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1st time West Texas has a permanent LGBTQ+ community center

A local volunteer died by suicide ahead of the center’s grand opening, reminding the West Texas community why such spaces are important



Adriana Aguilar, chair of Basin Pride, embraces Patty Reeves, president of PFLAG's Midland and Odessa chapter, after her talk on stage about the death of a community member Luna Harris during the Pride Festival at The Vine in Odessa, Texas. (Photo Credit: Callie Cummings for The Texas Tribune)

By Carlos Nogueras Ramos | ODESSA, Texas — Patty Reeves stood centerstage overlooking a park dotted with dozens of people from West Texas’ LGBTQ+ community. There were clusters of families and friend groups. A local church brought congregants who sat in lawn chairs in the front row.

The cheerful atmosphere at the fifth annual pride festival in West Texas had shifted. A suicide had rocked the community. Luna Harris, a 19-year-old gender-nonconforming person, died two days earlier.

As a warm gust carried dust through the park, Reeves delivered her speech.

“What I see in West Texas is a community that says, ‘I am here. I am thriving. You will not erase us,’” she said.

Like many present that day, Reeves, the president of PFLAG’s Midland and Odessa chapter, wanted to believe in her message. But at that moment, she couldn’t.

“I said those words because that’s what I hope for,” Reeves said offstage. “But then I thought: Are we really?”

The sudden loss hovered over the festivities meant to close a busy week of events, which included the grand opening of a brick-and-mortar community center for the region’s LGBTQ+ community.

PFLAG President, Peggy Reeves, discusses the intense need to help trans children in Texas during the Pride Festival hosted by Basin Pride at The Vine in Odessa, Texas.
PFLAG President Patty Reeves discusses the need to help trans children in Texas during the Pride Festival hosted by Basin Pride at The Vine in Odessa. 
(Photo Credit: Callie Cummings for The Texas Tribune)
Crowd during the Pride Festival hosted by Basin Pride at The Vine in Odessa, Texas.
The crowd watches the speakers and performances at the Pride Festival in Odessa, Texas.
(Photo Credit: Callie Cummings for The Texas Tribune)
Maverick Dance Team performs during the Pride Festival hosted by Basin Pride at The Vine in Odessa, Texas.
Maverick Dance Team performs during the event. (Photo Credit: Callie Cummings for The Texas Tribune)

It was also, Reeves and others said, a sobering reminder that underscored how necessary spaces like the festival and the community center are — especially in a state such as Texas where Republican lawmakers and other policymakers are working to limit how LGBTQ+ people live their lives.

During the last decade, several organizations that support the Permian Basin’s LGBTQ+ community have sprung up. None have had a permanent — and visible — home of their own. That changed in April when Pride Center West Texas opened its doors to the public.

The center’s grand opening was four years in the making. It all started when Bryan and Clint Wilson moved to Midland, from Florida in 2020. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the couple shuttered their consulting services to move back and be closer to family.

The married couple had been active in LGBTQ+ nonprofits in Florida, and registered Pride Center West Texas as a nonprofit with plans to open a center once they settled. That summer, the first center opened on the third floor of a building in downtown Odessa with a conference room and group spaces, Clint said.

The center outgrew that space. And in 2021, they moved the center to another building downtown, next to a bank. There, the Wilsons, volunteers and the center’s board held events and group sessions for two years before outgrowing the space again. In 2023, the couple moved the center to a church. But after the Wilsons held a drag show for adults, members of the church’s board voted to evict them. Until this year, the couple operated the center out of Sanctuary Wyrd, a shop that sells gems, crystals and art — and has doubled as a refuge, opening its doors to other organizations that hosted monthly meetings and movie nights.

Now the center is tucked away in a nondescript strip mall behind a busy Italian restaurant.

A rainbow placard hangs on the glass facing the street. At the entrance, the Wilsons have placed desks for people to work at. They do not charge patrons for using the space. A clerk sits by the window, welcoming every straggler. Farther down the hall, visitors may chat on a sofa and chairs while others study the collection of books on a shelf. Pamphlets containing information about sexually transmitted diseases line the countertop of a bar area in the back.

Among its programming, it offers youth groups for adults aged 18-25 to discuss different subjects. Some weeks, it hosts group discussions on religion. On Fridays, visitors can drop in for Queer Connection, a support group for adults. The center also offers its space as an office to other local organizations serving the LGBTQ+ community.

Reeves, the PFLAG president, also moved to Midland from Arlington in 2020 with her husband and trans teenager, Milo. Before looking for a house, Reeves said, she and her husband searched for available resources for her teen, who is now 17. Bryan and Clint helped the family by connecting them to the local network of organizations focused on supporting LGBTQ+ youth. Reeves volunteered for a year before becoming president of PFLAG in 2021.

“Finding the Pride Center was the best thing that happened to us,” Reeves said. “I came as a parent, I didn’t know what to do.”

Funding such community centers is a priority for Texas Pride Impact Fund, a nonprofit charity organization that grants money to support programs and community centers across Texas. Since 2018, it has awarded $2 million to organizations in Abilene, Corpus Christi, El Paso, Lubbock, Eagle Pass, the Rio Grande Valley and others. The fund traveled to Odessa in June to document the center and show the results of its work to donors in Fort Worth.

Youth Administrator, Zero Galindo pick board games with Bryson Beaman (14) and Michael Eayon during Youth Drop In and Group at Pride Center West Texas in Odessa on May 28, 2024.
Youth administrator Zero Galindo, left, pick board games with Bryson and Michael during a facilitated youth group at Pride Center West Texas in Odessa. 
(Photo Credit: Callie Cummings for The Texas Tribune)

Ron Guillard, the fund’s executive director, said it’s unclear how many similar organizations exist across Texas — especially outside the major metropolitan areas. A national database suggested there are 20, but not all operate out of a physical space. For many, Guillard said, a brick-and-mortar is aspirational.

Míchél Macklin, the fund’s communications and administrative coordinator, said rural community centers do more with a fraction of the budget of bigger cities. A challenge for the community hubs like the West Texas center, they said, is working with scarce resources. The fund found that the support the organizations provide to each other has enabled their success.

“I think the folks who are in the Permian Basin are creating connective tissue among each other and pooling the resources, however small they may be … to create a larger compound or silo of resources that can be shared among one another,” Macklin said.

Guillard agreed: “What I find most striking is that [rural centers] appear to be more cohesive than the major cities because they’re led by a younger set of activists,” Guillard said. “Especially in towns like Eagle Pass and Odessa, there are communities, those on the frontlines working across the spectrum. And they understand that that is the fight.”

Pride Center Board President, Emily Parks answers interview questions from Texas Pride Impact Funds  members Ron Guillard and Míchél Macklin at Pride Center West Texas in Odessa on May 28,2024.
Texas Pride Impact Funds members Ron Guillard and Míchél Macklin interview Emily Parks, board president of Pride Center West Texas, during a tour to Odessa to document the impact of the nonprofit’s funding on the community center. (Photo Credit: Callie Cummings for The Texas Tribune)

Guillard said he had seen promising examples of other LGBTQ+ organizations aiming to open brick-and-mortar centers in El Paso, Corpus Christi and the Rio Grande Valley.

Harris, the 19-year-old who died by suicide, was a regular volunteer at the center since 2022. They helped organize meetings and events. And they helped produce the local Pride celebration, often performing original songs. Full of ideas, they proposed a chocolate bar stand and a firecracker sale to help raise money.

They were talkative and outgoing, their friends said. They wrote songs and performed them with an operatic tone, people close to them said. In high school, Harris sang in a choir. For the 2024 Pride festival, Harris had volunteered to face-paint and perform a song.

The Wilsons and other advocates were stunned. How could this happen to someone so deeply involved with the tight-knit community?

Pride Center founder Bryan Wilson holds meeting with board members at Pride Center West Texas in Odessa on May 28, 2024.
Bryan Wilson, CEO and founder of Pride Center West Texas, holds a meeting with board members at the center. (Photo Credit: Callie Cummings for The Texas Tribune)

“What is enough?” Clint said. “How many resources are enough resources? What is enough for a community to feel accepted? It’s a very hard question.”

Nationwide, 42% of transgender adults will attempt suicide, according to a 2023 report by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, which used data from the U.S. Transgender Population Health Survey. Nearly as many, 44%, said they considered it.

Contributing to this harsh reality in Texas is a Legislature that has introduced scores of bills seeking to regulate how LGBTQ+ people live. Republican lawmakers filed more than 100 bills between the last legislative session and the following special sessions. Some passed, including a ban on puberty blockers and hormone therapy for trans kids, limiting the college sports teams trans athletes can join and an attempt to limit where drag performances can take place.

“All LGBTQ people have to be really resilient because we know our rights are always on the line,” said Brad Pritchett, deputy director of Equality Texas, a statewide political advocacy organization. “In places like Texas, where you’re under a constant barrage from lawmakers trying to find new and creative ways to harm your community, it really does take an extra ounce of resilience to continue saying, ‘This is my home, I’m not leaving it, I’m gonna stay and defend it.’”

While LGBTQ+ organizations have been staples in major American cities since the 1970s, it has only been in the last decade that similar groups have started in Midland and Odessa. Among them are the West Texas chapter of PFLAG, the first organization in the country dedicated to advocating for LGBTQ+ people and their families, which arrived in Midland and Odessa in 2014. There is also Out West Texas, which serves transgender West Texans and started in 2017, and Basin Pride, founded in 2019, has arranged the logistics for putting together Pride festivals.

“This is hard work, to keep the community going,” said Adriana Aguilar, who joined Basin Pride in 2021 and now serves as its chair. Aguilar, 28, volunteered for the center in 2020.

The effort to establish and grow more inclusive spaces can draw unwanted attention.

Last January, Aguilar, Basin Pride chair, said she and a group of volunteers attempted to host a family-friendly, Barbie-themed event that included a drag show and local artists. The group secured a venue, performers and volunteers. But days before the event, organized protesters flocked the surrounding area, and the county sheriff was called. Agitators threatened Aguilar with protests. Aguilar postponed the event indefinitely. And because of the event, several sponsors who had offered to support the Pride festival backed out. Aguilar said she had two months to regroup and find other financial supporters.

“Basin Pride is growing, which is great,” she said. “But that means we have more eyes on us, that we’re under certain radars that we weren’t before.”

And on Tuesday, an Odessa City Council member suggested the city should limit the use of public restrooms based on a person’s sex assigned at birth, the Odessa American reported. Such policies are routinely used to discriminate against transgender people.

Other Odessans have responded positively to their growth — or are at least indifferent.

Earlier this year, the center began hosting a bingo night at the Odessa Veterans of Foreign Wars hall. The Wilsons and other volunteers wear grey shirts with long, pink sleeves, floating through the hall selling bingo cards and dobbers. Lorraine Wilson, Bryan’s mom, calls the evening’s numbers.

Eddie Almendariz, long time Bingo player participates in the first night of Bingo hosted by Pride Center West Texas at VFW Post 4372 in Odessa on May 20, 2024.
Eddie Almendariz participates in the first night of bingo hosted by Pride Center West Texas at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post 4372 in Odessa. (Photo Credit: Callie Cummings for The Texas Tribune)
CEO and Founder of Pride Center West Texas, Bryan Wilson, sells playing cards during the first night of bingo hosted by the organization at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4372 on May 20, 2024.
Bryan Wilson, CEO and founder of Pride Center West Texas, sells playing cards during bingo night. (Photo Credit: Callie Cummings for The Texas Tribune)
Lorraine Wilson, mother of Bryan Wilson, calls out numbers to bingo participants at the VFW hall in Odessa. (Photo Credit: Callie Cummings for The Texas Tribune)

It was Lorraine’s idea. She proposed it to Rick Mitchell, the VFW hall’s commander in February, who then brought it to his members for a vote. It was unanimous.

“They’re a human being just like I’m a human being is the way I see it,” said Mitchell, a lifelong conservative from Kermit who lives in Odessa. “It doesn’t affect me one bit.”

Samantha Washington has been playing bingo at the hall for 15 years. The 49-year-old introduced her daughters, Elisha and Mesha, to the tradition. Bingo nights are a family getaway, she said. That the proceeds from Monday night help fund the Pride Center doesn’t bother her one bit, she said, so long as there is bingo.

“I don’t mind supporting them,” Washington said. “It’s people’s rights.”

The proceeds from bingo night don’t cover the expenses of running the center, but it helps, the Wilsons said. The couple hopes they will someday earn enough from that and other grants to expand their services and reach.

After Harris’ death, they said, their services are crucial to the community.

“We have to be able to give what we have now,” Clint said. “We have to rally and still continue what we have now. The main question that Bryan and I had was, how could this happen on our watch? It forces us to see how we can improve our reach.”


Carlos Nogueras Ramos’s staff photo

Carlos Nogueras Ramos is a regional reporter based in Odessa. Carlos joined The Texas Tribune in 2023 in partnership with Report for America. Carlos tells the stories of Texas from the vast energy-rich Permian Basin region. Before the Tribune, Carlos spent time in Philadelphia writing about local politics, including the city’s 100th mayoral election. A Spanish speaker, Carlos was one of the few Latino reporters on the campaign trail, covering the most expensive primary election to date in Philly. He is a proud Puerto Rico native, born and raised in Cayey. He studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the University of Puerto Rico.


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

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Second Thought: New film short explores now, then & a future

In light of the overwhelmingly positive reception their short film has garnered, the young queer filmmakers look to the future



Openly gay TikTok sensation Art Bezrukavenko & his out friend, YouTube personality Chris Stanley, now co-creative filmmakers, on a flight to Boston Pride, 2024. (Photo Credit: Bezrukavenko/Instagram)

BOSTON, Mass. – In an unexpected yet delightful turn, YouTube personality Chris Stanley and friend and TikTok sensation Art Bezrukavenko have ventured into filmmaking with their debut indie film, Second Thought.

The two new gay filmmakers were recently in Boston for Pride festivities and took a moment to share their insights with the Los Angeles Blade about their debut film short, which has been met with enthusiastic praise and critical acclaim. Their successful transition from social media influencers to filmmakers marks an exciting new chapter in their careers, promising more creative ventures ahead.

Second Thought (With Spoilers)

Art Bezrukavenko & Chris Stanley on location in Provincetown. (Photo Credit: Stanley)

Despite their lack of filmmaking experience, ‘Second Thought’ shines with impressive acting and the pair’s shared eye for cinematography, set against the picturesque backdrop of Cape Cod’s Provincetown, also known as P-town—a historic and vibrant LGBTQ+ resort haven in Massachusetts.

Located at the tip of Cape Cod, it’s celebrated for a rich LGBTQ+ culture, beautiful beaches, charming B&Bs, and lively queer bars. The town’s transformation into an art and gay mecca began after the 1898 Atlantic hurricane season, attracting artists, bohemians, and the nascent queer community. By the 1920s, Provincetown had firmly established itself as a queer-friendly destination, a legacy that continues today. It’s no wonder John Waters, Baltimore’s famed out gay director and writer, calls P-town his second home.

Second Thought, written and co-produced by Bezrukavenko and Stanley, explores the complexities of modern gay dating and the diverse experiences within the LGBTQ+ community. The film stars the duo, with Stanley and Jimmy Martin co-directing the project.

The narrative follows two young men, portrayed by Stanley and Bezrukavenko, who meet on Grindr shortly after arriving in P-town. They exchange messages and quickly arrange to meet at a local bar. What follows is a candid depiction of a hookup, tastefully shot to convey intimacy without explicit content.

However, the morning brings a twist: Bezrukavenko’s character sneaks out and blocks Stanley’s character on the app, leaving him feeling rejected and disheartened – a scenario based loosely on both filmmakers’ personal experiences. 

“I’ve definitely had experiences like that,” Bezrukavenko told the Blade. “There have been nights when I thought, oh my God, that was such a great night. And then, you know, we wake up in the morning and the guy tells me okay, go away.”

“I didn’t really have a lot of experience with hookup culture,” Stanley admits, “Although I can relate to the ghosting part. When I was trying to talk to guys before I met Bret [Stanley’s boyfriend of three years] for sure.”

The film then cleverly rewinds to their initial bar encounter, offering an alternative storyline. This time, the characters spend the evening talking, flirting, and enjoying a series of sweet activities around the quaint town. The poignant climax shows the two men as an older couple, having spent their lives together, enriched by the deep connection they fostered by avoiding the pitfalls of meaningless and empty immediate sex. 

Gay Hookup Culture

The Grindr hook-up scene from Second Thought. (Screenshot/YouTube Stanley)

In an article by Vox Media, gay psychiatrist Jack Turban, explores the effects of Grindr on gay men’s mental health. Grindr (which is featured in ‘Second Thought’ as the catalyst for the two protagonists meeting) and similar apps like Scruff and Jack’d, with millions of users, are designed for easy, anonymous, LGBTQ+ sexual encounters. While these apps promote sexual liberation, Turban concludes that they may also harm mental health.

Turban conducted an informal survey on Grindr, posing as a medical writer. He received many responses revealing that many users find the app addictive due to the brain’s pleasure responses, triggered by the unpredictable rewards, akin to gambling’s infamous slot machines, which make it hard to stop using the hookup app.  

Grindr provides temporary relief from anxiety and depression, but many users feel worse after using it. They log on to escape negative emotions, only to feel more isolated and anxious after shallow interactions and hookups. Despite this, the cycle of temporary relief and subsequent distress continues.

As is the case at the beginning of ‘Second Thought’, Turban finds that some men struggle to form lasting relationships due to Grindr’s hypersexualized nature. The app’s convenience leads to sex-first interactions, which don’t typically result in meaningful connections. This behavior can also damage self-esteem and hinder relationship-building skills.

Although the film does not explicitly oppose hookup culture, Stanley and Bezrukavenko, both in committed three-year long relationships, believe that developing a long-term connection requires more depth than what Grindr typically offers.

“Excitement comes and goes,” says Bezrukavenko. “It’s not always easy, and it is not always like those early days. I think the issue is that in a lot of couples, people start off very, very excited, right? But then that excitement kind of fades away and then people stop fighting for each other. You know what I mean? People give up too fast and they want some fresh new thing. But relationships take work. Relationships are friendship and partnership first, and then passion. You need to date your best friend.” 

In Bezrukavenko’s experience, putting the work into a relationship is well worth it. “Passion is a great word because a lot of people have a misconception of what love and what passion is. They think that they should be passionate all the time, but passion comes and goes and then it returns and then it can be doubled. And in my case, I had the most passionate after, two and a half years in my current relationship. I would have not ever thought that it’s possible.”

Stanley agrees wholeheartedly with his friend and co-creator, believing that communication is the glue that holds a long-term relationship together. “I would say communication is really important. Once you stop telling your partner things or if you’re keeping things from them, the relationship just shuts down. So, yeah I would say it’s important to always keep an open dialogue conversation, telling each other what you like, what you don’t like, and working together on things while feeling comfortable to share whatever is on your minds.”

Coming Out (Chris Stanley)

Chris Stanley at Boston Pride 2024.
(Photo Credit: Stanley/Instagram)

Growing up in a close-knit community in New Hampshire, Stanley navigated the complexities of coming out during his high school years, facing both rejection and support along the way.

“I came out when I was a sophomore in high school, and it didn’t really go well for me,” he reflected. While his family embraced his identity, the response at school was markedly different. “My main friend group, about five guys, ghosted me the very next day after I came out,” he recalled.

The sudden ostracization was a significant blow for Stanley, who had assumed his friends had always known about his sexual orientation.

“I used to act stereotypically gay when I was trying to be funny, and my friends would always joke about it being real. So, I was shocked when they reacted that way,” he explains. The loss of his friends and the ensuing awkwardness at school led Chris to quit the soccer team, despite being one of its best players.

“Senior year was a bit better,” Stanley noted, mentioning that the team even tried to recruit him back. However, the trust issues and the hurt from his earlier experiences made it impossible for him to return. “They sent the team captain to ask me to play again, but I said no,” he stated firmly.

Despite the challenges, his love for the sport never waned. Last year, he discovered and joined a gay soccer team in Boston. “It was really fun to play again with a bunch of gay guys and queer people. It felt good to be competitive again, although I did hurt my knee trying to go too hard,” he says, laughing.

Chris & Bret at Boston Pride 2024.
(Photo Credit: Stanley/Instagram)

Now at 24, Stanley has built a strong relationship with his family, including his boyfriend of three years, Bret. “My parents just want me to be happy,” he says, highlighting the support he receives from his mom and dad. His father’s acceptance was particularly meaningful, especially after learning that his uncle was also gay. “I didn’t realize my uncle was gay until after I came out to my dad,” he revealed. “That was a surprise.” 

Stanley’s journey from isolation to acceptance has also fueled his creative passions. During his high school years, when he often found himself sitting alone at lunch, he turned to writing. “I would eat my food as fast as I could and then go to the library to write short gay stories and poems,” he recalled.

Today, Stanley continues to create, sharing his work on YouTube with a supportive community and enjoying life with Bret by his side. 

Coming Out (Art Bezrukavenko)

Art with his boyfriend at Boston Pride 2024. (Photo Credit: Bezrukavenko/Instagram)

Art Bezrukavenko grew up in Eastern Ukraine, in a city where being gay was not openly acknowledged. “I was 17 years old, and there were no gay people in my school or my city,” he recalls. The lack of representation left Art feeling isolated, unable to find role models or a community to relate to.

At 17, Bezrukavenko moved to Poland to study and escape the war near his hometown. His time in Poland was marked by academic achievements, earning a degree in International Relations and Business. Despite his accomplishments, Art was still not fully comfortable exposing his sexual orientation.

“I worked and studied in Poland for three years but didn’t come out,” he shares. “I did try to come out to my mom once, but she told me, It’s okay. We can see a therapist and fix this.”  Bezrukavenko had also tried to come out to a close girlfriend, but in return, he received a lecture on the moral obligations of a man and woman to procreate together. Both experiences left him with a bitter taste when it came to publicly embracing his sexual orientation.  

Bezrukavenko’s quest for a new life brought him to the United States where he spent time in Maryland and then Chicago, living in Northalsted (also known as Boystown) one of the most country’s inclusive LGBTQ+ communities and the oldest officially recognized gay neighborhood in the United States. It’s known for its welcoming vibe, nonstop nightlife, LGBTQ-owned businesses, and excellent dining options. It’s also the center of some of Chicago’s most popular events and festivals. His time was spent working as a waiter.

Art moved on to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming an actor. He had previously won competitions in journalism and playwriting, including a poignant play about living with HIV, inspired by a friend. However, his stint in LA was short-lived and tumultuous. “It was messy,” he reflected, eventually returning to Chicago and then back to Maryland as the COVID-19 pandemic began. “I was a stripper for a short time…But LA was not for me.”

Art with his mother.
(Photo Credit: Bezrukavenko/Instagram)

It was in Austin, Texas, where Art began to embrace his identity more openly. He started to explore the dating scene and came out to his mother for the second time. This time, however, the conversation had a more supportive outcome. His mother accepted him, a significant step in his journey toward self-acceptance. The two now maintain a close relationship. 

Bezrukavenko’s confidence grew as he shared his experiences on TikTok, connecting with a broader audience. “I decided to embrace who I am and realized I can benefit from being gay,” he said. His online presence became a platform for sharing his story and supporting others in similar situations.

Today, Bezrukavenkot is 27 years old and living in New York City with his supportive boyfriend of three years. “I was almost 24 when I came out officially, and now I have a boyfriend,” he shared. His relationship has provided stability and happiness, something he had long sought for himself.

A future

Stanley and Bezrukavenko at the 35th annual GLAAD Media Awards held on March 14, 2024 in New York City. (Screenshot/YouTube GLAAD)

In light of the overwhelmingly positive reception their short film ‘Second Thought’ has garnered in just the YouTube community alone, Stanley and Bezrukavenko are excited about the possibility of creating a Christmas movie and further refining their filmmaking skills. Romantically, in the long term Bezrukavenko envisions himself getting married and having children, while Stanley prefers to take life day by day, embracing whatever comes his way.

Finally, the new filmmakers shared these closing thoughts:

“Choices shape our lives,” says Bezrukavenko. “It’s important to stay true to yourself. You can do anything, whether it’s being in a relationship or just hooking up, as long as you are being true to yourself.”

“It gets better,” says Stanley. “Use your experiences and adversities to your advantage. Never give up on what you want to do. After I came out in high school, those were the worst years of my life, but they led me to create my favorite project ever.”

Watch the film here:

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Queer TikToker Nicky Champa: Social media & balancing life

Champa shared his thoughts on the profound impact of TikTok highlighting both the positive and negative aspects of the platform



Nick “Nicky” Champa is a household name in the digital world. With nearly 13 million followers on TikTok, he has captured the hearts of many through his videos, candidly sharing his every day life as a young gay man living in LA. (Photo: Simha Haddad/Los Angeles Blade)

LOS ANGELES – As I joined the line of customers snaking out the door of a popular Studio City café that resembles a small cottage, I spotted a young man with cheekbones so sharp they could chisel granite already waiting for me.

He smiled warmly and waved. I left my place on the sidewalk to join him inside the cozy café. We hugged, and he told me, “Oh my God. You are stunning!” to which I replied, “Thank you. So are you!” I like to think we could tell we both meant it.

After placing our orders at the counter, flanked by a glass cases brimming with massive sweet treats, we navigated the deceptively deep and winding interior of the cottage. We eventually emerged onto the wraparound outdoor patio, investigating every free parcel of seating real estate until we decided on an indoor spot in a tucked-away corner. I placed my phone on the wooden table between us as we awaited our coffees and began recording, capturing the hum of relaxed conversations all around us as Nick Champa started sharing his story with me.

Nick “Nicky” Champa (28) is a household name in the digital world. With nearly 13 million followers on TikTok, he has captured the hearts of many through his videos, candidly sharing his every day life as a young gay man living in LA. A former NYU acting student, Champa is also known for his roles in “Deadlocked” (2020), “Charmers” (2021), and “Astrid Clover” (2014),

Early days

Champa, born in Dallas, Texas and raised in Syracuse, New York, said that his seemingly perfect family life was disrupted by his parents’ divorce when he was just 11 years old. “The divorce was messy. It was a 10-year court battle. Until that point, I thought it was just as perfect as it looked.”

Champa described his upbringing before the divorce as privileged, with a successful father and a stay-at-home mother. However, the separation shattered this idyllic life, forcing him to adopt a new and more sombre reality. “My mom had to work; it was a dramatic change in reality that really changed my whole childhood,” Champa said. “I had to do things that my dad used to do. I was in charge of the yard and all the chores, and I was an emotional support for my mom and brother. I had to grow up very, very fast.”

Champa explained that experiencing his home breaking so suddenly had a traumatic effect on the young actor. “My dad very much neglected us and he made it a very torturous experience for us. I had to testify in court a bunch of times. It was very traumatic.” 

While Champa did not speak to his father for years after the divorce, they eventually rekindled their relationship after Champa graduated from high school, although, he explained, the relationship is still strained by memories of past hurt. 

On the other hand, Champa’s bond with his mother remains exceptionally strong. “My mother and I are very, very close,” Champa said. “We became best friends. We have a great relationship; not everyone understands it. I tell her everything—literally everything. There is not one thing I wouldn’t be able to tell my mom, from boyfriends to sex life. I tell her everything.”

Coming Out

“I’ve never really identified with being gay. I prefer to call myself queer,” Champa said.  Despite participating in sports and exhibiting traditionally “masculine” traits, “whatever that means,” Chapa added, he also enjoyed painting his nails and engaging in artistic pursuits. “I was confused growing up. My mom was not shocked when I came out, but it’s not like she necessarily knew I was gay.”

“The way I came out is actually really funny,” Champa said, laughing as he recounted a memorable coming-out experience that occurred after a night partying in West Hollywood. While exploring his newfound sexual identity, a one-night stand landed Champa in a precarious situation when, while doing the deed at this beau’s house, he accidentally crashed through the glass shower door, leaving shattered glass and blood all over the bathroom floor.

The incident left him needing over 100 stitches, and he had to call his mother from the hospital to get his insurance information. “I told her I had been having sex with a girl, and she asked what girl was strong enough to push me through a glass door?” Realizing the need for honesty, he sent her a photo of the bathroom, inadvertently including the other man’s jock strap in the frame. “So I had to admit to her that I had been with a man.”

Luckily, Champa’s mother was unsurprised by the revelation, and was more concerned with her son’s wounds than this sexual orientation. Champa also shared that he felt grateful that his entire family, his father included, were accepting of his coming out. “I’m really lucky in that way,” he said. 


Champa’s TikTok page.

After deciding to leave NYU in his sophomore year of college, Champa’s career took a significant turn when he was signed by Paradigm Talent Agency in Los Angeles. “Then I was auditioning for larger roles, so I didn’t feel the need to go back to school,” Champa explained.

Champa, noticing the growing trend of social media, decided to try his hand at Instagram. His rise on the platform was rapid, which he largely attributes to his openly queer posts, detailing honest accounts of his real life, travels, and journey with love.

The transition to TikTok, where Champa is best known, came with support from the platform itself. “TikTok contacted me with support and got me on the platform,” Champa said. 

“In a way, I felt like a gay mascot on TikTok,” said Champa. 

“The person I spoke to there was gay, and many of my contacts at TikTok have been gay,” Champa noted, stating that, in spite of recent accusations, he did not believe the platform to be inherently homophobic. Despite this, he acknowledged that the algorithm could sometimes be perceived as leaning towards homophobic or racist tendencies, as it aims to avoid political content.

While Champa is grateful for his success on the platform, the constant demand of social media began to take its toll. Champa shared his desire to shift focus back to acting, reducing his social media engagement. “I do find myself moving away from posting so much and moving slightly away from social media because I want to focus more on acting roles. It was an everyday thing that consumed me, and I don’t think I want to go back to that. I’m trying to find a way to navigate social media part of my life without making my bread and butter day to day part of my life.”

“For the longest time, my motivation on social media was just to grow, but I feel like I have plateaued now at 13 million followers. Now it’s time for me to figure out what to do and where to grow next.”

The TikTok Ban

On May 7, 2024, TikTok filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government. The Chinese-owned company argued that the Senate’s recent ultimatum, which demanded that TikTok’s parent company divest from the social media platform under the threat of a ban, was unconstitutional. 

The law, known as the Protecting Americans from Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act, specifically names TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance Ltd. It also extends to other apps and websites with over a million monthly users that have significant ownership from China, Russia, Iran, or North Korea. The president has the authority to determine if these applications pose a national security threat, in which case they must be sold or face a ban in the U.S.

TikTok’s lawsuit claims that the law violates the First Amendment by not providing evidence of the national security threat it allegedly poses and for failing to seek a less restrictive remedy. Legal experts argue that this law implicates First Amendment interests in significant ways beyond this specific case.

Supporters of the law claim it is not a ban but a divestiture, describing it as a purely economic regulation. They argue that after the sale, users can continue using TikTok without concern for its ownership. However, critics view the law as an attempt to control speech by mandating a change in ownership, particularly to prevent potential Chinese Communist Party propaganda.

The government has not disclosed the national security concerns cited in the TikTok law. While such concerns might justify intervention, public skepticism remains.

Unless the courts invalidate the law or Congress repeals it, TikTok may not be able to operate effectively in the U.S. by January 19, 2025. App stores might be unable to update the software, and Oracle Corp. might not continue hosting TikTok’s U.S. user data. This potential scenario underscores the profound implications of the ongoing legal battle between TikTok and the U.S. government.

Feelings on the TikTok Ban

Champa expressed concern over the potential banning of TikTok, stating that it “would make our world smaller,” by stripping away a platform that fosters global connections and success stories across various industries. (Photo: Simha Haddad/Los Angeles Blade)

Champa shared his thoughts on the profound impact of TikTok on modern society, highlighting both the positive and negative aspects of the platform that has propelled him to fame.

“TikTok democratized the world,” Champa said. “It gave power back to artists and creators. You don’t need to rely on people with more power anymore to have a voice and to build a brand and to have a career.” According to Champa, TikTok has leveled the playing field, offering opportunities to individuals who might otherwise never have had the chance to shine.

“I watch this one baker in Australia, who has built a huge empire just through TikTok, which I think is incredible,” Champa said, highlighting how the platform can connect individuals from all corners of the globe. “Now I know about her bakery in Australia, which I would have never known.” 

Champa expressed concern over the potential banning of TikTok, stating that it “would make our world smaller,” by stripping away a platform that fosters global connections and success stories across various industries.

“There is a real world out here. You don’t need to feel like you are missing out on anything if you don’t scroll all day. You really are not missing anything.”

Champa described how the platform can inundate users with content, particularly when significant events occur, which he believes yields both positive and negative outcomes.
(Photo: Simha Haddad/Los Angeles Blade)

However, Champa also acknowledged the downsides of such pervasive connectivity. “This is still a double-edged sword. I do think sometimes it’s too much information all at once.” 

Champa described how the platform can inundate users with content, particularly when significant events occur, which he believes yields both positive and negative outcomes. “If something horrible or amazing happens in the world—anywhere from an eclipse to a war to tornadoes in the Midwest—I go to TikTok to get perspective and get multiple perspectives on a situation. That’s amazing, and that’s a privilege to be so connected in that way.” Yet, he warned of the dangers of information overload. “Sometimes too much information can be detrimental. For example, I watched one video on how Joe Biden is really an alien, TikTok immediately thinks all I want to see is how Joe Biden is an alien, and now I’m flooded with nothing but this information. That’s not healthy.”

Champa emphasized the need for the younger generation to balance their time on TikTok with real-world experiences. “There is a real world out here. You don’t need to feel like you are missing out on anything if you don’t scroll all day. You really are not missing anything.”

He also touched on the issue of free speech and expression. “Then there’s, of course, the issue of the First Amendment and freedom of speech because we all do have the right to express our opinions,” Champa said. “It’s a difficult topic and I’m not sure what the solution is.”

Champa’s reflections underscore the complex relationship between social media and society. While platforms like TikTok offer unprecedented opportunities for connection and success, they also present challenges that users must navigate carefully. As Champa continues his journey, his insights offer a valuable perspective on the evolving digital landscape.

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Bringing Pride every day to everyone everywhere

What sets Gay Pride Apparel apart is not just the quality of the designs but also the unwavering commitment to giving back



Jesus Gutierrez and Sergio Aragon, founders and partners in the New York City-based Gay Pride Apparel, a vibrant clothing line specializing in LGBTQ+ T-shirts and crew necks. (Photographed for the Los Angeles Blade by Drey Kaun @dreykaun)

NEW YORK – A relatively new clothing line is making major headway on the LGBTQ+ apparel scene. Gay Pride Apparel, a vibrant clothing line specializing in LGBTQ+ T-shirts and crew necks, was founded by Jesus Gutierrez and Sergio Aragon, best friends since the sixth grade and now partners living in New York City.

Gay Pride Apparel, which has seen astronomical growth since its inception in 2019, recently celebrated a major milestone: its apparel products are available at Walmart for the second consecutive year, both in-store and online.

“This is very exciting,” Aragon told The Blade in an exclusive interview. “We are so grateful that they were able to help us amplify our vision of bringing pride every day to everyone everywhere.”

In addition to its Walmart placement, this year, Gay Pride Apparel has embarked on a myriad of other high-profile collaborations. In May, Gutierrez and Aragon partnered with HBO’s popular show, We’re Here, a show that follows renowned drag queens Sasha Velour, Priyanka, Jaida Essence Hall, and Latrice Royale as they continue the series’ mission of spreading love and connection through the art of drag across small-town America. The collaboration includes a line of exclusive merchandise that will be available for Pride month, and possibly beyond. 

Continuing their upward trajectory, Gutierrez and Aragon are launching a collaboration with the Broadway award-winning musical Wicked, which the New York Theatre Guide describes as being centered around the themes of female friendship, discrimination, and governmental corruption. This partnership includes a pride-focused merchandise collection featuring four unique designs, one of which will be showcased and sold at the theater. This collaboration signifies a significant achievement for the brand, as their products will be sold at the show’s venue. “It’s crazy to see our clothing being displayed and sold at a venue like that,” Aragon said. 

Additionally, Gay Pride Apparel is teaming up with NYC Ferry, an LGBTQ+ ally known for its inclusivity. This collaboration aims to create a special merchandise line that emphasizes The Ferry’s message that all passengers of all sexual orientations and gender identities are welcome aboard. 

Photo courtesy of NYC Ferry

Gutierrez and Aragon took time out of their busy schedules to share their inspiring journey from best friends in Phoenix to influential entrepreneurs in the queer fashion scene in New York City and beyond.

Growing up queer in Mexican American households

Jesus Gutierrez and Sergio Aragon’s personal backgrounds played a significant role in shaping their vision for Gay Pride Apparel. Both grew up in Hispanic, Mexican American households, but their journeys to self-acceptance were markedly different. 

Aragon, a first-generation American, faced a childhood filled with religious and social events that made him feel different and compelled him to hide his identity. “Our family was very diverse in our culture growing up Hispanic Mexican American,” Aragon said. “We always had a bunch of fiestas and religious social events that came with being in the church. I knew I was different from when I was little. I remember going to these parties and these family events and there always being a religious cloak over everything. It always felt like I didn’t belong and I had to hide my identity. the belief system was that it was not good to be gay. This was just something we did not talk about.”

Aragon shared that this feeling of religious culture within his household delayed his coming out until his sophomore year in high school.

In contrast, Gutierrez came out at the age of 12, driven by a desire to rebel against the toxic masculinity, oppressive gender roles, and domestic violence he witnessed in his household. His coming out story is particularly harrowing. 

“I came out when I was 12. I don’t really know where that came from but if I had to guess I would say it was seeing all the machismo around me. I grew up in a household of domestic violence. My mom stayed with my dad. He was the breadwinner. The view of the hyper masculinity of the man being in charge of the house and the woman cooking and staying home and having to take the abuse, I think I wanted to rebel against all of that,” he told the Blade.

Gutierrez first came out to his mother, who embraced her son’s sexual orientation. However, worried about his father’s potentially explosive reaction, he elected to come out to his father in the presence of his mother and a school counselor, hoping these supportive adults would help soften the blow. He was fifteen.  

“The domestic violence had always been directed to my mom, but coming out I feared that that would be turned on me,” Gutierrez said, recalling the event. “I came out to my father in front of a school counselor because that was supposed to be a safer environment. I thought maybe if this tall, educated Mexican man told my father I was gay he would take it differently than if I told him. The counselor said, “Your son doesn’t like girls.” My father got up and left my mother and I stranded at the school.”

Later, a football player friend offered to walk Gutierrez home. He explained that his father mistook his straight friend for a gay partner of his and immediately exploded in rage. 

“My father went after him verbally. My father was telling me I was going to die from AIDS. I didn’t even know what that meant. He broke my door down. Domestic violence is a vicious cycle,” Gutierrez said.

Despite these challenges, Gutierrez found solace and support in his friends, who played a crucial role in his development. His experience of constantly coming out in stages shaped his resilience. “You never really stop coming out,” he said, quoting an old adage in the LGBTQ+ community.

Fostering a Sense of Belonging

Both Gutierrez and Aragon attribute much of their sense of community to their childhood friends who supported them through difficult times. This sense of community is something they strive to foster through their Gay Pride Apparel brand. They aim to create a space where everyone feels included and celebrated, reflecting the diverse and multifaceted nature of the LGBTQ+ community.

Gutierrez’s perception of the LGBTQ+ community changed significantly after taking an LGBTQ+ studies course in college, which broadened his understanding and appreciation of the community’s history and struggles. This newfound perspective reinforced the commitment to creating a brand that celebrates and supports the LGBTQ+ community.

The Start: From Phoenix to a Big City Pride

In the summer of 2018, Gutierrez and Aragon moved from the sunbaked streets of Phoenix to the bustling energy of  New York City, where they experienced their first massive large-scale pride event. The vibrant celebrations and the sense of community pulsing through the city left a lasting impression on the couple.

However, one observation stood out starkly: pride merchandise seemed to vanish as quickly as the rainbow confetti settled. This fleeting presence of LGBTQ+ apparel led the couple to recognize a significant gap in the market—a need for pride gear that could be celebrated year round.

The seed for the idea of Gay Pride Apparel was planted.

Gutierrez, with a keen eye for graphic design from his prior roles in corporate America, and Aragon, armed with extensive merchandising experience, decided to turn their idea into reality. By January 2019, they had secured the domain for Gay Pride Apparel, laying the foundation for a brand that aimed to celebrate pride beyond the confines of a single month.

Their mission was clear: to create a brand that offered year-round support and love for the LGBTQ+ community through their apparel. The first year was a whirlwind of hard work and dedication. Gutierrez and Aragon poured their hearts into spreading the word about their new venture. They formed partnerships with nonprofits, leveraging these collaborations to build a community around their brand. In those early days, the support from friends and family was crucial, as they relied on these initial sales to gain momentum.

“The contributions we were able to raise we’re not that large,” Gutierrez said. “But the goal has always been to be able to give back to nonprofits and people and organizations that are doing great work.”

Jesus Gutierrez & Sergio Aragon (Photographed for the Los Angeles Blade by Drey Kaun @dreykaun)

What sets Gay Pride Apparel apart was not just the quality of the design elements but also the unwavering commitment to giving back. Contributions to various charities, particularly in their home state of Arizona, became a cornerstone for Gutierrez and Aragon’s business. This dedication to community support resonated deeply with their customers, who were not just buying apparel but also supporting a cause.

“During the pandemic, which was about one year after the launch, we started going with the flow of everything happening in the world,” Gutierrez explained. “It was a very scary time for everyone, and we started pushing our message out on social media that we are in this together. We asked the community how we could help them and how we could be there for them as a business. We made it cleat that we wanted to support each other during these weird times. We created some really fun products which was what our bread and butter was at the time and blew up overnight.”

Gay Pride Apparel quickly became more than just a brand; it became a symbol of inclusivity and year-round pride. Gutierrez and Aragon’s journey from Phoenix to founding their own business is a testament to the power of recognizing a need and having the courage to fill it. Today, their apparel continues to make people feel supported and loved, every day of the year.

Discreet Packaging

Gutierrez shared the story behind their decision to offer discreet packaging for their products. “We started out as a loud and proud brand, coming from a big city queer brand perspective,” he explained. “But the first year that we started blowing up, in 2020, we heard a lot of feedback about our shipping. People would receive their packaging from the USPS person and get cruel comments or looks. Sometimes the packages would disappear. Sometimes parents would not let children get their packages.”

This feedback was a wake-up call for Gutierrez and Aragon, reminding them of their own experiences growing up in households where expressing their identity was not always safe. “I remembered if we were younger and we had received something for pride, we also would want discreet packaging in our households,” Gutierrez said. “So now we also offer that. We also offer discretion when we charge the credit cards. It’s important that we be discreet.”

The decision to offer discreet packaging was not just about customer satisfaction but also about ensuring the safety and comfort of their customers. “This was a very big learning moment for us. We had forgotten that we had been in that position too,” Gutierrez admitted.

Building an Authentic Community

Since its inception, Gay Pride Apparel has thrived on the principle of creating an authentic and inclusive online community. Their success isn’t just built on vibrant and meaningful products but on the strong sense of connection they cultivate among their customers and followers, they both emphasized.

One of the foundational elements of their community-driven approach is actively seeking feedback from their followers. Gutierrez and Aragon ensure that every product they release resonates deeply with their Instagram audience. This dedication to listening and adapting has fostered trust and loyalty among their customers, they stated.

The sense of community extends beyond product development. Gutierrez and Aragon are passionate about reviving their podcast, “Through the Queer Lens,” which aims to amplify the voices and stories of queer individuals across various industries. This platform reflects their desire to create spaces where the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community can be celebrated and shared.

Sergio Aragon & Jesus Gutierrez (Photographed for the Los Angeles Blade by Drey Kaun @dreykaun)

Both attribute their deep sense of community to the support they received from friends during challenging times in their lives. Gutierrez recalls a particular friend who supported him while he lived in a domestic violence shelter, often taking him into her home and even paying his phone bill when his father neglected to. Aragon also cherishes the friends and family who supported him, noting their invaluable role in his development. “It is the sense of community that we try to foster through our social media presence and our clothing line, Gay Pride Apparel,” Aragon said.

Gutierrez shared how his understanding of the LGBTQ+ community evolved over time to a deeper understanding of the all-encompassing message embedded in the rainbow flag.

“In the beginning, I associated gayness as my father and the news portrayed it to me with AIDS and random hookups being all there is to it. I also associated being gay with sinfulness because the Catholic Church did not accept it. But as I grew, everything started to change. My perception of our community changed when I took an LGBTQ+ study course in college that really realigned my thinking. I learned about the Stonewall riots and Marsha P Johnson. I learned about all these different subcultures within the queer space. Then, when we started working on Gay Pride Apparel, we really saw how there is an entire world of us out there. For a long time, we felt isolated and alone, but then we realized we are not alone and we want to foster that feeling in others. We are all very different, but we have this thing that brings us together,” he told the Blade.

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

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



Jay Jones (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jay Jones (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Is Connecticut a ‘safe haven’ for trans youth?

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surviving school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two years later, the OCR investigation is still ongoing.

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

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

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

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

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

The legislation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bill is currently on its way to the House.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Policy already in place 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Q PLUS CT/Facebook

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

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

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

Filling the gaps

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

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

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

Metropolitan Community Church in Hartford/Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ally LeMaster

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

Luke Feeney

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


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

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

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

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

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



Photo courtesy of Matt Cullen

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

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

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

A Passionate Beginning

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Birth of “Our Queer Life”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empathy Through Intimacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Forward

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

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

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

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

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David Archuleta Mom’s unconditional love is a raging inferno

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

If I have to live without you

I don’t wanna live forever

In someone else’s heaven

So let ’em close the gates

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

Then they’re not any better

If paradise is pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the responses show that many are not listening:

“Repent and return to Christ”

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

“The LGBTQ virus is real”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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The world ‘isn’t much different today’

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• Medical experiments took place in Block 10.

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

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

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

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

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

Auschwitz II-Birkenau’s sheer size is incomprehensible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All of it was beyond surreal.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Juliet Hawkins, her music is defying conventional categorization

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



Courtesy of Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

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

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

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

Courtesy of Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Juliet Hawkins (Photo by David Khella)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your own path”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Same subject, different conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That just really miffed me,” said Bright.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A surprise rejection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting, undeterred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This story was supported by the Trans Journalists Association.

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


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


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

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