Holding On To My First Queer Heartbreak

It’s been about 10 years now since I experienced my first queer heartbreak.

At the time I was closeted teenager, trying to understand how being gay fit into being South Asian and Muslim. The guy in question was a friend, also confused about his sexuality, and from an extremely strict Muslim family.

We were together in secret for over a year and he was my first everything. But he always told me that what we were doing was nothing more than a just a bit a fun, something to appease our mutual curiosity. Falling in love was never part of the deal.

A year is a long time, and I fell for him. I fell hard. I saw the life I wanted, where I could be open and proud of my sexuality for the first time. Things changed when I told him how I truly felt. He became withdrawn, telling me over and over that what we were doing was immoral and disgusting. At that point, things just got too real for him.

Eventually he sent me a text me telling me I was a disgusting little faggot who would probably die from AIDS. He asked that I never contact him again.

And just like that, the relationship was over.

Now here is where I wish could tell you this formative experience forced me to face my own fears, and to be honest about my sexuality and come out to my loved ones, all of whom had my back and helped me get over him. But no.

Instead, I was painfully insecure, reeling from an intense level of rejection, and not remotely ready to come out to anyone. I turned to alcohol, drugs, and casual sex to numb the pain and block the whole thing out. It definitely wasn’t the best way to approach it, but it was either that or run the risk of being rejected from my community in the same way my aunty was when she came out as a lesbian.

I mourned the end of my relationship in secret because I didn’t know how anyone would react if I told them. I thought hooking up with random boys could repurpose casual intimacy into the emotional support I so desperately wanted.

Today, I’m at place where I can confidently say that I’ve moved on from him and beyond that dark and destructive period of my life. But it wasn’t easy and it challenged me in ways I hope never to endure ever again. With that said, still none of my friends or family know about what happened back then. I’m now out and proud AF to most of my family, my Dad and his wife still have no idea, and I’ve distanced myself a lot from the whole community. But I’m still skittish talking about.

It probably has something to do with the way South Asian culture teaches us to always put on a happy face and never let anyone know your problems. What would the community think? Think of the shame! But I’m tired of that now. It’s damaging and dangerous.

After dating for the last few years, it’s clear that I harbor a high level of insecurity when it comes to being emotionally available most definitely brought on by what happened all those years ago, and not being able to talk about it. I remember clearly the perpetual feeling of sadness and regret that drove me to drink so much that I needed to be taken to hospital to get my stomach pumped; or when I punched a mirror with my bare fist, angry for thinking he could ever love me the same way that I loved him.

One guy I dated said I was too hard to read; said I don’t communicate my emotions enough. Admittedly, I’m also guilty of preemptively ending relationships with boys once I feel like they’re getting serious because I don’t want to put myself in any vulnerable situations like that again.

But taking risks and being vulnerable is the main part of dating, and I know it’s not healthy to fester in resentment over situations I cannot change. So maybe it is time I start talking more openly about what happened, and stop thinking I can handle it all on my own, internally. It was a truly shit time in my life and no one has a clue. Getting the pain out in the open could help it to not live inside me anymore. I could actually begin to let it go.

If another queer South Asian were to read this and be going through something similar, they, too, will know that it’s important to own your own feelings, and speak up about whatever is going on because being brown and queer is already hard enough without the fear and shame in acknowledging what’s going on inside your head and your heart.

I was talking to a guy on Grindr not long ago–he was South Asian and Muslim, too–and he told me he’d recently broken up with his boyfriend because they knew both families would never approve. Because he had no one to turn to or confide in, he resorted to cutting himself. It was at that point that I realised that even though it’s been a decade since my first experience of queer heartbreak, and society might have moved on dramatically since then, the same can’t be said for our culture.

It was only after immersing myself in queer culture that I felt emotionally ready to tell anyone about what happened all those years ago. Whether it was watching Drag Race, reading about Stonewall or simply walking through Soho with my head held high, I finally saw how much beauty and strength there is in being LGBT and how there’s nothing to be afraid of. So, one night over drinks I let it all out to my friend while he sat there and listened and what struck me most was that he could relate. Finally, someone who got it.

So please, if you’re brown and queer and you’re going through shit, talk about it.
Don’t do what I did and wait until you’re almost in your 30s to speak about how your first queer heartbreak could have almost killed you. Because trust me when I say this, it’s so much better once you do.

Images via Getty

The UK Could Be Getting Its Own LGBTQ History Museum And Social Center

A British group has launched a campaign to create a new national museum, Queer Britain, that would celebrate London’s LGBTQ heritage. Joe Galliano, a former editor at the Gay Times, is leading the charge.

“It is a necessary and long overdue resource,” Galliano told The Guardian. “We don’t underestimate the challenge, but artefacts and people’s stories are being lost every day and we need to save them. Already many of the people–inevitably mainly men–who directly experienced the situation before the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, are no longer with us.”

Galliano is pushing for Queer Britain: The LGBTQ Museum to become “a bricks and mortar museum with an innovative digital presence and a strong educational remit.” The official site says the museum would “feature objects and records from the world’s of art, fashion, film, literature, TV, theatre, news, music, diaries, letters, photographs, legal records. Video/ audio interviews with queer people of all ages and backgrounds, activists, their friends, allies, families, observers and opponents.”

While national museums and institutions like the National Trust, British Museum, and British Library recognizing the anniversary of the decriminalization with exhibits and programming in 2017, Galliano wants queer people to commandeer their own narratives.

“It’s time we took up the challenge,” he says, “and told this story ourselves.”

Galliano is joined by board members and advisers like Lisa Power, the cofounder of Stonewall; Ian Mehrtens, the chief operating officer of London South Bank University; Sandy Nairne, the former director of the National Portrait Gallery; Lord Chris Smith, the first out gay MP; and Liz Bingham, a managing partner at Ernst and Young. The group has already scoped out a potential site for the museum in Southwark, South London, and hopes hopes to see Queer Britain open as a social center and visitor attraction by 2021.

“We see it as a place, for instance, where a young woman who has just come out to her parents could visit with them,” Galliano said, “and understand that this is a much deeper, richer history than most people realise.”

Galliano has a background in corporate fundraising, and thus knows the ins and outs of a project like this, acknowledging that it would take “many millions” to open and run the museum. The organizers are formally launching the fundraising campaign this week with an opening reception at Hotel Café Royal, a former favorite spot of Oscar Wilde’s that now has a lounge in his name. The spacemarks where the famed writer first met Lord Alfred Douglas, or “Bosie,” his gay lover that sparked Wilde’s contentious court case and eventual imprisonment in Reading. Galliano tells BuzzFeed that seeing the door of Wilde’sprison cell at last year’s Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain “winded”him.

“It’s so stark how that one thing becomes more than what it is by the weight of cultural [resonance],” he said.

After the launch event, Galliano and other organizers will “embark on a round trip of Britain to meet members of the community; to record stories to collate into a social, oral, queer history; and to identify items that could be included in the museum,” BuzzFeed reports.

“There’s no point lacking ambition around this because it needs to happen and it needs to be as exciting as the community it’s going to be about,” Galliano said. “This isn’t just a museum for LGBTQ people. This is for everyone.”

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Evan Rachel Wood Brings Much-Needed Bisexual Visibility To Sexual Violence

On Tuesday, actress and activist Evan Rachel Wood testified in front of Congress as a push to get more states to adopt the federal Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act. She shared her story, detailing harrowing experiences of sexual assault and abuse in hopes of helping other abuse survivors.

The Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act provides survivors with basic rights in federal assault cases, but currently has only been adopted by nine states.

“I’m here today to use my position as an artist, survivor, mother and advocate to bring a human voice to the population of 25 million survivors in the U.S. who are currently experiencing inequality under the law and who desperately need basic civil rights,” Wood told the congressional committee.

Wood was joined by Amanda Nguyen, the CEO and founder of RISE, an organization that aids in protecting rape survivors, as well as RISE’s chief of staff Lauren Libby, and Rebecca O’Connor, the vice president of the Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN).

The Westworld star’s testimony included heartbreaking accounts of sexual assault as well as verbal and physical abuse from a former partner. Wood recounted that her former partner raped her while he believed her to be unconscious. She also outlined being raped by another man in a storage closet at a bar. She called for “recognition of basic civil rights for sexual-assault survivors,” naming the act as a “safety net that may help save someone’s life one day.”

Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) pointed out that the rights delineated in the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act are not recognized by most states, but the same rights are afforded to survivors of federal crimes.

“And of course, it is in the states where most sexual assault cases are prosecuted,” Goodlatte said.

According to the Congressman, the Bill “assured that in federal cases, a victim would have the right to have their rape kit preserved for the duration of the statute of limitations or up to 20 years; a victim would not have to pay for their own forensic examination; a victim would be informed of any results of their forensic examination; would be provided with written policies on forensic testing kits; and finally, would be informed before their sexual assault examination kit was destroyed and be permitted to request further preservation.”

Wood’s testimony was necessary and important, especially as an out bisexual woman. According to the CDC, bisexual women areat a higher riskof intimate partner violence, showing higher rates of rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner, as compared to lesbian and heterosexual women. Seventy-five percent of bisexual women in the U.S. reported experiencing sexual violence compared to 46 percent of lesbian women and 43 percent of heterosexual women.

The Emmy-nominated actress said that the #MeToo movement was simultaneously “empowering and validating for survivors” like herself, but also extremely triggering.

“While no one had to tell me that rape was such a worldwide epidemic, to see the flood of stories so similar to my own was both freeing and soul-crushing,” she said. “Waves of memories and details came flooding into my brain every time I read the words. I froze. I thought I was the only human who’d experienced this and I carried so much guilt and confusion about my response to the abuse.”

Wood also explained the long-term effects of abuse, noting, “So often we speak of these assaults as no more than a few minutes of awfulness, but the scars last a lifetime. Even though these experiences happened a decade ago, I still struggle with the aftermath.”

“My relationships suffer, my partner suffers, my mental and physical health suffers,” she continued. “Rape is often more than a few minutes of trauma, but a slow death.”

The actress and mother documented her trip to D.C. onsocial media, posting emotional videos of her first time standing in front of Congress. She concluded her testimony by speaking on motherhood and her responsibility to protect her son.

“This makes me think of my son and the world that he will be raised in and the day I will have to explain to him what rape means and why it happened to his mother. When I knew I was to become a mother I prayed for a boy for this reason,”she said.“However, I realized it could be just as easy for my son to fall prey to the lies society tells us about men. … So I’m also here to advocate for men and for my son, who I hope grows up knowing he’s much more valuable than that and who I can only hope I will set an example for by continuing to fight for him and myself and for all the people affected by abuse, because that is our job as parents and as leaders.”

Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call

RuPaul to Get Star on Hollywood Walk of Fame

Our favorite kitty girl is about to get one of Hollywood’s top honors.

Originally announced in June, RuPaul’s entry into the Hollywood Walk of Fame will officially happen on March 16, when the queen and creator of RuPaul’s Drag Race will get her star.

The ceremony is set to take place one day after the Drag Race All Stars 3 finale and the premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 10.

RuPaul’s star will be near people like Star Trek stars Leonard Nimoy and George Takei, Hollywood legends Debbie Reynolds, Harrison Ford, and the Monkees. Other people given a star this year include Ryan Murphy, Jennifer Lawrence, Lynda Carter, Eric McCormack, Shonda Rhimes, and Snoop Dogg.

The star caps off a banner year for the drag queen. Drag Race won three Emmys in September, and since the New Year she’s had a sit down with Oprah and announced she’d produce and star in her own film.

Come thru, Mama!

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Congressional Hopeful Stacey Dash Believes Trans People Should Pee ‘In the Bushes’

Clueless star Stacey Dash is reportedly running for Congress, but her anti-LGBTQ views may prove an obstacle in one of America’s most progressive states.

The 51-year-old filed her paperwork this week to contend for the House of Representatives in California’s 44th District. The primarily Latino district covers most of South Los Angelesincluding neighborhoods like Compton, Lynnwood, Walnut Park, and Wattsand is staunchly liberal.

Both candidates in the 2016 election, the sitting incumbent Nanette Berrigan and also-ran Isadore Hall, were Democrats. No Republican candidate earned more than five percent of the vote in the district’s primaries.

California’s 44th, which Hillary Clinton won in a landslide, has never even had a Republican contend for the seat since the district maps were redrawn in 2012.

Dash, a born-again conservative, may find that her prospective constituents are less than receptive to her far-right, homophobic politics, which have made her a frequent guest on Fox News shows like Fox and Friends and The O’Reilly Factor.

After the release of her 2016 book There Goes My Social Life: From Clueless to Conservative, the talking head took aim at reality star Caitlyn Jenner, who had recently come out as transgender in a much-publicized interview with Diane Sawyer. She claimed that women like Jenner represented a threat to the general public if allowed to use the ladies’ bathroom.

“It’s tyranny by the minority,” Dash told Entertainment Tonight. “Why do I have to suffer because you can’t decide what you wanna be that day? It’s your body! So, it’s your decision, right? We all make choices.”

She added that trans women should “go in the bushes.”

“I don’t know what to tell you, but I’m not gonna put my child’s life at risk because you want to change a law,” Dash said. “So that you can be comfortable with your beliefswhich means I have to change my beliefs and my rights? No.”

The former actress, who alleges she was blacklisted from Hollywood over her support for Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Donald Trump, has claimed the GOP supports LGBTQ rightseven in spite of her own comments. Dash told TMZ that any assertion Republicans don’t back same-sex marriage is “propaganda.”

“We’re not against that,” she claimed during a 2014 interview. “We’re not against that at all. We believe everyone should have the same rights.

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump vowed to strike down the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. Calling it a “states’ rights issue,” he said he would appoint justices “that maybe could change things.”

The future POTUS would walk back that pledge, but since his 2017 inauguration, Trump has consistently chipped away at LGBTQ rights. His administration has rolled back protections for trans students allowing them to use the correct name and pronoun in school, data collection on LGBTQ seniors, and nondiscrimination policies for federal workers.

Most recently, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced it would be restructuring to allow health care workers and agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ people if they cite religious objections.

Dash has continued to support Trump.

The Congressional hopeful, however, dismissed any suggestion that her background could be an impediment to her political ambitions.

“For those mocking for the district I live in, open your minds,” Dash said in a series of tweets. “It’s time to for me to put up or shut up and I want to serve great people. I live in the 44th unlike some who don’t live in their districts. Thank you to those who offered their support.”

Photo via John Lamparski/Getty Images

FEE LION and Chemise Cagoule Drop A Darkwave Cover of ‘Some Velvet Morning’

With their crypto-confessional brands of anti-pop, Chemise Cagoule and FEE LION are two acts that embody Chicago’s icy underground sound most cooly. After playing and touring together for years, they’ve alchemized their own take on psychedelic pop’s hazy masterpiece, “Some Velvet Morning.”

Originally recorded by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood in 1968, the song is a dance between singers who dream of, warn about, or claim to be the mysterious “Phaedra.” Fee Lion and Chemise Cagoule offer a concentrated dose of the song that is a strung-out high; a cold breath in vacuous spaces you can only know once you’ve ached for them.

The track is accompanied by photographer Jingyu Lin’s equally ethereal reinterpretation of Sinatra and Hazlewood’s original album art, giving Phaedra, ever taunting and aloof, new life 50 years later.

On the eve of the new track, INTO spoke with FEE LION and Chemise Cagoule about covering “Some Velvet Morning,” the Chicago queer scene, and their dream collaborators.

How did you get your start in music?

FEE LION: Maybe she’s born with it! Music has been a part of my life for as long as i can remember. I was born with a fully formed mohawk and by eight, was playing piano, singing in choirs, performing in musicals and writing secret songs on the side. When I didn’t get into college, I moved to New York City for musical theatre but I wanted to be a pop star and I hated New York. I moved back to Chicago and discovered Salonathon,a weekly variety show for underground, genre-defying art. I started performing my music there and immediately found what I was struggling to find in New York.

Chemise Cagoule: Since my family wouldn’t let me have dolls, I would cut out the models from my grandma’s magazines and organize little girl bands out of them. I think that’s how I got started, and my little world of these bands was like, agonizingly detailed. Music has always been my number one and I guess part of me just didn’t grow up. I never stopped organizing pop acts or singing in the mirror with a hairbrush.

How did you two meet?

CC: After staring in her windows for what seemed like years, she finally noticed me and let me inside.

FL: We both sort of stalked each other. I had just moved back to Chicago from NYC and was performing at Salonathon regularly. My friend Hijo Prodigo, who was a resident DJ, kept telling me: “You have GOT to meet my friend Jack. You guys would love each other. He wears a sequin blouse.” I was also wearing sequin blouses at the time so, naturally, I was jazzed. I became a fan of Jack’s music, he played Salonathon one night, we immediately clicked and I guess you could say the rest is history!

How did the idea for a collaboration materialize?

FEE LION: We were on tour in Texas a few years ago and “Some Velvet Morning” was our soundtrack on the road. I think shortly after returning from tour we arranged the cover in my studio and curated a show called Some Velvet Evening. That’s where we first originally debuted the song, but since then we’ve performed it in Chicago, New York, a strip club in Miami; it has had a life of its own. I’m so excited that we’re finally able to share it with our listeners.

What is the significance of this song to the both of you? Why Nancy and Lee? Why “Some Velvet Morning”?

CC: The original song is a masterpiece. The imagery, the mystery, the psycho-sexual aspect of it… all that I think plays well into the cannon of both FEE LION and Chemise Cagoule. Something about the song and our version of it makes sense to release now.

Words to describe the Chicago queer scene:

FL: That meme of a Dr. Marten boot duct taped to a lucite Pleaser but in a death drop. Blood, sweat and tears, baby! Chicago’s scene is raw and rich with Charisma Uniqueness Nerve and Talent. The community is extremely generous and welcoming. I haven’t experienced a scene quite like ours. It’s home to some of the most hard working artists I know. FEE LION was born here and continues to thrive with such incredible support. I love my Chicago girls.

CC: Punk! Punk as fuck, more creative and fucking balls-out than anywhere else. I live in New York now but spend at least a few months back home in Chicago every year, and it’s really cute how people still believe in this outdated idea of New York. I mean, NYC is definitely unparalleled in opportunity, but the creatives there are creative entrepreneurially. Chicago’s shit is creative because it has to be, and it comes bursting from the seams ugly, mean, earnest, unbridled, energetic. You don’t get that vibe in a city of such fierce competition, you get that in a place where you have to build the stage and hang the lights yourself.

Tell me about your shoot together:

CC: It was fun! Justina fronts likes she’s this professional-ass–okay, she actually is like the most on-the-ball bitch I know–but when we’re around each other we’re fucking idiots. We shot on film and I thought more shots would be ruined from us just trying to keep straight faces in front of the camera. Jingyu’s work is never not dreamy and dope, and working with her is an easy give-and-take exchange. We shot this on New Years Eve day so we had champagne which didn’t help the laughs but what can you do?

FL: We rang in the New Year buying “Some Velvet Morning” from a jukebox and shouting along in a half-empty dive bar in Boystown, gummy bear shots in hand.

Dream collaborator? (Other than one another, of course):

CC: Oh god, I know we’ll both say Johnny Jewel.

FL: Might as well have said it in unison! A trio collab with Johnny Jewel and Trent Reznor would be incredible. Pure Moods compilations are my actual jam though. I’ve been dreaming of a new-age, electro-orchestral arrangement with Jan Hammer or Angelo Badalamenti. Would definitely love to pull out my B.C. Rich and shred, or pretend to anyway.

CC: I’d give my left nut to work with Brian Higgins and Miranda Cooper, aka Xenomania who did all of Girls Aloud’s stuff, or Richard X or Hannah Robinson, definitely Derek from Sleigh Bells. All these people crafted some of my favorite songs for some of my favorite acts.

What’s next for the two of you?

FL: I am tying up some loose strings before I leave for SXSW, followed by an East Coast tour with South Korean artist CIFIKA. I’ll be on the road for over a month and am playing the most consecutive shows i’ve ever attempted so that’ll be cute. I have some new music coming out and plans for a video as well.

CC: I’ve been working on putting together a pop act for a while now, something in the vein of A-Teens, Girls Aloud, Steps–my own take on these pre-fab bands from the early 2000’s. I’m also with a modeling agency that’s doing some interesting stuff, Zand Wagon.

Listen to the premiere of “Some Velvet Morning” below. Also available to stream on Spotify and Apple Music.

You can follow FEE LION on Instagram, Facebook, Bandcamp and SoundCloud.

And you can follow Chemise Cagoule on Instagram, Facebook & SoundCloud.

The Kiki Continues For Jake Shears

Jake Shears is feeling a bit out of sorts.

“Even after 10 hours sleep I feel totally backwards,” he says while running his hands over his face and then through his now salt-and-pepper hair in a London bar we’ve met at. When a waiter comes over he orders a Negroni with vodka.

“I don’t like gin very much,” he explains, catching my surprised look. “I love this, though. I get heartburn really easy and this is so soothing.”

Shears is in the UK to support his long-awaited musical comeback. Announcing last Halloween that he had been beavering away recording his debut solo album, the singer released the track “Creep City” and embarked on a small tour to get his feet wet. “Just getting on stage is everything to me,” he says emphatically. “I’ve been wanting to do it for so long and for so long it felt far away.It felt hard to get back there.”

Indeed, it’s been five years since Shears and his former band Scissor Sisters announced their indefinite hiatus in 2012. In the UK, the group were huge; their self-titled debut album, released in 2004, has now sold over 2.5 million copies and cemented them as darlings of the UK music scene. The band’s camp honky tonk theatricality was the perfect antithesis to the homogenous indie rock that had proliferated the charts at the time, and for this newly out little gay boy they were my saviours singing about gay sex, hookers on acid, and coming out to your mom.

Later albums, like 2010’s throbbing Night Work and their fourth and final record Magic Hour, which featured the viral sensation and queer cultural juggernaut “Let’s Have a Kiki,” were less theatrical, but nonetheless quintessential Scissor Sisters. Still, by the time the last record came along, Shears felt creatively drained and the band parted ways.

Moving from New York to LA with his then partner, the 39-year-old says he felt like he had “the rug pulled out” from him. “I underestimated the transition from New York to LA,” he admits. “I really didn’t know what I was doing there; I was lost. I was lost without the band and I was lost without New York.”

The biggest challenge, he says, was not having his songwriting partner of over 20 years, Scott Hoffman, aka Babydaddy. “We were a team for 15 years,” he says, “we were writing songs forever. It was like I was missing an arm, you know?” What resulted were “a couple of years there that were bumpy.” Creatively, without Babydaddy, nothing seemed to connect, and Shears recalls how, despite writing music during that time, he was ambivalent to the material. “When you write stuff and aren’t excited to play it for anybody that’s just how you know it’s not it,” he says, slapping his hands down on the table.

Still, salvation comes from the most unlikely of places, and while post-band life was hard and his long-term relationship came to an end, Shears found an oasis in LA’s isolating urban sprawl. “Moises Kaufman directed a production of Bent in Los Angeles at the Taper Forum that I got cast in. It was the first time that I’d been in a play since high school and it really saved my life,” he gushes. “It was about two and half years ago and I was in a bad, bad, bad place and I got to do that show. It was a summer of immersing myself in theatre. I didn’t know how to act. I had to get a crash course in what I was doing and I worked my ass off. I really discovered a happiness that I hadn’t felt for a long time.”

Reborn, Shears decided to leave LA and move to New Orleans where he began to put himself back together. This process of self-repair also saw the singer writing music that he was genuinely interested in again. “I just turned my life on its head and it just really did the trick,” he says knowingly. “New Orleans has always been a huge musical influence to me. And once one or two songs came…I just realized that I needed to write from my heart and write what I wanted. I definitely have an internal style with my music; I love writing theatrical pop rock, you know? So I just did what I did best.”

The results of this renewed musical vigor makeup Shears’ debut solo album, due this year and of which “Creep City” is just a taste. Like he says, it’s full of that signature theatricality, but lyrically it’s tinged with wearied despondencyit’s wise and knowing in its joviality and aware of its melancholiaand is the closest he’s come sonically to the first Scissor Sister’s album. “In the same way as then, I had no time limit,” he adds, “I had no audience waiting for anything, I had no record label waiting for anything, I had no management, I had no bandmates. I just was able to really write whatever I wanted to.”

The experience was liberating. “I was just really excited to make something on tape,” he recalls of the recording process. “Every song is one take on record. There’s overdubs, but every song is top-to-bottom is one live take. The band playing all at once.” That must have been expensive? “What do you mean?” he barks back with mock incredulity, before laughing. “Whatever happens, I regret nothing.”

“It’s been interesting just going back to the drawing board and asking questions like, what does this look like?” he continues. “And, what do I want to look like? It’s different; I’m going to be 40 this year and I feel different. I’ve been dressing like a riverboat captain and I’ve been loving it. I don’t know where it’s even coming from.”

Looking at what Shears is wearing today, he’s not wrong. He’s decked out in denim and plaid, a more relaxed look than the glam rock and leather that was ubiquitous of the Scissors. In his words it’s “all become a little Mark Twain,” and that’s echoed in the music. The song “Mississippi Delta (I’m Your Man)” is perhaps the most plainly autobiographical that Shears has ever been, not least because he now lives right by the Mississippi river. The song charters his career, his moves across America and eventual reckoning, and finally the healing process of moving to New Orleans. Just talking to him, you can feel the magic that New Orleans has spun on him. “The thing is that if I want to walk out of the house in a naughty nurse outfit any day of the year it’s fine,” he jokes. “It’s freaky down there; you can do whatever.”

Shears, who is currently starring in Kinky Boots on Broadway, has also recently written a memoir, Boys Keep Swinging, which he’s been working on for two years. Is he in a place of reflection, then? “I was with the book, which was not easy,” he admits. “I’ve always written and kept journals and stuff, but woah. There were a lot of discoveries I made about myself. You know, reasons why things happened or why I was behaving in a certain way. Going back to 2004 [and] 2005, I came up with some answers.”

While Jake Shears is clearly entering another equally exciting chapter of his life, I can’t leave without asking him how feels about the impact that the first Scissor Sisters album had during that time. As a band, in the UK at least, their overtly queer music won over gays, straight boys and housewives. They proved to a whole generation of artists (and young people) that you could be overtly and beautifully queer without any apologies.

“I don’t think I can ever say that ‘this wouldn’t have happened’ or ‘that artist would never have made it’ without that recordI don’t necessarily believe that at all,” he rebukes sheepishly, almost embarrassed. “I’m proud of what we did and I think so fondly of that time. There were sacrifices that we made by doing that in certain ways, I think. But it’s been very gratifying to see other musical artists being comfortable from day one being out and talking about their lives and sexualities. It makes me really happy. And if we had anything to do with that then I’m super proud of that. Even just writing this book and going back. The press…some of the shit we had to deal with just wouldn’t happen now. We really had to put up with some garbage.”

He then looks me straight in the eyes and chuckles: “But whatever that was, it was all worth it.”

Jake Shears is currently starring in Kinky Boots on Broadway. His memoir Boy’s Keep Swinging is available in the US now and the UK on March 29. His debut solo album is expected later this year.

New Report Debunks the Myth of ‘Religious Freedom’ Bills: They’re a ‘License to Discriminate’

As Georgia considers legislation allowing faith-based adoption agencies to turn away LGBTQ people, a new report claims these bills are nothing but a front for discrimination.

Currently, eight states have “religious liberty” legislation on the books allowing people of faith to deny services to LGBTQ individuals if providing them would conflict with their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” State Bill 375, which passed the Georgia House last week by a 35-19 vote, would prevent the state from taking “adverse action” against adoption and foster care providers which refuse placement to same-sex couples.

Proponents believe SB 375, also known as the Keep Faith in Adoption and Foster Care Act, is necessary to ensure agencies’ Constitutional rights aren’t violated.

“Just because you are a faith-based organization doesn’t mean you have to check your faith at the door and cannot participate in government programs,” claimed Republican Sen. William Ligon, as the Raleigh-based news station WRAL originally reported.

But a new survey from Human Rights Watch finds that few “religious liberty” bills reflect a “serious attempt” to balance the concerns of people of faith and the LGBTQ community.

“While these exemptions are almost always couched in the language of religious freedom or religious liberty, they directly and indirectly harm LGBTQ people in a variety of ways,” the advocacy group claims in the recently released report “All We Want is Equality.”

“Some laws enable and embolden businesses and service providers to refuse to serve LGBTQ people, compelling LGBTQ people to invest additional time, money, and energy to find willing providers,” the report continues. “Others simply give up on obtaining the goods or services they need. More insidiously, they give LGBTQ people reason to expect discrimination before it even occurs.”

Researchers spoke to queer and trans people living in states impacted by “religious freedom” bills. Respondents claimed this harmful legislation fuels a climate hostile to the very existence of LGBTQ individuals.

Brandiilyne Mangum-Dear and and her wife live in Mississippi, home to the nation’s most extreme anti-LGBTQ law. House Bill 1523, which was allowed to go into effect last year, allows sweeping discrimination under the guise of religion. In addition to permitting bias against queer and trans people in virtually all areas of life, critics noted it allows for discrimination against single mothers and unmarried couples.

HB 1523 even permits an employer to fire a woman for having short hair or wearing pants.

“You’re being treated with disrespect, as a second-class citizennot even a citizen, an outsider,” says Dear, who works as a pastor in Laurel, Miss. “And after a while, that begins to tear a person down, to hurt them emotionally and spiritually. Rejection is hard for everyone, and we get it over and over.”

Ryan Thoreson, a researcher in the LGBTQ rights program at Human Rights Watch, claims the burden these bills place on queer and trans people is “unnecessary.”

“There are mechanisms under U.S. law to balance the conscience of religious objectors of LGBTQ equality,” he says, pointing to the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) which have already been enacted in 21 states. “What’s striking is that it’s not clear these bills are necessary or that they try to balance the competing interests at play. They disregard the consequences they have on LGBTQ people.”

As originally intended, RFRA bills are designed to ensure the government doesn’t unfairly hamper the free exercise of religion.

A classic example is Minnesota v. Hershberger, a 1990 case over a requirement that slow-moving transport display a reflective orange triangle to address safety concerns on state highways. The Amish claimed that such a gesture would violate their religion’s prohibition on bright colors as “loud” and “worldly” and offered to use a silver triangle in their horse-drawn buggies as a compromise, which was denied.

The Minnesota Supreme Court subsequently ruled that the government agency had violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. In order to regulate actions motivated by faith, the state must demonstrate a compelling interest, and that standard had not been met.

Kasey Suffredini, president of strategy at Freedom for All Americans, claims RFRA bills are intended to apply the concept of religious freedom in the “narrowest way possible.”

“[RFRA laws] create some leeway so a judge can take into account what the interest for the religious objector is and the consequences for people who are turned away,” Suffredini tells INTO in a phone interview. “These new exemptions are just blanket exemptions. They give carte blanche to the religious objector without any mechanism for people who are denied service or turned away.”

“The goal of these isn’t to protect religious freedom but to rollback and prevent the advancement of LGBTQ rights,” he adds.

Both Suffredini and Thoreson pointed out that people of faith in states which have passed the recent wave of “religious freedom” bills are unable to meet that standard. It’s already legal to discriminate against queer and trans people in states like Alabama, South Dakota, and Texas, all of which passed anti-LGBTQ adoption laws last year.

Of the eight states which allow faith-based exemptions in regards to sexual orientation and gender identity, not a single one has passed a statewide nondiscrimination law. Many already have anti-LGBTQ statutes on the books.

These bills actually do the opposite of what they claim, Thoreson says. He calls them a “license to discriminate.”

“It’s not lost on people that these laws passed right in the wake of marriage equality,” he claims. “A number of people we spoke with emphasized that the state was sending a message. Even though the Supreme Court said they had these rights, their state was going to do everything they could to prevent them from exercising those rights.”

These bills are yet another reminder to LGBTQ people that they “aren’t equal in the United States,” Thoreson adds.

Georgia’s “religious freedom” bill now heads to the state’s House of Representatives, where it awaits consideration. Should the anti-LGBTQ adoption legislation pass, celebrities like Billy Eichner and Dustin Lance Black have called for a boycott of the state.

Image via Getty

Russell Elliot’s ‘I’ll Be Damned’ Demands Closure After An Abrupt Heartbreak

In his own words, Russell Elliot‘s forthcoming EP is “queer as hell.”

The Brooklyn-based R singer promises Split Ends, his sophomore release due next month, will focus on some of the same themes as his first. (“Me, straight men–it’s disaster,” he jokes.)

His new track, “I’ll Be Damned,” gives listeners a taste of what’s to come, and the music video, premiering exclusively on INTO, helps to express the stark emotions Eliot was going through when he wrote the song.

“‘I’ll Be Damned’ ends abruptly on purpose,” Eliot says of both the song and the video. “I hope you felt a little unsatisfied and surprised at the end. That’s how I felt when this relationship ended out of nowhere.”

Not having closure, Elliot says, inspired what he thinks is one of his strongest vocal performances to date.

“I ended up channeling that simmering demand for answers,” he says. “I remember taking a moment after recording that bridge: ‘Okay, damn–we felt something, huh?’ Listening back, I’m drawn to the strength in the vocals over the hurt of the memories. That feels like growth to me.”

Exposed: My First Nude Shoot

Even in an age when sharing mundane details online is standard, it’s easier than ever to control the way others see usuntil, as people often say on social media, someone’s been “exposed.” Welcome to Exposed, a monthly column where author and activist Chris Stedman invites you to get a little more vulnerable.

“Do you want to go by your actual name,” the photographer asked him, “or do you want to use an alias?”

Raymond looked up and suddenly it hit him all at once: This is actually happening. I’m really doing a nude photoshoot.

He never could have predicted he’d reach this moment. Born just outside Mount Zion in the Saint Anne Parish of Jamaica, Raymond had spent most of his life in rural Midwestern towns until he moved to Minneapolis, Minn. at 21. It was the biggest city he had ever lived in, and it felt full of possibility.

A year after moving, a popular photographer contacted him through Scruff. Unprompted, the photographer asked if he was interested in doing a nude photoshoot. Raymond was intrigued, but he had a few hangups: How would his body look on camerawould he appear desirable? Mostly he worried, though, about what his new friends would think if they found out about the shoot. Would people judge his decision? What if the photos got out?

But the more he thought about it, the less anxious he feltespecially because there were actually already nude photos of him on the internet.

Curious about how his body looked in a photograph, Raymond set up his camera, disrobed, and took his first nude while he was bored one afternoon years earlier. He never shared that photo with anyone, but it was an intensely validating experience. Looking at the folds and muscles of his body, he felt like he was able to see for the first time how someone else might see his body and what was attractive about it.

I felt similarly the first time I took a nude. Starting at a young age, I’d felt like an alien in my own body. My siblings were solid, sturdy, and athletic, and I was weak, wimpy, and lanky. I didn’t have arm hair for years, which made me feel even more effeminate than I already did. I resented my body for betraying my efforts to conceal my queerness, for communicating things about me that I was trying so hard to hide. I picked it apart, fixating on the things about it that I thought were telling truths I wasn’t ready to share.

As I went deeper into my mind as a closeted adolescent, I felt further and further removed from my body. And this body anxiety continued as I got older and internalized more cultural beauty standards. Why wasn’t I more muscular? Was my face symmetrical? Was my body even worthy of desire at all?

But when I finally took my first nudejust a basic mirror portrait inspired by one I saw on TwitterI started to see myself the way others might instead of in the distorted ways I’d been imagining myself. It was a simple act, and I deleted it the next day without sending it to anyone, but it helped me begin to shed some of the self-loathing that characterized my relationship with my body for so long.

Raymond loved how it felt to take a nude, too, and a few months later he impulsively submitted a photo of himself standing before a mirror with nothing on to a popular website. After they posted it, he decided to share it on his Tumblr profile. The response was instantaneous and uniformly positive, and it opened a floodgate. From there he posted nude photos and videos regularly, and people would respond in beautifully affirming ways, saying that he looked sexy and happy and seemed like he was having fun. And he was.

But the responses haven’t always been so celebratory. One time Raymond got an anonymous Tumblr message from someone who said they had gone to high school with him and never knew he was “that kind of person.” For a moment he worried about what they might do with his photos and videosup until then, there had been no crossover between his “offline” life and his activity on Tumblrbut he never heard from them again.

He’s also gotten anonymous messages calling him a “slut,” but he generally ignores those, writing them off as the bitter musings of anonymous bullies. One message, however, cut deep.

On the same day Raymond wrote a Tumblr post about an experience of sexual assault that left him so traumatized that he didn’t date or use Grindr and Scruff for a year after, someone replied by implying that he had no right to express pain about an experience of assault because he posts nudes. He was stunned; it was the first time his nudes had been weaponized against him.

But the thing that Tumblr user didn’t understand is that, for Raymond, taking nudes has actually been a part of how he’s processed and healed from his assault; it’s also how he’s dealt with depression. Though these are certainly not his only or even his primary reasons for posting nudes, making himself vulnerable by sharing photos and videos online has helped him feel more at home in his body. Even though he doesn’t like the idea that people should have to justify their reasons for doing so, posting nudes has been a way of taking his power back after a devastating violation. It makes it easier to claim autonomy over his own body.

For months leading up to his nude photoshoot, Raymond worked through his fears about it. Finally in mid-August, the day of the shoot arrived. But just hours before they were scheduled to begin, the photographer texted him that something had come up and he wasn’t sure if he would make it. So Raymond responded with a nude, saying: “Well I guess I did all this grooming for nothing then.”

Less than a minute later, the photographer responded: “I’ll be at the studio in 15 minutes.”

Raymond rushed out the door, but he got lost on the way. By the time he finally made it to the photographer’s second-floor studio, he was drenched in sweat from rushing around in the awful humidity of Minnesota August and buzzing with nervous energy. The photographer handed him a clipboard with a release form for the photos they would take, and asked Raymond to present him with a photo ID. As Raymond handed over his driver’s license, the photographer asked the question that stopped him in his tracks: What name would he use?

Unexpectedly, a childhood nickname that he’d coined for himself when playing pretend on the playground with friends popped into his head: Amun Wolfe. It was familiar, something he already associated with himself, but that would also allow him to maintain some anonymity. Best of all, it literally translated from Egyptian to “anonymous wolf.”

With the form filled out, the shoot began, and as the photographer asked him questions and invited him to remove an item of clothing after each question, Raymond felt his fears fall away like the sweat dripping off his body. He was becoming another version of himselfthe bolder and more adventurous self that he doesn’t always share with friends or even lovers. With each minute he was becoming more like the wolf he’d named himself, and less defined by the traumas of his past.

Taking and sharing nudes has also helped me move on from past experiences where I’ve been assaulted or made to feel shame about my body. Yet for yearsworried about what might happen if my body were to be subjected to public scrutiny and shaming, or linked to my public work as a writer and activistI refused to share them with anyone.

But several years ago I was approached about a government appointment, and after learning more about the vetting process, I passed. Though they weren’t the number-one reason for saying no, the questions about whether or not there were any scandalous photos in my past definitely played a role. I didn’t want to make decisionsor not make decisionsbased on fear of how they might be used against me.

Turning down that invitation was a catalyst to stop worrying so much about how others might see me (and how much of me they might see). Like Raymond, I have decided that it is OK to have a body, to share and celebrate it, and that I won’t be shamed for it.

Several months after the shoot, Raymond was at the grocery store with his boyfriend. As he was putting a bag of chips in the cart, the photographer messaged him with a link to the photos on an encrypted site. He rushed home and got online, and as he scrolled through the images, he burst out laughing. Not because they were bad, but because they captured one of the happiest moments of his lifea time when he felt totally comfortable, seen, and at home in his own body.

Raymond’s favorite picture from the shootthe one that immediately jumped out at him as he was first scrolling through the photos, and the only one he’s shown his mom sinceis one where he’s sitting on a green couch, his leg propped up, his head arched back, his eyes looking up, and his mouth split open by an enormous grin. Taking in the photo for the first time he felt an unfamiliar mix of euphoria and contentment, even more so than when he took his own nudes. I have never felt more at home in myself, he thought, and I know I’ll never have another photo quite like this one again.

Is there a risk in taking and sharing nudes? Of course. But perhaps the greater risk is that we will live lives ruled by the fear of being made vulnerable. Stripping yourself down and sharing yourself with others can feel scarybut, as it did for Raymond, it can also help you find a home in yourself.

Want to get exposed? Email Chris at [email protected] with a short description of a time when you felt truly vulnerablein either a positive or a painful way (or both).

Want more? Check out the previous installment of Exposed.

Header image byAjhan Sinzin / EyeEm