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.
“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.”
Related from NBC News:
Frequent social media use may change young teens’ brains
LGBTQ+ youth use social media as an escape or method to connect with others. Study finds frequent use may change young teens’ brains
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Before the pandemic, Will Larkins said they spent an “excessive” amount of time on social media. But when COVID-19 hit the U.S. – bringing American life to a screeching halt – Larkins saw their screen time reach new heights.
During quarantine, Larkins said, they would spend an average of 10 to 12 hours a day on social media – TikTok, specifically, would garner at least four to five hours of their time everyday.
Larkins particularly found solace in the online beauty community – garnering a sizable following, including high-profile YouTubers James Charles and Shane Dawson. In June 2020, Larkins’ social media use even made it to The New York Times, which included their take on the controversy surrounding Dawson and fellow YouTuber Jeffree Star. (The two were facing allegations of racism and sexualizing minors; Charles has also faced backlash, including for allegedly sending nude photographs to a 16-year-old boy and pressuring him into inappropriate conversations on Snapchat.)
“This pyramid system where Shane and Jeffree are kings and everyone else is below them is over,” Larkins is quoted saying in The Times article, adding that “the next generation of beauty influencers, it’s going to be about artistry and not just drama. People are realizing we need more representation of people of color, Asians and every minority. The beauty world is a place to express yourself. The younger generation understands that better than the older beauty gurus.”
Despite the drama, Larkins said that social media made them feel like they “could be this tough, beautiful, strong person that I didn’t feel like I was in reality.”
“[Social media] was more of an escape,” Larkins, now 18, told the Los Angeles Blade. “And because I didn’t have friends, I felt like these strangers online – these people I watched on YouTube and the people that communicated with, even just briefly – were my friends or part of my social circle.”
LGBTQ+ youth have long used social media as an escape or method to connect with other queer young people. A study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, for example, found that sexual minorities between 10 and 16 years old more often reported joining a group or web-based community to make themselves feel less alone compared to their heterosexual peers.
Research & Studies
However, a recent study by researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill found that young teens who checked social media habitually – more than 15 times per day – become more sensitive to expected social feedback over time.
“In other words, these teens might become more attuned to social rewards and punishments,” Maria Teresa Maza, one of the study’s two lead authors, told the Blade.
Researchers tracked 169 public middle school students in rural North Carolina over three years. At the beginning of the study, the participants were asked how often they checked three major social media platforms – Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat – with answers ranging from less than once to more than 20 times a day. Meanwhile, the students underwent yearly brain imaging sessions while completing the social incentive delay task, which measures brain activity when anticipating social feedback from peers.
Notably, the research – published in JAMA Pediatrics on January 3 – also found teens who do not check social media as often become less sensitive to social feedback over time.
“The findings suggest that children who grow up checking social media more often are becoming hypersensitive to feedback from their peers,” said Eva Telzer, a corresponding author of the study.
Maza, however, noted that the team of researchers was “unable to make causal claims about these findings.” She added, “While we found checking behaviors to be linked to brain development over time, we are unable to say that social media caused this change.”
Adolescents, which the study focused on, are at a “unique period” in their brain development, according to Maza. “Teens go through a lot of changes in their brains that help prepare them for the transition into adulthood. And one of these changes is that they start seeking out more social interactions, especially with their peers,” she said. “The interesting thing about social media platforms is that they allow teens to have constant access to social feedback whenever they want to, which can be very rewarding to teens.”
Though the study didn’t focus on LGBTQ youth in particular, young queer people – who use social media at higher rates than their cisgender, heterosexual peers – may be especially vulnerable. According to a Human Rights Campaign (HRC) blog post, LGBTQ youth spend an average of 45 minutes more a day online than their non-LGBTQ peers.
Many LGBTQ+ advocates and researchers say LGBTQ+ youth use social media at higher rates to find people like them. In fact, in a 2019 Center for the Study of Social Policy article, writer Rebecca Torrence said that without the internet, “I would still be struggling with my sexuality today.”
“Social media can be a powerful tool for finding safe, affirming spaces and connections online – particularly for LGBTQ+ youth who might not have affirming environments at home or school,” Dr. Myeshia Price, director of research science at The Trevor Project, told the Blade.
Maza agreed. “One of the benefits of this, particularly among youth who may identify in ways that differ from their in-person peers, is that they can have access to support and affirmative individuals or systems at the touch of their fingertips,” she said, adding that the “increase in support and affirmation has been shown to improve social and emotional outcomes of these teens.”
Considering The Trevor Project’s most recent research shows only 37% of LGBTQ+ youth identified their home as an affirming space and just over half said the same of their schools, Price said “it makes sense why LGBTQ youth may often turn to social media and online communities in order to seek out affirming and supportive connections and spaces.”
There is a flip side, however. Though online communities can be a source of affirmation for LGBTQ+ youth, they can also be a source of bullying and harassment. The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ+ Youth Mental Health found more queer young people reported social media having a positive impact on their mental health, 96%, than negative, 88%. Still, the overwhelming majority of LGBTQ+ youth see social media’s pitfalls.
But what, if anything, can be done?
Some say young teens shouldn’t have access to social media platforms at all. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said last month that he thinks 13 – the minimum age to join major sites like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter – is too young.
“It’s a time where it’s really important for us to be thoughtful about what’s going into how they think about their own self-worth and their relationships and the skewed and often distorted environment of social media often does a disservice to many of those children,” Murthy told CNN.
Murthy continued to say that “if parents can band together and say, you know, as a group, we’re not going to allow our kids to use social media until 16 or 17 or 18 or whatever age they choose, that’s a much more effective strategy in making sure your kids don’t get exposed to harm early.”
Mitch Prinstein, a co-author of the UNC-Chapel Hill study, agreed that “most adolescents begin using technology and social media at one of the most important periods for brain development during our lifetime.” However, he didn’t place the sole onus on parents, adding that policymakers must also understand “the benefits and potential harms associated with teen technology use.”
When asked what policymakers could do about this issue, Maza said she could not offer recommendations based on the recent study alone. However, as an expert researcher in the field, Maza noted how important it is to “engage in conversations with teens themselves to better understand their unique experiences online.”
“Given the highly self-selected and individualized nature of social media platforms, teens can engage in different behaviors and have distinct experiences online,” she said. “For this reason, it is important to include teens in conversation to better understand how they are spending their time online and how we can best support their healthy media use.”
In terms of LGBTQ+ youth, specifically, Price pointed less to policies surrounding social media use and more to the record amounts of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation seen in statehouses across the country in recent years.
In only a little over a month into 2023, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has already counted over 250 anti-LGBTQ+ bills – many targeting the lives of queer youth, from sports to healthcare to the classroom. In fact, according to the ACLU, the majority of the legislation, 120, targets schools and education. In second place, with 82, are bills seeking to restrict LGBTQ+ healthcare, mostly transition-related services for trans minors (some lawmakers have even started to target trans adults, as well).
Late last month, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, signed into law a bill that bans minors in the state from receiving gender-affirming care – the first such measure signed this year. It was somewhat of a departure for Cox, who was celebrated last year for vetoing an anti-trans sports bill.
“I always try to err on the side of kindness, mercy and compassion,” he wrote in his veto letter. “I also try to get proximate and I am learning so much from our transgender community. They are great kids who face enormous struggles.”
In a statement, Cathryn Oakley – the HRC’s state legislative director and senior counsel – said Cox signing the anti-trans healthcare bill “has directly placed the LGBTQ+ youth he previously claimed to want to protect in harm’s way.”
“Politicians with no medical training and no real understanding of the harmful impact these bans have on transgender people should have no say in how best practice, age appropriate care is delivered,” she added.
Cox, in a statement issued announcing his approval of the bill, argued “pausing these permanent and life-altering treatments for new patients until more and better research can help determine the long-term consequences” was necessary. Many major medical groups in the U.S. – including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics – support gender-affirming care for minors and oppose legislation aiming to restrict it.
“While we understand our words will be of little comfort to those who disagree with us, we sincerely hope that we can treat our transgender families with more love and respect as we work to better understand the science and consequences behind these procedures,” Cox said.
The legislative attacks aren’t going anywhere, either. Terry Schilling, the president of the conservative American Principles Project, told The Times in a Jan. 25 article that anti-LGBTQ+ bills are a “political winner.”
Furthermore, many states across the country already have anti-LGBTQ+ measures in place. According to the Movement Advancement Project (LGBT MAP), six states have laws on the books that censor discussions of LGBTQ+ people or issues in school; four states ban or restrict best medical care for trans youth; and 18 states prohibit trans students from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity. The group also rates 21 states “low” or “negative” for their LGBTQ+ policies.
These policies affect the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth, according to The Trevor Project – and it even affects how they are treated. The recent poll found 86% of trans and nonbinary youth said recent debates around anti-trans bills have negatively impacted their mental health; 75% of LGBTQ youth say that both anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes and threats of violence against LGBTQ+ spaces often give them stress or anxiety; and 45% of trans youth experienced cyberbullying.
“The harmful rhetoric and vitriolic debates surrounding these bills, and the confidence they give people to make anti-LGBTQ+ remarks in public spaces, are being felt online and taking a negative toll on the mental health and wellbeing of LGBTQ+ youth,” Price said.
So in addition to ensuring that online communities are safer and more supportive of LGBTQ+ youth, Price also urged policymakers to “pass legislation that protects and uplifts LGBTQ+ young people’s mental health and wellbeing.”
Larkins uses social media as a tool, limiting their usage
Larkins’ online life has changed dramatically since the days of pandemic-induced lockdowns, they told the Blade. Last year, Larkins found themselves in The Times again – but not over internet drama. Instead, their appearance was as a guest writer, explaining how Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill will hurt teens in the state. (Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the legislation, limiting classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity, in March 2022.)
“I have come to realize that those who have been so openly hateful toward me often knew little about the queer community — they thought being L.G.B.T.Q. was a conscious choice,” Larkins, the president and a co-founder of the school’s Queer Student Union and one of the organizers of a mass student walkout over the bill, wrote in the essay. “Education didn’t just give me a sense of self worth but also the knowledge of a community and lifeline there for countless young people.”
Reflecting on their social media use, Larkins said they felt like their phone “was pulling me away from moments I was having in my real life.” It was something they became aware of around the time their essay was published in The Times.
“I was spending more time with mature people who would go to dinner, go get coffee, and they wouldn’t be on their phone,” Larkins said. “They’d be present with the person who’s in front of them. And I’m a high schooler still addicted to my phone like everyone else, so I would be the only one who would check their phone at these more sophisticated events and things.”
I started noticing [my phone] was pulling me away from these moments, and it was a source of stress,” they added. “It really just came together for me.”
Larkins also realized that social media was “fake,” they said. “I had a persona [online]; I was just fake,” Larkins said.
The final breaking point was during Larkins’ spring break last year when they were reflecting on their phone usage. “I looked back at how much time I’d wasted,” they said.
Now, Larkins uses social media as a tool, limiting their usage to their laptop. “I started cutting down,” they said. “I completely deleted TikTok, and I started setting a time for myself to check my social media.”
That made Larkins have “think of things to do,” they said. “I discovered so much about myself, about things that I liked about myself, about skills that I had, things that I was interested in, places in my neighborhood that I’d never explored,” Larkins said. “I was bored, and I let myself be bored – which is terrifying that kids just don’t have that anymore.”
Lifelong warrior for social justice takes his mission to Sacramento
Former farm boy turned lawyer turned former Executive Director of Equality California turned politician, Rick Zbur speaks with the Blade
CALABASAS, Calif. – Proudly Out Democratic Assemblymember Rick Zbur is a lifelong justice warrior. The former farm boy turned lawyer turned Executive Director of Equality California turned politician has made it his mission to fight for the rights of LGBTQ+ people, immigrants, communities of color and faith and people living with HIV.
Zbur graduated from Yale, making him the first person from his rural community in the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico to attend an Ivy league university. He then went on to practice law for twenty-five years at the renowned Los Angeles-based international law firm of Latham & Watkins LLP, making both partner at the firm and a name for himself as one of California’s leading environmental and government law attorneys.
Zbur was Latham & Watkins’ first openly gay attorney and first openly gay partner. He worked in all aspects of the firm’s environmental, land and resource practice, including leading the firm’s extensive work before the powerful California Coastal Commission.
During his eight years at the helm of Equality California, (the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization), Zbur led the organization through a period of significant growth and an expansion of its mission to include advancing civil rights and social justice for the diverse communities to which LGBTQ+ people belong — communities of color, communities of faith, immigrants, women and people living with HIV.
Zbur has fond memories of growing up in rural New Mexico about two hours south of Albuquerque where his mother, Erlinda Chavez Zbur, and her family have lived for generations. In particular, he recalled being inspired by his father, who, after dropping out of high school, made his way from working the steel mills of Chicago to serving in the military then attending college earning his Ph.D. and finally to becoming a professor.
“He was always the Democratic activist in the family,” Zbur told the Blade. “He used to say that I was sort of his sidekick.”
Zbur credits his early connection to his father’s activism as the foundational reason that instilled his love for politics.
“I was one of those very weird kids who was interested in government and was always watching everything on the TV, like the Democratic convention. Because I was always helping my dad with organizing, I always thought I would do something in government.”
“After I went to Yale, I worked with Tom Harkin for the reelection. He is a progressive, representing an agricultural district in Iowa. I cut my teeth on that and then went back to law school.”
“It was during law school that I started to come to terms with the fact that I was a gay man,” he added.
A Shift to Politics
“I always wanted to do something in public service and create charge,” Zbur told the Blade.
“I had a sister who was ill with ALS. [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis aka Lou Gehrig’s disease] She passed away in 2020. About ten months before she passed away, she was already in a wheelchair, and she knew her time was short. She was basically looking at her life and feeling like she had regrets about the things that she didn’t do. She turned to me then and said, ‘You know, Rick, you were always supposed to do something in public service. That was always your calling. I hope you decide not to put that off any longer.'”
Zbur took his sister’s advice to heart. When he won the Democratic primary in March of 1996, he made history as the first openly LGBTQ+ non-incumbent in the nation’s history to win a contested congressional primary race.
“The times were very different. You couldn’t really be openly gay. In 1979 to 1983, there were no openly gay elected officials.”
“I ran for Congress in 1996 when I lived down in Long Beach. I was a pretty idealistic and young candidate, and I made a decision to try to unseat a popular republican incumbent. I became the first openly gay person to win a contested primary as a non-incumbent when I went in the primaries in 1996. I lost in the general that year.”
“I then basically decided that I really should just focus on trying to advance the things that I cared about and keeping very active California Environmental Voters. I was really just trying to advance the things I cared about through community service.”
“During this whole period of time, we had Sheila Kuehl become elected to the legislature, and the world started changing. That is what caused me to run again. I was at Equality California, and I had been running the organization for six or seven years. At that point, I was really active in the LGBTQ+ movement. I really felt like we had an incredible amount of impact in terms of the bills we were getting passed and the programs we had for LGBTQ+ people, with a big focus on addressing all the disparities in health and wellness needs within our community. We also really focused on addressing the trans community, taking up focuses on labor standards, immigration reform, and criminal justice reform.”
“Equality California had really matured into a strong organization. When I started there, it was on the brink of collapse. By the time I left after my eight years there, we were the second largest LGBTQ political organization in the country in terms of membership and very high up in terms of our budget. I felt like I could take a step back and focus on public service and broader issues, and I decided that running for the legislature was the way that I could have the most impact in the next stage of my career.”
The Importance of Being an Out Politician
Zbur explained, though, that his coming to terms with being gay was complicated by the rampant homophobia of the time.
“The times were very different. You couldn’t really be openly gay. In 1979 to 1983, there were no openly gay elected officials.”
However, Zbur decided that being true to himself was a priority.
“I started coming out in law school, and when I was doing that, I wasn’t out at work yet. There was no one out in my law firm. I was out to friends, and then I came up to my sister next and slowly came out when I was about 24 or 25.”
“There was a lot of discrimination generally in society. So I was actually really proud when I came out at work because they embraced me, and they said it was a meritocracy, and this was not going to be an issue.”
“A couple of years after that, I was promoted to partner at the firm, but you know I was the first openly gay lawyer at Lathem and Watkins despite the fact that it was a big firm.”
Zbur noted that while his law firm was overall supportive of his coming out, homophobic rhetoric has been rampant throughout his career.
“When I was at Equality California, we always had people that were trolling our social media channels. We had death threats that were targeted at our events, so much so that we had to put in high amounts of security and metal detectors at the events.”
“When I was a candidate for Congress, I had death threats repeatedly to the point where the Long Beach Police Department had to put security detail on me at my house. We would get these long diatribes at the office telling me that I was going to go to hell. People would call in to the campaign office with hate epithets.”
While a lot of the hate that Zbur received was overt, some hate speech was more subtle, albeit no less targeted.
“My first campaign for Congress, my opponent at the time had people that were putting out leaflets at churches, basically showing a picture of me shaking hands with Bill Clinton and asking, ‘Do you want a homosexual representing you?’ My Republican opponent, who ran against me, basically sent out a flyer that said, ‘Is Steve Horn anti-gay?’ And then when you would open up the flyer, it would say, ‘No. Steve Horn would never use the fact that Rick Zbur is a homosexual against him.”
“There were gay neighborhoods in Long Beach, so we knew this kind of tactic wasn’t appealing to them, but it appealed to the broader campaign, and the anti-LGBTQ people within the conservative areas were clearly engaging in hate speech and hate communications.”
Sadly, this type of homophobic rhetoric is still seen in political races today.
“We see cases where anti-LGBTQ+ strategies are still used against LGBTQ+ candidates. It happened to Todd Goria when he ran for mayor. It was very easy for people to use all the same kinds of anti-LGBTQ+ that the right-wing uses. They went after many candidates, but particularly Todd Gloria, because he was going to be the first openly gay mayor of San Diego. This was just a couple of years ago.”
When asked why, in the face of all this hate, he feels it is so important to be an openly out politician, Zbur replied that it is vital that those who can lead by example indeed should.
“When you have a seat at the table, it affects the outcome,” Zbur told the Blade. “Of course, our allies are very important. As the body that we are, we are still not the majority of the public. I want to stress the importance of having strong allies. But having strong allies does not substitute for having a real, lived experience where you can actually bring your own experiences as examples and where you are accountable to our community, and you don’t trade off goals and objectives for that community for other important objectives. The other thing is, the message that it sends to not only LGBTQ+ youth but all LGBTQ+ people, especially in areas that are not as accepting as the area that I live in, in West Los Angeles area in West Hollywood.”
Zbur then recounted one instance at a gay bar when a young gay man approached him to thank him for the positive impact his pro-LGBTQ+ political actions had on his life.
“I remember once when I was still at Equality California, I was walking into a gay bar on a Sunday afternoon, and this 20-something DREAMmer young man came up to me.”
“DREAMers” are individuals who entered the U.S. before age 18 in 2017 or earlier and have continually lived in the United States since that time. Many of these individuals are LGBTQ+. Equality California has been a constant supporter of granting work permits to DREAMers.
“He basically wanted to thank me. Equality California was doing so much on immigration reform, and we had come out in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. He said how important it was to him as a gay young man that there were people like him whom he could see that were successful in society and that LGBTQ+ organizations were actually standing up for him. I think it’s important to show role models to people that are out in society and to show folks that we are part of a community, that we contribute to our communities, and it shows kids that they can achieve any dream they want if they work hard. It shows them that being LGBTQ+ should not be a barrier to any dream that they might have.”
A well-known AIDS activist, Zbur has a personal connection with the disease. He moved to Los Angeles in the 80s as the AIDS pandemic was just beginning to rear its ugly head.
“I had many friends who became ill,” said Zbur regretfully.
Seeing how little the government was doing to help spurred Zbur’s political action and also gave him the courage to come out at work.
“I was still closeted at work, and what got me politically active again in the mid to late 80s and early 90s was that our government wasn’t doing anything to address the AIDS epidemic. We had hundreds of thousands of people get sick and die. I worked hard to get Barbara Boxer elected because, at that point, she was the only candidate for the Senate, pretty much any place in the country, who even talked about gay people when we were dying, and our community was being so impacted. During that period of time, I became engaged and was trying to get people elected who I thought were progressive and willing to address LGBTQ+ civil rights.”
“A lot of people started coming out around the AIDS movement,” explained Zbur, “because they realized the lives of our community were at stake. Because so many people were in the closet, people didn’t understand how many people there were in at risk in society and how these discriminatory laws were impacting people. It was clearly discrimination. I mean, there’s still discrimination today.”
The AIDS crisis sparked not only a wave of political activism but also a sense of unity and pride within the queer community as they were bound together in the face of this tragedy.
“The women in our community really stepped up in that period of time when the men were very, very ill,” said Zbur. “I think that our greater community together was really part of a combination of things that happened throughout the same time and had really brave trans folks really sort of standing up against the brutality that they were facing, and so the AIDS epidemic standing up the Stonewall and the cafeteria riots were basically standing up to the brutality that our community faced.”
“We were really trying to improve the lives of people who are living with AIDS and HIV, as well as really trying to get to zero — zero stigmas and zero transmission, and zero HIV deaths. We really started focusing on HIV legislation in particular.”
Zbur worked closely with partners such as APLA Health and Wellness, the ACLU, LA LGBT Center, and The Trans Latina Coalition to push hard to pass bills relating to queer civil rights.
Some bills seemed almost impossible to pass without the help of Calif. State Senator Scott Wiener, who worked closely with Zbur and Equality California.
“We couldn’t find someone in the legislature who was willing to carry the HIV criminalization bill. Literally, people were afraid of it. The LA Times just completely mischaracterized what that bill does. This kind of thing still happens today. If you actually look at the LA Times endorsement of my campaign, they describe one of my accomplishments as basically reducing the penalties for people who intentionally infect people with HIV. But that is not what I did. But because that was the way it was characterized, legislators were really afraid of taking that bill on.”
“I remember meeting with Senator Wiener before he got elected. We were helping him and asked him if he would be willing to take on this bill if he got elected. He said, ‘Yes. I would be happy to.’ So when he got elected, he took the bill on. It took us two years to get it through.”
“We were not the first state to modernize HIV laws, but we were the first state that had a model bill that did it all the right ways. Since then, Equality California, working with the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, made a program helping state organizations in other states also reform their HIV criminal laws so that just the fact that you’re living with HIV does not become a criminal risk for you. Passing that bill was a hard slug, but I’m very proud of it.”
“We also supported other bills like making PREP and PEP available at pharmacies without a prescription and ensuring that in California, health plans cover them.”
“We have done a lot of budget advocacy around HIV to make sure that the social service organizations that provide support for people in our state are adequately funded.”
We have also done education programs. We did a very deep program focused on making sure that everyone who is at risk knows that PREP is available. We focused this where PREP intake was low. We even did Gindr ads and made sure that we were focusing on communities of color and low-income communities to try to make sure that people understood the fact that we could prevent HIV by a combination of things.”
“We were really trying to help the public understand that HIV is no longer a death sentence. You can live a normal healthy life with the disease, and there are things that can be done to stop the spread, of course.”
“I have been really chagrined about this whole attack on the LGBTQ+ community and the anti-sematic speech that has been occurring,” Zbur admitted.
When asked what needs to be done to end hate in California, Zbur responded with a multi-step solution.
“First of all, I think one of the things that we need to be doing is standing up whenever hate speech occurs. A lot of it is about speaking up. I’m really excited that I’m able to represent another district in Southern California where there is strong public support for moving forward the cutting-edge legislation that we need to both protect our community and actually really address and achieve what I call ‘full-lived equality.’ This is an equality wherein all the disparities in health and well-being that our community faces are addressed.”
“I think there are a lot of parallels between anti-LGBTQ hate speech and the rising anti-Semitic hate speech. This applies to any racist and xenophobic hate speech as well. The antisemitic hate speech, in particular, is currently really troubling. I feel like I have a special responsibility to step up to that, given that if you look at the two largest communities in my district, they are basically the mosaic of what constitutes the LGBTQ+ community and the mosaic of what constitutes the Jewish community. Those are the two largest groups.”
I think the thing that really is saddening to me is the fact that we’ve seen this rise in anti-somatic hate speech, including in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, and Santa Monica, over the course of the last year. I don’t think that it is a coincidence. I think this is all spurred by what’s happening in the far right, and with President Trump. What we need to do is always stand up against it and make sure that we always address it.
“I do also think that some of the social media platforms are really accelerating hate speech.”
“I think there are things that the platforms can do, although it’s complicated because, on the one hand, we have free-speech rights that we don’t want to infringe upon. But, on the other hand, there is a way that some of the social media algorithms work that needs to be changed in terms of transparency and focusing more on how the social media algorithms basically expand the hate speech that is occurring.”
I want to give props to Assembly Member Jesse Gabriel, who has been very focused on that and ran a bill last year that I supported.”
That bill was the Social Media Transparency and Accountability Act of 2021 (Assembly Bill 587) which is intended to ‘bring much-needed transparency and accountability to the role of social media platforms in amplifying extreme and dangerous content and driving severe political polarization.
AB 587 would call for social media platforms to disclose internal policies on hate speech and harassment and share their specific protocol on how to deal with these policies.
“There is more to be done,” said Zbur, “and the fact that it’s complicated doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t focus on it.”
State & local LGBTQ elected officials on their battling hate
“Political theatre” cooked up by “right wing think tanks that circulate these [anti-LGBTQ] bills to legislators around the country”
WASHINGTON – Just a few months ago, the midterm elections saw a “rainbow wave” with a record-breaking number of LGBTQ candidates elected to public office across the country.
After statehouses and city councils and other legislative bodies opened for new business, however, within weeks it became clear that Americans can expect to see a greater number of anti-LGBTQ bills and policies in 2023 than were introduced in any year in recent memory.
Five LGBTQ officials, both newly elected and reelected, recently connected with the Washington Blade to discuss their observations from the campaign trail and experiences in elected office. They shared reactions to the spate of harmful proposals that have been introduced so far and detailed plans for advancing pro-equality legislation while fighting against anti-LGBTQ policies this year and beyond.
New Hampshire state Rep. Gerri Cannon talked with the Blade earlier this month, and newly elected Trenton (N.J.) City Councilwoman Jennifer Williams responded to written questions last week. First-time officeholders Montana state Rep. Zooey Zephyr and Connecticut State Treasurer Erick Russell, along with returning Colorado Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, each sat down with the Blade last month during the International LGBTQ Leaders Conference in D.C.
The conference was hosted by the LGBTQ Victory Institute, which administers programs and trainings for elected leaders whose campaigns are supported by the LGBTQ Victory Fund political action committee. Former Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who serves as president of the LGBTQ Victory Fund and Institute, also talked to the Blade by phone earlier this month.
So diverse are the identities, backgrounds, experiences and political views of these officeholders that they shatter restrictive notions that LGBTQ candidates must fit into a certain mold or serve only in certain elected positions.
How were they treated on the campaign trail?
Zephyr, who became the first openly transgender person elected to the deep-red Montana Legislature, told the Blade she was nervous about the prospect of knocking on doors for the first time.
“There’s always that fear as a trans person that it only takes one scary moment,” she said. “But what I found was what I always knew: My community supported me and loved me.”
Many of Zephyr’s constituents, she said, “were excited to see me and to be talking to a trans woman about policy,” as well as LGBTQ issues. Many voters were eager to get into substantive discussions on topics as wonky as how policies concerning solar power might intersect with local unionization efforts, she said.
“What I saw in my community, and what I’ve seen, broadly, across Montana, is first and foremost kindness and community,” Zephyr said.
Russell, who with his election for Connecticut treasurer became the first gay Black man to serve in statewide office, said his constituents were “excited about the fact that they felt they were represented in a campaign” with many voters relating to Russell’s “humble beginnings.”
Voters were also heartened to see a younger candidate running, said Russell, who earned his bachelor’s degree in 2009 and graduated from law school at the University of Connecticut in 2012.
His identity aside, “at the end of the day, we were running a campaign that was built on substance,” he said. And “people want to know that they’re going to have advocates for their communities.”
Likewise, Cannon told the Blade, “I don’t use my status as being a trans person as a lever in most cases. I’m fighting for people in my community; I’m there to do the people’s business, and I just happen to be transgender.”
“I haven’t run into anyone that’s used my status as a trans person during an election cycle,” said Cannon, who has served in the New Hampshire Legislature since 2018.
“When I ran for City Council here in Trenton,” Williams said by email, we “probably knocked on 3-4,000 doors and spoke with all kinds of people.” The questions she and her team received concerned crime, jobs, public utilities like water and roads, and Williams’ ability to work constructively with other councilmembers, she said.
Williams, the first LGBTQ person on the Trenton (N.J.) City Council and the one of the state’s first openly transgender officeholders, said that voters did not ask about her gender identity or sexual orientation, nor did they bring up politically divisive topics like policies concerning the participation of trans athletes in school sports leagues or drag queen story hours.
Likewise, since her election to the city council, Williams’ Council colleagues who have been sworn in as well as her at-large colleagues who won their runoff elections last Tuesday have been supportive — “very much so,” she told the Blade.
At the same time, Williams said she encountered some challenges because of her being a Republican. It “has been an issue with some people who are beyond my immediate circle or who haven’t gotten a chance to know me and support me,” she said.
“Some of my biggest supporters are very well-known local Democrats because they have seen the LGBTQ advocacy work and civic involvement that I have done in the past,” Williams said. “They also have very good ‘ears to the ground’ and trust me, people would tell them if I had come to canvass their neighborhood and if they spoke with me.'”
Williams expressed gratitude for the “endorsement and support” she received for her candidacy from the Victory Fund as well as for her progressive and Democrat supporters, because “they took a chance on believing in me and stuck with me even when they caught some hell for doing so.”
How will they approach challenging colleagues or difficult political circumstances?
Parker told the Blade there is room for LGBTQ elected officials to make a positive impact even in the most challenging of circumstances.
“We are just as interested in seeing them be who they are and stand up and speak out in their legislatures — whether or not they can pass pro-equality legislation,” she said.
When passing pro-equality policy or batting away harmful policy is difficult, Zephyr said she expects to draw from some of the lessons she learned as an athlete: “if you put in the work, day in and day out, you will see the progress. If you trust that process and do the work, you’ll see the results.”
Most people have nuanced opinions on policy matters and are sincere in their convictions, including legislators who might not support pro-equality bills or the LGBTQ community, she said. “And I trust that if I go into those conversations, — I would even say most — of them” will engage in good faith. “To me, that’s how you change hearts and minds.”
Earlier this month, the Montana Free Press reported that during a sausage making party for Montana lawmakers, Zephyr was caught chatting amicably with Billings Republicans. She later told reporters that she enjoyed the chance to connect with her colleagues outside the Capitol building “to just hang out and talk to someone about where they grew up.”
There can often be more room for diversity, including ideological diversity, among candidates elected to state legislatures because these bodies are typically governed less by the strictures of calcified partisan politics that are difficult to overcome at the national level, Moreno told the Blade.
“It’s vastly more personal,” he said, which means “you do see a lot more cross-party collaboration” in the Legislature.
With his first election to public office in 2012, Moreno, who is gay, became one of the four LGBTQ members of the Colorado House of Representatives elected to serve that year, which was hailed by the Denver Post as “a historic first for gays.”
Zephyr and Moreno both discussed how hateful and vitriolic rhetoric informs the development and passage of harmful laws and policies — all factors that raise the likelihood of violence against LGBTQ and particularly trans people.
The painful reality of violence against the community was a top of mind for the officeholders as well as the organizers and attendees of the International LGBTQ Leaders Conference, which fell just a couple of weeks after a gunman killed five people and injured 25 in Club Q, a Colorado Springs, Colo., LGBTQ nightclub.
Moreno recalled that when he first joined the Colorado Legislature 10 years ago, as he and his colleagues were debating a bill concerning conversion therapy, “some Republican members associated being LGBTQ with being an alcoholic.”
“I took an opportunity to have a conversation with them to let them know how offensive that rhetoric is,” Moreno said. “What I think the Club Q tragedy will do is remind people to be more careful with their language, because I do think that the kind of very hateful rhetoric we’re seeing today has played a role in the instigation of violence against minority communities.”
There are some extreme state legislators in New Hampshire, Cannon said, noting last year’s proposal by Republicans to secede (in the language of the bill, New Hampshire “peaceably declares independence” from the U.S. “and proceeds as a sovereign state.”)
Asked whether these lawmakers are a “lost cause,” Cannon did not hesitate: “I would absolutely use that term,” she said, comparing them to committed anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists. “They really don’t care for LGBT people; they don’t want to learn.”
However, Cannon said, “I’ve talked to Republicans who are favorable who have gotten to know trans people in the Legislature.”
Russell stressed the importance of representation: “I think the important piece is electing folks to office who are committed to fighting for our values.”
For her part, Williams joins the City Council at an interesting juncture. Following a series of ugly incidents in which previous members displayed “anti-LGBTQ bigotry and anti-Semitism,” a few years ago, “our city was crying for new start and a new City Council that would welcome, respect and affirm everyone,” she said.
Williams added that while she hopes Trenton will never again face that kind of scandal — partly because it happened when the members were working remotely and in-person meetings tend to discourage officeholders from making hateful comments to each other — “I am confident that all six of my colleagues will have my back if anything happens.”
How are they approaching policy that impacts LGBTQ constituents?
In the legislature, consistent with the approach she has employed in her prior work as an activist, Zephyr said she expects to focus her work on “making sure that we are taking action behind the scenes” to make sure each measure carrying a pro-equality message also carries a pro-equality impact.
For example, she said, passing a nondiscrimination ordinance is commendable, but when residents have cause to file a complaint, is there an accessible and effective means for them to do so?
Among the work Zephyr has done since she was seated has been the introduction of bills to ban the “gay and trans panic defense” and protect same-sex adoptive parents. She has also been a vocal critic of her Republican colleagues’ move to table Democrats’ proposal to allow police to temporarily take firearms from those deemed by a court as a danger to themselves or others.
The Club Q shooting provides for the opportunity for Colorado to build upon its already strong gun safety laws, such as by passing an assault weapons ban and achieving universal implementation of the state’s “red flag law,” Moreno told the Blade, adding that “we’re going to explore some of that in this next [now current] legislative session.”
Democratic state lawmakers in Colorado introduced an assault weapons earlier this month. With expanded Democratic majorities in both chambers of the state legislature serving with Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, who is gay, the state is in a position to pass more progressive legislation across the board, Moreno said.
In New Hampshire, Cannon has proposed a bill to make it easier for residents to change the sex listed on their birth records, having previously introduced the proposal to allow for people to change the sex listed on their driver’s licenses and state-issued IDs with the option to check a box for “nonbinary.” Republican Gov. Chris Sununu signed that bill into law and it went into effect in 2020.
Despite his support for that proposal, Cannon said Sununu pushed back against a previous version of her birth records bill because it had included an option to identify as nonbinary. She told the Blade she has reintroduced the measure this year without that provision, with the expectation that its success will provide for an opportunity to make it more inclusive in the future.
In her position on the school board, too, where until recently she served concurrently, Cannon focused her approach on working towards incremental change — voting, for instance, for a proposal that allows students to use restrooms and facilities that align with their gender identities even though it requires parental permission, therefore excluding trans students who are not out and supported at home.
“Getting that policy in place will open the door in the future” for a more inclusive policy, Cannon said.
Another bill introduced by Cannon, which was modeled after California’s, would make New Hampshire a sanctuary for LGBTQ families to escape prosecution in states that have criminalized parents for facilitating their children’s access to medically necessary and guideline directed medical treatments for gender dysphoria.
Parker noted that these types of bills were a major topic discussed by LGBTQ legislators when they convened for programs hosted by the Victory Institute.
Republicans, meanwhile, including Cannon’s GOP colleagues, are continuing to advance proposals to outlaw healthcare for minors for the treatment of gender dysphoria.
“I’m speaking out against the [GOP’s] healthcare bill, flagging it as discriminatory and in violation of HIPPA rights,” Cannon said, referring to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which prohibits the disclosure of sensitive health information without the patient or guardian’s consent or knowledge.
“You have to be able to use medical information to prosecute a family [for facilitating access to gender affirming healthcare],” Cannon said, adding constitutional issues might also be raised under the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination.
Cannon is confident she will be able to convince enough of her Republican colleagues to table the bill so it never reaches a vote, adding that she expects Sununu would veto the proposal should it ever reach his desk.
Others see room to leverage their backgrounds to make positive impacts elsewhere
Williams told the Blade that apart from bringing back Pride weekend celebrations that were on pause during the pandemic, Trenton does not have any LGBTQ-specific policy matters on the horizon.
“I think that is due to our being the capital of a very protective state that has strong LGBTQ protections written into law,” she said.
At the same time, she said, “my lived experience as a LGBTQ person informs me in many ways that correlate with the experiences of other marginalized groups,” Williams said.
“From issues ranging from youth homelessness to economics to law enforcement, LGBTQ people can bring much to government and its decision-making that can benefit everyone,” she said.
Likewise, Russell said, “being an advocate for LGBTQ rights and issues is going to be something that I will continue to do in my role” as treasurer. “But I think the there are opportunities for there to be overlap with a lot of different things.”
For instance, the attacks on LGBTQ rights come alongside efforts to abridge women’s reproductive freedoms. “One of the policies that I built through the campaign and worked with some legislators and nonprofits on was the creation of a safe harbor fund within the treasurer’s office,” Russell said.
“It would ultimately be a fund that we would put in place, and it would be used to help individuals traveling from anti-choice states who needed to access safe reproductive health care,” he said.
Other matters on Russell’s agenda will impact all residents in Connecticut, policies like “baby bonds, which was passed in our Legislature,” and will provide publicly funded trust accounts for every new child. Another priority is “expanding financial literacy programs so that we [will] have young folks who are coming out of school who know how to manage money,” he said.
Anti-LGBTQ bills, motivated by prejudice, will help no one
Whatever their putative purpose might be, Cannon stressed that the impact of anti-LGBTQ legislation proposed by her colleagues is often a solution in search of a problem — a message that was echoed by Parker and Williams.
“In New Hampshire, the trans population is one-tenth of one percent,” she said. Nevertheless, “We have people trying to put forth legislation against the trans community when we’re such a small community of people.”
Likewise, regarding the debate over her proposal to allow residents to change the gender listed in their birth records, Cannon said, “the number of people born in the state who want to change their birth records is incredibly small,” while, “many of us who were born outside the state already had our information changed.”
Zephyr stressed the ways in which anti-LGBTQ bills are based on lies about LGBTQ people.
She pointed to a proposal in the Montana Legislature that would prohibit minors from attending drag shows, which comes from the baseless smear propagated on the right that organizers of and participants in all-ages drag performances are sexually abusing or exploiting children.
Bills like these are “not a matter of logic or facts or information,” Parker told the Blade, but rather are intended as politically motivated attacks on the LGBTQ community. It’s “political theatre” cooked up by “right wing think tanks that circulate these bills to legislators around the country,” she said.
Russell noted how unpopular these policies are, broadly speaking. “Republicans are really using these campaigns to target trans kids, for instance, or to create these kinds of social wars around issues that the large majority of Americans believe that people should have the freedom and right to be who they are, and love who they love, and express themselves how they want to,” he said.
Williams sees both political opportunism and sincere bigotry motivating these anti-LGBTQ proposals: “There is definitely some hard-core prejudice behind some of these bills, but for many of these bills’ sponsors I believe they feel that they have put forth anti-LGBTQ legislation because they think they need to do so for their ‘conservative street cred’ and to raise money or gain a few percentage points in a primary.”
“There are definitely some Republican legislators who believe their legislation will solve problems that don’t exist,” Williams said. “I also learned that there are more moderate Republicans willing to push against such bad legislation, but they need support to help defend themselves when they get attacked for supporting LGBTQ people and in particular, trans kids.”
Parker has had first-hand experience dealing with anti-LGBTQ legislation when serving as mayor of Houston from 2010-2016, during which time, as an out lesbian, she was one of the first openly LGBTQ mayors of a major U.S. city.
In 2015, when voters repealed a broad nondiscrimination ordinance that included sexual orientation and gender identity, “it was about fear,” Parker said, stoked in large part by “the smear that trans women are sexual predators.”
She added that the effect of anti-LGBTQ bills can be both harmful and performative at the same time, pointing to efforts by conservative lawmakers to ban books that contain LGBTQ characters or themes.
“We [in the the LGBTQ community] have fought so hard to have affirming depictions of our lives in books and other media, so, to have books about LGBT lives removed from school libraries is really frustrating,” Parker said.
Particularly after the bills addressing “performative culture war stuff,” including book bans, are signed into law, she said, it often becomes clear that their proponents had failed to consider what that their implementation will look like in practice, perhaps in many cases because they did not expect the proposals to succeed in the first place.
From anti-LGBTQ laws to the onerous abortion restrictions that have been passed by many conservative states, GOP legislators are discovering the unintended and unforeseen consequences of poorly-construed policies and suffering the backlash from voters, Parker said. “It’s like the dog who chased the car.”
Nancy Pelosi reflects on her long career & LGBTQ advocacy
In an exclusive interview the former House Speaker credits activists who fought for AIDS funding & marriage equality
WASHINGTON – Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sat down with the Washington Blade in her office Tuesday evening for an exclusive interview just weeks after formally stepping down from leadership, having led her party in the House for 20 years, including as Speaker.
Pelosi reflected on the role she has played in landmark legislative achievements, including milestones in the fight for LGBTQ rights. She also addressed some current events that have earned significant attention from political observers and the beltway press.
So much of the historic progress over the past few decades in advancements toward the legal, social, and political equality of LGBTQ Americans, including those living with HIV/AIDS, was facilitated directly or otherwise supported by Pelosi’s leadership in Congress, but she was quick to credit the tireless work of individual activists and LGBTQ, civil rights, and HIV/AIDS advocacy groups.
“I attribute the success with [fighting] HIV/AIDS and everything that came after,” from legislation on hate crimes to marriage equality, “to the outside mobilization” of these activists and organizations, she told the Blade.
Despite positioning herself as an advocate for LGBTQ rights well before that position was popular, Pelosi said she is unaware of any instances where she may have suffered political consequences as a result. Regardless, she said, “I don’t care.”
The more she has been criticized for championing LGBTQ rights in Congress, “the more proud I am” of that work, Pelosi added.
Pelosi has always been a strident LGBTQ ally, guided by her commitment to justice, love, and fairness as ordained by the teachings of her Catholic faith. These ideals are in perfect alignment, she said, as opposed to the position held by many opponents of LGBTQ rights who nevertheless claim to believe we are all created in God’s image.
During an interview with Larry King, when serving as the San Francisco Democratic National Convention host committee chairwoman in 1984, Pelosi said the late television host remarked: “I just don’t understand how a Catholic girl who grew up in Baltimore, Maryland is such a champion for gay rights.”
“You’ve answered your own question,” Pelosi told him, referring to his mention of her Catholicism. “It is our faith that tells us that we’re all God’s children, and we must respect the dignity and worth of every person.”
Pelosi’s time in Congress began with the AIDS crisis, and she has kept up the fight ever since
After committing herself and the Congress to the fight against HIV/AIDS during her first speech from the floor of the House in 1987, Pelosi said some of her colleagues asked whether she thought it wise for her feelings on the subject to be “the first thing that people know about you” as a newly elected member.
They questioned her decision not because they harbored any stigma, but rather for concern over how “others might view my service here,” Pelosi said. The battle against HIV/AIDS, she told them, “is why I came here.”
“It was every single day,” she said.
Alongside the “big money for research, treatment, and prevention” were other significant legislative accomplishments, such as “when we] were able to get Medicaid to treat HIV [patients] as Medicaid-eligible” rather than requiring them to wait until their disease had progressed to full-blown AIDS to qualify for coverage, said Pelosi, who authored the legislation.
“That was a very big deal for two reasons,” she said. First, because it saved lives by allowing low-income Americans living with HIV to begin treatment before the condition becomes life-threatening, and second, because “it was the recognition that we had this responsibility to intervene early.”
Other milestones in which Pelosi had a hand include the Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS program, President Bush’s PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief) initiative, the Affordable Care Act (which contains significant benefits for Americans living with HIV/AIDS), and funding for the Ending the Epidemic initiative.
The last appropriations bill passed under Pelosi’s tenure as Democratic leader in December contained an additional $100 million boost to HIV/AIDS programs.
These and other hard-won victories over the years – from the biomedical progress made possible by investment in research to foreign aid packages that have saved countless lives overseas – have often come despite staunch opposition from lawmakers, particularly congressional Republicans.
For instance, the late former Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina opposed federal funding for HIV/AIDS research because he considered it tantamount to the government’s endorsement of “the homosexual lifestyle” responsible for the spread of the disease in the U.S.
Asked how she might compare anti-LGBTQ members like Helms with whom she worked in the past to those serving today, Pelosi said the most salient difference is the homophobic and transphobic attitudes among lawmakers in previous decades were in many cases borne out of ignorance.
Pelosi said that while the prejudice was “horrible [back] then” and she was “impatient” with lawmakers in the House who exhibited attitudes similar to those expressed by Helms, at that time people who held those views were often “just not up to date on what was happening in the world.”
(Pelosi noted that, for his part, Helms seemed to soften his stance on matters concerning HIV/AIDS. She suspects U2 frontman Bono may have successfully appealed to Helms as a parent, but “I don’t know exactly.”)
By contrast, today’s lawmakers, like the overwhelming majority of Americans, “must have a growing awareness of [LGBTQ] people in their own communities, maybe in their own families,” Pelosi said. “They’re really in a different world,” which means, they “have made a decision that they’re going to be anti-LGBTQ,” she said, adding that hate and prejudice today is most often directed at the trans community. “It’s completely unacceptable.”
Asked to share her thoughts on the many scandals that have unfolded over the past couple of months concerning gay freshman GOP Rep. George Santos of New York, Pelosi pointed out that while the congressman has dominated headlines recently, other members of the House Republican caucus who have weaponized homophobia and transphobia to a far greater extent than he are much more dangerous.
But first, Pelosi said that House Democrats would never do what the Republican leadership has done by tolerating the embattled freshman congressman to protect their slim majority control of the chamber.
Santos is “almost a joke; he’s become a punch line,” Pelosi said. “He’s outrageous, and there’s no way he should be allowed to serve” given the extent to which the congressman has failed to exhibit the “dignity” required of members who are privileged to serve in the House of Representatives.
At the same time, “there are people over there who are more seriously dangerous to the freedoms in our country than him” Pelosi said. She pointed to the hate mongering and fear mongering in which many of Santos’s Republican colleagues have engaged, including “the things that that they say about trans families and, just, the injustice of it all.”
The aim of these far-right lawmakers extends far beyond undermining the rights of LGBTQ people, of course. Pelosi noted that, “you have to remember, with all of these things, whether we’re talking about women’s right to choose – we’ve always expanded freedoms. And now with this Supreme Court, they’re narrowing freedoms with women’s right to choose” by the revocation of constitutional protections for abortion via last year’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
Breaking the ‘marble ceiling’
During a lecture last year hosted at the University of California, Berkeley, Barbara Boxer, who formerly represented California in the House and then in the Senate, commented on the historic significance of Pelosi’s election to become the first woman Speaker of the House of Representatives in 2006. “The fact that a woman could get into the leadership like this, to win the trust of all these men, it’s more extraordinary than you can imagine,” Boxer said.
Boxer has also been a trailblazer for women in politics. She was the first woman to chair the Marin County Board of Supervisors, and after her election to serve in the upper chamber alongside California’s senior Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the two became the first pair of women to represent any state in the U.S. Senate.
Asked how she managed to secure the votes from, particularly, the older men in her caucus without compromising her values, Pelosi told the Blade, “I just did what I believed” rather than coming to Congress to “change other people’s behavior.”
She said that many of her male colleagues “had to get over their own negative attitudes” concerning the prospect of electing a woman to lead their party in the House, but “I wasn’t going to wait until then.”
At the same time, Pelosi acknowledged that “it took courage to vote for a woman as speaker,” noting that when she was sworn in back in 2007, she took the opportunity to thank the men who had supported her speakership. (She was elected unanimously on the first ballot.)
Pelosi said that prior to her speakership, she had always believed that the prospect of Americans electing a woman president was likelier to happen in her lifetime than members of Congress – who tend to be older men – voting for a woman speaker.
“I thought the American people were more ready than the Congress” to break the “marble ceiling,” she said.
Considering the parallel special counsel investigations into alleged mishandling of classified documents by President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, Pelosi has perhaps unwittingly strengthened the case for America to elect a woman president by virtue of her unblemished record as a steward of sensitive, top-secret information.
“I have 30 years of experience in intelligence. I have been on the [House Intelligence] Committee, the top Democrat on the Committee, ex officio on the Committee, a speaker and [Democratic] leader [in the House],” Pelosi said.
She distinguished the rules by which she and other members of Congress are governed, which prohibit the removal or relocation of classified documents, from the policies that the Commander in Chief must follow, which are comparably more permissive.
Regardless, Pelosi said, “the documents are to be respected,” along with the rules and procedures for how they should be handled.
There are also important distinctions to note between the allegations against Trump and Biden, Pelosi said. “When you see the former president obstructing access to the documents, and you see this president saying, ‘I’ve instructed my lawyers to look for whatever is there and make them available to the Justice Department,’ that’s two different things,” she said.
Additionally, Pelosi said, from the information that has been made available so far, it seems that Trump was in possession of a greater volume of documents whose contents were more sensitive than those at issue in Biden’s case.
Pelosi’s LGBTQ fans celebrate her accomplishments
In November, the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest LGBTQ advocacy organization, issued a statement following Pelosi’s announcement of her plans to step down from Democratic leadership but continue to represent her constituents in California’s 11th Congressional District in the House.
“Speaker Pelosi has been the tip of the spear on watershed advancements for the LGBTQ+ community,” HRC President Kelley Robinson said in a statement, pointing to her 1987 speech on the AIDS crisis and “forceful advocacy for marriage equality long before its mainstream popularity,” both before she was elected as speaker.
The Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act, which banned federal recognition of same-sex marriages, was signed into law in 1996 with overwhelming support from both parties in both chambers of Congress; 342 members of the House voted for the proposal, with Pelosi joining only 64 other House Democrats, one independent, and one Republican in her opposition.
“During [Pelosi’s] tenure as Speaker,” HRC noted, “the House of Representatives passed an historic hate crimes law [the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act], repealed the discriminatory ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law, led the fight to enact the Affordable Care Act, and vocally opposed bans on transgender members serving in our nation’s military.”
Pelosi’s leadership was bookended with Congress’s passage late last year of the Respect for Marriage Act, which is credited as the greatest legislative victory for LGBTQ Americans since the 2010 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Outside the U.S. Capitol building, Pelosi has also been celebrated by the LGBTQ community for signaling her support through, for example, her participation in some of the earliest meetings of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, her meeting with the survivors of the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre, and her appearance at a host of LGBTQ events over the years.
Of course, at the same time, Pelosi has been a constant target of attacks from the right, which in the past few years have become increasingly violent. During the siege of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, her office was ransacked by insurrectionists who shouted violent threats against her. A couple of weeks later, unearthed social media posts by far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.) revealed she had signaled support for executing Pelosi along with other prominent House Democrats. And last October, the speaker’s husband Paul Pelosi suffered critical injuries after he was attacked by a man wielding a hammer who had broken into the couple’s San Francisco home.
Pelosi told CNN last week that her husband is “doing OK,” but expects it will “take a little while for him to be back to normal.”
Among her fans in progressive circles, Pelosi – who has been a towering figure in American politics since the Bush administration – has become something of a cultural icon, as well. For instance, the image of her clapping after Trump’s State of the Union speech in 2019 has been emblazoned on coffee mugs.
“What is so funny about it,” Pelosi said, is rather than “that work [over] all these years as a legislator,” on matters including the “Affordable Care Act, millions of people getting health care, what we did over the years with HIV/AIDS in terms of legislation, this or that,” people instead have made much ado over her manner of clapping after Trump’s speech. And while the move was widely seen as antagonistic, Pelosi insisted, “it was not intended to be a negative thing.”
Regardless, she said, “it’s nice to have some fun about it, because you’re putting up with the criticism all the time – on issues, whether it’s about LGBTQ, or being a woman, or being from San Francisco, or whatever it is.”
Shawn Kumagai: A gay man having one foot in two cultures
“I feel hopeful, particularly about the younger generation, which seems to have a deeper understanding of what diverse culture looks like”
DUBLIN, Calif. – Former Dublin City councilman Shawn Kumagai has championed providing transit-oriented affordable housing for seniors and low-income residents and was instrumental in assisting the city’s small businesses weather the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
The openly gay first-generation U.S. born Asian American Pacific Islander, a third-generation military veteran, and 2022 state assembly candidate, saw his adept management of Dublin’s municipal budget earning the city the highest possible credit rating.
Prior to politics, Kumagai entered the Navy under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and worked his way up the ranks reaching E-9, a Navy Master Chief, in a career that between active duty and the active Naval Reserve has spanned 21 years. He was the only AAPI candidate in his 2022 State Assembly race, and was Dublin’s only openly Out council member.
Kumagai, 45, started his early childhood in the San Francisco Bay area. Kumagai and his siblings were raised primarily by their mother in Phoenix, Arizona, after his parents’ divorce when he was ten.
“I was being raised by a single mom,” Kumagai recounted. “My grandfather would come over every day to help us out and to bring groceries and make us lunch and get us after school while my mom went back to school and worked full time to get her career on track. She ended up joining the army as a nurse and then had a great career that she started later in life, finishing up as a psych nurse at the veterans at the VA facility in San Francisco.”
Kumagai feels inspired by his mother’s resilience and what she was able to accomplish through her tireless hard work. He also knows that government aid was essential to her being able to achieve her goals and provide for her family.
“We lived on government assistance,” said Kumagai. “We had food stamps and welfare payments. It was through that help, that kind of hand-up, that my mom was able to be successful. So that also informed my thinking about the role of government in people’s lives.”
“If it had not been for that educational assistance that she had with her tuition being offset by her service in the military, and if she had not had those food stamps, and if she had not had the welfare, I don’t think we would have had the opportunities that we had in life. This is true for both my siblings and me, but especially for my mom. So the role of government can really be a force for positive change and provide access to opportunity.”
Kumagai’s experience growing up as bi-racial also played an important role in making him the Councilman he is today.
“Growing up as a person of mixed identities shaped me. I mean this, of course, with my sexual orientation and also with my racial identity. Because I am half Japanese, growing up, it felt like having one foot in two cultures. That makes for an interesting experience.”
“My dad is a first-generation immigrant from Japan, and during that time in the 80s, I think it was similar to what we are seeing now today with anti-AAPI sentiment. It was a time when the American economy was not doing well, but the Japanese economy was doing really well. The global economy was in turmoil, and a lot of people I felt during my childhood blamed Japan and Japanese people. I felt that stigma associated with coming from a Japanese family.”
“Also, on the flip side, being half-white comes with challenges. I was a part of the Japanese culture, but I was not fully part of the Japanese culture, so I have always had that understanding of what it’s like to be ‘othered.'”
While Kumagai is proudly out now, he did not always feel comfortable being overt in his sexuality.
“I grew up part of my childhood in San Francisco during the 80s. Mom did have gay friends, but even then, I didn’t feel comfortable coming out to my family even though I knew inside of me that I was probably gay and even though I knew that my mom probably would have accepted me. It was a really interesting and unique time because there was a lot of stigma around the AIDS crisis. That stigma created this shaming of the gay community, particularly gay men, and there was this whole pullback in society blaming gay men for this pandemic and accusing them and their sexual practices for what was happening. As a young gay man, I felt that shame.”
When asked about his coming out journey and why he has chosen to be an openly out politician, Kumagai responded that this was a very important question as he associates his coming out directly with his ability to lead.
“When I look back on my trajectory, coming out and having that support system allowing me to be true to who I was, really flipped the switch in me from allowing me to truly excel and being able to do good work and me holding back and not being able to do that.”
“At a young age, I started to come out to my closest friends. I feel extremely privileged that I had the support that I did. When I eventually told my mom, I think I was 17 at the time, a junior in high school. She said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me sooner? You had all these gay uncles, and you could have had such great role models for you to talk to.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know, I don’t know. But I one hundred percent knew that I just wasn’t ready.’ But she was very supportive, and so was my father. As a Japanese man, as I think happens in many Asian cultures, it tends to be a little bit more conservative, but he was completely excepting. I had my support at home, but then I joined the military.”
“Service,” Kumagai told journalist Karen Ocamb last Fall, “is in my DNA. My grandfather served in World War Two in the Army Air Corps. My mom was in the Army Nurse Corps for ten years. And her brother, my uncle was an Air Force Academy grad and flew fighter jets. And I went off and joined the Navy.”
Witch Hunts in the Navy
“I was already a 100% out gay man,” says Kumagai of himself back in 2001 when he decided to join the military.
2001 was the height of a military policy called “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” a largely anti-LGBTQ policy presented under the guise of helping the queer community escape prejudice. As Kumagai quickly discovered, the policy did the exact opposite of its claimed intention.
“I was working at a bar slash cabaret in Phoenix, Arizona as a bartender and a cocktail waiter. They had weekly drag shows, and it was a very well-known LGBTQ restaurant. Back in the 90s, there weren’t too many places like that for people to go, but that was my life when I joined the military.”
“I talked to my mom, who was serving in the army at the time, and I said, ‘You know, maybe I want to go into the military. Tell me about this, ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” She said, ‘Well, they can’t ask you if you are gay, and as long as you don’t tell them, you are OK.”
“The ironic thing is, at the time, I viewed that as protection,” explained Kumagai, “Because I knew individuals who served prior to the implementation of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,’ and it was really bad back then. You always had to be careful because there were these witch hunts where the military police would go into gay establishments to seek out people who looked like they were in the military. They would then demand to see their IDs, drag them back to base, and then promptly process them for discharge. So, when I heard those horror stories from the 70s and early on, I thought that ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell sounded much better than that. I thought I could just be quiet and do my service. I was going to go ahead and serve my time and get little benefits and go back to college. That was my plan.”
“But what I didn’t realize was when I joined in 2001, I was going in at the height of discharges under ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,’ because even though they weren’t supposed to ask, a lot of people were voluntarily telling because they couldn’t stand serving in silence. Also, there was still a lot of witch hunting and targeting of particular individuals. That didn’t stop.”
“A lot of times, people’s sexualities would come out through second or third-hand information. A lot of times, people were even guilty by association.”
“I served with one person in particular who found out he was gay because they found chat logs and with another individual who was being investigated for another matter when it kind of came out incidentally. A lot of people I served alongside, particularly in language training at the language institute, were gay and processed out for being lesbian or gay back in 2001, 2002.”
This constant and often clandestine prosecuting of members of the LGBTQ+ community under “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” made Kumagai fear for his own place in the military.
“It was shocking to me to see. It also made me feel the need for self-preservation. If you got overly involved or got associated with those people, you know, we did have a little gay crew in the military, but there was always this fear that we would become guilty by association and that we would then lose our careers. It was this very insidious fear causing us to serve in silence.”
In addition to the witch hunts, Kumagai became aware of another major injustice against the queer community in the military: that of being unable to claim benefits for same-sex partners.
“What really made me realize how unfair and discriminatory the policy was, was to see so many of my siblings in service faced discrimination when it came to the benefits that they received for their significant others. For example, because there was no same-sex marriage at the time, if you were deployed, then your significant other was invisible. If you were going to go to a place where only a legally married spouse was able to go with you, or you were entitled to receive the benefits of you taking those orders in the military, your same-sex significant other was completely left out. There was no support system for those couples. That made me realize that there was just no way for people to serve under ‘Don’t ask. Don’t Tell’ in a way that was equal.”
The ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ policy was annulled in 2011, making way for more members of the queer community to serve and receive benefits that are equal to their heterosexual peers.
A Call to Action
When asked what led Kumagai to politics, he admitted that the decision was not made lightly.
“When I served in the military under ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,’ I never thought that I would be able to serve in any position of higher leadership because of the scrutiny that it would bring to me. I had this fear that I would be outed and that that would not only end my career but also bring shame to my comrades in arms.”
However, once the policy ended, Kumagai had the space he needed to reconsider his stance on being an out politician – an aspect of himself he now finds vital to his entire message.
“I think that those of us who can lead by example absolutely must,” said Kumagai. “I don’t ever say that every single person must come out and be a certain way, but certainly those who are running as candidates, they are a voice for people who may not be able to have a voice at any given moment, it’s the same for I think the LGBTQ community as for the AAPI community. We must have people in positions of power as role models for other future leaders.”
When asked what he feels is the best course of action to eradicate hate and prejudice, the Councilman paused before responding.
“It’s a tough question,” admitted Kumagai. “How do we solve this age-old problem? I think we need to continue to create awareness about the diversity of our cultures. We really need to push back on these kinds of stereotypes and tropes as well.”
“I think nothing happens without intention in this arena, we have to keep our eye on the ball. We have to continue to do this work and move in a progressive direction and that’s why I’m so thankful for people like Senator Wiener and for people who are doing the work in Sacramento, There are so many areas in our systems that need to still be fixed to allow people to live out their full potential.”
In addition to leading by example as a queer leader, Kumagai recognized a need to push for AAPI leadership and representation.
“During my time on the city council, we saw a spike in AAPI hate. I really started to realize that I had a duty and responsibility as someone from these different identity groups to be a voice for those people who often do not have voices in this process to speak up and to do work on these important issues. I started to get more involved with different identity-based political and government work organizations to try to do that work.”
“When it comes to the AAPI side of things, I think we still have a lot of work to do in that space. We are underrepresented even in California, where I think we do have relatively more representation compared to the rest of the country. But there are systems and pipelines put in place that stopAAPI people from moving into positions of power. There is this kind of model minority mask that is put on people. Oftentimes AAPI leaders are expected to step aside. There is always an excuse for why any given AAPI individual should not run in any particular race. We are told, ‘this is a Latino seat, or this is a Black seat, or this is a labor seat, or this is…’ whatever it is. The API candidate, for whatever reason, seems to be pushed out of the systems of power. It’s almost like it’s OK to push an AAPI individual out of a given race or out of a position. We have a lot of work to do to create support systems that allow for AAPI leaders to ascend into positions of power.”
While there is still a lot of work to be done, Kumagai did share his optimism when looking at the new generation of young leaders.
“I feel very hopeful, particularly about the younger generation, which seems to have a deeper understanding of what a diverse culture and what a pluralistic culture looks like. When it comes to LGBTQ issues, they are much more enlightened than even I was at their age. In terms of sexual orientation and gender identity, it is truly this beautiful rainbow where we have so many different experiences and identities. I am still learning every single day about that, but I’m hopeful that the younger generation is going to be able to help us continue to move in a positive direction.”
Just last year, Kumagai conceded to straight labor candidate Liz Ortega in the race for a state Assembly seat noting he was still glad he ran.
“The primaries were an amazing experience,” said Kumagai. “You never know what the dynamics of a race are going to be when you get in, but certainly we knew that I was the underdog, and in this race because we were going up against the labor and democratic machine, that was geared towards a certain type of candidate.”
“But I truly felt that because there was no other AAPI person getting in the race that it was important that this district, which has a plurality of AAPI people, have that option on the ballot. I didn’t know how far the campaign would go, and I was proud of the coalition that we put together and that we were able to get through the primary and go on to the general election. But, you know, we fell short in making the case to people.”
When asked what went wrong in the election, Kumagai felt that constituents were generally uninvolved, leading him to lose out on important votes.
“I think a lot of people were disengaged with the process. We had about a 50 percent turn out. A lot of folks were just not really paying attention. That is unfortunate, but that is kind of how things go in our democracy sometimes. I absolutely learned so much from that experience. There are also always other opportunities on the horizon. I know that I will find other ways to continue to serve.”
Flying the Flag
In 2019, Kumagai stirred up controversy when he sought to represent his queer community in Dublin.
“In 2019, I asked my colleagues to declare two things. The first was to declare LGBTQ plus pride month in the city of Dublin. The second was to raise the pride flag.”
“Unfortunately, there were members of the public team who made some very inflammatory remarks. These are the tropes we have seen forever, trying to associate the LGBTQ+ community with pedophilia and bringing in religious talking points. The sad thing is, those comments got inflated with the fact that my colleagues were largely afraid of issues around first amendment rights and the constitutionality of flying a flag and whether or not that would open up a can of worms or Pandora’s box of having to fly other flags. All of that got inflated, and it blew up in national news.”
“I think what was most surprising for people was that many think of the San Francisco Bay area as this monolith of progressivism and that everywhere there should be forward thinking and accepting. But what this incident peeled back was that there is still this underbelly of racism and of anti-LGBTQ sentiment. All of this still exists in the Bay Area within California.”
“Luckily, this is not the majority opinion. We got there. We came back, and we unanimously passed the raising of the pride flag for the entire month of June, which was more than I originally asked. We then went on to do that every year during my time on Council.”
“You know, raising the flag was commonplace in places like San Francisco and Oakland and Berkeley, but in broader suburbia, it wasn’t. That whole kerfuffle brought this rainbow wave throughout the east bay and outer east bay and even into the central valley. I have people write to me who say, ‘We want to do that too.’ and, ‘How do we advocate for this in our community?’
“By the time we got to raise the flag, I think, the third year, pretty much every city in Alameda county was doing it, including every city in the Tri-Valley region, where Dublin is centered and which tends to be a little bit more of a purple area of the Bay Area. I was proud that it had this ripple effect that created awareness and moved people in that direction.”
Trans company has life-saving, life-changing & affirming products
“[Social] Platforms make it difficult for trans-focused businesses to reach our customers at almost every turn”
PHILADELPHIA – When Scout Rose was transitioning in 2003, it was nearly impossible to find the tools they needed. They remember combing through message boards and digging to find transition-related products that yielded mixed results. The trans community, they said, was an “afterthought” or a “side project” at best.
“While things have certainly improved in the almost 20 years since I began my transition, by and large, the needs of transmasculine and nonbinary folks were not being addressed,” Rose told the Los Angeles Blade.
So, Rose took matters into their own hands and started Transguy Supply, an online marketplace dedicated to supporting trans men and nonbinary people. The site offers everything from binders and packing gear to apparel and grooming supplies.
“It started with the need,” they said.
When they launched the business four years ago, Rose – who has worked in the trans and nonbinary communities for almost two decades – knew it would be a success. “Seeing firsthand both the size and the power of the community, I was fairly confident that the community would support a business whose primary focus was the community,” they said.
And, so far, it seems as if they were right. According to the company, it has seen between 200% and 400% yearly growth since launching in 2018 – a feat Transguy Supply attributes to the “absolute need” of the products it offers. The online marketplace said as the trans and nonbinary community grows, their needs can no longer be written off as “niche.”
“I believed that the community was large enough to be able to create a business that could support itself,” Rose said. Still, they added that they have been “blown away by how large the community is.”
“It’s been incredible,” Rose said.
The amount of people who identify as transgender has grown generation by generation, according to a 2022 Gallup poll. In fact, trans Gen Zers – born between 1997 and 2012 – more than double the percentage of trans millennials, 2.1% to 1%. Additionally, about 42,000 children and teens across the country received a diagnosis of gender dysphoria in 2021, nearly triple the number in 2017, according to Komodo Health Inc. data compiled for Reuters.
As the need grows, so has the availability of transition-related products. But, Transguy Supply’s Chief Marketing and Community Officer Rocco Kayiatos said, when you look at companies for trans people “built by folks that are outside of the trans community, they don’t understand the economic reality of trans people.”
“That economic reality is stark against the rest of humankind, in that the majority of trans folks don’t have jobs and those that do are making well below poverty line levels,” he added.
It’s true. According to a 2019 study by the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ legal and policy think tank, 29.4% of trans people live in poverty – tied with cisgender bisexual women for the highest rate in the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ people, as a whole, have a poverty rate of 21.6%, according to the report, much higher than the rate for cisgender straight people, 15.7%.
In addition, researchers at Vanderbilt University found that trans Americans are 14% less likely to have completed college and 14% more likely to live in poverty. Even after controlling for the lack of a college degree and other observable differences, researchers said, trans people are still 11% less likely to have jobs than cisgender men in comparable situations.
“Economists call this an unexplained gap, but it’s likely that discrimination plays a role,” said Kitt Carpenter, who co-authored the study, “Transgender Status, Gender Identity, and Socioeconomic Outcomes,” published in the Industrial and Labor Relations Review.
The Center for American Progress and the Movement Advancement Project, in a 2015 report, said, “Transgender Americans face clear financial penalties simply because they are transgender.” In the report, the two nonprofits detailed how “pervasive discrimination,” “a lack of legal protections” and the “failure to adequately protect transgender students” contribute to the economic gap.
“I think one thing that Scout and Auston [Bjorkman, Transguy Supply’s creative director] did really beautifully – it’s embedded in the fabric of how they run this business – is to ensure that we are a lower cost option for the majority of the products that we offer to reflect the exact population that we’re serving,” Kayiatos, who joined the business late last year, said.
Take a $75 prosthetic, Kayiatos used as an example. “Seventy-five bucks is the choice between eating or not eating,” he said. Transguy Supply prices most of its prosthetics, also known as packers – a realistic or semi-realistic penis, usually made of silicone, meant to make trans men and gender nonconforming people more comfortable and confident – well below $75.
In many ways, Transguy Supply provides a version of gender-affirming care. “It’s life-saving and life-changing and life-affirming,” Kayiatos said.
Though some states have made strides in protecting trans people, the political landscape for trans people – especially trans youth – has largely gotten worse in recent years. In the first weeks of 2023, the ACLU has already counted over 120 new anti-LGBTQ bills across the country, most of which target education and trans healthcare. And that’s not to mention the record-breaking number of anti-LGBTQ bills seen in years past.
“These bills represented a coordinated effort to deny transgender people our freedom, our safety, and our dignity,” said Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project.
One major target of this legislation has been banning trans youth from accessing gender-affirming care – anything from puberty blockers to hormone therapies to surgeries, a rare intervention for minors. In 2023, though, the legislative efforts have leveled up, with some bills now targeting adults as old as 26.
In Oklahoma, for example, a Republican lawmaker filed legislation seeking to prevent anyone under the age of 26 from accessing gender-affirming care – deeming it the “Millstone Act of 2023.” What’s more, doctors who break the law could be punished with an unclassified felony conviction and the possible revocation of their medical license.
“The bills targeting trans adults represent a significant escalation in the ongoing legislative attacks on the trans community,” Erin Reed, a legislative researcher and trans activist, told the Blade. “These bills serve to shift the Overton window in order to make passing bans on trans youth more palatable. They also indicate a willingness by these legislators to move towards a future where our right to exist is denied and those who care for us, criminalized.”
As the push to strip gender-affirming care from trans people grows, the products Transguy Supply offers become more important. “I think any sort of service that’s dedicated to creating access for goods or services or space or fostering a community for trans people is essential for our survival,” Kayiatos said. “And I think that we’re always going to be a community that takes care of ourselves because we’ve been discarded by the world at large.”
As the business continues to grow, it has found itself “bootstrapped,” Kayiatos said – running into advertising problems on Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram and Alphabet Inc.-owned Google.
Rose said that Facebook “regularly rejects” Transguy Supply’s products for “Advertising Policy violations.” Screenshots shared with the Blade showed a gray crew neck sweatshirt with “SIR” in black letters being removed for an “Advertising Policy violation.” In addition, a black and white T-shirt with an illustrated image of two people in jockstraps also couldn’t be used for ads.
Instagram, Rose said, has also removed photos that were “quite PG.” They added that the platform rejects tagged products – a feature that allows brands to tag products in an image to make it easier for users to find additional information – so much so that they “had to turn off notifications because it was distracting.”
“We don’t tag prosthetics, and we rarely post them, so the products they are un-tagging are apparel, binders, and underwear,” Rose said.
Meta didn’t comment on Transguy Supply specifically. However, a spokesperson provided the Blade with background on its policies in an email. “We have long had a policy that limits ads with adult content, like nudity, and adult products, like sex toys, in part because we take into account the wide array of people from varying cultures and countries who see them,” they said.
The spokesperson also outlined the platform’s efforts to protect LGBTQ people, something the company has come under fire for in the past.
“While our policies are not changing, we have improved our enforcement and provided more detail to advertisers under our Adult Products and Services policy,” the spokesperson said, adding: “Over the last year – with feedback from advocacy groups including GLAAD – we removed Interest topics that people may perceive as sensitive, including those related to sexual orientation and gender identities other than cisgender.”
The spokesperson also pointed the Blade to Facebook’s recently published LGBTQ Safety Page in the Facebook Safety Center. In it, the company states that it wants the platform to be “a place where LGBTQ+ people can share their voices, build community, and bring the world closer together.”
On Tuesday, Meta’s Oversight Board urged the company to update its policies on adult nudity to prevent enforcement errors for trans and nonbinary people. The independent governing body overturned Meta’s decision to remove two bare-chested Instagram photos – with nipples covered – of a trans couple posting about gender-affirming healthcare.
“The board finds that Meta’s policies on adult nudity result in greater barriers to expression for women, trans, and gender nonbinary people on its platforms,” a board blog post read. “They have a severe impact in contexts where women may traditionally go bare chested, and people who identify as LGBTQI+ can be disproportionately affected, as these cases show. Meta’s automated systems identified the content multiple times, despite it not violating Meta’s policies.”
Rose also accused Google Ads of suspending their Transguy Supply, though they have “no idea why.” “No one from Google will speak to you once your account is suspended,” they said.
Rose estimated the original Google suspension came in 2018, with their appeal coming shortly after. “I took to the internet to see if I could figure out what to do,” Rose said. “I remember reading somewhere that this often happens to companies that use foreign banks, but that couldn’t be us because Transguy Supply banks with Chase.”
Rose’s best guess for the suspension was because their Google account name, which was under Scout, was different from the name on their credit card – their deadname.
Though Rose “triple-checked” their bank details, ensuring all information was accurate, and changed their Google account name to match the name on their credit card, the appeal was denied.
“When researching, I also read that repeat suspensions can result in permanent suspension, so I decided not to appeal again,” Rose said, adding: “Without the ability to use Google Ads, I was forced to figure out other means of getting eyes on our business.”
Google did not provide a statement before publication, however in an email sent Wednesday, January 25, a Google spokesperson told the Blade:
“We support a healthy digital advertising ecosystem that is trustworthy, transparent, and works for users and advertisers. We welcome all beliefs and perspectives on our platforms provided they follow our advertising policies. Transguy Supply’s recently created account was not suspended. If any advertiser believes their ads account was suspended in error, they always have the option to appeal and there is no deadline to submit one.”
“Platforms make it difficult for trans-focused businesses to reach our customers at almost every turn,” Rose said. “Google wouldn’t let me advertise at all. Instagram routinely untags our products. And Facebook’s bots randomly reject products as benign as T-shirts from their ad program.”
Kayiatos, who was previously the chief marketing and content officer at FOLX Health – an LGBTQ-focused healthcare platform – said he has faced similar problems in the past. But he also had an “enormous budget” at the time.
“We didn’t face the same barriers that a small business faces when it’s serving LGBTQ-focused needs and services,” Kayiatos said.
Still, Transguy Supply is marching forward. Late last year, Rose added Kayiatos – who has been a transmasc culture creator for over 20 years – to the team, something they saw as a big step forward. In addition to Kayiatos’ previous role at FOLX, he created a magazine about trans masc culture called Original Plumbing and worked for tech giants including BuzzFeed and Grindr.
Rose and Kayiatos had known each other for a few years, but they started to get closer over the pandemic. “I actually can’t even remember why, but we would have these long phone conversations,” Rose said. “It was just so clear that I was speaking to a kindred spirit, someone whose brain was really similar to mine, and someone who is just incredibly easy to trust.”
Rose added: “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say there is no other person in the United States who is and who in the last 20 years has created more opportunities for trans masculine people to connect with one another than Rocco [Kayiatos].”
“I’m gonna figure out how to get Rocco on board,” Rose thought to themself. “This is a match made in heaven.”
Kayiatos obliged. “Why not come back and do it with a bootstrapped community that I belong to, that I love, that I feel tethered to for the rest of my life?” he said. “This community needs resources.”
Kayiatos also praised the way Rose built the business. “I get to work with someone who doesn’t need more than he needs to build this company in this way that’s so counter to business right now, that is so central to the core of how I’ve lived my life,” he said, adding: “I don’t need to compromise my morals in any way, shape or form to show up and work for Transguy Supply.
With Kayiatos on board, the company is now heading full steam into the future.
“We already are the world’s largest one-stop shop for transmasculine, trans men and nonbinary folks when it comes to transmission-related needs,” Rose said. But to them, the potential of TransGuy Supply is endless. “We want to be a community hub, we want to be an informational hub, we want Transguy Supply to be a home for trans masculine, trans men and nonbinary folks,” Rose said.
The mistranslation that started a culture war & the man who found it
“I used to think God called me to pastoral ministry despite my being gay. I’ve decided He called me to ministry because I am gay”
By Kathy Baldock | RENO, Nv. – Rev. David Sheldon Fearon, 84, died peacefully in his home in Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, B.C. Canada at the beginning of January.
On October 22, 1959, Fearon, then a 21-year-old seminary student at McGill University’s School of Religious Studies, Montréal, Quebec, wrote a five-page letter to Dr. Luther A. Weigle, the head of the translation team for the newly published Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible.
Fearon questioned the team’s combining and translation of the two Greek words in I Corinthians 6:10 to the single word “homosexual.” Until the New Testament of the RSV was published in 1946, the word “homosexual” had never appeared in any translation of the Bible.
Fearon was raised in Lenoxville, Quebec, the son of Earl, an iceman, and Evelyn, a primary school teacher. When Fearon was six, his mother realized he had a strong spiritual bent. As a result, Evelyn decided to change her church affiliation to the United Church of Canada, where the religious education was stronger.
In sixth grade, he developed his first “crush” on smart and handsome Dennis. He became nervous, shy, and uncomfortable around boys, and he began to develop a stammer. At sixteen-years-old, he noticed a book at the town’s magazine stand, The Divided Path, subtitled “the story of a homosexual.” He thought, “What, could he be like me? Maybe I’m not the only one? Maybe there are more people like me that just want to like and be liked by another boy?” Careful not to let the clerk see the book’s face, he paid and brought the book home to read.
His mother seemed continually disappointed that her younger son did not seem to be “meeting a nice girl,” after all, Gene, Fearon’s older brother seemed to date several girls simultaneously. To put an end to her nagging, he told her, “Mother, I’m gay.” It was 1954, and his stunned mother responded, “David, you can’t be gay, you’re are not a child molester or a pedophile.” As would become a lifelong pattern he gathered resources for his mother to read so that she might understand what homosexuality meant.
Upon graduating from high school, Fearon attended Bishop’s University in Lennoxville as a day student. He studied History and English, hoping to become a teacher like his mother. While a student at Bishop’s, he served with a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Auxiliary Squadron from 1955 through 1959.
The system acted as an early warning detection of Russian bombers that might potentially come to the United States from the north, over Canada. Serving in the RCAF was a good opportunity for Fearon to become more comfortable being around other young men his age, something that in the past made him nervous.
Though Fearon had been solidly secure in his faith and beliefs since childhood, now that he was older and taking classes in chemistry and biology, and learning about evolution and Darwinism, he began to think more about the existence of God. He hit a crisis of faith and sought the counsel of his minister. “I’m not sure God exists,” he confided in Rev. Leonard Outerbridge. The minister asked him to pray over the Christmas break and come to his own conclusions.
Two weeks later, Fearon was back in Outerbidge’s office. “Yes, I have found what I was looking for!” Having known David for many years, the wise minister asked, ”David, do you feel called to the ministry?” In his mind, Fearon thought, “What am I getting myself into? I am a stammerer, and I’m gay.”
Outerbridge invited Fearon to give the Sunday night sermon, the service most attended by his peers, his fellow students. He stood to give the sermon, delivered it clearly and never stammered again. It seemed settled to Fearon. “God fixed my stammer, but not my homosexuality. He must be good with it.”
The United Church of Canada gave him a scholarship to attend the McGill University School of Theology. The denomination had adopted the RSV as their official text for service and worship in 1952 when the full version of the translation was published.
The Revised Standard Version (RSV) is an English translation of the Bible that was popular in the mid-20th century. It posed the first serious challenge to the King James Version (KJV), aiming to be both a readable and literally accurate modern English translation of the Bible.
Fearon had been raised reading the King James Version of the Bible. Eventually, in his Divinity Program, he came across I Corinthians 6:9-10 in the RSV: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
“Well,” that puzzled him, “that doesn’t make sense to me. God called me to the ministry, and He knew I was homosexual. Now I am reading that homosexuals will not enter the kingdom of God. How can that be?” Then Fearon noticed a small notation “j” beside the word “homosexual” indicating a footnote that read: “Two Greek words are rendered by this expression.”
Fearon suspected immediately that, “This translation has to be wrong, and if so, it is a terrible disservice to homosexual people. It shows strong prejudice on the part of the translation team.”
The RSV translation of the passage deeply bothered him. The more he thought about it, he thought that the RSV translation of the I Corinthians verse would lead to the further discrimination of gay people, but this time, from the church. But Fearon knew how to dig in to find answers to his questions. He had been doing it since his teenage years.
Fearon was also a good Greek student both at Bishop’s University and now at McGill. He knew it was essential not to simply read translated words in English versions of the Bible. Instead, he was trained to return to the original Greek texts to better understand the original meanings of words.
After reading the RSV I Corinthians 6:9-10 footnote, he took out his Greek Bible and looked up the two words that had been combined to form the one word “homosexual.” The two Greek words were malakos and arsenokoites. In his interlinear New Testament that compared the Greek text with the literal translation immediately above it, Fearon learned that the word arsenokoites was likely to have been coined by Paul the Apostle to address a specific situation happening within the church at Corinth.
Corinth, an ancient seaport city, regularly saw sailors, and to service their sexual needs, prostitutes. In the ancient world and in Greek culture, men enjoyed both male and female prostitutes, but more often men preferred the less complicated services of men, particularly, young men.
Fearon recalled from his study that these men who had sex with male prostitutes were called by some “abusers of men.” Those who gave themselves for sexual use, especially to be used sexually as women and used, in other words, to be penetrated like women, were the “malakos,” meaning “effeminate” which suggested, “to be used like women.”
He was confident from what he’d learned about the Greek words, from the history of Corinth, and who he was as a homosexually-oriented person, that Paul could not have been writing about homosexuals as he knew them, as Fearon knew himself.
“Hmmm,” he thought, “I’m a homosexual, but this is not about me. I know I am a Christian in the kingdom of God. I know God called me to the ministry. I’ve always known God has loved me, even as a child. The translators didn’t get this right. I don’t think “homosexuals” is what Paul meant by these words at all.”
Fearon then checked the translation of the two words as they had appeared in the KJV. There, the two words were translated as: “the effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind.” He thought the KJV translation was far more accurate a translation of these two words separately than the RSV combining Paul’s original two words into one sweeping word.
It seemed clear to Fearon that this RSV translation of that verse reflected the prejudice and ignorance of the society in which he had grown up.
He concluded, “My sexuality is part of God’s plan for me and for humanity. I just don’t think they got this right.” He continued to think about the translation. But, he couldn’t talk to anyone about it, not even to his professors. The blindness in society at the time to orientation would expose him.
Over the span of almost two months, he privately went about constructing a single-spaced three-page letter, with an additional appendix, to send to the publisher of the RSV. He didn’t know if his letter would even be noticed, for he was certain that the many Greek scholars around him at the University and so many more throughout the world who had read this Corinthians passage during the past seven years would have noticed this error, and written to the publisher as well.
On October 22, 1959, Fearon sent his five-page letter to Dr. Luther A. Weigle. At the end of his impressive academic substantiation of the assumed error in translation, the young seminarian warned,
“I write this letter after many months of serious thought and hard work, partly to point out that which to me is a serious weakness in translation, but more because of my deep concern for those who are wronged and slandered by the incorrect usage of this word.
Since this is a Holy Book of Scripture sacred to the Christian, I am more deeply concerned because well-meaning and sincere, but misinformed and misguided people (those among the clergy not excluded) may use this Revised Standard Version translation of I Corinthians 6: 9-10 as a sacred weapon, not in fact for the purification of the Church, but in fact for injustice against a defenceless minority group which includes the sincere, convicted, spiritually re-born Christian who has discovered himself to be of homosexual inclination from the time of his memory.
I write this letter with certain homosexual individuals in mind—Christians who would die for their faith, their Church, and their Lord, but who cannot alter their biological state of being.
I hope the committee responsible for considering any possible corrections or revisions of the RSV text may take my case here presented for consideration.
Very truly yours,
(Author’s note: The full contents of the exchange of letters will not be made public until the book Forging a Sacred Weapon: How the Bible became Anti-Gay is published in mid-2023.)
Weigle responded November 3rd. He saw the possibility of an error and offered a suggested revision as “those who participate in homosexual practises.”
Fearon responded to Weigle on November 23, 1959, counter-suggesting, “those who practice homosexual vices.” Homosexual vices, as Fearon explained, were akin to same-sex rape. The same-sex sex referred to in I Corinthians, he pointed out, was abusive and exploitative in nature, like rape.
The exchange ended on December 3rd, with Weigle assuring him that the letters would be placed in a file and revisited when the team worked on a revision.
Fearon never thought about the letters again. He could not speak to anyone about them for fear that his questioning the translation might point to his sexuality. He did not know that his letters were placed in a file, and that, in the next round of translation edits, the team did change “homosexuals” to “sexual perverts,” a term which could be applied to any person, and not to a specific group, homosexuals. The 1971 RSV-r reflects this change.
Very unfortunately, several other Bible translations were already in the creation process by 1959. None of those translation teams (The Living Bible, The New American Standard Bible, and The New International Version) knew about the admission of error by the RSV team and the intention to revise. All of the newer translations used the RSV as the base text. “Homosexual” had become the accepted translation. The creator of The Living Bible added the word “homosexual” in five more places in addition to I Corinthians.
Homosexuality soon became a highly charged and useful political wedge issue for the Religious Right. First, the top-selling Bibles all supported the notion of the sinfulness and depravity of homosexuality. Then, the AIDS crisis hit. Romans 1, now including the word “homosexuals,” cemented the Religious Rights’ idea that AIDS was a penalty for sinful behavior.
I knew of this sudden translation shift and included the information in my first book, Walking the Bridgeless Canyon. When I spoke about it in my public presentations, I always added, “I believe this translation shift was the result of cultural and ideological assumptions by men who were born between 1870 and 1917. They knew nothing about what it was to be gay or the meaning of homosexuality as an orientation.”
The letter exchange has been housed in the archives in the Sterling Library at Yale University since 1976, when Weigle died.
Weigle had been the dean of Yale Divinity. In October 2017, I went to Yale University for five days with co-researcher, Ed Oxford, to see if we could find documentation as to why the RSV team made the decision they did. There was no paper trail that existed for the translation period; it seemed that they made a “logical” uncontested assumption in their translation. I imagine them looking into the culture of the 1930s, when the work on I Corinthians was done, and asking, “What is a simple way to express sex between men that is exploitative, abusive, and excessive.” For them, that was homosexuality.
We had found no record of explanation as to their decision anywhere in the almost one hundred thousand documents we searched, until, on the third day of searching, I found the four letter exchange between Fearon and Weigle.
This set Ed and me on a quest to undo the translation error that had been based on assumptions. I have been writing Forging a Sacred Weapon which traces the verses used against the LGBTQ+ community throughout history and in context for the past four years; it will be out in mid-2023.
The other curiosity was, “Who is this David Sheldon who wrote these crucial letters?” They were written with a PO Box return address based in Lennoxville, Quebec. We asked my friend Tina Wood to help us find Sheldon. Tina volunteers to help adoptees, birth families, and others searching for family and friends. The details of her search (also told in the book) are head-spinning. How do you find a person who wrote a series of letters sixty years ago with a PO Box as the return address? (We did not know at the time that Fearon was using his first and middle name, not his last name.) It took almost a year, but Tina found him.
On August 17, 2018, I called Fearon and asked him if he had written letters questioning the RSV translation team in 1959. “Yes,” came his reply. I had suspected on first reading the letters that the author was gay. Fearon confirmed he was.
“When did you come out?” I asked. “Never- I never came out.” He was 80 years old.
Fearon became a minister in the United Church of Canada after his studies at McGill. He served in nine pastorates for over thirty-seven years. He was partnered with Joe for twenty-three of those years. People thought live-in Joe was his cousin.
Fearon’s letters left a historical record of why the RSV translation team made their long-reaching and damaging decision.
There is no other documentation explaining why the team included the word “homosexual” in the Bible, except the information found in the Fearon-Weigle letters.
Fearon had yet to learn he impacted the 1971 revision change. He noticed the shift to “sex perverts” in the revision. When I shared the information with him in our first of dozens of long phone calls, he was surprised that his letters had moved Weigle to reassess his assumptions. Fearon had always imagined his letters were “one of hundreds, if not thousands” written objecting to the translation. In fact, Fearon’s was the only such letter.
I began presenting these findings in public presentations starting in 2018. At one such presentation at the Hollywood United Methodist Church, filmmaker Rocky Roggio brought her pastor father along.
Sal Roggio believes homosexuality is a sin. Rocky was planning on doing a documentary examining her relationship with her father. However, after listening to the presentation, Rocky switched courses. Over the past four years, she produced an excellent documentary, 1946: The Mistranslation that Shifted a Culture.
1946 threads several stories together: Rocky and Sal, my research work with Ed, Fearon’s letters, and his story, and all supported by interviews with expert Old and New Testament scholars. (Author’s note: The film is going through film festival now and will likely end up with a major online streamer within the next year.)
Fearon died last week peacefully in his home in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. He was discovered January 8th by a friend who requested a wellness check. He was slumped over at his dining room table, his glass of beer half-finished, his television on, and his eyeglasses only slightly askew.
I would like to imagine he was watching the news, and God said, “Hey, David, good and faithful servant, you’ve done your work. It’s time.”
Fearon did not know the legacy he would leave when, at age 21, he bravely challenged the RSV translation error. His recently discovered letters left a record that allow us to further academically challenge a grave translation error based wrong assumptions.
In the last few years, he often said, “I used to think God called me to pastoral ministry despite my being gay. I’ve decided He called me to ministry because I am gay.”
Kathy Baldock, is an author, LGBTQ+ advocate, and Executive Director of CanyonWalker Connections.
She is a leading expert on LGBTQ+ issues in the United States, especially dealing with historical and current discrimination faced from the socially conservative Christian church and political sector.
Gay Gen Z Er wants to be Virginia’s youngest state delegate
Coltrain, who came out as gay when he was 11 years old, said he “was comfortable in telling everybody that I was gay from a really early age”
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – Zach Coltrain lives in two worlds. In one, he traverses the serene landscapes of Appalachian State University in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains – studying the use of music as a therapeutic intervention. In the other, he navigates the thorny world of politics in the neighboring state of Virginia, which saw a conservative shift after the election of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin in 2021.
Coltrain, a 20-year-old gay Democrat, said those two worlds have coexisted for him since high school – where he split time between the debate team and musicals, campaigning and band practice, politics and music.
“It’s really important to me, solidifying my education with mental health, especially when I let it exist with government, where it appears most people don’t have a strong grasp on how mental health works,” he told the Los Angeles Blade.
The balance will certainly be harder to steer as Coltrain announced his campaign for Virginia’s 98th House of Delegates district in August 2022 – becoming the youngest candidate to run for a seat in Virginia’s lower body. In fact, Coltrain, who grew up in the district, won’t meet the minimum age requirement of 21 until his birthday in September, two months before the election.
Coltrain is joining an ever-growing list of political candidates from Generation Z – defined as those born between 1997 and 2012 – whose older members are just reaching the age where they can legally run for office, 2022 being the first year Gen Z could run in federal elections. And it didn’t take long for Gen Z to get on the board.
On Saturday, January 7, Maxwell Frost (D-FL), 25, was officially sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first Gen Z congressperson in history. “The people of Orlando sent me to Washington, D.C. to fight for them and enact the kind of change they want to see in our communities. Gun reform, universal healthcare, housing affordability, tackling the climate crisis, and more,” Frost said in a statement. “We have so much work to do, but I’m honored to represent my people.”
In addition, according to campaign finance tracker Open Secrets, Gen Z candidates for federal offices raised millions of dollars during the 2022 campaign season. The nonprofit identified at least seven Gen Z candidates – four Democrats and three Republicans – vying for congressional seats in 2022.
Gen Z is also partially responsible for thwarting the so-called “red wave” that many political analysts predicted for last year’s midterms. In 2022, Democrats overperformed, gaining one seat in the Senate and not losing nearly as many seats in the House as predicted.
Ashley Aylward, a senior researcher at the Washington-based public opinion research firm HIT Strategies, wrote in Time that an “earthquake of young voters shook up the political world” in 2022. “When young people’s rights are on the ballot and championed by the candidate, they show up,” she wrote.
The numbers seemed to back up her claims. About 1 in 8 voters overall were under 30, according to early exit polling and AP VoteCast, and more than half supported Democratic candidates in the midterm elections. It came during the same year that the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, stripping pregnant people of the Constitutional right to an abortion; 74% of 18-29-year-olds believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to recent data from the Pew Research Center.
In an interview with the Blade, Aylward couldn’t say definitively whether we could expect a similar turnout of young voters in statewide and local races. Coltrain’s race will be decided later this year – Nov. 7, 2023 – with no headline-grabbing national or gubernatorial elections to help boost turnout.
But Aylward – speaking broadly and making clear she didn’t have enough data to make any clear conclusions – speculated that Dobbs v. Jackson, the case that gave the state’s the power to decide abortion rights, could lead to increased turnout in often overlooked statewide elections.
“I have noticed a shift in attention being turned towards state and local politics, because we know that is where the most impact happens on our day-to-day lives,” she said. “But a lot of it was sparked from the Dobbs v. Jackson case, because people now realize that these decisions about our bodies are going to be made in our state legislatures.”
Aylward added that she hopes to do more research on the topic in the future.
Furthermore, Aylward said she has found that Gen Z voters are “way more motivated to vote when they see young people like them run for office.”
“Most often of what we hear in focus groups is that young people are usually feeling more jaded, because they don’t see people like them in elections, particularly young,” she said.
This begs the question: Can a man not yet able to legally consume alcohol convince the people of Virginia’s 98th House of Delegates district to vote for him?
In general, Aylward said, she has found that age does matter to some folks. “But most of the time, it boils down to the issues. [Voters] go on and on about the issues that people are championing,” she said.
Coltrain is the only Democrat in the race, clearing his path to the general election. However, his journey to Virginia’s House of Delegates becomes murkier after the primaries. According to The Virginia Public Access Project (VPAP), Coltrain’s Republican opponent will either be Glenn Davis or Barry Knight – both of whom are current Virginia delegates. Davis has represented District 84 since 2014, and Knight has represented District 81 since 2010.
The district, which encompasses the southeast corner of the state, did change after redistricting, but it still favors Republicans. The new 98th district is made up of parts of the old 84th, 81st and 21st districts – all of which favored former President Donald Trump in the 2016 election. In 2021, the 98th district overwhelmingly voted for Republican Gov. Youngkin, who captured 63.06% of the vote. VPAP categorizes the district as “Strong Republican.”
Coltrain admitted that competing in the district worried him, saying there are no guarantees that the district will be flipped. But he believes his campaign is unique and will make him tough competition for his Republican opponent.
Zeroing on Knight, Coltrain criticized the incumbent’s past challengers. “The past few candidates we put up against Barry Knight, my opponent, have been other rich white guys,” he said. “Nobody’s really eating that up.”
“I think that’s not our case, here,” Coltrain added. “I’m a student on a Pell Grant with student aid and a music scholarship, literally barely hanging on financially at points.”
Furthermore, Coltrain touted his campaign issues – which focus on environmental protection, education and healthcare – as a “reflection of both [his] district and also Gen Z in general.”
“I think I found a way to find this niche intersection, where a rural district with farmers in it have the same common interests as Gen Z advocates,” he said. “And I think a big part of that can be the environment.”
As for his opponent using his age against him, Coltrain said, “Honestly, I hope they do.”
“My age is something that I’m going to flip as a good thing, and I have been campaigning with it,” he said. “I started right off the jump telling people that I’m here, and I’m young, and I’m not even old enough to hold the office that I’m running for. I am aware that this is unique, and I’m aware that being the youngest person to run is something that will make people uncomfortable.”
But Coltrain, who has worked on campaigns since he was a teenager, thinks that the “argument that there’s not room for [young people] at the table is not true and won’t be true.”
“I know how to have a real impact in our district,” he said. “I know that specifically, when we’re looking at young activists and organizers, our district is looking for them, tirelessly. I think that this could be a wake up call for us, it can be a way for people my age and people of my generation to realize that this is something that they can do and realize this is the space that they are supposed to exist in.”
Coltrain has no lack of people who believe he could very well be the person to flip the district. In fact, Dr. William “Fergie” Reid, the founder of 90 for 90 – an initiative that aims to supply a Democratic challenger in all Republican-controlled districts – reached out to Coltrain directly and encouraged him to run.
Reid – named after his father, William Reid, the first African American elected to the General Assembly in the 20th century – said he was looking for a candidate who was “in college, politically inclined and not scared.” Eventually, he said, “I got his name, and I tracked him down. When I talked to him, he couldn’t have been cooler, and [he] understood what I was talking about.”
In 2021, Republicans swept all three statewide positions – governor, Youngkin, lieutenant governor, Winsome Sears, and attorney general, Jason Miyares – and took control of the House of Delegates in an upset. Youngkin became the first Republican to win a statewide election in Virginia in over a decade.
Reid said Democrats’ losses in the state were narrow in 2021 and came down to Democrats “not playing hard enough.” To Reid, “if Democrats just play a little bit harder, they’ll take back the majority. And this is what Zach is doing; he’s helping Democrats play just a little bit harder.”
Youngkin has since signed an executive order to root out critical race theory in Virginia’s education system. He has also supported anti-LGBTQ policies, including forcing teachers to out queer students and restricting the rights of transgender students.
Coltrain, who came out as gay when he was 11 years old, said he “was comfortable in telling everybody that I was gay from a really early age.” But “looking at the way things are now, I don’t know that even right now, people could still have that story in the area that I grew up in. And it’s been super, super scary.”
“He’s got the right stuff, and I couldn’t be more proud of him,” he said of Coltrain.
Coltrain is staring down a busy semester, one sure to be full of aching feet and headaches as he’s committed to his campaign, coursework, part-time food truck job and Application State’s debate team – where he is one of two captains.
“It’s a lot for sure,” he said with uncertainty in his voice. “We’re trying to balance it.”
But the brief moment was drowned out by his overwhelming enthusiasm. “Schoolwork all day and campaigning all afternoon is just normal now,” he said, calling the opportunity “life changing.”
For LGBTQ people, Musk’s Twitter is both hateful and essential
“For better or for worse, Twitter’s done a lot for me in my life & I would be sad to lose that kind of ability to interact with people”
SAN FRANCISCO — When Elon Musk – formerly the world’s richest person – bought Twitter, the LGBTQ community immediately voiced concerns over safety and content moderation. In fact, mere hours after the news broke, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest LGBTQ organization, issued a statement outlining its fears.
At the time, Musk – whose $44 billion purchase of Twitter took months – had pledged to restore what the HRC called dangerous accounts that “push extremism and disinformation.”
“When this happens, Twitter – a place where many marginalized people, including LGBTQ+ people, find both community and face an onslaught of hate – will quickly become even more hostile,” said Jay Brown, senior vice president of programs, research and training for the HRC.
The fears proved valid. Recent research from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, Anti-Defamation League and other groups found that hate speech on Twitter rose after Musk purchased the platform. Anti-gay slurs, in particular, increased from an average of 2,506 times per day to 3,964.
Days after Musk’s takeover, Matt Walsh, a conservative podcaster known for using anti-trans rhetoric, encouraged his over 1 million Twitter followers to misgender trans people. “We have made huge strides against the trans agenda,” Walsh tweeted. “In just a year we’ve recovered many years worth of ground conservatives had previously surrendered. The liberation of Twitter couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Now we can ramp up our efforts even more.”
Libs of TikTok, a conservative Twitter account with 1.7 million followers and a blue checkmark, tweeted the word “GROOMER” – an anti-LGBTQ slur previously restricted on Twitter – repetitively in a single post. Anti-LGBTQ activists and politicians have increasingly accused LGBTQ people, particularly trans people and drag performers, of attempting to “groom” or “indorenate” children.
On Nov. 20, a 22-year-old gunman killed five people and injured 25 in a Colorado Springs LGBTQ nightclub, Club Q; the shooter has since been charged with 305 counts, including murder and hate crimes. A Montclair State University study found a dramatic spike in the use of the term “grooming” on Twitter after the shooting, amounting to an 885% increase compared to the word’s high point of usage before the attack.
“People are definitely feeling emboldened by Elon Musk’s takeover,” said Ari Drennen, LGBTQ program director at Media Matters for America – a left-leaning nonprofit media watchdog.
Erin Reed, a legislative researcher and trans activist, agreed. “Hate ran wild after Elon Musk bought Twitter,” she said.
Though LGBTQ people – and other marginalized groups – have warned of harassment on Twitter for years, the community has also used the platform to educate, organize and make connections. It makes leaving Twitter harder for some LGBTQ people, even in the face of increasing levels of hate. “Twitter has been a really important gathering place for LGBTQ people for years now,” Drennen said. “And so, it’s been kind of a shame to see it become more hostile than it already was.”
Not only has Reed received more hate messages since Musk’s acquisition, but she has also started to get “more brazenly aggressive” comments and replies – “things that would, in the past, get people kicked off the platform,” she said.
“I got death threats; I got people in my DMs, loading up shotguns. It was terrifying,” Reed said. “But it was also something that we expected to happen.”
She added: “Being an activist in this space means that you’re going to end up getting threats, and that’s something that I’ve had to live with for a long time. I think what surprised me was the increase in volume [after Musk’s acquisition].”
Drennen has also been subject to anti-LGBTQ harassment on the platform. She said Walsh called her a “cockroach,” which was “very concerning, especially considering that Twitter didn’t do anything about it.”
However, both Drennen and Reed have a complicated relationship with Twitter. “I never want to give up my platform on Twitter,” Reed said. “For all of its ills, and for all of the issues that we have faced in terms of harassment, it has been a very good platform for me to get the information around transgender issues out to the people that are making the decisions and that are reporting on the decisions.”
Drennen said she built her career on Twitter. Still, she said, “people will find other places to gather on the internet.”
“Maybe I’d be better off not being on a website where Charlie Kirk [conservative activist and founder of Turning Point USA] can call me a groomer at 7 p.m. on a Friday night,” Drennen said. “But, you know, for better or for worse, Twitter has done a lot for me in my life, and I would be sad to lose that kind of ability to interact with people.”
To lessen the blow of Twitter, Drennen encouraged blocking and quality filters, in addition to limiting notifications. “There’s just like no reason that you have to leave yourself open to be harassed by anyone who gets a kick out of looking for queer people to harass in their evening.”
For blocking, Reed uses a tool called Red Block – a browser extension that allows Twitter users to block large groups of people. “If I get retweeted by one of the toxic hate accounts, it’s very easy to click on their likes, and then hit Red Block and block all of the people that liked a particular post that espoused hatred towards the LGBTQ community,” she said.
Ultimately, Reed said that she has known for months that Musk would take over Twitter. One of the ways she prepared for it was by exploring other platforms. TikTok, for example, has become Reed’s main platform.
“I do a lot of work on Twitter still, but, you know, [TikTok has] become another place where I keep my audience,” she said.
To Reed, making sure Twitter isn’t the only platform where she has a prominent voice was imperative. Furthermore, she stressed building communities offline, as well.
“Whenever the temperature of anti-LGBTQ hatred gets turned up, both online and in-person is so important,” Reed said. “Making those friendships and talking to people, I think that is one of the best forms of self-care and one of the antidotes to dealing with large-scale, hateful platform changes, like what we’re seeing on Twitter.”
Queer, Chinese, entrepreneur: Canadian seeks permanence in LA
“As a gay Asian immigrant there isn’t a lot of guidance on what we are supposed to do. I am at a weird crossroads of different cultures”
LOS ANGELES– The elevator opens on the twenty-seventh floor of an ultra-luxury Highrise building in downtown LA. A man of medium height in a professional and impeccably pressed all-black ensemble is waiting in the marble vestibule.
He greets me with appraising eyes, a wide smile, and a firm handshake before ushering me to a large conference room with sweeping views of the city below.
Endy Zhou, 31, is a Canadian national and a Chinese immigrant. He is a skilled pianist and proudly queer. He is also the owner of Solar101, the largest remote solar platform in California.
In recent years, the rise of solar energy has been astronomical. A study by Princeton University predicts an increase in solar usage of five hundred percent by 2025. This will be a huge win to help maintain and protect the environment by limiting greenhouse gas emissions and thereby reducing climate change.
“I like to be involved in things that benefit the world,” says Zhou. “I realize, too, though, that I am just one person. I like to create small changes that I can control. I will never be one of those people who say, ‘I’m going to change the world.’ No. I’m only making about a 10% difference. But that 10% is enough.”
As a successful entrepreneur who has to work with new people on a daily basis, Zhou has mastered the art of propriety. He has bottled water waiting for us, and even though this is clearly his turf, Zhou chooses not to take a seat at the head of the table but opts for the seat just to the right of it, offering me the head seat as a sign of respect.
Zhou’s business sense and people skills have taken him far in a short period of time. He and his company, which he launched during COVID, have already been featured in LA Wire and New York Weekly, to name a few. Zhou has also been featured in CEO Weekly as number seven on their list of top ten self-made men and women (Oprah held spot number one).
Zhou has taken time out of his busy schedule to speak to The Blade about struggling as a queer immigrant youth, his rise to success, and his philosophy on sexuality and identity.
We are also joined by his immigration lawyer, Joe Adams.
Zhou was born in the city of Harbin China, the capital of Heilongjiang in the northernmost Sheng province. The “Icy City” is known for its Russian architecture, transportation system, and its yearly “Ice and Snow Festival.”
At age twelve, his parents decided to leave China for a small town in Canada in hopes of a bright and better future for their family–a dream that all too quickly became somewhat of a living nightmare.
“My parents found out quickly after moving to Canada that it didn’t matter that one of them had a master’s degree and one had a bachelor’s degree,” says Zhou. “It was frustrating because these are requirements to enter Canada. But those degrees themselves aren’t recognized passed the immigration stage. So you have to have these things to immigrate here, but no one will recognize those degrees when you are looking for a job.”
“My dad used to be a university professor, and my mom was a college professor. When they came here, my dad became a janitor, and my mom became a massage therapist.”
Due to a combination of xenophobia and a general lack of job opportunities, many immigrants to Canada find it difficult to find work that is comparable to their old jobs. These immigrants, like Zhou’s parents, are then forced to take “survival jobs“ to stay afloat.
“My parents moved here because they wanted a better life,” says Zhou. “They thought they would move to a utopia. They were stuck.”
Trapped in unexpected poverty, the family had one goal: survival. This meant mounting pressure was placed on a young Zhou to contribute to the family, at times exceeding the capacity of a twelve-year-old.
“By the age of twelve, I was already forced to be three-quarters of an adult. I was the only person who spoke English in my family. I had to translate everything. I had no choice. Little did they know I didn’t speak very good English back then at all, but I was in an immigrant family, and the mindset was, ‘Oh you speak English? Then you speak English.'”
“I was handling my family’s finances and things like that since I was twelve, not by choice. I feel this is very similar in a lot of immigrant families. There are a lot of things you have to do and learn when you move to a new country, and sometimes that comes at the expense of the kid’s childhoods and teenage years.”
“I spent a lot of my teenage years helping and working with my parents. When I wasn’t in school, I would be helping my dad clean and stuff like that.”
While the struggle to stay afloat was difficult, he also feels grateful for those formative years.
“I used to be kind of ashamed of that, but in recent years I actually made peace with that. I love the fact that we went through that together as a family, even though those weren’t the easiest years.”
Zhou feels the money struggles of his youth helped to form the resilience he has today.
“I’ve learned to adapt to the negative and change it to work for me. As an Asian LGBTQ+ person, I pretty much have all these targets on myself. I think, ‘how do we turn that negative thing into a positive thing? How do we turn trauma into something that will benefit everybody in the long run?'”
While Zhou is driven to turn his negative experiences into positive ones, there was a time when navigating his sexuality was far more difficult for him. Coming to terms with his sexuality was problematic for Zhou both at home and socially.
“I find that as a gay Asian immigrant, the interesting thing with us is there isn’t a lot of guidance on what we are supposed to do. I am at a weird crossroads of different cultures.”
Zhou feels that, at the time of his childhood, his Canadian hometown was seriously lacking in LGBTQ+ representation.
“I often make this joke that in my hometown, there are about 9 people on Grinder,” says Zhou.
Zhou’s coming out journey was one wrought with prejudice and bullying from his peers.
“I got called, “Fag” walking down the hallway,” says Zhou. “I wasn’t accepted into the best choir of my high school even though I was talented enough because they were all clicks that dated each other, and, being gay, I couldn’t do that.”
“I moved to Canada at grade 7, so by grade 11, I had endured a lot of bullying,” says Zhou.
When the bullying got really bad, Zhou, a naturally shy and quiet child, began to rehearse his responses.
“I was very slow with comebacks. I had a lisp and an accent. So I started to practice on the bus. I had to take the bus an hour home because we couldn’t afford to live where my school was, even though my parents wanted me to go there for the music program. But we couldn’t afford to live in the area.”
“I had two hours to myself plus shower time to just really talk to myself. You know those shower arguments you have with yourself? Every argument I lost, I practiced. I really don’t lose arguments anymore.”
Zhou recalls the day all his practicing first paid off.
“Grade eleven, I just snapped back at somebody. I said, “I’m not sure if I am a homosexual, but I’d rather be one than have to date your girlfriend.”
That moment marked a turning point for him, understanding that standing up to his bullies was the only way to get them to leave him alone.
“After that, my life really changed. I realized I was a lot more powerful than I thought.”
“You have to put out the fire before it becomes a big fire. I believe in making an example out of something. So once I fought back publicly the first time, and my bullies realized they weren’t winning, they backed off. When you turn that back on them, they don’t know what to do anymore.”
For Zhou, the bullying for being gay was sometimes perplexing as he himself had never told anyone he was gay. In fact, he was not even sure of the fact himself at the time.
“I was confused,” says Zhou. “I always knew I was a little bit different. I tried to fit in. When that repeatedly didn’t work, I realized the best thing to do was to create your own friend group.”
“I never felt I fully came out. I never really said I was gay. I just said I was queer. Then I joined the gay men’s chorus, and I thought, “oh, okay, fine. I guess I’m gay now.’ But I don’t necessarily care about that declaration. If I sit here and make that declaration that I am gay, nothing about that changes who I am.”
Zhou fully made the discovery that he is queer in university in what he humorously calls “the hard way.”
“I had a girlfriend, and it just didn’t work,” Zhou says, laughing. “It just didn’t work.”
Zhou says that making peace with who he is has greatly shifted his perspective and sense of self.
“Once I figured out who I was, I realized that I couldn’t hide or change it. In university, I realized that all those people in high school who bullied me for being gay all those times were all right. I really was gay. I was like, “Oh shit! You’re right.” And then I made peace with that.”
“Being Asian and being gay, that’s not who I want to be. That’s just who I am. I have no choice in the matter. I would say that is the most powerful recognition that I have. Just be yourself. I can’t be other people. ”
At home, Zhou says he never officially came out to his parents.
Zhou’s situation is not singular nor unique. Many Chinese males find it nearly impossible to speak about sexuality and gender in traditional Chinese homes. One study in 2018 found that gay Chinese men, in particular, are more prone to mental health issues “because of deep-rooted, traditional social influence that overemphasizes heterosexual marriage, fertility, and filial piety.”
This silence on the topic of Zhou’s queerness has carried through to his adult life.
“Do they (Zhou’s parents) acknowledge the fact that I’m gay? No. But to quote my idol in life, Naomi Campbell, ‘That’s a them problem.’”
“They don’t have to accept me because I’m not asking for acceptance. I change enough people’s lives. I create my own family.”
“My relationship with my parents has changed throughout the years. I would say that in my childhood, I felt the hardship that was put on them was transferred to me. But, nowadays, we have a different dynamic. I support my family. Most of what I say to them is just statements rather than asking for permission. I’m not asking them if I can be a homosexual. I’m saying I will not marry a woman.”
While Zhou has come to terms with his sexuality, he says that while he is open to finding a partner, romantic love is not and has never been the main priority for him.
“Finding a girlfriend or boyfriend was never on my radar in life. I didn’t really think about that. I was more focused on myself and my career. Growing up, I saw a lot of relationships around me, and I know I don’t want anything like that.”
When asked whether the relationship between his parents influenced his stance on romance, Zhou responds: “Absolutely. It influenced me not to have one.”
“I’ve really seen what a conservative ideology has done to my mother as a woman. But also, in life, I’m not saying I’m not open to dating. But I’m looking for someone to push me, to make me better. I don’t want to meet somebody halfway. I want to meet better people. People who inspire me and encourage me both in friendship and in a relationship.”
A BUSINESSMAN IS BORN
Working with his father from a young age gave Zhou his first taste of earning a living. He then had various other pursuits, such as selling water at raves, even though he was too young to participate in the raves themselves. He also paid for his music degree with a choir gig, singing as a tenor on the weekends at a local church.
But it wasn’t until shortly after attaining his music degree from the University of Victoria, B.C. that Zhou’s life as a businessman truly began, not out of desire but out of necessity.
“After university, my dad had a stroke,” explains Zhou. “So, I took the most paying job that I could find, which was making door-to-door sales for internet and TV in Canada in the middle of nowhere. I had to support my family. I had to support my parents.”
Zhou says he made a name for himself by making door-to-door sales. He quickly got promoted to general manager, where he oversaw large door-to-door campaigns in Canada.
However, the shy boy from his youth was still alive and well within Zhou, making client-facing an excruciating experience. This lack of natural talent in sales forced Zhou to face his fears and his pitfalls just as he had to learn to stand up to those bullies in school.
“I hated it door-to-door. I was so bad at it. How many times in a day can you get someone to look at you and slam the door in your face? It’s pretty hard. So I was forced to find ways to make it work for me and become good at it. I had been handed a situation where I had no choice but to go try to make sense of it. I had to go try to make $70 at a house.”
Zhou gives the impression of being self-assured. His eye contact is direct, and his jokes flow naturally with our conversation. However, Zhou admits that these social skills set still do not come naturally to him. Rather, he has learned and practiced them over time.
“I needed to learn how to communicate with people, how to talk to people because I really didn’t know how. I am very shy. I didn’t want to talk to people. That sort of is still true, although now I have the ability to override it.
“I don’t necessarily fight it. I often put myself in situations where I don’t have to speak to people. If I am in a situation where there are a lot of people, I ask myself, ‘are you happy here?’ If the answer is no, I leave.”
“But when I have to speak, I just learned to work with it. If I need to have a conversation and I see there is a value I doing so, then I can do it.”
Zhou’s tendency towards shyness highlights a major cultural difference between the East and the West. Where the West tends to value the boasting of success, the East, especially East Asia, tends to preach and value modesty from a young age.
“My innate nature and my culture says, ‘why are you talking?'” says Zhou.
Unfortunately, Zhou’s cultural upbringing may be what stands in the way of his legal status in America.
Zhou’s immigration lawyer, Joe Adams, explains that Zhou is seeking an extraordinary ability visa, an O-1 visa.
By definition, in order to qualify for an O-1 visa, “you must demonstrate extraordinary ability by sustained national or international acclaim, or a record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture and television industry, and must be coming temporarily to the United States to continue work in the area of extraordinary ability.”
However, the nature of the O-1 visa is problematic for East Asians like Zhou, Adams explains.
“There is an implicit bias in the way certain immigration rules are written,” says Adams. “When it comes to the extraordinary ability visa and petitions, there is an implicit bias towards people who are self-promoters. I don’t think this was deliberately set out, but these rules were written in the 20th century to favor those who are really good at self-promotion. This is a western bias.”
In other words, Zhou’s learning to override his shyness is not just good for business, it is necessary to his being able to apply for a visa that will allow him to keep his business in the United States.
“I find this counterintuitive,” says Zhou. “As I said, I don’t want to talk about myself. But as I learned to talk about myself, I realized I have a lot of things to speak to. I can inspire people.”
“When I applied for my first visa right at the border, I thought to myself, ‘it’s just a sale. They are forced to talk to me. They can’t shut the door on me.’ I said to myself, ‘you are here. Now let me do my job.'”
Zhou also makes an effort to educate his staff on Eastern mentalities to better serve his Asian clients.
“We do a lot of outreach. A lot of companies in California tend to ignore that Asian people even exist. For example, a standard here is that a long contract has to come in English or Spanish, but it doesn’t have to be in Mandarin or Tagalog or in any other Asian language. We do a lot of education on how to work with Asian clients. We are slowly making it more friendly and multicultural.”
“We are building a platform for people who are traditionally overlooked by society,” said Zhou in a previous interview with New York Weekly, “whether it’s due to a lack of a degree or lack of opportunity. I’ve worked extremely hard to build my own platform, and I’m now offering to grow with other like-minded individuals together. We are not just looking for sales in a solar company. We are looking to build an authentic platform for people who are underdogs: people who grew up being told that they aren’t good enough, not hardworking enough, and people who grew up never feeling like they had a chance.”
In addition to his internal fight to Westernize his mentality and educate Westerners on the Eastern mindset, Zhou has to battle homophobia in the business world.
“I have lost out on contracts before when people found out I was gay or that I go to drag shows. To that, I say, ‘great.’ One of the most advantageous things I enjoy as someone who knows myself is that I have the ability to pick and choose. I am not afraid to say no. I find that very validating. ‘No’ is a complete sentence.”
Zhou also does a fair amount of due diligence when it comes to taking on new clients.
“We do research on our clients,” says Zhou. “I am also very careful about my online profile. When we decide to work with someone, we look at their online profile as well. If they belong to some sort of hate group or something like that, I just don’t work with them. I can’t be associated with people like that.”
“When I speak to someone about business, their looks, their gender, their sexuality has nothing to do with me. What has something to do with me is what can you bring to the table and what can I bring to the table.”
“Now I have a lot of people reach out to me via Instagram and LinkedIn, especially. They say, ‘I read your article in LA weekly,’ or ‘I saw you perform.’ A lot of gay people say, ‘I didn’t know that you could be publicly gay and do these things.’ That is what I spoke about earlier. I like to take my cons and turn them into pros.”
Zhou feels that LA, his home of five years now, is the one place he has found consistent acceptance.
“I actually visited LA when I was 26. I never had experienced so much inclusivity when it comes to people being LGBTQ+ especially when it comes to being an Asian LGBTQ+ person.
“When you are in a smaller town like where I was working up in Canada, we as people of color kind of come after the white people, for lack of better words. Because of who I am, I was never the preferred anything. So it is nice to be in a place where you can just be who you are.”
“I love LA so much that I actually recently had this conversation with that I have fallen into this interesting place where I don’t want to travel because I already live exactly where I want to be. I don’t need a vacation from my life. This is my vacation spot.”
When asked what advice Zhou would give to his childhood self, he responds: “I wouldn’t say anything. He will figure it out.”
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