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Queer artists discover AI art app uses their art without permission

“If they need art to train the AI, they could ask artists or license existing work. Instead they’re going online and stealing it”

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Original painting of a model by Paul Richmond (L) compared with a Lensa AI Instagram App "drawing" of LA Blade contributor StanChris (R) Images used by permission

SUNNYVALE, Calif. – When Paul Richmond, a queer artist, first started to see AI-generated portraits trending on social media, he thought they were “cool” and “interesting.” 

“I’ve been intrigued by AI [artificial intelligence] for a while, and I’m very open to new technology,” he told the Los Angeles Blade. “I think there’s a lot of exciting potential with it.”

That was until Richmond discovered that Lensa AI, the app behind the popular Instagram trend, was using his artwork to train its AI – without his permission. Richmond said it felt like a “violation.” 

“As somebody who really advocates for artists and artists’ rights, to me, it’s just a very clear violation of our ability to decide what happens with our work,” he said. 

Lensa AI, which launched in 2018, went viral last month after introducing its “magical avatars” feature, allowing users to turn photos into digital art portraits. The app claimed the No. 1 spot on the iOS App Store’s “Photo & Video” chart in late November and has stayed there, garnering millions of downloads. 

But Lensa AI uses the open-source Stable Diffusion model – which pulls from a massive database of digital art scraped from the internet, LAION-5B, to train its AI – to generate the viral portraits. Artists have accused Stable Diffusion of using their artwork without their permission in the past. But the popularity of Lensa AI has again sparked an ethical debate over AI machines trained by original artwork.

“They’re just finding things online and stealing it,” Richmond said. 

Marc DeBauch, another queer artist who discovered his artwork was being used to train AI, called the process “a slap in the face of artists that spend their whole lives working to create a body of work.” 

In an email, Lensa AI-developer Prisma Labs told the Blade that “once the training is finished, AI doesn’t refer to the original dataset, instead it applies only acquired principles/learnings it has developed to the process of further creation.” The company compared it to how a “human being is capable of learning and self-training some elementary art principles by observing art, exploring imagery online and learning about artists and ultimately attempting to create something based on these aggregated skills.” 

“Hence, one cannot loosely apply such terms as ‘forgery’ and ‘art theft’ to this process,” a Prisma Labs spokesperson said. 

They added: “Commercial use of the Model doesn’t represent any legal violations. In addition we are fully GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] and CCAP [California Consumer Privacy Act] compliant.”

Stability AI, the parent company of Stable Diffusion, did not respond to the Blade’s request for comment. 

Richmond accused U.S. law of being “behind technology.” Daniel Gervais, a professor of law and director of the Vanderbilt Intellectual Property Program, said that he is “not aware of a court opinion specifically on text and data mining.” So, until there is, “it is not wrong to say ‘the law hasn’t caught up.'”

According to Gervais, the “copying necessary [for the AI] to learn is copyright infringement unless it is fair use.” However, he said, under current law, “it is more likely than not that a court would say it is fair use.”

In particular, he referenced the case Authors Guild v. Google, which challenged the legality of Google’s attempt to digitize copyrighted books into an online searchable database. Authors and publishers were concerned that Google did not seek their permission. In 2015 an appeals court upheld a ruling in favor of Google. 

Gervais did note that the U.S. Supreme Court will weigh in on a “big” fair use case, Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. v. Goldsmith, which deals with “transformative” art. Past court rulings have held that if the art conveys a different meaning or message from its source material, it qualifies as fair use. 

“That might change the law,” Gervais said. 

But artists argue – legal or not – AI training using their work without permission crosses ethical barriers. 

“It basically just recreates our art and kind of jumbles it up a little bit and slaps a different face on top of it,” Richmond said, adding: “In some cases, you can actually see the signatures of the original artists kind of mangled up in the images that are being generated for people.” 

DeBauch took issue with the app – which costs $7.99 per month or $29.99 per year – profiting while many artists are unaware their work is being used to train the AI. “I do all the work, but somebody is making a profit from my work, and I’m not getting anything for it,” he said. “And that really hurts because I’m not making a lot of money from my art.” 

Both Richmond and DeBauch only realized their work was being used days ago after visiting the site HaveIBeenTrained.com, which allows artist’s search databases – like the one Stability AI uses to train Stable Diffusion – for links to their work and flag them for removal. The site is run by Spawning, a group of artists building tools for artist ownership of their training data.

“Holy cow,” DeBauch recalls thinking when plugged in his work. He said he spent roughly two hours Sunday trying to flag his work for removal. He called the process “arduous,” as he couldn’t search for his artwork on his phone, and some images didn’t fit the site’s specifications. 

“For us to have to opt out is kind of like [adding] insult to injury,” DeBauch said. 

Richmond has not yet flagged his work for removal, but he plans to later this week. 

Richmond and DeBauch both said the internet has helped and harmed artists. On the one hand, it has helped artists easily distribute their work. But it has also made their art easier to copy or use without permission.

Since starting its meteoric rise up the app charts, the Lensa app has been embroiled in other controversies. For example, according to a recent NBC News report, cyber security experts are concerned over a section of Lensa AI’s terms of use

“You grant to the Company a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicensable, revocable and transferable license to use that User Content, and namely reproduce, distribute, modify, create derivative works, publicly display and publicly perform or otherwise use that respective User Content,” the agreement reads. 

Danny Cevallos, an NBC legal analyst, said, simply put, it means “any photographs you give to Lensa, they can use it however they want.” 

In addition, according to NBC News, the founders of Prisma Labs – the owner of Lensa AI – all previously worked in Russia. Incorporated in the U.S., Prisma Labs said it has no presence in the Russian Federation. It also said photos are immediately deleted from its servers after the avatars are made.  

Richmond and DeBauch both said the internet has helped and harmed artists. On the one hand, it has helped artists easily distribute their work. But it has also made their art easier to copy or use without permission. 

“The internet is a double-edged sword for artists,” DeBauch said. 

While DeBauch called himself an “old-school artist” who “doesn’t even really like digital art,” Richmond said he “love[s] all of the advancements in technology, and what that has allowed artists to do. We should never be afraid of that kind of thing.”

“I think that there’s a lot of great potential with AI,” Richmond said. “But it needs to be handled in an ethical way. If they need art to train the AI, they could commission that art from artists or they could license existing work from artists. Instead, they’re just finding things online and stealing it.”

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Okla. is not okay- these LGBTQ leaders are fighting for its future

The community here is startling in their resilience to constant threats, whether epithets yelled inn the street or repressive legislation

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Mark S. King (center) with a group of Oklahoma queer activists and allies. (Photo Credit: Mark S. King)

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. – When an audience member gives a dollar bill to a drag performer in Oklahoma City, they bow ever so slightly in a kind of reverent curtsy when handing it over. Here at the County Line nightclub on a recent Saturday night, I watch it happen again and again. Maybe it’s just how they do things here. Or maybe this sign of respect is not just an empty gesture.

I am sipping my Diet Coke and watching the show with a dozen new friends I have met over the course of the last two days. Officially, I came to town to speak at a community awards ceremony and do some promotion for my new book. But that was planned before the traumatic death of a non-binary child, Nex Benedict, only miles away. Oklahoma City is now the latest epicenter of queer heartache and righteous anger.

The community here is startling in their resilience to constant threats, whether in the form of epithets yelled on the street or repressive legislation from the State Capitol. The willful ignorance and hatred and evangelical damnations rumble through the roads of Oklahoma like a wagon train. 

The show tonight is hosted by the local chapter of the Gay Rodeo Association. Oklahoma loves a rodeo. They know a thing or two about roping and riding and whatnot. Not all of the cowboy hats and tight Wrangler jeans crowding the bar are performative. The local rodeo chapter has not only existed longer than Gay Pride here, it funded the first Pride celebration in Oklahoma City. 

Everyone has turned out tonight in support of the crowning of Miss Gay Rodeo, an honor that will be bestowed on Ryan Ochsner, who performs as Ry’Lee Hilton. Ryan is beloved as much for his HIV prevention work as for his lip-synching skills. He works for a local health center doing HIV testing and prevention outreach.

Ry’Lee Hilton (Ryan Ochsner) in the dressing room of the County Line
(Photo Credit: Mark S. King)

“We help people access treatment medication,” Ryan tells me in his dressing room, touching up his makeup as the sound system blares country songs for performers onstage. “From the time someone tests HIV positive, we get them the first pill in their mouth within one hour.”

I ask Ryan about the inhospitality of his state toward LGBTQ people and if it gives him second thoughts about living here. He fixes his painted eyes on me with great intention. “I love Oklahoma,” he says deliberately. “I am not going anywhere.”

The host of the show is drag queen Shantel Mandalay, who has become internet infamous for all the wrong reasons. Dr. Shane Murnan, who plays Shantel, was forced to resign his job as an elementary school principal because he entertains as a drag queen. The school knew of his act when they hired him – a member of the job selection committee once served as a judge for a drag contest in which Shane competed – but a tabloid story and the subsequent internet outrage from conservatives forced the issue.

The state superintendent of schools railed against Shane, saying he should be fired and implied that he showed up at school in drag, which was never the case. The school district finally told Shane that it was too expensive to keep him safe from the barrage of threats Shane received on a daily basis and they forced him to resign.

Shane Murnan performs as Shantel Mandalay (Photo Credit: Mark S. King)

Shane, who holds a doctorate in education, misses the job and the students he loved. His long education career in Oklahoma has effectively ended. While performing as Shantel tonight, the loss of his job has become part of his act. “This isn’t over,” he announces from the stage about the scandal at one point, and the crowd cheers its support.

It is a little surprising there are people out tonight at all, considering that only a couple of hours earlier we were all crushed together at an emotional vigil for Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old who died the day after being beaten in the bathroom of their high school. The precise details of Nex’s death as reported are still unclear, but they are beside the point for the grieving crowd, which spilled out from the vigil venue into the parking lot and against traffic on a busy street.

The Oklahoma City vigil for Nex Benedict (Photo Credit: Mark S. King)

I will admit this. Standing just at the street on the outskirts of the crowd, not wanting to intrude on these heartbroken locals, I winced each time a car drove by just behind me. Every passing vehicle produced a tingle up my spine. Events like a memorial for a non-binary kid are magnets for violence. You never know. 

But here, at the County Line nightclub, the vigil has ended and the crowd looks to the entertainers to soothe their hearts and lift their emotional exhaustion. It’s no wonder, I realize now, that each dollar bill comes with a bow of gratitude. 

Watching the show beside me is Lance Preston, the Executive Director of the Rainbow Youth Project USA, which operates a crisis hotline and counseling for LGBTQ youth being bullied or suffering from depression or thoughts of suicide. 

Lance has got to be more exhausted than he lets on. He has conducted more than 60 media interviews in the last few days on nearly every network, each one of them beseeching viewers to practice simple empathy toward queer kids, and for a safe environment at school. His efforts haven’t prevented the far-right activists online from having a field day, excoriating him with comments too vile to repeat.

Lance Preston, director of the Rainbow Youth Project (Photo Credit: Mark S. King)

Lance and I step outside for some fresh air, and he tells me with a shocking casualness about his experience with bomb threats and how helpful the FBI has been. The federal agency regularly informs him of the threat level for nearly every public event Lance attends. They monitor the dark corners of the internet for chatter about potential violence and give Lance a threat rating. The vigil earlier had received a relatively low threat rating. Lance went. 

The Rainbow Youth Project crisis hotline gets more than its share of hateful calls and messages. “They’re annoying, mostly,” Lance tells me. “But every prank call means time being taken away from a child who needs help. That’s what bothers me the most.”

Rainbow Youth Project is centered in Indianapolis but Lance has been in Oklahoma on a regular basis lately. The state has sometimes lurched ahead of Florida and California in the number of calls to the crisis line. Since Nex died, calls from Oklahoma kids in crisis have ticked up even further. 

Tayton Barton steps outside to join us and I grab a hug. She is a trans woman and a new transplant to Oklahoma City. She speaks softly but I know better. Her TikTok channel is pure fire, calling out ignorance and willful misinformation about the lives and rights of trans people. She is one of the few online personalities who will stand up to some of the more hateful far-right voices on social media.

Trans educator Tayton Barton (Photo Credit: Mark S. King)

Tayton’s mother is at her side, as she has been each time I have seen Tayton throughout my visit. When an LGBTQ child finds an ally in their own family, they cling to them tightly. Tayton’s mother is her biggest fan, even if Tayton’s online audience is growing by the day. 

Walking back inside, I catch Michael Maus and Robert Lacy-Maus with their arms around each other. The couple, both long-term HIV/AIDS survivors and together for decades, have never lost their newlywed sheen. Michael is a community icon here, lauded for his tireless HIV work of more than twenty years, while Robert is a supportive husband with a flirtatious twinkle usually tossed in Michael’s direction.

Long-term HIV survivors Robert Lacy-Maus and Michael Maus (Photo Credit: Mark S. King)

For more than 20 years, Michael has hosted a regular Wednesday afternoon get together at Expressions Community Center, where local HIV advocates from a variety of agencies come to stuff condoms, lube, and testing information into safer sex packets. Michael’s enthusiasm – and the fact the event provides local HIV leaders a chance to trade advice, gossip and resources – has made the “condom brigade” a must on everyone’s calendar. 

I see Teegan Mauter and Christopher Sederburg, leaders of the Trans Action Committee of the Rainbow Youth Project, sitting to one side of the club nursing their sodas. They are in town with Lance to help support the community during this difficult time. I pull up a chair to ask them something that has been on my mind.

How do they make it through the day, as trans men visiting here, in such a hostile environment? Only the day before, an Oklahoma state senator called the LGBTQ community “filth.” The death of a teenage non-binary person must have hit them especially hard.

Teegan Mauter and Christopher Sederburg of the Trans Action Committee of Rainbow Youth Project (Photo Credit: Mark S. King)

“As awful as it is, we can’t look at this as an ending,” Christopher tells me about Nex. “It’s the beginning. This can change things.”

“We know what we’ve been through,” Teegan adds. “And we know how much these kids need our support.”

Teegan and Christopher are young, with the hopefulness youth provides, yet they answered me with the look of men who are intimately familiar with life’s cruelties. It was a look that broke my heart. 

Across the club I spot Mary Arbuckle reaching out with a dollar bill for an entertainer doing a Reba McEntire number. Mary just retired as the director of Other Options, which provides a food pantry and other resources to people who need it, including those affected by HIV/AIDS. She is an unstoppable powerhouse in this community, a trait she shares with her late mother, Cookie Arbuckle, who founded Other Options in 1988. 

Oklahoma City LGBTQ leader Mary Arbuckle (Photo Credit: Mark S. King)

Mary had organized my book event the previous evening but had stayed near the back of the room during the readings. The essays about the dark years of the AIDS crisis kept tears in her eyes. 

These Oklahoma City advocates made indelible impressions. They redefined for me the meaning of an overused word. Inspiring. And, because we have learned to lift up the names of those we have lost to AIDS, or suicide, or hatred, I feel compelled to also chronicle the names of these living, remarkable people who have poured their hearts and livelihoods into saving the very future of Oklahoma. 

Meeting these folks is due to the fact I have the good fortune of knowing Robin Dorner, the editor of The Gayly, Oklahoma’s LGBTQ newspaper. Her journalism is her activism. Robin, a sparkling woman who is quick to remark she’s “not straight straight,” was my gateway to the queer advocates of Oklahoma.

Mark S. King and Robin Dorner, editor of Oklahoma’s LGBTQ paper, The Gayly
(Photo Credit: Mark S. King)

The show is winding down. It’s time to get back to my hotel for some rest. There’s a drag brunch tomorrow and my new Oklahoma friends will be taking me there. I can’t wait to be in their company again.

Wild horses couldn’t drag me away. 

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

Mark S. King is a GLAAD and National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association award-winning writer and the author of the popular blog My Fabulous Disease.

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Is Jason Caceres too gay?

Caceres is naturally charming emanating an ease of being- a palpable honesty that is immediately contagious

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Jason Caceres, the 33-year-old actor best known for his roles as gay characters on "Open To It" on Out TV and Amazon Prime and the feature film "Boy Culture"  was recently interviewed by Los Angeles Blade correspondent Simha Haddad. (Photo by Simha Haddad)

WEST HOLLYWOOD – The petite-framed young man wearing a billowing top open to his navel revealing his lean muscle build sits across from me at a West Hollywood café – the kind where seating requires a reservation made in advance and where they will not seat you until your entire party has arrived.

His foxlike brown eyes framed by long, curling lashes set under thick but perfectly maintained brows glean mischievously. He flashes a set of perfect teeth set in a jaw that could cut iron as he looks between me and the waitress, asking, “Is it too early for a mimosa?”

The waitress smiles back at Jason Caceres, the 33-year-old actor best known for his roles as gay characters on “Open To It” on Out TV and Amazon Prime and the feature film “Boy Culture.” 

“Single or double?” the waitress asks, regarding Caceres’ preferred mimosa size. 

“Oh, sorry,” Jason replies, feigning an apology and fanning his fingers over his chiseled chest, “I’m taken.”

His joke has the acuteness of a well-rehearsed theatre line with the freshness of a first performance. Everybody laughs. 

Caceres is naturally charming in the way those who live authentically often are. He emanates an ease of being and a palpable honesty that is so immediately contagious, and so perceivably queer, that we are soon joined by a bearded stranger who makes a b-line from wherever he was sitting straight for Caceres. 

“I’m so sorry to interrupt,” Beardman says, his gaze locked on my companion. “I just think you are so incredibly cute.”

(Photo by Simha Haddad)

The man hands Caceres a card and introduces himself as a tarot card reader who “also serves ayahuasca.”

“Is your birthday April twelfth?” the man asks in an attempt to dissect Caceres’ personality based on his zodiac – a flirtatious move particularly common in Los Angeles. 

“No,” says Jason, still smiling. “It’s March twenty-fourth.”

I sip my coffee while Caceres handles the man’s attempted wooing with sophisticated grace. 

Once Beardman has left, Caceres blushes, insisting this kind of thing never happens to him. I, of course, don’t believe him. I tell him that, in that case, he must have paid the man to come over here, knowing I would include the encounter in this feature.

Jason leans back in his chair, laughing and ad-libbing a scenario wherein he has to rush to the alley to pay Beardman for his job well done. When the jokes subside, he takes a breath, ready to continue spilling the beans about his journey through the often tumultuous landscape of Hollywood as a proud gay man.

“So,” I ask him, playfully returning to the subject of this piece, “is Jason Caceres too gay?”

What’s on your computer?

Jason grew up in what he describes as a lower-middle-class Cuban immigrant household with his mother, father, and older brother in South Beach, Florida.

“I don’t have an official coming out story,” Caceres says. “Although I did have sort of an unofficial coming out when my dad found something on my laptop. That was a very awkward moment.”

(Caceres family photo)

Caceres’ dad, whom he describes as a stoic but supportive old-world Cuban man, had logged in to the family’s only laptop to research something for work. 

“I didn’t know how to delete my browsing history back then,” Caceres says, laughing at his youthful ignorance. “And something popped up.”

Caceres’ dad did ask Caceres to explain the explicit material on the laptop. However, when Caceres seemed hesitant to elaborate, his father brushed off the incident rather than push his son further. 

About a year later, when Caceres told his mother he was dating a boy, she was supportive but, to Caceres’ confusion, surprised. 

“I thought my dad would have told her about what he had seen on my computer. So, I asked him, ‘Why didn’t you say anything to mom?’ and he just shrugged and said, ‘It wasn’t my business.'” 

Both of Caceres’ parents continue to be strong, supportive forces in his life. Caceres even describes one recent incident when his father insisted on voting for his son in an underwear modeling competition just to contribute to his son’s potential success. 

“I told him he didn’t have to do that,” Caceres says, “but he insisted that he wanted to vote for me.” 

Caceres explains that in a family of 64 cousins, he was the fourth or fifth person to come out as gay, so his coming out was not a huge shock.

Outed

Caceres also attributes his family’s overall support to their history of immigrant-related struggles, which created a tight familial bond. “My whole family is made up of immigrants. Cuba is a very Third World country with so little available. So, I think when you come from a situation like that, leaving all your friends behind you for a better life in a different country where no one speaks your language, all you have is your family. My sexuality would not be enough for my parents to excommunicate me when family is so important.” 

(Photo by Simha Haddad)

“As early as 14, I started to hear I was too gay,” Caceres says, segueing into the story of being unexpectedly outed his sophomore year of high school. 

There was a boy, whom we agree to call “Chad” for the purposes of this story, who was on the swim team with Caceres. 

“He was actually really good,” Caceres says. “I wasn’t that good. I only joined swim because a biology teacher told me that you burn more calories in the water because your body tries to heat up the water around you. I was a chubby kid, so I joined to lose weight.”

Caceres also jokes that he has since burned all the photos of his chubby phase. 

“Chad and I had this very high-school silent rivalry,” says Caceres. “He was out, and I wasn’t. He was also super popular. There was no good reason for it, but we just hated each other.”

While Caceres and Chad may have started as mortal enemies, the ice between them soon thawed when Chad started dating Caceres’ neighbor. 

Caceres recalls one phone conversation wherein Chad explicitly asked Caceres if he was gay. 

“I just hung up the phone,” says Caceres. “I thought, nope. We are not having this conversation.” 

Later, on the swim team’s yearly trip to Orlando to partake in a national competition and a traditional annual trip to Disney World, Caceres offered to room with Chad. 

Jason Caceres as a student at Southwest Miami Senior High School in South Miami Florida’s Olympia Heights neighborhood.
(Photo courtesy of Jason Caceres)

“People didn’t want to room with the gay kid. But I said I didn’t mind. Of course, I had already started to develop a crush on this boy.”

Caceres recalls feeling nervous and awkward in their shared room at first.

“I think he was joking, but he told me not to lock the door when I showered. I remember locking the door and then unlocking it, and then locking it again over and over. When I finally came out of the bathroom, Chad was like, ‘Are you okay?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m fine. I just didn’t know how to use the door!'”

Caceres recalls a smooth trip after the awkward door incident. He and Chad shared intimate conversations and flirtatious moments, particularly when Chad carried Caceres through Disney World on his back. “Because my legs were tired,” explains Caceres.

Back at school, Caceres presented Chad with a note, professing his love to Chad. The note, which Chad said slipped out of his backpack, soon ended up making its rounds throughout his peers.

“You know when people laugh with each other and stare at you?” Caceres asks. “That’s what the entire swim team was doing. Someone finally told me it was because everybody now knew I was gay.” 

Caceres shakes his head in dismay as he recalls his swim coach joining in on the belittling gossip about his note to Chad.

“She was a grown 40-something-year-old woman, and she was giggling along with the other kids and pointing at me, talking with them about me under her breath. I thought this is ridiculous… I quit swimming shortly after that.”

Caceres says he even lost his close group of friends over the love note. 

“After that, the people who I thought were my friends started to do the whole Mean Girls thing and distance themselves from me.”

Caceres says that he was able to find a new group of friends who accepted him for the rest of his high school career.

“High school got a little bit crazier after that because then I was dating a lot of boys and girls.” 

In spite of a lifetime of what he calls “jabs” for appearing “too gay,” Caceres describes his sexuality as “fluid but on the far end of the spectrum leaning towards gay.”

In company but alone

Caceres attended Florida International University, located in southwestern Miami where he joined a fraternity and also found a group of supportive female friends. However, navigating his identity as a gay man amidst a predominantly heterosexual environment proved challenging. 

“There is a very distinct loneliness that comes with being the only gay man in a group of women,” Caceres laments. “We don’t have the same shared experience.”

Caceres explains that the division lies in the small moments of social isolation. “I can’t go to the bathroom with them when they all go together as a group,” Caceres says, “so I’m left standing by myself with a drink while they all disappear together.”

In his fraternity, Caceres was outwardly accepted in chapter meetings and in required displays of inclusion and diversity efforts. However, he explains, behind closed doors, the scene looks very different. 

“Being in that frat was lonely, too. They wouldn’t invite me to go and play video games or hang out with them and smoke weed. They wouldn’t invite me out to the bars to pick up chicks because that would feel weird for them. And I definitely couldn’t go to their sleepovers.” 

19 year old Jason Caceres in 2010.
(Photo courtesy of Jason Caceres)

Caceres pauses, thoughtful. Finally, he tells me, “You know, I do identify with the whole ‘It Gets Better’ campaign. I do agree; it does get better. But I want to know how we can help during the period I just described. How can we help those who are actually living through this incredibly exhausting time?” 

Caceres said the invisible rift between his and his heterosexual friends’ experiences reached a peak when his female friends started getting married. Caceres recalls being left out of the wedding of one woman whom he considered to be one of his best friends. 

“She took me aside and told me to my face why I couldn’t be in the wedding party,” Caceres recalls. “There were so many ways she could have handled that. But to tell me to my face that it was because I was gay and a man…” Caceres trailed off, shaking his head. 

Caceres also recalls an instance with the same woman prior to her engagement. “Some of the other girls and I were discussing possibly going to this gay club. Her then-boyfriend at the time said, ‘There is no way you are going to that faggot ass shit.’ I thought, okay, so it’s fine for us to share a meal, but going to a gay club is too much? I didn’t understand why it was such a problem. It just didn’t make any sense.”

Fired

Shortly after college ended, Caceres moved to Los Angeles to continue to pursue his career in TV and film. His manager from Florida decided to relocate around the same time to attempt to set up an LA-based agency.

“I was lucky to have a representation,” Caceres says, “although I’ll use the term ‘lucky’ loosely.” 

His manager held mandatory acting workshops that Caceres did not find particularly helpful but agreed to attend out of respect for his manager’s wishes. 

The working relationship between Caceres and his manager had seemed amicable in Florida. In spite of having little face-to-face communication, she consistently booked him on small starter jobs like his first role, reenacting a crime scene on a true crime show. However, Caceres noticed a shift when he introduced his manager to his now ex-husband.

Caceres on the set of CBS Studios drama Criminal Minds with fellow actor Reid Miller.
(Photo courtesy of Jason Caceres)

“I could see she was taken aback,” says Caceres. “She didn’t know I was gay before that.” 

“She called me one day and said, ‘You need to work on your accent.’ She said she wanted me to take accent reduction classes. I assumed she meant my Cuban accent or my Miami accent, which are very different, and they were more pronounced back then. But she said, ‘No. It’s none of that. You need to change your gay voice.'”

Caceres was shocked at first but was willing to take her advice. However, upon further thought, he realized that changing who he was felt like a betrayal to himself. 

“I was really taken aback by that, and I didn’t know what to say or do,” says Caceres” I ended up sending her an email saying I didn’t think that was appropriate.”

Without any further conversation or explanation, Caceres’ manager sent an email to Caceres, his husband, and even his female best friend, formally dropping them from her roster. 

“I wish her well,” Caceres says.

Keeping it gay

Now, signed with a gay manager who has never asked Caceres to change his ‘gay voice,’ Caceres is thriving in his acting career, portraying gay characters authentically. He advises young gay actors to stay true to themselves despite the advice they receive, emphasizing the importance of self-acceptance and authenticity in navigating the industry.

(Photo courtesy of Jason Caceres)

To wrap up, Caceres shared the following message for any young actors out there trying to navigate the ups and downs of a Hollywood career:

“Everybody is going to try to give you advice. All these random people who don’t know you. Take all of that advice loosely and just remember to stay true to who you are.”

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Sabrina Cervantes is embracing identity at home & in politics

“I have two job titles- I’m a full-time legislator and a full-time mom. The title of being my kids’ momma is by far my favorite”

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Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes (D-Riverside) speaking to attendees at the 2023 Latino Economic & Policy Summit hosted by the Inland Empire Economic Partnership in Riverside, Calif. (Photo Credit: Office of Assemblymember Cervantes)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – With the onset of the 2024 election season, Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes has announced her candidacy for the 31st State Senate District, seeking to expand her commitment to service and advocacy to a wider audience. Cervantes, a Democrat, presently represents California’s 58th Assembly District.

In an exclusive interview with The Los Angeles Blade, Cervantes and her spouse, Courtney Downs, shared insights into how they manage their legislative duties alongside family life, addressing challenges and championing inclusivity.

Balancing Work and Life

“I don’t believe that in this field there is a true work-life balance,” Cervantes said. “It’s nearly impossible when I have to travel each week from Southern California for eight months out of the year. There is a significant impact on the family, especially with having triplets at home. 

Cervantes, who splits much of her time between Riverside and Sacramento, expressed gratitude for Downs’ steadfast support. 

“I am very grateful to my wife,” the Assemblymember said. “She is with the triplets full time, so that I am able to do this work and be a representative for our community.”

Downs, formerly a clinical educator, made the decision to accommodate Cervantes’ demanding schedule, ultimately stepping away from her career to become a full-time homemaker. 

Reflecting on the impact of Cervantes’ career on their family dynamic, Downs stressed the significance of being a supportive partner in the face of the challenges of public service.

“It takes a toll on our family,” Downs said, “but this is the work Sabrina is driven to do. As her wife, I want to be her biggest supporter.”

Coping with the distance, Cervantes described her efforts to connect with her family mid-week, prioritizing quality time amid her busy schedule.

Family photo courtesy of Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes

“I make the effort to commute mid-week,” Cervantes said. “I’ll fly up to Sacramento Monday and come back Tuesday so that I am able to make dinner for my family, give my kids a bath, read them a book, and get them into bed. The next morning, I fly back to Sacramento.”

Cervantes added that her challenging travel schedule is worth the chaos for the time she is able to spend with her family: “These are critical years that I don’t get back.” 

The couple, introduced by a mutual friend who remains close to them, also emphasized the importance of their supportive family and inner circle. 

“I’m certainly very grateful that I have a supporting, loving family that has embraced Courtney and I and our union and our triplets,” Cervantes said. “I know that’s not the case for a lot of people.”

Cervantes also expressed gratitude for the inclusive environment in Sacramento, where discussions about her family are welcomed among her Democratic colleagues.

“My democratic colleagues are very engaging in a discussion about Courtney and about the triplets,” Cervantes said. “It’s been a very inclusive environment in Sacramento that I’m really grateful for. It’s just been that much more helpful as we navigate this work-family balance as LGBT parents.”

Embracing Identity at Home and in Politics

Embracing their queer identity, Cervantes and Downs emphasized the importance of representation and inclusivity for their children. Actively engaging with other families and advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, they take pride in their family’s visibility.

Family photo courtesy of Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes

“Honesty and open communication are at the forefront,” Downs said.

“We try to be very intentional in showing them (their children) that they are not the only family with two moms. There are some families with two dads. There are families with one mom, one dad, just grandparents… We just try to be open with them about the different makes of families.”

Downs said that the couple incorporates inclusive books into their parenting strategy, prioritizing diversity in their children’s upbringing and ensuring exposure to various cultural experiences and perspectives.

Some of the triplets’ current favorites are My Two MomsMommy, Momma, and Me, and I Love My Hair

“My top priority is showing them that they are not alone,” Downs added.

“They accept and love the fact that they have a mommy and a momma,” Cervantes shared. “They know they don’t need to necessarily have a mom and dad to fit in.”

Impact on Legislation

“I have two job titles,” Cervantes said. “I’m a full-time legislator and a full-time mom. The title of being my kids’ momma is by far my favorite and most accomplished title.” 

“Motherhood certainly has a profound effect on how I view legislation and the issues that I do tackle and take on. I take on a heavier load on maternal mental healthcare and the different disparities when it comes to black and brown communities when it comes to birthing children.”

A recent data snapshot by the Maternal Health Network (MHN) reveals insights into maternal and infant health, highlighting disparities and trends within the healthcare system. Using data from the California Department of Public Health Maternal, Child, and Adolescent Health (MCAH) Division Data Dashboards, the snapshot offers a comprehensive overview of health outcomes.

Key findings include disparities in health outcomes based on race/ethnicity and age, underscoring the need for targeted interventions to improve health equity. The snapshot also stresses the importance of accessing accurate information from the MCAH Data Dashboard.

“For our region, our infant mortality rate for our black and Latinx community is 11%,” Cervantes told The Blade. “The state average is only 4%. I think there is a lack of infrastructure and a lack of healthcare providers. We have a big healthcare shortage, which is why we have been elevating these issues around healthcare access.”

Trailblazing for families

Since her election to the State Assembly in 2016, Cervantes has been a trailblazer in various capacities. As the first Latina Millennial elected to the State Assembly, she has worked to improve the lives of Inland Empire residents. Her efforts have led to the enactment of thirty-nine bills into law, covering crucial areas such as maternal mental health services, student financial aid accessibility, survivor protections, and fostering an inclusive economy.

Delving into the need for accessible healthcare and childcare, the couple recounted their struggles in securing childcare for their newborn triplets post-COVID-19. Downs’ decision to leave her career highlighted the urgency of addressing the childcare crisis for working mothers.

Family photo courtesy of Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes

In addition to her legislative achievements, Cervantes has been deeply involved in community partnerships and organizations. Currently, she serves on the Advisory Board for the University of California, Riverside (UCR) School of Public Policy and is a member of the Human Rights Campaign.

Cervantes has also been instrumental in securing over $600 million in state investments for programs enhancing the economy, wildfire resilience, voting protections, and access to essential resources for working families, children, veterans, and students in the region. Her leadership extends to her role as Chair of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, where she oversees a historic number of legislative members, including 21 Latinas.

With a focus on addressing pressing issues such as candidate residency requirements, contractor workers’ compensation classification, environmental justice, and maternal mental health, Cervantes has continually championed legislation aimed at serving the diverse needs of her constituents.

Looking towards the future

“I am excited to be running in an open senate district to continue representing our vast and diverse communities,” Cervantes said. 

Cervantes also shared that she is excited about the prospect of bringing her unique and diverse voice to the State Senate. 

“It’s important to ensure that we are continuing to have not just LGBTQ voices at the table, but voices from our LatinX community as well.”

“It is not lost on me what it means to have someone that reflects the community to represent them,” Cervantes added. “I am excited to continue that representation in the upper chamber of the state senate.”

Legislative achievements

California’s Capitol dome lit in rainbow colors for Pride.
(Photo Credit: California LGBTQ Legislative Caucus)

Cervantes is proud of her accomplishments in the Assembly as a lawmaker and detailed the legislation that she is especially keen to highlight:

AB 746. – A Bill to Protect the Rights of Mothers

Cervantes expressed pride over her Assembly Bill 746, which seeks to streamline the stepparent adoption process in the state, stemmed from the couple’s personal experience when Downs realized she was legally required to adopt their triplets. 

Downs encountered undue discrimination when attempting to adopt her own children, facing invasive home checks and education verification requirements imposed by the county, which were neither required nor constitutional. AB 746 aims to prevent such discriminatory practices and ensure equitable treatment for all families seeking to adopt.

Signed into law by the Governor on September 22, 2021, the AB 746 bill assures that parties involved in stepparent adoptions are not mandated to have been married or in a domestic partnership for a minimum period before adoption, and they are not required to provide income or education verification.

By removing unnecessary barriers, AB 746 aims to make the adoption process more accessible and less burdensome for families, including LGBTQ+ families like Cervantes and Downs’. The legislation underscores California’s commitment to equality and inclusivity, ensuring that all families, regardless of sexual orientation or family structure, have equal access to legal recognition and protection.

With the passage of AB 746, California takes a significant step towards supporting diverse families and fostering loving and stable homes for children. As the bill becomes law, it is expected to bring about positive change in the adoption process, contributing to the well-being of families throughout the state.

More information can be found here

AB 1477 – A Bill for Maternal Mental Health

Assembly Bill 1477, championed by Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes and signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom, mandates licensed healthcare practitioners providing prenatal, postpartum, or interpregnancy care to conduct appropriate screening for maternal mental health (MMH) conditions. 

The bill expands the definition of MMH to include interpregnancy care, ensuring support for women experiencing pregnancy loss and early detection of symptoms for improved health outcomes. 

Cervantes emphasizes the importance of providing quality mental healthcare to pregnant women, addressing the stigma surrounding pregnancy loss, and meeting the emotional and psychological needs of affected individuals. MMH disorders affect one in five women in California, with higher prevalence among specific demographic groups, highlighting the need for equitable access to maternal mental healthcare services.

More information can be found here

AB 1478 – A Bill to Bolster Maternal Health Services

Cervantes made a significant stride toward bolstering maternal mental health services statewide with the authoring of AB 1478, which was approved by both houses. 

AB 1478 aims to fortify existing initiatives by mandating the State Department of Public Health to establish and maintain a comprehensive database of referral networks for community-based mental health providers and support services, with a particular focus on addressing postpartum depression and prenatal care in medically underserved areas.

Cervantes has emphasized the personal significance of the bill, drawing from her own experiences as a mother: “This legislation is about ensuring that all mothers, regardless of their circumstances, have access to the mental health support they need during the perinatal period.”

Under AB 1478, the Department of Public Health will be tasked with developing and maintaining an internet-based database containing up-to-date information on mental health providers and support groups. This initiative is poised to streamline access to essential services, thereby enhancing the quality of care available to mothers in need.

This bill was, unfortunately, vetoed by the Governor. 

More information can be found here.

AB 2466 – A Bill to Safeguard the Rights of Foster Children

Assembly Bill No. 2466, now law as Chapter 967, marks a significant stride in safeguarding the rights of foster children in California. 

The bill, signed by the Governor on September 30, 2022, explicitly bars placing agencies from denying foster care placement to children based on a resource family parent’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. 

It brings about amendments to key sections of both the Health and Safety Code and the Welfare and Institutions Code, emphasizing the paramount importance of conducting thorough home studies for licensed foster parents to ensure the safety and well-being of foster children. 

This legislative move underscores the state’s commitment to eradicating discrimination and promoting equitable access to foster care placements for all children statewide.

More information can be found here

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Non-binary actor Samantha Béart on Baldur’s Gate 3 & more

The challenges of being a non-binary performer, their work on BG3, being longlisted for a BAFTA Games Award in 2023

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In Baldur's Gate 3, Karlach is a companion-to-be, a Tiefling barbarian freed from hell and the Blood War in Avernus who is actually being hunted by Wyll and the Paladin Anders. (Image courtesy of Larian Studios Games Ltd.)

LONDON, UK – Baldur’s Gate 3 continued its winning streak at the 2023 Game Awards. It won six categories, including Game of the Year and RPG of the year. I had the opportunity to speak with non-binary actor Samantha Béart, who portrays a 7-foot tall barbarian woman with a heart of gold (or, more accurately, infernal iron) named Karlach in the game.  

They have been long listed for two consecutive years in the BAFTA Games Awards for the Performer in a Leading Role category for ‘The Excavation of Hob’s Barrow‘ and now ‘Baldur’s Gate 3‘. Most recently they were announced on this year’s BAFTA Breakthrough cohort, the first performer whose breakthrough project was a game.” During the interview I was struck by their passion, thoughtfulness, technical expertise, and dedication to honing their craft.

Los Angeles Blade: How are you?

Samantha Béart: I’m good. I’ve just been setting up the streaming. That’s the thing I do now, apparently. It’s interesting trying to demonetize it as much as I can. I’m very comfortably off for the first time in my life so I don’t really want people to give me money, and I discourage it as much as possible.  Before Baldur’s Gate I had a tech job.

Blade: Wanting less money from streaming is unusual.

Béart: I read a paper recently in a proper peer-reviewed journal on parasocialism, and Twitch specifically. I’m trying to dial that back a bit. Also, you know, I did nothing to earn that community. I didn’t put in the years and years of hard work that [some] people do. It was off the success of the game. 

I’m all about bursting the bubble on the idea “that the actor is inherently well-off, or does one big thing, “makes it”, and no longer has to worry about money.

Blade: Can you talk a little bit about your experiences being a nonbinary actor?

Béart: I’ve grown up with it. I’m used to it, but even if I looked really androgenous, they’re still going to try to at least gender me in a binary way. I’m leaning towards using they/them more because it feels like using she/her is giving permission for someone to use feminine nouns to describe me. I don’t use feminine nouns, and that’s only dawning on me now as “actress” keeps getting used more and more. I really hate it. 

Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London, UK (Photo Credit GSM&D)

Blade: Can you tell me a bit about your background as an actor?

Béart: I did a traditional 3-year classical Shakespearian drama school training. Just for flexing points I was offered places at RADA, LAMDA, Bristol Old Vic, Drama Centre and Guildhall School of Music & Drama.  I chose the latter mainly from the vibe, and I liked the graduates that were coming out. I say that because when I graduated in 2009 I couldn’t garner interest from casting directors or acting agents with clout, so a lot of doors were immediately closed to me in terms of jobs.

Blade: What happened? Did it have anything to do with you being non-binary?

Béart:  At drama school, our teachers would say that we prepare to be an actor; we don’t prepare for the industry. [I spent] years and years and years in that world and being rejected. 

I was just doing gender wrongly, apparently, or I was “butch,” or something – we didn’t have the words around gender so much back then. They just kept throwing labels at me as to why I was not going to get work: looking “ethnically ambiguous”, not “looking British”, or not looking like I was from London. That’d be the end of the feedback. It was always something I couldn’t do anything about, and that’s why I ended up in audio and games. It’s worked in my favor, finally.

Blade: Had you played D&D before you auditioned?

Béart: Very briefly because it was just before lockdown. There was a regular one-shot weekly campaign in London. A friend of mine was a DM who had probably been playing since first edition. Bless him! Totally stress free. I had such a laugh, it was so good, and of course I played a barbarian because I didn’t want to learn the rules. I just wanted to role play. So, I feel that prepared me for Karlach somewhat.

Image courtesy of Larian Studios Games Ltd.

Blade: What was it like working on this game?

Béart: As actors, we do the majority of our work outside of the rehearsal room, the studio or the set.  You’ve got to hit the ground running since you are recording.  We all spent hundreds of hours recording the mocap. It wouldn’t have taken very long to just do voice, I think. Data miners managed to pull all the voice files out, and I think Devora Wilde, who plays Lae’zel, got almost 11 hours [of dialogue]. I think I got 10 and a half.

So it’s kind of frustrating when people say: “Oh, yeah, they spent 4 years on it, and you were rushed through,” as if everyone was working 9 to 5 for 4 years. No—they were coming in and doing bits and bobs sporadically, whereas I came in in that last year on every other night and weekends. It also helped me playing a character who feels that she’s on borrowed time. That intensity of sessions is closer to what most actors – in games and other forms of entertainment – usually experience. You usually come in just before post-production kicks off.

Blade: What were some of the challenges you faced in the role?

Béart: To be honest, I just had to make sure her voice was working class. I’m not a 7-foot tall sweary sailor-type myself. But in terms of acting, it’s a combination of my personal experience and my imagination and I think those and the voice together create that character, in this case, because we’re working black box. 

It was all very similar to theatre, actually; we had movement directors, and they speak the same codified language that we do. They train with us at drama schools. The challenge for me was the physicality, because I’m quite high energy and that looks weird on someone as big as  Karlach. 

So most of my challenges were in setting her physicality. Drama school gave me a toolbox of techniques, and I found things I hadn’t touched since learning, but have continued to live on in muscle memory: animal studies, mask, but most importantly for me in this case, Laban Efforts. It came down to one word – pressing. This effort is direct, heavy, slow and bound.

Blade: You mentioned some challenges that had nothing to do with the role itself.

Béart: The biggest and most pressing challenges of the role was in my work/life balance. After almost a decade in the entertainment industry I just wasn’t making ends meet. I had retrained as a software engineer a few years prior to BG3 – it got me through the pandemic – and I had been working from home as an infrastructure engineer for an IT consultancy. As a salaried job it severely limited my options as an actor, but seeing as I was only landing the odd day in the studio here and there it really didn’t have much impact. About three months before landing BG3 I was diagnosed with a chronic illness. I was also placed on a very effective course of medication but it was only to be for a limited time, as it was highly addictive. 

Because of the secretive nature of the triple-A games industry I was initially informed that I was only required for ten sessions (I think I’m in the mid-sixties now). This didn’t justify quitting my full-time day job, and the studio wasn’t far away from home, so I accepted and recorded over evenings and weekends. You can already see the parallels: I was coming to terms with my condition, I had my very own Soul Coins to get me through, and I was on limited time. 

She has resonated strongly with so many people dealing with so many different issues, but none more than those with chronic and terminal illnesses. I’m proud of myself for committing to all those evenings and weekends and giving my absolute all, and I’m pleased to say I was in position to quit the day job in the last month of recording!

Blade: What was it like working with the directors?

Béart: The directors were my eyes and ears in the world, and they had already directed a lot of the other [actors] through those levels, and those areas and realms. So they knew what it looked like. They could describe it to me. But a lot of the time I was asking: How far away are they? Am I shouting? Are we intimate? Do I like them, or do I not? 

Blade: What was your take on what was going on inside your character’s head?

Béart: She’s not gonna tell you that she’s having problems physically, right? Because she’d be a liability to the party. And then, as you go on, you realize that the happy-go-lucky thing is a trauma response. Which players have either picked up on or not, but every line I read was with that in mind…with how much I’m either pushing the trauma down, ignoring it or actually going, “Thank God, I’m alive! I’m out of there [hell].” But it was always as a response to the last 10 years, even if she doesn’t want to put a name to it. The most universal message is to make the most of the life we have, so I’m not surprised she’s affected so many players.

But I am not a method actor: in arguably my biggest scene in the game, while my predicament may have been ticking away subconsciously, what you see is a performance of Karlach’s given circumstances – my own situation didn’t come into it. It was cathartic to me to finally let all her ugly, dark thoughts out. In terms of the whole experience she was pure escapism and comforted me through some very hard times. 

Samantha Béart in a Motion Capture suit working on BG3. (Photo courtesy of Samantha Béart)

Blade: Did you have any input into Karlach’s lines?

Béart: It’s not often I do this, and I don’t like doing it, but I changed a line. It was very American sounding, and I was so English sounding that it didn’t work. Sarah Baylus [writer] is American. She wrote “Woo-hoo!” which makes me sound like Homer Simpson. So I asked, “Can we have “Wahey!”? It’s very laddish and British, but my own very feminine mother uses that.

There were only a couple of things I wanted to change. As a theatrically trained actor, the writing is the word of God, so you don’t [make changes]. It’s seen as quite arrogant, as if you think you know more than the writer.  It’s your problem to work around.

And also, to be honest, they’d programmed it into the game by the time I was touching it. Even changing “Woo-hoo” to, “Wahey”? They had to go back [and change things], so I certainly didn’t want to make a habit out of it.

Blade: When Karlach rages, she’s got this iconic roar. Where did that come from?

Béart: We didn’t go in thinking, “Oh, these are going to be Karlach’s iconic lines”, but rather “today we’re going to record all the rogue lines. But we had to record every class and subclass and our respective characters’ comments on being that subclass as well, and do spells, which was hours and hours and hours of yelling at different distances and different strengths.  Then I realized I was recording the barbarian’s lines, and I thought, “Oh, you’re gonna hear this a lot.” So I gave them a 3 or 4 different roars. They didn’t use my metal roar, which I’m a little disappointed about.

Blade: Your work is finally getting noticed. Tell me about getting long-listed (nominated) for a BAFTA award for “The Excavation of Hobbes Barrow.”

Béart: I approached it like I would a play, and because it was Indie, I had the script in its entirety. It was also recorded in chronological order. That was really helpful, because I didn’t have to think “Oh, right, was that before? What’s just happened then?” Instead you just pick up from yesterday. I decided a long time ago that if I was going to be working almost exclusively in audio and games I was gonna respect the medium as much as I could, so I’ve never phoned it [in]. I don’t take a job–not that there’s loads of them, but also not like there’s lots of money involved either –but I never take a job if I think that the writing’s terrible or I can’t do anything with it. It has to be interesting to me, and most of the time it is. 

Blade: When did you realize that BG3 was becoming a phenomenon?

Béart: It happened in stages; each day we got another surprise. I think we all thought it would do “well”.  I thought I’d get tapped on the shoulder every couple of years and hear, “Oh, yeah, that thing–you were good in that.”  You don’t think it’s gonna culturally be this important as it’s turning out to be.

The first time was when they showed the featurette of the city. I saw the detail and the general gorgeousness of it, and went, “Oh, this is going to be one of the biggest games ever.”  Another stage was seeing someone dress their cat up as Karlach. Then it was the numbers at Comic Con: I was on stage for a panel where they had been queuing for hours. I love the fact that all the strong girl [cosplayers] are getting their moment in the spotlight.

Then I remember sitting at Comic Con on these sofas with the gang in front of this stadium-like audience. Something flickered out of the corner of my eye, and I looked up to see us on a football pitch-sized screen. I’m thinking “What is this? This is insanity.” But there were all these little moments.

Blade: How do you feel about this game being both a hit, and just about the queerest thing ever?

Béart: I feel personally vindicated. I was apparently too butch to play a lead male character’s girlfriend, but in BG3 I managed to appeal to literally fucking everyone. I was not aiming to do that. She [Karlach] was clearly coded sapphic, in terms of looks and the size of her. She’s magnificent, and she’s physical. She’s absolutely wonderful.

Blade: How did you approach the romance lines and motion capture for your character?

Béart: I thought, “Let’s not fuck this opportunity up.” So instead of centering the cis het male experience, I centered sapphic women instead. I imagined I was talking to women who love women, and that was it. I always imagined [interacting with] a woman. I played it non-binary. Normally, if I’m playing a girl, there’s a way the girls hold themselves. To be super general, men are taller and straight, while women break that line. The physical expression of femininity is often about being off-centre.  If that meant that she [Karlach] didn’t appeal to men, that was fine. They have enough; they’ve got every other woman in every other game ever. I was thinking, “This has to appeal to everyone,” but I was not going to prioritize the male player.

Blade: This game is available in a lot of countries where being LGBT is a lot less accepted, illegal, or things are getting worse. 

Béart: While doing an LGBTQ Q&A for a BAFTA Games event, the question came up regarding watering games with queer content down, or censoring it for certain regions. And the audience said “Hell, no,” obviously. But that people will find the game somehow, via VPN. The writers and the developers and us have generated so much queer joy in the last 3 months. I’m again so proud and lucky to be part of this, and also to not have fucked it up, because that could have happened too. It just blows me away. If nothing else, this game has proved that LGBT content is highly profitable.

Blade: This hasn’t been an easy road, but what really shines through to me is your technical expertise, dedication to your craft, and passion for what you’re doing.

Béart: Not being given the opportunity to take part in film, TV, and commercial theatre really didn’t stop me loving storytelling. Whatever medium I end up in, I will approach it with the same vigor, research and respect.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Samantha Béart | BAFTA Breakthrough 2023:

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GSAs have uneasy future under Kentucky’s anti-LGBTQ+ law

Kentucky’s law is one of the nation’s most sweeping anti-LGBTQ+ laws, limits instruction of human sexuality/gender identity in schools

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A Ketron-Newell family portrait from 2019. Pictured, left to right, Elizabeth Newell, Gwenn Ketron, Natalie Newell, Raelinn Ketron, Rachelle Ketron, Marsha Newell, Patrick Newell, Meryl Ketron, Joseph Newell and Finley Ketron.

By Javeria Salman | OWENTON, KY. — During a school-wide club fair in this northern Kentucky town, a school administrator stood watch as students signed up for a group for LGBTQ+ students and their allies.

After the club sign-up sheet had been posted, students wrote derogatory terms and mockingly signed up classmates, according to one of the club’s founders. The group eventually went to the administrator, who agreed to help.

Simply being able to post the sign-up sheet in school was a victory of sorts. For two years, the club, known as PRISM (People Respecting Individuality and Sexuality Meeting), gathered in the town’s public library, because its dozen members couldn’t find a faculty adviser to sponsor it. In fall 2022, after two teachers finally signed on, the group received permission to start the club on campus.

Much of that happened because of one parent, Rachelle Ketron. Ketron’s daughter Meryl Ketron, who was trans and an outspoken member of the LGBTQ+ community in her small town, had talked about wanting to start a Gay-Straight Alliance when she got to high school. But in April 2020, during her freshman year, Meryl died by suicide after facing years of harassment over her identity. 

Rachelle Ketron at her daughter’s memorial site on August 31, 2023. Meryl Ketron committed suicide in April 2020 following years of bullying from her peers and members of the community for being an outspoken member and champion of the queer community in Owenton.

Following Meryl’s death, Ketron decided to continue her daughter’s advocacy. She gathered Meryl’s friends and talked about what it might mean to start a Gay-Straight Alliance, a student-run group that could serve as a safe space for queer youth on campus. After trying, and failing, to get the school to sign off on the idea, the group decided to gather monthly at the public library, where its members discussed mental health, sex education and experiences of being queer in rural areas. Ketron, a coordinator of development at a community mental health center just across the border in Indiana, also founded doit4Meryl, a nonprofit that advocates for mental health education and suicide prevention, specifically for LGBTQ+ youth in rural communities like hers.

 The Owen County Public Library in Owenton, Aug. 31, 2023.

Around the country, LGBTQ+ students and the campus groups founded to support them have become a growing target in the culture wars. In 2023 alone, 542 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced by state legislatures or in Congress, according to an LGBTQ-legislation tracker, with many of them focused on young people. Supporters of the bills say schools inappropriately expose students to discussions about gender identity and sexuality, and parents deserve greater control over what their kids are taught. Critics say the laws are endangering already vulnerable students. 

Kentucky’s law, passed in March, is one of the nation’s most sweeping anti-LGBTQ+ laws, prohibiting school districts from compelling teachers to address trans students by their pronouns and banning transgender students from using school bathrooms or changing rooms that match their gender identity. The law also limits instruction on and discussion of human sexuality and gender identity in schools. A separate section of the law bans gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth in the state.

 Jason Glass (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

“What started out as really a bill focused on pronouns and bathroom use morphed into this very broad anti-LGBTQIA+ piece of legislation that outlawed discussions of gender and sexuality, through all grades, and all subject matters,” said Jason Glass, the former Kentucky commissioner of education.

Glass left Kentucky in September to take a job in higher education in Michigan after his support for LGBTQ+ students drew fire from Republican politicians in Kentucky, including some who called for his ouster.

Because the law’s language is sometimes ambiguous, it’s up to individual districts to interpret it, Glass said. Some have adopted more restrictive policies that advocates say risk forcing GSAs, also known as Gender and Sexuality Alliances or Gay-Straight Alliances, to change their names or shut down, and led to book bans and the cancellation of lessons over concerns that they discuss gender or sexuality. Others have interpreted the law more liberally and continue to offer services and accommodations to transgender or nonbinary students, if parents approve.

Across the country, the number of GSAs is at a 20-year low, according to GLSEN, an LGBTQ+ education advocacy nonprofit. GLSEN researchers say there may be two somewhat contradictory forces at work.

Fewer students may feel the need for such clubs, thanks to school curricula and textbooks that have become more inclusive of LGBTQ+ individuals and thanks to an increase in the number of school policies that explicitly prohibit anti-gay bullying. Conversely, the recent surge in anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, as well as the halt to extracurricular activities during the pandemic, may also be fueling the drop, the researchers said. 

 Willie Carver

Willie Carver, a former high school teacher and Kentucky’s Teacher of the Year in 2022, left teaching this year because of threats he faced as an openly gay man. Laws like the one in Kentucky legitimize and legalize harassment against LGBTQ+ kids, he said, and may even encourage it. “We’ve ripped all of the school support away from the students, so they’re consistently miserable and hopeless,” he said.

Coming out in fifth grade

Owenton is a picturesque farming community with rolling green hills and winding roads located halfway between Cincinnati and Louisville. Its population of about 1,682 is predominantly white and politically conservative: The surrounding county has voted overwhelmingly Republican in every presidential election since 2000.

Ketron moved here from Cincinnati in 2014 with her then-husband, seeking to live on a farm within driving distance of large cities. Shortly after the move, she recalled, a city official visited the property to give Ketron a rundown of expectations in the community — and a warning. 

“It was basically ‘You better watch what you do and don’t get on the bad side of people because one person might be the only person that does that job in this whole county.’ Do you understand what I mean?’ ‘Yup,’” Ketron recalled saying, “‘I understand what you mean.’”

 An Owen County Schools bus travels down West Seminary Street in Owenton’s historic downtown on August 31, 2023.

A few years later, she met her now-wife, Marsha Newell, and the two began raising their blended family of eight children on the farm. They also started fostering LGBTQ+ kids. Ketron said her family is one the few in the county to accept queer kids. Their children were often met with hostility, Ketron said; other students made fun of them for having two moms and told them that Ketron and her wife were sinners who were “going to hell.” 

Ketron said the couple thought about moving, but beyond the financial and logistical obstacles, she worried about abandoning LGBTQ+ young people in the town. “Just because I’m uncomfortable or this is a foreign place for a queer kid to be doesn’t mean there aren’t queer kids born here every day,” she said.

After Meryl came out to family and friends in fifth grade, the bullying at school intensified, Ketron and Gwenn, Meryl’s younger sister, recalled. Few adults in Meryl’s schools took action to stop it, they said. When Meryl complained, school staff didn’t take her seriously and told her to “toughen up and move on,” Ketron said. (In an email, the high school’s new principal, Renee Boots, wrote that administrators did not receive reports of bullying from Meryl. Ketron said by the time Meryl reached high school, she’d given up on reporting such incidents.) 

 Rachelle Ketron and two of her daughters, Elizabeth and Finley, get ready for their day on Sept. 1, 2023. Between Rachelle and her wife, Marsha, and their children, there are ten members of the family, many of whom still live at home. The family also fosters, one of only a handful of foster families willing to accept LGBTQ+ youths in the foster system.

That said, as she got older, Meryl became more outspoken. As a ninth grader, in 2019, she clashed with students who wanted to fly the Confederate flag at school; Meryl and her friends wanted to fly a rainbow flag. The school decided to ban both flags, Ketron said. After that, Meryl brought small rainbow flags and placed them around campus. (According to Boots, students were wearing various flags as “capes” and were advised not to do so as it was against school dress code.)  

Ketron said she generally supported her daughter’s advocacy, but sometimes wished she’d take a less combative approach. “You might need to dial it back a little bit,” Ketron recalled telling Meryl once, when her daughter was in eighth grade. 

Ketron recalled seeing Meryl’s disappointment; she said it was the only time she felt that she let her daughter down.

Clubs provide a sense of belonging

For years, the most effective wedge issue between conservatives and progressives was marriage equality. But when the Supreme Court in 2015 recognized the legal right of same-sex couples to marry, opponents of gay rights pivoted to focus on trans individuals, particularly trans youth. After early success with legislation banning trans kids from playing sports, conservative legislators began to expand their efforts to other school policies pertaining to LGBTQ+ youth.

The ripple effects of these laws on young people are becoming more apparent, said Michael Rady, senior education programs manager for GLSEN. Forty-one percent of LGBTQ youth have seriously considered suicide in the past year, according to a 2023 survey by The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ+ suicide prevention nonprofit. Nearly 2 in 3 LGBTQ+ youth said that learning about potential legislation banning discussions of LGBTQ+ people in schools negatively affected their mental health.

Konrad Bresin, an assistant professor in the department of psychology and brain sciences at the University of Louisville whose research focuses on LGBTQ+ mental health, said that for LGBTQ+ individuals just seeing advertising that promotes legislation against them has negative effects. “Even if something doesn’t pass, but there’s a big public debate about it, that is kind of increasing the day-to-day stress that people are experiencing,” he said.

 One of several signs Rachelle Ketron has put around the community of Owenton as a part of the group DoIt4Meryl in hopes of encouraging positivity and kindness. “This whole community knows a child died here and under what circumstance,” Rachelle said. “I’m not asking you to change your beliefs, but just to be kind, especially when asked.”

Bresin said that student participation in GSAs can help blunt the effect of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, since the clubs provide students a sense of belonging. 

Bresin said that student participation in GSAs can help blunt the effect of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, since the clubs provide students a sense of belonging. 

Supporters of Kentucky’s new law argue that the legislation creates necessary guardrails to protect students. Martin Cothran, spokesperson for The Family Foundation, the Kentucky-based conservative policy organization that advocated for the legislation, said the law is designed to keep students from being exposed to “gender ideology.”

Cothran said that nothing in the law impedes student speech, nor does it entirely prohibit traditional sex education. “It just says that you can’t indoctrinate,” he said. “Schools are for learning, not indoctrination.”

When the law, known as SB 150, went into effect last spring, Glass, the former education commissioner, said school districts were forced to scramble to update their curricula to comply with the bill’s restrictions. In some cases, that meant removing any information on sexuality or sexual maturation from elementary school health curricula, and also revising health, psychology and certain A.P. courses in middle school and high school, he said. 

Some families have sued. In September, four Lexington families with trans or nonbinary kids filed a lawsuit against the Fayette County Board of Education and the state’s Republican attorney general, Daniel Cameron, alleging that SB 150’s education provisions violate students’ educational, privacy and free speech rights under state and federal law. The families say that since the law passed, their kids have been intentionally misgendered or outed, barred access to bathrooms that match their gender identity and had their privacy disregarded when school staff accessed their birth certificates in order to enforce the law’s provisions. 

School districts that don’t comply fully with the law could face discipline from the state’s attorney general, said Chris Hartman, executive director of the Fairness Campaign, a Kentucky-based LGBTQ+ advocacy group.

Teachers from across the state have also shared stories about their schools removing pride flags and safe space stickers, banning educators from using trans students’ pronouns and names, and removing access to bathrooms for trans kids, according to Carver, the former Teacher of the Year, who is collecting that information as part of his work with the nonprofit Campaign for our Shared Future. Boyle County Schools Superintendent Mark Wade cited SB 150 as the reason for removing more than 100 books from the district’s school libraries.

Educators and school staff are fearful, said Carver. “It’s nearly impossible to know what’s happening because the law gets to be interpreted at the local level. So, the district itself gets to decide what the law’s interpretation will look like,” he said. “And teachers who before this were willing to speak out and advocate are, as a general rule, unwilling to speak publicly about what’s happening.” 

For supporters of the law, that may be the point. GLSEN’s Rady said the bills are often written in intentionally vague ways to intimidate educators and school district leaders into removing any content that might land them in trouble. This year, his group is focused on providing educators, students and families information about their rights to free speech and expression in schools, including their right to run GSAs, Rady said. 

‘Suicide is never one thing’

In March 2020, when the pandemic hit and schools went remote, Meryl, then a high school freshman, posted a video diary on social media. In it, she strums her ukulele, and shares a message to her friends. “Some of you guys don’t have social media, some of you guys don’t like being at home,” Meryl said in the video. “I won’t get to see you guys for a whole month which is awful because you guys make me have a 10 times better life, you guys make mountains feel like literally bumps and steep cliffs just feel like a little bit of walking down the stairs.”

The video ends with her saying she’ll see her peers in school on April 30, when schools were scheduled to reopen. On the morning of April 18, Meryl died.

Ketron, Meryl’s mother, had thought remote school would be a relief for her daughter after years of bullying in school buildings. But it was difficult to be separated from her friends, she said, and Meryl also knew some of them were struggling in homes where they did not feel accepted.

 Meryl’s friends have left bracelets, trinkets and decorations near her memorial site and in the branches of a tree.

“Suicide is never one thing,” Ketron said. “A lot of times people talk about death by a thousand paper cuts. As sad as it sounds, for me to have that come out of my mouth, I feel like that really speaks to Meryl’s life. She had wonderful things, but it was just like thousands of paper cuts.”

For months after Meryl’s death, Ketron would read text messages on Meryl’s phone from her friends sharing stories about how she’d stood up for them in school and in the community. Ketron said she made a promise to herself — and to Meryl — that she was going to be loud like her daughter and “make it better.” In the spring of 2020, she started doit4Meryl.

“I don’t ever want this to happen again, ever, to anyone,” she said. “I never want someone to be in that place and pieces of it that got them there was hate and ignorance from another human being.”

In 2021, the anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-critical race theory book bans movement reached the Owenton community after a teacher in the district taught “The 57 Bus,” a nonfiction book that features a vocabulary guide explaining gender identities and characters who are LGBTQ+.

The book created an uproar in the town, with parents calling for its removal and for the educator to be disciplined. After that, Ketron said the few teachers who had seemed open to sponsoring the GSA no longer felt comfortable.

In mid-2021, Ketron decided to start the club herself, at the public library. Each month, a dozen or so kids gathered in one of the building’s study rooms, talking about what it means to be queer in rural Kentucky, and what they hoped to accomplish through their GSA. Some of them were Meryl’s friends, others were new to Ketron. 

In July 2022, the group held a Color Run, a 5K to bring together various advocacy groups from around the county and state to uplift people after the isolation of Covid. Later that year, they invited Carver to speak about his experiences as an openly gay man growing up in rural Kentucky. The students worked with Ketron and doit4Meryl to create a “Be Kind” campaign: They printed signs with phrases like “You’re never alone” and “Don’t give up,” along with information on mental health resources, and placed them in yards around town. 

In the fall of 2022, after a teacher agreed to serve as an advisor for the GSA, the school principal allowed the club on campus. While Ketron checks in with the students occasionally, the club is now student-led, she said. The past school year would have been Meryl’s senior year, and the club’s students were excited about finally being welcomed onto campus, Ketron said. 

Tragedy strikes again

Then Kentucky’s 2023 legislative session began with an onslaught of legislation targeting LGBTQ+ youth that eventually merged to become SB 150. 

 The Legislative Record from April 17, 2023 out for display at the Owen County Public Library on Aug. 31, 2023. This copy includes the adoption of Senate. Bill 150 which specifically targets the rights of LGBTQ+ youths in public schools.

Around the same time, tragedy entered Ketron’s life again: She lost one of her foster children, who was trans, to suicide. The loss of her daughters prompted her to spend countless hours in the state Capitol, attending committee meetings and hearings and signing up to testify against the anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ+ bills on the senate floor. She watched, devastated, as legislators quickly voted on and passed SB 150. 

“All I could think about was Meryl,” she said. “They’re just starting and this world is supposed to love them through this hard part. When you’re shaping yourself and instead we’re going to tell you that we don’t want you to exist.”

In Owenton, the district follows SB 150 as per law, said Reggie Taylor, superintendent of Owen County Schools. Little has changed as a result of the legislation, he said: “It’s been business as usual.” Trans and nonbinary students have long had a separate bathroom they could use and that hasn’t changed, he said, and the district offers a tip line for students to anonymously report bullying, as well as access to school counselors. 

Ketron, though, sees fallout. Fearful of bullying and other harms, she said that she and the other parents with trans kids in the school system are trying to get their children support by applying for help through Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. While 504 plans are typically for students with disabilities, they are sometimes used to help secure LGBTQ+ students services and accommodations, such as protection from bullying, mental health counseling and access to bathrooms that match their gender identity. 

SB 150 has also had a chilling effect on the work of the school’s GSA, according to Ketron. During the summer, after the law went into effect, PRISM members discussed changing the club’s name and direction to focus on mental health. 

Across the state, students and educators are grappling with what their schools will look like as the law takes hold. In March, Anna, a trans nonbinary student from Lexington, launched an Instagram account called TransKY Storytelling Project, anonymously documenting the impact of the new law on young people and teachers.

 Flags hang along the fence line at Rachelle Ketron and her wife Marsha Newell’s farm in rural Owenton, Ky. on Sept. 1, 2023.

People shared examples of the ways the legislation affects them, such as making them afraid to go to school, erasing their identities and making the jobs of educators and librarians tougher. A middle school guidance counselor in rural Kentucky wrote that the new law makes it harder to connect with students and support them: “If we are the only ones students have, and we can’t provide them the care they desperately need and deserve, the future looks very bleak.”

Even in the state’s more progressive cities, the law has changed daily life in schools, Anna, the Instagram account’s curator said. The GSA at Anna’s Lexington high school used to announce club meetings and events on the loudspeakers and post flyers in school hallways, Anna said. But the group has since gone underground, to avoid bringing attention to its existence lest administrators force it to stop meeting. 

“The school felt so much safer knowing that [a GSA] existed because there were students like you elsewhere. You could go in and say, ‘Hey, I’m trying out this set of pronouns. I’m trying to learn more about myself. Can you all like call me this for a couple of weeks?’” Anna said. “It just allowed for a place where students like me could go.”

 The historic Owen County Courthouse in Owenton on Aug. 31, 2023.

But while the absence of a GSA is concerning, Anna fears most the impact of SB 150 on students in rural parts of Kentucky. GSA members from rural communities have shared that they no longer have supportive school staff to advocate for their clubs because of the climate of fear created by the law, they said. 

That said, November’s election brought some hope for LGBTQ+ advocates: Cameron, the state attorney general who backed SB 150 and campaigned on anti-trans policies, lost his bid for the governorship to incumbent Andy Beshear, and several other candidates for office who advocated anti-trans policies were defeated too.

Back in Owenton, Ketron is working with Carver to plan a summit for Kentucky’s rural, queer youth. Ketron said she hopes the gathering will serve as a reminder for students that even though they may be isolated in their communities, there are people like them across the state. 

But as of this fall, participating in a GSA is no longer an option for students at the Owenton high school. Boots, the school principal, wrote in an email that the club had changed its focus, to one geared toward addressing “social needs across a variety of settings.” 

But according to Ketron, students said they were afraid to continue a club focused on LGBTQ+ issues in part because of SB 150. She offered to help students restart the club in the library, or at her house, she said, but members worried that would be too difficult because many of them have not come out to their families. 

Ketron said she’s not giving up. “At its core,” she said, a GSA is “a protective factor and so very needed, especially in a rural community.”

This story about LGBTQ+ students in schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

 The Owen County Schools broken welcome sign on Aug. 31, 2023

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Javeria Salman is The Hechinger Report’s digital news producer and reports and writes the Future of Learning newsletter. She covers K-12 education issues through the lens of innovation and technology, and helps manage social media. Before joining Hechinger in 2019, she worked as a local news reporter in eastern North Carolina. Her work for Hechinger has appeared in Telemundo, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, The Christian Science Monitor and the Solutions Journalism Network.

She attended community college in New Jersey before graduating with a bachelor’s degree from East Carolina University.

The preceding story was previously published by the Kentucky Lantern and is republished with permission.

The Kentucky Lantern is an independent, nonpartisan, free news service based in Frankfort a short walk from the Capitol, but all of Kentucky is our beat.

We focus on how decisions made in the marble halls of power ripple through the lives of Kentuckians. We bring attention to injustices and hold institutions and officials accountable. We tell the stories of Kentuckians who are making a difference and shine a light on what’s working. Our journalism is aimed at building a fairer, healthier Kentucky for all. 

The Lantern is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit, coast-to-coast network of journalists that works to fill gaps in state government reporting caused by the declining numbers of state and local journalists.

The Lantern is free to read without paywalls or subscription fees. Our content is free to others to publish; we ask only for attribution and a link to our site.

The Lantern provides a platform for progressive commentary and thoughtful opinions about policy. Learn about our commentary submission guidelines here.

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Renée Jacobs, partisan photographer of the lesbian movement

The gulf that often divided women from reaching to one another and taking power in their shared experiences was bridged through her work

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Courtesy of Renée Jacobs

By A.A. | PARIS, France – On May 20, 2022, Renee Jacobs walked hand in hand with her wife, Wendy, to the FotoNostrum Mediterranean House of Photography, an art gallery in the heart of Barcelona.

That day marked the opening of an exhibition in which Jacobs’ photos would be featured side by side with Helmut Newton – widely known for his provocative and voyeuristic art style. Jacobs hailed as a prominent women photographer who uplifts and champions nude lesbian art was approached by the gallery’s curator as some of her work deeply mirrored Newton’s visual insight and as such, her portfolio would complement the late artist’s work beautifully.

In total, 65 of Jacob’s images were selected to be placed in dialogue with over 40 of Newton’s signed copies from his private collection, to be displayed over the course of several weeks. When Renee entered through the gallery doors and toured the exhibit’s top floor, she found that her photos were noticeably absent. The Gallerist, seeing the couple, approached and off-handily remarked: “Your stuff is over here,” pointing to the lower floors.

Glancing at each other, the two made their way downstairs and were stunned at what they found. “It was kind of out-of-body experience,” Jacobs recalled. Sequestered downstairs in the lower basement, only 15 images were displayed; out of that number, only one photo rendered same-sex erotica. The picture itself was taken at night and from a distance – two women wrapped together, embracing on a gondola along a Venetian canal. But it was designed to be seen up close. Newton’s work – stark illustrations of female nudity, large and imposing, stretching from the floor to the gallery’s ceiling could be spotted from the other side of the street.

A couple of women kissing on a boat

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Courtesy of Renée Jacobs

What was supposed to be a conversation between two artists who depicted different portrayals of stark female desire and expression, became a story in which one was removed from the conversation entirely. A kind of censorship, that has long been familiar in Jacob’s line of work as an open Lesbian photographer.

“I’ve had varying degrees of censorship in my career since the very beginning,” Jacobs said. “I’ve had early mentors tell me not to reveal my own sexual orientation, not to reveal the sexual orientation of my models, because to do so would impinge on the male viewers’ access”

But that knowledge didn’t lessen the pain nor sense of humiliation imposed upon an artist eager to showcase their work. On a number of levels, Jacobs was astonished at the disregard of her work. Respect for artistic integrity is paramount to a working, collaborative relationship and in Jacobs’ eyes, this was especially true for art produced by those in minority communities.

“You work in collaboration… you just don’t treat an artist that way,” Jacobs said. “You certainly don’t treat a woman depicting women this way. And you certainly don’t do such a hypocritical double standard, where you elevate a straight man who has made part of his name on, paying women to fake desire for one another to sell a product – that’s okay.”

The majority of Newton’s work, though widely considerably masterful and avant-garde, was ultimately the product of commercial contracts, ads for high fashion brands. The sexuality shown between the women in his work was not authentic depictions of same-sex desire. That didn’t deter Jacobs and others from deriving deeper meaning from his work. “Some of those images were very important to me at the beginning of my coming out,” Jacobs said of Newton’s “lesbian chic” photography.

But the circumstances of a man being celebrated for such imagery and an openly queer woman being denied the same opportunity and praise spoke of the prevalent double standards still rife in the art world of photography.

“To show women really authentically desiring one another without a monetary exchange and not making it up – to have that censored in that circumstance was I just felt completely outrageous,” Jacobs said.

The photography she produced slowly became a reflection of her authentic self

Born in 1962, Jacobs grew up in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Harboring an innate talent for photography in high school, she went on to freelance for a number of publications throughout her time in college and published her first book, Slow Burn: A Photodocument of Centralia, Pennsylvania in 1986. 

Venturing beyond her stint as a photojournalist in the late 80s, Jacobs had branched out and attended Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. After graduation, she became a constitutional and civil rights litigator, bringing some of the earliest cases on gay rights in the United States. Now, she identifies as a “recovering lawyer”, having become jaded of the profession.

During her last job in the legal profession, working at one of the most progressive law firms in the country, Jacobs still hadn’t come out to those around her. Though it was 2005 and she was based at a firm in Los Angeles she remained guarded but she surmised that her colleagues knew of her sexuality – her suspicions were confirmed in a markedly blunt conversation.  

“I never said a word,” Jacobs recalled. “But … one {colleague} came to talk to me and said, ‘you know, you probably shouldn’t come out. I mean, I’m sure probably everybody’s cool with it, but you probably shouldn’t come out.’”

Courtesy of Renée Jacobs

That incident and her growing disillusionment with law marked the end of Jacobs’ career and she found straying back into the world of photography, though instead of pursuing the classical – images of smooth sculpture and soft bodily flesh that had no definite shape or motif, women became the focus of her craft.

In the second half of her photography career, she became inspired and emboldened by the people around her. “I was still very much in the closet,” Jacobs remembered. But by immersing herself more within the queer community – people who discarded labels and societal conventions, her photography began to take on a different shape and took on a power of its own. 

“I sort of refer to them as the post-label generation,” Jacobs said. “They didn’t label themselves as gay or queer, straight, or this or that, you know, they just there were no labels. And I just, learned so much from these women that I was photographing. And it’s like, ‘okay, well, if the spectrum of desire goes out to here, and I’m this small point, somewhere over here, I’m fine.’”

“Because look what’s out here – look at this incredible spectrum of diversity and desire.” 

The photography she produced slowly became a reflection of her authentic self, marching “hand in glove” with a more proud, secure and vocal photographer, undaunted and in thrall to showing women from across the sexual spectrum who possessed “such freedom,” she said. 

“It was this revelatory experience because I hadn’t had any beauty in my life for the 15 years that I was practising law. And I had never previously shot nudes when I was doing photojournalism before law school,” Jacobs said.

At the time, she thought nude portraits to be uninteresting and dull – exploitative. But as she started to photograph them, her aversion began to wane as more and more women opened up to her. The more they shared their fantasies, the more empowering the work became. She would go on to find beauty in the exposed nakedness, the raw vulnerability and unveiling fantasies of the models she collaborated with – “I call them co-conspirators,” Jacobs quipped. Her artistic process would heavily involve input from the models themselves, secrets and desires they hadn’t shared openly before, even with their significant others. Those fantasies became articulated in the imagery Jacobs brought into being for the first time.

A picture containing person, human face, black and white, monochrome photography

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Courtesy of Renée Jacobs

“It’s really, really powerful,” Jacobs confessed. The gulf that often divided women from reaching to one another and taking power in their shared experiences was bridged through her work. “In so many ways we’re siloed and kept apart from one another,” Jacobs said.

“We’re not supposed to talk at work about our salaries, or the salaries that men have versus what we’re getting paid. We’re not supposed to compare our needs and our desires, because we’re not supposed to have them at all. So, it’s, it’s a real and wonderful gift of trust.”

But within that freedom, Jacobs still found herself on the boundary between censorship and artistic expression, in particular when it came to how queer women showcased their own wants.

“When I hear or get this pushback, ‘you shouldn’t do this, women shouldn’t be shown this way,’ that’s not just censoring me. Jacobs affirmed. “That’s censoring all of the women in my photos because ultimately, what I’m trying to photograph is what the women in my photographs want me to see, and what they want to share.”

Queer women taking possession of authentic power & displaying honest representation

When Jacobs thinks of the “male gaze”, a term often used in art circles and commentary to remark on the hypersexualized perspective of male artists – often to the detriment of women who are or aren’t featured in the work – it’s a phrase, in her mind, that has fallen into irrelevance. This is even true of its counterpart. While the “female gaze” is seen to desexualize and therefore, humanize portrayals of women in media, the idea ultimately removes understandings and depictions of sexuality entirely, Jacobs conveyed to me, to the disservice of women who wish to share such desire in the body of their work. 

“I think both are really obsolete,” Jacobs said. “I don’t think there’s any reason that women shouldn’t be sexualized if the woman in the photograph wants to be – if that’s her choice.”

Instead, she would advocate for a gaze that “empowers” and disempowers” because photographers as artists are capable of producing art that showcases both. “I’ve seen some absolutely horrible photographs of women by women. I’ve seen some breathtaking photographs of women by men. I just think the binary there is really unhelpful, especially now.”

To her, such outdated terms seem to crystallize the idea that women shouldn’t be in control of their own sexuality, and at large, their own image of themselves. For queer women, such feelings of reticence are felt more acutely. When Jacobs come out in the early 90s, she felt the absence of art that catered to her own sexuality: “There were absolutely no authentic depictions that I could access that represented my own desires,” Jacobs said. “And who I wanted to be in the world – who I wanted to be within the world.”

“There was just none of that.”  

Over time, she found that what depictions of queerness and femme women did appear were often clunky and distorted in popular works of art and media, as if others didn’t know how to slot or portray female sexuality. “Most depictions of lesbians in popular art are either, way over-sexualized in a sort of very superficial way,” Jacobs reflected. Or appear glum, dissatisfied and devoid of joy – archetypes that Jacobs has spent most of her career trying to dismantle. 

To her, authentic representations of affection, lust and romantic love between women seemed to unsettle the “gatekeepers” of the art world, who often look to be at loss of queer women taking possession of authentic power and displaying honest representation. “It just fries their circuit boards,” Jacobs said. 

“If we don’t define ourselves, somebody else will” 

Two years prior to the opening night at FotoNostrum, Gallerist, Julio Hirsch-Hardy came to Jacobs with a compelling idea: do a “concurrent” exhibition with Newton’s work. Hirsch-Hardy, believing her photos to be beautiful and strong and in line visually with the late photographer’s work, promised Jacobs that 65 of her images would appear in a separate exhibition as if in a dialogue with one another.

Eighteen days before the exhibition, Jacobs received an email informing her that her selection of 65 had drooped to 28 images – 99% of the queer images Jacobs submitted had been removed. The exclusion of some of her most prominent work created another issue; the original portfolio of images had gone out to the press. Distressed by a pervading sense that her work was being censored, Jacobs had conveyed her concerns and pushed back, requesting that nine removed images should be put back.

Courtesy of Renée Jacobs

Only “The Bite,” a striking image of a woman intimately biting the inner thigh of another woman was skipped. Two days before she and her wife would walk through the gallery’s doors, another email was sent. This time, informing Jacobs that some of the images were deemed “not subtle” and had to be removed. Unsure of now what was and wasn’t included, Jacobs expressed her dismay – her work was being erased. The gallery argued that the excluded images were the result of a “curatorial approach.”

Jacobs had hoped at least her work would be placed facing Newton’s and came to realise the gallery had failed to honour that promise as well.

When she took to social media, a barb meant to challenge the root of Jacobs’ identity came from the gallery: “I would recommend you to re-think if you’re behaving as a photographer or as a partisan of the lesbian movement.” Like a final, singed warning from the art world that so often struggled to understand the queer eroticism Jacobs had endeavored to create.

Undaunted, the last phrase eventually became the title for her exhibit: “Renée Jacobs-Partisan of the Lesbian Movement,” displayed at The Erotic Museum in Barcelona. Meant to highlight the double standards that have long prevented a prominent lesbian photographer from showcasing her true authentic self and desires, Jacobs remains clear on the necessity of having complete freedom in one’s art. “If we don’t define ourselves, somebody else will,” she said. 

“They will not be sensitive to our needs; they will not be sensitive to our desires. They will be sensitive to the status quo – they will be sensitive to their bottom line. They will be sensitive to what keeps their privilege in place. And we need to move beyond that.”

To that end, Jacobs’ new exhibition, FEMMES, that opened in Brussels, Belgium on June 15th , was the next frontier of reclaiming her own narrative and that of other lesbian women. Featuring over 120 images, FEMMES was her first solo exhibition in Brussels- set to perfectly articulate Jacobs’ dismissal of the male and female “gaze.”

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A.A. is an investigative journalist based in Britain.

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Renée Jacobs Fine Art Photography

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Seeding a gay community in LA, the gay liberation revolution

1970 was an incredible year of achievement for GLF in LA.  Marches, protests, & a broad range of other militant, highly visible actions

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Gay Community Services Center at 1614 Wilshire Blvd. at Union Ave., just east of MacArthur Park in 1972. (Photo credit: Author's collection)

By Don Kilhefner | LOS ANGELES – There is a big difference in magnitude between a liberation movement and a civil rights movement.  Often, the terms “Gay Liberation” and “Gay Civil Rights” are used synonymously.  Those terms, however, are very different in meaning.  

A liberation movement involves an oppressed group seizing power by its own militant efforts and includes a change in consciousness by an oppressed people about its alleged inferiority, restructures economic and educational systems, and claims or reclaims the group’s history and culture.  The central organizing principle of a civil rights movement is lobbying the dominant power structure over time to grant new laws—like voting rights—which gives more equal rights to a minority or majority historically discriminated against without any fundamental changes or threats to the power, economic, or educational systems in place.  

Power structures try to destroy liberation movements, as in South Africa in 1961 when Nelson Mandela and others created the paramilitary Spear of the Nation, turning the African National Congress from a civil rights movement into a liberation movement.  On the other hand, civil rights movements are easily pacified by political posturing and pretending and assimilated by elite capture without posing much of a threat to the basic power structures of society.  Liberation movements are also susceptible to elite capture.   

Author’s Note  You are advised to remember as you read the following article that all of the Gay Liberation organizing being described was done within a context of 1,000 years or more of hetero supremacy in the West in which all religions declared lesbians and particularly gay men to be subhuman and an abomination in the eyes of God; all national and local laws declared them to be illegal and a crime against nature, with police and vigilante groups hunting them down and killing such deviants, often burning them alive at the stake; and in the 20th century the new science of psychology declared them a severe psychopathology and a threat to society.  Gay men and lesbians internalized that hetero supremacist, genocidal ideology, turning it into self-hate, and turning that debasement into fear of being found out, some in fear for their very lives.  And so, in 1969, still being officially labeled sick, sinful, and against the law and against the laws of nature, a new, revolutionary narrative unfolded in Los Angeles.  

Central to the development of a radical, militant Gay Liberation revolution in Los Angeles was the L.A. Gay Liberation Front, which was called into being in August 1969 by Morris Kight, an anti-Vietnam War activist.  GLFs were also organized in other major U.S. cities in the aftermath of the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, a single spark that caused a prairie fire.   A gay revolution ensued—a revolution defined as “sudden, radical, complete change.”

For months, GLF meetings were held every Sunday afternoon in random, obscure locations, until, on January 1, 1970, I secured a GLF office at 577 ½ North Vermont Ave. in East Hollywood, formerly occupied by the Hollywood contingent of the Peace and Freedom Party.  Using basic organizing skills learned as a volunteer at the Peace and Freedom Party office in Venice while a UCLA doctoral student in history, I became GLF’s around-the-clock, sleep-in office manager, creating a GLF infrastructure for the first time, including a telephone number, mailing address, bank account, and a stable meeting and organizing space. 

The office was located on the second floor of a graceful dowager of a  fourplex next to the Hollywood Freeway.  Soon after GLF left the space, the building was demolished and replaced by a series of gas stations (southwest corner of Vermont and Clinton).  [If anyone out there has a photo of the building, please contact me.]

The GLF office became a beehive of gay political organizing that propelled the Gay Liberation movement in Southern California forward rapidly (more about all that activity in the future).  In a recent event at USC-ONE Archives, Dr. Craig Loftin, Lecturer in gay history at California State University (Fullerton), described that year as follows, “…1970 was an incredible year of achievement for GLF in Los Angeles.  They staged marches, protests, ‘zaps,’ interventions, and a broad range of other militant, highly visible actions.  They fought back.  They led the march out of the shadows, out of the closets.”

Morris Kight, unknown, Don Kilhefner, Stan Williams. Gay men were arrested in gay bars by police for showing ordinary affection to other men and the rest would flee.
(Photo credit: Author’s collection)

On 9/18/1970, GLF staged a “Touch-In” in a popular WeHo bar, The Farm; at 10 p.m. gay men reached out and hugged each other; L.A. Sheriffs arrived and were warned by GLF: if you arrest one of us, you’ll have to arrest all of us; men continued to show affection for each other; chanting began: “Ho-Ho, Ho Chi Minh, GLF is going to win;” Sheriffs retreated; the beginning of the end of police raids of gay bars in L.A. was upon us.

After liberating The Farm, GLF posted this large poster to every gay bar door along Santa Monica Blvd. (Photo credit: Author’s collection)

While Kight and I played a leadership role in those developments, let me make this clear: a handful, then scores, then hundreds of gay and lesbian people—all voluntarily engaged activists—collectively and constructively made it happen, a record of accomplishment probably unmatched by any other GLF in the country.  

In this essay, I will focus on one of those 1970 activities, the GLF Gay Survival Committee and the subsequent Hoover Street Commune because there is a clear path, through thick and thin, from that Committee to the Commune to the October 1971 opening of the Gay Community Services Center in Los Angeles (now called the L.A. LGBT Center), the first and, then as now, the largest in the world.  GCSC also seeded what grew into a world class gay community in Los Angeles. 

The Gay Survival Committee, the name tells you where gay people were at that time, was created in the Spring of 1970 when I proposed the idea to GLF which approved it unanimously.  The Committee’s primary purpose was to begin exploring the possibility of offering—out of the GLF office and by referral—services specifically designed for gay and lesbian people suffering from oppression sickness (peer counseling, consciousness raising groups, Vietnam War draft and military resistance counseling, and medical and legal referrals).  A Los Angeles Free Press article in August 1970 caught the zeitgeist of that GLF effort.

Artist: Bruce Reifel (Photo credit: Author’s collection)

By the end of 1970, L.A. GLF was beset by a mostly friendly, fundamental debate as to which direction to go in 1971, either in an evolving liberation direction or a more social direction by opening a Gay Coffee House with entertainment.  After much internal discussion and to resolve the tension, I made a proposal in December 1970 that the GLF office be closed and that GLF financial resources, totaling about $900, be turned over to the Gay Coffee House project.  GLF members agreed. 

Early in 1971, a Gay Coffee House was opened by GLF stalwarts John Platania, Jim Kepner, and others in a storefront on Melrose Ave., a site where the Continental Baths subsequently stood (western corner of Melrose and Kenmore).  After several months it devolved into a crash pad, could not pay its rent, and closed.

During 1970, my thinking had also evolved considerably from the Gay Survival Committee’s idea of providing limited services out of the GLF office to contemplating a more substantial, comprehensive, freestanding operation providing direct services and infused with the radical spirit and methodology of Gay Liberation.  Also, during that year, I grew by leaps and bounds, transforming from a somewhat quiet, introverted academic type into an articulate, assertive community organizer because of GLF’s one-after-the-other successes.  

The more I read, dialogued with others, and self-reflected, it was gradually becoming clearer to me that if we were going to succeed as a liberation movement, it was critical that we enlarge our GLF agenda from merely a reactive strategy of fighting back against hetero supremacy into an enlarged, transforming proactive strategy of building a visible, organized, self-accepting, and defiant gay community where none had ever existed. 

This new way of thinking began a first level of envisioning that a gay center might be the vehicle around which such a gay community could coalesce.  I did not know exactly how GLF could make that happen.  As it turned out, I became the vision carrier for such a project, although at that time I did not know that term nor understand what it meant.  I just did what I did from a deep well of caring and intense gay liberation motivation.  I did know, however, from my many learning experiences as I matured during my 20s, that the path forward reveals itself as we walk the path not as we think about it or discuss it.  And it worked.

[I want to acknowledge the important work done by Rev. Troy Perry, whom I admire, in founding in 1968 in Los Angeles the Metropolitan Community Church

which became an important part of the gay community in L.A. and elsewhere.  The roots of MCC were in evangelical Christianity and the Society for Individual Rights, a conservative homophile organization started in 1964 in San Francisco.  The roots of the Gay Liberation movement, however, were in the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion.]  

On January 1, 1971, a year after opening the GLF office on North Vermont Ave., a contingent from GLF consisting of Randy Schrader, Steve Beckwith, Stan Williams, Rod Gibson and me, members of GLF’s Gay Survival Committee, moved into the newly created Hoover Street Commune which became the relocated activist center for Gay Liberation militancy in L.A.  Morris Kight and others became an essential part of the organizing activities taking place there. 

Thus, began the second phase of the pioneering work of the L.A. Gay Liberation Front.

Hoover Street Commune (1971-1973): GLF Implements a Strategic Plan for a Gay Community Center

One of the important gay historical sites in Los Angeles is located at 1500 North Hoover Street (at Sunset Dr.), right behind the then KCET public television studios (now the Scientology Media Production Studios) on Sunset Blvd. in Silverlake. It was the home of the Hoover Street Commune, which existed from 1971 until 1973—the place from which the building of the gay community center and, by extension, a gay community in Los Angeles emerged.

The Hoover Street Commune (without the fence) at 1500 N. Hoover St. at Sunset Drive in L.A (Silverlake). (Photo credit: Google Earth/Author’s collection)

[Community organizers today have many exquisite organizing tools that we did not have in the 1960s and 1970s; however, missing today is the communal living that focused and magnified our effectiveness.  When I dialogue with young activists today, the absence of such an essential tool in their organizing efforts is glaring.]

The house, built as a duplex, had been turned into one large house with five bedrooms, two bathrooms, a small kitchen, a dining room, and a living room.  The original communards included very creative Stan Williams, a former Sonja Henie and Ice Capades skater; Steve Beckwith, a suit-and-tie businessman; Randy Schrader, a recent UCLA Law School graduate studying for the California Bar exam; Rod Gibson, a young GLFer; and me.  Occupancy was a bit fluid at first, but then stabilized.  Gibson soon moved out and was replaced by Ray Powers, a Hollywood actors’ agent, and Beckwith and his lover, Van Brown, a student at UC Santa Barbara, needed more privacy and moved elsewhere, replaced by John Platania. 

GLF members Llee Heflin, Dexter Price, and Bruce Cristoff lived right next door at  1502 N. Hoover St.  In and out on a regular basis were Morris Kight, Tony DeRosa, June Herrle, Howard Fox, David Backstrom, John Coffland, Justin Dangerfield, John Murphy, my beloved Luke Johnson, and many more.  The door was always open. 

For me, living there was like being in an always-in-session Graduate School for Advanced Gay Studies, intellectually and spiritually stimulating like nothing I had known before. I was being introduced to gay-centered films, books, art and artists, poetry, ideas, music, personages, spiritual lineages, inventive gay Kama Sutra positions, and much more that were all new to me.

Williams had created a large, low dining table and we sat on the floor to eat; once a week each member prepared supper. Virtually every evening there would be eight to ten people sitting around our large communal table for supper—visiting gay liberationists, soon-to-be-famous filmmakers, writers, and poets, grifters, lovers du jour, the Marlboro Man, mystics, future judges—a gay Noah’s Ark—engaged in animated and liberating discussions. 

Sometimes Lucy would come down from the sky with her diamonds to visit. Williams and Platania would put their long hippie hair up into elegant beehive hairdos to go shopping at the local Safeway grocery store, an aspect of Gay Liberation’s political fight against rigid hetero gender norms. GLF called it “Gender Fuck,” a militant precursor of “Gender Fluid.” Williams created a High Tea which was poured many afternoons at 4 p.m. with rolled joints on a silver platter.  Spirited political discussions would go into the night.  And so it went.

In this exhilarating and creative gay-centered vortex at the Commune, sight was never lost as to why I was there—transforming the work of GLFs Gay Survival Committee into a gay community center.  At both the GLF office and the Commune, the Committee’s composition was fluid with people coming and going.  However, a more or less stable core group formed over time consisting of Beckwith, Kight, Platania, Williams, Schrader, Herrle, and Howard Fox among others.  My role as the Committee’s founding chairman was to provide the leadership and glue to hold things together and guarantee there was forward movement by calling and chairing meetings every two weeks, preparing agendas, facilitating discussion, and ensuring continuity and follow through between meetings.

A revolutionary opening of historic proportions was being created by GLF in L.A. and we collectively leapt through that opening with the most serious intentions and joyful exuberance. Among the critically important developments that grew out of the Hoover Street Commune during those years were the following: 

  • Development of Content Architecture of a Gay Community Center: Every two weeks, I called a working meeting of the Committee at the Commune where contours and content of the groundbreaking gay center were collectively discussed and agreed to.  

After each meeting, Platania and I would meet for an extra hour writing down what we had heard and agreed to in the meeting.  Platania had worked as a grant writer for the City of Los Angeles’ Community Development Department and TELACU (The East Los Angeles Community Union).  I typed up our writings, and by May 1971, an impressive looking, forty-page, bound proposal emerged from the Committee’s collective work that delineated the reasons for such a gay center, described the comprehensive human services to be provided in a community-based context, and laid out a timetable for implementing each component.

That document became an invaluable organizing tool because it clearly described what we planned to do and how we planned to do it.  The proposal clearly sent a powerful message that these gay liberationists were very serious about their intentions, with a blueprint and hammer and nails in their hands, and ready to go to work.  The name: “Gay Community Services Center.” Words never seen before anywhere.

“Gay” because we were totally in your face about who we were, not hiding behind camouflage words as was done prior to Gay Liberation. “Community” because of the core values implied in that word: (1) a community is a unified body whose members assumes responsibility for each other, meaning everyone, and (2) a community was what we were trying to call into being. “Services” because we were planning to deliver services specifically designed to meet the needs of gay, lesbian, and trans people, mending the deep woundings caused by hetero supremacy and invoking the new possibilities of gay empowerment.  “Center” because of our intention that it be a center around which a gay community would coalesce.

  • Creation of a Non-Profit, Tax-Exempt Organization:  This idea was particularly advocated for by me and resulted in several people leaving the Committee, feeling that GLF was changing into an establishment organization, which was a foolish thought given how outcast and vilified gay people were at the time.   No establishment would touch us, even most so-called homosexuals at that time avoided us and were afraid that GLF’s radical ideology and fighting back through direct action would get us all in more trouble. 

My position was that we were attempting to create a gay community center and a gay community, both ideas revolutionary developments for our people at that time.  GLF was building something that would hopefully outlive all of us and a community called for solid community institutions serving the people.  

Moreover, one of the successful tactics of the Gay Liberation movement was keeping the hetero supremacists off balance.  They never could conceive of gay and lesbian people developing self-respect after the centuries of violent intimidation and instilling of fear.  They never expected the audacity of gay liberationists in L.A. creating a community center and envisioning an actual gay community that was real, substantial, and angry, that fought back and thumbed its nose at their supremacist proclivities and actions.    

Beginning in April 1971, attorney Allen Gross and I began the grunt work of incorporating the proposed community center in California.  Gross, an important hetero ally and lifelong friend, had founded the Legal Aid program in Oregon and served as legal counsel for L.A. GLF.  He would serve for 25 years as legal counsel to the Center.  We prepared Articles of Incorporation and By-Laws to submit to the State of California and could not read how the documents would be dealt with by the newly elected California Secretary of State, a young fellow named Jerry Brown.  The documents were returned approved in two weeks and Brown became a dependable ally of gay people in California. 

The same could not be said for the federal IRS tax exemption process, which routinely should have taken a few months, but in our case took five years.  Gross prepared the IRS application with great care and attention to all possible traps that could be used to deny us.  Decades later, I was informed privately that the Nixon White House had instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to put our application in his desk drawer and not act on it. 

In 1972, I was summoned to Washington, D.C., for a special interrogation by Frank Cerny, head of the exempt branch of IRS, in a bizarre scene that unfolded in a majestic hall that was truly a surreal experience. With Gross on one side of me and attorney Ed Dilkes of L.A. Legal Aid  on the other side, and me resembling a hippie Hasidic rabbi, I recited calmly over and over again what Gross had skillfully written in our application—we would serve anyone who asked for our philanthropic services and we would turn no one away, which were the exclusivity grounds on which IRS planned to trap and deny us tax-exemption.  In 1976, our relentless perseverance and political pressure finally forced the White House and IRS to approve our tax-exemption application. GCSC was the first openly gay organization to secure IRS non-profit, tax-exempt approval—a singular achievement then. 

  • Opening First Liberation House.  By mid-1971, the search began in earnest to find a location to open the Center, but initially nothing suitable could be found.  That did not stop us.  In August, Platania found a house on North Edgemont Ave. in East Hollywood, just south of Sunset Blvd., where the newly formed Center opened a Liberation House, the first of many in its Liberation House program over the years.  Ralph Schaefer, a core GLF member, became its resident manager.
Liberation House on Edgemont Ave. in East Hollywood in 1971, the first of many.
(Photo credit: Author’s collection)

The Edgemont Liberation House provided free housing primarily to young gay men, often runaways who were homeless.  From 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. residents were out of the house looking for employment, getting back into school, or whatever.  When the residents returned to the house at 4 p.m., under Schaefer’s supervision, they collectively made supper for the house.

The key words for living in a Liberation House, as in organizing the Center

itself, were “mutuality” and “cooperation.” Evening activities at the Edgemont house included a group discussion led by Schaefer or another GLF member that amounted to a gay consciousness-raising group, something the residents had never experienced before—gay and lesbian people viewed in a positive, constructive light. The residents blossomed. After breakfast in the morning, residents headed out to lean into their goals for the day. 

Opening of the L.A. Gay Community Services Center

In September 1971, Platania found a possible site for the Center in an old Queen Anne style home at 1614 Wilshire Blvd. at Union Ave., just east of MacArthur Park.  Committee members looked at the house and all agreed—yes, let’s do it.  I was the full-time+ founding executive director and Kight, Herrle, and Platania became members of the first Board of Directors.

After a bit of cosmetic fix-up, the installation of telephones, and a big sign in front emblazoned with the words “Gay Community Services Center,” the year and a half of relentless organizing work by GLF members led to fruition. The story of that Center and the gay community it facilitated in Los Angeles, including the role of the Highland Park Collective, will be told later, but this was how GLF got that far.

GCSC on Wilshire Blvd. with sign in 1972. (Photo credit: Author’s collection)

To give you an idea how revolutionary this community organizing was in the lives of gay people, after the sign was hung on Wilshire Blvd., a call was received at the Center from an important gay figure telling us, “You must take that sign down immediately!  You people are going to get all of us arrested!”  Then, most gay people rightfully lived in fear.

  • The Gaywill Funky Shoppe:  The story of the Hoover Street Commune would not be complete without mentioning the Gaywill Funky Shoppe, a thrift store the Center opened in 1972 in Silverlake.  

Amazingly, all the organizing and sustaining of the Center was accomplished with little money or no money at all. The organizers were fueled by something much larger than money. What little funds the early Center did operate on came from three primary sources: (1) Friday night Gay Funky Dances in Hollywood, open to all ages, which were started in 1970 by GLF, went on hiatus when the GLF office closed, and were started up again in August 1971 sponsored by the Center.  After expenses, the dances generated about $150 a week; (2) donations at the Center raised about $150 weekly; and (3) after expenses, the Gaywill Funky Shoppe brought in about $200 weekly.

Stan Williams at the Gaywill Funky Shoppe in Silverlake (L.A.) in 1972.
(Photo credit: Author’s collection)

Central to the Shoppe was Commune member Stan Williams assisted by young GLF members Dexter Price and Bruce Cristoff.  Using a gift possessed by many gay men of being able to transform ordinary junk into objets d’art, the thrift shoppe thrived. It was located at 1531 Griffith Park Blvd., where that street meets Sunset Blvd. in Silverlake, occupied today by the Pine and Crane Restaurant.  When Williams left for San Francisco, Ralph Schaefer took over as manager.  

One day early in 1973, after not hearing from Schaefer for several days and hearing that the Shoppe seemed closed, Kight and I went to check it out.  We found Schaefer dead in the bathroom with a bullet hole in the back of his head.  He had been executed.  Robbery was not a motive since a visible cash box was untouched.  The murder of gay men occurred often then with assailants rarely looked for or apprehended by the LAPD.  One less fag was a blessing for hetero supremacists.

The LAPD Rampart Division called Kight and me in for questioning and tried to pin the murder on us, demanding that we take polygraph tests.

We gave the LAPD the middle finger, telling the investigators to arrest us if they wanted to, but we refused to play their disrespectful game regarding someone we valued so dearly, and walked out.  The LAPD was not heard from again regarding Schaefer’s murder, even after numerous requests for information.

The Gaywill Funky Shoppe was permanently closed immediately as a show of respect for Schaefer. 

At the beginning of this article, you were advised to remember that all this GLF organizing was being done under the most difficult community organizing conditions imaginable. Even under those horrendous conditions, however, you can clearly see that something historically significant had occurred in Los Angeles that took place nowhere else in the same way in the lives of gay and lesbian people, facilitated by a vanguard of young gay liberationists. 

By October 1971, with the opening of the Gay Community Services Center, with much more revolutionary struggle ahead, a whole new realm of possibilities and ways forward began opening up for gay and lesbian people in Los Angeles. The GLF Gay Survival Committee and Hoover Street Commune had done their early community organizing work impeccably. 

A unique revolution in consciousness and liberation unfolded in Los Angeles, radically changing the quality of gay people’s lives and welfare, instilling a new, life enhancing identity and birthing an exciting, emerging community where we learned to value and take care of each other.  The ripples of that Gay Liberation revolution wash over us still today.

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

Don Kilhefner                      
Photo by Todd Danforth

Don Kilhefner, Ph.D., played a pioneering role in the creation of the Gay Liberation movement and is co-founder of the L.A. LGBT Center, Van Ness Recovery House, Radical Faeries, and has been a gay community organizer for 55 years in Los Angeles and nationally.  [email protected]

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Queer actors Jennifer English & Aliona Baranova, Baldur’s Gate 3

Baldur’s Gate 3 was released on August 3rd, 2023 to widespread critical acclaim. The Blade interviewed two key figures in its development

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Image courtesy of Larian Studios Games Ltd.

LONDON, UK – Baldur’s Gate 3 (BG3) is perhaps the most LGBTQ+-friendly AAA video game ever made. It’s also one of the best role-playing games ever, according to Metacritic, the premier website owned by Fandom that aggregates reviews of films, television shows, music albums and video games.

Baldur’s Gate 3 by Ghent, Belgium-based Larian Studios, is a series of role-playing video games set in the Forgotten Realms Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting. The game has spawned two series, known as the Bhaalspawn Saga and the Dark Alliance.

Baldur’s Gate 3 was released on August 3rd, 2023 to widespread critical acclaim. Unusually for a AAA game, it had spent six years in development, and almost three years of that in early access open beta testing. Larian Studios developed BG3 as a sequel to the first two games, which were released in 1998 and 1999 respectively. 

Recently the Blade had the opportunity to interview two of the key figures in the game’s development.

Actress Jennifer English played the role of Shadowheart, one of the main characters of the game whom the player can have a romantic relationship with, regardless of their gender. Her partner is Aliona Baranova, an actress and motion capture (mocap) performer who worked as one of the Performance Directors on the game. They met during the production of the game and worked closely together during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Jennifer identifies as lesbian and queer, while Aliona identifies as bisexual and queer. They graciously agreed to give the Blade an hour of their time, right after a grueling weekend at London Comic Con.

How was London Comic Con 2023? How were you both received?

Jennifer: It was like being a rock star. It was incredible. We were both there for Comic Con [2022] this time last year [and] when I first turned up there was no one in my queue [for autographs]. Now this year, there were people queuing for 6 hours at one point. It was absolute madness. But it was also just really beautiful. 

We did one of the panels [this year]. And I was expecting it to be like a five hundred or a thousand seater.  When I looked out, it was about 4,000 people. It was really wonderful because Aliona was next to me the whole time, and so many people wanted her autograph as well–like a good third to a half.

Aliona: The number of people that wanted to take a photo of the both of us was so touching, as was how many people [that] came up to us and said, “We watch your streams” and told us that the representation that we  gave them, and how open we are about being neuro divergent, was so meaningful.

Image courtesy of MCM London Comic Con 2023

Did either of you play dungeons and dragons before you started work on this game?

Jennifer: I always wanted to. I just hadn’t been invited.

Aliona: No, never!

Jennifer: I was really lucky that the first time I got to play D&D was with the cast for High Rollers, and we got Mark Humes, who was the best dungeon master, to walk us through it. We felt so safe and guided. It was a really wonderful start into D&D. The space felt very welcome as well, which was nice, and no one seemed to mind too much that we were fumbling through somewhat. And it was really nice to play together as a couple.

Aliona, you posted how you auditioned for the role of Shadowheart in BG3, and Jennifer got it. This led to an interesting start to your relationship. 

Aliona: So I auditioned, and didn’t get the part. And then another call went out looking for people that had mocap (motion capture) experience, which I did have, to direct. When I sent in my mocap reel I was secretly hoping they’d watch and think, she should be in the game as an actor. But no, they didn’t. They rang me to say they thought I should direct.

I came to direct, did a couple of sessions, and then, during my fourth or fifth session, Jen comes in to record Shadowheart. Everyone is telling me “Jennifer is coming in today. She’s lovely. You’re gonna love her”. And I’m like, yeah, yeah, I’ll see. 

When Jen came into the studio she was an absolute ray of sunshine. It was sickening–she was so wonderful, I could not hate her. I wanted to, so badly, but I just couldn’t. She got along with everyone; she was so friendly. I thought, “you’re making this so hard for me”. 

Then we went in to record, and I thought, okay, well, maybe she’s not that good at the role, and I can swoop in and save the day and be Shadowheart instead. But she was amazing. I wanted to hate her even more, but I couldn’t, because she was so talented and incredible.  I was very naive and very confident. I definitely couldn’t do what Jen has achieved, and she was a far better performer than I was back then. I’ve learned a lot from her since then to become a better performer myself. 

It could have gone one of 2 ways: I could sabotage her and direct her really badly, or I could help this incredible and kind woman out and be a good director for her. The rest is history. And I think we nailed it with Shadowheart.

Jennifer, how did you find out Aliona wanted to be frenemies initially?

I can’t remember how I found out, but I remember being shocked, to say the least. And now we laugh about it quite a lot.

What was it like finding the character of Shadowheart?

Jennifer: I found the voice quite easily, and felt like I accessed her [character] reasonably quickly. There was a lot of collaboration and creativity involved with it. But the one thing I really struggled with at the beginning was the physical side of it, because it’s such an overwhelming thing…you’re put into a grey room with loads of cameras on you, and you’re wearing what is essentially a Velcro cat suit with bobbles on it, and then you’re just told to act naturally. 

One thing that Aliona quickly picked up on was the fact that I have ADHD. A lot of our creative process together was working to find Shadowheart within that—to not fight against it, but use it. That was really wonderful.

BG3 Performance Director Aliona Baranova (left) being kissed by partner actor Jennifer English (right) wearing a motion capture suit. (Photo Credit: Jennifer English/Instagram)

Are you having any problems with people blurring the line between Shadowheart and Jennifer when you meet them in real life or online, or are people pretty good about keeping them keeping them distinct?

I think if I had [Shadowheart’s] kind of black cat energy, perhaps. But I am a golden retriever puppy with blonde hair that’s five foot one. I don’t have that kind of statuesque, armor-clad cleric-of-Shar thing going on. So I think our energies are so distinct that it would be pretty impossible to get us confused. 

There is a lot of me in Shadowheart, because I wanted to make her as truthful as possible. [She’s] the part of myself that you’d have to find me in a very vulnerable state to see. That’s a deeper part of myself. Certainly not one that you’d see at Comic-con, or if you bumped into me on the train.

Screenshot, Shadowheart Artefact Activation Baldur’s Gate 3

I know people who generally don’t like video games who are really into BG3. What’s your take on why this is?

Jennifer: Yeah, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Baldur’s Gate 3 is mainstream. It’s been on South Park.

Aliona: It’s the mocap. It’s not often that you have nearly all 248 actors do their own mocap. I think that’s why it feels like a TV show or film. I’m biased, but I do think it makes a difference, because I’ve looked at another recent release and you can tell that the voice is done separately from who’s doing the body. You can’t care for them as much as you do in this game, because there’s a disconnect.

Jennifer: It feels quite jarring because you can’t be immersed in this in the same way, you can tell everyone’s acting, whereas [Baldur’s Gate 3] feels like people are their characters. They’re so good in them.

 All of the main characters can have romances with members of any sex or gender identity. Did that change how you played or directed the characters?

Jennifer: I don’t get to play a lot of queer roles. I certainly haven’t in the past, though hopefully I will in the future. But even as someone who identifies as gay, I think we’re so heteronormative with our storytelling. When I was thinking about the player at the very beginning, I imagined a [relationship with] a guy. Which is ridiculous because we knew that it could be any gender. So it’s really good to challenge our own heteronormative defaults in our own brains, even as gay people.  

It was a very conscious choice early on [for me], to shake up who I was imagining. So, I would sometimes imagine a hunky dragon born who identified as male, and then sometimes it would be a beautiful female -identifying wood elf or a non-binary human. I think it did massively inform my performance.

When you did romance scenes, did you do separate takes for male and female player characters, or was it the same for both?

Aliona: If there were no specific pronouns [in the script], then it would be just one. But if there were pronouns, then we would do one of she, one of he and one of they.

When there were no pronouns involved, how did the fact that it could be any gender affect your direction?

Aliona: I don’t actually think it did that much. The voice director or I never asked [the actor] to imagine whether a woman or a man stood in front of them, or a non-binary person, because we needed the actor to play attraction and romance with whoever they were imagining. We can’t dictate who they are imagining…it has to be real for them. So, we would leave that up to them. Luckily every actor in the game was completely comfortable with that.

Do you think this reinforces the narrative that love is love at some fundamental level for people, given that actors played romantic lines the same regardless of the player’s gender?

Aliona: I can’t really add anything to that. Love is love. 

Jennifer: Completely. And I feel that if there’s one message I would want to spread about the romance of this game in particular, it is indeed that love is love. 

A lot of players got very emotionally invested in the romance plot lines, and Shadowheart is by far the most popular according to data from Larian Studios. 

Aliona: I think… that the reason her romance option is so popular is because Jen had the luxury of having her partner on the other side of the glass while recording.

Jennifer: You were the barometer of “did this work or not?”, depending on how much you were blushing.

Aliona: I had the voice director next to me and the technicians on either side. Jen would say whatever her romance dialog was, and I could feel people’s eyes on me as I’d be looking down and saying, “Yeah, that was a great take.”

How were the intimate scenes shot?

Aliona: If there was an intimacy scene and the character was speaking, that was done with the cast. If there was an intimacy scene and they were not speaking, that was done with motion capture performers separately. Both cases would have an intimacy coordinator present.

Why do you think that BG3 is so effective at pulling in players emotionally?

Aliona: We’ve been streaming ourselves playing the game, and I’m so invested in my relationship with Shadowheart that when I click the wrong thing and upset her, I get genuinely upset myself. I think, “No, I don’t wanna screw up my chances!” But I’m literally in a relationship with Jen the actor playing Shadowheart, and also have Shadowheart on tap at home. So I really get it!

Jennifer: I think one of the many reasons why this game is so special, from our point of view, is how the voice and the performance direction were very much grounded in truth and reality.

The acting style is very naturalistic, and even when it’s not, that’s for a reason. If it’s more dramatic or more urgent, or someone’s got a bit more of a personality, it still feels like a genuine interaction. I worked very closely with my voice directors – Beth Park, Tilly Steele, Kirsty Gilmore, Natalie Winter, and Tom Mitchell – who, alongside Aliona, were all very keen on it never sounding like bullshit.

Aliona: I’m obviously biased, but I think a secret ingredient of why it feels so real is that we didn’t just focus on the voice. We had performance directors like me focusing on the body, because you can fake truthfulness vocally but you cannot fake it in the body. That lends itself to this incredible performance across the board for everyone. I think when it’s motion capture, and every single minute [of voice and acting] can be seen in the body, you can’t fake it.

Shadowheart, played by out lesbian actor Jennifer English
(Photo Credit: Screenshot/Larian Studio’s Baldur’s Gate 3)

What are your thoughts on people playing queer characters, and being able to see themselves in those relationships, who are playing BG3 in countries where stigma and persecution are still rampant, or getting worse?

Aliona: I think it meant one thing before ComiCon. Now it means not something different, but something more. Now that we’ve met some of these people and spoken to them face to face, and heard their stories, and how much it means to them, it’s just so much more meaningful.

Jennifer: It’s impactful. When somebody looks you in the eyes and tells you that they can’t be out to their family…

Aliona: This game is giving them solace. It means the world to them, and I think we realize that now. I think all the directors know this, and the actors and the writers. And props to the writers–we didn’t mention this before, but the writing is incredible, shoutout to John Corcoran the amazing writer for Shadowheart, Halsin and Nocturne!

Jennifer: To add to the answer before–why people feel so emotionally sucked in–the writing absolutely is a huge part of that.

Aliona: Knowing that this game could be an escape for a lot of people, or a way for them to live out the life that they currently can’t have, was one of the reasons we worked so hard to always ensure truthfulness and authenticity in the performances. We knew that this would mean a lot to many people, especially when we started to use they/them pronouns. 

Jennifer: That was a huge turning point for me. That’s where I realized how important this game was going to be for people, especially in our community. One of the things I’m most proud of is knowing how we’ve created a world of endless exploration and opportunity. It’s a world for people to explore parts of themselves that they don’t feel safe to [explore in real life]. We all took our time over the romance scenes. We wanted to get it right because we knew that this would be significant for people. It might be people’s first opportunity to explore that side of themselves. I’ve heard stories where people have explored their sexuality for the first time through this game.

Anything else you want people to know?

Jennifer: I would love to say thank you, especially to the alphabet mafia, and to allies, for being so welcoming to the pair of us.

Aliona: I just wanted to add to that that we’re incredibly grateful for this community. There was a moment when we thought…should we be private about our relationship? And we realized we can’t, because we’re always together (laughs). We were a team working on this. We fell in love while making this game and love sharing that joy with other people. And we’re also so grateful for the love and support we get back. There’s been times when I’ve posted on my Instagram story some of the homophobic comments that we get, and I see people drowning it out with love and defending us, and that’s so beautiful and heartwarming for us. This community is really something special.

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Forgotten protests in L.A.’s fight for LGBTQ+ rights in the U. S.

Every social movement has its origins in the resistance that arises from domination & the search for identity

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Cooper's Donuts shop circa mid 20th century was located at 547 Main Street, corner of 6th, in the Bunker Hill neighborhood of downtown LA. (Photo Credit: Film still from "The Exiles" a Milestone Films 1961 release)

By Rodrigo Herrera | LOS ANGELES – On the opposite side of the country, two protests that preceded the Stonewall riots frame the legacy of history in the fight for LGBTIQ+ civil rights. The older – and nearly forgotten – one was the first time that Black and Latinx transgender individuals, their peers, and the long-forming community stood up against police brutality.

It is all too common that those responsible for documenting history often overlook the contributions of the most marginalized individuals, as well as the contextual factors that give rise to the social movements they inspire. This has motivated me to search for stories, characters, and sites historically relevant to the trans memory of LGBTIQ+ history, from Buenos Aires to Mexico City, and now Los Angeles.

City of Los Angeles historic landmark plaque at The Black Cat Tavern in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Hollywood.
(Photo Credit: Rodrigo Herrera)

Although the first documented LGBTIQ+ civil rights demonstration in the United States occurred in 1967 in response to the Black Cat Tavern raid (1966), Pride commemoration today looks to the Stonewall Riots of 1969 as the event that catapulted the modern LGBTIQ+ civil rights movement.

A decade before those riots, in 1959, a Cooper’s Donuts coffee shop chain located on Main Street Downtown witnessed a clash between police and trans and queer people resisting arrest one early May morning. The coffee shop’s clientele, a diverse group of trans people, drag queens, and hustlers, rallied to their defense by throwing coffee and donuts, thwarting the arrest and forcing officers to retreat and call for backup. The incident caused the closure of the main avenue until the next day and has been documented by a witness, John Rechy, a Mexican-American writer, in his novel City of Night, published a few years later in 1963. This novel would present for the first time the Los Angeles queer scene. The transgressive novel would also inspire the lyrics of the song L.A. Women by The Doors, which describes the atmosphere of glamour, partying, and violence in the city.

The coffee shop episode is described in detail from Rechy’s testimony in the documentary book Gay L.A. A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics and Lipstick Lesbians by Lilian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, was published in 2006.

It happened in the spring of 1959 at Cooper’s Donuts, a downtown coffee shop on a seedy stretch of Main Street between two of L.A.’s older gay bars, the Waldorf and Harold’s. Since their glamour days as early as the 1930s, both bars had grown shabby, but they offered refugee to the outcasts of that depressed enclave, who also made Cooper’s Doughnuts their hangout. Cooper’s was an all-night haunt, a place to get cheap coffee and doughnuts, a good place to camp or cruise or converse. Most patrons were queens, butch hustlers, their friends, and their customers. Many were Latino or Black. The queens wore the half-drag of Capri pants and men’s shirts, which, they hoped, would enable them to escape arrest for “masquerading” as women (though they knotted their shirts at the midriff in the feminine style of the day). Because the patrons were obvious or suspected homosexuals, Cooper’s became a frequent target for the Los Angeles Police Department, which prided itself on being one of the most determined enemies of homosexuality in the nation. 

In order to understand the causes that led to such mobilizations, it is important to remember that today’s LGBTQ+ experience, although still facing violations of rights, is far different from what it was over seven decades ago. Discriminatory practices by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department included arbitrary detentions, excessive use of force, and arrests of individuals whose gender expression did not align with their identification. Merely being gathered with other queer people or attending a bar during a raid was sufficient grounds for being detained and charged. Even serving queer individuals was considered a business risk due to the harassment and surveillance it attracted from the police. Both homosexuality and transvestism (referred to as masquerading) were illegal and punishable as perversions and social deviations.

That night in May, a patrol car circle the block a few times, parked, and two police officers entered Cooper’s, demanding to see identification from those seated at the long rectangular counter. As usual, the police stated no reasons for their harassment. “You, you and you –come with us”, and ordered the men into their squad car. But just as would happen a decade later and a continent away at the Stonewall Inn, that night in Los Angeles, the crowd rebelled. The arbitrary arm of the law had come down “one time too many”. Rechy says: “First people started throwing the doughnuts they were eating at the cops. Then, paper cups started flying… Then coffee-stirring sticks and other things started flying at them”.

Location where Cooper’s Donuts café once stood at 547 South Main Street, at the corner of 6th, DTLA.
(Photo Credit: Rodrigo Herrera)

This could be considered the first uprising in LGBTIQ+ history, but the event has been poorly reported or documented.

The address 547 Main Street, corner of 6th, where the Cooper’s Donuts café used to be, is now a parking lot. Another address attributed to the space in other sources, 316 E 5th St, leads to San Julian Park, and the rest, extracted from the official website of the café chain—which is preserved online as a part of the memory of the uprising—lead to a small immigration office next to another parking lot across from the Cathedral of St. Vibiana, which has now been converted into a private event space.

The demolition of places like Cooper’s Donuts coffee shop has contributed to the amputation of trans history within the LGBTQ+ movement itself in the city, starting at nightclubs that more than mere bars, were considered institutions. However, a few places endure and although they have survived economic recessions, police brutality, and the AIDS pandemic, three years since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, today they are at risk of disappearing along with most of the bars that served Latino and African-descent clientele in the city.

Pershing Square (Photo Credit: Rodrigo Herrera)

My third stop was what was considered the “gay ghetto.” Curious to discover what remained of “the run,” a corridor of meeting places for homosexuals along 5th Avenue and nearby bars that operated from the Prohibition era in the 1920s to the 1960s. I arrived at Pershing Square only to witness the transformation of the first and only public square that once served as a gathering place for the queer community in Los Angeles, who lived in anonymity and secrecy. It had now become a three-story parking lot topped with a thin layer of grass, statues, references, and figures with little context to each other, framed by the landscape of the financial district.

The “open-heart surgery” that meant the multiple redevelopments of Pershing Square since 1951 and the demolition of buildings with a strong historical burden for the LGBTQ+ community downtown is part of the suburbanization – and expulsion – machinery built for private cars over pedestrians, which ended up moving the “respectable citizens” to the suburbs and the queer scene to the west, in the city limits and on the margins of police repression.

The overwhelming presence of intoxicated homeless individuals and the marks of human waste on the concrete of Pershing Square contrast with the image of a father accompanying his daughter on the playground. This block has ceased to be a park, leaving behind the hustle and bustle and the vibrant nightlife it once had. Not even the strong police presence would make me want to return here at night. In reality, I had only a few hours left before sunset, and I still had to make my way to East Hollywood.

The next stop was The Black Cat. Located on Sunset Blvd, the building it occupies is now more Shake Shack than a tavern. There’s even a sonic battle between the two spaces, with pop music vs. lo-fi music competing within the modest Art Deco building. Built in 1939, it used to house a Safeway grocery store. By the 1960s, it had transformed into a gay bar and a laundromat that served a predominantly working-class clientele. The neighboring businesses were a series of establishments friendly to lesbian women and gay men.

The Black Cat Tavern, 3909 Sunset Blvd in the Silver Lake neighborhood of East Hollywood.
(Photo Credit: Rodrigo Herrera)


The Black Cat raid occurred at the moment when attendees were exchanging New Year’s Eve kisses and hugs. Eight undercover police officers (referred to as “Hollywood rejects” in the book Gay L.A. due to their attractiveness for deceiving gay men) conducted the raid at midnight. Fourteen people were arrested outside the bar and charged with assault and “public lewdness.” These arrests marked the first time that gay men were defended in a court case against a judicial system that disagreed with their lifestyle. In response, in February 1967, over 200 queer patrons of the tavern peacefully protested against police brutality following the raid. Some photographs of the protest can be seen on the walls along with paintings and artwork referencing cats. Outside, a plaque acknowledges the site as a cultural-historical monument. Perhaps it’s the morning’s disappointments, but I expected to find more substance, more photos, and more history of what transpired here.

Many significant sites for LGBTQ+ culture have been destroyed before their stories could be told or understood as part of the LGBTQ+ movement.

The LGBTQ+ Pride celebration in Los Angeles today commemorates the Stonewall riots in 1969, and while its significance has evolved to increasingly honor the contributions of Black and Latinx individuals who participated in this process (such as Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera), there is still much work to be done to do justice to their historical memory.

Every social movement has its origins in the resistance that arises from domination, the search for identity, and the desire to carve out a space in the world. Behind the vibrant LGBTQ+ scene we see in Los Angeles today, lies the history of trans individuals, which is an inseparable part of LGBTQ+ history. This history is often forgotten and stigmatized, even within the same community, but it refuses to be forgotten.

This research has been very frustrating, primarily due to the lack of records and documentation regarding the milestones in LGBTQ+ rights history. However, I decided to give it one last chance and visit the Central Library the next day to explore more sources and databases. Many people have come to the library asking about records of what happened at Cooper’s. The incident has even been endowed with myth, a category that lies between the unverifiable and the irrefutable.

Photo Credit: The collections of the LA Public Library.

It wasn’t until I returned to the book “Gay L.A.” that I realized the true importance of Cooper’s Donuts. The event at the cafeteria, along with countless other reasons, inspired the documentation work for the book. The lack of records further fueled Faderman and Timmons’ search, and in the process of uncovering those stories, they interviewed around 300 people of different backgrounds, identities, and ages ranging from 16 to their 80s and beyond. It was thanks to the photographs and documents treasured by individuals and organizations that other historical milestones, dating even further back in time, were discovered, showcasing the fabric of our community and our collective struggle. For example, the documenting of an “interracial gala” that took place at the Club Alabama on Central Avenue, the “Harlem” of L.A., in 1945.

What makes a building or an event historically significant? Who decides? How do we tell the stories of people and places for which we have no remains? We demand too much from trans history. We ask for documentation, archives, and records, but for a long time, there was hardly any trace of their lives in history. They barely appeared in the media, and when they did, their lives were dehumanized and denigrated.

The revolution began almost a decade before Stonewall, in the heart of the world’s entertainment capital (or even earlier), and LGBTQ+ history must honor the memory and dignity of the trans and queer individuals who dared to throw the first stone (or donut) in defense of the dignity of all people.

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We are searching for memories and recollections about places of interest, historic locations, and beloved personalities that are part of our trans and queer memory in Los Angeles.

Queer Maps – An explorable archive built to preserve and share histories of LGBTQ+ spaces, organizations, etc. in Los Angeles from 1871 →  today. (Link)

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Rodrigo Herrera is the editor of The New Gay Times and a contributor to both the Washington Blade and Los Angeles Blade.
The New Gay Times is a Mexico City-based media outlet that publishes stories, news and literature for diversity. The space arises as a response to the low representation of more diverse content in the media.

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Sources:

Los Angeles ConservancyThe Black Cat 

ONE Nation Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries 

Ultimate Classic Rock – The stories behind the songs of The Doors’ last hurrah, ‘L.A. Woman’. 

Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians 

Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons

LA Times  (2021)New Jalisco: más que un bar, un salvavidas para los latinos LGBTQ, ahora al borde del cierre 

LA Times (2014) Op-Ed: Why we hate Pershing Square

BBC: El baile de los 41: la fiesta gay de la élite de México que desató un escándalo hace más de un siglo

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Reimagining Eden: What we took away from ‘Heaven on Earth’

In a way, his art can be described as a reinterpretation of Eden, a queering of the garden in the same manner that he queers the gallery

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Queer artist Christian Rogers at his most recent gallery exhibition, 'Heaven on Earth' in Los Angeles. (Courtesy of Christian Rogers)

LOS ANGELES – The best way to describe Christian Rogers’ most recent artistic adventure is by envisioning him dipping his paintbrush into a Rush bottle and spreading this quintessential party drug across the entirety of a canvas.

Perhaps, it is even more fitting to liken it to a psychedelic trip, complete with the blotter art of a rainbow on a tab of LSD. Rogers’ project Heaven on Earth exudes a vibrant tapestry of queer nostalgia and earthly tones – all while maintaining a balance between the transcendent and the tangible.

In Heaven on Earth, Rogers orchestrates an eruption of colors and emotions, painting a vivid portrait of a world that blurs the lines between reality and imagination. This makes it particularly difficult to define what Rogers’ work actually is – it escapes predictable definitions and styles.

“It’s a little painting, it’s a little sculpture, it’s a collage,” Rogers tells the Blade. His willingness to blend and mold diverse artistic elements creates a fusion that mirrors the complexity of what entails the queer experience. 

Roger’s artistic process mirrors the creation of a body, with paper pulp embodying both the physical and sensual aspects. During Rogers’ most recent gallery public showcase within NOON Projects, an art gallery nestled in the vibrant streets of Los Angeles’ historic Chinatown, his artworks exude a bodily presence. From the outside looking in, the frames of the paintings seem to extend from the wall towards the audience, and the paper pulp reaches out to engage its viewers.

Courtesy of Christian Rogers

But upon closer examination, one discovers an unexpected element – erotic imagery sources from vintage gay pornographic magazines. It’s a classic ‘bait and switch,’ a term Rogers employs to describe the provocative nature of his work, designed to pique curiosity and captivate attention. However, this is not done without purpose; Rogers has a deliberate political strategy underlying his art. He explains, “Part of my strategy is to make a painting so desirable that even the most conservative of heterosexual neo-cons will be attracted to it.”

For those who may not be deeply entrenched in the contemporary art world, it is important to recognize that radical queer art is not the most prevalent form of art on display in galleries. According to Rogers, “The art market itself is fairly conservative. A rich, conservative class of people support the galleries while the galleries cater to that clientele. Some of the most radical queer art doesn’t make it to the mainstream galleries.” 

The profit-driven nature of many galleries plays a significant role in this issue. These galleries often grapple with the perception of how showcasing a multitude of queer artists might be received. As a result, they turn down many queer artists while continuing to showcase bodies and sexualities deemed as profitable by broader society. However, Rogers humorously notes, “It’s so funny, the idea that a gallery – an inanimate object – can be perceived as being ‘too gay’.

Even during the early stages of his artistic journey, Rogers faced criticism from fellow graduate students who questioned the inclusion of erotic images in his work. He tells the Blade, “I was told I didn’t need the erotic images because [my work] was queer enough.” However, in Heaven on Earth, Rogers utilizes pornographic imagery in a way that successfully queers the gallery and spaces the artwork occupies. He firmly believes that these erotic images are not just necessary, but integral to his artistry.

Courtesy of Christian Rogers

Amidst these explicit visuals, his work incorporates symbols of nature and subtle references to religion. This deliberate juxtaposition underscores the crucial role played by the candid and exposed portrayal of bodies in shaping the interpretation of his art. In a way, his art can be described as a reinterpretation of Eden, a queering of the garden in the same manner that he queers the gallery.

Rogers explains the title, “Heaven on Earth,” as rooted in a powerful idea: the possibility that heaven is manifested in our earthly existence. “Could heaven be our existence here?” Rogers asks, “And how wonderful could it be if we let it?” Instead of disavowing discussions of religion, Rogers endeavors to infuse his art with a queer perspective on certain aspects of religion. He elaborates on this concept, saying, “I find a lot of value in spirituality and fellowship; in the queer community, going to a bar is like going to church.”

In fact, Rogers shares a profound spiritual connection with the men depicted in his paintings. Through the deliberate inclusion of these images, he is on a mission to safeguard the rightful place of these men within queer history – a history that has been systematically marginalized by heteronormativity and is constantly at risk of being erased.

These men serve as a powerful symbol of remembrance, a way to honor and embrace those who lived unapologetically queer lives in the past – a particularly poignant endeavor in the face of the devastating losses during the HIV/AIDS crisis. Rather than viewing these men as antiquated, solely existing in the past, Rogers identifies with these men: “I think of these men not as vintage but as contemporaries of myself.”

Courtesy of Christian Rogers

Fortunately, Rogers is not alone in his feelings towards his artwork. Heaven on Earth served to be Rogers’ most successful showcase in terms of sales; though, he does not solely care about the money – he cares about the message. “For me, this is the most I’ve been able to sell, but more than anything, the media and accolades feel monumental,” Rogers says with gratitude. 

As Heaven and Earth wrapped up its showcase at NOON Projects, there is more to take away than just the vibrant colors and mixed geometric shapes of various sizes. The project invited viewers to immerse themselves in a realm where queer culture intertwines with earthly elements and transcendental feelings, creating a captivating fusion of vibrant memories and timeless landscapes.

His willingness to blend and mold diverse elements creates a fusion that mirrors the complexity of the human experience itself. His artwork exists unapologetically, in the same way that Rogers is able to tell his fans, friends, and strangers: “I’m thankful I’m gay.”

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