Connect with us

Features

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”

Published

on

Rev David Sheldon Fearon (Photo Credit: Screenshot from 1946: The Mistranslation that Shifted a Culture/Rocky Roggio)

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. 

David Sheldon Fearon circa 1962 (Collection of the author)

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.

Ancient Greek male prostitute with his male client.
(From the collection of the National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece)

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. 

Rev. David Sheldon Fearon (Collection of the author)

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

David Sheldon

(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. 

Rev. David Sheldon Fearon (Collection of the author)

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.” 

Rev. David Sheldon Fearon (Collection of the author)

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 & Rev. David Sheldon Fearon
(Collection of the author)

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.

Advertisement
FUND LGBTQ JOURNALISM
SIGN UP FOR E-BLAST

Features

Juliet Hawkins, her music is defying conventional categorization

Hawkins leaves others some words of advice for their artistic endeavors: “Keep an open mind, an open heart, & a willingness to evolve” 

Published

on

Courtesy of Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

LONG BEACH, Calif. – Emerging from the dynamic music scene of Los Angeles, California, Juliet Hawkins seamlessly integrates deeply soulful vocals with contemporary production techniques, crafting a distinctive sound that defies conventional categorization.

Drawing inspiration from the emotive depth of Amy Winehouse and weaving together elements of country, blues, and pop, Hawkins’ music can best be described as a fusion–perhaps best termed as soulful electronica. Yet, even this characterization falls short, as Hawkins defines herself as “a blend of a million different inspirations.”

Hawkins’ musical palette mirrors her personae: versatile and eclectic. Any conversation with Hawkins makes this point abundantly clear. She exhibits the archetype of a wild, musical genius while remaining true to her nature-loving, creative spirit. Whether recording in the studio for an album release, performing live in a studio setting, or playing in front of a live audience, Hawkins delivers her music with natural grace. 

Courtesy of Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

However, Hawkin’s musical journey is far from effortless. Amidst personal challenges and adversity, she weaves her personal odyssey of pain and pleasure, transforming these experiences into empowering anthems.

In a candid interview with the Blade, Hawkins spoke with profound openness and vulnerability about her past struggles with opiate and heroin addiction: “That was 10 years ago that I struggled with opiates,” she shared. Yet, instead of letting her previous addiction define her, Hawkins expressed to the Blade that she harbors no shame about her past. “My newer music is much more about empowerment than recovery,” she explained, emphasizing that “writing was the best way to process trauma.”

Despite her struggles with addiction, Hawkins managed to recover. However, she emphasizes that this recovery is deeply intertwined with her spiritual connection to nature. An illustrative instance of Hawkins’ engagement with nature occurred during the COVID pandemic.

Following an impulse that many of us have entertained, she bought a van and chose to live amidst the trees. It was during this period that Hawkins composed the music for her second EP, titled “Lead with Love.”

In many ways, Hawkins deep spiritual connection to nature has been profoundly shaped by her extensive travels. Born in San Diego, spending her formative years in Massachusetts, and later moving to Tennessee before returning to Southern California, she has broadened her interests and exposed herself to the diverse musical landscapes across America.

“Music is the only thing I have left,” Hawkins confides to the Blade, highlighting the integral role that music has in her life. This intimate relationship with music is evident in her sultry and dynamic compositions. Rather than imitating or copying other artists, Hawkins effortlessly integrates sounds from some of her favorite musical influences to create something new. Some of these influences include LP, Lucinda Williams, Lana Del Rey, and, of course, Amy Winehouse, among others.

Courtesy of Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

Hawkins has always been passionate about music—-she began with piano at a young age, progressed to guitar, and then to bass, eagerly exploring any instrument she could get her hands on. However, instead of following a traditional path of formalized lessons and structured music theory, Hawkins told the Blade that she “has a hard time following directions and being told what to do.”

This independent approach has led her to experiment with various genres and even join unexpected groups, such as a tribute band for Eric Clapton and Cream. While she acknowledges that her eclectic musical interests might be attributed to ADHD, she holds a different belief: “Creative minds like to move around.”

When discussing her latest musical release — “Stay True (the live album)” which was recorded in a live studio setting — Hawkins describes the experience as a form of improvisation with both herself and the band:

“[The experience] was this divine honey that was flowing through all of us.” She explains that this live album was uncertain in the music’s direction. “For a couple of songs,” Hawkins recalls, “we intuitively closed them out.” By embracing creative spontaneity and refusing to be constrained by fear of mistakes, the live album authentically captures raw sound, complete with background chatter, extended outros, and an extremely somber cover of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” coupled with a slow piano and accompanied strings.

While “Stay True” was a rewarding experience for Hawkins, her favorite live performance took place in an unexpected location—an unattended piano in the middle of an airport. As she began playing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”, Hawkins shared with the Blade a universal connection we all share with music: “This little girl was dancing as I was playing.”

After the performance, tears welled in Hawkins’ eyes as she was touched by the young girl’s appreciation of her musicianship. Hawkins tells the Blade, “It’s not about playing to an audience—it’s about finding your people.”

Courtesy of Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

What sets Hawkins apart as an artist is her ability to connect with her audience in diverse settings. She highlights EDC, an electronic dance music festival, as a place where she unabashedly lets her “freak flag” fly and a place to connect with her people. Her affinity for electronic music not only fuels her original pop music creations, but also inspires her to reinterpret songs with an electronic twist. A prime example of this is with her electronic-style cover of Tal Bachman’s 90’s hit, “She’s So High.”

As an openly queer woman in the music industry, Hawkins is on a mission to safeguard artistic integrity. In songs like “My Father’s Men,” she bares her vulnerability and highlights the industry’s misogyny, which often marginalizes gender minorities in their pursuit of artistic expression.

She confides to the Blade, “The industry can be so sexist, misogynist, and oppressive,” and points out that “there are predators in the industry.” Yet, rather than succumbing to apathy, Hawkins is committed to advocating for gender minorities within the music industry.

She tells the Blade: “Luckily, people are rising up against misogyny, but it’s still there. ‘My Father’s Men’ is a message: It’s time for more people who aren’t just white straight men to have a say.”

Hawkins is also an activist for other causes, with a fervent belief in the preservation of bodily autonomy. Her self-directed music video “I’ll play Daddy,” showcases the joy of embracing one’s body with Hawkins being sensually touched by a plethora of hands. While the song, according to Hawkins, “fell upon deaf ears in the south,” it hasn’t stopped Hawkins from continuing to fight for the causes she believes in. In her interview, Hawkins encapsulated her political stance by quoting an artist she admires:

“To quote P!nk, ‘I don’t care about your politics, I care about your kids.’”

When Hawkins isn’t writing music or being a champion for various causes, you might catch her doing the following: camping, rollerblading, painting, teaching music lessons, relaxing with Bernie (her beloved dog), stripping down for artsy photoshoots, or embarking on a quest to find the world’s best hollandaise sauce.

But at the end of the day, Hawkins sums up her main purpose: “To come together with like-minded people and create.”

Courtesy of Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

Part of this ever-evolving, coming-of-age-like journey includes an important element: plant-based medicine. Hawkins tells the Blade that she acknowledges her previous experience with addiction and finds certain plants to be useful in her recovery:

“The recovery thing is tricky,” Hawkins explains, “I don’t use opiates—-no powders and no pills—but I am a fan of weed, and I think psilocybin can be helpful when used at the right time.” She emphasizes the role of psychedelics in guiding her towards her purpose. “Thanks for psychedelics, I have a reignited sense of purpose … Music came naturally to me as an outlet to heal.” 

While she views the occasional dabbling of psychedelics as a spiritual practice, Hawkins also embraces other rituals, particularly those she performs before and during live shows. “I always carry two rocks with me: a labradorite and a tiger’s eye marble,” she explains.

She also reveals that she drapes her grandmother’s purple scarf over every mic stand she sings from. Hawkins exhibits no shame in who she is: an eclectic, airport-piano-playing, plant-based medicine enthusiast who uses expressive hand gestures in conversation, and calls out the music industry when she feels like it.

Hawkins leaves readers, musicians, and other creators some words of advice to incorporate in their own artistic endeavors: “Keep an open mind, an open heart, and a willingness to evolve.” 

Continue Reading

Features

West Texas drag show turned into a war over the First Amendment

In the staunchly conservative Panhandle, LGBTQ+ Texans say political and legal battles overlook their humanity

Published

on

Marcus Stovall and Bear Bright stand on the sidewalk across the street from the courthouse on Dec. 9, 2023 in Canyon. (Photo Credit: Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune)

By William Melhado | CANYON, Texas – West Texas A&M University students Bear Bright and Marcus Stovall held their breath for months.

Yes, university President Walter Wendler canceled last year’s on-campus drag show. But as a lawsuit accusing Wendler of violating students’ First Amendment rights wended through the courts, Bright and Stovall booked a student center banquet hall, secured insurance and organized nearly a dozen performers for the Don’t Be a Drag performance slated for Friday night.

The two students at the university in Canyon, about 20 miles south of Amarillo, didn’t approach the new event as a salvo in the larger battle over freedom of expression in America that is still pending before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. To them, it was about producing a joyful student performance celebrating queer identities — the kind of show that happens every night without controversy in other parts of Texas.

Still, they knew that any time, Wendler could block the show from happening on campus. But they also thought that Wendler’s reasoning for the previous cancellation exemplified a public official stifling expression because he disagrees with the content — and was the kind of clear-cut censorship the federal court system would prevent from happening again.

But last week, the U.S. Supreme Court dashed those hopes. The high court refused, at least for now, to wade into the case and its free speech debate. On Monday, Wendler did exactly what Bright and Stovall feared: He again forbade a drag show from being performed on campus.

“It was very discouraging and depressing at first,” Bright said.

West Texas A&M University President Walter Wendler
(Screenshot/YouTube WTAM Channel)

The Supreme Court only declined to block Wendler from canceling another drag show while a lawsuit over the previous cancellation plays out at the appellate level. Justices were not considering the underlying legal arguments about whether Wendler abused his authority to squash the performance on the basis of his disapproval of the students’ viewpoints. Those questions are still before the 5th Circuit court, which has also declined to issue an injunction against Wendler until it hears arguments in the case in April.

The West Texas lawsuit comes a year following Republican state lawmakers’ attempt to classify all drag shows as obscene. But after a video of a male GOP legislator wearing a dress for a school theater project surfaced, state leaders scrapped that version of a bill and eventually passed a law that prohibits certain drag performances in front of children. But even that watered-down version of Senate Bill 12 has been deemed unconstitutionally overbroad and vague. An appeal of that decision is also before the 5th Circuit.

SB 12 came on the heels of an anti-drag panic whipped up by a small but influential cadre of activists and extremist groups who routinely characterized all drag as inherently and nefariously sexual, regardless of the content or audience. Such claims were then used to justify harassment of the LGBTQ+ community, often under the guise of protecting children.

“It’s part of the national mentality,” said Claudia Stravato, a part time state and local government faculty member at West Texas A&M. “We kind of get morally hysterical in this country every few years.”

The potential constitutional showdowns over drag shows also come in an era when Texas officials have relied on new state laws, the attorney general’s office and a newly conservative Supreme Court to help redraw the legal boundaries on everything from abortion and illegal immigration to what kinds of health care transgender children can access.

And as a legal limbo persists, LGBTQ+ residents like Bright and Stovall acutely feel politically and socially targeted in a part of the state where cultural acceptance of queer people already lags behind the state’s big cities.

“It kind of feels like that LGBTQ+ and queer people aren’t welcome anywhere near here,” Bright said Thursday, still recovering from Wendler’s disorienting cancellation earlier this week. “Just because we’re gay or bi or trans … we’re just not allowed to exist in this area.”

“Your own path”

Myss Myka is one of the most prominent drag queens in the Texas Panhandle with a performance career that’s spanned nearly a decade. Based in Amarillo, she’s mentored a number of drag artists over the years, including West Texas A&M students.

She was all set to host the on-campus show Friday, before Wendler canceled it.

The need for student-led drag shows, she said, is to create a sense of community for young people who are questioning their place in the world and trying to find connections in it.

“We tell people that, ‘We’re here for you, we’ll answer any questions that you have and, most importantly, we want you to be able to find your own path and find people who you can share your struggles with,’” Myka said.

Throughout the years, Myka has noticed the queer-friendly community in Amarillo grow. With a population of more than 200,000 Amarillo is by far the largest city in the Panhandle. But it anchors a largely rural region that remains a staunchly conservative area that is several hours away from any of Texas’ sprawling metro areas where drag shows are routine and LGBTQ+ people hold public office.

Myka said the strength and influence of the region’s religious groups and extremist organizations fuels safety concerns every time she takes the stage.

Stovall, who had planned to perform on Friday dressed in an homage to English novelist Clive Barker’s character known as Pinhead in the movie “Hellraiser,” shares those safety concerns living in Canyon south of Amarillo.

“If I tried to hang up a pride flag in my window, I’d probably get a rock through it within an hour,” Stovall said.

After last year’s drag show was canceled, organizers eventually found a venue off-campus where they staged a make-up performance. Myka hosted that show. With Friday’s showcase canceled, she’s now focusing on emotionally supporting performers as they figure out what to do next.

“As queens, we’re always kind of prepared for any kind of situation we’re in,” she said.

Same subject, different conclusions

Since taking the helm of West Texas A&M in 2016, Wendler, who is known for his outspoken Christian beliefs, has presented himself as the answer to what conservative lawmakers and activists see as a proliferation of liberal agendas and silencing of conservative views in higher education.

When he banned student-led drag shows on the university’s campus last year, he said it was because the performances degrade women.

“No one should claim a right to contribute to women’s suffering via a slapstick sideshow that erodes the worth of women,” he said at the time.

He cited those same reasons in another all-campus email on Monday, canceling the second show. He also pointed to the new state law, SB 12, as a reason for denying the students’ permit. Originally billed as legislation that would prevent children from seeing drag shows, lawmakers eventually landed on language that doesn’t directly reference people dressing as the opposite gender. Instead, the legislation prohibits any performers from dancing suggestively or wearing certain prosthetics in front of children.

A federal judge in Houston blocked the state from enforcing the law and issued a 56-page ruling concluding that Texas’ new law was so vague that cheerleading and dancing could be construed to be violations.

“Drag shows express a litany of emotions and purposes, from humor and pure entertainment to social commentary on gender roles,” the ruling reads. “There is no doubt that at the bare minimum these performances are meant to be a form of art that is meant to entertain, alone this would warrant some level of First Amendment protection.”

Organizers of the drag show said it was disingenuous for Wendler to cite SB 12 as a reason to shut down the performances since the law currently can’t be enforced.

“That just really miffed me,” said Bright.

When he and Stovall sought court relief from Wendler’s previous drag ban, their case came before U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, the sole sitting judge in the Amarillo federal court district and an outspoken opponent of LGBTQ+ rights. Former President Donald Trump appointed Kacsmaryk to the bench in 2019. Before that, the judge was deputy counsel for the First Liberty Institute, a deeply conservative religious liberty law firm.

Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and private litigants frequently file their most contentious lawsuits in Kacsmaryk’s court. And on everything from immigration and abortion drugs to teens’ access to confidential contraception, they largely achieved their desired outcome.

Unlike the Houston judge who blocked Texas’ so-called drag show ban, Kacsmaruk ruled that not all drag shows could be considered “expressive conduct” and he sided with Wendler.

Now both cases, one against SB 12 and one against Wendler, are before the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Oral arguments in the students’ case are slated for April.

A courtroom for the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in the John Minor Wisdom United States Courthouse in New Orleans, Louisiana.
(Carol M. Highsmith, photographer, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division).

Peter Steffensen, a law fellow with the First Amendment Clinic at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, said the appellate court now has to grapple with a situation in which two lower courts came to different conclusions on the same subject matter.

“It’s a real concern about whether or not the court will impose some sort of rule that restricts the free expression of ideas and performance art in order to, as they say, protect minors,” Steffenson said. His law clinic filed a brief in support of the students.

Across the country, other federal courts are fielding similar questions. In November, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to reinstate a Florida law that penalizes businesses for allowing children to view drag shows until a lower court fully considers the case.

A surprise rejection

Wendler is not the only Panhandle official to effectively block a drag show.

The Amarillo Area Transgender Advocacy Group’s Easter event in a Canyon park last year featured drag performers, including Myka. One protester showed up wearing military fatigues and flashing the Nazi salute. But organizers positioned food trucks in a way that blocked him from most attendees’ sight.

Off-duty police officers hired as security told AATAG board president Sam Burnett, who is transgender, that they had no issues, found the organization easy to work with and offered to serve as security again this year.

But when AATAG filed for a permit for this year’s event, Canyon officials denied them, saying police officers last year witnessed public safety issues and lewd behavior.

“The group’s permit was denied due to issues at their 2023 event. This decision was made in an effort to safeguard the use of Canyon’s public spaces and all of those who visit them,” Megan Nelson, communications director for the city told The Texas Tribune in a statement.

City officials declined to provide details about the alleged issues, but said the group’s application fee had been returned.

If police officers did witness something inappropriate at the 2023 event, “Why was it not addressed then? Why was it not addressed for an entire year?” Burnett wondered.

Burnett said city officials cited the state’s obscenity law in denying this year’s application. But that doesn’t make sense to him.

“This is no different than women who are competing in a pageant,” Burnett said of drag shows. “It is a performance of art. And so why should any performance of art be hidden or not accessed?”

Burnett and other Panhandle residents said the political environment has become increasingly hostile to LGBTQ+ residents, mirroring much of the rhetoric lawmakers in Austin have adopted to push legislation attempting to reshape the lives of queer Texans.

During the 2023 legislative session, Republican lawmakers successfully barred transgender university athletes from participating on sports teams that aligned their gender and banned adolescents from accessing gender-transitioning care like puberty blockers and hormone therapy.

A transgender pride flag sits on the desk of lawmakers during debate on Senate Bill 14, which bans puberty blockers and hormone therapy for trans kids.
(Photo Credit: Evan L’Roy/The Texas Tribune)

The author of that health care ban for trans kids was state Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Cypress, who announced Thursday that he will challenge incumbent Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, a fellow Republican, for the leadership position. Top GOP leaders have attacked Phelan as insufficiently conservative as they attempt to push the Legislature further rightward.

But there have been local political battles, too, Burnett said. His group first hosted an LGBTQ+-friendly Easter event in 2022 after Canyon Independent School District was pressured to remove a suicide prevention program that mentioned LGBTQ+ people.

“There is a curriculum that is being used as a teen suicide prevention curriculum that features a transgender individual and is, in our belief, therefore promoting transgenderism to high school students,” Trinity Fellowship Church Senior Pastor Jimmy Witcher said during a Sunday service in February 2022.

He added the program was supported by pop star Lady Gaga, “so that kinda tells you everything you need to know about it.”

Canyon ISD did not respond to the Tribune’s questions, but a page on the district’s website that provides information about several hot-button issues titled “Just the Facts” says that the the Board of Trustees adopted Hope Squad — a different curriculum — as the suicide prevention program.

During the 2023 school board elections, a major issue among candidates and voters was how — or whether — schools should support LGBTQ+ students. An informal hotline Burnett’s group set up from LGBTQ+ rang nonstop during that election cycle.

“We get so many phone calls at all hours of the day,” Burnett said. “We’re not a suicide hotline, but at the same time I’m not going to let somebody not call and at least have somebody to talk to.”

Waiting, undeterred

John Hintz was a 22-year-old gay man when he moved to Amarillo. He actually found support and understanding at his church, a member of what’s called the Open and Affirming Congregations of the Texas Panhandle.

Hintz said that the network’s approach to LGBTQ+ people is vital at a time when political and social rhetoric — especially toward transgender people — can be so hostile.

“Particularly when you think about young people, knowing that they have people out here, that there are people that will support them and believe them,” Hintz said.

And, Hintz notes, not everyone in the Amarillo area takes issue with transgender people or drag shows. He said many have reached out with words of support and comfort.

For young residents like Bright and Stovall, the events over the last few years have made it clear that the mere existence of queerness makes some people upset.

“They, royally, would rather have us just hide away and pretend that we’re all straight Christians in this area,” Bright said.

As of Thursday, the students were planning to reschedule the canceled show, which will require some nimble planning to secure a new, off-campus venue and find a date that works for the other drag artists.

And with a potentially highly consequential court hearing scheduled for their lawsuit on April 15, they’re back to holding their breaths.

This story was supported by the Trans Journalists Association.

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University and West Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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

William Melhado is an Austin-based general assignment reporter. He originally joined the Tribune in 2022 as a Poynter-Koch fellow. He previously worked as a staff writer at the Santa Fe Reporter, an alt-weekly newspaper in New Mexico. Before pursuing a career in journalism, William worked as an educator for five years and taught science at a public high school in the Bronx, New York and taught at international schools in Tanzania and Nepal. A native of Boulder, Colorado, William graduated from Middlebury College with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and earned a master’s in secondary science education at CUNY Lehman College.

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

The preceding article was previously published by The Texas Tribune and is republished by permission.

Quality journalism doesn’t come free

Perhaps it goes without saying — but producing quality journalism isn’t cheap. At a time when newsroom resources and revenue across the country are declining, The Texas Tribune remains committed to sustaining our mission: creating a more engaged and informed Texas with every story we cover, every event we convene and every newsletter we send. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on members to help keep our stories free and our events open to the public. Do you value our journalism? Show us with your support.

Continue Reading

Features

Chasten Buttigieg discusses attacks on LGBTQ+ kids

At MSU, Chasten Buttigieg discusses attacks on LGBTQ+ kids and his experiences with theater: ‘Their dream in this country is to stay alive’

Published

on

Chasten Buttigieg in 2021 being interviewed by ABC News. (Screenshot/YouTube ABC News)

By Andrew Roth | EAST LANSING, Mich. – Chasten Buttigieg said that politics is a form of theater during a guest lecture on Saturday hosted by the Michigan State University Department of Theatre, saying that politicians who attack members of the LGBTQ+ community are bad actors.

Last month, Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old Indigenous person who used both he/him and they/them pronouns, was found dead in their home one day after being attacked by bullies in a school restroom.

The school nurse determined that ambulance service was not required but advised that they visit a medical facility for further examination.

Police discouraged the family from filing a report, saying that it would open them up to legal liability and adding that it would be a shame for any of the students to have to deal with a criminal charge for “something so miniscule,” though Benedict had disclosed that they were being bullied for a full year prior to the attack.

The day after the fight, Benedict collapsed at home and was later pronounced dead.

Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student from Oklahoma, died on Feb. 8 after a fight at their high school. (Family photo)

“It takes a lot of people to fail a child like that,” said Buttigieg, a Michigan native, former teacher and the husband of U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

According to the Oklahoma Medical Examiner’s office, Benedict died by suicide after ingesting multiple medications.

Rates of suicide are disproportionately high for transgender youth, and even higher yet for transgender people of color.

But Benedict’s family, advocates and supporters remain skeptical of the report’s findings.

“Rather than allow incomplete accounts to take hold and spread any further, the Benedicts feel compelled to provide a summary of those findings which have not yet been released by the Medical Examiner’s office, particularly those that contradict allegations of the assault on Nex being insignificant,” an attorney for the Benedict family said in a press release.

The release highlighted a section of the autopsy report, which said that while Benedict did not sustain “lethal trauma,” they did have multiple injuries to their head, neck and torso, which the lawyers say clearly shows “the severity of the assault.”

“Trans kids, especially, all they want to do is stay alive. That’s their dream in this country, is to stay alive,” Chasten Buttigieg said on Saturday. “I’m so lucky that I got to go back home and had parents who told me that they love me. I’m so lucky that I got to grow up and go to college and fall in love and have kids. There’s still kids in this country being robbed of all those opportunities.”

Sue Benedict told The Independent that Nex started being bullied at school after Oklahoma’s Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, signed a bill in 2022 to forbid transgender and nonbinary youth from using bathrooms concurrent with their gender identities.

In 2023, Stitt signed another bill to ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth in the state.

That’s just one of 87 anti-trans bills that passed in the U.S. last year, according to the Trans Legislation Tracker.

Just three months into the current year, more than 500 anti-trans bills have been introduced in state legislatures nationwide.

Asked about Benedict’s death and the impact anti-trans legislation may have had, Oklahoma state Sen. Tom Woods replied, “My heart goes out to that scenario, if that is the case. We’re a Republican state – supermajority in the House and Senate. I represent a constituency that doesn’t want that filth in Oklahoma.”

“I’m not joking when I say politics is theater. They know what they’re doing. They do it on purpose. It’s devastating,” Buttigieg said. “Politics is supposed to be about making people’s lives better, safer and easier. You have some adults hellbent on making it harder.”

Buttigieg said the attacks encourage him to double down on his advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community.

“I continue to speak up, even when sometimes it means the meanest, nastiest people will come for you. At least I know who I am. I know what I believe in, and I know what kind of world I want for my kids,” Buttigieg said. “Shame on you for not wanting to do whatever you can to keep them alive. And then when they’re dead, you spit on their grave. You belong nowhere near public service, let alone children.”

Buttigieg said that his safety concerns have grown now that he is a father, as has his concern for creating the world he wants them to grow up in.

“It’s very scary when you feel like part of your job is you want to speak up for everyone’s kids, and then you’re looking at your own kids and you’re terrified because you know if you do speak out — it’s not if, it’s when they come for you,” Buttigieg said. “There is an element of risk there, and I’m very lucky that we have people whose job it is to keep us safe, even though I think it’s really messed up that, in America, we need that.

“I don’t wish a death threat on anybody. There are people who I disagree with wholeheartedly in this country, I think what they do is disgusting. I think going after children is wrong. I think political violence should never be embraced. But I would never wish a death threat on them. But for some reason, they send it my way,” Buttigieg added.

Growing up in Traverse City

Buttigieg discussed his own experience growing up in Traverse City, fearing for what would happen if he came out as gay.

“I remember growing up, we had these stickers on the back of city vehicles that said, ‘WE ARE TRAVERSE CITY’ and it had these rainbow puzzle pieces that kind of looked like they’re holding hands. The homophobic backlash to those stickers was so loud and disgusting,” Buttigieg said. “People would rip them off police vehicles and the local buses. I remember learning at a young age, this is what my town thinks of gay people. So why would I ever come out?”

“And now we’ve got, like, can you have too many rainbow flags?” Buttigieg joked. “I think Traverse City has seen a great amount of change, especially because it just takes people being brave enough to define their community for everyone and to be brave enough to say this isn’t the city that we are, this is what we imagine this town can be.”

Even little things, like seeing rainbow flag stickers in storefront windows, can add up to make a big difference, Buttigieg said.

“The rainbow flag can mean so much and so many different things for people. It reminds you that there is freedom to be yourself. Even if you’re shopping for candles, just seeing that little sticker on a storefront tells you it’s okay to be yourself in here. That means a lot,” Buttigieg said. “What would it have meant to a younger me to see that? When I was growing up, I saw people ripping those things down, and now they’re putting them up.”

During his time as a student at Traverse City West Senior High School, Buttigieg said that theater was one of the few safe spaces for him.

“I had a great theater teacher in high school, Mrs. Bach, who really became a safe haven for students who felt different. I used to hide in the back of the theater in high school, and she would see me sneak in, even if there was another class in there, and she wouldn’t bother me; she’d let me hide in there for a while,” Buttigieg said. “During those tumultuous years of high school where you’re just trying to figure out who you are, and especially with the kind of homophobia we had in high school at the time, there just really wasn’t room to be different. And so the theater became a safe space.”

 Traverse City residents celebrate at Up North Pride’s 2018 march for LGBTQ+ rights. The organization spoke out against discriminatory comments made by hair salon owner Christine Geiger on July 11, 2023 | Lily Guiney

Later, Buttigieg received a scholarship to spend his senior year of high school studying abroad in Germany, which he viewed as his ticket out of northern Michigan.

“It changed everything, because that’s when I finally made a friend. I remember feeling like my guts were going to spill out. She was like ‘What’s wrong with you?’ and I said I think I might be bisexual, and she went, ‘Or you can just be gay; it’s fine,” Buttigieg said. “Making a friend who was like, ‘You can be gay; that’s totally cool; let’s go get ice cream,’ it was so matter of fact, that was what prompted me to come home and then come out.  … When I got home, I went right back into the closet. I remember landing back in Traverse City feeling like I had to go back to living a lie, and I didn’t last very long; that’s when I wound up running away from home.”

Buttigieg brought his love for theater to college, receiving an undergraduate degree in theater and global studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire before moving to Chicago, where he received a master’s of education degree from DePaul University.

“I told myself that if I could substitute in Chicago public schools for two years, then I would go to grad school and become a teacher, but I want to make sure this is absolutely what I wanted to do,” Buttigieg said. “And then right after those two years I enrolled in grad school, and that’s the summer I fell in love with a mayor.”

He was referring to Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind.

Highlighting the importance of arts education, Chasten Buttigieg said that, as a teacher, he tried to share the safety theater provided him as a student with a new generation.

While directing a “Harry Potter” parody play, Buttigieg said a student who was typically very reserved auditioned and he saw her potential.

“I gave her a really big spot. I remember posting the cast list and all the kids grumbling about it,” Buttigieg said. “She blew it out of the water. I remember her mom coming up to me after opening night and saying, ‘I’ve never seen my daughter like this. My daughter doesn’t talk to me, and now here she is up on a stage commanding an audience.’”

“That’s what a teacher saw in me, and to see that in another kid and to share that experience and to know that, hopefully, even in this little experience has taught her that she has talent and she has potential and that she shouldn’t think that she’s defined by the opinions of all these other kids around her and that there’s something really special about her, too,” Buttigieg said.

 Pete Buttigieg at the NAACP candidate forum in Detroit in 2019 | Andrew Roth

Hitting the campaign trail

After a couple years as a junior high humanities teacher, Buttigieg said he was getting more comfortable in the classroom.

“I was really getting in the groove. I graduated grad school. I felt like, all right, my career’s cooking; I know what I want to do. Then my husband said, ‘I think I’m going to run for president,’” Buttigieg said. “I’m not teaching right now.”

Buttigieg said his time teaching prepared him to deal with the attention that comes with politics.

“In politics, they’re yelling at you or spitting at you or writing mean things about you on the internet and you’re like, I’ve taught eighth grade. Nothing is going to bother me the way teaching eighth grade can,” Buttigieg said.

Similarly, he said his theater experience prepared him to hit the campaign trail early on during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

“When Pete’s campaign took off, it took off fast. Because I was comfortable public speaking and because I knew how to tell a story, I was able to get on the campaign trail much quicker, didn’t really require much media training,” Buttigieg said. “So much of politics is theater. A lot of these people are bad actors in a political sense.”

I remember growing up, we had these stickers on the back of city vehicles that said, ‘WE ARE TRAVERSE CITY’ and it had these rainbow puzzle pieces that kind of looked like they’re holding hands. The homophobic backlash to those stickers was so loud and disgusting.

Buttigieg said that politics is theater, in part, because both are about storytelling.

“That’s where politics can be really powerful, is when we’re telling other people’s stories: Here’s what people stand to gain; here’s what people stand to lose; let me tell you a little bit about the teacher I met in rural Iowa or the students I sat down with in Parkland, Fla. Let me tell you about why politics matters to them,” Buttigieg said. “That background in theater really helped me think about how to tell a story creatively, succinctly and repackage it for a three-minute hit on national television.”

Buttigieg said he would also use his theater experience to give his husband notes on how he could improve his stage presence while speaking.

“I remember early on in my relationship, I was figuring out if it was OK to give him some stage presence pointers. Now, it’s kind of exhausting,” Buttigieg said. “I do political speaking consulting for work, and Pete’s on the news all the time, and sometimes we’re just talking about talking points. So it’d be like we’re just doing talking point dinner right now. It’s kind of annoying. Like, ‘No, I think the real story is …’ and we’ll just realize that we’re just going back and forth sharing talking points. I guess that’s gross and cute at the same time.”

“I also realized that Fox News can only do so many things, but I can say some things to really jab at him that people on TV don’t have the time for. That’s fun,” Buttigieg joked.

Buttigieg’s love of theater has also intersected with his husband’s political career more directly.

Buttigieg said that when the campaign caught fire, he spent most of his time in early voting states like New Hampshire and Nevada while his husband attended fundraisers and spent most of his time in Iowa.

“I was the surrogate who was punted to the smallest town in northern New Hampshire to walk through the snow and knock on doors and do community town halls with an audience of 15 people,” Buttigieg said. “New Hampshire, Nevada, early states – just kick Chasten over there; I’m not bitter.”

From left, Chasten Buttigieg embraces his husband Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend, Ind.) at a campaign rally at City Winery in Washington, D.C. on April 4, 2019.
(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

“Pete would be at some fundraiser or gala, he was always in Iowa fundraising, so he would go to these big events,” Buttigieg said. “One night I called him to get the tea on how his night went, and he went ‘Oh, you’re never going to believe this. They were ushering me out, and they are like oh, we want you to meet our friend, Steve.’ And I was like, ‘I swear to God if you tell me you met Stephen Sondheim,’ and he was like ‘I did, and he was such a nice guy.’ The will not to throw my phone. He was like, ‘Yeah, he was really nice.’ And? ‘Really nice guy.’ Like, you don’t deserve to meet Stephen Sondheim. You really don’t.”

But it may have been partially made up for when Chasten Buttigieg got to interact with another theater icon.

“I got the notification that Lin-Manuel Miranda followed me and I screamed so loud. Pete came running into the kitchen as if I had just chopped off my fingers, like, ‘What, what, what?’ ‘Lin-Manuel Miranda followed me!’ ‘Oh, come on.’ I’m still happy about it,” Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg said he enjoys sharing his passion with his husband, even if it comes with jealousy at times.

“I do understand that my husband’s very famous and people like him, and it’s only in theater that it really bothers me. Like when the ‘Lion King’ came through town and they’re like, ‘Pete, you have to see Zazu.’ I was like, ‘Why does he get to see Zazu? Why does he get to play with the puppet?’ I have a degree in theater, you know. I’m not bitter about that either,” Buttigieg said. “Maybe that’s the next book title: ‘I’m Not Bitter.’

Ultimately, while Buttigieg is no longer teaching theater, he said the platform he’s been given still provides the opportunity to make a difference.

“I’m really, really lucky that I got to grow up to become a person I really could have used when I was younger. Imagine what it would have been like to see a gay presidential candidate and his husband, or to see these adults speaking up on behalf of kids who are being attacked by the adults in positions of power,” Buttigieg said. “That’s why we do what we do: Because of the young kids who are still peeking their head out of the closet, wondering if they will belong in this country, if it’s OK to be themselves in this country. And I think part of my job is to say, ‘Yes, you do.’”

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

Andrew Roth

Andrew Roth is a regular contributor to the Michigan Advance and a former reporting intern. He has been covering Michigan policy and politics since 2018 across a number of publications and is a graduate of Michigan State University.

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

The preceding story was previously published by the Michigan Advance and is republished with permission.

Corporate media aren’t cutting it. The Michigan Advance is a nonprofit outlet featuring hard-hitting reporting on politics and policy and the best progressive commentary in the state.

We’re part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

Continue Reading

Features

Shining Nathan: You belong here, changing lives of LGBTQ+ folks

“The points don’t matter- you only get one little go around this little blue marble, so live it to your truth. That is what I say” 

Published

on

Gay social media influencer Shining Nathan. (Photo Credit: Shining Nathan)

SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Gay social media influencer Shining Nathan is determined to change the lives of LGBTQ+ people all over the world, “one smile at a time.” 

Nathan is a social media influencer and happiness guru who sports elaborate outfits complete with wide-brimmed hats and flowing caftans. Through his various platforms, he is a light in the darkness of many lives, helping hundreds or thousands of LGBTQ+ individuals find the support they often lack in their personal lives. 

One mother’s story serves as a perfect example of his altruism. 

The mother lives in a small, crime-ridden town and works two barely minimum-wage jobs only to scrape by financially. Months go, she lost her teenage daughter, who died by suicide due to mental trauma caused by excessive bullying in school. 

The hospital removed the daughter from life support. Without giving her any time to grieve, the hospital then pressured the mother to relieve them of her daughter’s body. The mother called funeral director after the funeral director, who callously demanded impossibly high funeral fees and hefty down payments in order to proceed. The mother, distressed and desperate, found herself with nowhere to turn for the funds to bury her child. 

Enter Shining Nathan, or, as he labels himself on social media, “Your Gay Auntie.” 

When Nathan heard about the mother’s inability to pay for her daughter’s funeral, he immediately stepped in and raised enough money for a burial, tombstone, and other funeral-associated costs. 

See Nathan’s video here: 

“What is the use of a big platform if I can’t help where I can,” Nathan told the Blade in an exclusive interview. 

For years, Nathan has inspired countless individuals to embrace optimism, confront their demons, and find the strength to carry on. Nathan’s videos have become a source of solace and motivation for those in need, as he has selflessly lent his platform to amplify the voices of charities and communities across the nation and beyond.

But who is this fabulously-clad good samaritan with nearly one million social media followers seeking everything from financial help to simple words of encouragement from their “Gay Auntie?” 

 Nathan told the Blade, “I’m just a gay guy in San Antonio with a cat.”

Bullied

After his father went to prison, Nathan was raised by his mother in government housing in South Texas. While his mother was what he describes as “violently anti-homophobic,” his experience outside of his home was far from supportive. 

This was in one of our first govt house apartments after moving into town from the country. I was about 5. My mother was raising me on her own with help from my aunt, uncles and grandma, since my father was sent to prison a few years prior.  This was what I’d call the “barrio”.  This is about the time  I first experienced bullying.  My mom says I was the sweetest kid and just wanted to hug everyone which made me an easy target. Memories here are a little fuzzy in spots. I know at about this time was when I was sexually assaulted by teen boys. Though I didn’t tell anyone until only a few years ago.” (Photo Credit: Shining Nathan)

“I was relentlessly bullied,” Nathan said. “I was beaten up a lot. My nose is crooked, and my ears are cauliflowered because of it. I was very nerdy and, at certain points, even overweight, and I’ll just say it: I was a gay little boy. I look at pictures from that time, and I think, yeah, of course they knew.”

This was a Halloween costume my mom made. We didn’t have the money to go but a costume so my mom used bingo stampers, some of my old clothes and her makeup to make me into a clown for Halloween. Growing up I knew we were poor but I never knew it if that makes sense.”
(Photo Credit: Shining Nathan)

Nathan explained that he needed to learn to fight back for his survival. “I am small. My mom is 4’11”. We are not big people. My uncle and my mom both taught me that because we are built small, every fight is a fight for my life.”

The bullying came to a head in junior high when Nathan had to be assigned a different lunchtime from his aggressors in the school’s attempt at keeping him out of harm’s way. However, the school’s efforts at protecting Nathan were insufficient, as he soon suffered a sexual assault attack that left him with an injured arm. 

“After the incident with my arm and the sexual assault, we did decide that it was time to homeschool,” Nathan said. 

Nathan spent one year in a church homeschool with five other children. He described his time as pleasant enough but somewhat boring as he was already several years ahead of his classmates, and the homeschool program was running several years behind his grade level. After one year, Nathan returned to his regular school, armed with a new perspective and determined to make it through in spite of the bullying.  

A Project to Live For

Nathan described an incident that happened prior to his homeschooling stint. He was ten or eleven years old and was sitting in the bathtub in his home. Distraught from the seemingly endless aggression of his peers, Nathan had planned to take his own life using a bottle of his mother’s pills. 

However, Nathan had a change of heart that would alter the course and purpose of his life moving forward. 

“I thought about the damage it would do to the most important person in my life at the time, my mother, and I chose not to do it. I decided that if things weren’t going to change, the one thing I could do was at least try to leave the world a little bit better than when I came into it. I made a mission with myself: if I could make one person laugh or smile a day, then my function in the world would be to at least leave it a smidge better than I entered it.”

Nathan’s new mission started at home, where he performed skits for his mother and extended family. In high school, Nathan joined theatre, where he refined his performance skills that have continued to serve him in his role of “Gay Auntie” today.

Me in high school, breaking out of shell a little bit. This was sophomore year. After my time I’m home schooling I was still trying to find my place and my voice a little so I went into north JROTC and theatre. Prior to high school I was in a religious homeschooling and was trying to work my way out of the religious stuff I had been taught, I do have to note my mom let me pick what church I wanted even though she’s catholic, and I went to a baptist church until junior high.  By my Junior year of high school I made a small group of friends . The 4 of us were inseparable.
(Photo Credit: Shining Nathan)

A Career in Empathy

“Those scars that childhood left on me made me want to try my best to help people, laugh and smile, and hopefully move on in some way. “

While much of his influence is through social media platforms like TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and Cameo, Nathan did not consider himself a “social media person” prior to COVID-19. 

“When the pandemic happened, a friend of mine told me to get on TikTok,” Nathan said. “At first, I said, no, that’s for people who can dance, and I can’t dance. But they said, Nathan, you already do this on your personal Facebook page; just go ahead and do it on TikTok and see what happens. So I thought, okay. I put a video on TikTok, and I got a little traction here and there, and it grew and grew. I got to keep my goal of making people laugh and smile and be entertained.” 

In addition to his videos directed at all of his followers and beyond, Nathan does take Cameo requests where he can speak to individual members of his audience more directly. He says the majority of his Cameo requests come from people “needing just a little encouragement or a gentle word to get them through. 

“I get a lot of requests where people ask, can you just give me words of encouragement or tell so-and-so that they are doing a good job? I have countless DMs saying, I’m alive because of you. Just hearing you say that has gotten me through, and seeing you live your life as you do has encouraged me, as a straight man from XYZ, to live my life the same.” 

Nathan recalled one particular gentleman who had accomplished everything on his bucket list and so feared he had nothing left to live for. He and Nathan went back and forth for years, adding to the man’s list.  

“I told him to go ahead and add all the obscure things to the bucket list he could think of, because there are so many wonderful experiences to be had, even if they are obscure.”

The man thanked Nathan for giving him a renewed spark in life, and added both petting and owning a goat to his list of “obscure” life goals. 

In addition to words of encouragement, Nathan spreads education on LGBTQ+ life, including what it means to be pansexual and demisexual (being sexually attracted to someone only through an emotional bond rather than physicality or other known catalyzes of attraction). 

Nathan shared, “Someone said, thank you for giving me the words for what I am. All this time, I thought I was weird, but I’m not. I’m just a demisexual.

Always true to his mission, Nathan is meticulous about the sponsorships he takes on, always weary of saying yes to any partnership he does not actively believe in, or that does not contribute to his goal of spreading joy. As such, Nathan created his “Patreon” as a way for his followers to support him without him needing to “sell out” in order to continue his work. 

Nathan has also been booked at public speaking engagements at various universities, where he has shared his insights on issues like sexual assault. He has also been a guest speaker on numerous podcasts.

Social Media Backlash

“People don’t always like hearing about injustice because it makes them see the world through a different lens,” Nathan explained. “I’ve gotten a couple of death threats, but at the end of the day, I’m not scared. I’m a 35-year-old man who lives in Texas, Babe. Come on. There’s nothing you can do to me that I can’t do back.”

While Nathan is able to move past the hate speech online, he does feel that some platforms like Instagram do target queer and BIPOC influencers, making it more difficult for someone like Nathan to grow on the platform compared to his straight-presenting caucasian counterparts. 

“I used to be a marketing director, so I can look at the metrics and see that I am being throttled down for this post because I said XYZ when other posts were not. I’ve spoken about this with other BIPOC and queer creators. It is homophobia.” 

Nathan said that he has his ways of rising above the hate in the world, including keeping a positive mindset and surrounding himself with supportive friends. 

“… and sometimes I dance,” Nathan said. 

Nex Benedict

Recently, Nathan shared a video on his platforms about nonbinary student Nex Benedict, who was brutally beaten by their classmates in Oklahoma and died the next day. Nathan shared the following exclusive take on Nex’s tragic death with The Blade:

“But let’s talk about the situation that happened in Oklahoma where a young 16-year-old non-binary student by the name of Nex was brutally beaten and murdered by three teenage girls, and not to talk about the bullying that they do at the hands of those students. But let’s also continue to talk about bullying as a whole, which I feel is getting worse due to rhetoric that is coming from certain political parties.” 

“I’m not going to mince words. the Republican party. Let that’s just called a spade a spade. They are desperate men trying to cling to power. But this also comes from a place of insecurity and lack of knowledge when you have no knowledge of what is non-binary, what is trans what is gay, and you have no empathy in terms of those things, you attack them.”

“And when people are emboldened by politicians, but furthermore by content creators who are desperately trying to get likes and views at the expense of LGBTQ+ children, you get the current atmosphere we see today.”

“When you see the message that anything ‘other’ is wrong, you get situations like Nex’s.”

Rainbow Youth Project

Nathan is a long-time partner of The Rainbow Youth Project

In a landscape where LGBTQ+ youth continue to confront unique challenges, Rainbow Youth Project USA emerges as a beacon of support and empowerment. Founded on the principles of unwavering support, empowerment, and progress, this organization vows to translate experience into action.

Backed by a network of dedicated donors and partners, Rainbow Youth Project USA sets its sights on creating inclusive communities for LGBTQ+ youth and their families. Moreover, the organization pledges to throw its weight behind political candidates who share its core values, signaling a multifaceted approach to advocacy and social change.

As LGBTQ+ youth navigate the complexities of their identities and societal pressures, Rainbow Youth Project USA stands ready to offer a steadfast hand of support. With a firm belief in the transformative power of unity and advocacy, this grassroots initiative embodies the spirit of resilience and progress in the pursuit of equality and acceptance.

Closing thoughts

In spite of facing the traumatic consequences of hate and bullying on a daily basis, Nathan says he is still a believer in the overall good of humanity. 

(Photo Credit: Shining Nathan)

“I believe there is more love in the world,” Nathan said.

“It’s just that love is quiet, and hate is loud. Somebody going to the grocery store for their partner is love. Somebody buying a gift for their friend because they know their friend is ill, that’s love, and it’s quiet. You don’t realize those things are happening around you every day, but they are happening. On the other hand, hateful influencers are very, very loud, and that’s what can be seen more, but you don’t see all the other millions of little acts of love. Thinking about those helps me recenter.”

Finally, Nathan shared the following message for The Blade readers: “Our constraints are made up, and the points don’t matter. You only get one little go around this little blue marble, so live it to your truth. That is what I say.” 

Continue Reading

Features

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

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

Published

on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild horses couldn’t drag me away. 

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

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

Continue Reading

Features

Is Jason Caceres too gay?

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

Published

on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Photo by Simha Haddad)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s on your computer?

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

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

(Caceres family photo)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outed

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

(Photo by Simha Haddad)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In company but alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fired

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wish her well,” Caceres says.

Keeping it gay

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

(Photo courtesy of Jason Caceres)

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

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

Continue Reading

Features

Sabrina Cervantes is embracing identity at home & in politics

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

Published

on

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

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

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

Balancing Work and Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family photo courtesy of Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embracing Identity at Home and in Politics

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

Family photo courtesy of Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impact on Legislation

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

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

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

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

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

Trailblazing for families

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

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

Family photo courtesy of Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes

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

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

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

Looking towards the future

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

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

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

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

Legislative achievements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More information can be found here

AB 1477 – A Bill for Maternal Mental Health

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

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

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

More information can be found here

AB 1478 – A Bill to Bolster Maternal Health Services

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

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

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

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

This bill was, unfortunately, vetoed by the Governor. 

More information can be found here.

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

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

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

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

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

More information can be found here

Continue Reading

Features

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

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

Published

on

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

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

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

Los Angeles Blade: How are you?

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

Blade: Wanting less money from streaming is unusual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Larian Studios Games Ltd.

Blade: What was it like working on this game?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blade: What was it like working with the directors?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Samantha Béart | BAFTA Breakthrough 2023:

Continue Reading

Features

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

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

Published

on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Jason Glass (Kentucky Lantern photo by McKenna Horsley)

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

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

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

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

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

 Willie Carver

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

Coming out in fifth grade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clubs provide a sense of belonging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Suicide is never one thing’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tragedy strikes again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue Reading

Features

Renée Jacobs, partisan photographer of the lesbian movement

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

Published

on

Courtesy of Renée Jacobs

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

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

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

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

A couple of women kissing on a boat

Description automatically generated with low confidence
Courtesy of Renée Jacobs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Renée Jacobs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Description automatically generated
Courtesy of Renée Jacobs

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

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

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

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

Queer women taking possession of authentic power & displaying honest representation

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

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

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

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

“There was just none of that.”  

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Renée Jacobs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Renée Jacobs Fine Art Photography

Continue Reading

Popular