Social media platforms: Primary source of anti-LGBTQ+ hatred
A serious threat are those who know how to walk the fine line between first amendment rights and that defined as illegal harassment
LOS ANGELES – With cyberbullying at an all-time high, all states now have laws requiring schools to respond to this type of online harassment. But are those laws working? The escalating mental health crisis amongst queer youth would suggest that no, they are not.
According to a pre-covid pandemic study conducted by stopbullying.gov, about 16 percent of students in grades 9–12 nationwide experienced cyberbullying. Dosomething.org reported that approximately 37% of young people between the ages of 12 and 17 have been bullied online- with 30% experiencing incidents more than once.
Among those are a significant percentage of LGBTQIA+ youth who are consistently targets of online bullying and hate speech. In fact, the organization says that about half of all LGBTQ+ students experience online harassment — a rate higher than their cis-gender peers .
Rainbow Youth Project
Many queer youth suffer acute mental health crises due to cyberbullying and have nowhere to turn for help and guidance. This is where Rainbow Youth Project (RYP) steps in.
“The primary purpose of Rainbow Youth Project is to promote the health safety and well-being of LGBTQIA+ young people,” Michael Garrett, Communications Manager told the Blade. “Our nationwide mental health program is our core program that provides meaningful access to free, indefinite mental health counseling to LGBTQIA+ teens who otherwise would not have access to it.”
“Cyber bullying has just gone through the roof,” Garrett said. “We get hundreds of calls every day that say ‘I don’t even want to turn my phone on when I get home because now the hate follows me home. I block and they make a new account, I block, and then they make a new account. I report it and I get told that this is not a violation.’”
Sadly, Garrett said, the need for mental health crisis intervention has quickly become overwhelming.
“This past weekend we had 741 contacts to Rainbow Youth Project between Sunday morning at 8 AM and Monday morning at 8 AM. Those were all mental health needs.”
All in, RYP receives an average of 300 calls per day – such a large number that they have had to triage their mental health care which Garrett told The Blade “is a big no no,” because often, the calls RYP receives are of youths in acute and immediate distress.
“We had a child just three weeks ago who was a trans girl from Louisiana,” said Garrett. “She had taken a very large quantity of various medications and all she wanted was somebody to speak to you while she went to sleep. We were able to do a welfare check immediately, and we were able to get her to the hospital. We were able to save her life.”
Cyberbullying Linked to Hate Crimes
Many of these calls come to Garrett and his Rainbow Youth colleagues as a result of cyberbullying, which leaves these queer youths traumatized and isolated and seeing no other recourse than taking their own lives.
Garrett shared two stories with the Blade:
“Tony Vallejo was a young man who was a gay teen. His parents were very involved with the church and he had a boyfriend at that church who was his age. That boy’s parents found their text messages and outed him. They literally emailed everyone in the church and in their community that Tony was a sexual predator and trying to make their son gay.”
“Tony ended up being attacked online because people were passing this false information along. He attempted suicide twice and had four or five hospitalizations. He was so distraught over the cyberbullying that he was undergoing that he was stabbing himself with pencils just to try to get rid of this pain.”
“All of this traveled through social media. It traveled through TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram. People were driving by the family’s house screaming ‘fag’ from their cars. The family couldn’t even go to a Walmart without people, saying ‘I saw online that your son is a sexual predator.’”
Finally, the family had to resort to leaving the state, uprooting themselves from Texas to California to save their son’s life.
“If they hadn’t moved,” said Garrett, “Tony was literally going to be a victim of his own taking.”
Christian Peacock, was another queer youth whose story went viral after RYP started working with him.
“Christian was on his front porch in his hometown in Utah hugging his boyfriend when a car was driving by and these teens started calling them all kinds of slurs. Those teens then came back and beat Christian up on his front porch. The family ran out and videotaped it. The New York Daily News reposted it, and the assailant was arrested and just a matter of 24 hours later.”
“After he was arrested, it was found that he was part of a Mormon sect. Many of that clan started posting things about Christian’s family online and calling him a liar, saying the assault didn’t happen like he said it did. This manifested into people tormenting him, very similar to the Vallejo’s, by pulling up in front of his family’s house with squealing tires, yelling slurs. The police department had to send someone to drive by their house every fifteen to thirty minutes just to make sure the family was okay all as a result of what was posted online.”
Although Christian had been hospitalized with a concussion after the filmed beating, the false rhetoric that Christian was lying about the attack continued to spread on social media. The bullying wreaked havoc on Christian’s depression as he became more and more isolated from his peers and his community at large.
When Christian’s assailant was sentenced, the judge ordered him to do community service with an LGBTQIA+ organization in Utah. This caused even more outrage amid the homophobic community, which then began to harass the organization itself online.
“He couldn’t go outside of his house, because people were sitting across the street waiting for him to come out,” said Garrett. “All of that harassment was a result of all the things that were being posted online.”
Alarmingly, so much of this hate speech and false rhetoric on social media could have been but was not stopped by the platforms themselves.
“All these hateful comments should have violated the TOS [Terms of Service] on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Even though those things were reported, they were never removed.”
“Let’s just be honest, social media platforms do not care. They do not care,” Garrett added.
Social Media Platforms Don’t Care
Garrett noted he recently read about a social experiment wherein a group created and submitted purposefully hateful and bigoted posts to various social media platforms as paid ads. The platforms accepted these advertisements, which used words like “groomer” and “fag.”
When the group recalled these ads, explaining that they had only submitted them to test whether the platforms would accept them, the platform representatives responded claiming that they would not actually have allowed the ads to run, despite having already accepted payment for them in advance.
It is no secret that social media has become an open playing field for hate speech. So many perfectly innocuous posts get taken down for “violating” the platform’s cryptic guidelines, while others, like the ones created for the aforementioned social experiment, run rampant and unchecked by these sites.
With so many social media users frustrated at the confusing rules of what is and is not allowed to be posted, California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed AB 587, authored by Assembly Member Jesse Gabriel, into law. The new bill is designed to hold social media platforms more accountable by demanding transparency of their rules and how they intend to implement them.
In a recent interview with The Blade, West Hollywood’s first ever queer, Iranian Mayor, Sepi Shyne, explained that social media platforms need to treat online hate speech as real threats that can lead to real violence.
“We also have to reconsider our laws about what is considered inciting violence,” Shyne said, “because those laws didn’t consider social media at the time. When those laws were created, they were about people saying things in person and then asking whether or not it is probable that violence will ensue from that interaction. But now we have people on social media saying horrible things that do lead to violence.”
In addition to violence, another serious threat are those who know how to walk the fine line between what is considered first amendment rights and that defined as illegal harassment. These people are aware of those types of laws mentioned by Shyne, and actively harass and traumatize LGBTQIA+ youth to a certain point but without straying into unlawful territory.
“There is a major box chain store known across the country for its inclusivity,” Garrett told The Blade. “It is known for having a specific section for pride, rainbow shirts, rainbow bracelets, things of this nature. In the last forty-three days we have had four reports of teen trans people who have been in this store shopping in that particular merchandise section who have been verbally attacked by adults. It is almost as if these people were stalking that section of the chain’s locations to harass people who were looking at those items.”
Garrett explained that these adults avoided being charged with hate crimes by never physically assaulting or touching their targets.
“I think these people know just how far to go without going too far which tells me that they are actually putting training into this. I’m not a cop. I could be wrong. But it’s almost just too coincidental that in all four of these instances, people never physically threatened or touched, or did anything actually illegal. They were just making comments and being disruptive and possibly stalking.”
Garrett also made the connection between these verbal attacks and a particular TikToker who made it his public mission to stake out the queer section of this chain with the intent of “hunting down LGBTQIA+ people.” These videos did get removed initially, but resurfaced at a time coinciding with documented four attacks.
One of these four victims is being featured in an article in the Advocate.
“The harassment was so severe that she attempted suicide after the interaction. Someone was following her around the store, saying that she was ‘one of those freaks who was trying to sleep with children,’ calling her a pedophile and a groomer. This was a 17-year-old child. This man followed her out of that store. Like I said, we have had four kids who have called, and one who actually attempt suicide as a result of that attack. The other three were in acute crisis and they had to be met by a psychologist immediately,” Garrett said.
Sadly, there is only so much organizations like the Rainbow Youth Project can do for these victims.
“I am happy to say that while her situation was very serious and very dire, she is doing well but she is very isolated. Her parents do not allow her to leave home without one of them or another adult that they know so that whole family is really suffering from this entire 10 to 15 minute interaction. It is trauma,” he added.
Social Media Attacks on Rainbow Youth Project
As Republican state legislators continue to pass bills stripping LGBTQ+ rights into law in GOP-led states, many parents turn to Rainbow Youth Project for things like gender affirming care, which they cannot attain in their home states.
“The second program taking up a substantial amount of Rainbow Youth Project’s resources is the transgender non-surgical gender affirming healthcare assistance program. The program advises and assists young individuals who are underinsured or uninsured by setting them up with physician consultations and continuation of care. Like their mental health program, this assistance is nationwide, benefitting states like Oklahoma where gender affirming care is illegal. In October, the program was assisting twelve youths. Now the program assists 174 youths and has a waiting list of 223,” Garrett noted.
Despite all the help and advocacy they provide for targeted queer youth, RYP itself is not safe from virulent online hate speech and threats of violence.
“We have been called groomers and pedophiles,” said Garrett. “We had an accusation a few weeks ago that we were running a sex trafficking ring of children. We also have been accused of performing surgeries on children. These allegations are absolutely not true. We offer suicide prevention and mental health help. We do not perform surgeries on children, but Moms for Liberty and [the anti-LGBTQ+] Libs of TikTok attacked us, and said that we were indoctrinating children. People read that, and then they attacked us even though these are lies. They don’t take the time to research what we do or how we do it, but they attack us because they believe what they are seeing online.”
“Lance (RYP’s founder) does not take any bullshit. He served a ‘Cease and Desist‘ to the guy on his job hours after the tweet about sex trafficking posted. He also turned it over to the attorney general in the state of Minnesota where if you make an online statement that you cannot actually support, it is a crime. It’s a misdemeanor, and Lance actually told him in the letter, ‘I have reported you to the attorney general for the state of Minnesota and we will prosecute you.’ He removed the tweet immediately. We need to track these people down and serve them with these notice of intent to file litigation against them .”
Eric Nathan, a private investigator specializing in cybercrime, told The Blade that in many cases it is almost impossible to track down most cyberbullies, unless they link their handles directly to their personal emails, which many know not to do.
“Last year we had so many bomb threats that we had over 24 pride events that we had planned in June for young people that we had to cancel,” said Garrett. “We had to cancel every single one of them because the threats were so strong and they were coming from Libs of TikTok and Moms for Liberty people. It was just too risky to expose children to that.”
The online hate not only threatens youthful victims and supportive organizations, but misinforms parents who then are too frightened to seek assistance for their LGBTQ+ children.
“As you might or might not know, 50% of LGBTQIA+ kids who seek mental health help cannot get it. 20% of those kids cannot get it because their parents will not consent. So when we are dealing with parents trying to get their consent for treatment, the biggest barrier is fear because of what they have read online,” said Garrett. We hear things like, ‘I read on Facebook that you’re going to transition my son. You’re not going to be happy that he’s gay you’re not going be happy that my daughters is a lesbian. You want everyone to be trans now. You’re going to teach my son that he is trans and not gay when you take him to counseling.’”
“But all of that false narrative is coming from the information that is on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok that they will not remove. It’s all lies, and it’s all misinformation, and they know that, but they will not remove it and that is exactly what happened with Tony Vallejo. Moms for Liberty started feeding his mom so much nonsense. They were sending pictures of mastectomies and telling her, ‘If you take your son going to counseling, they’re going to tell him he’s trans and they’re going to start doing surgeries on him.’ This woman was so convinced that if her son participated in mental health help, that they were going to put him in genital mutilation surgery.”
As in the cases of the children they help, hate against RYP often turns into physical actions.
“We have had to have all kinds of security measures since last year just going to these extremes to protect staff. Our staff has left the office and found zip ties on their car doors. Our staff has received death threats.”
“At one point, our founder was getting in his car in front of our office and a phone call came in that said, ‘you can tell him that I just saw him get into his black car with his black and gray duffel bag. He was on his phone.’ Then the law enforcement had to get involved and had to try to find out where the threats were coming from and it’s all from stuff that they are starting online.”
And, also as in the cases of cyberbullying they deal with every day, social media platforms continue to be unhelpful in the face of hate says Garrett.
“We submitted all the tweets that were threatening us to Twitter, and they responded by suspending our founder and president’s accounts. Eventually we got them back, but that was the response. We had threatened Twitter with a lawsuit, and that was their response sort of telling us not to push it.”
Editor’s Note: To access mental health help visit the Rainbow Youth Project website (link). RYP accepts phone calls, emails, and social media DMs.
APAIT: Positively impacting LA’s underserved communities
One of the main functions of APAIT dealing with sex trafficking is not limited solely to members of the LGBTQ+ community
LOS ANGELES – A beacon of hope for underserved vulnerable communities of LGBTQ+ adults in LA can be found in a non-descript almost fortress looking concrete high-rise office building located at 3055 Wilshire overlooking Koreatown.
The offices of the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team (APAIT), whose stated mission is to positively impact the quality of life for those medically underserved communities, is a labyrinth of meeting and counseling rooms, art therapy spaces, offices, and a large, private, outdoor patio for events. The walls are lined with posters of inspirational banners like “Heroes Work Here,” as well as breakdowns of case studies on sex trafficking, mental health, and addiction.
With the Koreatown location plus offices in Orange County, APAIT‘s work focuses on the quality of life for vulnerable people experiencing behavioral health challenges, housing insecurity, and who are at-risk for HIV/AIDS.
“I know the lingo everyone uses is BIPOC,” Jury Candelario, a licensed clinical social worker and the Executive Director told The Blade. “But for us, we say communities of color. Even in our staffing, we try to reflect our consumers. This is how we roll. This is our mission and we have to reflect the community that we serve.”
Candelario explained that APAIT started thirty-five years ago with a focus on the HIV/AIDS crisis.
“We started out really grounded in the work of HIV/AIDS primarily addressing grief counseling for gay Asian men,” said Candelario. “Many of these men died alone from HIV/AIDS because most of their families didn’t even know they were gay let alone they were dying from the disease.”
Overtime, APAIT expanded their services not just to HIV/AIDS, but to a broader range of sexual health issues. APAIT deals with a range of issues not just impacting gay men but those that impact the larger queer community.
“The core pillars of APAIT services are sexual health, behavioral health, housing, forensic treatment, which is basically for folks who are coming out of jails in prison, and human trafficking,” Candelario emphasized.
A Broken system
Even with four different offices and seven different housing sites, the organization often has to outsource resources due to the high need for their services. Jazzmun Nichcala Crayton, Associate Director, told the Blade that the American socio-economic system is in large part to blame.
“They say the system is broken,” said Crayton, “but no one really knows how to navigate the system. Plus, the system was never designed with people of color in mind, so you are asking us to perform at a level and to perform in ways that we were never trained or designed or had the opportunity to. We were never given access to that information.”
Crayton explained that the system often produces broken homes, especially within at-risk communities of color, leading to a cycle that can often feel impossible to break.
“If your mother was in survival mode, and she was a single parent, and you are coming up through that system and that way of life, the only way you’re going to break the chain is to break the chain yourself. It is very difficult for a child to make that shift. Already they are familiar with poverty, they are familiar with not having. That’s not the story for everybody, but that’s the story for a lot of people. You see it a lot,” Crayton noted.
“If you don’t have all those dynamics like a mother and father, making a certain amount of money to provide for a family, that causes a lot of problems. A lot of times, you see Caucasian counterparts where the mother does not work, and she gets to stay home and be the caregiver and nurture the children. But even that is changing in our society. More and more often, the parents are out of the home. Children end up raising themselves and end up fending for themselves because everyone is trying to make money so that they can live a certain way.”
“But can you imagine people of color with more than one child? Often, especially in Black families, the father is absent for whatever reason, so the mother is the matriarch, running the entire household, trying to work and go to school and provide for children.”
“People use this term ‘strong Black woman,’ but Black women don’t want to be strong all the time. Women don’t want to be strong all the time,” she added.
According to a pre-COIVD survey by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law on Victimization Rates and Traits of Sexual and Gender Minorities (SGMs) in the United States, SGMs are at greater risk of experiencing violent crime than their white cisgender heterosexual counterparts.
The Williams study showed that LGBTQ+ people were nearly four times more likely than non LGBT people to experience violent crime. The odds of experiencing a violent victimization were higher for SGMs than non-SGMs .
SGM persons experienced more criminal victimization than non-SGM persons. SGMs experienced 71.1 violent victimizations per 1,000, compared to 19.2 per 1,000 among non-SGM persons.
SGMs had a higher rate of serious violence, defined as rape or sexual assault, robbery, or aggravated assault, than non-SGMs, including higher rates of violence involving a weapon and violence resulting in serious injuries.
“There have been increased attacks in the Asian community,” acknowledged Candelario. “Unfortunately, I would say hatred got bigger with COVID-19 and how it was blamed essentially on the Chinese community by the last administration. It [coronavirus] was called ‘the China flu,’ so there’s definitely a lot of that influence in that.”
APAIT offers self-defense classes as part of their program to help women who find themselves the victims of attacks. The staff are also encouraged to take these classes. As Candelario pointed out, “No one is safe. We are all at risk.”
While the rise in hate crimes has propelled the self-defense program, the classes initially started after a group of trans women were conducting a makeup class for gender representation at APAIT. The class itself was broken into and robbed, leaving the women defenseless and scared.
When asked why queer people of color are so often particularly affected in statistics like those from the UCLA study, Crayton said that she blames the social dehumanization of queer people within society.
“We get dehumanized on a daily basis,” said Crayton. “Our humanity is laughed at. It is ridiculed. There are policies in place all over America to prevent us from even trying. We don’t even get a chance to try as a whole.”
“We are very special here in California. We have different dynamics, but some of our siblings in other states are limited by the law. They can’t do a Drag show anymore in Tennessee. I mean, what is that? Why is that important? Our purpose is to educate to bring these people up so that they can go out in the community and provide for themselves.”
Candelario added that words like “faggot” and “groomer” which are deeply ingrained in right-wing rhetoric, help to propel this dehumanization and so should be eradicated.
“I think we have to watch trauma informed language,” said Candelario. “The words that we use impact how people are perceived.”
One of the main functions of APAIT dealing with sex trafficking is not limited solely to members of the LGBTQ+ community. The organization often serves cisgender women in an industry that is notorious for acting as a sex trafficking cover.
“About two decades ago, we got into working with massage parlor industry,” said Cadelario.
According to a 2019 survey by APAIT, women often chose illicit massage parlor work from a very small number of employment options. Some women described being coerced or deceived into this work, but most women said that they chose this work as their best alternative.
Among limited options on the positive side, the pay was higher than in other industries, and could provide opportunities for self-employment. On the negative side, they were at risk for physical abuse, HIV and other STI’s, and mental health problems such as isolation arising from stigma. The risk of violence from clients and owners and robbery in this cash-based industry and possible arrest fines and jail were also threats, as was deportation in the case of undocumented immigrants.
Human Trafficking Indicators according to the U.S. State Department include:
- Living with employer.
- Poor living conditions.
- Multiple people in cramped space.
- Inability to speak to individual alone.
- Answers appear to be scripted and rehearsed.
- Employer is holding identity documents.
- Signs of physical abuse.
- Submissive or fearful.
Fear of arrest stops many women from coming forward. Fear of arrest almost always superseded fear of robbery or assault in a pre-Covid study. Many women were reluctant to seek police protection. Women who did not read or speak English were often unaware of what was happening after their arrest, leaving them vulnerable to predatory laws or those posing as lawyers, both in their criminal proceeding as well as their immigration cases.
Nan Ding, the Senior Clinical Program Manager runs the APAIT pilot related to sex trafficking alongside Candelario. She is a also a licensed clinical social worker.
“It started out with a court order program,” she explained. “This is mainly for people who work in massage parlor work, who were given a citation for suspicion of prostitution.”
This citation is part of what is known as a diversion program. Pretrial diversion programs in the state of California allow defendants who are eligible to avoid serving jail time as long as they complete treatment and education courses.
“We provide sexual health education and resources and mental health,” Ding told the Blade.
English lessons are also crucial to rehabilitating these women.
“Given the demographic of people who come to us through this program, many of them do not have the ability to speak English. All of them are immigrants, so we connect them to one of our social services which help them to live sustainably on their own.”
While some success stories do exist, Ding explained that it can often be years before these women are properly rehabilitated.
“To be honest with you, it has been quite challenging,” said Ding. “Because they don’t have degrees and they don’t speak English. We encourage a lot of them to go through cosmetic training so that it’s less risky for them, and it brings better income for them. A lot of them end up doing administrative work. One of my clients is now working at an acupuncture clinic at the front desk.”
Ding said that many of these women come here under false pretenses in hopes of a better life, only to be duped and stuck as pawns in sex trafficking rings.
Ding gave an example of one client in particular: “She went through trafficking in Taiwan through here she tried to escape. She came here, thinking she was going to be put her through nursing school to be an RN but the moment she landed here she was sent to be a sex worker.”
“This happens more often than you think,” said Candelario. “The sad part is this is a whole international syndicate of illegal organizations that run this human trafficking. We are definitely not saying all massage parlors are, but many are fronts for human trafficking not just human trafficking in the sense of sex work and/or labor trafficking. A lot of these people are recruited under the pretense that they are going to have work or schooling here. They prepare all their paperwork and documentation to get here legitimately, but once they land here, those documents are still with the syndicates not with those folks who were brought here. Essentially, they are trapped.”
“They are trapped once they get here. They don’t have any other recourse because this is their livelihood now. This isn’t just isolated in Asian communities it’s happening in central American communities too. It’s everywhere. Eastern European communities as well. Unfortunately, we also see these horrible stories of fourteen and fifteen-year-old children, young girls, being kidnapped here as well. Colored communities and foreign communities are vulnerable too as are communities without privilege and opportunities and education. The people who brought you here are the people you are supposed to be trusting for this ‘American dream,’ which ends up being an American nightmare,” she added.
Candelario also made it clear that APAIT does not condemn sex work as a legitimate form of employment. The problem lies in deceit and forced labor.
A Success Story
Those seeking help come to APAIT through a variety of ways. Many are found by APAIT on the streets through their grassroots program “Midnight Stroll.”
The Midnight Stroll and After Hours Café was launched by the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team in January 2017 in collaboration with the Los Angeles Transgender Advisory Council and The Wall Las Memorias Project, along with support from then LA Councilman Mitch O’Farrell, the Los Angeles Police Department and several community partners.
Under the program, volunteer outreach workers walk along Santa Monica Boulevard, from Vermont Avenue to La Brea Avenue, to provide water, food, and clothing vouchers, while also promoting HIV testing and other services. The program also provides some emergency shelter beds.
“When I started,” said Candelario, “I remember doing this kind of outreach and grassroots work. At the time, our main focus was ending the crystal meth epidemic. We were health educators, promoting health reduction systems to reduce crystal meth use. It’s about meeting the clients where they are.”
Many clients come to APAIT when they have nowhere else to turn.
“We had a client come in off the street with a sheet on her head and dirt on her face,” said Crayton. “She came from Alabama. She was ostracized and criminalized for being trans there. She had been kicked out of her home. She made her way up to California, which was complicated because she had no support system. She came here just hoping that the community would be able to guide and support her.”
“When she came to us, she had nowhere to go and she didn’t want to sleep between the buildings anymore. We were able to house her through a private organization immediately in South Los Angeles. Mr. Jury was generous enough to pay for her to stay there where she developed under our care.”
“She kept coming back to the office and participating in our programs. She had access mental health with her behavioral health counselor. She actually started interning somewhere at some point and from there she did so well she was able to obtain and sustain her own apartment. Because we were able as an organization to come together and surround this particular client with support and guidance and love, she was able to stand on her own two feet.”
“Now she is providing services for the community. She is going the kind of work that we are doing, and she is back in school studying to be a therapist. She was even honored by Laverne Cox, who gave her an award saying that she was a pillar in the trans community coming from such extreme circumstances in life.”
Putting kibosh on spirited sashays: Drag law takes effect April 1
Anyone found in violation can be slapped with a Class A misdemeanor charge, face a $2,500 fine and/or up to a year behind bars
MEMPHIS – For the Tennessee legislators who laid down the law on drag queens earlier this month, March came in like a lion—a Smoky Mountain-dwelling, cis male lion who loves the ladies, shields his cubs from the scourge of adult cabaret performers, and—month of June be damned—never spells “pride” with anything other than a lower case “p.”
If that bit of GOP Multiverse Mascot Fantasia reads as an inappropriately light prelude to ruminating about the shameful rollback of human rights in Tennessee, keep in mind that the state’s drag community was responding to hateful legislation with defiant sass and sober purpose long before recent events put them in the national spotlight’s foundation-melting glare.
“I’ve made it the butt of many jokes,” says Memphis, TN-based drag queen Bella DuBalle, of the state’s brazen assault on her profession. “Y’all having fun on this Rainbow Sunday?,” DuBalle greets audiences as of late, noting, “It’s just like gay church—except you don’t have to worry about your kids getting groped here!” Elsewhere in the act, a time-tested joke about cashing in her dollar bill tips at the bank has a teller asking, “Honey, are you a stripper?” The standard retort, “No, I’m like a really glamorous panhandler” now plays as, “Well according to Tennessee Republicans, I am!”
As show director and host of Atomic Rose (a nightclub/grill in the historic Beale Street District), full-time professional drag queen DuBalle has been speaking about the legislation “for months—and in every single show, [unaware] people would gasp… I say, with similar legislation being proposed in 18 other states, look and make sure yours isn’t one of them.”
On December 7, 2022, just a few weeks after news of what was quickly dubbed the “anti-drag” legislation broke, DuBalle posted the first of many “call to action” videos, via her IG. “We exist” and “I am a person” are refrains from DuBalle and her drag kids, Miami Rose & Tiffany Minxx, as well as “dear friends” Zoey Adams and Hunny Blunt.
Appearing out of drag at the end of the video, Bella addresses the viewer, saying: “I urge you to find out more about the proposed SB003. Write your legislators. Get vocal online. Go out and tell people what they’re trying to do to simple artists and queer people that are just trying to live our authentic lives. Go out and support drag shows. Support local queens. And just let queer folks in your family and circle know that you’re in their corner.”
As for what awaits drag performers in Tennessee, the stakes are high. House Bill 9—passed on March 2 by State Assemblymembers and signed by Governor Bill Lee (R) just hours later—effectively forbids drag performances from taking place on public property and anywhere those under 18 could potentially be present. It also puts the kibosh on spirited sashays occurring within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks, or places of worship.
The anti-drag legislation’s careful, knowing language avoids the “d” word by restricting “adult cabaret performances” by the likes of “topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, strippers, male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest, or similar entertainers.”
Enforceable as of April 1—the traditional day to suffer fools—the new restrictions come with chilling consequences: Anyone found in violation can be slapped with a Class A misdemeanor charge upon their virgin transgression, facing a $2,500 fine and/or up to a year behind bars. Defiant queens who accrue a second offense face Class E felony charges and could be incarcerated for up to six years. (Do the math: That means turning 29 a half-dozen times before being released!)
“We knew when the legislature got back in session [Jan. 10, 2023] that we were going to be expecting bills like this,” says Stella Yarbrough, Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union-Tennessee (ACLU-TN). “But did we expect it to pass the first week of March and be signed into law that quickly? No…I’ve been flabbergasted by how ravenous the appetite is to pass these kinds of laws.” (Also signed into law was House Bill 1, which bans age-appropriate, medically necessary care to transgender youth under the age of 18.)
“I wanted to believe it would not pass,” says DuBalle, of the Tennessee legislation. “But after Roe v Wad [was overturned on June 24, 2022]? I thought, ‘All bets are off.’ … The attacks we’re seeing all over the country against women, against trans people, against drag queens, by the GOP? It works for them. It has to. You look at somebody who loves something in themselves that you hate in yourself, or if they are proud of the thing you hate, or you’re ashamed of? Our existence is a threat to them. People fear what they don’t understand.”
DuBalle, who is 43 and identifies as non-binary, views the current “crazy backlash” as a particularly cynical response to “the monumental amount of progress I’ve seen in my lifetime. It’s easy for us to be the scapegoat right now, because in Tennessee, we have a lot of real problems—education, health care. They don’t know how to solve them, but it’s easy to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. This is a terrifyingly recurring talking point of the GOP.”
Troy Masters, a Tennessee native and the publisher of the Los Angeles Blade noted:
“Tennessee’s anti-trans laws of which the regulation of drag performers is only part belies a greater problem facing the state. The legislature is exploiting what they sense is a growing sentiment among native residents that the influx of people from New York and California are shifting the state’s sociology in a liberal way. It’s xenophobia on steroids and that always means finding a scapegoat. And so, they bash the queers as if queers have not always existed in Tennessee.
“Sponsors who have been introducing these bills are gay bashing pure and simple because in their eyes the queers are an unwelcome byproduct of liberal newcomers. What they didn’t count on is the degree to which this attack has already tarnished the state for corporations and investors who are mindful of the political environments into which they invest and where they operate.
“News of these laws have already put many Fortune 500 companies in conflict with their corporate diversity statements and they will be forced to reconsider (witness Hard Rock Cafe and JW Marriot). It’s already a place that is becoming too mean to live and people like Senator Marsha Blackburn and MAGA acolytes state Senator Jack Johnson have no idea what they are doing.”
The contemporary conservative feeding frenzy is nothing new, notes comedian and historian Frank DeCaro, author of the comprehensive 2019 coffee table tome “Drag: Combing Through the Big Wigs of Show Business.”
“The ‘Pansy Craze’ of the 1920s and 30s was short-lived,” recalled DeCaro, “but it’s really the same thing [culturally, as the TN situation]. Everyone decided queer entertainment was the thing to seek out and it became the thing to do—the [queer] nightclubs were full of straights. It lasted only a few years, and a conservative wave came.” A few decades later, millions of Americans would spent years in front of the so-called “boob tube,” eagerly welcoming dress-wearing sketch comedian Milton Berle into their living rooms, a drag stage show by the Turnabout Review proved wildly popular in the heart of seemingly inhospitable territory.
Recalling the research phase for his “Drag” book, DeCaro “found in a newspaper, a clipping for the Review that said, ‘Held Over, Ninth Week.’ And you think, ‘It’s gonna be San Francisco. No, it was Fort Worth [TX]. To me, that points to the hypocrisy of this… But people have always sought out drag entertainment. It’s always been part of the mainstream. It wasn’t only gay people who went to see “Tootsie” or “Mrs. Doubtfire” or “Some Like it Hot.” So to paint drag as highly sexualized and inappropriate for children is just folly. It’s lies. It has no bearing on the truth.”
Strictly speaking, that may be so—and while it remains to be seen how these new laws hold up when challenged in court, getting there (or not) adds another dimension of tension and uncertainty to the working drag queen’s daily concerns. Once the legislation passed on March 2 becomes law on April 1, notes Yarbrough, “It is enforced through local law enforcement [for arrest], while the local District Attorney would make the decision as to whether certain conduct meets the legal definition of actual criminal activity.”
It is possible, noted Yarbrough, “that a DA says ‘I don’t agree with this law’ or ‘I’m not going to prosecute,’ ” Should that happen, the Attorney General of the state is empowered to notify the State Supreme Court, which may choose to appoint a special prosecutor. This end run around the DA is the result, says Yarbrough, “of a recent law passed largely in response to the more liberal DAs” throughout Tennessee. Thus far, noted Yarbrough, the special prosecutor option has never actually been invoked.
One District Attorney, at least, has stated publicly where the April 1 add-ons to the lawbook sit with him. In a March 3 online article, Memphis, TN-based Action News 5 ran the text from a statement sent by Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy. Noting that SB 0841 “is unnecessary and unfairly targets drag shows,” DA Mulroy specified it “only bars ‘those which appeal to the prurient interest… a shameful or morbid interest in sex.’ And even then, only if it’s on public property or allows minors access. I anticipate that this will not prevent any drag show activity currently underway in Shelby County. It’s important to understand the narrow scope of this law so that it doesn’t have a chilling effect on constitutionally protected expression.”
“They have a ton of discretion,” notes Yarbrough—not of DAs and AGs, but of those at the City Hall or county clerk level. When the law takes effect, she says, “That will be at a time where people are going to be submitting permits and starting to plan for Pride events. And I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we start seeing not necessarily direct enforcement [of the anti-drag laws], but park permits being denied under the theory that they can’t allow for obscene performances. So somebody at the permit-issuing level might exercise an abundance of caution and decide not to issue a parade or street fair permit… And that’s what’s so dangerous sometimes about laws like this. They propose to regulate conduct in a way that hasn’t been regulated before. And enforcement [and interpretation] can vary wildly, depending on where in the state of Tennessee you live.”
Placed on the Senate State and Local Government Committee calendar for March 21, SB 841/HB 30 failed to advance and is, essentially, dead in the water for now. It would have, notes the ACLU-TN, required “drag performers to obtain a permit from the adult-oriented establishment board prior to performing for compensation and prohibit people under the age of 18 from attending performances that include male or female impersonators.”
A permeating low-level tone of dread, says DuBalle, has contributed to the personal and professional “roller coaster we’ve been on ever since the legislation was signed into law early this month. There was a lot of fear. Many of us are non-binary or trans. Once the bill was signed, we had this moment—we had to gird our loins for battle. This is our livelihood.” Over the past few weeks, says DuBalle, “We have become even more empowered in our resilience. Many audience members are coming out to simply show solidarity and offer us support and encouragement. We are still braced for the unknown impacts of this legislation, but now we do so as a phalanx—shoulder to shoulder, armed and ready to face our opposition head-on. We hear the rallying cries from our allies around the world, and we stand in their strength.”
While DuBalle and her cast at Atomic Rose draw from the strength of their allies while girding for what’s to come, the queens of “The Beauties on Beale” are coming out the other side of a weeks-long period spent seemingly abandoned by management at the Hard Rock Cafe-Memphis. That’s where, until a recent scare, you’d find “Memphis’ hottest drag brunch on world -famous Beale Street.”
Led by show director and cast member Fendi LaFemme, the biweekly Sunday event brought new business to the Hard Rock, which LaFemme notes became a civil, celebratory gathering place for the queer community, their supporters, and anybody else who just happened to show up for brunch, only to happen upon what LaFemme and producer Jerred Price note has always been an all-ages, Rated G drag brunch where the songs, jokes, and costumes deliver the spirited edge you expect from drag, but none of the cutting, cussing comedy one might expect were the showtime to be 12 midnight instead of 12 noon.
Nonetheless, upon March 2 passage of the anti-drag legislation, LaFemme and company received written orders (via email) from local/regional management to discontinue promoting the brunch and put performances on hiatus. When the Los Angeles Blade spoke with LaFemme on March 20, The Beauties on Beale had just performed what they thought would be the series’ final installment. (March 19 was to be the last show, as the Hard Rock planned to sit on the sidelines and see what the mood in town was, after April 1.)
“When it comes to the way this is being handled,” said LaFemme at the time, “this is a corporate fiasco, plain and simple. Understandably, they don’t want the bad publicity—but at a time like this, it’s most imperative our allies come forth and use their voice and say, ‘This is not right.’ ”
LaFemme says she’s never heard a complaint from audience members. “It’s an all-ages brunch,” she noted, adding, “We make sure it’s rated G. From Day One, we’ve operated on the idea that there’s always potentially children in the audience.”
When the Blade spoke with “Beauties” producer Jerred Price on March 21, he was about to take to Facebook Live, after receiving another communication from Hard Rock Cafe Memphis management, doubling down on the decision to discontinue performances. “My mindset was, ‘Enough is enough’” recalled Price, on the firm and fiery Facebook Live posting that saw him speaking out against the decision and announcing his own (others encouraged as well) boycott of the Hard Rock brand, along with a statement that the Beauties on Beale would take their show title and audiences elsewhere, given the venue’s lack of backbone.
As is the nature of social media postings, word travelled fast—apparently, all the way up the corporate chain. The next day, on March 22, Price told us, “Today, I received a call from the Senior Vice President of Hard Rock [Cafe division]. He said Hard Rock apologizes for the misunderstanding and the show should continue as it was. We will continue to look into the legal side of it, and if we have any concerns, we will contact him directly,” said Price, who noted he now has the VP’s personal cell phone number and won’t be shy about contacting him in that manner, whether the news is good or bad. Meantime, Price returned to Facebook Live, noting that the show will go on, biweekly as planned, as of April 2.
“We definitely accomplished our mission to expose the things that were happening, by saying something and being vocal,” said LaFemme, with Price extending the olive branch rather than reveling in his tough but fair public shaming. “Family, friends, everybody makes mistakes,” said Price, noting, “It’s how you own the mistake that matters. Hard Rock owned their mistake and I’ glad they did.”
Elsewhere in the area, on Front Street, the queens who preside over Drag Bingo haven’t been as lucky when it comes to seeing corporate do an about-face. Moxy Memphis, a Marriott property, is putting the brakes on Drag Bingo as of its March 23 and 30 installments. The Los Angeles Blade spoke with drag queen (and day job Moxie employee) Krystal Karma, as she was behind the wheel, “Off today to prep for my last legal drag show at 7pm [3/23].”
Karma said from what she’s been told by district management, cries of “Bingo” may yet echo again at the Moxy. For now, “They’re just trying to play it safe” and see how the new law unfurls come April 1. Despite the work stoppage, Karma said she feels “they have my back, in the long run. It’s been life-changing and amazing to work there, and perform drag there, too. Not all properties [in this town] have drag shows, so I’m grateful for that.” Karma says she and others feel frustrated at the “vague” nature of the legislation’s language. Less of a mystery, she says, is its intent, which is “an underhanded dig at the trans community. Trans people exist every day in this form,” she says, of the legislation’s dog whistle reference to “male or female impersonators,” which belittles and dishonors a trans person’s daily outward appearance. “I am a native of Memphis,” notes Karma, who says over time, growing up here “has been tough. We’re a fairly large city, but we’ve never had a truly safe space.” And now, with the language of these new laws, “They’re using [the supposed need to protect children from drag] to make us seem like sex offenders. We need to tell people that drag, and art, comes in many forms and it’s okay to talk to your kids about that instead [of shielding them from the sight of drag queens, trans and queer people].”
Even before Tennessee’s laws take effect, observed DeCaro, “The real harm done is the message it sends to anyone who feels they’re different. Maybe their goal is really to shut down Pride parades. They don’t want people to be happy. Their popularity, their power, is based on fear. Their recruiting tactic is scaring people. Meanwhile, here you’ve got drag offering people of every gender, every age the chance to be a more glamorous, fun version of themselves, if only on a Saturday night. And it’s as simple as that: Happy is the enemy.”
Yarbrough, who says the ACLU-TN is ready and waiting to defend anyone who runs afoul of the new laws come April 1, also notes that the atmosphere created by the public debate generated from legislation proposed, discussed, and passed has its own corrosive power.
“Even if you were to win every lawsuit, and adjoin every law like this, the damage is done,” says Yarbrough. “Because with these kinds of laws, there’s always going to be that person who self-censors, that says. ‘You know what? Maybe not this event. Or maybe not today… or even more damaging, ‘Maybe I don’t want to live in Tennessee anymore.’ In between this bill and the trans healthcare ban and the total ban on abortion, we’ve created such a hostile state for people to live in… medical providers and performers and all kinds of valuable, wonderful people don’t feel welcome here are going to leave the state and are leaving the state. And the loss to our culture is inestimable. We’re losing trans kids…. We’re creating a class of political refugees—and we all lose when beautiful people like that have to leave our state because they can’t live here.”
Lessons learned & how to win the coming equality rights battles
Boycotting Travolta, Diamond Hunting with Laverne Cox, Outing the Governor’s Brother… and Other Adventures in the War to Win LGBTQ Equality
HOLLYWOOD – The two-decades long war in Afghanistan was the longest in US history — if you are talking about militarily equipped wars. Wars for civil rights have been much longer, and for many, nowhere near over. Ours for LGBTQ+ rights is a prime example.
While gains in our particular war have been many, and by historical standards, incredibly fast, the arc of the battles have now been fought by several generations.
Author and Washington Blade editor, Kevin Naff highlights this perspective in his new book How We Won the War for LGBTQ Equality. As he tracks an equality movement snapshot that corresponds to the length of the War in Afghanistan, he says. “Two decades represents a mere blip in the arc of a civil rights struggle, yet in that span, the LGBTQ community in the United States went from legally second-class status to enjoying near full protection of federal law along with widespread societal acceptance and even full marriage rights.”
He is aware that this look into our collective history represents a glimpse into a broader, and more painful fight, where many of the LGBTQ families lost their fights. “Not a week has gone by in my 20 years at the Blade that I didn’t think of the generation of gay men before me who didn’t live to see all of this progress. They inspire me. I do this work for them. They did not die in vain. Not just the men who died, but the lesbians who cared for them when no one else would. They are not forgotten,” he states.
“This is not a dry history lesson type book, but if you want to learn, the book does tell the marriage equality battle, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and how a lot of our wins unfolded,” Kevin declared when he sat down with me on the Rated LGBT Radio podcast.
He’s right. How to Win shares many of Kevin’s articles written as events were anticipated, were happening and then were celebrated. Absorbing these as a modern reader, I found my deep desire to fight against anything less than full equality, and repression against our abilities to self-actualize, getting hungrier and hungrier.
For those wanting “shade and the truths, capital T,” Win will give it to you. Unlike Prince Harry’s book Spare, no penises were frozen in the writing of How to Win, but there are still a lot of page-turning anecdotes to keep you glued and voracious right to the very end.
Like many of us, Kevin was persecuted for being perceived as being gay when he was a kid. “The walk home from school was particularly terrifying — I walked alone and my tormentors would often follow, hurling rocks and anti-gay slurs. Sometimes the fear was so intense that I would feign sick just to avoid a day of the torture,” he writes. His youth was not a time when there was much sympathy, or help, for LGBTQ children. It was the time of do-it-yourself. “There was the day I finally snapped, in seventh grade, while being taunted by a kid in gym class. The insults and threats became too much and all the anger rushed out of me…I defended myself. And it felt good,” Kevin reveals. He acknowledges that his bullies “forced me to cultivate an inner strength.”
Years later, as a journalist and conscience for public progressives, Kevin’s unwillingness to back down, and pension to stand and fight, emerges time and time again in the book.
While he writes of contempt for George W. Bush’s opportunistic use of same sex marriage as a campaign wedge issue, Kevin stepped up his fight to the next level when facing Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. O’Malley was a progressive who used LGBTQ goodwill and campaign muscle to get elected. When an appeals court disavowed same sex marriage, O’Malley went from champion to cad at light speed. He issued an offensive statement about Catholic sacraments and asserted his opposition to marriage equality.
So, Kevin outed the governor’s brother, Patrick. (That the brother was gay was a fact commonly known in social circles, but had not reached the media level previously).
The governor was mad, but it got Kevin one-on-one interview time, and eventually a path to the governor flipping support on the issue.
Kevin’s unwillingness for the LGBTQ population to be pushed around is not just with public figures who use us and then abandon us, people he calls “duplicitous allies”, but he feels no hesitancy to confront Hollywood icons and their cults, as John Travolta found out.
Kevin went viral with a piece of writing in 2007 when he issued a “short” blog post criticizing the casting of a potentially closeted and indoctrinated Scientologist, John Travolta, as the Divine-inspired drag role in John Waters’ musical version of Hairspray.
That post “generated the most attention and traffic of anything I’ve written,” Kevin states. “My blog post encouraged gay fans to boycott the new film because its star, John Travolta, was Scientology’s No. 2 spokesperson and his cult was known to engage in reparative therapy, the debunked practice of changing one’s sexual orientation.”
Mainstream gossip media took to the alarms and declared that the “gays were boycotting Hairspray.” Soon Kevin found himself inundated with death threats, and being summoned by both Fox News and the Church of Scientology itself.
Kevin agreed to a face off with Fox’s Bill O’Reilly whose friendly off-air persona turned rabid in front of the cameras. When Kevin pointed out that he was comparing gay people to drug addicts, O’Reilly snarled, “Don’t be a wise guy, Mr. Naff.”
“The reason I was pretty comfortable,” Kevin shares on Rated LGBT Radio. “Is that Bill O’Reilly is actually not like he was a great debater. I had the courage of my convictions and the truth on my side.”
Kevin’s biggest sin, according to the Church of Scientology, was calling it a “cult.” To prove that they weren’t, the President of their DC chapter invited Kevin for a meeting. Upon arrival to their mansion, they gave Kevin a tour, which included seeing an “immaculate first-floor formal office.” After inquiring whose office it was, Kevin was informed that it was “Mr. Hubbard’s office” and that every church location had one. L. Ron Hubbard had been dead for twenty one years at that point.
“Cult!” Kevin and I exclaimed in unison as he tells me the story.
As editor of the Washington DC based Blade, Kevin is an established invitee to the journalistic event of each season: The White House Correspondents Association Dinner. He writes about his dates he has taken each year from the heavenly (Judith Light) to the disastrous (Kathy Griffin). The latter made a point to scream at Trump administration officials in attendance instructing them to “suck my dick!”
While Kevin could appreciate the sentiment, Ms. Griffin boarded a plane, while he, the in-town professional, had to face all of her targets the next day.
Laverne Cox was also a standout date. She accompanied Kevin the night after Caitlyn Jenner’s televised interview had hit. “If one more reporter asks me about fucking Caitlyn Jenner, I’m going to lose it!” Kevin reports Laverne confiding. His story about Laverne Cox was not so much about Jenner however but reads like something out of Oceans 8.
While, unlike the movie, Kevin’s evening did not feature a planned jewel heist, nor were Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchard anywhere in sight, it did feature a borrowed $100,000 diamond bracelet which had gone missing off the wrist of Ms. Cox, who was convinced the owner would accuse her of theft. The dilemma ultimately had one of the most famous transgender actresses of all time, and the editor of the nation’s oldest LGBTQ publication frantically crawling under banquet tables surrounded by the Washington elite and press corps.
Ms. Cox finally found the bauble at 4am, deep at the bottom of her large purse.
How We Won covers the arc of LGBTQ history over two crucial decades and hits on topics from bullying of youth, the ex-gay movement, the military, religion, police and of course, marriage equality. Besides his adventures with cults chasing him down, A-lister dates and angry governors, Kevin also shares poignant emotional moments of his own.
One came in horrifying fashion when he arrived to the Washington Blade offices one morning to find two men in suits. They were from the parent company, and they were there to shut the place down.
Crumbling in tears and shock, Kevin hid in his office scrambling to think out the next move. In a move wave of gumption fresh out of a forties classic movie where the “little guys” overcome, The Blade staff resolved to not give up. They successfully put out a slim news sheet for a few months until they could take over Blade assets and keep the legacy alive.
One of the great ironies of the LGBTQ movement is that many people who have fought for progress are not the ones who exercise the gains. They win the battles but leave the new world for others to fully enjoy.
Kevin is one of those pioneers. After an adult life fighting for LGBTQ people to exercise the right to marry our loves in a fully public, societally accepting way, interacting with all who might deny a same sex couple service, Kevin had a life-changing revelation that made him choose to walk away from a huge wedding event for himself.
Months before his own wedding, he was in a serious automobile accident. Love, not making a statement, was what pulled him through to recapturing his life. He called his fiancé and pitched the idea of an intimate nuptials on the beach, followed by a life-impacting gay cruise together to Asia. “Something happens when you are faced with a life or death kind of moment. It changes what’s important. It changes your perspective,” he tells me.
Kevin started out his writing career as a 10-year-old writing to, and being published in, the Washington Post as a pissed-off Baltimore Orioles fan. “I am STILL a pissed off Baltimore Orioles fan,” he says. From day one, he found his knack for observation, his gift for pointed communication and his anger that truth go untold. Those are the same qualities he brings to his participation in, and presentation of, our LGBTQ historic trek to equality victory.
In How We Won, Kevin tells an unvarnished story, as he saw it, as he wrote about it, and continues to tell it, at the helm of the Washington Blade. He tells of the oligarchs he confronted and continues to confront. He thinks of the term “outing” as an archaic term. Today, it is simply “truth-telling” of those in the public limelight. As much as the title of his book implies a “win” and completion, I am confident that the 10-year-old pissed-off Baltimore Orioles fan within is not done.
Kevin’s subtitle, after all, is “And How Our Enemies Could Take it All Away“
A post-war recap for Kevin Naff might have been best expressed by the fictional Mr. Incredible when he said, “No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved!”
As homophobic, transphobic Republican legislation sweeps the country, it is clear, we are not done and War II has just begun. At the end of The Incredibles, continuing the allegory, after a family of progressives have saved the world, a huge noisy screw disrupts it (symbolic of the MAGA wave). Out pops the Under-Miner who declares, “Behold, The Under-Miner! I am always beneath you, but NOTHING is beneath me! (As it seems so for the GOP) I hereby declare war on peace and happiness! Soon all will tremble before me!”
The music swells, and the family of authentic-selves look at each other with a smirk, opening their shirts to reveal that they are Incredibles. They know that this time, like last time, they will not be defeated.
So stands Kevin Naff, looking back and looking forward, with his band of Incredibles, LGBTQ journalists worldwide, and the rest of us, ready to fight the fight again.
As we prepare for the new battles ahead, the principles of How We Won will be our tools for ultimate victory: be visible, be assertive, confront lies and injustice, reinvent, rebirth and in the end, hold our personal loves sacred.
Kevin Naff and Mr. Incredible would stand for nothing less. Neither should you.
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] .
Why are so many gay influencers launching underwear lines?
Some influencers use their microcelebrity status to launch their own businesses- when it comes to gay influencers, one dominates, underwear
By Rob Salerno | WEST HOLLYWOOD – Social media has made it possible for gay men to connect with like-minded audiences all over the world, and in 2023, it’s basically axiomatic that with great social media reach must come great monetization.
But while some social media influencers are content to get paid by flogging brand-name fashions, workout supplements, and vacation packages, some influencers prefer to use their microcelebrity status to launch their own businesses. And when it comes to gay influencers, one business in particular seems to dominate: underwear.
From porn stars to musicians, to models and artists, gay social media stars of all stripes seem to be in a rush to launch their own underwear lines.
And this does seem to be a gay male phenomenon. While there are plenty of trans people and cis women marketing their own underwear lines, they all seem to be primarily trained fashion designers. It really does seem to just be gay men who make the journey from Insta-fame to undie-mogul.
So, what is it that makes the skivvies business so appealing for gay influencers? We talked to some of these upstart influencers for a briefing on the whys and hows of launching an underwear line.
For Steve Grand, owner of Grand Axis Clothing and a country-pop musician who first rose to internet fame ten years ago with his music video “All-American Boy,” underwear and swimwear seemed like a natural outgrowth of his brand, especially as his various social media channels began to focus more and more on showing off his ripped body in skimpy clothes.
“I was always very picky about how things fit me,” Grand says. “After years of building up hundreds of pairs of speedos and underwear and jocks, I started to reach out to people who offered custom fits, so I began to have things custom made. I started sending them patterns, and I started driving them nuts. I would get a great fit, and I would post them on Instagram, and people would reach out and ask where can I get them. I figured I should start my own line because I’m already down in the details.”
Grand Axis was launched in December 2019, which turned out to be an auspicious time, right before the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As Grand’s opportunities to perform live music dried up, he was able to devote his full attention to Grand Axis. Just over three years later, the fashion line is now Grand’s primary focus.
“It’s completely flipped in terms of income,” he says. “I’ll still do several gigs a year. But with Grand Axis, it hasn’t allowed me the time to record something new and write and get back out there. Which is a shame, because I really do miss that.”
Grand designs every piece, coordinates with manufacturers, fills orders, handles customer service, and, of course, does all the social media marketing himself.
“I create so much work for myself to get it how I want instead of just slapping a logo on something,” he says. “If I thought it would just a great way to monetize my social media presence, it’s consumed my whole life.”
Social media remains the most important marketing tool for Grand Axis, with Grand’s posts to his various channels showing off his underwear and swimwear driving the bulk of his orders.
“I’m saving on modelling fees by doing it myself. It’s a great excuse to stay in shape,” Grand jokes. “I’m really just posting there to get customers and connect to people through the brand. I want Grand Axis to stand outside of me. I don’t want to have to be the face of it, but it’s helping to sell it right now.”
Los Angeles-based model Dominic Albano, who’s shot with famed photographers like Rick Day and whose image graced the cover of the inaugural issue of the relaunched Playgirl magazine last summer, launched his self-named underwear line earlier this year after a decade of experience modelling other designers’ underwear.
“I booked all the underwear jobs, because I’m a little too muscular and a little too short for runway or high fashion,” Albano says. “I was working with all these brands and thinking if I were to make my own underwear, I would do it differently. It would be more classic and have better material,” he says.
A decade into his modelling career, Albano finally decided he needed a change.
“I wasn’t booking for a while, and I was like, this is bullshit. I wanna be busy all the time,” he says.
Albano says he spent months researching how to get started and designing his first collection.
“I did my research. I found manufacturing companies and reviewed their portfolios. There were some I didn’t vibe with. Then I found one that was very responsive, very informative, and wanted to help me,” he says. “I got fabric swatches and I was just going by the feel and the touch and the weight.”
Although Albano had no formal training in fashion design, he knew that he wanted simple designs, subdued colors, and sexy cuts.
“I did the drawings by hand here, taking pictures and sending them to the factory. I would say, whatever style you have in your head, make it skimpier, because this is for gay men,” he says. “They got my vision, created samples, and then they would send them to me, and I would revise them.”
Albano is clear-headed about where his thousands of followers come from and why they’re buying his underwear. He’s done plenty of fully nude photo shoots over his career and been featured in magazines and gay body blogs for years.
“I take it for what it is,” he says. “I’m a deep thinker, but I don’t talk about where I view things politically or my feelings. I try to stay very private because I know what they’re there for. They want to keep that mystery. They don’t want to know I have the same struggles as them. That’s what I’m providing: A fantasy, an escape, things they might not be able to do.”
And he’s never shied away from building that community with his gay fans.
“Being gay, sexuality, and the images I make go hand in hand. A lot of gay men express their sexuality through their underwear or imagery,” he says. “A lot of us are exhibitionists, we like to lounge around in our underwear.”
THE ONLY FANS STAR
Boston-based OnlyFans creator Fabian Bonavento credits his background in marketing and his strong links to his local queer communities for helping him get his Fafabon underwear and clubwear line off the ground last summer.
“Working in queer spaces, you get exposed to a lot of talents, jobs, creatives. It gave me the opportunity to put together what I wanted to do,” he says.
He had been reselling clothes before the pandemic, when he got the urge to start designing his own wares.
“I would go to brands and reach out, and I got a lot of rejections,” he says. “I was talking to this person, all online during the pandemic, it became like hey, I saw that you make dresses, do you know someone who can make underwear? It was just pitching myself over and over again.
“Now I work with the manufacturers, some of the materials come from India, Portugal, China. So I had these contacts, but it was really just rolling with it and trying it.”
Bonavento says he was motivated to go into underwear specifically because he felt there was a gap in the gay underwear market for comfortable, everyday undies that are built for all bodies.
“Many of the gay underwear brands, they have a certain niche to them. This is for a furry person, or codified for sexuality, and all that. I thought it would be cool to have a brand that doesn’t just corner a person to a specific type,” he says. “The plan is to create a lifestyle brand that is the go-to brand to feel comfortable and sexy, supported and risqué.”
He says the brand focuses on comfort and quality, without sacrificing the sexiness that queer people want in their underwear.
“It’s about the material and how we construct the products,” he says. “The seams are double-seamed inside so there’s no access to get your hair stuck. It’s made to be very smooth and very comfortable. We have sizes up to XXXL and we’re going to start XXXXL soon.”
Speaking of very large, Bonavento’s nearly 40,000 Twitter followers are likely attracted by the many pictures he shares of his, um, biggest asset.
But Bonavento is far from the first well-endowed man from the gay porn world to venture into the underwear industry. Porn star Rocco Steele launched his X7 Collection (supposedly named for his measurements) in 2016, although he decided to shut it down in February. Miami-based OnlyFans star Abel Pirela has his own eponymous underwear brand too.
Maybe it’s the next logical step after gay fashion icon Andrew Christian spent the better part of two decades associating his underwear with gay porn stars.
“I’ve always had this strong social media presence, and I thought, how can I capitalize on this, instead of just posting pictures?” Bonavento says. “To have a good online presence, you should know how to be online. I live on the internet and also study the internet. I’ve gotten the chance to work with different brands in social media marketing. I enjoy doing it, but because it started with me, I have to go along with it because it translates into sales.”
Like the other influencers’ brands, Fafabon is still a one-man show, but Bonavento has a long-term goal of collaborating with other creators to serve the wider queer and trans community.
“The plan is to collaborate perhaps with trans designers who understand how this project should be made. I hope it’s sooner than later,” he says.
Chicago-based photographer and OnlyFans creator Alex King is a bit of an outlier with his Tie Dye Undies project, which he describes as less of a brand and more of a “disruption model.”
“It all kind of came about because at my birthday party we had a tie-dye party and we had a bunch of white underwear and made them,” he says. “I had one of my friends come over and model, and I posted the photos on Tumblr and people started asking, where can I get them?”
King now makes and releases batches of tie-dyed Calvin Kleins as a kind of personal art project.
“It was a way of adding some color to a stale menswear space. I was shooting some models, and I just noticed the clothes were boring and I just added some color, some zest,’ he says. “I think it’s a bummer how color is disappearing from the world. Even McDonald’s is grey.”
But while the King’s art undies have their fans, he says it’s never been his goal to make money from them.
“It’s not like one of those things where I would tell people to make a brand because it’s hard work, and it’s a bit of a crapshoot,” he says. “Mine’s a disruption model, more fun, more whimsical. It gives me a little bit of happiness to know that those things are out there living their lives.”
Moving product has gotten more difficult as social media channels crack down on posts they consider sexually explicit, especially posts featuring gay men, King says.
“A lot of the free ways of marketing are dwindling on Tumblr and Instagram,” he says. “Even innocuous photos of men in underwear [on Instagram] are being flagged for being sexually explicit and ad tools are being taken away.”
King says social media remains the main way he markets his undies, even though he tries to keep his underwear business separate from his burgeoning porn work.
“Sometimes there are models on my OnlyFans that are Tie Dye Undies models, but I try to keep that separate,” he says. “People think [sex is] the next thing that happens in a photo shoot. It has happened, but I try to keep those boundaries.”
With the sudden explosion of gay underwear brands launched by social media influencers, one could be forgiven for assuming that this was a business that was an easy cash grab. But it’s clear that the men behind these brands are creating them out of a genuinely love for underwear and are putting in long hours of work to get them out in the world.
It’s a good reminder that it takes passion, dedication, and talent to stand out in the crowd online, even when you’re in your underwear.
Strength in searching: LA teen artist grapples with early success
“I want more people to see my art; I want to see how it makes other people feel, you know, and all that sort of stuff”
PASADENA – At a large apartment complex in Los Angeles’ Studio City neighborhood, Grey DeLisle – also known as Grey Griffin – and her 12-year-old son, Tex, followed a man down a long hallway and into his apartment.
It was a cool night in late summer 2019, and DeLisle – a voice actor known for her role as Daphne in the “Scooby-Doo” franchise – was there for a psychic reading a friend had gifted her for her birthday.
DeLisle described her friend, who was working as a producer on a show about psychics, as a skeptic. “Ninety-nine percent of people are full of it,” DeLisle recalls her saying. “But I went to this one guy who was amazing, told things not my like that nobody could know, he freaked out all the producers. He’s amazing.”
So, DeLisle and her son entered the man’s apartment. “The guy gave me all my stuff about my grandma that nobody knew, conversations I had with people – stuff that was definitely not on the internet,” DeLisle said.
During the reading, Tex was sketching in a notebook when the psychic turned to Tex, then looked back at DeLisle and said: “Your son is an artist.”
“Oh, yeah, you know, he likes to draw,” she remembers saying.
“No, your son is gonna be one of the biggest artists of the 21st century,” the psychic said. “He’s gonna be a household name.”
Jefferson “Tex” Hammond – now 16-years-old with a head full of long, curly hair – is proving those words may have meant something after all.
In 2021, at 14-years-old, the California School of the Arts, San Gabriel Valley student became the youngest ever artist to exhibit at the prestigious LA Art Show – where he sold nearly all of his paintings.
The feat proved so newsworthy that the Los Angeles Times featured Hammond – an abstract artist whose website bio describes his work as “a window into the mind of a young talent maturing in a chaotic world” – in an article last year.
Since then, the Pasadena-based artist – who does not label his sexuality – has exhibited his work in art shows worldwide, from Los Angeles to Paris.
Arthur J Schwartz, a Willamina, Oregon-based salesman who collects Hammond’s art, said he “immediately was taken” by Hammond’s paintings.
“His work is just so compelling that I just couldn’t take my eyes off of it,” Schwartz said. “I mean, in fact, my reaction was this kid is going to be the next Michel Basquiat [an American artist who rose to fame during the Neo-expressionism movement in the 1980s] – I mean, that’s how taken I was with his work.”
The success excites Hammond, but he was also quick to note that he doesn’t want to let his achievements hinder his progress.
“Life is so much more than what we accomplish here,” he said, adding: “I gotta keep moving, I gotta keep moving always. I can’t let myself get wrapped up in, like, oh, I’m so special.”
Like many 16-year-olds, Hammond doesn’t quite know who he is yet – both as a person and an artist. It is this exploration, he said, that motivates him and gives him a sense of purpose.
“I don’t even know what I want to do with my art yet,” he said. “I’m still taking in inspiration from different art. I haven’t truly found what I want to do with it yet.”
There is one thing Hammond is sure of: “I gotta paint,” he said. “I need to not give up, and I need to paint every single day.”
An old soul
When asked how she would describe her son, the first words that came to DeLisle were “old soul” – there’s “always been like a little old man in his body,” she said.
DeLisle remembers flying with a two-year-old Hammond – his legs crossed, an in-flight magazine in hand. He wasn’t reading, she recalled, just taking in the photos on the glossy magazine paper.
Hammond turned toward her, DeLisle said, pointing to a cello in a spread about a symphony orchestra. “Oh my God,” she thought, “the Lord gave me a kid that I can handle.”
Hammond may not remember the moment, but he, too, describes himself as an old soul – at least, that’s what he’s heard his whole life.
“I may be young, but like, I already feel way older than I am,” he said. “I just turned 16, but people have thought I was 18 for two years now.”
“But a lot of that comes with the hype,” Hammond said.
Sometimes, Hammond said, he feels embarrassed – not necessarily with his accomplishments but with what he sees as a leg up and the pressure that arises as a result.
“My mom has connections, you know; I’ve gotten a lot of help along the way,” he said.
DeLisle is a Grammy- and Emmy-Award-winning veteran voice actress, comedian and singer-songwriter with almost three decades of experience in the entertainment industry. She describes her voice-acting bio as “braggy” to her 85,000 followers on Instagram.
Recently, DeLisle has starred in Nickelodeon’s “The Loud House,” voicing the role of Lola Loud – one of the show’s main characters. Hammond joined his mother on the series’ third and fourth seasons, voicing the show’s main protagonist, Lincoln Loud.
Hammond’s father, Murry Hammond, is a musician who co-founded the alt-country band the Old 97s, which has released over a dozen studio albums and appeared in films and television. Murry Hammond is now a solo artist, preparing to release a new album, “Trail Songs of the Deep,” later this year.
“I think that some people feel a little bit of anger or resentment towards me because of that,” Hammond said.
He also noted that his journey as an artist is just beginning – if it has even started.
“It’s amazing that I’ve done art shows, but I have a long way to go,” he said.
Hammond didn’t “know quite how to respond” to a question about the statement he hopes to make with his art. He believes it takes an artist years – maybe even a lifetime – to find the true meaning of their work.
“I’m not even in my career yet,” he said.
For Hammond, art is compulsive. “I can’t sit down at a table and not draw,” he said. “It’s seriously like a problem sometimes.”
Hammond said sometimes friends at school tease him for his drawing habits. “They’re like, it’s so funny,” he said, “you can’t sit down without drawing – even at the lunch table.”
“When I’m not drawing, I feel antisocial a little bit,” he said. “I just don’t really know what to do with my hands.”
Like him, Hammond’s art is “ever-changing” – “I’m never going to want to stop or cut it off,” he said.
“To be honest, I just want to be an old man and live in a cabin and lock myself away and paint,” Hammond said.
In November 2022, Hammond and his family went to London – the first time he had stepped foot in the city.
He remembers standing on the iconic Tower Bridge, gazing at the Tower of London, officially His Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress of the Tower of London – a historic castle on the north bank of the River Thames.
“I love architecture,” Hammond said. “I love seeing the way humans have developed – making everything down to the finest detail, getting everything sculpted perfectly.”
After fixing his eyes on the 900-year-old castle’s Kentish rag-stone, Hammond broadened his vision to see the city behind it.
“I feel like it completely changed my perspective,” he said. “We can build these amazing, glowing sculptures – but also, there were people hundreds of years ago who could do these unimaginable sculptures on the sides of buildings that we probably don’t even know quite well how to do now.”
Traveling, Hammond said, is fueling his growth as a person and inspiring his art.
“When I go to different countries, the art is still just as good, but it completely changes,” he said, adding: “I want to bring in all of those elements. I feel like the more I travel, the more I’m just going to see and the more inspiration I’m going to take because I take inspiration from everything.”
The places Hammond visits – whether an American city like Miami or what’s widely viewed as one of the most beautiful cities on Earth, Paris – affect his creativity and the direction of his artwork.
“Naturally, when I visit a place that really makes me feel good and puts me in a creative space in my head, then I’m going to want to see what it does to my art,” he said. “I feel like it’s time to branch out more with my art.”
Hammond has big goals for his art, so traveling allows him to get more eyeballs on his paintings.
“That’s a big part of it, too,” he said. “I want more people to see my art; I want to see how it makes other people feel, you know, and all that sort of stuff.”
In September 2022, Hammond took a trip to Paris for the Focus Art Fair – an annual contemporary art fair organized by HongLee, an international art agency based in Paris.
Before that show, Hammond said, he felt like he was creating solely for a specific art show – “following a specific theme or listening to a specific type of music or something just to get that certain flavor.”
However, Hammond noticed a shift afterward. “I feel like since I’ve gotten such an influx of creativity,” he said.
Hammond said his Paris art show was the “most exhilarating trip I’ve ever been on.”
To Hammond, the LA Art Show was “one of the biggest things” to happen to him. But Paris is his favorite city – he “instantly fell in love with it” when he visited the city before.
“So the fact that I heard that I got accepted into the Focus Art Fair was just like, surreal to me – traveling to one of my favorite cities and showing and just seeing people from around there, getting to know my work,” he said.
But more than the show itself, Hammond was happy to have a chance to experience the city.
“Being at the Louvre, that was incredible,” he said. “I mean, heck, it’s where they show the Mona Lisa, like, I mean, it’s pretty much any artist’s dream.”
On his last day in Paris, Hammond remembers going on a ferry trip around the city on the Seine. He and his mother, DeLisle, were on the boat’s top deck – where others were snapping photos of Paris on either side.
“I wanted to tell her how thankful I was,” he said. “Because I feel like, you know, growing up, I saw a lot of starving artists and artists who really didn’t make it. They may have the talent but may have just never gotten the resources to show who they really were.”
So, Hammond turned to his mother and said, “Thank you, thank you for making everything that this is possible.”
And, he said, he is going to continue saying that. “I really do feel like my mother and my father have played a really big card in what this is becoming,” Hammond said.
In the midst of his junior year of high school, many days look the same for Hammond – up at 7 a.m. to make the train, which he will take to the end of the line and sit in school for hours, thinking about art.
After school, it’s back to the train and home – snapping photos along the way, saving the inspiration for later.
“It honestly feels like the same day sometimes because of school and everything,” Hammond said.
Soon, though, it will be summer – and Hammond has an exciting one lined up, set to do an artist residency in Brussels.
“The Brussels thing, it’s been driving me,” he said. “I’ve been looking at pictures of the city, and I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ You just get to go outside and have a drink at a cafe and paint – that’s my dream. That is my dream. I don’t get to do that in LA.”
DeLisle is busy searching for a babysitter, as she described it, to look after Hammond while he’s in the city. “Who knows what happens in Brussels? I don’t know,” she said. “Is it the Vegas of Europe? I don’t know.”
Looking past the summer, Hammond is excited to continue exploring himself and his art – and, in turn, show that to the world.
“I feel like I’m waiting to show people what the next me is going to be,” he said, adding: “I want to show everybody everything that I am. I don’t want to confine it to a certain skill set or a certain style or color choices or anything like that. I want them to get a taste of all of it.”
Hammond is especially excited about his future beyond school. “I just can’t wait till I’m an adult,” he said. “I can just like wake up and treat it like a nine-to-five and just paint.”
He may not know what the future holds, but one thing is sure: He won’t stop searching.
“I’m always searching,” Hammond said. “I’m always searching for what the next thing is going to be.”
ACT UP/LA’s Mary Lucey & Nancy MacNeil’s legacy of compassion
Mary and Nancy used their “outside” activism to impact “inside” policy- the devoted couple died hours apart
By Karen Ocamb | WEST HOLLYWOOD – Mary Lucey’s eyes told all. ACT UP/LA’s firebrand was grounded, determined but deferred to Judy Cagle, the trembling center of the April 1, 1992 news conference at Being Alive’s Silver Lake headquarters. Cagle’s compassionate release from the California Institute for Women in Frontera five days earlier enabled the 37-year-old mother of a 16-year-old son to go home to die of AIDS.
Mary, also formerly incarcerated and diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, had been fighting for Cagle’s freedom for two years. Listening to Cagle beseech the public to care about women inmates, Mary’s eyes betrayed the moral burden she bore with anger, anguish, love and compassion.
“I want people I left behind to know I love them,” Cagle, who would die six months later, told reporters. “Just don’t give up. You’ve got to fight. You’ve got to know your lives are important.”
Mary felt the same, as she shared with HIV Plus magazine: “After I was released from prison, I felt I could not turn my back on women who still suffer behind bars. It is our responsibility to continue to bring attention to the cruelty that people with HIV/AIDS face in the prison system.”
That was the Mary Lucey I met in 1990 after she joined ACT UP/LA (the Los Angeles branch of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and fell in love with Nancy MacNeil, the HIV-negative leftist AIDS activist who became her constant companion and future wife. Though I thought Nancy eyed me with suspicion and enjoyed the dyke art of intimidation, I was taken by their love story. Like Paul Monette and Stephen Kolzak (and later, Winston Wilde) and Jeff Schuerholz and Pete Jimenez, the ACT UP/LA couple defied death and danced with delight in a civil rights and healthcare minefield.
For Mary and Nancy, the dance ended unexpectedly on Saturday, Feb. 11. Mary got up and started to prepare breakfast, letting Nancy sleep in as usual, close friends say. But when she checked on Nancy, she found her beloved unresponsive. Nancy had died.
Mary called her neighbor and Jeff Schuerholz, her very close friend from ACT UP/LA. Jeff immediately called another close friend, Keiko Lane and the two promised to speed up to Oceano in San Luis Obispo County, 174 miles north on US-101 from Los Angeles. Mary was excited for them to come up. However, when Keiko and her partner Lisa picked Jeff up, a family member called to say Mary had also suddenly passed away.
Both women had complicated health issues. After one accidental bone-breaking fall and several back surgeries, Nancy was fighting back with physical therapy, though she had become noticeably quieter. Mary — who was in constant pain — was her stubborn, brave primary care provider. Nancy died of natural causes. The cause of Mary’s death is still undetermined.
Timer, their old mixed boy, looked for them after almost everyone left. The sweet animal orphan is being cared for by a member of Mary and Nancy’s community.”
Learning how to be there for people with AIDS (PWAs) was terrifying, loving, infuriating and ultimately, spiritual. After I left the mainstream press in 1984 and started getting involved in the West Hollywood community, I noticed that some of my gay 12 Step friends were getting sick and disappearing. I found them isolated in hospitals where nurses left food outside and we were forced to wear masks and gowns and not touch them. I felt powerless. I didn’t know what to do except not judge and be of service. I took people to doctors’ appointments. I cleaned up messes, consoling friends deeply ashamed about their uncontrollable vulnerability and loss of dignity. I sat at bedsides. I learned that if a friend lashed out in anger it was because he trusted that I wouldn’t leave. I learned to talk about death and how to help my friends die. And like so many others, I searched for spiritual meaning in this ignored growing decimation of human beings.
I longed for a storm of rage from which an army of ghost-bearers would arise to confront this casual hate spewing from government to next door neighbors. Finally, in March 1987, a phalanx of the first wave of ACT UP resisters emerged in New York, harangued into being by curmudgeon playwright Larry Kramer.
ACT UP/LA, founded in December 1987, held meetings in Plummer Park, West Hollywood. I thought about joining, but decided I could best serve as an eyewitness to history with the gay press instead. My first freelance story for Frontiers Newsmagazine was “Ten Days that Shook the FDA,” focused primarily on the hunger strike by PWAs Wayne Karr and Lou Lance in August 1989 at Crescent Heights and Santa Monica Boulevard. The Coalition for Compassion urged the Food and Drug Administration to add a parallel track to their glacier testing procedure and release experiential drugs to PWAs as compassionate triage. Luckily, writer Bruce Mirken joined ACT UP/LA and reported for the LA Reader on activism, scientific developments, and the pharmaceutical alphabet of AIDS drugs like AZT and ddi. I wrote about policy, politics and events that challenged and deepened our humanity in the face of death.
ACT UP/LA’s trans AIDS Diva Connie Norman taught me about the range of AIDS issues. Mary Lucey was my second teacher, stressing the invisibility of women and lesbians with AIDS – something I missed because of the active leadership of Connie, Mary, Nancy, Judy Ornelas Sisneros, Patt Riese, Helene Schpak, Keiko Lane, Terry Ford, Mary Nalick, Cindy Crogan, Robin Podolsky, Stephanie Boggs, and Roxy Ventola McGrath, whose remembrance was written by her friend Nancy with whom she, Mary and others co-founded Women Alive, an empowerment organization for women with HIV/AIDS.
“Roxy made us promise to keep fighting. She told Mary to continue to be loud and rude and in people’s faces! She told her to keep doing AIDS activism and AIDS work in whatever capacity that she could be effective for as long as she is healthy enough,” wrote Nancy, Women Alive’s founding executive director. “She told me to keep writing, to tell the women’s stories and give them information about the disease, and try to inspire women into action. She asked me to write about courage and foresight, and to keep trying to give women the incentive to fight back. ‘You’ll write the story, won’t you, Nan?’ Yeah, Rox, I’ll write it. But, you gotta tell it, OK? ‘No,’ she says, ‘I lived it, you tell it.’”
A native Angelino, Nancy Jean MacNeil was both a street and information activist. Schooled by police brutality during student protests against the Vietnam War and as a member of the Black Panther Party, Nancy attended the Institute for The Study of Nonviolence in Palo Alto and became an activist and organizer in the gay, lesbian, women’s and Lavender Left movements of the 1970s and 1980s. In 1982, she lost her first friend to AIDS. Julian Turk had been diagnosed by Dr. Michael Gottlieb at UCLA, one of the first identified with the mysterious new disease.
In 1990, after attending the first Women’s Caucus meeting, Nancy joined ACT UP/LA and applied her organizing and protest skills to fighting AIDS. She and Mary advocated for women prisoners and shouted at the CDC, the FDA, the National Institutes for Health and medical researchers to wake up and recognize that their government-funded treatment studies barred women of childbearing age from participating in clinical trials — thus ignoring how women’s bodies might react differently to dosages and drug treatments. Additionally, the exclusion of women in the CDC’s definition of AIDS meant women could not get insurance coverage or qualify for Social Security disability.
Nancy shrugged off living in Mary’s media shadow, such as when Mary was dubbed “The Woman Warrior” by the Washington Post in an Oct. 1, 1991 story about ACT UP and the march on Congress as part of the second AIDS Treatment Activists Conference (ATAC2).
“The Woman Warrior Mary Lucey, 32, a former bus driver and blacksmith and ex-con from Los Angeles, woke up to the fight against AIDS two years ago when she was six months pregnant and learned she was HIV-positive. She couldn’t find a doctor to deliver her baby. Not in Riverside County, where she lived then, or in all of L.A. What she found instead were doctors who prescribed huge doses of AZT that made her lose 50 pounds during her pregnancy. She also found a cause,” the Post wrote. “(Worried by the probability that she had only a few years to live and wouldn’t be able to raise her child, she gave up her baby, who was born in San Francisco, to a couple who have other foster children.)
“‘A lot of women don’t have the inner strength to fight…But I don’t take no for an answer. So, I became an activist,’” Mary told the Post. ‘We don’t know how many women have AIDS. Doctors say you’re not at risk. They don’t even include us in AIDS death statistics. My main concern is to get them treated.’”
Mary and Nancy were in Washington DC on Sept. 30, 1991 when Republican Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed AB 101, the gays rights bill he had promised to sign. Though the streets of LA were strewn with thousands of LGBTQ activists, PWAs and HIV-positive protesters, AIDS had taken a back seat to the politics of the time though Democratic presidential nominee Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton talked about ending the AIDS crisis in challenging Republican President George H.W. Bush, branded with the Reagan-Bush stain of death.
Then came the unexpected. On Nov. 7, 1991, LA Lakers superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson, 32, held a press conference announcing that he was HIV positive. The world gasped. Magic didn’t look gay or sick — which meant women could “catch” AIDS, too. Suddenly, the “Women and HIV: Facing the Epidemic” conference at UCLA two days later was packed.
Dr. Julian Falutz told the UCLA conference that AIDS had become one of the top five causes of death for women between the ages of 20 and 40 and the leading cause of death among Black women in that age range.
“We’ve been ignored,” Mary told the LA Times. “Women are starving for information. It’s been a need for a long time.”
Nancy and Mary were also members of the ACT UP National Women’s Committee and Nancy – hired by ACT UP/LA member and Being Alive executive director Ferd Eggan to work for the AIDS organization — used her highly regarded Women Alive newsletter to push issues and actions, including forcing the CDC to change their AIDS definition to include women-specific diseases, opportunistic infections and medical ailments.
In New York, Katrina Haslip, a formerly incarcerated Black Muslim woman, was also a strong voice demanding a new CDC definition, according to ACT UP/NY historian Sarah Schulman. A direct action campaign organized by Haslip and a slew of others “lasted for four years,” Lux Magazine reported in a story about Sarah’s monumental book, “and was led by women of color, poor women, formerly incarcerated women, and lesbians who rallied together under the slogan, ‘Women Don’t Get AIDS, We Just Die from It.’”
On Jan. 1, 1993, the CDC officially revised their AIDS definition, adding, among other symptoms, cervical cancer, cervical dysplasia, pelvic inflammatory disease, and infections such as vaginal candidiasis or chronic yeast infections.
Three months later, during the April 1993 March on Washington, Mary and Nancy were among 19 members of ACT UP Network’s Lesbian Caucus who met with Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala who forms lesbian AIDS task force. The CDC subsequently funds lesbian-specific prevention programs and NIH finally studies lesbians.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, ACT UP/LA brought urgent visibility to the dire need for expanded hours, rooms and services at LA County’s horrendously overcrowded AIDS Outpatient Clinic known as 5P21 and for an AIDS unit at County USC Hospital. “We are tired of government bureaucracy telling us it doesn’t matter. We are tired of government genocide,” Connie Norman told the LA Times.
Deemed “militant” because of their rude, in-your-face tactics, ACT UP/LA and Queer Nation organizers frightened producers of the March 25,1991 Academy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium and the 1992 Oscars at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion but most of the AIDS and gay media visibility resulted from attendees wearing the new AIDS Red Ribbons created by Visual AIDS.
Meanwhile, in 1991 another hidden group — injection drug users sharing dirty needles — was starting to draw attention within ACT UP/LA. “Initially the needle exchange committee attracted people from different committees, including novelist Steven Corbin” from ACT UP’s People of Color Caucus. The committee “as founding member, visual artist Renée Edgington, recruited more volunteers to launch (Clean Needles Now),” reported X-traonline.org.
But California’s drug paraphernalia laws made possessing and distributing syringes a crime. Assembly Speaker Willie Brown and LA State Senator Diane Watson passed two bills in the California Legislature to decriminalize needle exchange – but Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed both, claiming the programs would become “a magnet for IV drug users.”
Additionally, there was concern that the needle exchange committee pulled money for syringes and other supplies out of the general fund, cutting into money available for other ACT UP/LA actions such as the huge bus trip to Frontera women’s prison on Nov. 30,1990 to protest the segregated substandard AIDS ward, Walker A. Mary spent 18 months at Frontera and was keenly aware of the lack of proper nutrition, medications and qualified medical staff. On May 4, 1992, ACT UP/LA organized a statewide protest at the California Department of Corrections in Sacramento which mainstream media ignored.
In 1993, new LA Mayor Richard Riordan appointed Ferd Eggan as the city’s third AIDS Coordinator. Ferd brought Nancy with him and hired Mary as a City AIDS Policy Analyst. By then, Mary had become adept at public hearings, including one before the CDC in 1992 on changing the definition of AIDS that was turned into a play in 2020 entitled “I, of Course, Was Livid.”
“The outcome of this hearing will have a profound impact on my survival. And yet, a more offensive and revolting fact is that we die without even being counted, as if our lives didn’t mean anything. Don’t our lives count? Then count our deaths,” writer Terri Wilder recalled Mary as saying. The play’s author, Valerie Reyes-Jimenez, noted that the CDC cut off Mary’s mic in the middle of her speaking. “She was telling the truth, and the truth was really uncomfortable,” she said. Nancy plugged the mic back in.
Ferd, Mary and Nancy used their “outside” activism to impact “inside” policy, including launching of the first intergovernmental AIDS Policy Committee in 1996, pooling resources of 40 city governments within LA County and organizing a national conference on Women with HIV/AIDS at the Staples Center in 1997 featuring women of color with HIV/AIDS. And officially being a government official under a Republican mayor didn’t stop Nancy from stopping traffic at Wilshire Boulevard and Veteran in Westwood on Dec. 1, 1994 by sitting in the streets around burning coffins representing the AIDS dead — before being yanked away by her hair by an LAPD cop.
One of Ferd’s greatest achievements was convincing Mayor Richard Riordan that he should declare a state of emergency for the City of Los Angeles to suspend the drug paraphernalia law and to fund and enable Clean Needles Now to operate without harassment from law enforcement. By Ferd’s death in July 2007, the LA Times reported that CNN, “which annually serves about 12,000 people, removed more than 1 million potentially lethal syringes off the streets last year, according to figures from the city’s AIDS coordinator’s office.”
“There is no question in my mind that the program saved thousands and thousands of lives,” Mary told The Times.
Mary took over as Interim City AIDS Coordinator for two years after Ferd retired on disability in 2001. She was the first woman to hold the job. (See a White Paper on the City’s AIDS efforts here.) As the City noted in their statement on her passing: “She used tactics that confronted power outside of the system as part of ACT UP that carried on for the rest of her life. In 2002, she participated in a hunger strike to demand the lifting of federal prohibitions on the use of medical marijuana in the state of California. Yet at the same time, she worked within the government to ensure government responses had people like her in mind, and took her seat at the table to represent women like her in AIDS policy and planning.”
Mary and Nancy moved to Oceano where Mary’s vociferous challenging of town officials won her a spot on the local community services board where she served two terms. In 2021, the couple joined Jordan Peimer, Helene Schpak, and Judy Ornelas Sisneros in creating the ACT UP LA Oral History Project (see ACTUPLA.org). Meanwhile, Mary continued to participate in panels and Mary and Nancy occasionally ventured back to LA/WeHo for events such as “Lesbians to Watch Out For: 90s Queer L.A. Activism.”
My last message from Mary was on Feb. 8 with a Facebook note after the death of my little dog Keely. “What a beautiful relationship the 3 of you had. Our hearts go out to you. Its hard to let go when you have the perfect team. Were thinking of you and Pepper.”
What a beautiful relationship you and Nancy had, as well. And here, look at us. We’re happy. Thank you for being my friend.
Karen Ocamb is the former news editor of the Los Angeles Blade. She is an award-winning journalist who, upon graduating from Skidmore College, started her professional career at CBS News in New York.
Ocamb started in LGBTQ media in the late 1980s after more than 100 friends died from AIDS. She covered the spectrum of the LGBTQ movement for equality until June 2020, including pressing for LGBTQ data collection during the COVID pandemic.
Since leaving the LA Blade Ocamb joined Public Justice in March of 2021 to advocate for civil rights and social, economic, and racial justice issues.
She lives in West Hollywood, California with her rescue dog Pepper.
Out West Hollywood Mayor Sepi Shyne will run to replace Schiff
“I realized my purpose is to illuminate- I did with my family & my advocacy work. I’ve done the same to illuminate & elevate people”
WEST HOLLYWOOD – West Hollywood Mayor Sepi Shyne announced at noon Tuesday her plans to run for the congressional seat currently held by Rep. Adam Schiff, who is running to replace California’s senior U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein who is retiring in 2024.
Shyne, the first Iranian queer female Mayor, took time out of her schedule to speak to the Blade about a lifetime of combatting prejudice, hate, and violence.
Campaign advert announcing Shyne’s candidacy:
“I realized my purpose is to illuminate. This is what I did with my family and in my advocacy work. I’ve done the same to illuminate and elevate the people.”
Mayor Shyne received her Bachelor of Science from San Jose State University with a double concentration in Accounting and Management Information Systems and a Minor in Drama with an emphasis in Directing. She received her Juris Doctorate with a specialization certificate in litigation from Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco.
She then served on the City of West Hollywood’s Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board (now LGBTQ+ Advisory Board), on the City of West Hollywood’s Business License Commission, and on the Los Angeles County Assessor’s Advisory Council on which she continues to serve.
Additionally, she has led many boards and organizations, including the LGBT Bar Association of Los Angeles and as a Board of Governor and Steering Committee leader with the Human Rights Campaign Los Angeles.
Shyne is a Co-Organizer of WeHo Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a community group created during the pandemic to help get resources to seniors, people with disabilities, and people in immunosuppressed households via social media and volunteer check-in calls. In every board and organization she has led, she has recruited and elevated women and people of color to leadership positions to create more diversity, inclusion, and equity.
“In the LBGT organizations and human rights campaigns, I was always fighting for equality,” said Shyne. “I made sure I brought in women and women of color into leadership positions because that was greatly lacking.”
Shyne was encouraged by her peers to run for office.
“I started learning more about the city, and I didn’t know that West Hollywood only had one queer woman in office in its entire, at that time, thirty-six years. That’s it. And no women of color ever in elected office.”
“I lived in the city for ten years. I really wanted the city to get back to its progressive ways. I felt it had really lost its purpose.”
“I felt that West Hollywood had lost its way. There were so many LGBTQ folks under our umbrella who didn’t feel included in our community. I knew having representation in office would inspire others as it did for me.”
“We have done so much in changing our ordinances so that our trans siblings feel more welcome, and there is still more work to do. The bisexual community that is still so often ostracized gets discrimination from straight folks and lesbians and gays.”
“My wife and I separated in June. She was bisexual. When I was on the advisory board, we had the first bisexual pride celebration, and I was so glad that we did that. Since then, we have dedicated funds to Bi Pride week in West Hollywood.”
“I didn’t realize all this until after I had a deep spiritual awakening. I am a lawyer, but I am also an energy healer. My company is called Soulillume.”
“I realized my purpose is to illuminate. This is what I did with my family and in my advocacy work. I’ve done the same to illuminate and elevate the people.”
Born in Iran, Shyne was two years old when the revolution happened in her hometown in Tehran, Iran’s capital. The Iranian Revolution, also known as the Islamic revolution, was a period of violent takeover by the Islamic regime that ultimately ended the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979 and resulted in the Imperial State of Iran being replaced by the Islamic State of Iran.
“As a little girl, my whole life turned upside down,” Shyne told The Blade.
“It was very traumatic to experience the chaos around me, the chaos that my family was experiencing, and all the women when the revolutionary guard and Islamic regime came in. For a little kid, it felt like it happened overnight. They implemented so many rules. There were no more clubs. Women could not wear makeup. No drinking. Women couldn’t be in the streets with men anymore, and they had to wear the hijab.”
“And it was violent.”
“They would whip people in the streets. They would torture people. Free speech was being taken away.”
As it is for so many children of the time, the brutality of the Islamic takeover took a deep toll on Shyne’s childhood.
“Everyone was in shock. Everyone was going through trauma. There wasn’t time for my parents to take care of me. I learned that I needed to take care of myself because the adults could barely take care of themselves.”
Following the end of the revolution in 1979, the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) continued to ravage the lives of Iranians, creating even more tragedy and chaos.
“It was very traumatic when the war started,” said Shyne. “When they were getting closer to Tehran, we would hear the sirens and the jets, and we would run down to the basement because of the fear of being bombed.”
Shyne told the Blade that her constant fear for her safety was further exacerbated by her gender: “I was so scared to be a girl because being a girl meant violence.”
In Tehran, Shyne lived on the top floor of a triplex and would often play soccer with her downstairs neighbors. Because she was fearful of what might happen to her as a young girl playing in the streets, Shyne created a male alias to make her feel safer.
“My hair was short,” said Shyne. “I made up a boy name, Parviz, and told the neighborhood boys I was Parviz.”
Sadly, as Shyne stated, times were terrifying for both men and women.
“They put my dad in prison for speaking against the regime. Then he started planning our escape from Iran.”
Shyne’s father made visa arrangements for their family but was unable to secure a visa for Shyne’s fifteen-year-old brother, who was of drafting age for the war.
“Those boys were all dying on the front lines,” Shyne told The Blade. “So they smuggled him out of the country. They sent him off with some stranger.”
Shyne, age five at the time, was concerned for her brother, whom she described as her “protector.” The family made their way to Italy, where they remained for a while before finally arriving in America. Her brother arrived safely as well.
The move to America in September of 1982 saved Shyne’s life in more ways than one. “My mom had no idea my dad planned to stay here permanently. But he had made a plan with my eldest brother that that was the right thing to do. That may not have been the best thing to do in a marriage, but as a little girl who was a lesbian, I don’t think I would have survived if he had not done that.”
While America proved to be safer for Shyne’s family than Tehran, times were anything but easy,
“It was a very difficult time for Iranians here with xenophobia and Islamophobia. People would see these Islamic extremists saying death to America and associate them with us, so we started calling ourselves Persian. All the while, we didn’t know if our families were going to be killed.”
Shyne’s family moved to her sister’s home in Cupertino, CA, where Shyne attended school.
“I was undocumented until I was 16. But I was able to go to school. I was supposed to have started school in Iran. There, you learn English, Arabic, and Farsi. But my dad hadn’t wanted me to start because he didn’t like that we also had to learn Islam, which they were forcing on the kids.”
Because Shyne had not started learning English in Tehran, she struggled in her first years of schooling in Cupertino.
“I didn’t speak very much English. Some girls started bullying me. They started throwing wood chips at me, calling me ‘camel head’ and ‘terrorist’ because they knew I was Iranian. I ran over to one of the school’s adult volunteers on yard duty. Because I didn’t know how to speak English, I couldn’t explain that I was being bullied. I was the one who ended up getting detention.”
“That day was one of my first lessons about the importance of knowledge. I told myself, ‘You need to learn English as soon as possible to speak up for yourself.’ My mom told me I used to have nightmares and that my first words in English were, ‘Leave me alone.'”
Shyne, who, like many immigrant children, felt that she was living two lives, one at home and one in school, feels that learning to stand up for herself was a pivotal moment in her life. The next pivotal moment was coming out.
While she may not have had the support or language to express it at the time, Shyne knew she was queer from a very young age.
“I remember being in Iran at age 4 or 5 and having a crush on my neighbor. I remember sitting on the entry steps to the building and holding her hand, and kissing her cheek. It just felt naturally right to me. Then around eight years old, I had a lot of cousins who ended up emigrating here, and they were talking about boys, boys, boys. I thought, ‘Wait. I’m a girl. They are girls. But they keep talking about boys. But I’m attracted to girls.'”
While Shyne knew she was attracted to girls, actually defining herself as a lesbian took some time.
“When I hit puberty, I thought maybe I was bisexual. I kissed so many boys in high school, and I just didn’t feel anything. But I would say to my close friends that I’m bisexual because I knew deep down that I was into girls. When I was fifteen, I fell in love with my best friend. It was completely emotional because we were young, and she was Mormon. She was definitely one of my soulmates.”
However, Shyne’s love for her first soulmate was put to an end.
“She had such a difficult life,” explained Shyne. “She was getting a lot of pressure from her Mormon family over me. They told her, ‘Sepi is taking you down the wrong path.’ But we were actually the best kids. We would just drive around and play music and dance around my car. I love to dance. But there was so much homophobia at the time. So much. She actually freaked out at some point and stopped talking to me for a few years.”
Around the same time, when Shyne was seventeen, she connected with her first-ever girlfriend.
“There was one girl who came up to me and said, ‘Hey, Sepi, I have some playboy magazines at home. I would love for you to come over and look at them with me.’ She was very attractive. I went over to her house. That was the first time I kissed a girl. It was fireworks. It was like how it was on TV when boys and girls would kiss. She was my first girlfriend.”
I called my best friend, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh. This is what happened. Maryanne and I made out. I’m totally not bisexual. I need to figure out how to come out to my family.'”
“So I came out to the younger family members first. Then I came out to my mom when I was nineteen. She realized I had stopped dating boys, and my parents were constantly trying to set me up, which is very prevalent in the Iranian community. I was so uncomfortable it was awful.”
Shyne’s queerness was difficult for her traditionalist mother to process, so Shyne, always the educator, gave her mother some recommended reading, including Betty DeGeneris’ book about her daughter, Ellen DeGeneres coming out, and another book called Prayers for Bobby by Leroy Aarons.
“My mom said, ‘don’t tell your dad.’ My dad was vocally homophobic. She also said, ‘Don’t get into a relationship too soon. Go experience as much as you want.’ She thought it was a phase.”
“Then she grieved as many parents do. She was in denial, then she was angry, and she said, ‘I hate you. You’re not my daughter.’ Instead of internalizing it, I said, ‘Okay. I need to educate my family because they don’t know better.'”
Shyne’s involvement in politics stemmed from a deeply personal place. In addition to her lifelong journey with her queerness, The Mayor recalled one hate incident that fueled her need to make a difference.
“I ended up getting together with my best friend,” said Shyne. “When we were in college, we were still trying to plan out what we wanted for the rest of our lives. We were at a gay-friendly coffee bar, talking about what grad schools we wanted to go to. We didn’t know the management had changed. We were just holding hands. The next thing I knew, the manager and a police officer showed up and said, ‘You need to leave. The establishment doesn’t want your kind here.’ Then he blew a kiss and winked at me.
“We couldn’t call our families. They were already worried about us as it was. We were driving around town crying. We felt demoralized. We felt powerless.”
“Finally, I pulled over and said to her, ‘I’m tired of feeling powerless. We need to go to law school and learn the law and stop this.’ So that was what we did.”
Shyne’s method of educating others has continued to serve her in her professional life.
“When people have hate speech about a group, I utilize the way I educated my family. We saw this with marriage equality as well. People did not understand why it was important until we shared our side from a vulnerable place.”
As a political figure, Shyne has received a tremendous amount of hate speech and personal threats for being a queer Iranian, woman. Amid the plethora of ignorance, one person commented on one of Shyne’s videos, “We don’t want a Muslim terrorist running city hall, if you come to my door, I’m going to mace you.”
After some misinformation was printed about one of Shyne’s policies, she received the following message from an Outlook account: “You piece of shit queer bitch. I hope you get robbed or raped or both.” The Mayor filed an official police report following the incident.
“When I’m getting personal attacks,” said Shyne, “if it’s a person that should know better, then it’s actually not my job if they are being abusive and engaging in toxic behavior to teach them that this is okay by allowing that. It is my job to stand up for myself and let them know that is not what I am willing to entertain by setting boundaries. There has been a lot of hate since I was elected office, from strangers to people in the community to local blogs printing so much misinformation.”
Shyne also blames the platforms themselves for allowing this type of hate speech and misinformation to spread, unregulated, through their comment sections.
“These platforms are aware of it, and they allow a comment section to exist with racist posts. They allow misogyny. They allow transphobia. This is a choice. These are values they put out in the community. They are choosing to do this even though they are a part of the community and have likely experienced discrimination themselves. So this is very sad.”
When asked what she believed should be done to end hate speech online, Shyne said she believed more regulation and transparency should be enforced.
“I think these platforms need to come out very strongly against hate speech. It is very simple. Just take a stand for people. If their lawyers are saying this is protected speech, then as a corporation, they can take a stance. They can use their algorithms and all their technology and institute their community standards.”
“They need to apply the standards that they have equally,” continued Shyne. “They should be able to monitor and speak up against hate speech. It is easy to tell what’s right and what’s not right. Sadly, since 2016 there has been so much lack of civility. Everybody is just pointing fingers at each other. This is happening within each party too. The republicans are fighting. The democrats are fighting. Everyone is focused on making each other wrong instead of sitting down and just listening.”
“When social media started, I think they didn’t anticipate the state of our world becoming so divisive as we saw with Nancy Pelosi’s husband. This hate speech absolutely does turn to violence.”
In September 2022, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that he signed a social media transparency bill (AB 578) by Assembly Member Jesse Gabriel, which will require social media companies to publicly post their policies regarding hate speech, disinformation, harassment, and extremism on their platforms, and report data on their enforcement of the policies.
Shyne feels that revising social media platform practices is vital as the laws that deal with inciting violence are now outdated in the face of this new technology.
“We also have to reconsider our laws about what is considered inciting violence because those laws didn’t consider social media at the time. When those laws were created, they were about people saying things in person and then asking whether or not it is probable that violence will ensue from that interaction. But now we have people on social media saying horrible things that do lead to violence.”
Shyne also sees an imbalance between protection for federal and local officials that needs to be corrected. Local officials need the same level of protection that federal officials have. She also stated that there is an imbalance of women, particularly women of color like The Mayor, getting a disproportionately large share of online hate speech.
A FINAL MESSAGE
Shyne shared a final message of hope with The Blade for the young leaders of the future.
“Always, no matter what your circumstance in life has been, if your life was difficult or traumatic, whatever anyone has said to you, whether strangers or close to you, if it is negative, don’t believe it. Just don’t believe it. Go within yourself and give yourself the healing you need to know that you are absolutely perfect as you are. You were born exactly as you were meant to be. You were meant to live a free, incredible, magical life. All the young people that are being born are so special. They are literally meant to shift this world into a much better place. No matter what, don’t ever give up. Step into your power and reach out to people like me and other leaders and ask for mentorship. Know that you can overcome any adversity. If you just set your mind to it, anything is possible.”
Mayor London Breed tackles hate crimes in San Francisco
The sudden spike of all hate crimes inspired Breed to create a street violence intervention program to respond to violence
SAN FRANCISCO – Mayor London Breed has invested a large amount of financial resources and support in fighting hate crimes in the City by the Bay.
In 2021, hate crimes against Asians represented 53% of all hate crimes. The sudden spike inspired Breed to create a street violence intervention program to respond to violence, including shootings. Responders act quickly to not only aid the victims and their families but also to help prevent retaliation which might then lead to a never ending cycle of violence.
Breed also partnered with the Community Youth Center to help train and cultivate young Asian people by providing job opportunities and leadership opportunities and helping support one another within the community. She also created a senior escort program to provide seniors with help getting home safely and running errands.
“We are going to support the community,” Breed told The Blade explaining her mission. “We are going to band together against anyone, no matter what their race is, when they attack. We are going to bring Black and Asian communities together to create solidarity and support and to address public safety in the community. Most importantly, we are going to implement restorative justice by getting to the heart of people, trying to understand why these people are committing these crimes, and how to address it and prevent it in the future.”
Already, Breed’s programs and initiatives have produced positive change. According to a study shared with The Blade by the Mayor’s office, In 2022, hate crime cases went down significantly (68%) when compared to 2021. Hate crimes went up 81% in 2021 when compared to the average for the previous three years (2018-2020). Hate crimes against AAPI people contributed to this increase. In 2022, the number of hate crimes against the AAPI community went down tenfold compared to 2021(from 60 to 6 cases)
Unfortunately, hate crimes against LGBTQ+ individuals are high as a proportion of all cases (including gay males, trans individuals, and lesbians). In 2022, 28% of hate crimes targeted LGBTQ+ individuals.
On average, 22% of recorded hate crimes in the last five years (2018-2022) targeted LGBTQ+ individuals.
The Mayor’s office also shared the following list of efforts to tackle hate crimes in San Francisco:
Examples of main efforts to tackle hate crimes in San Francisco
- Creation of the SFPD Community Liaison Unit to focus on hate crimes and incidents. The unit, comprised of five dedicated officers from the SFPD’s Community Engagement Division, has been supporting San Francisco’s diverse communities, improving reporting of crime, and supporting victims of hate crimes and prejudice-based incidents.
- San Francisco contributed over $3 million in the last two budget cycles to supporting the creation of the Coalition for Community Safety and Justice (CCSJ). This Coalition, formed in response to long-standing incidents of violence, crime, racial tensions, and the surge in COVID-19 related anti-Asian racism, was founded by five Asian organizations which work to identify and develop community-centered programmatic solutions to mitigate violence and hate across all communities of color.
- The City allocated over $400,000 in the FY 22-23 budget to expand trauma recovery services for Cantonese speaking victims of crime.
- Expansion of the Street Violence Intervention Program (SVIP) to dense neighborhood commercial corridors with a high volume of Asian pedestrian traffic.
- Over $1 million investments for transgender violence prevention and community services for Black, Latinx, and transgender communities of color and re-entry services for transgender community members, and case management for formerly incarcerated transgender residents.
- LYRIC Center for LGBTQ Youth and the Office of Transgender Initiatives started convening local LGBTQ+ organizations to work on initiatives to tackle LGBTQ hate, including digital harassment and threats of physical violence.
GROWING UP WITH VIOLENCE
Breed is the 45th Mayor of San Francisco and the first African-American woman elected to the position, previously having served as president of the Board of Supervisors from 2015-2018. She is well known for her immediate and effective response to COVID-19 as well as her devotion to helping underprivileged youth, ending homelessness, advancing public safety, and advocating for the Asian, Black, and LGBTQ+ communities’
In Breed’s childhood San Francisco community, violence and fear were a way of life.
“People I grew up with had a lot of conflict with other people I grew up with like close family and friends,” Breed told The Blade, “so in that type of situation, there was a lot of fear. For example, with the African-American men in my family, my brothers, my cousins, my uncles, there was fear because of where you lived or whose family member might have killed or had beef with another family member. I grew up concerned about my community, concerned about someone dying. I went to sadly more funerals than I can count.”
Breed was raised in poverty primarily by her grandmother in a house of five, often taking random jobs like delivering elderly people’s groceries for one dollar per store run to scrape together some extra cash.
As Breed got older, she began to take an active role in bettering her community and advocating for those in similar underprivileged states. For a long time, financing the type of change she was trying to implement proved to be her biggest challenge.
“As a community advocate and someone who worked with young people to help address these types of challenges, it was a constant battle to get resources to invest in the kind of programs that would help turn people’s lives around.”
The Mayor has come a long way from her early struggles to finance programs as she recently signed a $14 billion dollar budget that prioritizes economic recovery, public safety, workers and families, homelessness, and behavioral health needs.
Breed also told The Blade that her experience growing up surrounded by fear is what inspired her to become a politician.
“When I first ran for the Board of Supervisors, I did it unfortunately because there was a lot of violence in my community,” said Breed. “So, there was a lot of need to not only help prevent violence but to respond to it. I really felt like there was a voice needed at City Hall that actually understood what it was like to live in that situation every single day, and in some cases to live in fear because of the issues around gun violence. A big reason why I ran was wanting to do better for my community.”
HATE SPEECH AND PREJUDICE
As a woman of color and the first Black woman to be elected to her position, Breed has faced a backlash of racism, threats, and discrimination throughout her career.
“When I got into the political arena, that is when sadly a lot of the real nastiness started to take shape –the name calling, the threats, the various kind of attacks on me based on being either a woman or because of my race,” Breed said.
Some of these attacks even escalated to protests in front of her residence.
“I do remember someone with a pitchfork,” recalled Breed, “like a real pitchfork outside, and some of the language used like ‘tar feather.'”
The expression to Tar and feather a person is an expression that alludes to a former brutal punishment in which a person was smeared with tar and covered with feathers. It is a form of public humiliation that has been used for centuries to take revenge or to punish someone. It was used during the American Revolution and throughout American history to harm people with certain political or religious beliefs.
Scarily, these types of ignorant attacks have even come from well-educated and respected individuals in the community Breed said.
“I just remember this one individual who worked for one of the lawyer’s groups, I forget which one it is, he went on this rampage and basically called me a coon. He was a white man who worked with lawyers to address civil rights-related issues, and yet this was the kind of language that he used at me.
It is unfortunate that it gets to that point, but sadly when you are an elected official, that is something you have to be prepared for, even though it’s still hurtful when it happens,” she noted.
The word Coon is an extremely disparaging and offensive contemptuous term used to refer to a Black person. The use of this term as an ethnic slur derives from the practice of using coonhounds (dogs trained to hunt raccoons) to recapture escaped black slaves prior to the end of the Civil War and later adopted by extremist white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, intolerant individuals or other groups.
Selflessly, in these moments, Breed said she feared more for the well-being of her community than for her own personal safety.
“I kind of feared more what would happen if people from my community decided to respond to these kinds of attacks, which they also took offense to, or what would happen if the police responded. I was always more so concerned about someone getting hurt or some sort of altercation or anything that could happen as a result of a lot of this hate speech.”
When asked why this type of bigotry is still so common, Breed said she believes there are a number of reasons, listing mental illness and lack of proper education both in schools and in homes.
“I was fortunate to grow up in a household with a grandmother who made me feel that I needed to treat everybody right,” said Breed. “That stemmed from her growing up in Jim Crow south with segregation just one generation removed from slavery and how she felt the way she was treated was wrong. That was really embedded in me.”
“I think that if you have the kind of people in your life who make you understand from day one that that type of thinking is wrong, it makes a difference.”
“Also, we need to think about what we are teaching in our schools. Are we teaching kids as they come up how to treat one another? Are we teaching ethical behavior? I just think that to a certain extent, we have gotten away from all that.”
Breed also shared her desire for other social change, mainly in the way schools are addressing gendered bathrooms, as she feels this debate is emblematic of the same lack of empathy that leads to hate speech and hate crimes.
“I would like to see a change, for example, in this whole debate around bathrooms and the, ‘I don’t want my kids in the bathroom with this other person’ perspective. Why is this made into such a big deal? Why can’t we figure out a better way to allow people to grow up in a society where there is no stigma attached to who uses the restroom based on what they feel their gender is? How do we change that? How do we maybe change the bathroom options that we have? How do we naturally create as kids grow up more of a congregant society around that? And I think we have to think about how there are different kids with different experiences, and we need to learn how to be respectful of one another and not feel like we deserve something more than someone else. Everyone deserves to have the right to use the restroom based on the restroom of their choosing, and how we address that is by making sure that we make it a part of what we do in our public schools and our school systems in general.”
When asked for her opinion on why online hate speech can turn to violent hate crime, much like with the recent Club Q shooting, Breed said she believed some people might take cyber hate speech as a call to action.
“I do think we have a responsibility to be very careful about what we put out there because it definitely can imply that you were asking people to go after someone because of their stance on their race, gender, or their political stance.”
“I just think that social media has really damaged our society,” said Breed. “I remember when the kids at the Cultural Center started using Myspace. At first, the kids were on Myspace, and they were just showing pictures of each other and talking about each other, and saying nice things like telling each other they looked nice. I thought this was kind of a cool thing, and then all of a sudden, it became a tool that the kids started using to figure out people’s whereabouts. Then people started attacking one another to the point where all of a sudden, there were shootings between communities because of battles on social media. It went from being what was meant to be this positive way of communicating and staying in touch with one another to being used as a tool to push for fights and violence.”
“I do think we have a responsibility to monitor social media to the best of our ability. If we are a company responsible for the platform, we need to ensure that when we see something getting out of hand, we are dealing with it. Because when you are on the computer typing, you are not looking at a person face-to-face. You are talking to a computer, and you may have all these things on your mind that you want to get out, but then that information goes to the public to a whole other arena and kind of takes on a life of its own. For some people, that’s empowering, and they feel like people are finally paying attention to them when they weren’t before. And then they continue to push the envelope. So I really think it can be very dangerous, and I do think we have a responsibility to provide a lot more regulation, especially around hate speech.”
Of all the social media platforms, Breed takes the most issue with San Francisco-based Twitter, which has become increasingly controversial and toxic since billionaire Elon Musk’s takeover of the company.
“Twitter is pretty horrible. It’s toxic, and it’s sad because, again, a tool that should be used for good has turned into just a place where it is really all about attacking somebody and coming up with the most creative or clever way to go after somebody. I really think Twitter is the most dangerous of them all. I just would like to see it become more responsible,” she said.
“I do think that when the rise of hate crimes elevates to violence, there have to be consequences. People need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Breed added.
“Stay true to who you are. Do good work in the community, and feel good about what you are doing.”
When asked about her most proud accomplishment thus far in elected office, the mayor named her Opportunities for All (OFA), program which provides paid internships for high school students in the city.
“No matter what school you go to, no matter where you live, we will not turn any kid away. Even if we don’t have a place to fit them, we will still make sure they have some sort of paid opportunity for the summer so that no one gets left out. I never want money to be a barrier to someone’s desire to be successful in their life.”
“When I was 14, I was able to get a work permit and be part of the Mayor’s Youth Employment and Training program,” said Breed. “The problem with that was there were only so many spaces.”
While Breed was able to secure a spot in the program, seeing what happened to some of her peers as a result of the program’s limited space deeply affected her.
“I remember a whole lot of people not getting a space in the program, and all I could think about were some of the kids who I went to school with who went from being not so bad to being actually really terrible. They were involved in a lot of drug dealing in violent crime. I just felt like there was a really critical moment where I realized that if we were not going to send these people on the right path, they were going to go in a very different direction. I just want to make sure we never miss out on an opportunity to turn someone’s life around.”
Thanks to her policy of never turning any child away from OFA, Breed is able to boast of the program’s positive impact on San Francisco’s youth. Some participants in the program have learned valuable skills like leadership and coding. Some now work for nonprofits, tech companies, and city government, to name a few. Many go off to college and return to help manage and run the program for other youths.
“I feel like this program is really going to, and has already transformed lives, and will continue to do so,” said Breed.
Finally, she shared some words of encouragement for future leaders:
“I would say to any young person looking to become a leader, one day, number one, just believe in yourself. You know what’s in your heart. Stay true to who you are. Do good work in the community, and feel good about what you are doing. When opportunities present themselves, don’t be afraid to take advantage of them. Sometimes it can feel scary and overwhelming, but at the end of the day, if you feel it in your heart and you want to go for it, I say go for it.”
Former president Jimmy Carter has entered hospice care at home
Carter became the oldest living former U.S. chief executive after the death at 94 of former president George H.W. Bush on November 30, 2018
PLAINS, Ga. – Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has elected to receive hospice care at his family home in Plains according to the announcement by the Carter Center in Atlanta Saturday. The 98-year-old former president, who has been in ill health recently and hospitalized several times, decided to spend his remaining time at home with his family.
The Carter Center said that the former president had elected to decline additional medical intervention and that he has the full support of his family and his medical team.
The former president’s grandson, former Georgia State Senator, Jason Carter tweeted: “I saw both of my grandparents yesterday. They are at peace and—as always—their home is full of love. Thank you all for your kind words”
I saw both of my grandparents yesterday. They are at peace and—as always—their home is full of love. Thank you all for your kind words https://t.co/9rhG61sZEV— Jason Carter (@SenatorCarter) February 18, 2023
Carter became the oldest living former U.S. chief executive after the death at age 94 of former president George H.W. Bush on November 30, 2018. He was diagnosed with cancer in Aug. 2015 — melanoma that had spread to his liver and brain — but was later declared cancer-free. In 2019, he also suffered a black eye in a fall and was later hospitalized with a fractured pelvis due to a separate fall.
Carter’s 76-year-long marriage makes him the longest-married U.S. president on record.
The thirty-ninth President of the United States, he served from 1977 to 1981. After leaving office in 1982, he and his wife Rosalynn founded The Carter Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of people around the globe. The former president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his life-long advocacy for human rights.
The announcement by the Nobel Committee stated that the committee decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2002 to Carter, “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”
Born October 1, 1924, at the Wise Sanitarium [hospital] in his hometown of Plains, Georgia where he was raised on his parent’s peanut farm, Carter’s decades of public service commenced after his graduation from the United States Naval Academy in 1946 and he began his service as a submariner.
Carter left naval service after the death of his father in 1953 taking over the Carter family business in what was then a segregated Georgia with sharp lines between Blacks and Whites. He was an early supporter of the nascent civil rights movement and became an activist within the Democratic Party, a leading voice of change to end racial segregation.
First elected to office in 1963, Carter served as a state senator until 1967. In 1970 he successfully ran for governor, winning the office and then going on to serve until 1975. Like most progressive Democrats of the era, Carter was appalled by U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam and then by the scandal of Watergate that took down the Republican administration of President Richard Nixon leading to the president’s resignation in August of 1974.
Previous to the Watergate scandal in 1972, Carter was selected to lead as chair of the Democratic Governor’s Campaign Committee. This position gave him access to key Democrats nationwide, and the major Democratic gains in the first post-Watergate election allowed Carter to raise his visibility nationally.
Although a relative unknown outside of Georgia and within the leadership of the Democratic Party, Carter was able to parlay voter fatigue and the public’s response to the twin nightmares of Vietnam and Watergate, that had shattered public confidence in government into setting up his run against incumbent Republican President Gerald ‘Jerry’ Ford.
Robert A. Strong, Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University and a visiting fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center noted: [In the 1976 presidential race] Americans gravitated toward leaders who were outside the Washington sphere. Answering the nation’s need, Carter’s slogan was “A Leader, For A Change.” Nine other Democrats were seeking the nomination in 1976, most of them better known than Carter.
Early support of gay rights
During a campaign stop on May 21, 1976, Carter was giving a fund-raising campaign speech at the Hilton hotel in San Francisco, California when he met local gay rights activist Harvey Milk. The moment was caught by famed San Francisco-based gay photographer Donald C. Eckert as Governor Carter shook Milk’s hand.
According to Jimmy Carter Presidential Library researcher Dale Dancis, Eckert, speculated that “Carter and his aides had no idea who Harvey was at the time. (Milk) had scraped together the $100 or so for the fund-raising dinner so he could meet Carter.”
The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library has a recording of Carter’s speech from that night, which doesn’t mention gay rights. However, Carter spoke out in support of gay rights at the news conference he held just before the fund raiser, saying he would sign New York Democratic Congresswoman Bella Abzug’s Equality Act amendment to the 1964 Civil Rights Act if it reached his Presidential desk. “I will certainly sign it, because I don’t think it’s right to single out homosexuals for special abuse or special harassment,” he said.
In the outcome of the 1976 presidential election, Carter narrowly defeated Ford, in part due to the latter’s pardoning of his predecessor president Nixon, but also as the inflation rate in 1976 topped 5.76% and the American economy had significantly slowed.
Washington & Lee’s professor Strong wrote: “The election was very close. Ford’s strategy was to try to win five of eight elector-rich states-California, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas. He won four, but not five. Carter won with an interesting coalition of the entire Old South (excepting conservative Virginia) and northern industrial powers such as New York and Pennsylvania.”
Carter later factored into a gay rights campaign by Harvey Milk, when as an elected Supervisor for the Castro (District 5) in San Francisco in 1978, wrote the president asking for his support in defeating ballot Proposition 6, which would have banned gay and lesbian individuals from working in the California public school systems as teachers or staff.
Proposition 6, was also known as the Briggs Initiative—named after Republican state Senator John Briggs who had authored the legislation. In his letter Milk stressed that he hoped that the President would oppose the Briggs Initiative and “take a leadership role in defending the rights of gay people.”
A couple of days before sending the letter Milk expressed his frustration over what he perceived as inaction by the Carter White House on gay rights in a speech he gave on June 28, 1978, that later was known as the “Hope Speech.” Milk targeted Sen. Briggs and Florida resident and anti-gay activist Anita Bryant for her national Save Our Children campaign which labeled gay and lesbian Americans as deviants.
“….There are some 15 to 20 million lesbians and gay men in this country listening and listening very carefully. Jimmy Carter, when are you going to talk about their rights?” Milk told the crowd in front of San Francisco City Hall that bright June morning.
In his letter to Carter after the speech Milk wrote: “In it, [Milk’s speech] I called upon you to take a leadership role in defending the rights of gay people. As the President of a nation which includes 15-20 million lesbians and gay men, your leadership is vital and necessary.”
Camp David Accords and the push for peace in the Middle East
Carter’s presidency saw the creation of two new federal cabinet-level roles- the Department of Energy and the Department of Education. Carter also focused efforts on bringing peace to the troubled regions in the Middle East.
The Camp David Accords, signed by President Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in September 1978, established a framework for a historic peace treaty concluded between Israel and Egypt the next Spring in March 1979.
Carter along with his Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, pursued intensive negotiations with Arab and Israeli leaders, hoping to reconvene the Geneva Conference, which had been established in December 1973 to seek an end to the Arab-Israeli dispute after decades of bloody and costly conflict.
His presidency however would be marred by a series of events that critics would charge showed Carter’s inability to govern effectively as well as manage the massive and somewhat unwieldy Federal government. 1979 proved to be challenging to Carter as he was confronted by the oil crisis brought about by the revolution in Iran that toppled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and installed a fundamentalist Islamic regime, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, the Nicaraguan Revolution, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Ultimately it was the revolution in Iran and the take-over of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979 and the hostage-taking of 52 United States diplomats and citizens by militant Iranian college students and youths supported by the government of Ayatollah Khomeini, that proved to leave a negative impact on Carter’s chances for reelection.
The Campaign and Election of 1980
Writing about that campaign, Professor Strong noted: “Three days after the embassy takeover in Iran, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. Incumbents rarely face a challenge from within their own party, but Kennedy was encouraged by Carter’s weak poll ratings. When told of the Kennedy challenge, Carter snapped to a Congressman, who later spoke to reporters: “I’ll whip his ass.” Kennedy came close to defeating Carter as the party split into two wings.”
In the Fall of 1980 Republican nominee former California Governor Ronald Reagan won in an electoral landslide. Many political observers an historians believe that Carter’s record in office despite his successes with Middle East negotiations for peace belied the fact that he was a below-average president.
The final straw in dooming his chances for a second term for his presidency some historians said was that in addition to his seeming inability to gain the release of the American hostages held in Tehran, the final debate between the president and Governor Reagan capped what would become his defeat at the polls.
Reagan was an infinitely superior television candidate. Someone asked Carter a question about the arms race with the Soviets, and he claimed that he had helped decide policy towards it by discussing it with Amy, his eight-year-old daughter. When Carter acted querulous and sounded shrill, Reagan turned to him and said in a mock tone of exasperation, “There you go again.” At the end of the debate, Reagan looked into the camera expertly and asked viewers, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” The next day, Carter was stunned at the latest poll numbers-the very bottom had dropped out.
The Carter Center and post-presidency career
Carter’s years after leaving the White House has been filled with years of work dedicated to his passion for the advancement of human rights, peace negotiations, monitor elections, and advancing disease prevention and eradication in developing nations. Much of that charitable work advanced by the Carter Center’s efforts in 65 plus third-world countries.
A published author, Carter has written over 30 books, ranging from political memoirs to poetry, and he and his wife Rosalynn are also celebrated for their hands on work with the nonprofit organization Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing home ownership opportunities to low-income families.
Both have been publicly documented lending their labor and time on the construction of new homes by Habitat for Humanity.
An Inside Look at President and Mrs. Carter’s Offices (2021):
Carter has continued to lend support and allyship to the LGBTQ+ community. During a book tour promoting his book, “A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety,” speaking with HuffPost Live in July of 2018, the former president was asked about gay marriage said he believes “Jesus would approve of gay marriage.”
“I think Jesus would encourage any love affair if it was honest and sincere and was not damaging to anyone else and I don’t see that gay marriage damages anyone else,” Carter who describes himself as a born-again Christian said adding though as a caveat churches that disagree with same-sex marriage should not have to perform them.
Jimmy Carter Says Jesus Would Approve Of Gay Marriage:
President Jimmy Carter Is Still Praying For Donald Trump:
From 2006: Jimmy Carter on life after the White House:
New York Times called out for its biased coverage of trans people
“We won’t stand for the Times platforming lies, bias, fringe theories, and dangerous inaccuracies,” says GLAAD. “We demand fair coverage”
NEW YORK CITY – In a one-two punch aimed directly at the New York Times, more than 100 contributing writers, fellow journalists, celebrities and advocacy organizations today joined GLAAD in demanding change in how the newspaper covers transgender issues and trans people.
First, GLAAD hired a billboard truck to circle the newspaper’s Manhattan headquarters this morning with signs saying, “Dear New York Times: Stop questioning trans people’s right to exist & access to medical care,” among other messages.
“I think what what’s most upsetting here is the damage this is doing,” Sarah Kate Ellis, GLAAD CEO and president of the world’s largest LGBTQ+ media advocacy organization, told the Blade in her first phone interview on the topic Tuesday. “Every day they’re not stopping is doing more damage. Every time a new article comes out that debates whether or not trans people should receive board-approved healthcare is damaging. And so I feel really strongly that their coverage is dangerous.”
Then, to protest what GLAAD calls the Times’ “irresponsible, biased coverage of transgender people,” representatives of the organization joined contributors for the Times outside the paper’s building this morning, as they delivered two open letters and issued a joint statement, calling out a “pattern of inaccurate, harmful trans coverage.”
The coalition demands the Times immediately “stop printing biased, anti-trans stories,” meet with members and leaders in the trans community within two months, and within three months hire at least four trans writers and editors as full-time members of the Times staff.
Joining GLAAD are HRC, PFLAG, the Transgender Law Center, Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund, the Women’s March, director Judd Apatow, comedian Margaret Cho, actor Wilson Cruz, actresses Tommy Dorfman, Lena Dunham, Jameela Jamil, drag superstar Peppermint, activist Ashlee Marie Preston, Jeopardy! champion Amy Schneider, writer/director/actress Shakina, actress, Instagram influencer and stepmom to Zaya, Gabrielle Union-Wade, TV personality Jonathan Van Ness, activist Charlotte Clymer and more.
“This has been an effort at GLAAD for over a year now,” Ellis told the Blade. “We’ve had several off-the-record meetings with the New York Times to share with them our concerns about the coverage and the reporting that they’ve been doing on the trans community.”
But those concerns fell on deaf ears, said Ellis, and the conversations were unfruitful. “We wouldn’t be going out with a public letter in coalition if they were fruitful. You know, for us going public, it’s always the last resort.”
Times Journalists Speak Out
As GLAAD worked toward publishing its letter, the organization was contacted by Times contributors already in the process of composing their own. A core team of eight journalists collaborated to condemn what they called the newspaper’s anti-trans bias and the real-world impact of that transphobic coverage.
The authors are Times freelancers Harron Walker, Eric Thurm, who is also campaigns coordinator at the National Writers Union and a steering committee member of the Freelance Solidarity Project, Sean T. Collins, who is also a member and organizer of the Freelance Solidarity Project, Cecilia Gentili, a longtime trans activist, Jo Livingstone, Muna Mire, and Chris Randle, a member of the steering committee at the Freelance Solidarity Project.
They were joined by Olivia Aylmer, a member of the steering committee at the Freelance Solidarity Project who is not a freelancer for the Times.
Not only did other contributing writers sign-on, but so did journalism colleagues, both cisgender and transgender, as well as members of the Trans Journalists Association.
“A diverse group of people came together to bring you this complaint,” they wrote. ”Some of us are trans, nonbinary, or gender nonconforming, and we resent the fact that our work, but not our person, is good enough for the paper of record. Some of us are cis, and we have seen those we love discover and fight for their true selves, often swimming upstream against currents of bigotry and pseudoscience fomented by the kind of coverage we here protest.”
Those signing that letter include Ashley P. Ford, Roxane Gay, Carmen Maria Machado Thomas Page McBee, Andrea Long Chu, Carmen Maria Machado, John Cameron Mitchell, Zach Stafford, Raquel Willis, Maia Monet, among others.
Their letter, addressed directly to Times Standards editor Philip Corbett, calls out the country’s third most-read paper for executing what it says is “poor editorial judgment,” repeated lack of context in its reporting on trans issues and following “the lead of far-right hate groups in presenting gender diversity as a new controversy, warranting new, punitive legislation.”
“There is in fact an unethical bias against trans people and transnesss within its coverage of trans issues, by and large,” said Walker, one of the organizers of the contributors’ letter. “There is a pattern of bias, and it’s a violation of the standards own policy as laid out by the standards desk.”
States that have seized upon this anti-trans reporting and opinion pieces by the Times include Alabama, Arkansas and Texas. Already, those states have joined Florida, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee and Utah in enacting discriminatory legislation.
Of these, Utah and South Dakota have passed healthcare bans that journalist Erin Reed calls “exceedingly cruel.” For example, South Dakota’s ban is one of those providing specific provisions on how to medically detransition transgender teenagers, a practice now state law in Alabama and Arkansas.
“The New York Times coverage is feeding into defending these laws, by virtue of the fact that it’s the so-called paper of record,” Walker told the Blade. “It has one of the largest reaches of any newspaper in the world, it is respected. Even if people on the far right may dismiss it as the ‘failing New York Times,’ it still holds a legitimacy in a process that, you know, means something.”
“Pattern of Bias”
“Plenty of reporters at the Times cover trans issues fairly,” the contributing writers’ letter states. “Their work is eclipsed, however, by what one journalist has calculated as over 15,000 words of front-page Times coverage, debating the propriety of medical care for trans children published in the last eight months alone.”
GLAAD notes that officials in Texas quoted Emily Bazelon’s June 2022 report to go after families of trans youth in court documents over their private, evidence-based healthcare decisions.
Former Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge cited three Times articles in her amicus brief supporting an Alabama law that criminalizes doctors and parents for ensuring trans youth can access necessary medical care: Bazelon’s 2022 story, Azeen Ghorayshi’s January 2022 piece, and Ross Douthat’s April 2022 op-ed.
The Times’ reporting on trans youth and its reputation as the “paper of record” was cited just last week to justify a bill in a Nebraska legislative hearing, that would criminalize healthcare for trans youth.
Scores of other bills are in the works. Missouri Republicans are once again pushing for healthcare bans. Anti-trans bills in Montana, West Virginia, and Mississippi have passed an entire chamber.
But by far the worst anti-transgender legislation and existing laws against transgender community are already on the books in Texas, which Reed calls “home to the weaponization of [Department of Protective Family Services] against transgender people.”
New restrictive bathroom laws are in place in Oklahoma, Alabama and Tennessee. Oklahoma’s healthcare ban restricts even adults, up to the age of 26, from accessing gender-affirming care. Florida has banned Medicaid coverage for trans-related healthcare for adults and is banning gender affirming care for trans teens. And as mentioned earlier, Utah, South Dakota, Arkansas and Alabama have targeted trans teens as well.
“Britification” of American Media
For the most part over the last two decades, U.S. media had reliably shared a positive view of transgender people, especially youth, highlighting the stories of out trans celebrities like Chaz Bono, Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner and Jazz Jennings. But since the Obergefell decision at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015, trans people have become the religious right’s handy-dandy political boogeyman, to scare the flocks, rally the base and get out the vote. That’s a shift that was preceded by all-out negative coverage of trans issues in the United Kingdom, where with rare exception the mainstream media is in lockstep with what is called the “Gender Critical” movement, opposing trans rights.
Ari Drennen is the LGBTQ program director for Media Matters, and has been tracking coverage of trans issues at the Times.
“I think it’s good to see people speaking up and talking about the really troubling pattern of coverage coming out of the Times, just because the Times is seen as the kind of gold standard for a lot of mainstream liberals,” Drennen told the Blade. “That pattern is especially notable at the Times. But there has been a sort of, you know, Britification, for lack of a better word, of the American media’s approach to trans people.”
Drennen cites a Reuters article from October about gender-affirming care for transgender children that featured an extreme close-up photograph of a child wearing braces with a hormone pill on their tongue. “That was really just clearly intended to scare parents,” she said.
Also keeping a close watch on the Times and this Britification effect is Alejandra Caraballo, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, where she works to advance the civil rights of LGBTQ+ people in a variety of civil legal contexts such as healthcare access, immigration, and family law.
“In the U.K., the far right, particularly the religious far right, is almost a non-entity. They just don’t have the kind of cultural power and political power that they do in the United States,” Caraballo told the Blade, noting that the Gender Critical movement has taken a a more secular approach to its opposition to trans people, rather than a religious angle.
“In the United States, it’s always been the religious far right, but they are now trying to launder those narratives through these kind of secular outlets, to try to make it seem that the concerns aren’t just inherently based on religious ideology,” she said. “Part of it is this concerted strategy that I think a lot of the Gender Criticals have of particularly appealing to narratives that upper middle class white women would often be more amenable to, especially this idea that women have fought for rights, and somehow the existence of trans people is undermining those rights, because it’s hard to just oppose rights for people if it doesn’t impact you, so you have to create a sense of scarcity, and that’s what they do there. They say that ‘This is erasing women,’ ‘This is erasing women’s rights.’”
Caraballo noted that the people who are writing these stories at the Times are almost universally upper middle class, middle-aged white women, which speaks to the lack of racial diversity at the newspaper.
“I think what’s interesting is the kind of subject of every panic about over-medicalization in mainstream media tend to be white, and then the subject of the panic about kids and sports tend to be Black,” said Drennen. “I don’t need to have a Ph.D to see what’s going on.”
“I think part of it speaks to the lack of racial diversity,” echoed Caraballo. “I’m not surprised that one of the first really positive, outspoken editorials in the opinion column in the New York Times was by a Black man. I think there’s a sense of solidarity and understanding of how these things work, and I think when you have no trans people in the newsroom and no trans people as opinion columnists, and you have a newsroom that’s almost entirely stocked with a demographic that is particularly being targeted by Gender Criticals for pushing their views. I think it’s not a surprise.”
Caraballo said her conversations with people who work at the Times leads her to suspect this shift toward anti-trans narratives is not the writers or reporters themselves, but the result of an agenda set by their editors.
“For some people like Katie J.M. Baker, who has written extensively about how the media actually works to push transphobic narratives, to then write an article like she did about forcibly outing trans students, it just speaks to either opportunism, not really having a deeply-held belief about this, or just being pushed by the editors. I mean, this was her first major story,” she said. “I worry that what happens is the New York Times often times gives those kinds of views credibility. And you see this with the anti-trans people celebrating every one of these articles, because they view that they’re trans eliminationist and anti-trans positions are being laundered into the mainstream.”
Anti-trans Tipping Point
In 2014, Time Magazine put Laverne Cox on its cover and declared that trans Americans had achieved a tipping point in acceptance. But at the Times, a shift in who writes opinion pieces has tipped the balance the other way, noted Drennen.
“The New York Times has never been perfect in their coverage, of course. But over the last year, Jennifer Finney Boylan departed from the Times’s opinion section,” she said. While Boylan is still a freelancer for the Times, the bestselling author and scholar’s byline now regularly appears in the Washington Post.
“In the interim, they’ve added two incredibly anti-trans regular columnists, Pamela Paul and David French, the former lawyer for the anti-LGBTQ+ hate group, the Alliance Defending Freedom. This has a really troubling pattern of anti-trans sentiment. So, any perceived balance there was just got totally blown out the window over the last year.”
“I’m proud of the work I did for Times Opinion from 2007 to 2022, on hundreds of topics from presidential dogs to the history of the Negroni,” Boylan told the Blade. “As a freelancer, I felt lucky to have a regular slot on the page and was grateful for the trust the editors placed in me. I also wrote many essays about trans identity and trans politics, and was proud to be, for many years, the only ongoing voice on the page representing the wide range of trans identities. I am hoping all those stories put a human face to trans issues for readers of the Times, and opened some hearts.”
Boylan’s name does not appear alongside other Times freelancers in the open letter or the GLAAD letter, but ironically, the Times has been publishing her name in its Bestsellers list for 18 weeks in a row. Her novel, Mad Honey, co-written with Jodi Picoult, has yet to be reviewed in the newspaper or covered in any way, despite it being the most successful book co-written by any transgender person, ever. Is that more evidence of bias, or just a coincidence?
The Science “Debate”
“I am really disappointed that it’s come to this,” said Ellis. “The science is settled on transgender health care. As far as the New York Times is concerned, it is not settled science and they want to use their pages to debate it.”
“It’s so dehumanizing,” added Caraballo, “because you have people debating your rights who have no stake in it whatsoever. They’re not the ones that are going to be denied healthcare. They’re not the ones who are going to be denied housing. They’re not the ones who are going to be kicked out of their homes when they’re forcibly outed to their parents. They have no stake in this. And that is particularly what’s so upsetting, to see all these people that literally will never feel the effects of these policies, constantly talking about how they have ‘concerns.’”
Will the Times Agree to their Demands?
Drennen said it’s hard to say whether these open letters will have any impact, because “so much of their decision-making is internal.”
For her part, Walker said she remains excited by the coalition that’s been assembled and optimistic, but also realistic.
“Ideally what happens is the New York Times says, ‘Okay, yeah, let’s stop debating whether trans people should be allowed,’ and they start hiring a bunch of trans people. It’s the end of the story. I’m also realistic. I think it’s important to keep some idealism and some optimism in place and also realistic at the same time, which I also think is important. And I fully expect them to do their best to ignore it.”
“We’re too loud to ignore. If you ignore our letter, we’ll find some other way. If you ignore that, we’ll find another way,” Ellis said. “We’re not going to quit until the New York Times acknowledges our demands. And our demands are not outrageous. Within the letter, we’re just talking about stopping your irresponsible reporting, meeting with the trans community and hiring trans writers and editors. These are not outrageous demands that we’re making.”
Charlie Stadtlander, the Director of External Communications, Newsroom, for the New York Times responded Wednesday afternoon in an email to the Blade addressing the controversy:
“We received the open letter delivered by GLAAD and welcome their feedback. We understand how GLAAD and the co-signers of the letter see our coverage. But at the same time, we recognize that GLAAD’s advocacy mission and The Times’s journalistic mission are different.
As a news organization, we pursue independent reporting on transgender issues that include profiling groundbreakers in the movement, challenges and prejudice faced by the community, and how society is grappling with debates about care.
The very news stories criticized in their letter reported deeply and empathetically on issues of care and well-being for trans teens and adults. Our journalism strives to explore, interrogate and reflect the experiences, ideas and debates in society – to help readers understand them. Our reporting did exactly that and we’re proud of it.”
Read the letters and who signed them by clicking here.
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