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Trans company has life-saving, life-changing & affirming products

“[Social] Platforms make it difficult for trans-focused businesses to reach our customers at almost every turn”



Transguy Supply President and Founder Scout Rose, left, with the company’s creative director, Auston Bjorkman, right. (Photo Credit: Transguy Supply)

PHILADELPHIA – When Scout Rose was transitioning in 2003, it was nearly impossible to find the tools they needed. They remember combing through message boards and digging to find transition-related products that yielded mixed results. The trans community, they said, was an “afterthought” or a “side project” at best. 

“While things have certainly improved in the almost 20 years since I began my transition, by and large, the needs of transmasculine and nonbinary folks were not being addressed,” Rose told the Los Angeles Blade. 

So, Rose took matters into their own hands and started Transguy Supply, an online marketplace dedicated to supporting trans men and nonbinary people. The site offers everything from binders and packing gear to apparel and grooming supplies. 

“It started with the need,” they said. 

When they launched the business four years ago, Rose – who has worked in the trans and nonbinary communities for almost two decades – knew it would be a success. “Seeing firsthand both the size and the power of the community, I was fairly confident that the community would support a business whose primary focus was the community,” they said.  

And, so far, it seems as if they were right. According to the company, it has seen between 200% and 400% yearly growth since launching in 2018 – a feat Transguy Supply attributes to the “absolute need” of the products it offers. The online marketplace said as the trans and nonbinary community grows, their needs can no longer be written off as “niche.” 

“I believed that the community was large enough to be able to create a business that could support itself,” Rose said. Still, they added that they have been “blown away by how large the community is.” 

“It’s been incredible,” Rose said.

Blade screenshot/Transguy Supply website

The amount of people who identify as transgender has grown generation by generation, according to a 2022 Gallup poll. In fact, trans Gen Zers – born between 1997 and 2012 – more than double the percentage of trans millennials, 2.1% to 1%. Additionally, about 42,000 children and teens across the country received a diagnosis of gender dysphoria in 2021, nearly triple the number in 2017, according to Komodo Health Inc. data compiled for Reuters

As the need grows, so has the availability of transition-related products. But, Transguy Supply’s Chief Marketing and Community Officer Rocco Kayiatos said, when you look at companies for trans people “built by folks that are outside of the trans community, they don’t understand the economic reality of trans people.”

“That economic reality is stark against the rest of humankind, in that the majority of trans folks don’t have jobs and those that do are making well below poverty line levels,” he added. 

It’s true. According to a 2019 study by the Williams Institute, an LGBTQ legal and policy think tank, 29.4% of trans people live in poverty – tied with cisgender bisexual women for the highest rate in the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ people, as a whole, have a poverty rate of 21.6%, according to the report, much higher than the rate for cisgender straight people, 15.7%. 

In addition, researchers at Vanderbilt University found that trans Americans are 14% less likely to have completed college and 14% more likely to live in poverty. Even after controlling for the lack of a college degree and other observable differences, researchers said, trans people are still 11% less likely to have jobs than cisgender men in comparable situations.

“Economists call this an unexplained gap, but it’s likely that discrimination plays a role,” said Kitt Carpenter, who co-authored the study, “Transgender Status, Gender Identity, and Socioeconomic Outcomes,” published in the Industrial and Labor Relations Review. 

The Center for American Progress and the Movement Advancement Project, in a 2015 report, said, “Transgender Americans face clear financial penalties simply because they are transgender.” In the report, the two nonprofits detailed how “pervasive discrimination,” “a lack of legal protections” and the “failure to adequately protect transgender students” contribute to the economic gap. 

“I think one thing that Scout and Auston [Bjorkman, Transguy Supply’s creative director] did really beautifully – it’s embedded in the fabric of how they run this business – is to ensure that we are a lower cost option for the majority of the products that we offer to reflect the exact population that we’re serving,” Kayiatos, who joined the business late last year, said.

Take a $75 prosthetic, Kayiatos used as an example. “Seventy-five bucks is the choice between eating or not eating,” he said. Transguy Supply prices most of its prosthetics, also known as packers – a realistic or semi-realistic penis, usually made of silicone, meant to make trans men and gender nonconforming people more comfortable and confident – well below $75. 

In many ways, Transguy Supply provides a version of gender-affirming care. “It’s life-saving and life-changing and life-affirming,” Kayiatos said.

Though some states have made strides in protecting trans people, the political landscape for trans people – especially trans youth – has largely gotten worse in recent years. In the first weeks of 2023, the ACLU has already counted over 120 new anti-LGBTQ bills across the country, most of which target education and trans healthcare. And that’s not to mention the record-breaking number of anti-LGBTQ bills seen in years past

“These bills represented a coordinated effort to deny transgender people our freedom, our safety, and our dignity,” said Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project.

One major target of this legislation has been banning trans youth from accessing gender-affirming care – anything from puberty blockers to hormone therapies to surgeries, a rare intervention for minors. In 2023, though, the legislative efforts have leveled up, with some bills now targeting adults as old as 26. 

In Oklahoma, for example, a Republican lawmaker filed legislation seeking to prevent anyone under the age of 26 from accessing gender-affirming care – deeming it the “Millstone Act of 2023.” What’s more, doctors who break the law could be punished with an unclassified felony conviction and the possible revocation of their medical license. 

“The bills targeting trans adults represent a significant escalation in the ongoing legislative attacks on the trans community,” Erin Reed, a legislative researcher and trans activist, told the Blade. “These bills serve to shift the Overton window in order to make passing bans on trans youth more palatable. They also indicate a willingness by these legislators to move towards a future where our right to exist is denied and those who care for us, criminalized.”

As the push to strip gender-affirming care from trans people grows, the products Transguy Supply offers become more important. “I think any sort of service that’s dedicated to creating access for goods or services or space or fostering a community for trans people is essential for our survival,” Kayiatos said. “And I think that we’re always going to be a community that takes care of ourselves because we’ve been discarded by the world at large.”

As the business continues to grow, it has found itself “bootstrapped,” Kayiatos said – running into advertising problems on Meta-owned Facebook and Instagram and Alphabet Inc.-owned Google.

Rose said that Facebook “regularly rejects” Transguy Supply’s products for “Advertising Policy violations.” Screenshots shared with the Blade showed a gray crew neck sweatshirt with “SIR” in black letters being removed for an “Advertising Policy violation.” In addition, a black and white T-shirt with an illustrated image of two people in jockstraps also couldn’t be used for ads.

Transguy Supply’s “Sir Sweatshirt” was blocked by Facebook for violating its Advertising Policy. 
Photo Credit: Scout Rose

Instagram, Rose said, has also removed photos that were “quite PG.” They added that the platform rejects tagged products – a feature that allows brands to tag products in an image to make it easier for users to find additional information – so much so that they “had to turn off notifications because it was distracting.” 

“We don’t tag prosthetics, and we rarely post them, so the products they are un-tagging are apparel, binders, and underwear,” Rose said. 

Meta didn’t comment on Transguy Supply specifically. However, a spokesperson provided the Blade with background on its policies in an email. “We have long had a policy that limits ads with adult content, like nudity, and adult products, like sex toys, in part because we take into account the wide array of people from varying cultures and countries who see them,” they said.

Transguy Supply’s “Trans & Non Binary TYT Love” T-shirt was blocked by Facebook for violating its Advertising Policy. 
Photo Credit: Scout Rose

The spokesperson also outlined the platform’s efforts to protect LGBTQ people, something the company has come under fire for in the past. 

“While our policies are not changing, we have improved our enforcement and provided more detail to advertisers under our Adult Products and Services policy,” the spokesperson said, adding: “Over the last year – with feedback from advocacy groups including GLAAD – we removed Interest topics that people may perceive as sensitive, including those related to sexual orientation and gender identities other than cisgender.”

The spokesperson also pointed the Blade to Facebook’s recently published LGBTQ Safety Page in the Facebook Safety Center. In it, the company states that it wants the platform to be “a place where LGBTQ+ people can share their voices, build community, and bring the world closer together.” 

On Tuesday, Meta’s Oversight Board urged the company to update its policies on adult nudity to prevent enforcement errors for trans and nonbinary people. The independent governing body overturned Meta’s decision to remove two bare-chested Instagram photos – with nipples covered – of a trans couple posting about gender-affirming healthcare.

“The board finds that Meta’s policies on adult nudity result in greater barriers to expression for women, trans, and gender nonbinary people on its platforms,” a board blog post read. “They have a severe impact in contexts where women may traditionally go bare chested, and people who identify as LGBTQI+ can be disproportionately affected, as these cases show. Meta’s automated systems identified the content multiple times, despite it not violating Meta’s policies.”

Rose also accused Google Ads of suspending their Transguy Supply, though they have “no idea why.” “No one from Google will speak to you once your account is suspended,” they said.

Googleplex Headquarters, Mountain View, California
(Photo Credit: Asoundd CC BY-SA 4.0)

Rose estimated the original Google suspension came in 2018, with their appeal coming shortly after. “I took to the internet to see if I could figure out what to do,” Rose said. “I remember reading somewhere that this often happens to companies that use foreign banks, but that couldn’t be us because Transguy Supply banks with Chase.” 

Rose’s best guess for the suspension was because their Google account name, which was under Scout, was different from the name on their credit card – their deadname. 

Though Rose “triple-checked” their bank details, ensuring all information was accurate, and changed their Google account name to match the name on their credit card, the appeal was denied. 

“When researching, I also read that repeat suspensions can result in permanent suspension, so I decided not to appeal again,” Rose said, adding: “Without the ability to use Google Ads, I was forced to figure out other means of getting eyes on our business.”

Google did not provide a statement before publication, however in an email sent Wednesday, January 25, a Google spokesperson told the Blade:

“We support a healthy digital advertising ecosystem that is trustworthy, transparent, and works for users and advertisers. We welcome all beliefs and perspectives on our platforms provided they follow our advertising policies. Transguy Supply’s recently created account was not suspended. If any advertiser believes their ads account was suspended in error, they always have the option to appeal and there is no deadline to submit one.”

“Platforms make it difficult for trans-focused businesses to reach our customers at almost every turn,” Rose said. “Google wouldn’t let me advertise at all. Instagram routinely untags our products. And Facebook’s bots randomly reject products as benign as T-shirts from their ad program.” 

Kayiatos, who was previously the chief marketing and content officer at FOLX Health – an LGBTQ-focused healthcare platform – said he has faced similar problems in the past. But he also had an “enormous budget” at the time.

“We didn’t face the same barriers that a small business faces when it’s serving LGBTQ-focused needs and services,” Kayiatos said. 

Still, Transguy Supply is marching forward. Late last year, Rose added Kayiatos – who has been a transmasc culture creator for over 20 years – to the team, something they saw as a big step forward. In addition to Kayiatos’ previous role at FOLX, he created a magazine about trans masc culture called Original Plumbing and worked for tech giants including BuzzFeed and Grindr. 

Blade screenshot/OP website

Rose and Kayiatos had known each other for a few years, but they started to get closer over the pandemic. “I actually can’t even remember why, but we would have these long phone conversations,” Rose said. “It was just so clear that I was speaking to a kindred spirit, someone whose brain was really similar to mine, and someone who is just incredibly easy to trust.”

Rose added: “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say there is no other person in the United States who is and who in the last 20 years has created more opportunities for trans masculine people to connect with one another than Rocco [Kayiatos].”

“I’m gonna figure out how to get Rocco on board,” Rose thought to themself. “This is a match made in heaven.”

Kayiatos obliged. “Why not come back and do it with a bootstrapped community that I belong to, that I love, that I feel tethered to for the rest of my life?” he said. “This community needs resources.”

Kayiatos also praised the way Rose built the business. “I get to work with someone who doesn’t need more than he needs to build this company in this way that’s so counter to business right now, that is so central to the core of how I’ve lived my life,” he said, adding: “I don’t need to compromise my morals in any way, shape or form to show up and work for Transguy Supply. 

With Kayiatos on board, the company is now heading full steam into the future. 

“We already are the world’s largest one-stop shop for transmasculine, trans men and nonbinary folks when it comes to transmission-related needs,” Rose said. But to them, the potential of TransGuy Supply is endless. “We want to be a community hub, we want to be an informational hub, we want Transguy Supply to be a home for trans masculine, trans men and nonbinary folks,” Rose said.



David Archuleta Mom’s unconditional love is a raging inferno

“Nothing more beautiful than be yourself & to be accepted as you are— do not put your religion first, put your family first. Love each other”



David Archuleta performs his latest hit single onstage at American Idol Monday, April 22, 2024. (Screenshot/YouTube American Idol/ABC)

MURRAY, Utah – Studies suggest that around 90% of LGBTQ youth rejection by family is due to religious beliefs. The result of that rejection ranges from individual mental health issues to a disproportionate number of homeless teens.

David Archuleta, American Idol and Masked Singer first runner-up, shows that it does not have to be that way. Last year, David came out as LGBTQ, clearly an issue with the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormon), in which he had grown up. A few months later, he announced that he would be leaving the Church altogether. 

How would this play with his devout Mormon mom, Lupe Bartholomew?

When David joined me on my Rated LGBT Radio podcast, he told me her reaction amazed him. “I was pretty surprised. My mom was very devout just as I was. I did not hear from her for a few days after it had been announced that I stepped away from the Mormon Church, I thought I had pissed her off. When I did hear from her, the first thing she told me was ‘I decided to step away from the Mormon Church’. Like WHOA- that was not the response I was expecting to hear,” he said. “I thought she was going to say ‘hey, I wish you the best’ or whatever. But to say … well, I had so many questions myself. She finally said, ‘I have no desire to be somewhere where my children do not feel welcomed and loved’ and she said ‘If you are going to Hell, well. We are all going to Hell with you.”

Her response, inspired his recent top 10 hit single Hell Together.

If I have to live without you

I don’t wanna live forever

In someone else’s heaven

So let ’em close the gates

Oh, if they don’t like the way you’re made

Then they’re not any better

If paradise is pressure

Oh, we’ll go to Hell together   … from the song Hell Together

Lupe, who was born in Honduras, is a beautiful dynamic Latin woman with a killer smile and an infectious laugh. She and her family were brought food by Mormon missionaries and became dutiful faithful when she was very young before the family immigrated to the U.S.  

The heart of David’s family’s Mormonism was in the joy and innocence of the spirituality they experienced, particularly around Christmas. (David’s music catalog contains an array of Christmas music which reflects how much it informed the fabric of his religious commitment.) Lupe’s fondest memories are around putting cute Santa hats on her kids, teaching them music, and seeing the joy they gave others as they performed for them.

Now, David still is reveling in the joy and spirit his music brings, but in a whole new context. “Transitions is my new brand. Many people knew me as a kid and knew me as a devout Mormon. I am not a kid anymore; I am not a Mormon anymore. I’m not even religious anymore. But that doesn’t change the core of what makes me… Me. I guess I am trying to figure out who I am. A lot of us are trying to figure out who we are. We don’t expect life to happen the way it does. Your perspective changes,” he tells me as we talk. “You have to find a new reason, and purpose and meaning behind what you once celebrated as a kid, innocently with big eyes.  That’s how life feels for me, and I am trying to make sense of it. It’s exciting, and sometimes there is heartbreak in the realizations and there is loss, at the same time, it does not mean you can’t start over again and make something new and beautiful and even greater than what you thought the world was before.”

Lupe’s initial reaction to David being gay was at best, sympathetic. She recalls as she was interviewed on the Mormon Stories podcast, “I was totally against it, because of what I was taught and I was obedient. He was so dedicated, so into the gospel. I think he was trying to ‘pray the gay away’. I saw him trying to pray the gay away. And he couldn’t.” 

At that time, she “just knew he was going to get married to a girl in the temple.” She states, “I was raised by my parents to love unconditionally, and that is how I was with him.  He was so patient with me.  It was new to me that you could be LGBT and love God and love the Commandments. David was so patient in explaining that to me. It was hard for me to accept it, but I told him ‘I love you, no matter what’ –I was still planning to stay in the church. I thought ‘he’ll figure it out’ and come back and marry a woman. But he educated me, that LGBTQ people have a heart—they are just like us.”

David tried to go to church with her until he finally said, “Mom, I can’t go to church anymore, it hurts.” She cries over the sincere effort David made, and the guilt she feels she put him through of wanting him to continue to go with her. “I feel so bad I put him through that.”

She took the issue to her Bishop and begged him for help with the pain her son was in.  He told her to “stay faithful.” She looked around and realized she had never seen an LGBTQ person sitting in church—ever. “If they were sitting there, they were probably hiding,” she says. “God loves his children. God is not here. Because God is Love. There is no way He is saying ‘yes you belong here’, and you, ‘no, you don’t belong here’. I was seeing a little bit of light. I was starting to understand the LGBTQ community.”

“I was feeling like I was hypnotized. I was hoping the leaders would suddenly say ‘we now accept LGBTQ people. People are dying over not getting accepted. How can they ignore that?”

“I cannot imagine the pain of all the LGBTQ children and people sitting in church hearing, ‘I love you’ but this gospel does not pertain to you unless you change. I can’t.”

Lupe’s decision was neither rash nor immediate. It grew over time and soul searching. She found she could no longer answer the questions of faith that the church was asking of her. “I just couldn’t. I just don’t support the beliefs anymore. The beliefs are a fantasy. They do not work for me, they do not work for my family—so I resigned my membership. They lied. I felt angry and disappointed.”

David is writing a book, and his struggle with the Church itself will be a major narrative. “They are trying to re-brand the Mormons… I try to still try to respect them, especially as they have been supportive of me on my journey. I try to respect their journey, their sense of community and what allows them to feel perfect and the reason to keep going in their lives. Of all the groups of people who have supported me, the Latter Day Saints have been the most supportive of me on my journey. And of course a lot of the members of the church have opposed what I do, and how I’ve gone about it,” he says.

He feels the majority of Latter Day Saints do and would support the LGBTQ community, but don’t speak out in contradiction to their church leaders. “They don’t do what their hearts tell them.”  He and other prominent musicians have addressed the anti-queer leaders in a plea for understanding. The silence and the resistance he got back is why he decided to personally leave. “It was not healthy for me. This was not the place I needed to be. I needed to go somewhere healthier.”  He seeks to have those within the Latter Day Saints community understand how much they misunderstand the LGBTQ experience.

Some of the responses show that many are not listening:

“Repent and return to Christ”

“All our religion asks is for dudes to stay out of other dudes butts”

“The LGBTQ virus is real”

That does not matter much to David. “People don’t realize what they are saying to queer people, forcing them to leave. They think we are going to Hell anyway.”

I asked him what had happened for him since our last conversation a year earlier. “A lot has changed, transitioning out of faith mindset, and you are programmed to see the world a certain way, and you are checking yourself to see if you are falling in line. It was scary at first, but very exciting, every day is exciting.  I am hey, I’m ok, I have not been struck by lightning, I am still here, alive and happy,” he answers.

Mom Lupe is in a similar headspace. “I just wanted to be honest. I like honesty. I just want to live an honest life. My fear was that I would not have the Spirit, but I am 10 times happier than I ever was. The faith transition is what is painful. I was mad, I was sad—because I was in pain over all the lies I believed. You have to go through those emotions before you see the light again. Until you find—Ahh Here I am. I get to think on my own, make decisions, and give to whom I want. I could not be happier. I have to reconstruct who God is now, I have to figure that out. I have to start all over again. I feel full and complete—love who I am. No regrets.”

Regarding her outlook on David—gone are the hopes he will bring home a girl one day. There is nothing but pure acceptance. Lupe says, “It is beautiful. Nothing more beautiful than to be yourself and to be accepted as you are. To families of any religion—do not put your religion first, put your family first. Love each other.”

 So, will David and his mom actually end up in Hell together, as his song says? If they do, they are likely to, ironically, do so in a manner that the Mormon Profit, Joseph Smith foresaw. 

Smith said, “If we go to hell, we will turn the devils out of doors and make a heaven of it.”

That, I think, is a Latter Day Saints idea that David, Lupe and all his fans can live with.



Rob Watson is the host of the popular Hollywood-based radio/podcast show RATED LGBT RADIO.

He is an established LGBTQ columnist and blogger having written for many top online publications including The Los Angeles Blade, The Washington Blade, Parents Magazine, the Huffington Post, LGBTQ Nation, Gay Star News, the New Civil Rights Movement, and more.

He served as Executive Editor for The Good Man Project, has appeared on MSNBC and been quoted in Business Week and Forbes Magazine.

He is CEO of Watson Writes, a marketing communications agency, and can be reached at [email protected] 

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The world ‘isn’t much different today’

Governments, politicians, political candidates, & parties around the world have used specific groups of people to advance a particular agenda



The entrance to the Auschwitz I camp in Oświęcim, Poland, on April 7, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

OŚWIȨCIM, Poland — Łukasz, a Polish man who was our group’s English-speaking tour guide at Auschwitz, on April 7 asked us while we were standing outside one of Auschwitz I’s barracks why the Nazis systematically murdered more than 6 million Jewish people.

“Once they are gone, Germany will be great again,” he said, referring to the Nazis’s depraved justification.

There were other Americans in our group of about 40 people. I would like to think they are familiar with the dehumanizing MAGA rhetoric to which our country has become accustomed since President Joe Biden’s predecessor announced his White House bid in 2015. The fact that I was at a Nazi concentration camp was simply overwhelming, and I didn’t feel like speaking with them or to anyone else at that moment.

The unspeakable horrors that happened at Auschwitz are on full display. Łukasz’s comment was a stark warning to us all amid the backdrop of the current socio-political realities in which we in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere around the world currently live.

• Suitcases, glasses, shoes, kitchen utensils, prosthetic limbs, baskets, Jewish prayer shawls, and toothbrushes that were taken from people upon their arrival at Auschwitz were on display in Auschwitz I’s Block 5. One exhibit also contains children’s clothes.

• Auschwitz I’s Blocks 6 and 7 had pictures of male and female prisoners along the corridors. They contained their birthdays, the day they arrived at the camp and when they died. Block 7 also had mattresses and bunk beds on which prisoners slept and the sinks and latrines they used.

• The basement of Auschwitz I’s Block 11 had cells in which prisoners were placed in the dark and starved to death. The basement also had cells in which prisoners were forced to stand for long periods of time. Executions took place at the “Death Wall” in the courtyard between Block 10 and 11. Guards also tortured prisoners in this area.

• Medical experiments took place in Block 10.

• A gas chamber is located near Auschwitz I’s entrance with the gate that reads “Arbeit macht frei” or “Work sets you free.” The adjacent crematorium contains a replica of the furnaces used to burn human bodies.

• An urn with human ashes is in Auschwitz I’s Block 4. Hair cut from people who were killed in the gas chamber was also there.

The entrance to the gas chamber at Auschwitz I camp in Oświęcim, Poland, on April 7, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Auschwitz I, a former Polish army barracks, is one of 40 camps and subcamps around Oświęcim, a town that is roughly 30 miles west of Kraków, Poland’s second-largest city, that became known to the world as Auschwitz. Upwards of 90 percent of the 1.1 million people killed at Auschwitz died at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, which is roughly 1 1/2 miles northwest of Auschwitz I in the village of Brzezinka (Birkenau in German), and more than 90 percent of those murdered upon their arrival were Jewish.

The ruins of two crematoria the Nazis blew up before the Soviets liberated the camp in January 1945 are there. (A group of Israelis were praying in front of them while our group was there.) A train car used to bring people to the camp was also there, along with some of the barracks in which those who were not immediately killed in the gas chambers lived.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau’s sheer size is incomprehensible.

A train car used to transport prisoners to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Brzezinka, Poland, on April 7, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

The Nazis killed 6 million Jewish people in the Holocaust. They also murdered gay men, Poles, Roma, Sinti and millions of other people from across Europe.

The day I visited Auschwitz marked six months since Hamas launched its surprise attack against Israel. 

More than 1,400 people — including 260 people who Hamas militants murdered at the Nova music festival in Re’im, a kibbutz that is a few miles from the Gaza Strip — have died in Israel since Oct. 7, 2023. The subsequent war has left more than 30,000 Palestinians in the Hamas-controlled enclave dead, and millions more struggling to survive. Oct. 7 was the deadliest attack against Jewish people since the Holocaust. That unfortunate coincidence of dates — Oct. 7 and April 7 — was not lost on me while I was at Auschwitz. 

Another striking thing is the area in which the camps are located.

The train from Kraków to Oświęcim passes through idyllic countryside with green meadows, flowering trees and freshly tilled fields. Purple lilacs — like those that bloom each spring on the trees in my mother’s backyard in New Hampshire — were in full bloom inside Auschwitz I. Grass and dandelions were growing amid the remains of Auschwitz II-Birkenau’s barracks. Birds were chirping. The weather was also unseasonably warm with temperatures well over 80 degrees and a cloudless sky.

All of it was beyond surreal.


I visited Auschwitz while on assignment for the Washington Blade in Poland. I interviewed gay Deputy Polish Justice Minister Krzysztof Śmiszek in Warsaw and sat down with activists in the Polish capital and Kraków to talk about the country’s new government and the continued plight of LGBTQ refugees from Ukraine and other countries. My trip began in Budapest, Hungary, and ended in Berlin. I did not write this piece until I on my flight back to D.C. on Tuesday because I could not properly articulate my thoughts about what I saw at Auschwitz.

Auschwitz II-Birkenau in Brzezinka, Poland, on April 7, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Governments, politicians, political candidates, and parties in the U.S. and around the world have used specific groups of people to advance a particular agenda, to blame them for what is wrong in their particular country and/or to deflect blame from their own failures. The Nazis and what they did to Jewish people and anyone else they deemed inferior is the most grotesque example of what can happen if such actions are not stopped.

Łukasz told us outside of one of the Auschwitz II-Birkenau barracks at the end of our tour that the world “isn’t that much different today.” He also said that we are “witnesses.”

“It’s up to you how you react to it,” said Łukasz.

Let’s hope we all do our part to make sure the atrocities that happened at Auschwitz never happen again.


Michael K. Lavers is a veteran journalist and the international news editor for the Washington & Los Angeles Blades.

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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” 



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.” 

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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



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.

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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’



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.

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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” 



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.”


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.” 

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild horses couldn’t drag me away. 


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

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Is Jason Caceres too gay?

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



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.


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.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wish her well,” Caceres says.

Keeping it gay

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

(Photo courtesy of Jason Caceres)

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

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

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Sabrina Cervantes is embracing identity at home & in politics

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



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

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

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

Balancing Work and Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family photo courtesy of Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embracing Identity at Home and in Politics

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

Family photo courtesy of Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impact on Legislation

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

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

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

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

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

Trailblazing for families

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

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

Family photo courtesy of Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes

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

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

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

Looking towards the future

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

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

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

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

Legislative achievements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More information can be found here

AB 1477 – A Bill for Maternal Mental Health

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

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

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

More information can be found here

AB 1478 – A Bill to Bolster Maternal Health Services

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

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

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

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

This bill was, unfortunately, vetoed by the Governor. 

More information can be found here.

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

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

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

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

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

More information can be found here

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

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



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

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

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

Los Angeles Blade: How are you?

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

Blade: Wanting less money from streaming is unusual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Larian Studios Games Ltd.

Blade: What was it like working on this game?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blade: What was it like working with the directors?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Samantha Béart | BAFTA Breakthrough 2023:

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