an isolated incident, however, and there are more trans youth suicides than any other demographic in the United States. Who will be next? Because the reality is, there will be another one.

But if we keep pushing, keep organizing, and keep shining our lights on the real villains in America, maybe we can save some of our kids.

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TJ Payne is an investigative journalist and forensic analyst based in Los Angeles. He is a doctoral candidate at the California School of Forensic Studies, where he is researching the Trans Panic Defense. TJ enjoys exploring abandoned places, napping with his dog Brody, and road trips. 

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The predictable predictability of the Oscars

Despite efforts to ensure greater diversity among its nominees, it’s the individual choices of its voters that determines the final results

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The stage at the 96th annual Oscar ceremony at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood Sunday night. (Screenshot/YouTube The Academy)

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – It’s hard to write a reaction piece about the Oscars when you recognize that the Oscars, by their very nature, are essentially a poll – or perhaps, more aptly, a popularity contest – which reflects an aggregate of personal opinions, and therefore have as much to do with internal Hollywood politics as with rewarding artistic excellence.

I’m not saying that the movies and people being celebrated on the stage at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood Sunday night – all of them, winners and nominees alike – didn’t deserve to be there; on the contrary, 2023 was an outstanding year for cinema, and every one of the contenders could be considered worthy of taking the prize.

If that’s the case, however, how can any of these outcomes be determined without the influence of personal taste? Making movies is not like playing sports, where a win results from the highest number of points scored and goals blocked; there is no such handily objective criteria to rely on in picking an actor, a screenwriter, or an entire film to proclaim as the “best” in its respective category, and it’s inevitable that Academy voters will be influenced by personal bias when they make their choices on that final ballot.

While Sunday’s 96th annual Oscar ceremony, which offered the usual snubs and oversights and no real surprises, might have disappointed me or even occasionally sparked a glimmer of outrage, I cannot fairly say that any of the final results were “mistakes.” And though it may be oversimplifying things to say that being offended by the Academy’s final choices is akin to being angry that someone else’s favorite flavor of ice cream is chocolate when yours is salted caramel praline, it’s still enough to convince me that my “reaction” piece to the Academy Awards can really only ever be an “opinion” piece,

With that in mind, here we go.

The presentation itself was the usual blend of witty repartee (mostly provided with success by veteran Oscar host Jimmy Kimmel, though attempts at it from the various presenters ran the gamut from delightful to disastrous).

Musical performances (Billie Eilish and brother Finneas O’Connell’s rendition of “What Was I Made For?”, which went on to win the evening’s only award for “Barbie”, was a particular highlight, alongside the more lavish and deliciously amusing dance production number headed by Supporting Actor nominee Ryan Gosling for “I’m Just Ken” from the same film), uplifting moments (a regal Rita Moreno’s benedictory introduction of “Barbie” Supporting Actress nominee America Ferrera brought tears to my eyes, and I suspect I wasn’t alone).

Show-stopping surprises (John Cena’s teasingly faux nudity presenting the Best Costume Design award was a memorable stunt, to put it mildly, as was the combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito to do the honors in the Visual Effects and Film Editing categories) – yet it also had more than its fair share of embarrassing gaffes, such as upstaging the “In Memoriam” segment with an overblown production number accompanied by father-and-son operatic crooners Andrea and Matteo Bocelli’s duet of “Con tu partirò”, a move that has fueled perhaps more post-Oscars outrage than anything else from this year’s ceremony.

As for the politics, there were the expected barbs making fun of easy conservative targets, but most of the speeches avoided invoking too much progressive fury. The one overtly political moment came with the win of UK director Jonathan Glazer’s “The Zone of Interest” for Best International Feature, when he read, in prayerlike monotone, a pre-prepared statement warning against the dehumanizing hate depicted in his slice-of-Nazi-life historical drama and calling for empathy for the targets of such hate on both sides of the current crisis in Gaza.

It was met with backlash, of course, especially after a partial quote in Variety omitted key elements of the speech and led many to believe the Jewish filmmaker was refuting his own religion.

As for the winners of the awards themselves (you can find the full list on the Oscar website) the evening’s choices fell more or less in line with my predictions – though not necessarily my preferences. 

The domination of “Oppenheimer” in most of the major categories in which it competed was, for anyone following the pre-ceremony buzz, a foregone conclusion. Few doubted that Cillian Murphy would handily claim the Best Actor prize – thwarting nominee Colman Domingo (“Rustin”) from becoming the first queer actor to win for playing a queer character in the process – or that Christopher Nolan would take the Best Director category, and from there the win for Best Picture felt as inevitable as anything can be at the Oscars.

Equally inevitable was the evening’s most easily predicted “Oppenheimer” win, as veteran Hollywood player Robert Downey, Jr. ebulliently swaggered onstage amid the enthusiastic familial cheers of his peers to claim the Best Supporting Actor prize; his acceptance speech, in which he self-deprecatingly recalled the legal and professional obstacles arising from the substance abuse that nearly derailed his early career, became a testament to overcoming personal setbacks to achieve an even higher success, something that resonated in the words of several other of the evening’s winners.

In the categories where “Oppenheimer” didn’t win, the odds were already in favor of the eventual victors, such as first-time filmmaker Cord Jefferson, whose “American Fiction” earned him the Best Adapted Screenplay Award over fellow front runners like “Barbie” and “Poor Things,” and Da’Vine Joy Randolph, whose winning Supporting Actress turn in “The Holdovers” had been a juggernaut throughout the award season.

Many Oscar fans, though most accepted the predestination of “Oppenheimer” as the year’s big winner, might rather have seen a different candidate come out on top (my own choice, for what it’s worth, would have been “Barbie,” with “Poor Things” and “Zone of Interest” coming up close behind); but even if Nolan’s weighty and technically dazzling biopic was unquestionably a fine film, exploring a deeply disturbing slice of not-too-distant history that still casts a long existential shadow over our world today, it’s impossible for me not to see in its multiple wins an all-too-familiar pattern of “safe” choices.

While “Oppenheimer” might pique ethical discussions over its title character’s choice to build the atomic bomb, few would find controversy in the idea that the destruction unleashed on the world by that choice is a reason for concern.

Its most viable competitors, “Barbie” and “Poor Things” – both of which touched on many of the same existential themes, albeit from a markedly different direction and in a more absurdist style – each stirred divisive opinions around (among other things) a perceived feminist agenda; other highly-acclaimed titles in the running, like the non-English language entries “Zone”, “Past Lives”, and “Anatomy of a Fall”, fell outside the comfortable domestic audience mainstream where Oscar’s favorite picks are usually a little too deeply-rooted to allow much opportunity for a dark horse upset.

While not many expected Bradley Cooper’s ambitious Bernstein biopic “Maestro” to take home any awards, it was considerably more noteworthy that Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” nominated for 10 Awards and widely lauded as one of the year’s most essential films, failed to score a single one of them – though I can’t help also noting that it deals with one of most shameful threads in our American past, inevitably making it a controversial movie for an era marked by deeply divided ideologies around that subject.

It’s perhaps for that reason that “Flower Moon” was not considered a front runner in most of its categories, but there was one in which it was seen as a heavy favorite. With Lily Gladstone poised to become the first Indigenous performer to win the Best Actress trophy, the odds leading up to Sunday’s presentation seemed to position them as the front runner; in the end, however, it was Emma Stone’s tour-de-force in “Poor Things” – in which she appeared in virtually every scene, in contrast to Gladstone’s relatively limited screen – that took it instead.

Though it wasn’t quite a surprise, given the number of wins Stone has garnered already for the film, which also took home the prizes for Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Production Design, it nevertheless felt – to me, at least – like another example of Oscar’s predictable reluctance to court controversy with its choices.

Ironically, but not surprisingly, this conservative approach often just ends up causing a controversy of its own, and this case is no exception. Though I had championed Stone’s brilliant performance as the obvious winner, when her name was announced I found myself feeling disappointment over Goldstone’s loss, even as I was thrilled for Stone’s well-earned victory.

After all, in a contest where the outcome is entirely subjective, Academy voters could have chosen to amplify the excellence of someone from within a marginalized community. Stone, who seemed as surprised at her win as anyone else, did remarkable work, but so did Gladstone; though it truly is “an honor just to be nominated,” it was an opportunity for Oscar to take a step toward correcting a long-ignored injustice at a time when doing so could make a demonstrably constructive impact on our culture and our society at a time when doing so would have a tremendous cultural impact, and it didn’t happen.

It was a moment that struck me with an odd sense of disappointment even as I cheered for Stone; a bit of the sour within the sweet.

That, aside from a sense of missed opportunity over the evening’s consistent pattern of favoring the middle-of-the-road prestige represented by “Oppenheimer” over the edgier, more confrontational material presented by some of the other titles on the slate, was my biggest takeaway from the Academy Awards.

Though I can’t say that any of the winners were unworthy, I can’t help thinking that their victories were somewhat tainted by the virtual shutout of “Barbie”, (which still feels to me like a message for female filmmakers to “stay in their lane”) and relatively low showing for “Poor Things” (which took only 3 of the 11 awards for which it was nominated), and that their underappreciation for such films was for me proof that many of the professionals working within the industry are afraid of material that pushes the medium too far outside its traditional boundaries, that dares to imagine stories and ideas which give voice to “outsider” concerns beyond the level of lip service, or that stretches the accepted limits of narrative entertainment.

More concerning, perhaps, is the minimal change that has come in the wake of the Academy’s much-publicized retooling to promote greater diversity and inclusion among the nominees.

While it’s heartening to see people of color and queer people being brought into the mix more consistently than ever before, it’s also all the more painful when we see them passed over or relegated to the status of “also ran” most of the time.

As a queer writer working for a queer publication, it’s impossible for me not to be impatient when films with strong LGBTQ content are lauded alongside mainstream titles only to consistently be passed over when it comes to the final victory.

While queer subject matter, in varying degrees, was part of movies like “Rustin”, “Nyad”, and even “Barbie,” only two wins in the “major” categories went to films that included significant queer themes – “American Fiction” and “Anatomy of a Fall”, both of which won for their screenplays.

And while it’s now old news, the Academy’s complete omission of Andrew Haigh’s melancholy gay ghost story “All of Us Strangers,” a queer UK film overwhelmingly embraced by other major awards bodies across the world and in America itself and considered a major contender before failing to earn a single Oscar nomination, and female filmmaker Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn,” which hinged – at least ostensibly – on a queer attraction between stars Barry Keoghan and Jacob Elordi, speaks volumes about the comfort level surrounding queer content within mainstream Hollywood.

Even “May December,” a high-profile film directed by queer indie pioneer Todd Haynes but featuring only presumably heterosexual characters, received only a single nod (for Best Original Screenplay) for “May December,” despite being widely considered a front-runner for several acting awards.

While inclusivity doesn’t mean considering every queer-relevant movie a shoo-in for the competition, it’s telling when the Academy all but ignores queer titles that have been contenders and even winners at all the other major film award ceremonies, and frankly, it’s extremely annoying.

While I can’t speak for women, those in the Black community, or other groups with a history of being dismissed by Oscar, I can only assume that their sentiments must resemble my own.

Yet as I reach the end of my observations about the latest installment of the Academy Awards, I find myself falling short of blaming the Academy itself, at least as an organization. While it has had a problematic history of dragging its feet when it comes to evolving toward a more all-embracing approach to bestowing honors, undeniable progress has been made.

That this progress is infuriatingly slow is less a reflection on the awards than it is on Hollywood as a whole; after all, despite Academy efforts to ensure greater diversity among its nominees, it’s the individual choices of its voters that determines the final results – and if those results fail to accomplish more than the occasional token victory for the non-white-heterosexual contenders, it’s a symptom of the fact that those voices are underrepresented within the industry at large.

If we want to see an Academy Awards ceremony that truly accomplishes the kind of all-inclusive spirit for which it has so palpable a potential, we must continue to pressure the Hollywood industry at large to build a more diverse and inclusive creative environment. Otherwise, no matter how much they promise to do better, they will always fall short.

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Trans 101: Nex Benedict vigil speech & bullying

We must work together to end bullying by unpacking each of our own learned and internalized transphobia, homophobia & racism

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Los Angeles Blade featured columnist, Rose Montoya being interviewed by KABC 7 Los Angeles. (Screenshot/YouTube KABC 7)

Los Angeles Blade featured columnist, Rose Montoya, is a hugely popular YouTube, Instagram & TikTok creator with her ‘Trans 101′ 1 minute video shorts which offer tips, advice, and support for Trans people and solid information for Trans allies and others seeking answers.

By Rose Montoya | LOS ANGELES – A special vigil was held a service at West Hollywood United Church of Christ. During an interview with KABC 7 News, I noted: “Trans people have the highest rates of violence against us, more specifically Black trans women, and as a Latino trans woman myself, I know this all too well.”

Here’s my full speech at the vigil for #NexBenedict and here are the questions I posed: How much safer could our society be if we stopped placing value on the enforcement of gender roles? How is our government protecting trans and nonbinary children? What could it look like to form a concerted effort to create a world where this doesn’t ever happened again? How will you honor the sacredness of Nex and every 2SLGBTQPIA+ person, including yourself? Thank you @ryancassata @shaneivannash @justxodiak @queerxact for organizing:

Watch:

We must work together to end bullying. It starts individually by unpacking each of our own learned and internalized transphobia, homophobia, racism, anti-Blackness, classism, ableism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, etc. All of us are responsible for ending bullying.

Watch:

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Rose, is a Hispanic, bisexual, nonbinary transgender woman. Rose’s pronouns are she/her/hers and they/them/their/theirs. She works as a model, actor, public speaker, makeup artist, advocate, and content creator.

Rose is also a board member of Aadya Rising, a nonprofit working to fill in the gaps to help the transgender community. She has been in campaigns and featured by TomboyXSavage X FentyYandyFX NetworksNew York City PridePlanned Parenthood, and more. Their goal is to spread love and education about their community as they share their story.

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To follow Rose:

rosemontoya.com 

TheTrans101.com

Instagram.com/TheRoseMontoya

TikTok.com/@rosemontoya

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Death of Nex Benedict hits close to home for New Jersey therapist

Their death is a manifestation of a larger issue that involves hostile rhetoric, misinformation re: gender-diverse youth & anti-LGBTQ culture

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The life of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student was brutally cut short after an altercation in a bathroom at Owasso High School in Owasso Oklahoma. (Family photo)

By Laura Hoge | UPPER MONTCLAIR, NJ. – The life of Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student from Oklahoma, was brutally cut short after an altercation in a bathroom at Owasso High School.

Their untimely death should prompt a critical dialogue about the circumstances leading to such a horrifying incident. And we should not fool ourselves by thinking New Jersey is immune to the dangers that transgender and nonbinary youth face in schools and public spaces nationwide.

As many grapple with the aftermath of this terrifying hate crime, we all — Oklahoma to New Jersey to Florida — must address the systemic issues that contribute to the vulnerability of marginalized students, in particular transgender, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming youth.

The New Jersey Safe Schools Coalition with Columbia High School Spectrum Club will hold a candlelight vigil in Nex’s memory on Saturday, Feb. 24, at 6 p.m. at Maplewood Town Hall, 574 Valley St.

In my role as a gender specialist and trauma therapist, addressing the aftermath of violent incidents such as these demands a process of “zooming out” from the hate crime itself and examining the unsettling realities of what other journalists have already referred to as stochastic terrorism, a term used to describe the use of mass communication, such as social media or online platforms, to incite or inspire individuals to carry out acts of terrorism without directly organizing, directing, or participating in the violent acts themselves.

The term “stochastic terrorism” carries significant weight, and grasping its meaning requires clarifying its key component: implicit communication. Implicit communication operates beneath the surface of explicit words and actions. It plays a significant role in shaping perceptions, beliefs, and behaviors while at the same time maintaining “plausible deniability.” We all have people in our lives whose attitudes toward groups of people are widely known, even if they aren’t explicitly spoken and would likely be denied. We all have felt implicit messages from our bosses, spiritual leaders, teachers, or politicians, reminding us of what is and is not acceptable in our work, faith practice, classrooms, and communities.

As we process the death of Nex Benedict, we must look at the culture in which they were living, one with a history of hostile discourse toward transgender people and influenced by social media outlets that are known purveyors of anti-trans sentiments. In the aftermath of Nex’s death, it is unsurprising that they are being misgendered and deadnamed in the community where they lived. Even amid tributes to their life, implicit messages are being sent that offer absolution to those who might be harboring guilt about their participation in a culture that could have caused something so horrific and a clear message that transgender and gender-diverse youth have no place in Owasso High, alive or dead.

While many of us would like to believe that our communities are immune to this type of violence, it is naive to think that similar acts of hate would never happen in our own schools. Anti-trans rhetoric is ubiquitous in New Jersey. It can easily be found in our Statehouse, family gatherings, and most recently in our school board meetings, where attitudes similar to the ones in Owasso were amplified in heated debates over school policy 5756 — a policy that supports transgender and nonbinary students seeking to be referred to by a different name or pronoun, and which has sparked discussions about whether schools should be obligated to inform parents of these changes.

While journalists share information about the role of Libs of TikTok and its influence on the community of Owasso, New Jersey residents need to understand that we have similar influences acting in our own backyard, like the Center for Garden State Families, Moms for Liberty, Parents Defending Education, and others, with many of them misleading the public with deceptive and legitimate sounding names while spouting anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, calling for book bans, and/or forced outing of gender diverse students. These groups explicitly advocate for parental rights and child safety, while concurrently employing implicit messaging that creates an atmosphere where transgender youth, as well as their supporters, are made to feel unsafe.

Implicit intolerance is pervasive and, if it continues to proliferate without challenge, will erode the protections that this state currently offers. To counteract this, allies must remain vigilant and take explicit actions that endorse and celebrate gender-diverse experiences within our communities. This could include speaking out in favor of trans-affirmative policies at school board meetings, spreading trans-affirming messages and stories online, teaching cisgender children about gender diversity and how to be an upstander in their friend circles, and/or advocating for trans-affirming rights and recognition in government. Neglecting to engage in these actions sends its own implicit message, and tacitly sanctions the proliferation of harmful attitudes and biases.

I believe that residents in New Jersey are uniquely positioned to disrupt the transphobia that exists here. We are backed by our brand: a progressive state with laws that support inclusion. Sharing accurate information about gender diversity, as well as the experiences and challenges that transgender and nonbinary students face, can demystify misconceptions and foster life-saving empathy and understanding.

We must acknowledge that Nex’s death did not exist in a vacuum and is not an isolated incident. Their death is a manifestation of a larger issue that involves hostile rhetoric, a targeted misinformation campaign against transgender and gender-diverse youth, and a culture that permits anti-LGBTQ toxicity to proliferate.

Nex’s death is a poignant reminder of the landscape in which gender-diverse children are asked to live and grow, and which, in the case of Nex, can be deadly.

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Laura Hoge is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in New Jersey. Laura is also an educator and an activist. She has worked as an adjunct at Rutgers and Montclair State, training individuals who are studying to become drug and alcohol counselors, and social workers. In addition to organizing, Laura participates in efforts throughout the state of NJ that champion equity in education and medicine for transgender children.

The preceding article was previously published by the New Jersey Monitor and is republished with permission.

New Jersey Monitor provides fair and tough reporting on the issues affecting New Jersey, from political corruption to education to criminal and social justice. We strive to hold powerful people accountable and explain how their actions affect New Jerseyans from Montague to Cape May.

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