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Cassandra James’ story: “Part of my life not a character I played”

“I have so much empathy for my younger self. I was the only little girl wandering the halls of this all-boys school”

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Photo by Simha Haddad

WEST HOLLYWOOD – A tall, slender, doe-eyed young lady sits cross legged across the table from me on the patio of a quiet Italian restaurant, her radiant smile beaming. She clasps her hands and tells me how happy she is to see me and how excited she is to share her story. 

This elegant young lady is nonother than Cassandra James, a transgender actress, and star on the rise. She is now entering her fifth year as the first-ever trans woman to recur on daytime television, playing Dr. Terry Randolph on ABC’s General Hospital. She also plays Olympia on HBO Max’s Sort Of, which was nominated for a GLAAD award. Season two of the show airs on November 15th. 

Cassandra’s journey started with a tumultuous childhood in Vancouver, Canada. Born to a white American father and a Chinese mother, Cassandra felt racially accepted in her home town which, she explains, is predominantly Chinese, comprised of mainly Hong Kongers like Cassandra’s mother. 

Cassandra’s relationship with her father was difficult, “he was always so angry with me,” she says, “and as a kid, it’s hard to understand why.” However, her relationship with her mother was teamed with love and support. “She was everything,” Cassandra says, reflecting on how much her relationship with her mother still means to her. She recalls with fondness how her mother always suspected Cassandra’s queerness and showed her support by making the two of them matching outfits to wear and buying Cassandra barbies and dolls. “My whole childhood, she was very protective of my femininity,” says Cassandra. “She just allowed me to be feminine in my boyhood.

School, though, was a very different story. “My childhood was hard. I never really fit it. I was very different. That’s such a cliché, but it’s true.” 

Cassandra attended an all-boys school. She was closeted and unsure of how to define her queerness. “I was so oppressed that I didn’t even see myself,” says Cassandra. “When I think about my childhood now, I feel there is such a bittersweet disconnect. I haven’t been to Vancouver in over ten years. This is something really difficult for trans folks. Trying to reconcile with their former selves. I’m really trying to find ‘her’ there. I don’t really know ‘her’ inside my childhood if that makes sense. I’m beginning to have these really beautiful connective moments where I see ‘her’ in there and that I was ‘her’ the whole time. I’m unlearning the idea that I was a little gay boy. I’m starting to understand that I didn’t love dolls because of this or that reason. I loved them because that was ‘her’ in there, in these feminine markers of girlhood throughout my childhood.”

Cassandra James as Olympia & Bilal Baig as Sabi in Season 2 of Sort Of.
(Photo courtesy of CBC)

Cassandra describes her younger self as a very effeminate boy. So much so that her femininity was evident everywhere she went. “I always had issues in the bathroom,” she explains, “My whole life, people thought I was in the wrong bathroom.” At school, surrounded by peers whom Cassandra felt were already being influenced by heteronormativity and misogyny, it was difficult for her to find acceptance. 

“I was bullied,” Cassandra says, placing special emphasis on every syllable of the word “bullied.” “I was so physically abused. I got thrown into lockers and pushed, and my pencil cases got thrown out the windows. There was so much name-calling. When I was seven years old, they used to call me “He-Her.” When I was eight years old, my friends came up to me and said, “we can’t be friends with you anymore because we get picked on when we are with you.”

Part of how Cassandra reconciles herself with her past is by reexamining her former self with a newer, wiser perspective. “I have so much empathy for my younger self. I was the only little girl wandering the halls of this all-boys school.”

Cassandra found a new friend group of similarly effeminate young boys. She says she is incredibly grateful for these friendships and feels lucky that they all had each other at a time in life when so many queer people do not have like-minded friends to turn to. 

And, of course, Cassandra always had the support of her mother, which sometimes also came in the form of tough love. Cassandra recalls one incident when she came home from school after someone had thrown her pencil case out the fourth-floor window. The teacher caught her saying the “f-word” to him and punished Cassandra rather than the boy. Cassandra was crying to her mother and saying, “it’s not fair, it’s not fair,” when her mother gave her some sage advice that has stuck with her all her life. “My mom said something like, ‘You want everything to be perfect and happy all the time? That’s not how life works. If everything were perfect, you’d be finished here.’ She really introduced me to this concept of the human cycle very early, and that was backed by this mentality that you can’t change other people. All you can do is change yourself.” 

Cassandra also saw child therapists from an early age who always had concerns surrounding Cassandra’s gender identity. “They gave my mom some really bad advice. There were therapists who told her, ‘don’t dress your kid like that. What are you doing? Don’t let your kid play with those toys because you’re encouraging it.’ They spoke to her from the perspective that it is inherently wrong for an assigned male at birth person to possess so much femininity. She was criticized for being so free with me. But my mom didn’t listen. I’m obsessed with her.” When asked how Cassandra feels about the advice her mother received, she gives a sober response: “This was just the information that was common and available at the time. Trans people have always been around, but we didn’t have the language back then. How many books on trans parenting were there at that time? How many are there now? Almost none.”

It was this lack of public education about queerness that contributed to both the beauty and the awkwardness of Cassandra’s coming-out story. 

“I had been trying to hide the biggest hickey from my mom with this big knitted scarf for a whole week. I don’t know how correlated the two events were, but my mom taped a documentary on the VCR about queer teenagers for me to watch. So I watched this documentary, and I came into the kitchen where she was cooking dinner. I was crying. I told her that it was beautiful. Then I said, ‘What you don’t know is that I have more in common with those kids than you think.’” Cassandra laughs fondly at the heavy drama she felt in her moment of coming out. “When you are a kid, this pain is so much bigger because you don’t have a point of reference. As you get older, you understand that you do have time and that it takes time to change your environment. It takes time.” Her mother hugged her and said she had been somewhat preparing for this moment for a long time.

“My mom asked me if I wanted her to take all my old photos down. I said no, but as I get older, I am more and more uncomfortable with it. I can’t stand to hear my dead name. I don’t even like hearing it in other people when other people have that name, which tells me that there is still a lot of healing to do.”

“I told my dad in front of my therapist, and he said, ‘Ok. Now it feels like we can get started,’ which was so beautiful. And if you think about it through the lens of transness, isn’t that exactly what this is? Finally, getting started. I love the term late bloomer. I am such a late bloomer.”

Cassandra’s difficult childhood culminated in high school when a concerned counselor called Cassandra into her office. “I went into crisis. She asked me if I knew that some of the other kids thought that I was suicidal. She asked me if that was true, and I said I didn’t know. I was so miserable that I would just say things like, ‘I hate all of you. I want to kill myself.’ It had become like a mantra for me. I was just so unhappy. So I started seeing a guidance counselor at school. She took me off campus and bought me a journal. That really helped. It helped me say I was queer for the first time. The language I used at the time was “bisexual.”

When asked why it was so much easier to come out on the page first rather than to her supportive mother, Cassandra explains how the pain of her constant suppression played a huge role. “For my mom, emotions make her a little uncomfortable. There is that stereotypical martyr syndrome where things would get suppressed and then explode. I think we co-create this environment that didn’t have a lot of vulnerability in it. For me, the pain was so immense. I don’t think I knew how to talk about it.” 

Cassandra came out first as a gay male and then, in November 2015, as transgender. “It was so fascinating I didn’t even really use the word transgender. I used to do drag. I told my mom that Cassandra was going to be a part of my life forever and not just a character that I played.”

Cassandra James & Cyrus Hobbi as Dr. Terry Randolph & Yuri on General Hospital.
(Photo courtesy of ABC Television)

Cassandra explains how her Asianness also played a role in her difficulty with coming out. “The truth is I just needed to be seen. That’s what we all want. Just to be seen. I still feel so invisible. I feel that this is very Asian. We are so consistently left out of conversations about race in this country. Everyone is fixated on this racist idea that everything is made in China. Even the way we are portrayed in media and porn makes it easy for people to walk all over us.”

“Everyone is the hero of their own story, right? Everyone is the main character. Well, I’ve spent the first thirty years of my life unlearning the fact that I wasn’t. I was taught by all outside forces that I wasn’t meant to be seen. All of my academic success felt outweighed by the bullying. I never felt successful. I never felt good enough or celebrated. I still don’t. I’m so hard on myself.”

This social tendency to exclude and walk all over Asian women has contributed hugely to the public’s opinion of Cassandra. “In my career, everyone is obsessed with my transness, my body. Compound all the violence and misogyny that I opened myself up to with my transition with the fact that Asian women are taught to take up as little space as possible. I’ve been abused my whole life. I’ve even been abused by trans women. I’ve never really felt included. There’s a lot of trauma there.”

In addition to public opinion, Cassandra’s safety often feels in jeopardy. “I’ve been punched outside of clubs for looking different. I’ve experienced really overt transphobia. I’ve been raped. I’ve been beaten.”

Cassandra’s resilience has been vital in her ability to heal and move through a life riddled with dangers and traumas. “What people don’t understand is that you are welcome to bask in my light, but you do not have to possess it. In fact, you cannot. I have met a lot of people who have just allowed the world to tell them that their light is not secure. That has been projected onto me my whole life. What I have that sets me apart is a fierce determination not only to live but to operate from love. As I mature, I value myself more, and I try to get out of my own way.”

Acting has always been both an escape and a source of strength for Cassandra, who has been a storyteller from before she could speak. There are home videos of her holding a potty training book and pointing to the pictures, babbling, and attempting to bring the book to life for her family and the home movie camera. As she grew older, watching movies felt like a private experience wherein she could explore her desire to break free from the confines of her suppression without anyone knowing what was going through her mind. “I could watch a movie, and no one had to know that the boys made me swoon or that I was empathizing with the female characters privately. No one had to know which parts of the story mattered to me. Watching movies was for me.”

Photo by Simha Haddad

Cassandra glows with joy when she speaks about her rising career. “I love what I do. I love stories, and I love people.” When asked whether or not she chooses to market herself as a transgender actress, Cassandra says she feels she has little choice in the matter. “Social media and the internet and technology are such that it is very likely that my career will always be seen through the lens of my transness. I think it’s best to embrace it and participate in trans activism. That is essential for me because that is also how I empower myself in my career.”

Unfortunately, there have been some instances of serious transphobia and ignorance in Cassandra’s career. Namely, with her first commercial agent, who insisted on outing Cassandra to casting directors without her permission. “It was a mess. She told me she couldn’t send me out to play ‘real women’ without letting the casting directors know I was trans. It was so intense. That was also before being out in the way I am now. I gave her a chance to change. I sent her an email explaining why this type of behavior was harmful. My rule is that either I am met with complete empathy and grace and love, or I am out. She didn’t give me that, so I dropped her.” 

In spite of the transphobia that is still rampant in the United States and the world at large, Cassandra is very willing to keep the conversation open and offer what she calls, “a little trans 101” wherever needed. “I think I have a responsibility to not only represent through my own life and career but to also carve out pace, and one of the best ways to do that is through dialogue.” 

Cassandra also believes that trans people need space in media now more than ever. “We are at a point where we need to be allowed to tell our own stories. That means access to resources. Trans people should be on the rosters. “Cis people should be pushing trans people through more than cis clients because there are systemic problems like transphobia. We need cis people to get out of our way and let us thrive. It’s not at someone else’s expense. Light is infinite. We all just want to shine.” 

Cassandra’s message to all queer people is one she often tells herself. “Know that you are infinitely loved and that you contain everything within you to thrive and be loved. Learn to love yourself more and more a little bit every day and never give up. Keep going. You’re worth it.”

Features

The powerful gay man behind Tucker Carlson’s bloodcurdling hate

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Justin Wells (Screenshot/YouTube Fox News)

By Michelangelo Signorile | NEW YORK – On his first Fox News broadcast following the November 19th mass shooting at Club Q, the LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs in which five people were murdered and at least 17 were injured, Tucker Carlson was undaunted, continuing his relentless smearing of LGBTQ people as “groomers” who are dangerous to children. 

After a perfunctory condemnation of the violence, Carlson pivoted back to railing against “drag time story hour for fifth graders” and “genital mutilation of minors” while a graphic image behind him blared, “STOP SEXUALIZING KIDS.”

The following night, Carlson promoted the grotesque view that the staff and patrons of Club Q — where a drag performance was scheduled on that Saturday night of the attack — had it all coming to them. He brought on a guest who said the shooting was “expected and predictable,” and that “it won’t stop until we end this evil agenda that is attacking children.”

Screenshot/YouTube

Twisted enough. But even more shocking is the little-known fact that a gay man helped craft, mold and disseminate these bloodcurdling distortions and the horrendous demonization against his own community. 

A gay man supercharges Carlson’s promotion of Florida’s odious “don’t say gay” law, which stigmatizes queer kids, teachers and parents — a brutal campaign in which Carlson at one point said teachers who don’t comply “should get beaten up.” And a gay man empowers Carlson’s crusade against trans teens and and their parents, a crusade in which Carlson stated that hospitals should expect violent threats for providing gender-affirming care.

That gay man, Justin Wells, helped promulgate the kind of hate that leads to violence. A mass shooting that happened in the same kind of nightclub at which Wells, in years past, danced the night away in Miami Beach and elsewhere, liberating himself from the world outside and surely never imagining he’d be shot dead.

Now he’s aided the extremists who deny that sense of safety and liberation to every future generation of queer people.

Wells runs the entire Tucker Carlson operation, and is responsible for imprinting the Tucker Carlson brand, which is all about emboldening white heterosexual male grievance, furthering the racist conspiracy of  “replacement theory” and pushing an increasingly virulent anti-LGBTQ agenda. Wells is Senior Executive Producer of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” and also holds the title of Vice President of Tucker Carlson Digital Products.

“He’s been promoted to a level that no other producer has been since, maybe, David Tabocoff at O’Reilly,” a former Fox employee told me, describing how Tabocoff, who was at Fox with Bill O’Reilly for 16 years, produced O’Reilly’s shows, all of his various specials and interviews, and oversaw his entire brand, including his merchandising. 

“I think that Justin has more power than Tabby [Tabacoff] ever had,” another Fox employee, a former producer, countered. “And there’s not another show that out-rates it. Influence-wise, everyone who’s conservative wants to be on Tucker.” Indeed, Wells has his own website, independent of Fox News’s site, JustinWells.com, something that surprised the former Fox News producer.

On the site, Wells touts his accomplishments: “Television Creator & Journalist. Senior Executive Producer & Vice President at Fox News Media.” It brims with photos meant to convey his power and importance: Wells, out on remotes with Carlson, helping to craft the story; Wells, shoulder-to-shoulder with military Special Forces in front of their Airbus chopper; and Wells, meeting with former President Donald Trump. The site describes Wells as “leading the Tucker Carlson Team across multiple platforms at Fox News Media,” and lays out the Carlson Fox empire he oversees.

Angelo Carusone, President and CEO of Media Matters, the media watchdog group that is laser-focused on Fox News and Carlson, observed, “It’s unlikely that any narrative would get broadcast by Tucker without significant buy-in from Justin.” In a clip highlighted by Media Matters in which Wells was interviewed by Carlson on Carlson’s show last year as Carlson’s Fox Nation documentaries began launching, Wells brags about the latitude Fox News executives give him: “They believe in what we’re doing and have since we launched ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight.’”

It’s beyond horrific to think a gay man has helped to shape and widely disseminate a message of hate against LGBTQ people. This story is not, however, about a warped closet case, tormented by self-loathing, hiding his true self while bashing those like him. And thus, this story is not an outing, which involves exposing someone who covers up their sexual orientation while publicly presenting as heterosexual — though it certainly may be a startling revelation to a great many. It is, rather, about connecting the dots regarding a reality that seems to have been hiding in plain sight.

Wells has been married to another man for almost 10 years, and they openly celebrated their wedding among family and friends. They live together in a residence they purchased in New York shortly after they married. And they also own a country home together, with both names on the deed.

I have reviewed the relevant marriage and property data, and have viewed evidence of their publicly sharing their wedding day with friends. (I’m not referencing this information, nor reporting Wells’ spouse’s name, to protect the spouse’s privacy.)

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I’ve also spoken with individuals who knew Wells in years past, including former Fox News colleagues and members of NLGJA, the association of LGBTQ journalists, a well-known and highly-public organization to which Wells apparently was once a member and a group whose events he most definitely attended over a decade ago. (These people spoke only without attribution because they are either former Fox employees who signed non-disclosure agreements or work for other news organizations, or both.)

Contacted for a response, neither Wells nor his representative offered a statement.

Wells, a veteran Fox News producer who cut his teeth at Fox as a field producer on Greta Van Susteren’s “On the Record” from 2008 until 2016, not only launched “Tucker Carlson Tonight” as Carlson’s executive producer, heading the program’s team in 2016; he became indispensable and in 2018 was given the loftier title of Senior Executive Producer. And as Carlson further pushed white nationalism, attacked transgender people and embraced Hungary’s authoritarian leader Victor Orban, Wells, in 2021, was named a Vice President at Fox News, in charge of all Carlson product that airs on Fox News TV as well as on Fox’s streaming network, Fox Nation.

Wells’ Twitter feed shows how he ramped up Twitter activity in early 2021, after years of relative dormancy after Van Susteren’s show ended, around the time of his promotion to VP and the launching of the Carlson Fox Nation projects. Twitter is also a place where far-right conservatives lobby Wells for coveted coverage on Carlson’s show, and where some even complain when they don’t get it.

Author’s note: If you want to see how abusively @TuckerCarlson and his @FoxNews team deal with people, read this thread. It’s an exchange between me and Tucker’s executive producer @justinbwells 1:16 PM ∙ May 13, 2022

In an exchange he tweeted out earlier this year, far-right conservative Dinesh D’Sousa, who made the bonkers election denial documentary “2000 Mules”, quoted a response he received from Wells as he tried to promote the film: “Dinish. Justin Wells here. VP and EP of everything in the Tucker world. I just want you to know that I/we won’t forget your little stunt today. If you want to decide how much time to give content on the most watched show in America–then I suggest you produce one in the future.”

Before joining Fox News 14 years ago, Wells, as his Linkedin page describes, worked in news at several local TV stations, mostly in Florida. He’d grown up in St. Petersburg, and worked for stations in Tampa, Miami and West Palm Beach. Colleagues remember him out on the gay nightclub and bar scene on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach with his boyfriend of the time, also a TV journalist.

They both became involved in NLGJA, attending events and traveling to conferences, though the boyfriend was, according to these people, more involved. NLGJA, like many such groups, provides networking and connection, and a social life of gatherings and parties. (I’ve attended and spoken at NLGJA events on and off over the years; I have no recollection of having met or known of Wells or his then-boyfriend.)

“I always felt Justin was a little more buttoned up. Timid. Not quite as outgoing as [the boyfriend],” a member of NLGJA remembers, noting how it suited them as a couple. “It’s one of those things where I just saw them as a unit.”

Even after joining Fox in 2008, Wells apparently stayed involved in NLGJA at least for a little while, before breaking up with his long-time boyfriend. But he’s not had any involvement with the group for years, and certainly not since joining Carlson’s show. Some of those who knew Wells in years past are baffled.

A former Fox producer who socialized with Wells and his then-boyfriend remembers a “quiet dude, unassuming,” adding, “if you would have told me in 2008 [when we knew one another] that Justin would be the executive producer of the number one right-wing TV show in America, I would have said you’re out of your mind.”

“It really blows my mind that he — who he is as a person and what he does as a job — it’s beyond the scope,” said another former Fox employee who knew Wells, distinguishing between those working for someone like Carlson and others working at Fox.

“I don’t know if he’s just completely blinded by the money. It’s mind-boggling.” he said.

But not everyone is shocked. “It’s a very clear manifestation of someone who showed their true colors,” said a person in the industry who is highly respected, and who knew Wells for many years. This individual is referring to Wells sharing Carlson’s broader far-right views. “I’m not at all surprised. They are two peas in a pod. Simpatico.”

Still, it’s quite stunning that Wells would work for Carlson, who has a well-known history of visceral homophobia. That’s something that came to light again last year when it became known that Carlson had offered a tribute to Dan White, the assassin of San Francisco supervisor and gay civil rights leader Harvey Milk, in his college yearbook back in 1991, as well as to the late vociferously anti-gay Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who whipped up homophobia during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

wrote about those jarring revelations when they surfaced last year, as well as about what I dubbed Carlson’s “pathological obsession with homosexuality” throughout his career. Carlson has expressed revulsion at homosexuality, and in one incident he reveled in a violent response. In a TV interview in 2007 he described having smashed a man’s head “against the stall” in a public rest room, after the man “bothered” him.

After an uproar, Carlson claimed the following day he was “assaulted” by the man, implying it was an act of self-defense. But in fact, according his own description, it was not: Carlson said he’d left the rest room after the man had “bothered” him, and then went back with a friend, explaining that they then “grabbed” the man and “hit him against the stall with his head.”

Given these sentiments and incidents, some might think it’s bizarre that Carlson would even want a gay man such as Wells around him. But Carlson also has always reveled in having members of minority groups he bashes standing up for him and against the group, sort of like trophies — much as Trump famously touted “Where’s my African-American?” at a rally, and used his friendship with Kanye West in the past as a way to claim he wasn’t racist. It’s certainly a power trip, having the loyalty of that individual and helping to legitimize pushing hate against the group.

In that respect, Wells, as a gay man, only emboldens Carlson further. He gives him permission to launch the ugly attacks and helps Carlson validate, for himself (and likely for executives at Fox News), the vitriol he espouses. That makes Justin Wells’ presence as the powerful gay man behind Tucker Carlson all the more newsworthy. And all the more dangerous.

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Michelangelo Signorile is an American journalist, author and talk radio host. His radio program is aired each weekday across the United States and Canada on Sirius XM Radio and globally online.

Signorile is noted for his various books and articles on gay and lesbian politics and is an outspoken supporter of LGBTQ+ rights.  Signorile rose to national prominence as a columnist and writer for OutWeek magazine where he ‘outed’ closeted public figures who were working against the LGBTQ+ community.

Signorile was inducted into the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association LGBT Journalist Hall of Fame in 2011.

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The preceding article was previously published at The Signorile Report and is republished by permission.

If you’ve valued reading The Signorile Report, consider becoming a paid subscriber and supporting independent, ad-free opinion journalism. Thanks! 

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Features

Gay Ukrainian immigrant used social media to find himself

Bezrukavenko said his life is the most stable it’s ever been & described his personal life as “very boring because it’s very good”

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Artem Bezrukavenko (Photo by Andrey Strekoza)

NEW YORK – On the streets of New York City, Artem Bezrukavenko stood next to a bystander with a microphone. 

“What would be your ideal boyfriend?” he asked the man. 

But he didn’t answer. Instead, he posed the same question to Bezrukavenko.

“My ideal boyfriend would be loyal, ambitious and monogamous,” Bezrukavenko said, adding: “He knows what he wants from life, loves me – I love him – and we have very good goals that are going to bring us together.” 

Of course, Bezrukavenko has already found this man. He and his boyfriend have been together for over a year and share a one-bedroom apartment in the Upper West Side. 

But it hasn’t always been this way for Bezrukavenko. The 25-year-old, who was born in the Donetsk Region of eastern Ukraine, left the country for nearby Poland in 2014, the year Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine – beginning a period of prolonged bloodshed in the country’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions. He moved to the United States a few years later, in 2017. 

Bezrukavenko told the Los Angeles Balde that he has been closeted most of his life. But, through social media, he said he learned to embrace his queer identity. 

“When I started to do content, I didn’t really show my gay side,” he said. “But, at some point, I just kind of dived into it. I saw there were a lot of people who could relate to me. And, in fact, I do change a lot of people’s lives.” 

Double-edged sword 

Discussions surrounding the LGBTQ community and social media often focus on cyberbullying and hate speech. However, some research has shown that the internet can also provide LGBTQ people, particularly youth, a safe space to explore themselves – especially if they come from an unsupportive environment.  

According to a study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, sexual minorities between 10 and 16 years old more often reported joining a group or web-based community to make themselves feel less alone compared to their heterosexual peers. An Australian survey of people aged 14 to 21 found digital spaces provide an ideal practice ground for LGBTQ youth to come out, engage with gay culture, socialize with other LGBTQ youth and experiment with nonheterosexual intimacy. 

Ross Murray, vice president of the GLAAD Media Institute, said LGBTQ people often use social media to find people like them. He said it can be very easy to feel isolated, but “social media helps you find and realize that you’re not alone.” 

On the flip side, Murray said, social media is also used to broadcast who you are. “You can be the one who is sharing your life, being your authentic self, talking about the joys and struggles, so that other LGBTQ people can learn that,” he said. 

Bezrukavenko has seen both sides – inspired by LGBTQ creators and empowered by making content that celebrates who he is. 

“I looked at some people who were being gay on social media and showing their life,” he said. “I felt like, ‘oh, my gosh, there are so many gay people.’ And they’re not feeling it’s a disadvantage, they make the best out of it.”   

That’s not to say social media isn’t an increasingly dangerous place for LGBTQ people. GLAAD, for example, recently analyzed the five major social media platforms – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok – finding none scored over a 50% for LGBTQ safety, privacy and expression. TikTok – the second most popular form of social media amongst teens, according to Pew Research – scored the lowest, with 43%. 

“This is the dark side of visibility, I guess,” Murray said. “The more visible you get, the more of a target you become.” 

Murray said social media is a place where we put ourselves out there. We do it for an intended audience, he said, like people we can educate, comfort or guide. “But that can be seen by anyone,” he said. “And that being seen by anyone also then can turn into a weaponization.” 

Bezrukavenko – who dabbled with, but ultimately abandoned, social media before coming out – said fear of online harassment kept him from pursuing it for most of his life. He said he always wanted to do social media, but his biggest fear was that he would be bullied for how he talked or walked, like in school. 

War in Ukraine

His life changed drastically in 2014 as war erupted 80 miles from his home in the Ukrainian city of Dobropillya. Bezrukavenko, who was raised by his mother and grandparents, was 17 at the time and had just finished high school. 

In an attempt to salvage his country’s lost influence in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded and annexed Crimea on the northern coast of the Black Sea in March 2014. Then, pro-Russia separatist rebels began seizing territory in the eastern part of the country. But as fighting with the Ukrainian military intensified, the rebels started losing – causing Russia to invade eastern Ukraine in August 2014. As of September 2014, more than 2,500 Ukrainians have been killed. 

Bezrukavenko wanted to build a life for himself. Not only was there war, but he also said he knew he was gay and – though he saw the country making some efforts toward LGBTQ tolerance – ultimately didn’t see Ukraine as a place where he would be comfortable.

“I knew I did not belong in Ukraine, and I always wanted to go away,” he said. 

Bezrukavenko said his Ukranian identity is complicated – he hasn’t felt a strong connection to the country since he left it in 2014. Even with today’s war in Ukraine, he still doesn’t feel a strong sense of Ukrainian identity. 

In February of this year, Putin announced a “special military operation” in the country – the war still has no end in sight. Nearly 8 million Ukrainians have fled the country since Russia’s invasion, making it the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Russia has also been accused of war crimes

Bezrukavenko still has family in Ukraine. In fact, his uncle is fighting in the war. “I don’t really miss Ukraine, and I don’t really want to live there,” he said. “But I don’t want them to be under the bumps.” 

Bezrukavenko said he thinks his sense of Ukrainian identity has faded because he moved from the country at a young age. He said since moving to America, the feeling has faded even more. 

“My whole adult life, I was out of there, so I feel like I’m probably more American than Ukrainian at this point,” he said. 

Bezrukavenko’s Journey 

So he could leave the country, Bezrukavenko’s family – who he was not out to – borrowed money and sent him to Warsaw, Poland, with a three-month allowance. Knowing little Polish, he was set to start at the University of Management.

He said he had to “hustle” in Poland. In addition to school, Bezrukavenko worked two jobs at a time – working for months without a day off. At one point, he was expelled from school for poor attendance. (He was later readmitted.) 

“I didn’t have a choice,” he said. “It’s not like I didn’t want to go to school, I just didn’t have time.” 

After six months of being in Warsaw, Bezrukavenko’s mother joined him. They shared a small studio apartment with nothing to sleep on but a small couch. He worked during the day while his mother worked nights. 

“There was no time for anything,” he said. “It was just working.” 

Bezrukavenko worked several jobs in Warsaw – from distributing flyers to being a receptionist and sales associate. “You know, it sounds terrible but it was a good time,” he said.” I had a dream and I was saving money for America.” 

After three years in Poland – with only $500 in his pocket – Bezrukavenko moved to the U.S. in 2017. His mother stayed back in Warsaw. 

In the years since, Bezrukavenko has moved coast to coast – starting his journey in Ocean City, Maryland, then New York City (for one day), then Chicago, then Los Angeles, then Austin, until he ended up in Manhattan. 

“I did a circle kind of,” he said.  

All the while, he worked in restaurants, call centers and retail – to name a few – to make ends meet. 

Coming Out – Twice 

Artem Bezrukavenko (Photo by Andrey Strekoza)

During this period, Bezrukavenko was closeted. While living in Warsaw, he remembers telling his mother he was gay. She suggested that a psychologist could help him.

“Even though my mom is the most progressive mom ever – I mean, she was my best friend all my life. But she still couldn’t believe that I was gay,” Bezrukavenko said. “So we kind of forgot about it.” 

After having his heart broken in Austin – though he said it “wasn’t really that broken, I was just being [dramatic]” – Bezrukavenko came out to his mother again. This time went smoother than the last. 

“After I came out to my mom, I was just like, I just need to come out – I just need to get it over with,” he said. 

Bezrukavenko publicly came out as gay in a video posted on Christmas 2020 while living in Austin. In it, he held the LGBTQ Pride flag over his shoulders. Within three hours, the video had 500,000 views. 

“I thought in my head, I make a problem for myself being gay,” he said. “Why don’t I look at it as not a problem but an advantage?” 

He said that his life changed a lot after posting that video, something that shocked him. He began to grow on all different platforms – like TikTok, Instagram and YouTube – sharing his story, doing LGBTQ-themed videos, posting so-called “thirst traps” and doing comedy. 

Bezrukavenko also noticed that many people online were already saying he was gay. For example, he said he ran a YouTube channel in Polish about living in America while he was closeted. As the channel grew, so did the number of people saying he acted gay – which, at the time, made him feel ashamed. 

“They would say I am giving Cher,” he said, referring to a viral Shawn Mendes video, where the singer told his then-girlfriend Camila Cabello that “it’s giving Cher.” The meme invited inappropriate jokes about Mendes’ presumed sexuality. 

But as it turned out, Bezrukavenko said, being unapologetically himself on the internet set him free and racked up more views. 

“I realized at this point, why do I hide myself?” he said. “I have a very unique perspective.” 

Gay Content for Gay People

Now, Bezrukavenko is living in Manhattan with his boyfriend, mainly creating content on TikTok, Instagram and OnlyFans. 

Bezrukavenko recently teamed up with a fellow gay influencer, StanChris, to film a series of videos later seen on TikTok and Instagram. 

“He seems really, really motivated – and I really liked that,” Chris, who asked the Blade to use his first name only, said. “He’s like, go, go, let’s work. And he’s always thinking of new ideas and stuff.” 

The two met after Chris noticed a viral Instagram reel Bezrukavenko posted. When Chris clicked on the account, he noticed Bezrukavenko had already attempted to DM him. So he wrote back, and the two began communicating. 

Chris, who lives in New Hampshire, was in New York for a skateboarding event and suggested that the two meet in person to film videos. After spending some time in Bezrukavenko’s apartment, the two embarked on a night in the city.

“We were just interviewing random people, asking them questions for more short videos to make,” Chris said. “And we both got multiple viral videos from doing that, so we had some good energy, good vibes, good luck.” 

Bezrukavenko said he is focusing on making gay content for gay people. “I realized at some point that there is not enough gay content – that there is not enough good representation,” he said. 

He does have one account, Art in the Park – a TikTok page with over 120,000 followers and north of 3 million likes where he interviews people on the streets of New York City – with the purpose of capturing a wider audience. Though he has come to love interviewing people, he said he is also focused on his LGBTQ-themed comedy on his personal accounts. 

Bezrukavenko said his life is the most stable it’s ever been. After losing both his grandparents last year, he met his now boyfriend.

“I don’t want to say I’m a religious person, but I feel like there’s some power,” he said. “I told my mom a lot that I feel like [my boyfriend] was sent to me by my grandparents.”

He described his personal life as “very boring because it’s very good.”

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Latina Queer artist honors life and death for Día de los Muertos

“We can all learn how we can pay homage to spirits, ancestors and people who have passed,” ~ Dalila Paola Mendez

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Dalila Paola Mendez (Courtesy of FIGat7th- Photo by Javier Guillen)

LOS ANGELES – In a busy open-air shopping mall nestled between two downtown Los Angeles skyscrapers sits a celebration of life and death – one drenched in flower petals, showcasing bright oranges and yellows surrounding a blue two-tiered structure.  

“We can all learn how we can pay homage to spirits, ancestors and people who have passed,” Dalila Paola Mendez, a queer artist of Central American decent who created the piece, told the Los Angeles Blade. 

Courtesy of FIGat7th (Photo by Javier Guillen)

On Sunday, Mendez finished the altar, celebrating Día de los Muertos, at FIGat7th in downtown Los Angeles. The mall has celebrated the holiday since 2015 and began to host altars in 2019. The 2022 altar, which will be up until Nov. 2, is the second time Mendez has taken on the project. 

“I really like her artistic sensibility, when it comes to creating the altar,” said Leah Ross, manager of retail marketing in Southern California for Brookfield Properties – the owner of FIGat7th. “The altar is something that’s created with a sense of beauty, a sense of emotion. And I really liked what she did.”

Mendez was excited to return because she “really enjoyed this space,” she said. “I was really happy that I was asked to do it again,” Mendez said. “I think for downtown, so many different people come to that center.” 

Courtesy of FIGat7th (Photo by Javier Guillen)

Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Latin American holiday generally celebrated on Nov. 1 and 2. During the celebration of life and death, family and friends gather to remember their lost loved ones by sharing fond memories of the departed. Altars, or ofrendas – the most prominent feature in the celebration – are used to honor the dead. 

Citing Latin American migration, Mendez – a first-generation American with Salvadoran and Guatemalan roots – said some people could “no longer could go to a grave site and pay homage to [their] family members that way.” So, to her, “altar making became another way of calling on the spirits, honoring the ancestors and doing it here in LA as an artist based in the United States.”

Mendez also uses the medium to bring attention to social and political issues. Her altar this year, for example, focuses on water – which she called a problem in today’s world, especially in the city she has called home her entire life. 

“We’re going through a drought in Los Angeles,” Mendez said. “Around the world, we’re dealing with rising sea levels, hurricanes, storms. Water gives life and it also can cause death, so I really wanted to honor that element. That’s the foundation of the altar.”

Traditionally, an altar includes the four elements: water, fire, earth and wind – all of which offer something to the dead. Water, Mendez explained, is normally reserved for a drink the deceased enjoyed. “If you’re not in such a public space, it would be something like liquor,” she said. 

Courtesy of FIGat7th (Photo by Javier Guillen)

Her first altar at FIGat7th was displayed in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread social justice protests after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. Earlier that year, former Los Angeles basketball star Kobe Bryant and his daughter also died in a tragic helicopter accident. Ross called her work that year “very poignant” and said she “did an amazing altar.”

“I think the representation and diversity that I include is really helpful,” Mendez said.

When asked how she injects her queer identity into her work, Mendez said, “I think it’s just me being queer.” She said her altars are about “honoring the ancestors,” including those in the LGBTQ community. 

According to Ross, FIGat7th chooses to celebrate Día de los Muertos because it “appeals and is important to a large part of our demographic.” 

“We are a very multicultural center,” Ross said. “Our demographics reflect the face of Los Angeles and that includes a very robust and diverse Latinx population.”

Personally, Día de los Muertos is Ross’ favorite holiday. In fact, it was her idea to bring the celebration to FIGat7th, she said. 

“What I focus on when I’m creating events for FIGat7th are things that reflect our community, that appeal to our customers, that will be meaningful things for them to attend and create a wonderful place in our community,” Ross said. 

For Mendez, the holiday has gained more meaning in the last few years – following the loss of her mother last year and her grandmother three years before that. “The altars have had more profound significance for me because those two women were very important in my life,” she said.

Courtesy of FIGat7th (Photo by Javier Guillen)

“Honoring their spirits and their teachings are things that move me forward as an artist and person,” Mendez said.

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How teen LGBTQ+ activist Will Larkins learned ‘Florida is people like me’

Larkins’ activism has done more than educate others – it’s taught themself, as well. Florida cannot just be boiled down to ‘rednecks & bigots’

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Courtesy of Will Larkins

WINTER PARK, Fl. – For 17-year-old Will Larkins, moving to Florida felt like the end of the world. The California-born teen activist, whose campaigning against anti-LGBTQ+ bills has gone viral, always looked at the state as “redneck” and “bigoted.”

And Larkins’, who uses they/him pronouns, worst fears about Florida came true in their first months living in the state. They told the Blade in a telephone interview that their first semester at Winter Park High School in Winter Park, Florida, was “terrible.”

“It was small things, but it was very constant,” said Larkins. “It was comments in the bathrooms and in the hallways and at lunch.”

Larkins could not dodge the name calling, whether it was whispers behind their back or slurs hurled directly at them. They went to school administrators repeatedly, but the school took no action, according to Larkins. The Blade attempted to reach Winter Park High School multiple times for additional information on anti-bullying policies, but the inquiries were not immediately returned. 

In October of last year, Larkins reached their tipping point in October in the face of a series of “horrible things” taking place on the same weekend. It started with a Halloween party that Larkins and a few friends were invited to. “We were very excited,” they recalled. 

Dressed like a Playboy bunny in a Chanel crop top, Larkins remembers walking in and “everything seeming fine” – until it wasn’t. Roughly 10 minutes after their arrival, a group of boys surrounded Larkins, shouting anti-LGBTQ+ slurs and insults.

“You’re going to hell,” one said, as another told Larkins to “f**k kids and animals” – an age-old insult gaining popularity in the face of a historic push for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation by right-wing politicians. (Some Republicans have used similar language in defending homophobic and transphobic bills.)

The situation continued to escalate until one threatened to physically attack Larkins if they didn’t leave. “It was really scary,” they said. 

The next day, Larkins went out trick or treating with a different group of friends. “F**got,” a classmate yelled at them. 

The harassment followed Larkins to the bathroom at school the next day. As they tried to use the restroom, three boys appeared and began to make “jokes” about Larkins. “Be careful, we’re homophobic,” Larkins recalled them saying. “You better watch out.”

Not being able to handle anymore, Larkins sought out administrators for help — one of which refused to speak with them because “she didn’t feel comfortable,” according to Larkins, forcing them to find another. 

Courtesy of Will Larkins

“It really pushed me to a bad place mentally,” Larkins said. At one point, they broke down in their English teacher’s classroom during lunch.

But in that dark place, Larkins found a silver lining. “I was not the only person going through this,” they said. 

Larkins’ English teacher told them that “she had gone through very similar stuff when she was my age. The only difference was her family was very unsupportive.”

“My family is supportive,” Larkins said. 

This realization began the Queer Student Union at Winter Park High School, which Larkins said attempts to “make the school better.” Coincidentally, as the club started, Florida Republican legislatures introduced H.B. 1557, better known by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

The bill, officially titled “Parental Rights in Education,” will make classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3 and allow parents to sue schools or teachers who violate the legislation. In late March, Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill, set to go into effect before the next school year.

However, days after DeSantis’ signature, a lawsuit emerged against the measure, arguing the statute “would deny to an entire generation that LGBTQ people exist and have equal dignity.” 

Supporters continue to argue that the legislation is about “empowering parents” and improving the lives of children in the state. 

After the bill was introduced in early January, Larkins’ club began campaigning against it, starting with an email campaign to legislators in the Florida statehouse. Soon after, Larkins would begin trips to Tallahassee, speaking directly to lawmakers on the floor. 

In a passionate speech to the Florida Senate Appropriations Committee, Larkins told lawmakers about the harm such a bill would cause – pointing out the already high number of mental health issues and drug abuse in the LGBTQ+ community. But Larkins told the Blade they felt unheard. 

“They don’t care,” Larkins said. “The Republican legislators sat there, they couldn’t even look me in the eye while I told them my story, and they passed the bill anyways.”

One Republican Senator, Jeff Brandes, joined Democrats in voting against the bill, saying he could not “support the bill today in hopes that we can find a way to love our neighbors.” But it still easily made it out of committee. 

After speaking to the Senate committee, rumblings of a statewide walkout in protest of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill began. Larkins recalls seeing social media posts with general information, but at Winter Park High School, everyone looked at them to be the one to organize it. 

Courtesy of Will Larkins

“I was very hesitant,” Larkins said, explaining that they feared repercussions from the school. But “people expected me to be the one to do this,” they added. 

Larkins contacted their friend Maddi Zornek, and the two got the word out through social media, made posters and bought Pride flags. 

“I thought it was going to flop,” Larkins said. “Lo and behold, 9 o’clock hits and upwards of 600 kids walk out of class.”

“It was refreshing, honestly,” Larkins added. “I had dealt with so much bulls** for being openly queer and expressing myself in a gender nonconforming way. So, seeing this school, which I believed to be hateful and homophobic, chant in mass, ‘we say gay’ and ‘trans lives matter’ was so powerful.”

The walkout was Larkins’ first viral moment, as it garnered national attention. Larkins is trying to use that newfound attention and turn it into change.

Activism isn’t foreign to Larkins; in fact, in second grade, they started a construction paper petition to get the school lunch changed. “I’ve always been an activist from a young age,” they said. 

But now, their activism means survival. “It wasn’t a conscious choice,” they said. “I’m doing what I have to in order to help my community and make sure that I have a safe space at school next year, and that people like me have a safe space at school next year, and that my gay little sibling also has a safe space as for next year.”

Once Larkins had their eyes set on fashion school and Europe, the teen now feels like activism could be something they see themselves doing in the future. Whether or not they make a career out of advocacy is yet to be seen, but Larkins shows no signs of slowing down. 

Shortly after DeSantis signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, they went viral again. This time with a lesson about the 1969 Stonewall Riots after realizing the topic wasn’t being covered in the class curriculum.

On Tuesday, Larkins stood in front of the Seminole County school board during a meeting “overrun by homophobes saying terrible things.” 

“I have never once learned about sexuality or gender identity in school, and that is the problem,” they said. 

Larkins’ activism has done more than educate others – it’s taught themself, as well. Florida, for example, cannot just be boiled down to “rednecks” and “bigots.” 

Courtesy of Will Larkins

“Florida isn’t Ron DeSantis. Florida isn’t the Florida Legislature. Florida isn’t the loud, hateful people,” Larkins said. “Florida is people like me and the literal hundreds of student leaders who lead walkouts across the state of Florida. It is the thousands and thousands of people who came together after Pulse. Florida is the kids at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School standing up for themselves and creating one of the biggest movements in modern history. That’s Florida.”

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Out Paul Castle, who is legally blind, doesn’t let his disability define him

For the “eternally optimistic” Castle, life’s obstacles have never stopped him from creating & fulfilling his dreams

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Mr. Maple with his human Paul Castle (Photo courtesy of Castle)

SEATTLE – Paul Castle was only 16-years-old when he learned he would progressively lose his vision until it was gone. Doctors diagnosed him with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare eye disease that causes the retina to break down slowly over time. The condition, which only affects one in 3,000 to 4,000 people globally, has no specific treatment options and no cure – leaving him with nothing he could do. 

Castle, who described himself as “eternally optimistic” at 16, took the diagnosis in stride – or at least he thought he did. 

“I spent a good four or five years pretending like this was great news,” he told the Blade. “And in some ways, it was a relief to know that I wasn’t just clumsy. There were all these unanswered questions, so to know that it was a disease with a name, that I wasn’t alone and science was indeed looking for a treatment for it was all encouraging.”

But that cheerfulness had a limit. Castle said he has always been a visual person with a passion for art, so the “irony of going blind” took time to set in. 

“Since then, I’ve had time to grieve, accept and process that, and come full circle to the point where now, in a strange way, I feel very fortunate,” he said. “To be part of a really cool community, the blind community, is really amazing.”

Now, Castle, 31, is legally blind, left with about 10% of his vision. He gets around Seattle, where he lives, with his guide dog, Mr. Maple, a substantial upgrade over the white cane he used for years prior. “Getting the dog was like a super cool boost of confidence because I love walking around with dogs,” Castle said. 

But just because Castle is legally blind, doesn’t mean he gave up his love for the visual arts. In fact, he is a full-time artist who is about to release his first children’s book, “The Pengrooms” – a story about same-sex marriage and his relationship with his husband.

(Photo courtesy of Castle)

“Blind is this term that I’m trying to educate people about,” Castle said. “Disabilities are nuanced, and I think most people outside of the blind community assume that blindness means that it’s total darkness – that there is no scale. But the blind community is filled with people that have some usable sight, whether it’s shapes and colors, whether it’s tunnel vision, like my own, or complete blindness.”

Technically, “The Pengrooms” won’t be Castle’s first book, though it will be his first to hit the shelves. His first books date back to his childhood – before he could even write the stories himself. 

As a kid, Castle, who spent most of his childhood in Canada, would sit his babysitter down to transcribe whatever story he conjured up in his head. Then, he poured over a piece of paper, drawing the pictures to accompany his stories.

“I would say my first love was storytelling,” Castle said, adding: “I would come up with all these really fantastical stories and the babysitter would essentially sit at the kitchen table and write the whole time.”

At 6-years-old, while most kids were playing outside, Castle was “always” inside drawing pictures. At the time, making his “very own” real book consumed his thoughts. So, he took matters into his own hands.

Castle remembers stealing a book – “G.I. Joe” – from his brother’s shelf, tearing every page from the spine and throwing the remnants in the trash. He then taped a story he wrote called “Sad Turtle” inside. The story is about exactly what it sounds like: A sad turtle. “But don’t worry, [the turtle] makes a lot of friends,” he said. 

“It’s one of my most prized possessions,” Castle said. “I swear if this place was on fire, and I could only take one object with me, I would grab that book.”

He grew up exponentially every year after that, quickly becoming consumed by animated Disney films. “When I went to see the movies, rather than come home and talk about the story and the characters, I was getting books on how the movies were made,” Castle, whose dream at the time was to be a Disney animator, said. 

Since then, he has come a long way, trading the tape and stolen cover for a proper hard-back, full-color book set to ship next week.

“Follow Pringle and Finn, two penguins with big hearts, as they deliver wedding cakes to their friends in the animal kingdom,” the official summary reads. “Each cake tells a story, and each wedding offers a challenge that Pringle and Finn must face together. The Pengrooms is an enduring tale about love, diversity, and the importance of working as a team.”

In the story, Pringle and Finn represent Castle and his husband, Matthew, and the “beauty” he has found in his marriage. 

(Photo courtesy of Castle)

“We work as a team; we’re collaborators who support each other’s dreams,” Castle said, adding: “To me, our relationship is about teamwork.”

In his book, he echoed that sentiment, dedicating it to Matthew, “… because we make a great team.”

The LGBTQ-themed children’s book comes as Republican politicians across the country attempt to limit teachings and books that deal with queer people. 

In Florida, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill last week, making classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3 and allowing parents to sue schools or teachers. The legislation has already received a challenge in court, with LGBTQ+ rights groups Equality Florida and Family Equality filing a lawsuit against the law last Thursday.

GOP lawmakers have also targeted LGBTQ-themed literature at the fastest rate seen in recent history. Some Republicans have labeled these books as “pornography” — from Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: A Memoir” to Carmen Maria Machado’s “In the Dream House,” both of which are award-winning memoirs recommended for high school-aged teenagers – intending to remove them from library shelves. 

Journalists from the Texas Tribune, ProPublica and NBC News obtained and confirmed a recording of a Jan. 10 meeting, where Jeremy Glenn, the superintendent of the Granbury Independent School District in North Texas, met a group of librarians in a district meeting room — where he explicitly targeted LGBTQ+ books before beginning one of the largest book removals in the country.  

“Specifically, what we’re getting at, let’s call it what it is, and I’m cutting to the chase on a lot of this,” Glenn said, according to the report. “It’s the transgender, LGBTQ and the sex — sexuality — in books. That’s what the governor has said that he will prosecute people for, and that’s what we’re pulling out.”

This political climate has, in part, fueled Castle’s creative work. “My interest in storytelling usually comes from a place of advocacy, whether it’s LGBTQ or advocating for the disabled community,” he said. 

Castle has already begun working on his next book, which will focus more on disabilities, detailing the process of finding a guide dog, set in a whimsical world with guide unicorns and dragons. 

Castle isn’t someone who is defined by their disability – no one is. But that’s not to say he hasn’t had to adapt to keep pushing his creative visions forward. For example, Castle’s eyes no longer pick up a pencil on paper, but he finds the brightness of an iPad is enough to do the trick. 

“The beautiful thing is that iPads and tablets became such a popular tool for illustrators to use. In fact, there are very few illustrators who use traditional pen and paper now,” he said. 

For the “eternally optimistic” Castle, life’s obstacles have never stopped him from creating and fulfilling his dreams. And he plans to keep it that way.

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How a former adult actor used YouTube to find himself

“Throughout all of this, I’ve learned that you truly get what you put into things,” he said, adding: “Success is inevitable”

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Richie West (Photo by Harrison J. Bahe)

PHOENIX – In 2020, Richie West sat in his sister’s childhood bedroom, feeling immense pain. He was visiting his hometown of Boonsboro, Maryland – a small, conservative town of about 3,500 that sits in a valley amongst the Blue Ridge Mountains – for the holidays. But West, who is bisexual, couldn’t help but feel out of place. 

Unbeknownst to him, his sister, who lives in the house with her boyfriend and his child, had removed everything from his former bedroom – trophies, Hot Wheels, even his Britney Spears poster – relegating his childhood memories to a box. She took “everything and she didn’t tell me,” West told the Blade, holding back tears. 

“It killed me,” he added. 

West, who asked the Blade to use his social media name for privacy reasons, assumed there could only be one reason: His family found out he was doing gay adult films. It isn’t the life he imagined growing up – with dreams of being a pilot when he set out for Arizona at 18 – but it was where he found himself anyway. 

Feeling lost, disconnected and “disowned” in the place he called home for most of his life, West turned to a familiar, comforting source: YouTube. But unlike most people, who would spend countless hours consuming video after video, West turns the camera inward and shares his life with the world. 

For West, chronicling his experiences for strangers has become a habit – not for views or attention but as a form of therapy. “It brings me comfort, as selfish as that sounds,” he said. 

He covers everything on his YouTube, from his experiences as an adult film actor and creator on OnlyFans – a content subscription service that many use for X-rated entertainment – to seemingly random stories from his life, past and present. 

Recently, West quit porn, citing the “toxic” nature of the business, as he faces a turning point in his life, thus his YouTube content. “I’m still trying to find my direction,” he said. 

“I realized I need to step away from talking about the porn-related stuff. It was holding me back,” he added. “I was getting views, but it was keeping me boxed in.” 

And “boxed in” is the last place West wants to be right now. Quitting porn has opened up a whole new world for West – one where he can focus on his art, burgeoning online novelty store and online content. Now, he has complete control over his life – answering to no one but himself, which was a long time coming.

Growing up in rural Appalachia, West knew that he desperately needed to escape his hometown. “I was ready to get out of that town – I knew I wasn’t going to stay there,” he said.

Boonsboro is a run-of-the-mill small town: Three traffic lights, a high school and no shortage of Donald Trump signage. In this town, everybody knows everybody – including their secrets. So, West’s development as a queer person took time. He knew he felt different but couldn’t begin to place a finger on it until he was almost gone. 

Like many young queer people desperate to find others like them – but lacking any real LGBTQ+ education – West turned to the popular gay dating app Grindr to explore his sexuality. And, like many, the experience turned out to be one more traumatizing than liberating. 

“It turned out to be a total catfish,” he said. “I was just heartbroken by it and felt like I had nobody to talk to. Then, I had my first panic attack.”

Richie West (Photo by Harrison J. Bahe)

Finally, he came out to his mother, who was and always has been supportive of him, he said. “It was a sigh of relief,” West added.

But his friends at school didn’t have the same reaction. “I was afraid of feeling alienated and pushed away from all of my friends,” West said. “And that’s exactly what happened once I came out to them.”

Luckily for West, he would soon leave the mountains of Boonsboro for the desert of Phoenix, set to attend Arizona State University (ASU) upon graduating. At the end of the summer, he made it – officially trading in his small-town life for a major university and a program to teach him how to fly. 

However, his college experience didn’t last long. “I just ran out of money,” West said. 

So, he decided to take a break, planning to return once he established his Arizona residency. At this point, West found both YouTube and the world of adult films.

He began webcamming with someone, but the situation turned too toxic for him. So, he asked himself, “Why don’t I try to do porn? I really don’t have any other option.”

He worked other jobs, including stints at Baskin-Robbins, Home Depot and FedEX. But “none of those jobs were really cutting it,” West said. 

“I hated the way it made me feel, just giving so much of my time and myself to these companies, and not getting a return or advancing myself in any way,” he added. 

West felt like he was doing better webcamming and wanted to see where it could take him. So, he reached out to studios, and in no time, he was entrenched in the gay porn industry, where he would be “stuck” for some time. 

“I tried to escape it once,” he said. “I just didn’t have the motivation in me to do it. I really had no direction.”

He took another stab at it, this time with a new company. Then came a life-changing epiphany: “What am I doing?” he thought. “I’m wasting my life away.”

The industry was “draining his soul.” He had no desire to date or be in sexual scenarios when he wasn’t at work. “It made me feel down constantly,” West said. 

“I should be doing something that I feel proud of and I feel is good for me,” he added. 

Luckily, he wasn’t in the same space he was when he started porn, something he attributed to “the grace of God and my hard work.” That made it “much easier for me to go off and do what I’m doing now, building my business and taking my artwork more seriously,” he added.

Throughout his journey – from dropping out of college to finding and quitting porn – YouTube was a constant source of solace, somewhere he could talk about anything and be himself. 

Richie West (Photo by Harrison J. Bahe)

“I wanted it to just be for me like a scrapbook for myself to look back at,” West said, adding: “It was just a way for me to get the stress off of me and verbalize what I was dealing with.”

For maybe the first time in his life, West finally feels a sense of direction. “I’m looking at a commission right now that I’m working on for somebody,” he said. 

He’s not the same person who sat in his sister’s bedroom filming his discomfort with the ostracization of visiting home. He’s not the same person lost in the “toxic” world of pornography. He’s a person who has taken control of his life. 

“Throughout all of this, I’ve learned that you truly get what you put into things,” West said. 

He added: “Success is inevitable.”

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