Genderqueer Youth Who Trolled DeVos With Trans Flag Went for the Media Win

Betsy DeVos got some unexpected headlines courtesy of a genderqueer eighth-grader in Michigan Tuesday.

Torin Hodgman, a student at Grand Rapids Public Museum School, decided to sport a trans pride flag during the Education Secretary’s visit.

“Mostly the reason why she travels around to schools like my school is for publicity,” Hodgman told INTO. “I knew that there was going to be media involved, so I thought ‘Hey, I’m going to to wear this. It will show Museum School is accepting to many people and genders.’”

Betsy DeVos, on the other hand, has rolled back Obama-era rules protecting trans students in bathrooms.

And so what was supposed to be a day filled with headlines about DeVos’ stance on school safety instead turned into a story about DeVos trolled by an conscientious eighth-grader.

Hodgman says they came to school prepared to press DeVos on her support for charter schools over public schools, and what she would do to keep LGBTQ students safe. Hodgman never got the chance to ask those questions, however.

According to Hodgman’s mom, Summer Wright, this is not the first time the eighth-grader has been politically or socially active. Hodgman has racked up more than 400 volunteer hours since the fall. They have volunteered for local pride events, worked as a therapy aide with children with developmental disabilities, participated in a civic theatre program, helped Wright as an assistant with public activism classes, worked as an intern curator at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, donated time to the city and volunteered for the city arts festival.

Wright is a lesbian and says her kids have long been exposed to trans and queer people. They were raised to express themselves freely, she says.

“There was never a coming out process,” Wright says. “It was more a discussion and figuring themselves out process.”

On Tuesday, Hodgman put on a karate uniform and then, because it was Spirit Day at school, and because DeVos was coming, Hodgman decided to put on the trans flag.

“We had some conversations about maybe the kinds of questions they could ask or how to respectfully bring up questions they had about protections for all kinds of students at schools,” Wright tells INTO. “It was 6:30 in the morning. I’m like ‘Sure, yeah okay.’”

The video footage from Tuesday morning shows DeVos walking awkwardly alongside Hodgman in a giant trans pride cape. The cape isn’t mentioned, but it’s the star of the show.

Did DeVos know what the trans flag was?

“She definitely noticed it,” Hodgman says. “And I hope she knows what it means. But I don’t know.”

Who’s Afraid of Bruce LaBruce?

Bruce LaBruce has an interesting history with film festivals.

Some — Berlinale, Sundance, TIFF — have embraced his oft-grotesque queer aesthetic while others have found it too offensive. In 2010, the Melbourne International Film Festival canceled a screening of his film L.A. Zombie, banned by Australian censors. The prolific auteur, whose photography, zines, and other works of visual art have consistently combusted any notions of boundary, is now finding that his latest feature, The Misandrists, is being denied by some LGBTQ film festivals, despite LaBruce’s having been a pivotal part of New Queer Cinema in the ’90s, and effectively coining the queercore movement.

Still, it’s this non-conformity that makes LaBruce who he is, and his work continues to poke, prod, question, and confuse viewers who are all-too-complacent with the abundance of sanitized gay stories shot for the big screen in 2018. LaBruce’s early films No Skin Off My Ass, Super 8½, and Hustler White were unapologetically raw, sexual, violent gay films. They often featured porn stars and pornographic elements, and were explicit in their intention to shock and awe, but also to please and tease. 

His mid-to-late-aughts obsession with zombies and the undead saw LaBruce venturing into horror films (Otto; or, Up with Dead PeopleL.A. Zombie) while also continuing to touch on the taboo with Gerontophiliaa film about a romantic/sexual relationship between an octogenarian and a twenty-something young man, and The Raspberry Reich, which followed a German terrorist group (or as LaBruce calls it, “a critique of radical chic”).

The Misandrists has elements of most LaBruce films, which is to say that the actors are largely unseasoned and unrecognizable, the plot is a twist on a well-known Hollywood film (in this case, The Beguiled), and the dialogue is full of diatribes about sex, sexuality, gender, democracy, faith, and the patriarchal capitalist society in which even fictional characters must, in some part at the very least, exist.

Like many other Sapphic-themed films,The Misandrists takes place in an all-girls boarding school where young women are taught by a fearsome headmistress, though this time, she’s a literal man-hating feminist, a militant lesbian whose lessons rely on the resistance of anything to do with men. Most of the young women are fine with this scenario. They are all sleeping together, sneaking cigarettes, sporting queer looks with septum piercings, bald heads, and punk versions of a Catholic school girl’s skirt and sweater set. But when two of the pupils come across a wounded thief on the grounds and decide to hide him in the basement, his presence (and eventual romance with one of them) threatens to upset the happy misandrist, matriarichal balance.

LaBruce tells INTO he’s always wanted to make a lesbian-centric film.

“I vowed that I would make a movie about extreme left wing feminist terrorists, lesbian terrorists, so I came up with the idea,” LaBruce says. “A movie about essentialist feminists, lesbian separatist terrorists.”

The Misandrists also borrows from disreputable genres like nunsploitation and sexploitation, LaBruce says. “I’m referencing erotic films from the ‘70’s which often had lesbian kind of undertones, and then kind of pulp Hollywood movies like Don Siegel’s The Beguiled and Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen.”

As a master of genre films, he took the boarding school films often touted for their lesbian leanings, subtext, or specific storylines that ended in punishment and added a B-movie horror element.

“I think people relate,” he says. “Even though the politics are pretty thick sometimes in the movie, it makes it more fun and relatable because of the genre stuff.”

LaBruce doesn’t have an agenda in his films, per se, but he does have something to say, and it’s not always palatable. Reviews of The Misandrists (or any of his films, for that matter) will offer distaste for his brand of culty queer films akin to the kinds of flack John Waters used to get with his earliest works. But unlike Waters, LaBruce hasn’t given us anything that might appeal to the mainstream. While in other experimental films from queer directors, the queerness is shrouded in subtext, LaBruce never hides from a chance to explore and embrace homosexuality.

“There might be a hidden subtext in the original material that I’m referencing that I just kind of make literal,” he says. “So [in The Misandrists], I’m also referencing this Hollywood film from the ‘60s called The Trouble With Angels with Hayley Mills. It’s set in a nunnery, and there’s a very strong lesbian subtext in that film which a lot of people might not even tap in into, so I just make it literal.”

And in The Beguiled, recently remade by Sofia Coppola with A-listers like Kirsten Dunst and Nicole Kidman in the cast, Colin Farrell stars as the soldier taken in and eventually getting his leg amputated.

“Which of course is a symbolic castration in the film,” LaBruce notes. “So I did literalize it [in The Misandrists] and make a real castration.”

Still, the reason he thinks most LGBTQ film festivals disregard the film is not because of its explicit sex or violence or radical misandry.

“Already it was turned down by a lot of the major LGBTQI film festivals, like Toronto and San Francisco and Los Angeles, for I think politically correct reasons,” he says. “I heard on the grapevines [about] one of them — they said simply, they couldn’t show a film about lesbians made by a gay man.”

Which is ironic considering how many gay men (and men in general) have been at the helm of highly-lauded lesbian-themed films in the recent past. Carol, for one, was directed by Todd Haynes, who also came up in New Queer Cinema.

“In the ‘80s in the queercore punk movement, even back then, it was about intersectionality in terms of solidarity between fags and dykes and transgender people, and not being divided into these kind of subcategories that never have any kind of interaction with each other,” LaBruce says. “So I mean just as I think this film would be of interest to lesbians, to feminists, and to women, I would hope that men would be — especially gay men would be interested in it, too.”

Another festival, he said, found the film transphobic. (Without giving too much away, there is an element that could be perceived as such should the viewer not be in on utilizing that very notion of transphobia to make a commentary on womanhood and the radicalization of genitals as a basis for gender ideation.)

“It’s about inclusion; it’s about this trans woman who is obviously a woman and she gains acceptance in this group of previously exclusionary feminists,” LaBruce says. “You have to take it in the context of the absurd and the campness, the absurdity and the campiness of the film, you know? It’s not meant to be taken as a prescription about how to approach gender politics of as a kind of realistic depiction of gender reassignment or anything like that.”

LaBruce’s art is almost of a different time when queer camp and horror could exist without literal interpretations (or rather, misinterpretations). But unlike some of his contemporaries who have chosen to go more mainstream, LaBruce is happy to continue to make work independent of financiers who dictate what they believe audiences are able to easily digest.

“I think it’s an inevitable byproduct of assimilation,” he says. “Trying to show the average person that homosexuals are just the same as everybody else except they just happen to love differently. My philosophy of homosexuality is much different and I’m about celebrating the outsider status and kind of using being marginalized to your advantage as a strategic political place to be in.”

Maintaining that outsider status has made LaBruce a cult figure in his own right, a recognizable name synonymous with his work — which isn’t to say predictable, just consistent. He enjoys being “more…avant-garde or underground” he says, where he “has a more invisible influence on society.”

“The idea of toning down homosexuality — toning down gay sex — in order to appeal to a broader audience, making gay sex or the gay lifestyle more palatable, or just being a ‘good gay’ and portraying these characters who are non-threatening and well-behaved — there’s plenty of those movies happening,” LaBruce says. “So I think it’s important for other people to keep on the tradition of the more gay avant-garde, which has always been to challenge the status quo, to challenge sexual conventions, and to be more unapologetic about being gay. You don’t want to be tolerated — you’re completely living on your own terms and saying ‘fuck you’ if you don’t like it.”

Though The Misandrists might leave some confused, or challenged, LaBruce doesn’t mind as much as he hopes to be understood by at least part of his own community.

“It’s meant to be over the top,” LaBruce says. “It’s done, like I said, as a B movie horror kind of trope, so it’s very much tongue in cheek. So I think if you go with the spirit of the film and don’t take those kind of political things literally, but more kind of symbolically and in terms of kind of pop culture kind of poetic license, it shouldn’t really be that offensive.”

“But you know,” he adds, “I do enjoy it, offending people.”

The Misandrists is open in select theaters now.

Denver Police Investigating Stabbing of Two Gay Men as Hate Crime

Two gay men were stabbed on early Sunday morning outside of a Denver nightclub.

Chris Huizar, 19, and Gabriel Roman, 23, were holding hands while walking back from The Church nightclub when they were confronted by a man with a knife. The man was allegedly also calling them “fucking faggots” before attacking them near Lincoln Street and 10th Ave. The couple ran away from the man after receiving multiple stab wounds, collapsing in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven.

The police were promptly called at about 1am by bystanders who witnessed their collapse.

“This world is not all just smiles and happy,” Huizar told KUSA News. “There are bad people in the world.”

“We just know that we can get through anything now and that’s just going to make us that much stronger,” Roman added.

According to the Denver Post, the injuries the couple sustained were not life-threatening, and they have started a GoFundMe to pay for medical expenses, which has now raised almost $9,000 with a goal of $5,000. The police have one suspect, Dylan Payne, in custody tied to the aggravated attack and are investigating the incident as a hate crime.

The state of Colorado has specifically provided protections for people based on sexual orientation and gender identity since 2001. In fact, according to HRC, all but 15 states now legally include language that protects individuals based on their sexual orientation.

However, it’s also important to note that only 18 states plus Washington D.C. also include language to protect people on basis of gender identity. Given the amount of trans women who have been murdered this year, this lack of legal protection is just unacceptable. Louisiana, one of the states that doesn’t protect trans folks, has added crimes against police officers and firefighters to its hate crime laws.

This breaks my whole heart , whoever did this is nothing but complete trash. I wish I would catch someone tryna do this. We’re all fucking human, if you don’t like the way people are then don’t fucking look their way you don’t need to physically hurt somebody because of WHO THEY ARE . Take me outta this world cause it’s complete TRASH

Posted by Licia M. Simonis on Sunday, May 27, 2018

Lorde’s Little Sister Comes Out as Bisexual

Indy Yelich-O’Connor, known best as Lorde’s little sister, coyly came out as bisexual yesterday afternoon.

On Tuesday, the teenager took to social media with an announcement. “plot twist (I like boys and girls)” she tweeted

The New Zealander currently resides in New York City, and has taken to writing, much like her singer-songwriter sister and her mother, the award-winning poet Sonja Yelich. Indy released Sticky Notes, her first book of poetry back in February. According to the official description, the debut collection “chronicles her experiences with love, travel, and self-discovery in a shifting physical and emotional geography.”

“Today was so amazing,” the Kiwi wrote on Twitter last night. “I had so many messages of support & the sun was shining, and I just love New York. So grateful for my life and all the people in it. And I can’t wait for my book tour.”

The poet will embark on a book tour soon to promote Sticky Notes.

Meet the Queer Student Who Gave a Speech Outside His Graduation After Being Banned From Speaking

The young people will win.

That’s the message that 18-year-old student Christian Bales planned to deliver to his fellow classmates at a May 25 graduation ceremony for Covington, KY’s Holy Cross High School. But just hours before Bales, the valedictorian of his graduating class, was set to address his peers, the Senior student’s school pulled the plug on his speech.

Principal Mike Holtz claimed that Bales and salutatorian Katherine Frantz had not submitted their speeches for Diocesan review.

Additionally, administrators didn’t feel their remarks would be appropriate for the occasion. Bales, who was extremely involved in programs like the Harvard United Nations assembly and the Governor’s Scholars Program during his four years at the Catholic institution, dedicated his address to youth leaders advocating for change in their communities—using the Parkland students as an example.

“As we enter into the real world, we must remember that we have a voice,” the speech read. “Rather than allowing opposition to silence us, we must utilize it as empowerment. As long as we nurture our minds as youth, we’ll be able to be equally impactful as we encounter the world.”

“The way they characterized my speech is that it was angry, it was confrontational, and it was too political,” he told INTO over the phone.

In a half hour interview, Bales added that the Diocese claimed the “ideology” of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students—who have led a national conversation about gun control since the Feb 14 shooting—goes against the Catholic faith.

He said he doesn’t agree with that feedback.

“While I do understand that there were political elements, I don’t think that it was advocating for one end of the spectrum or the other,” he claimed. “I just think that it was political in that it was advocating for people to fight as adamantly for their beliefs and ethics as they would like.”

The students were informed their speeches had been rejected the morning of the graduation ceremony, just 10 hours before they were scheduled to be on stage. Instead of giving them the opportunity to address the Diocesan concerns, Bales and Frantz were told there wouldn’t be time. Instead the high school immediately erased their entries from the graduation booklet—as if the incident never took place.

Bales’ mother, Gillian Marksberry, said the news came as a “shock” to her family. She told INTO over the phone that she cried “several times” that day.

“It’s really difficult as a parent to watch your child strive for something, given that acknowledgment and reward, and then have it ripped out from underneath them,” Marksberry claimed. “That’s hard to swallow. When your child feels pain, as a parent you feel it as if it’s your own. You bear that cross for them.”

“I think this was very mishandled,” she added. “It should have been a conversation we had months ago.”

While the Diocese of Covington claimed that the political content of Bales’ speech is not in line with Catholic values, his mother alleged there’s a different reason he was removed from the graduation program: Bales identifies as queer and is gender nonconforming.

A week before the ceremony, Holtz had a meeting with the parish priest and the superintendent to discuss the possibility that Bales might wear makeup or heels to graduation, which was held at nearby Thomas More College in Crestview Hills. Following that discussion, the principal called Marksberry to ensure he wouldn’t sashay his way to the podium.

She told the principal the family would comply with the school’s request for masculine dress.

“I assured him we do respect the wishes of the school and understand that conformity is critical sometimes in our society,” said Marksberry, who noted that she often covers her tattoos in the workplace. “We all have to conform at different things.”

Bales said that his gender presentation had long put him on the radar of the Diocese of Covington, calling it a “four-year power struggle.” During his sophomore year, the administration forbid male students from wearing “hair accessories” during an announcement broadcast over the school intercom—even though it wasn’t specifically prohibited in the dress code.

After getting in trouble on a number of occasions, the student stopped wearing bobby pins in his hair and wearing makeup as much. But Bales also said it’s because his workload began to increase at school.

“To be frank, I did not time to make sure my appearance was perfect every day,” he claimed.

But Bales and his mother said that despite a handful of negative experiences, his relationship with Holy Cross High School has been largely positive. Teachers and other students in his tight-knit class of 84 embraced him. The teenager wore a floral jumper, makeup, hair accessories, and heels to this year’s Prom without backlash.

His mother is grateful the school allowed him to “be himself.”

“They helped him discover his voice,” she explained. “They elevated him and allowed him to develop self-confidence.”

But Marksberry said that his gender difference has been apparent from a young age. One of his mother’s fondest memories is Bales stomping up and down the stairs in her best high heels. When she asked what he was doing, Bales responded, “I’m practicing for when I’m older!”

“OK, be careful!” she recalled telling him. “Don’t break an ankle.”

When Bales finally came out to her at the age of 14, Marksberry told him she already knew—and loved him for it. She looked at him and said, “I’m your mom. I know these things. I was just waiting for you to tell me.”

The support from friends, family, and classmates was evident during this weekend’s graduation ceremony. Although Bales would continue to be blocked from giving his speech, his peers stood and applauded when he walked to the stage to receive his diploma. Marksberry made rainbow ribbons to hand out to students and parents during the event and the supply ran out almost immediately.

“I’ve never seen so much silent power as I did within the confines of that ceremony—even without him addressing his class from the podium,” she said. “The irony is that in the attempt to silence his voice, look at how much louder it became.”

Although the Diocese never did tell Bales what about his speech was so objectionable, he found a way to give it anyway.

Bales and Frantz, who is both the student council president and his best friend, stood outside the ceremony as students were leaving and delivered their speeches from a bullhorn Bales’ father gave him. A group of 80 to 100 people gathered around the pair as Bales told the crowd that young people are “finished being complacent.”

Given the controversy of the past day, his comments proved eerily prescient.

“There’s a misguided notion that wisdom is directly proportional to age, but we’re disproving that daily,” Bales said on Friday. “Sometimes the wisest are the youngest in our lives, the ones who haven’t yet been desensitized to the atrocities of our world.”

“We are dynamic,” he would add. “We are intelligent. We have a voice, and we’re capable of using it in all communities.”

Since that speech went viral over the weekend, the family claimed they’ve heard from people all over the world who were moved by Bales’ comments. Marksberry said a woman in Michigan read the address to her elderly Catholic parents, who are now in their 70s. The woman reached out on Facebook to say her parents wanted Bales to know that he is loved and supported.

“They wanted him to know that not all Catholics feel the way the Diocese has stated,” Marksberry said.

Bales claimed that what’s been most humbling about the speech’s reception, though, is seeing the reaction among LGBTQ youth who are in similar situations—whether that’s attending Catholic schools or living in conservative areas. Many have reached out to say they, too, will work to advocate for reform and social change in their communities.

“The circumstances amplified my speech even further,” Bales said.

“There’s a point in the speech where I talk about the fact that you have to utilize opposition as empowerment,” he continued. “I think this moment aligned perfectly with that. Even though they did try to push us down, silence us, and keep us from speaking, now it’s on an international level—and it just keeps growing.”

Read the speech in its entirety here.

Images courtesy Christian Bales

Connecticut Becomes First State Allowing Trans Prisoners to Be Housed According to Gender Identity

Connecticut has passed a historic bill allowing transgender inmates to be housed in accordance with their gender identity in state prisons.

Earlier this month, Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Molloy quietly signed into law Public Act 18-4, which is also known as the “Act Concerning the Fair Treatment of Incarcerated Persons.” The first-of-its kind law has been hailed by LGBTQ as “groundbreaking,” as well as one of the nation’s most progressive pieces of pro-trans legislation.

Among other things, Public Act 18-4 mandates that trans inmates be addressed in accordance with their gender identity—meaning that prison officials will refer to them in a manner consistent with their pronouns and the name they use in daily life. Thus, even if an inmate hasn’t had the ability to legally change their name or gender marker, staff members will respect their lived identities.

In addition, the law states that transgender prisoners have the right to purchase commissary items which match their gender identity. A trans woman, for example, would be able to buy lipstick or makeup.

The legislation also allows trans inmates to be searched by a guard who conforms to their same gender identity (e.g., a transgender man paired with a male officer) during intake or routine patrolling of the facility. This guideline is particularly relevant, as a significant portion of the 40 percent of trans inmates who are abused in U.S. prisons every year are targeted by guards.

Lastly, the provision around housing allows transgender people to be placed in accordance with their lived gender identity so long as they receive a diagnosis of gender dysphoria or have legally changed their gender marker.

Upon approving the bill, Malloy said its signage illustrates that “all people deserve to be treated with dignity, empathy, and respect.”

“[I]ncarcerated women are no exception,” the Democrat claimed in a May 14 statement. “Incarcerated women face unique challenges and barriers to success—a consideration that should be reflected in our statutes.

“These policies are part of our ongoing efforts in Connecticut to ensure that we are making strides that reduce recidivism, that end the cycle of crime and poverty, that continue to drive crime down even lower, and that ultimately results in permanent improvement and reformation instead of permanent punishment,” he continued. “We are working every day to fix the haunting legacy of mass incarceration, and this is another sensible step in the right direction.”

The passage of Public Act 18-4 makes Connecticut the only state with sweeping guidelines affirming the dignity and safety of trans prisoners on the books, although cities like San Francisco have passed their own regulations.

A similar law, State Bill 990, is currently being debated in the California legislature. Authored by State Sen. Scott Wiener, The Dignity and Opportunity Act would compel prison officials to refer to trans inmates in a manner consistent with their identity and would give transgender people the right to access programming even when placed in Solitary Housing Units (SHU), often known as solitary confinement.

Trans prisoners are often placed in administrative segregation purportedly for their own safety, and SB 990 ensures these individuals still have the ability to attend drug rehabilitation programs or job training.

After passing out of committee on May 25, the legislation had its third hearing in California Assembly on Tuesday.

These moves may seem like small steps in the right direction given that trans prisoners are 13 times more likely than their cisgender peers to be abused or assaulted in lockup facilities. But advocates say these protections are increasingly crucial after the Trump administration announced it would rollback federal guidelines on gender-affirming placement for trans prisoners.

On May 12, the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) released an updated Transgender Offender Manualstating that authorities “will use biological sex” as the main consideration when determining housing for transgender inmates.

The manual claims that only “in rare cases” will a prisoner be placed in a manner consistent with their “identified gender.”

That decision effectively reverses Obama-era policy advising prisons to determine the placement of trans inmates on a “case-by-case basis.” Introduced in 2012, the previous guidelines instructed wardens and prison staffers to make determinations based on the “inmate’s health and safety” and “whether the placement would present management or security problems.”

Connecticut’s guidelines—which are set to take effect July 1—appear to take a page from the Obama regulations. Public Act 18-4 states that trans inmates will only be placed in a manner which breaks with their gender identity if such housing poses a safety risk to other prisoners housed in the facility.

The law was introduced after a transgender teenager was placed in an adult prison because officials couldn’t figure out the appropriate situation for her.

Solving these crises is exactly why ACLU of Connecticut Executive Director David McGuire claimed the law’s passage is a “really big deal.” McGuire told the Associated Press that Public Act 18-4 is “the most protective transgender policy and law in the country.”

Mike Lawlor, the governor’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning, affirmed all housing determinations will be made through careful consultation.

“I’m sure there will be people who will say, ‘So how does this work?’” Lawlor told the AP in an interview. “If you are a guy, do you just say you’re a woman and you get to go to a woman’s prison? No. There is a very elaborate analysis, psychological and otherwise.”

Although it’s unknown how many transgender prisoners are housed in Connecticut, 2012 estimates show there are 3,200 trans inmates in the United States.

Image via Getty

P!nk Sports ‘Make America Gay Again’ Hat on Twitter

Over the course of her long career, P!nk has solidified her status as an extraordinary ally of and bullheaded advocate for the LGBTQ community. In 2010, the Human Rights Campaign awarded her with the Ally for Equality award, recognizing her dedication to supporting LGBTQ people. 

Yesterday, the pop star continued her advocacy with the non-profit organization by tweeting a photo of herself donning a “Make America Gay Again” hat. The HRC began making and selling the red hats as a biting response to Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign.

The 38-year-old singer has always owned her short ‘do and androgynous style. At the 2017 VMAs, she wore matching pinstriped suits with her husband and six-year old daughter. She has always brought visibility to queer identities by normalizing masculine-leaning attire in mainstream pop culture.

HRC responded to Pink on Twitter, thanking her for her continued support of the LGBTQ community. They wrote, “Thanks @Pink for showing your support,” adding, “Who else is ready to make America Gay Again?”

Aja Is Gaming The System

Shortly after they were eliminated off of Drag Race Season 9, Aja won the jackpot — quite literally. It was their first time in a casino, and they put in a couple quarters for a slot machine.

“Girl, I ain’t gonna win shit,” they thought to themselves, “And it was a jackpot. I won, like, $5000.”

For Aja, this wasn’t a one-off event – they’ve always been lucky. Long before their death drop made RuPaul scream, and before their iconic Untucked monologue, Aja (who goes by they/them pronouns) always magically made ends meet.

They recounted some of these lucky experiences while sitting across from me in a Brooklyn Starbucks and snacking on a chocolate chip cookie.

When Aja was coming up in the scene, they would buy drag before they bought food. “It was always crazy because just when I thought I had everything, like I had an outfit and you know two dollars to eat bread and [then] I wouldn’t have any money to get to the gig,” they said. But then, Aja explained, they would miraculously find money they didn’t know they had.

“Like one day I went to the bank and out of nowhere, I had like two hundred extra dollars in my account.” Aja paused then spoke directly into my microphone: “Don’t come for me Bank of America.”

According to Aja’s godmother, part of their luck comes from their ethnic roots in West Africa. Aja’s family practices Santería, an Afro-Caribbean religion that also has roots back in West Africa. “She always said I had very great intuition and that I was very [spiritually connected to] myself,” Aja said of their godmother.

Aja’s mom told them they were adopted at eight years old. “And that’s when she showed me my birth certificate,” Aja said. “I had a Muslim name, and I was like ‘Oh, I don’t even know how to say this.’ Then I started to question things like what if I would have grown up Muslim? How would life [be] different for me?”

Aja never went through an adoption agency. Instead, Aja’s biological mother met their adoptive family through someone she was dating. Aja’s adoptive mother had been trying to get pregnant for a long time but was having trouble, so finding Aja was perfect. The identity of Aja’s father, however, has been something long speculated in their family — the rumor since they were young was that their biological father was in a gang and died before they were born.

When they were 18, Aja decided to learn more about their biological roots. But instead of just taking a single DNA test, they took five. “And every single one had the exact same results,” they said. “I even did my background research and each of them were done in different labs, with different types of testing.” We discussed briefly how strange racial identity is when it’s listed out on a paper with percentages. What does it even mean to be 40% this or 15% that?

“It’s so specific that I would have to fucking pull out a list that I don’t feel like pulling out,” Aja laughed and picked their phone up from the table. “But I will anyway. Hold on.” I waited for a moment while they logged onto their results.

“Morocco, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Benin and Togo, Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana-Ivory Coast, Mali,” they recited. “Oh, and then I’m five percent Cameroon-Congo, so watch out, Bebe. Watch out, bitch.”

“So, how do you feel culturally?” I asked. “You were raised in a Puerto Rican family, right?”

“It sounds weird to say, but I never really had, like, an upbringing,” Aja said. “I feel like most of my life was really on the street. I grew up on the street.”

Aja’s racial identity, as they described it, wasn’t really formed by their family or any one particular culture. Her mom worked a lot, so they grew up eating all different kinds of foods in their friend’s homes and most of their close friends were black.

“I guess culturally more than anything I had an urban upbringing. It was not really one thing, but it was very Brooklyn,” they said. “You could tell I was from Brooklyn.” Aja paused. “I feel like I’m on a date. I don’t even feel like I’m doing an interview.”

After our talk about race, I brought up their recently released EP, In My Feelings. I started by asking about the relationship between their music and their drag. In previous interviews, Aja has talked about how they don’t make “drag music,” a genre of music defined by parody and reference to Drag Race or drag culture more broadly. I asked Aja if they would ever be interested in a music career outside of drag.

“I feel like…I don’t know. I feel like it doesn’t really matter,” Aja said. “Because my music comes from such a non-binary point of view that it doesn’t matter what I’m wearing because it’s always going to be the same delivery. One of my new music videos that’s going to be coming out this summer, it’s more half and half. It’s not going to be just one boy look, it’s actually going to be like five boy looks and five drag looks.”

For Aja, drag is about giving a broader range of aesthetics and also about giving more than one perspective. The perspective of the music is much more important to Aja than what they happen to be wearing while they perform it. Aja just wants to simply lay out their thoughts and make people ask questions.

“When I came over from the music video from Brujeria,” Aja explained, “a lot of people who ware in my [Santería] religion were like, ‘I think you should have went way further.’” The video features Latin dress, imagery of religious ritual and also demonic symbols like horns because it aims to critique the common association of Afro-Caribbean religious practices with being malicious and evil.

However, Aja is very cautious about shoving these concepts down people’s throats. “It’s more about giving someone a preview,” they said.

I asked Aja about the other clear influences that I saw in both their drag and their music: video games and anime. This influence was very clear in some of the looks Aja presented on All Stars 3 and it’s been even more blatant in the EP with their first single, “Finish Her!” being a direct reference to Mortal Kombat and the accompanying music video being in the style of a classic fighting game

“In music, I never really intended to mix it, it just happened. I’ve always been a gamer, I’ve always been someone who was very influenced by things that are really cute, like Japanese culture, anime and manga, all of that good stuff,” Aja said. “However, I know that it really didn’t start taking a place in my drag until the last two or three years.”

Aja said that when they started drag, they did what they had to do to be accepted in the community and to get money. “I felt just to be accepted,” they said. “I had to be doing these flips and flops and dancing like a fucking fish out of water, being a mess. I thought that I had to do the comedy and the drag mixes, you know, and do this and that. I feel it wasn’t until the year that I auditioned for Season 9 that I was like, I’m just going to do my own thing now.”

Aja recounts being criticized on TV and how it really motivated them to work on their drag aesthetic, part of which included these very anime-inspired looks. “I’m inspired by so many different types of anime. I love like magical girl anime obviously, the little faggot in me just dies,” Aja said, smiling. “The idea of being able to transform into something else I think is something that also inspired my drag anyway. My drag has easily become an anime version of The Boondocks, honestly. That’s literally me. I think that’s the best way to put it.”

Post-Drag Race, Aja now has their eyes set on becoming a mainstream queer artist. Even saying that, Aja makes sure to acknowledge the work that has come before. “I think it’s important to recognize what other queer musicians have done, and how far they have gotten,” they said. “But I know that all of us as a community can go way further.”

Images via Getty

Exposed: The Quest

Even in an age when sharing mundane details online is standard, it’s easier than ever to control the way others see us—until, 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.

From the very first moment she held a controller in her hands, Merisa loved video games.

It was the 1980s, and video games had suddenly become much more affordable and accessible to a broader range of Americans. At the beginning of their heyday, it truly felt like they were for everyone; it wasn’t until the 1990s that a broad number of people starting thinking of them as “more of a guy thing.”

It was in this specific window that Merisa, a trans woman who was assigned male at birth, found herself entranced by video games and their blocky 8-bit graphics—in large part because they were one of the few things that seemed acceptable for both boys and girls to be interested in. Little did she know that her love of gaming would lead her to the space where she would first come out.

In the mid-’90s, when Merisa was around 15 years old, she started participating in an online chatroom for people interested in ZZT, a computer program with simple graphics where you could build your own games and share them with others. It was there, in those chat rooms, where everyone was just a display name, that she first came out as trans.

It was actually quite simple: she just changed her display name to something more feminine and said that if anyone had any questions, they could ask her. But no one did. The nonchalance of their acceptance—their unquestioning willingness to simply start calling her by a different name—was almost shocking. And in fact, as it turned out, there were many other trans people in the chat, too.

Online spaces—especially those oriented around creative endeavors, whether it’s a chatroom for users of a cooperative game like ZZT or the pop music stan forums of today—often allow for a degree of anonymity that appeals to queer and trans people in need of a safe space to express their identities. There is something about both the anonymity and creativity of these kinds of online spaces that often make them feel particularly safe for people looking to work through identity questions.

As someone who grew up in the ’90s and early ’00s, I too found that internet chatrooms were the first space I could come safely out as queer. Coming out online felt significantly more low-stakes; in a text-only chat room, no one knew me as anything other than an Aaliyah fan.

So unlike at school, where I later told a few friends who went on to tell others without my consent—resulting in a ridiculously dramatic scene where I literally chased two of them outside of another friend’s birthday party—I knew it wouldn’t spread to other people in my life. In a chatroom, I had greater control over my own story. And I didn’t have to worry about being rejected, as I did with family and friends. If someone was cruel or hostile about my identity, I could just close the chat window.

Like me, Merisa also found radical and much-needed acceptance on the internet. But while her experience of coming out in a chatroom was surprisingly simple, her journey to coming out offline was anything but.

Merisa initially came out as trans to her family and many of her friends in the late ’90s, during her senior year of high school. Some of her friends were supportive, but her parents refused to accept her identity. So after graduating from high school, Merisa moved to San Diego to live with her sister, a city where she could put on a dress and go to the gay bar for ladies night on Saturdays without her parents’ judgment.

But after her sister graduated from school and moved back in with their parents, Merisa was laid off from her job and had to move in with them, too. Stuck living in the home of parents who didn’t understand her, with no health insurance and only a part-time job, she felt like she had no choice but to go back in the closet. I’m going to try being a dude, she thought. I’ll do my best to make it work.

But after almost 10 years in the closet, it definitely wasn’t working. Naturally creative, Merisa loved to express herself; it was a huge part of what appealed to her about gameplay. But the closet made that profoundly difficult, if not impossible. With each passing year, she felt more and more hopeless.

During her decade living at home, however, she did have one outlet for self-expression: online roleplaying games. She got very involved in EverQuest, a massively multiplayer fantasy game where users create custom characters that work in teams to explore dungeons and slay beasts. And even though she generally played with a group of coworkers to whom she wasn’t out, she was able to play as a female character.

Because she was gaming with people who saw her as a man outside of the game, it felt subversive to pick a female character. EverQuest is what’s commonly referred to as a “persistent” game, meaning you stick with the character you create—unlike, say, selecting Princess Peach for a single round of Mario Kart—resuming play as that character every time you return to the game. Because of this, there was an assumption among many EverQuest players that men wouldn’t play a female character.

But this choice represented more than just subversion; it was also a way to express aspects of herself that she couldn’t in just about any other area of her life. It was a way to feel closer to being seen for who she really was than she could at work or home—a way to be seen as a woman, and have people engage with her as one.

Yet even though she had online games, the stress of living at home was eating away at Merisa. Sleep became increasingly evasive, and she would often get panic attacks when trying to go to bed. But one day, someone she knew from the chatrooms she frequented as a teen tweeted about a YouTube series in which people played Minecraft. Merisa found the videos soothing and discovered that watching them helped her fall asleep.

Eventually she started talking with one of the women in the videos through a chatroom she maintained. After five years of chatting they became good friends, and eventually Merisa told her she was trans and planned to transition someday. She became a confidante and resource, helping Merisa navigate and improve her relationship with her parents, and even helping her get voice practice in over Skype.

Three years ago, after Merisa had saved up enough money from her full-time job at a school district to move out of her parents’ house, she came out again and began to transition, and the two started dating.

Today, Merisa and her girlfriend run an online game community together—an explicitly queer and trans-inclusive space for people to play together, because they want to create the kinds of welcoming gaming spaces that Merisa benefited from when she was younger.

But the benefits of gaming have extended far beyond Merisa’s youth. A few years ago, when she was trying to figure out how she wanted to present herself as a woman, gameplay was hugely helpful. She knew she was a woman, but she didn’t fully know what that meant to her. Merisa didn’t have the same experimental teenage or young adult years to try out different styles of dress and figure out what works best, a period of self-definition and exploration cisgender people so often take for granted.

Gameplay gave her an opportunity to explore different things and discover what she liked. It was more than just trying on different styles of clothing; it was a way of experimenting with an overall aesthetic and with different ways of being in the world.

And even today, while she is able to express herself more fully in other areas of her life than she ever could before, Merisa still finds games to be helpful spaces for learning new things about herself and bringing different elements of her personality to the forefront.

Whether we’re regular video game users or not, I think gameplay in a variety of settings functions in this way for many of us. When I was in high school, a good friend from church hosted a murder mystery party. I was assigned the role of an undertaker, and we agreed that I should dress in a manner consistent with what we thought “goth” meant. As I was trying to figure out what to wear, I asked her if she would paint my nails black.

I was already out as queer at that point, but I still had a great deal of internalized homophobia, and I was constantly trying to prove to the world that being queer didn’t mean that I was different from everyone else. But here, in this game, was an opportunity to experiment. To try something I was curious about, something that felt subversive, under the guise of “play” and see how it felt. And sure enough, I liked it.

This may be what draws many queer and trans people like Merisa to gameplay, and surveying the number of queer people who love video games or roleplaying and tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons, she’s far from alone in her interest. Games let us experiment. We’re often not as bound by the conventions and norms of our hetero- and cisnormative society.

Games aren’t escapism as much as they are a vehicle for self-expression—they’re creative, cooperative, world-building exercises where we can define ourselves and the world around us on our own terms. And with enough practice, these invented versions of ourselves can become more real than any game.

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

Want more? Check out the previous installment of Exposed.

Rich White Lesbians, Get Your Sh*t Together

When a reality star can talk about sexually harassing someone on camera and still get elected president, it’s impossible to deny that popular culture and politics are too close for comfort.

Still, as major TV networks greenlight series that largely revolve around problematic actors who have been publicly called out for racism, transphobia, and sexual assault, it gives a very different signal to a public that is still in disbelief that we got Trumped in the first place.

While we’ve come to expect this kind of greed and willful ignorance from gatekeepers, a new era of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and Time’s Up is forcing a long overdue conversation about how those in power can keep thrusting the likes of Roseanne Barr and Jeffrey Tambor—stars of two hit family-focused TV comedies—into the spotlight.

But with Amazon ousting Tambor and ABC finally cancelling Roseanneafter her racist tweets about Valerie Jarrett, it’s the support of out costars like Sara Gilbert and Portia de Rossi that has been increasingly maddening. It’s time that rich white lesbians in positions of power recognize this support has consequences, and that they are ultimately choosing to side with the opposition while simultaneously identifying as women, lesbians, and progressive individuals against homophobia, transphobia, racism, misogyny, and sexual assault.

Gilbert, who played the sarcastic middle child Darlene of the original Roseanne, was a huge force in pushing for the a reboot of the sitcom, which originally ran from 1988 to 1997 on the alphabet network. Early on, she faced criticisms and questions about the show’s star and her support of Trump. Gilbert, an out lesbian with two children, defended working with Barr.

“In our culture a lot of people say, ‘You shouldn’t watch this person. You shouldn’t talk to that person,'” Gilbert told TVInsider in April. “Not acknowledging others is not the solution. If we want to get our country back on track, we have to work together. It’s misguided for us to continue to divide into two parts with each ignoring the other.

Gilbert is also Jewish, which is worth noting here. Barr also posed as Hitler for a 2009 photoshoot in the satirical Heeb magazine, pictured shoving a plate full of Jewish gingerbread cookies into an oven.

Still, Gilbert has maintained her support of Barr and the show. After yesterday’s tweets about Jarrett, Roseanne‘s head writer Wanda Sykes tweeted her resignation, and Gilbert eventually responded, expressing her sadness that “the opinions and words of one cast member” could mean the end of “a show that we believe in, are proud of, and that audiences love.”

A few weeks ago, Portia de Rossi shared her support for Arrested Development co-star Tambor during a red carpet event for the long-running cult comedy. This despite numerous allegations of sexual misconduct by former assistant Van Barnes and Transparent co-stars Trace Lysette and Rain Valdez, all of whom are transgender.

“I love Jeffrey. He’s great,” Portia de Rossi told People. “He’s been a pal for many, many years and you know, I wish him well. We support him.”

De Rossi has been absent for recent group interviews promoting the new season launching on Netflix. This included, most notably, a disastrous New York Times group interview that saw her other male co-stars (Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, and David Cross) defending Tambor in regards to an on-set blow up he’d had with on-screen wife Jessica Walter. The only other woman in the room—Alia Shawkat—supported Walter while their male counterparts downplayed Tambor’s actions as a necessary evil of showbiz.

Bateman eventually apologized on Twitter—but has said on the record he wouldn’t participate in future seasons of Arrested Development were Tambor removed from the show like he was from Transparent.

Did I expect better from straight white guys? Not really. Rich cis white dudes are gonna keep mansplaining and picking up paychecks.

But what has been continually disappointing in these situations has been the actions of the rich white lesbians who have failed to model what true accountability looks like. As LGBTQ people and as women, choosing to support individuals who have directly harmed people within both of the disenfranchised communities they belong to is choosing their privilege over humanity, and their bank accounts over their personhood.

De Rossi herself shared an experience she’d had being sexually harassed by a fellow actor, adding her voice to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements in November.

“My final audition for a Steven Segal movie took place in his office,” she tweeted in November. He told me how important it was to have chemistry off-screen as he sat me down and unzipped his leather pants. I ran out and called my agent. Unfazed, she replied, ‘Well, I didn’t know if he was your type.'”

Her experience is not so different from the women who have alleged that Tambor repeatedly violated them. Lysette said the actor thrust his pelvis into hers; Valdez says he kissed her on the mouth several times without her consent.

Choosing to ignore these allegations is even more disheartening considering de Rossi is actively participating in what appears to be a prioritizing of cis women over trans women. (As INTO writer Nico Lang pointed out last week, nearly every other actor accused of sexual misconduct has been removed from his respective projects. Netflix has chosen to continue with Tambor on Arrested Development.)

Gilbert and de Rossi’s choices to support their cast-mates points to a larger problem in assimilation. As the trans community has dealt with Caitlyn Jenner’s pro-Trump trajectory while serving as a mouthpiece for the community, lesbians now have to contend with two of the most powerful and visible lesbians on TV sending the message that racism, sexual assault, misogyny, and transphobia are not just OK—but worth promoting on a nationwide platform.

It’s easy to pretend that a make believe family comedy is separate from reality, that what American viewers invite to their homes on a nightly or weekly basis is far removed from that which dictates policies that affect our lives, or the lives of those who make up the rest of our country. Many of these audience members are less privileged than the highly paid actors and producers who sell their Mendocino homes and horse farms for millions of dollars.

“The show is not about politics,” Gilbert said of Roseanne. “It’s not about anyone’s position or a policy, it’s really about what happens to a family when there’s a political divide, which is something that I think the entire country can relate to and something we need to talk about.”

Unfortunately, the discussion being led by Gilbert is one of complacency: “Can’t we all get along?” It’s one where overt racism is posed as a “teachable moment” we’re expected to move on from—a fact that obscures the ghastly reality that the show’s star wasn’t really joking; she actually believes what she’s saying to be true.

Meanwhile, de Rossi standing by Tambor says that sexual misconduct is OK—so long as it’s happening to trans women.

It might be inconvenient for Gilbert and de Rossi that the stars of their respective projects are acting abhorrently. It might even cost them jobs, money, or opportunities. But there’s an even more important opportunity they’re missing out on: to actively participate in a much-needed dialogue about how the entertainment we consume is, yes, political. Their actions and words say a lot about how we as a country are complicit in getting to the place we’re in now: Roseanne’s America.

Images via Getty