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Frequent social media use may change young teens’ brains

LGBTQ+ youth use social media as an escape or method to connect with others. Study finds frequent use may change young teens’ brains

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Los Angeles Blade/Photo by Dan Balinovic

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Before the pandemic, Will Larkins said they spent an “excessive” amount of time on social media. But when COVID-19 hit the U.S. – bringing American life to a screeching halt – Larkins saw their screen time reach new heights.

During quarantine, Larkins said, they would spend an average of 10 to 12 hours a day on social media – TikTok, specifically, would garner at least four to five hours of their time everyday. 

Larkins particularly found solace in the online beauty community – garnering a sizable following, including high-profile YouTubers James Charles and Shane Dawson. In June 2020, Larkins’ social media use even made it to The New York Times, which included their take on the controversy surrounding Dawson and fellow YouTuber Jeffree Star. (The two were facing allegations of racism and sexualizing minors; Charles has also faced backlash, including for allegedly sending nude photographs to a 16-year-old boy and pressuring him into inappropriate conversations on Snapchat.)

“This pyramid system where Shane and Jeffree are kings and everyone else is below them is over,” Larkins is quoted saying in The Times article, adding that “the next generation of beauty influencers, it’s going to be about artistry and not just drama. People are realizing we need more representation of people of color, Asians and every minority. The beauty world is a place to express yourself. The younger generation understands that better than the older beauty gurus.”

Despite the drama, Larkins said that social media made them feel like they “could be this tough, beautiful, strong person that I didn’t feel like I was in reality.” 

“[Social media] was more of an escape,” Larkins, now 18, told the Los Angeles Blade. “And because I didn’t have friends, I felt like these strangers online – these people I watched on YouTube and the people that communicated with, even just briefly – were my friends or part of my social circle.” 

David M. Hogg, co-founder ‘March For Our Lives’ (L) Jen Cousins, Founding member of the Florida Freedom to Read Project (M) and Will Larkins, Florida student activist-LGBTQ+ rights advocate (R)
(Photo Credit: Cousins/Twitter)

LGBTQ+ youth have long used social media as an escape or method to connect with other queer young people. A study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, for example, found that sexual minorities between 10 and 16 years old more often reported joining a group or web-based community to make themselves feel less alone compared to their heterosexual peers.

Research & Studies

However, a recent study by researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill found that young teens who checked social media habitually – more than 15 times per day – become more sensitive to expected social feedback over time.

“In other words, these teens might become more attuned to social rewards and punishments,” Maria Teresa Maza, one of the study’s two lead authors, told the Blade.

Researchers tracked 169 public middle school students in rural North Carolina over three years. At the beginning of the study, the participants were asked how often they checked three major social media platforms – Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat – with answers ranging from less than once to more than 20 times a day. Meanwhile, the students underwent yearly brain imaging sessions while completing the social incentive delay task, which measures brain activity when anticipating social feedback from peers. 

Notably, the research – published in JAMA Pediatrics on January 3 – also found teens who do not check social media as often become less sensitive to social feedback over time.

“The findings suggest that children who grow up checking social media more often are becoming hypersensitive to feedback from their peers,” said Eva Telzer, a corresponding author of the study. 

Maza, however, noted that the team of researchers was “unable to make causal claims about these findings.” She added, “While we found checking behaviors to be linked to brain development over time, we are unable to say that social media caused this change.” 

Adolescents, which the study focused on, are at a “unique period” in their brain development, according to Maza. “Teens go through a lot of changes in their brains that help prepare them for the transition into adulthood. And one of these changes is that they start seeking out more social interactions, especially with their peers,” she said. “The interesting thing about social media platforms is that they allow teens to have constant access to social feedback whenever they want to, which can be very rewarding to teens.”

Though the study didn’t focus on LGBTQ youth in particular, young queer people – who use social media at higher rates than their cisgender, heterosexual peers – may be especially vulnerable. According to a Human Rights Campaign (HRC) blog post, LGBTQ youth spend an average of 45 minutes more a day online than their non-LGBTQ peers. 

Many LGBTQ+ advocates and researchers say LGBTQ+ youth use social media at higher rates to find people like them. In fact, in a 2019 Center for the Study of Social Policy article, writer Rebecca Torrence said that without the internet, “I would still be struggling with my sexuality today.”

“Social media can be a powerful tool for finding safe, affirming spaces and connections online – particularly for LGBTQ+ youth who might not have affirming environments at home or school,” Dr. Myeshia Price, director of research science at The Trevor Project, told the Blade. 

Maza agreed. “One of the benefits of this, particularly among youth who may identify in ways that differ from their in-person peers, is that they can have access to support and affirmative individuals or systems at the touch of their fingertips,” she said, adding that the “increase in support and affirmation has been shown to improve social and emotional outcomes of these teens.” 

Considering The Trevor Project’s most recent research shows only 37% of LGBTQ+ youth identified their home as an affirming space and just over half said the same of their schools, Price said “it makes sense why LGBTQ youth may often turn to social media and online communities in order to seek out affirming and supportive connections and spaces.”

There is a flip side, however. Though online communities can be a source of affirmation for LGBTQ+ youth, they can also be a source of bullying and harassment. The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ+ Youth Mental Health found more queer young people reported social media having a positive impact on their mental health, 96%, than negative, 88%. Still, the overwhelming majority of LGBTQ+ youth see social media’s pitfalls. 

But what, if anything, can be done?

Some say young teens shouldn’t have access to social media platforms at all. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said last month that he thinks 13 – the minimum age to join major sites like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter – is too young.

“It’s a time where it’s really important for us to be thoughtful about what’s going into how they think about their own self-worth and their relationships and the skewed and often distorted environment of social media often does a disservice to many of those children,” Murthy told CNN.

Murthy continued to say that “if parents can band together and say, you know, as a group, we’re not going to allow our kids to use social media until 16 or 17 or 18 or whatever age they choose, that’s a much more effective strategy in making sure your kids don’t get exposed to harm early.” 

Mitch Prinstein, a co-author of the UNC-Chapel Hill study, agreed that “most adolescents begin using technology and social media at one of the most important periods for brain development during our lifetime.” However, he didn’t place the sole onus on parents, adding that policymakers must also understand “the benefits and potential harms associated with teen technology use.”

When asked what policymakers could do about this issue, Maza said she could not offer recommendations based on the recent study alone. However, as an expert researcher in the field, Maza noted how important it is to “engage in conversations with teens themselves to better understand their unique experiences online.” 

“Given the highly self-selected and individualized nature of social media platforms, teens can engage in different behaviors and have distinct experiences online,” she said. “For this reason, it is important to include teens in conversation to better understand how they are spending their time online and how we can best support their healthy media use.” 

In terms of LGBTQ+ youth, specifically, Price pointed less to policies surrounding social media use and more to the record amounts of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation seen in statehouses across the country in recent years. 

Legislative attacks

In only a little over a month into 2023, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has already counted over 250 anti-LGBTQ+ bills – many targeting the lives of queer youth, from sports to healthcare to the classroom. In fact, according to the ACLU, the majority of the legislation, 120, targets schools and education. In second place, with 82, are bills seeking to restrict LGBTQ+ healthcare, mostly transition-related services for trans minors (some lawmakers have even started to target trans adults, as well). 

Late last month, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, signed into law a bill that bans minors in the state from receiving gender-affirming care – the first such measure signed this year. It was somewhat of a departure for Cox, who was celebrated last year for vetoing an anti-trans sports bill. 

“I always try to err on the side of kindness, mercy and compassion,” he wrote in his veto letter. “I also try to get proximate and I am learning so much from our transgender community. They are great kids who face enormous struggles.” 

In a statement, Cathryn Oakley – the HRC’s state legislative director and senior counsel – said Cox signing the anti-trans healthcare bill “has directly placed the LGBTQ+ youth he previously claimed to want to protect in harm’s way.”

“Politicians with no medical training and no real understanding of the harmful impact these bans have on transgender people should have no say in how best practice, age appropriate care is delivered,” she added. 

Cox, in a statement issued announcing his approval of the bill, argued “pausing these permanent and life-altering treatments for new patients until more and better research can help determine the long-term consequences” was necessary. Many major medical groups in the U.S. – including the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics – support gender-affirming care for minors and oppose legislation aiming to restrict it. 

“While we understand our words will be of little comfort to those who disagree with us, we sincerely hope that we can treat our transgender families with more love and respect as we work to better understand the science and consequences behind these procedures,” Cox said. 

The legislative attacks aren’t going anywhere, either. Terry Schilling, the president of the conservative American Principles Project, told The Times in a Jan. 25 article that anti-LGBTQ+ bills are a “political winner.”

Furthermore, many states across the country already have anti-LGBTQ+ measures in place. According to the Movement Advancement Project (LGBT MAP), six states have laws on the books that censor discussions of LGBTQ+ people or issues in school; four states ban or restrict best medical care for trans youth; and 18 states prohibit trans students from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity. The group also rates 21 states “low” or “negative” for their LGBTQ+ policies. 

These policies affect the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth, according to The Trevor Project – and it even affects how they are treated. The recent poll found 86% of trans and nonbinary youth said recent debates around anti-trans bills have negatively impacted their mental health; 75% of LGBTQ youth say that both anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes and threats of violence against LGBTQ+ spaces often give them stress or anxiety; and 45% of trans youth experienced cyberbullying. 

“The harmful rhetoric and vitriolic debates surrounding these bills, and the confidence they give people to make anti-LGBTQ+ remarks in public spaces, are being felt online and taking a negative toll on the mental health and wellbeing of LGBTQ+ youth,” Price said. 

So in addition to ensuring that online communities are safer and more supportive of LGBTQ+ youth, Price also urged policymakers to “pass legislation that protects and uplifts LGBTQ+ young people’s mental health and wellbeing.” 

Larkins uses social media as a tool, limiting their usage

Larkins’ online life has changed dramatically since the days of pandemic-induced lockdowns, they told the Blade. Last year, Larkins found themselves in The Times again – but not over internet drama. Instead, their appearance was as a guest writer, explaining how Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill will hurt teens in the state. (Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the legislation, limiting classroom discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity, in March 2022.)

“I have come to realize that those who have been so openly hateful toward me often knew little about the queer community — they thought being L.G.B.T.Q. was a conscious choice,” Larkins, the president and a co-founder of the school’s Queer Student Union and one of the organizers of a mass student walkout over the bill, wrote in the essay. “Education didn’t just give me a sense of self worth but also the knowledge of a community and lifeline there for countless young people.”

Reflecting on their social media use, Larkins said they felt like their phone “was pulling me away from moments I was having in my real life.” It was something they became aware of around the time their essay was published in The Times. 

“I was spending more time with mature people who would go to dinner, go get coffee, and they wouldn’t be on their phone,” Larkins said. “They’d be present with the person who’s in front of them. And I’m a high schooler still addicted to my phone like everyone else, so I would be the only one who would check their phone at these more sophisticated events and things.”

I started noticing [my phone] was pulling me away from these moments, and it was a source of stress,” they added. “It really just came together for me.”

Larkins also realized that social media was “fake,” they said. “I had a persona [online]; I was just fake,” Larkins said.

The final breaking point was during Larkins’ spring break last year when they were reflecting on their phone usage. “I looked back at how much time I’d wasted,” they said. 

Now, Larkins uses social media as a tool, limiting their usage to their laptop. “I started cutting down,” they said. “I completely deleted TikTok, and I started setting a time for myself to check my social media.” 

That made Larkins have “think of things to do,” they said. “I discovered so much about myself, about things that I liked about myself, about skills that I had, things that I was interested in, places in my neighborhood that I’d never explored,” Larkins said. “I was bored, and I let myself be bored – which is terrifying that kids just don’t have that anymore.”

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Meet Howard Uni’s first trans student body president, Jay Jones

Jay Jones was born to a conservative Christian family where she said being gay was not socially acceptable

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Jay Jones (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

By Omari Foote | WASHINGTON – Jay Jones was born to a conservative Christian family where she said being gay was not socially acceptable. This year, she was named Howard University Student Association’s first transgender president. 

When Jones was younger, she enjoyed activities that are traditionally “feminine.” She said she has always had a higher-pitched voice, talked with her hands and preferred playing inside with Barbie dolls. 

Jones came out as gay in eighth grade to her sister who said, “Girl, I been knew.” 

“I think that was very much a turning point year for me because it was a year where I kind of knew how I was feeling,” Jones explained. “There were emotions I felt ever since I was younger, but I never could put verbiage or language to it,” she said.  

That same year, Jones was elected as the first student body president of her middle school. She said that is where her leadership journey began and that year was pivotal in her life. 

When Jones won her first campaign as HUSA vice president, she was feeling unsure about her gender identity after she was asked which pronouns she wanted to use. 

“I said ‘I don’t really know because I don’t feel comfortable using he/him pronouns because I don’t think that expresses who I am as a person,’ but at that time, I don’t think I was to the point where ‘she/her’ was necessary,” she said. 

Outside of student government, she was part of a traditionally all-male organization at Howard, Men of George Washington Carver Incorporated. There, she said she always felt like the sister to all of her brothers. 

“I remember I would cringe sometimes when they would call me brother,” she said. 

Even though she felt like she aligned with she/her pronouns she said she was “scared” of what it could mean for her moving forward. 

She knew that her given pronouns were not a reflection of who she was but wasn’t sure what to do about it. She was talking with Eshe Ukweli, a trans journalism student who asked Jones a simple question that clarified everything. 

“‘If you were to have kids or if your brother or your sister or someone around you was to have kids, what do you imagine them calling you?’ and I realized, it was always ‘mom,’ it was always ‘sister,’ and it was always ‘aunt,’” she said.  

Jones still looks to Ukweli as a mentor who provides her with wisdom and guidance regularly.

“She knows what it’s like to do hormones, she understands what it’s like to be in a place of leadership and to be in a place of transition,” she said. “There is no amount of research, no amount of information, no amount of anything that you can take in, that could ever equate to that.”

In 2023, Jones’s junior year, Howard University was named the No. 1 most inclusive Historically Black College or University for LGBTQ-identifying students by BestColleges. 

Howard has a storied past with the queer community. In the 1970s, Howard hosted the first National Third World Lesbian and Gay Conference, according to a 1979 Hilltop archive. However, multiple articles in the ‘90s highlighted homophobia on Howard’s campus.  

“’There is the feeling … that by coming out there will be a stigma on you,” said bisexual Howard student, Zeal Harris in a 1997 Hilltop interview. 

As a result, multiple LGBTQ advocacy organizations were created on Howard’s campus to combat those stigmas. 

Clubs like The Bisexual, Lesbian, and Gay Organization of Students At Howard (BLAGOSAH) and the Coalition of Activist Students Celebrating The Acceptance of Diversity and Equality (CASCADE) were formed by Howard University students looking to create a safer campus for queer students. 

However, Jones didn’t know much about this community when she was entering Howard. She recognized Howard as the HBCU that produced leaders in the Black community, like Thurgood Marshall, Toni Morrison, and Andrew Young. 

“This university has something about turning people into trailblazers, turning people into award-winning attorneys, turning people into change makers,” she said. “I think that was one of my main reasons why I wanted to come here, I wanted to be a part of a group of people who were going to change the world.”

So, as she entered her junior year at Howard, she set out to begin her journey to changing the world by changing her school.

This school year she ran for HUSA president, the highest governing position on Howard’s campus. She said that this was the hardest campaign she has ever run at Howard and that she warned her team the night before election result announcements that she would start weeping if their names were called. 

“During the midst of that campaign season, I was in an internal kind of battle with members of my family not accepting me, not embracing me, calling me things like ‘embarrassment’ and not understanding the full height of what I was trying to do and who I was becoming,” she said. 

Jones said the experience was mentally draining and a grueling process but that she leaned on her religion to help her see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

“I’m a very devout Christian and for me, I was like, ‘It was nothing but God that got me through, it was nothing but God that got me through this,’” she said. “If people knew what I went through you would be falling on your knees and weeping too.”

Jones said that in high school she had to really work through her relationship with God because she was raised in a church that said gay people were going to hell. So, when she came out as a trans woman she had to re-evaluate the relationship she worked so hard to create with God, again.

Jay Jones (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

She reflected and realized that God didn’t use the perfect people in the Bible but that he works through everyone. 

“So if God can use all of those people, what is there to say that God can’t use the queer? What is it to say that God can’t use trans people,” she said.

After she graduates next year, Jones hopes to work in campaign strategy. She said the ‘lesser of two evils’ conversation isn’t working anymore for Gen-Zers and wants to pioneer new ways for young voters to engage with politics. 

“Really working on engaging and mobilizing young voters on how to understand and utilize their power, especially as it relates to Black and Brown people,” she said. 

When she became vice president of HUSA last year she said she did it for for all the little Black queer children down South who haven’t gotten their chance to dance in the sun yet.

“If there was anyone ever coming in who’s trans, the No. 1 piece of advice that I can give you is, be the role model that the inner child in you needed most, be the advocate that the child in you needed most,” she said “And most importantly, be the woman that the child saw in you but was too scared to be.

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Omari Foote is a journalist and currently a Web + Social Fellow at Washingtonian Magazine. She is also a contributor to the Washington Blade and a graduate of Howard University in Washington D.C.

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Is Connecticut a ‘safe haven’ for trans youth?

For some, not safe enough- Connecticut lawmakers and advocates are pushing for legislation offering protections for trans and LGBTQ+ students

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Gov. Ned Lamont spoke at a vigil for Nex Benedict, a nonbinary teen, held at the Capitol on Feb. 28, 2024. (Ally LeMaster/CT Mirror)

By Ally LeMaster & Luke Feeney | HARTFORD, Conn. – When LGBTQ+ activists, lawmakers and students gathered at the Capitol on Feb. 28 to honor the life of Nex Benedict, a nonbinary teenager from Oklahoma, their loss felt a lot closer to home than the nearly 1,500-mile distance. 

“We gathered together today as a community to grieve the loss of Nex Benedict, a beautiful 16-year-old child, and to try and make sense of what is absolutely senseless,” said Rev. Aaron Miller of Metropolitan Community Church in Hartford. 

Benedict, who used both he/him and they/them pronouns, died by suicide a day after getting into an altercation with three girls in an Owasso High School bathroom, according to the Oklahoma Chief Medical Examiner. Their death has sent shockwaves across the country, causing LGBTQ+ activists to renew scrutiny of Oklahoma’s anti-transgender school policies.

Gov. Ned Lamont, one of more than 100 attendees at the Hartford vigil, vowed: “We’re not going to let that happen in Connecticut. That’s not who we are.”

But many advocates say state leaders could be doing much more to support Connecticut’s LGBTQ+ students.

Gov. Ned Lamont attends vigil at Connecticut state capitol honoring nonbinary teen Nex Benedict. (Screenshot/YouTube Fox61 Hartford)

Among state lawmakers, the debate is far from settled. Connecticut has some of the most comprehensive legal protections in the country for transgender individuals, yet for the past two years, Republican lawmakers have supported legislation the LGBTQ+ community takes issue with — for example, banning trans athletes from competing in school sports and mandating schools to notify parents when a child starts using different pronouns. 

For a state often labeled as a “safe haven” for trans children, many LGBTQ+ students say they still face hatred in school based on their identity. 

Surviving school

Ace Ricker, an LGBTQ+ advocate and educator, says “navigating” life as a queer person in Connecticut was far from easy. 

Ricker grew up in Shelton. He came out as queer at 14 years old to his family but only told a few friends about his identity as a transgender man.  

Everyday in high school, he would show up with his hair in a slicked back ponytail, wearing baggy T-shirts and jeans. 

No bathroom felt safe to Ricker in high school. At the time, he only used the women’s bathroom, where he says he experienced verbal, physical and sexual abuse. 

“The few friends I had, I was telling them, ‘Hey, if I go to the bathroom and I don’t come back in 10 minutes, come and check on me,’” said Ricker. 

One year in high school, he opened up to his civics class, sharing that he was a part of the LGBTQ+ community. He said he thinks that led school administrators to assign him to what he called “problem student” classes. 

“I was seen in school as a rebel or a problem,” said Ricker. “I barely got through graduating because through school, it was about surviving— it wasn’t necessarily learning.” 

Ricker graduated in 2008, but stories like his are common among LGBTQ+ students in Connecticut. 

Leah Juliett, a nonbinary activist who uses they/them pronouns, graduated from Wolcott High School in 2015. Like many trans and nonbinary students, Juliett originally identified as queer and later came out as nonbinary at 19 — the year they found out what “nonbinary” meant. 

“I came out in high school. I was relentlessly bullied,” said Juliett, “My school binders were thrown in the trash and had milk poured over them. My school locker was vandalized on my birthday. I would get harassing messages and things like that on social media.” 

Juliett says they were one of the few openly gay kids in school who not only had to deal with bullying but watched as local lawmakers proposed legislation to limit their rights. 

“It becomes deeply hard to exist,” Juliett said. “I was engaging in self harm, suicidal ideation. All of this is a result of not being supported by my town, by my community, by my peers, by my family— all of it.” 

In recent years, parents of LGBTQ+ students in Connecticut have brought their concerns to the federal Department of Education.  

In 2022, Melissa Combs and other concerned parents reported Irving A. Robbins Middle School in Farmington to the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights after school administrators declined to investigate an incident where students ripped a Pride flag from the wall and stomped on it. 

Combs is the parent of a transgender son. During her son’s time at the middle school, she said he faced relentless bullying, where he dealt with students telling him to kill himself, getting called slurs and was assaulted by a student. 

Two years later, the OCR investigation is still ongoing.

“We entered into this knowing that it was going to take a lot of time,” said Combs. “We entered into it with the hope that we could make some positive changes to the school climate in Farmington.”

Since opening the investigation, Combs tried to reenroll her son in Farmington public schools, only to pull him back out again. She says not much has changed in the school culture. 

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” said Combs. “It was, again, a horrible experience.”

Events like this pushed Combs to take the issue up with the state legislature. Combs founded the Out Accountability Project that has the goal of “understanding” local issues affecting  LGBTQ+ youth. She says she’s been having these conversations with lawmakers. 

“I’ve spent a great deal of time in the LOB [Legislative Office Building] so far this session,” Combs said. “What I’m sensing is not only support, but a sense of urgency in terms of supporting families — families like mine across the state.”

The legislation

Republican lawmakers in state houses across the country have introduced a variety of legislation targeted at LGBTQ+ students. In 2023, more than 500 of these bills were introduced around the country, with 48 passing. Since the beginning of this legislative session, Benedict’s home state of Oklahoma has considered over 50 different pieces of legislation regarding LGBTQ+ children.

In Connecticut, the “Let Kids be Kids” coalition, a group of elected officials — including legislators Mark Anderson, R-Granby, and Anne Dauphinais, R-Killingly — and religious leaders and parents advocated for two bills for the Education Committee to consider. 

The Trans Flag flying above Connecticut State Capitol.
(Photo Credit: Connecticut Senate Democrats)

The first piece of legislation would have forced teachers to disclose to parents if their child started using different pronouns at school. The other would have required student athletes to participate in sports with members of the gender they were assigned at birth. 

“Kids are best protected when parents are involved,” said Peter Wolfgang, the president of the Family Institute of Connecticut, during a February Let Kids be Kids press conference at the Capitol. “The state should not come between parents and their children.”

The Education Committee declined to raise the bills, and neither concept got public hearings. This hasn’t thwarted future plans by the coalition.

We’ve seen undeniable research that trans students face an inordinate amount of bullying and stressors in their lives. – Rep. Sarah Keitt, a Fairfield Democrat

“I am actually very encouraged, because we grew awareness at the General Assembly this year,” Leslie Wolfgang, director of public policy at the Family Institute, wrote in a statement to the Connecticut Mirror. “This session was just the first step in a multi-year process to grow awareness and look for ways to balance the needs of all children and their families in Connecticut.” 

Debates during the current legislative session have revealed nuanced views among lawmakers on transgender rights. General Assembly Democrats sparred over gender neutral language in House Bill 5454, which seeks to direct more state and federal funding toward mental health services for children, caregivers and parents. Members of the Appropriations Committee debated whether to use the term “pregnant persons” or “expectant mothers,” with two Democrats calling for an amendment to include both terms, saying they felt the bill was more inclusive that way. 

Still, the legislature has advanced several bills this session that propose to expand rights and protections for LGBTQ+ individuals in Connecticut, and they heard testimony from the public on an effort to extend Shield Laws — laws meant to protect individuals who seek abortions from other states — to include gender-affirming care.

On April 10, the Senate passed Senate Bill 327, a bill aimed at creating a task force that would study the effects on hate speech against children. 

The legislation calls for the group of educators, social workers, religious leaders and civil rights experts to file a report by the beginning of next year with their research and recommendations. The group would also study the environments students where face the most hateful rhetoric and examine if hate speech is primarily conducted by children or adults.  

“We’ve seen undeniable research that trans students face an inordinate amount of bullying and stressors in their lives,”  Rep. Sarah Keitt, D-Fairfield, said in an interview with the CT Mirror. “A lot of that comes at schools and we need to do much more to protect them.”

The bill is currently on its way to the House.

In February, Senate Bill 380, An Act Concerning School Discipline, passed out of the Education Committee. The bill includes proposals that would require services for the youngest children who receive out-of-school suspensions and continues work initiated last year to collect survey data from schools on the “climate” facing their more vulnerable student populations. This year’s bill would also require school administrators to clarify the motivations for any bullying incidents — if they’re due to a student’s race, gender or sexual orientation, for example.

Another proposal comes as an amendment to the state constitution that would prohibit the discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity under the Equal Protection Clause. While Keitt expressed support for the amendment, she was doubtful on the likelihood of it passing. 

“It is such a short session, we have very little time, and if we were to take up the constitutional amendment, it would mean that we wouldn’t be able to get other more pressing needs — not to say that those protections aren’t important.” Keitt also pointed to the statutory protections already in place statewide. 

Another piece of legislation, House Bill 5417, would require local and regional boards of education to state a reason for removing or restricting access to public school library materials and prohibits such boards from removing or restricting access to such materials for reasons based on race, political disagreements or personal discomfort. 

Book bans, primarily targeting novels about people of color and LGBTQ+ community, have increased over the past few years in towns like SuffiledNewtown and Brookfield.  

“I think that it really protects gay and transgender authors of color,” Keitt said. “It allows our children to have a broader educational experience and protects our libraries from political attacks.”

Policy already in place 

While state lawmakers have been considering new legislation, many LGBTQ+ advocates say they’d like to see more enforcement of existing legal protections for queer people.

Public Act 11-55 was enacted in 2011, prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity or expression. This, among other protections, is why Connecticut is often heralded as a “safe haven” for transgender and nonbinary individuals. 

But many advocates say the LGBTQ+ community, and those designated to protect them, are often uninformed of those legal protections.  

“You can pass all the laws you want, but if you don’t provide communities with resources to implement those laws, they aren’t as useful as they should be,” Matt Blinstrubas, the executive director of Equality CT, said. “We haven’t invested enough into educating people.” 

According to Mel Cordner of the LGBTQ+ advocacy group Q Plus, one of the most concerning trends they see in schools is when educators are unaware of the protections students have. 

“I’ve had teachers [say] you can’t do any kind of hormone therapy or puberty blockers or anything until you’re 18. Or require kids to get parental permission to change their name in the school system, which you don’t need to do,” said Cordner. “Staff are either fooled by their administrators, or they just assume that kids don’t have certain rights.” 

When the Nex Benedict news hit, that rocked our whole network of career kids really, really hard because every single one of them went, ‘Oh God, that could have been me.’ – Mel Cordner Q Plus

Photo Credit: Q PLUS CT/Facebook

While the Department of Education must keep a list of instances of bullying, advocates say many queer students do not report their harassment because they are not comfortable coming out to their families. 

“I’ve grown up with many trans kids who only felt safe being openly themselves at school,” said Juliett. “And even then they were subjected to bullying and harassment, but they couldn’t be themselves at home.”

“When the Nex Benedict news hit, that rocked our whole network of career kids really, really hard because every single one of them went, ‘Oh God, that could have been me,’” said Cordner. “There were a couple kids I was worried about enough to reach out to personally, because that was them — that exact situation of being cornered and assaulted in a bathroom physically has happened in Connecticut schools more than once.”

Filling the gaps

Bullying, isolation and lack of support from family members are few of many reasons why gay, bisexual and transgender youth have a disproportionately high suicide rate. 

According to The Trevor Project, a nonprofit suicide prevention organization for the LGBTQ+ community, queer young people are “more than four times as likely” to attempt suicide compared to their straight, cisgender peers. In a 2023 study, the nonprofit found that 41% of LGBTQ+ youth have “seriously considered attempting suicide” within the past year. Youth of color who identify as trans, nonbinary and queer experience even higher rates.  

Concerning statistics like these are why many LGBTQ+ advocates have taken it upon themselves to create a community-based support system for queer youth. 

Metropolitan Community Church in Hartford/Facebook

Miller, a Christian pastor from Metropolitan Community Church in Hartford, works with community members across the state to provide services like “Trans Voice & Visibility 365,” a ministry dedicated to helping transgender individuals get their basic needs, and at the Yale Pediatric Gender Program, a support center for people children exploring their gender identity. 

Miller creates a place at his church where he can “celebrate” transgender and nonbinary people and coordinates with other LGBTQ+ groups like Q Plus to throw events where kids can explore their identity by exchanging clothes and trying on different outfits. 

“Kids want to be themselves. We’re encouraging them to be themselves,” said Miller. 

It’ll never stop surprising me how many people work with teens and think they don’t work with queer teens. – Mel Cordner Q Plus

While Miller helps build community for many transgender individuals, he finds himself on the front lines of many near-crisis moments. Miller said he once stayed up through the night talking a child out of killing themself after their family abandoned them. 

Miller’s church is part of a support network for families he calls “medical refugees” — transplants from places like Oklahoma and Texas, where they faced death threats and allegations of child abuse. The church community helps these families find housing, medical services and other support.

“The two greatest commands that we were given in a Christian understanding is to love God and to love each other as we love ourselves,” said Miller. “And yet, we’ve been telling people that they can’t love themselves or they’re not lovable, and that other people aren’t going to love us either.” 

Cordner founded Q Plus in 2019 “with the goal of filling gaps” for LGBTQ+ youth programs. Q Plus operates in nine towns and cities across the state while providing a variety of resources for students from support groups to game night. 

The organization also provides services aimed at adults that include programs that help parents better engage with their LGBTQ+ children as well as professional development trainings for school staff on the best ways to interact with queer students. 

“It’ll never stop surprising me how many people work with teens and think they don’t work with queer teens,” said Cordner. 

Q Plus also has a program where the organization is contracted by schools to “review and revise policies” to support LGBTQ+ students.  

“[The] bottom line is always listen to your kids,” said Cordner. “They will tell you what they need.” 

Connecticut Mirror is a content partner of States Newsroom. Read the original version here.

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Ally LeMaster

Ally is a CT Mirror 2024 legislative intern. She is a senior at University of Connecticut studying English and journalism. In addition to The Connecticut Mirror, she acts as the editor-in-chief of Long River Review, UConn’s undergraduate-run literary magazine and works as a research assistant on The Mansfield Training School Memorial and Museum project, recording and writing about disability history. She has also written for The Daily Campus, her university’s newspaper.

Luke Feeney

Joining Connecticut Mirror as a legislative reporting intern for the 2024 session, Luke Feeney is a senior at the University of Connecticut. He is currently studying political science and journalism and expects to graduate in June. At UConn he is currently a columnist for their student-run newspaper, The Daily Campus. In his weekly column he explores politics, international relations and current events. In addition, he is a member of the Daily Campus Editorial Board.

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The preceding article was previously published by The Rhode Island Current and is republished with permission.

The Rhode Island Current is an independent, nonprofit news outlet focused on state government and the impact of public policy decisions in the Ocean State. Readers can expect relentless reporting with the context needed to understand key issues affecting the lives of Rhode Islanders.

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

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“Our Queer Life” chronicles the diversity of the LGBTQ+ experience

The series is quickly reaching people across the globe and fostering understanding and empathy among its viewers

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Photo courtesy of Matt Cullen

WEST HOLLYWOOD – In the bustling lanes of digital storytelling, where narratives burst and fade with rapid clicks, Matt Cullen’s documentary series “Our Queer Life” emerges as a poignant chronicle of the LGBTQ+ community’s diverse experiences.

With over 200,000 subscribers on YouTube, Cullen’s series stands out not just for its breadth of voices—from celebrities to street hustlers—but for the depth with which it explores the moving lived realities of queer individuals.

Cullen took time out of his busy schedule to give The Blade an exclusive interview about his fledgling hit series.

A Passionate Beginning

Born and raised in Northern California, Cullen’s early life in a supportive, albeit traditional, family environment shaped his sensitive approach towards storytelling. A curious and open child who loved musical theatre, Cullen always had a passion for interesting stories and how they are told.  

Cullen worried about coming out to his family, but said that he is eternally grateful that the nerve-wracking experience involving a letter left on the kitchen table for his parents to find, fortunately ended in acceptance and love, with his parents ultimately embracing his truth warmly. 

“It was a scary big step,” Cullen reflected. “Coming out to my family or my really close friends was scary because I was worried if they didn’t accept me, I would not know how to handle that… It was more about accepting myself and embracing who I was and saying, this is my life now. “

Cullen said that he knows that the  familial support he received as a newly out high school senior contrasted sharply with the narratives of many he would later spotlight in his series, providing him with a profound appreciation for his own comparatively smoother journey.

“The stories that I tell are very heavy,” Cullen said. “But I still feel so inspired and motivated by the determination of these people to keep living and to keep going in spite of everything. Their drive and their willingness to live for themselves and nobody else leaves me invigorated and inspired.”

Sampling of the variety of episodes of “Our Queer Life” on Cullen’s YouTube channel.

The Birth of “Our Queer Life”

Cullen, who initially pursued acting after college in New York, found himself dissatisfied with the roles and scripts that came his way. “I felt like I was just regurgitating somebody else’s words,” he shared, highlighting his discomfort with being constantly typecast as over-the-top gay characters.

The turning point for Cullen came during the COVID-19 pandemic.. Trapped in his apartment, feeling isolated and longing for interaction, he envisioned a new creative outlet. “I felt like I needed to talk to new people,” Cullen said. “I was craving a deep connection with strangers, and I wanted to hear new stories. That deep desire was what the impetus for the series.”

The combination of Cullen’s artistic empathy mixed with his own feelings of entrapment led him to think about how difficult life must be for other queer individuals stuck in societal ecosystems that inherently reject their queerness. 

“I thought about a lot of fundamentalist religious groups and how difficult it is for people to be gay there,” Cullen remarked, pinpointing the acute need for representation from these underrepresented groups.

Cullen’s first interview was with Rob, a man Cullen had found through a Facebook group and who had left the Jehovah’s Witness community to live authentically. 

“I am still so grateful that Rob felt comfortable to be the first to share his story with me,” Cullen said. 

Screenshot/YouTube Episode #1: Why He Left Jehovah’s Witnesses

Rob’s story provided a raw, unfiltered look at the challenges of adapting to the outside world after leaving a controlled religious environment. He discussed not only the doctrinal and social shackles he escaped but also the practical challenges of integrating into society, like finding employment without real-world skills.

This encounter didn’t just enrich Cullen’s series; it set a precedent for the type of stories he wanted to feature—stories of struggle, resilience, and the search for identity. Each episode aims to foster understanding and empathy among viewers, broadening their perspectives on the complexities of queer life in various contexts.

Empathy Through Intimacy

“Our Queer Life” thrives on its intimate portrayal of its subjects. Each episode delves into the hurdles and triumphs of individuals within the LGBTQ+ community, aiming to destigmatize topics like sex work and address the misrepresentation of trans people. Through his conversations, Cullen not only exposes the challenges faced by his subjects but also celebrates their resilience and humanity.

Mousie, who had lived through unimaginable challenges, from serving multiple prison terms to surviving on the streets of North Hollywood, became one of the earliest and most influential subjects of Cullen’s series. Her willingness to open up about her life provided “Our Queer Life” with a narrative that encapsulated the struggles and resilience of a marginalized individual fighting for survival and dignity.

During their first meeting, Mousie shared her journey with Cullen, detailing her life in a $67/month apartment and her experiences as an intravenous drug user and sex worker. This episode alone drew over 300,000 viewers, resonating deeply with audiences and humanizing a community often relegated to the shadows of society. Cullen revisited Mousie a year later, further exploring her day-to-day experiences and struggles, adding layers to her story that emphasized her humanity over her hardships.

Mousie’s influence extended beyond the screen; her relationship with Cullen grew into a deep, familial bond. In her final days, confined to a hospital bed, she expressed her heartfelt connection to Cullen, telling him, “I was her brother and that we had great things to do together.” Her passing was a profound loss for Cullen, who felt her spirit continued to guide his work, inspiring him to pursue stories with even greater dedication.

Reflecting on Mousie’s role in shaping “Our Queer Life,” Cullen credits her with helping him gain the credibility and trust necessary to navigate the complex landscapes of street life and sex work. “Mousie was the one who broke this for me,” Cullen remarked, acknowledging how a TikTok video of her story garnered 30,000 views and messages from viewers expressing how deeply they related to her experiences. This response marked a turning point for the series, illustrating the power of storytelling in building connections and fostering understanding.

“I feel like she is still with me in everything that I do,” Cullen said. “She told me before she died that I was her brother…I can literally feel her.”

Looking Forward

As “Our Queer Life” continues to grow, so does its creator. Cullen remains hands-on, involved in every aspect of production from filming to editing, driven by a personal touch that resonates deeply with his audience. While he contemplates the future of the series, possibly on larger platforms like Max, his priority remains the authentic representation of his subjects’ lives.

 “I will always refuse to do anything exploitative where we don’t ask about (the subject’s) lives and their desires,” Cullen said, underscoring his commitment to creating real and nonexploitative narratives. “I want every person who clicks on a video to leave that episode feeling a connection and relating to them.”  

The series is quickly becoming a vital part of the cultural conversation, reaching people across the globe and fostering understanding and empathy among its viewers. For many, it provides the first intimate look at lives they might otherwise never encounter, bridging gaps and building connections.

In a world where divisions run deep, Matt Cullen’s “Our Queer Life” offers a beacon of unity, celebrating the shared human experiences of love, struggle, and resilience. Through his lens, viewers are reminded that despite our vast differences, the desires for acceptance, health, and happiness are universal.

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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”

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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.

Watch:

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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

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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.

AUSCHWITZ II-BIRKENAU ON APRIL 7, 2024. (WASHINGTON BLADE VIDEO BY MICHAEL K. LAVERS)

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.

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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” 

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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

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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.

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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.

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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’

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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.’”

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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.

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

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

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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” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Nathan’s video here: 

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

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

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

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

Bullied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Project to Live For

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

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

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

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

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

A Career in Empathy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Media Backlash

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

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

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

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

“… and sometimes I dance,” Nathan said. 

Nex Benedict

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

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

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

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

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

Rainbow Youth Project

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

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

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

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

Closing thoughts

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

(Photo Credit: Shining Nathan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild horses couldn’t drag me away. 

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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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