The Captain of the Swim Team Is Gay

My life completely changed after coming out on National Coming Out Day in 2017.

I was the captain of the swim team at my military college, and I was having a lot of fun — but I knew I wasn’t being my true self. That made it hard as a captain,  trying to hide something while also trying to be a leader.

Swimming made it hard to come out for me, mainly because of the locker room chat, where “Gay!” and “Homo!” were shouted every day. It was also a military college. I always had the fear of being made fun of, or that someone might talk behind my back.

So October 11, 2017, I decided to come out.

I chose Coming Out Day because I kept delaying it and delaying it. I wasn’t ready at the beginning of the semester, and every time I thought I was ready, I got in my head. But after talking with a lot of friends and thinking it out, that day felt right.

I told my coaches first, and they were really accepting. Then during the middle of practice, I asked everyone to jump out of the pool, and I told everyone on my swim team. Immediately after, everyone came in for a hug, and I knew it was going to be okay. I knew that if someone on another team or even on my team were to say something, and they heard about it, my teammates would do something about it. And as a swim coach myself, I want the same for my swimmers or any LGBTQ athlete.

Right after practice, I came out to the rest of the world in an Instagram post.

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….so I guess you are what you eat…big and gay…sorry ladies .🌈 .🌈 .🌈 It wasn’t until today till I told some of my best friends and most importantly my teammates about my sexuality, being gay. Since early on I knew I was gay, and it wasn’t until high school that I was for sure, but I didn’t tell anyone, I thought it would just phase away. Then once college started, being at a Military school, I didn’t know what do if someone knew I was gay. . Flash forward to this summer, I went to my first Pride in DC with my best friend, and realized that there isn’t any reason to shy away from who I really was, and through new friends and support from old friends and family, I got the courage to finally come out. And after today, I feel like a whole lot has been lifted off my chest. . I’m still a student, swimmer, coach, son, brother, dog dad, friend just also gay. .❤️ So be you, be proud, have fun, and don’t do ordinary cause that’s boring! . Happy #NationalComingOutDay #instaguy #instagay #gay #werkit

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First, I got emails and messages of happiness and acceptance from alumni. My most memorable experience was from one of my biology professors, one of the hardest teachers I ever had. I went into his office to check my grade before the final and, as I was leaving, he told me he read my story and he was proud of me.

One of the biggest reasons why I came out publicly was to help anyone in that uncomfortable situation know that they could be gay and still play a sport. It is a scary situation to be in, and to be bullied because of your sexuality should not be the reason why someone with talent and love for a sport ends up quitting. I was a swimmer on a D1 swim team at Virginia Military Institute, and the support and respect of my classmates, professors, and friends made my last season more enjoyable, and allowed me to be myself. Feeling accepted helped me finish my swimming career with my best season ever, setting multiple school records, and being awarded Conference Swimmer of the Week.

There’s always an uncertainty coming out in both new and familiar environments, whether it’s work, school, or a team. This summer, I was the head coach of a local swim team in Falls Church, Virginia, and going into my second year openly gay, I was scared of what my swimmers or parents would think of me. Becoming comfortable with myself and having a genuine excitement and enthusiasm for the sport, coming out only made things better. I only had total acceptance as a gay coach, and I received love and support from swimmers, parents, board members, and other coaches.

I am still dealing with family acceptance. It’s hard, and something I deal with every day. I can’t tell my mom about a cute guy I went on a date with, or about my best friends, who are also gay. But the friends I have made and others who have gotten so much closer are my chosen family.

Three Queer Women of Color On Coming Up and Letting Go

If being gay were easy, everyone would do it.

But it’s not. It comes with a long list of caveats, including how much pride you’re allowed to feel. We have to fashion ourselves in ways we don’t really want to sometimes in order to feel safe. We have to simplify the breadth of our existence in order to feel understood. And even when we do, we’re still sexualized and demonized. So there’s a point at which we stop bending over backward out of fear of causing discomfort with something as harmless as our humanity.

This is what our come up looks like.

Ali

I used to be super cautious around straight people, especially straight men, because they’d hypersexualize anything I’d say or do. But now I’m honestly like “Fuck it!” and ditch whoever makes me feel weird.

Any time I’m around older straight people or any STEM event filled with stiff white dudes it feels like a space I’m not really welcomed in. 

Keeping up small talk so people don’t ask intrusive questions or dressing like a normy is my version of trying to be less visible. It’s so performative and slimy, but made me feel safe because I could slip through the cracks.

As I’ve gotten older, I love the realization that I’m in control of whatever I say, do, or spend my energy on. Nothing is worth my time if I’m uncomfortable or stifled. Not caring is hella beautiful.

Salina

There is no experience quite like asserting your queerness. I walk around in my skin and I am seen as brown. I am seen as a woman. From my hair to my feet I am seen and perceived as a million things, and rarely is queer one of them. Despite this, or possibly because of this, it has become the most valued part of my identity.

I feel stuck between constantly wanting to protect this part of my identity because it is precious and not for anyone else. Yet at the same time, I have this urge to scream it from a mountain. To step up to every little heteronormative thing that exists and resist it with force, with power. It wasn’t until the rapid change in our social and political climate that this pull has been heavily one-sided.

I respect the fact that everyone has their very own unique coming out experience and that family acceptance is the most important part of that process. I am also fully aware and incredibly thankful to have a loving and supporting family. However, if we’re talking about muffling our queerness I think that a lot of us can relate to that experience around family. I constantly find myself censoring my language; my opinions are silenced.

When I feel the urge coming on to protect myself, to say “You have it pretty good, be grateful,” I remind myself of how precious my queerness is and why I place so much value on it. My queerness is my power. And I scream from this metaphorical mountain that things can be so much better than they are.

Alexis

My queerness is a huge part of my life and how I interact with the world. When I have I have to constantly come out, I feel unseen. It’s sort of painful that I have to come out at all or be assumed straight and often after coming out, I’m still assumed straight anyway.

Work is definitely a place where I feel like I have to muffle my queerness. It often feels dangerous and humiliating when my queerness or queerness at all is brought up. Within my own family, I am one of the only queer people I know of and I have to pick and choose what parts of myself I want to be open about and it often comes down to hiding that part of myself or being forced to be the voice for my entire community by answering invasive questions.

I feel like I hold on to labels and stereotypes that don’t fit me. In straight spaces I’m more inclined to identify with very binary terms and very basic tropes because the idea of describing myself outside of those things and being met with someone not understanding or even pushing back is so horrifying that I would rather just keep those conversations for myself and loved ones.

I am very privileged to have friends and some family that I feel safe confiding in. Being my whole self, not worrying about being too gay or not fitting the expectations put upon me. I’m privileged to live in a city with so many diverse pockets of queer people, putting on events and holding space for people like me where I can truly let go. It’s a huge weight off your shoulders to be able to shed that kind of fear for even just a moment.

The way people characterize coming out, you would think it’s a one-off experience like chicken pox. Once you live through it that first time, you’re free to be gay all over the place without ever having to explain yourself again. In reality, the first time is the hardest but not even remotely close to the only time you’ll have to contextualize your existence for people. It’ll happen when you’re at the bank and when you’re checking into a hotel and every time you enter the world without a badge that says I’m with gay. It’s a perpetual ritual that makes you almost numb to the whole thing. It also makes you hyper-aware of yourself.

The side effects of internalized homophobia manifest themselves in a million ways, one of them being respectability. Appearing as non-threatening as possible is how you survive the unfortunate reality that every space you enter won’t be queer or even queer friendly. But there’s a feeling of deep catharsis that comes with letting go of the fight to simply survive the world. It comes with letting go of all those safety locks you put on your identity. Letting go of all the other ways you could exist. Finding yourself, your most authentic self, under the rubble of this external pushback is what culminates in the queer experience of letting go. That come up? It’s glorious.

Teanna Herrera is Building Bridges Between Trans Sex Workers and Health Care

On select Fridays, between 11 PM and 3 AM, you will find Teanna Herrera walking up and down Santa Monica Boulevard. She’ll be accompanied by a swarm of volunteers and advocacy workers in black and pink shirts, carrying paper bags and book bags, perhaps even water bottles. They stand out on these streets as they travel en masse, drifting down side streets and sidewalks passing alongside many locals making their way to or from various nightclubs and bars.

“We’re reaching out to the public,” Herrera told INTO. “To the homeless population and the trans women who are out there doing sex work.”

Herrera and others are participating in the Midnight Stroll, a largely volunteer-based program designed to assist displaced LGBTQ persons. Herrera participates in the Stroll through her work as a Victims Advocate at St. John’s Well Child & Family Center’s Transgender Health Program, where she connects queer people – primarily trans women of color and the undocumented – to health care and safety.

“When I’m out there [on the Stroll], reaching out to the public, they know me,” she said. “They come to the clinic. They all know me. They know my life experiences.”

These experiences are the reason she connects so closely to this group: A Los Angeles native, Herrera transitioned in the 1980s at just 17 years old. She’d been doing sex work since 16, joining friends who were already involved.

“The majority of the guys were coming by, picking us up,” Herrera said. “At that age, I didn’t see it as nothing bad … I would do that on the weekends while still maintaining a job, to camouflage in case my parents would ask where I got the money from. On top of that, it escalated to me having sugar daddies.”

“As I got older, I started thinking: ‘Wait a minute – I’m a teenager,’” Herrera continued. “These are like child molesters. It started kicking in.”

This is when things changed for her, she said. She realized she could shift away from sex work and instead turn to one of her many side-jobs, which included a brief stint in cosmetology to working for her sister’s garment manufacturing company to entering a budding computer industry in the late 1990s. However, while jobs came and went, sex work was always there for her. It was validating in some ways and, for many transgender people, this experience isn’t unique.

“I’ve learned to survive on sex work in the past because trans women are not given opportunities for employment,” Herrera said. “We’re all human beings and we should all be entitled to some line of work but, if nobody wants to give us employment or hire us, what do we do? We turn to sex work. It can be dangerous and very stressful.”

“And there’s nothing wrong with sex work,” Herrera continued. “But you have to be well grounded and mentally set because of the people you’ll have to be dealing with, in case they are psychotic or under the influence.”

Herrera has experienced this aspect of the job in many ways. She was the victim of three different hate crimes. She lost several friends to HIV. She was arrested twice for prostitution – and that reset her mind, driving her to become an advocate for persons like herself.

“The most I ever did in county jail was 90 days. Three months and I had enough,” she said. “That’s what made me want to get into corrections because I saw all the bad stuff happening in there. As an inmate, I could see that there was still prostitution going on inside of the correctional facility. I had seen so much.”

Through various programs and classes, by way of institutions like Los Angeles Community College and the Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team (APAIT), Herrera reframed her experiences to be an advocate for those in need – and has thrived.

“I advocate by offering the services, reaching out to them, showing them this is where I work,” Herrera said of reaching the trans community. She spends most of her time at St. John’s educating organizations across Los Angeles County on transgender issues, as well as the community’s overlap with human trafficking. Within St. John’s, she runs Seeking Safety, a six-week program for “trans women of color who have been living or experiencing trauma, high risk for HIV and Aids, and drugs and alcohol.”  Herrera is also a member of the Transgender Advisory Council, a group of transgender individuals who work with Los Angeles city government and elected officials to tackle issues facing their community.

Rizi Timane, the manager of the Transgender Health Program at St. John’s and founding director of the Happy Transgender Center, sees Herrera as a vital part of his team, and an asset in community outreach.

“Teanna brings a vast knowledge about trans women and trans patients,” Timane said. “She brings that understanding and empathy to her role as a peer leader and victims advocate. [Patients] are more inclined to listen and to trust her advice on how to possibly find a way into mainstream employment as well as how to stay safe while still in the sex work life. … She goes out into the community to present and share her story and attends important community meetings where she advocates for the community as well.”

And this is crucial in health care environments because, as studies have shown again and again, there are so many barriers to getting transgender individuals health care. Advocates like Herrera are crucial, according to Emily Allen Paine, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin who is studying how gender and sexuality are shaping the health of marginalized groups.

“We know that LGBTQ groups access care – both preventive and acute care – less often than their straight peers,” Paine said. “One of the major reasons is they fear discrimination and stigma in those environments.”

In health care settings, trans and gender non-conforming individuals are often misgendered, their identities are assumed, and they are forced into a narrow model of care. Health providers often fail to recognize a person’s identity or embodiment which leads to disruptions in care, stemming from microaggressions and overt harassment and other stigmatizing behaviors. 

“What’s really important is that LGBT people feel recognized in health settings,” Paine said. “When someone like Teanna is in a health care position, she’s able to help educate providers on the diversity of experience…She can really relate to the people she’s doing outreach for. That really matters.”

“It’s important to have people in your organization that reflect a population served,” Paine continued. “Even if you can’t go out and hire a bunch of new providers, you can have these community members creating protocols and practices that will affect those populations.”

Jazzmun Crayton – health and policy coordinator at APAIT, creator of the Midnight Stroll, and board member of the Transgender Advisory Council – recognizes this in Herrera and sees her as an asset for this specific reason: in order to help, you need people who can share how they’ve been helped.

“Someone with a lived experience can come from a very beautiful lens because they have nuance and texture and are speaking from past experience,” Crayton said. “She represents the hope that there is a chance for them.”

Herrera’s work is crucial because minority communities must advocate for themselves, and encourage others to advocate, too.

“Having queer people support queer people is a powerful exchange,” Crayton says. “There’s so much giving. There’s a level of understanding no one could possibly understand unless they’ve had that experience…There’s just this deep understanding at the core, like, ‘I know what this feels like. I don’t know what it’s like for you,  but I’ve been there. We’re affected by each other.'”

Herrera says she will continue to work, to keep helping people who she sees herself in – but the real work starts with the individual. In her experience, a person has to see that they need help, and they need to make their minds up to make a change before any work can be done.

“I can’t baby them, I can’t be holding their hands,” Herrera said. “I can tell you the resources – and it’s up to you if you want to obtain whatever it is that is out there…You’re a grown person. It’s up to you. If you fall,” she continued, “always remember we are here to help you.”

Vaginal Davis Is Sustaining

Performance artist Vaginal Davis has been a pioneer of punk, queercore, and terrorist drag for five decades, creating spectacles and sparking conversations through several different mediums. The intersex Afro-Latina frontwoman of the 1978 musical group the Afro Sisters named herself after radical activist Angela Davis and became known among the homocore crowd for her zine Fertile La Toyah Jackson, and then went on to perform with Black Fag, her band whose early ’90s albums were produced by Kim Gordon and Beck.

And this was just the beginning of a multi-faceted career that sees Davis traveling the world with live performances, visual art exhibitions, classes and workshops, political-tinged speeches, and celebrations of their work, which is always rooted in intersections of race, sex, gender, art, punk, and politics. She’s collaborated with Le Tigre and the Julie Ruin, and served as a muse for German choreographer Pina Bausch, fashion designer Rick Owens, and noted lesbian photographer Catherine Opie.

Opie was the inaugural recipient of the Queer/Art/Prize’s award for Sustained Achievement in 2017, and now this year, Vaginal Davis is being bestowed the honor, complete with an $10,000 award prize sponsored by HBO. Queer/Art/Prize praised Davis in a press release, saying she “disrupts hetero and homonormativity” with her “low-budget performance, experimental film, and video practices critiquing exclusionary conceits from the outside.”

Though Davis may be less of a household name than past collaborator RuPaul, she is less concerned about recognition than she is about creating and engaging in meaningful art. As she tells INTO, her “sustaining” is owed to her ability to simply “stay alive.” She left Los Angeles for Berlin in 2006 and though she still makes regular international trips for appearances and performances, she says she has no plans to come back to the U.S. Not in this economy!

INTO spoke with Vaginal Davis about longevity, sustaining, and how she plans on spending her unexpected prize money.

Congratulations! How did you feel learning you were receiving the award?

Vaginal Davis: Well, I really didn’t believe it because I have just been traveling quite a bit. I’ve been back in the States — the Pacific Northwest — where I had a big exhibition of my visual artwork, my makeup paintings and these limited edition etchings that I do on a mirror. And then the minute I came back to Europe, I had to go to Copenhagen because I was doing a performance art workshop at the Royal Danish Art Academy and I was completely jet-lagged because I just started teaching. I was just completely, utterly jet-lagged from coming all the way from the West Coast to Europe and then I was getting back on a plane again and do a workshop on Copenhagen and then that was like for a week. And then I had to start a new two-year position where I’m going to be teaching this performance arts seminar in Geneva.

And so then I was there in Geneva and I just came back and then there was like an email and I just thought it was some new story, new angle, new version of a Nigerian internet scam so I just ignored it, you know? I had never heard of this award before. I know I didn’t apply for any kind of grant or anything so I was just “Huh, what is this?” And I just ignored it. And then the next day or so, I started getting all these phone calls and emails from people saying “You have won an award. Contact these people, they’re looking for you, right away.”

And then I realized that it was actually real because I didn’t think that they give no strings attached cash awards anymore to funky people like me, you know? And I’m an outsider artist and they don’t give awards like that. The only place that used to give awards to funky people was the MacArthur Genius awards but they stopped doing that in the early ’90s. 

But this award is brand new award. It’s only the second time it’s been given, and the time before was given to [photographer] Cathy Opie, who of course I have this long history with. And she’s not so funky anymore. [laughs] She is a regular tenured professor at UCLA. She came from the same funky team that I came from. But it’s really that — with my being the second person to get it, I’m following after the heels of Catherine Opie. So that’s really great.

Vaginal Davis by Catherine Opie

The award is for “sustained achievement,” so I wonder what that means to you. 

Well, you know I think sustained achievement is just a euphemism for “She’s old and she hasn’t died.” I think that, if you just stick around long enough, you just don’t die, you eventually can get some kind of recognition. The key is to just not die and if you keep some form of longevity in your life, you know, they eventually tend to sort of give you a little attention, give you some notice. I think that’s really the key is don’t die.

What has kept you wanting to create in the space of all of the things that this world can be sometimes, which is not necessarily, like you were saying, a space for funky people?

Well you know — I’m not one of those people that’s involved in a social media and all these kinds of newfangled gadgetries and whatnot. I have a very old, old laptop that’s basically on its last leg. I don’t have internet access at home, you know. I have to go to the library or I have to go to an internet café. I’ve only had a smartphone in the last year and that’s only because my boss at the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video, she gave me her old one. I’m like the last century. I’m not of this century. I’m of the last century.

You know, I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California and I never learned how to drive a car. The city of cars and I never learned how to drive a car. Of course when you’re living in Berlin, Germany, I don’t need to drive a car in Berlin. There’s public transportation here. But you know, I’m from the city of cars and I never learned to drive a car.

That’s another aspect of being funky and eccentric and just following your own simmer and not listening to anyone else and just doing things outside the gray.

When I used to ride a bike in the streets of Hollywood, nobody was riding a bike there and people would look at you like so insane like what are you doing on a bicycle? Why are you in the street? What’s going on? I do a lot of things, like also letter writing is a part of my art practice, writing letters via post. How many people still do that anymore? Hardly any. That’s a really big part of my practice is to continue to keep correspondence with people all over the world. Something I’ve been doing since I was like seven years old.

Someday you’re going to have a very large like archive to leave to somebody and then we’ll get to read all your juicy letters.

I use my juicy letters in installations where the audience can come and just read through my personal mail. Of course, I always have to ask the people who I kept the correspondence “Is it OK that I use your letters for teaching purposes in the class or in an installation or an exhibition?” Not everybody wants all their personal business out there that way in the context of a class or in an installation. But some people don’t mind.

I’m sort of a neat hoarder. I don’t throw away anything so that’s why I have so many letters. I don’t throw away anything. Even postcards, I recycle postcards because I use postcards to paint on top of. I don’t really paint on canvas, I use found paper or pages from old magazines and things like that. Things that are already there. I don’t like use anything new, I just paint on what’s already there. I love painting on postcards. It’s nice quality for painting on, especially when you only paint with makeup because I use makeup to paint, not regular paints. I’m a little nutty. You have to be as an artist. 

What do people ask you about most often? What do they want to know from you?

A lot of times they just want to know “What did you do to be so tall?” Because if you see photos of me, I look like I’m an average height person. I don’t look like I’m so tall and then they see me in person, they’re always like startled at how tall I am. I’m like 6 foot 5 or six foot, well I used to be 6 foot 6 but once you start getting older, you start shrinking so I think I’m shrinking a little bit so I think I’ve gone down to 6 foot 5, but that’s still pretty tall.

That’s the main thing that people always seem to be in awe of, you know. Like once they see me, they look up at me and this is even without high heels, you know. I can’t really wear high heels so much anymore because I have problems with my feet and knees. I have knee and feet problems, so even if I’m on stage in my stocking bare feet, you know, people are always shocked I’m as big as I am and I’m so tall because in photographs, I photograph tiny. And I kind of think of myself as being sort of tiny. I kind of act tiny, you know?

What does living in Berlin lend to you that living somewhere in the States doesn’t?

Well, I could never live in the U.S. Never. Never could I go back to living in the U.S. I lived here in Berlin now for like what, 14 years or so and every time I do have to go back to the States, I’m always like oh my god there’s no way I could move back, especially Los Angeles. My city of LA used to be the cheapest of all the international cities and now it’s even surpassing San Francisco and New York, which were always expensive. Always. And the tent cities, all the poor homeless people. So many people in Los Angeles now, the last time I was back there, I was just mortified. There’s all these wealthy, wealthy people who are completely clueless. Absolutely clueless, living in a bubble foam and everybody else who’s like all ragged, with forlorn, troubled faces. It’s just — oh, it’s so sad to see.

And my few relatives that are still alive, they couldn’t afford to live in LA proper anymore. They had to move out either to the mountains or the high desert because that’s the only place the rents are somewhat affordable. I only have my nephews and nieces, who like, they’re young and they have children. They live out in the high desert and in the mountains, you know. Well actually my nephew, he’s had a heart attack because trying to like you know this so-called gig economy and trying to work work work work work work work and never having enough money basically killed him. He had a heart attack in his early 40’s. He had a heart attack, my poor nephew. It’s so sad.

Because rent control laws in California and Los Angeles particularly are so weak, but here in Germany, the rent control laws are much more geared towards tenants’ rights and now owners’ rights. There’s still that kind of leftist social consciousness here so that things are more geared towards people — renters and not owners. But of course, things are gentrifying also here in Berlin. Not quite as quickly as in the States, but it is gentrifying. But I’m lucky I moved here when I did because if I had waited just a few years later, it would have been too late. I wouldn’t have been able to afford to live here, you know? It’s just like you know pretty soon, will there be any place on earth you can live or go?

Oh my god. Not to be Miss Debra Downer. I don’t want to be Debra S. Downer.

I remember the days when nobody wanted to live in Echo Park or Silver Lake. I remember those days. People were scared to live in those neighborhoods and now they’re the most trendy neighborhoods that everybody wants to live in when they come to Los Angeles. You know? And own property and of course somebody like me, I could never own property. It’s just — I could never see myself living back in the U.S. I keep my visits back in the States very, I don’t like the carbon footprint of flying.

I’m gone for good. My heart goes out to so many people in the States who are stuck there now, you know?

I’m really curious about your thoughts on, and if you keep up at all with more modern depictions of drag and how they’ve come up in American pop culture.

Well, one of my closest, dearest friends Michelle Mills — she’s an executive producer on the RuPaul television show and she’s someone who I’ve collaborated with and worked with. I used to do a performance club and nightclubs in LA back in the early aughts, right before I moved to Berlin, called Bricktops. It was like a 1920’s style speakeasy and performance space and Michelle was my door person. She was the guardian at the gate. I would let people in. She’s the first person everyone saw when they came to my club and now she just won an Emmy award. An Emmy award. That’s somebody who’s as funky as I am and she’s won an Emmy award. Isn’t that something? I can’t believe it. Michelle has now won an Emmy award for working on that particular show, and before that show, she worked on Toddlers and Tiaras, another reality show, and some other show called America’s Top Model with Tyra Banks. She worked on that show that was her entrée into reality TV world with Michelle Mills, and now she’s like an executive producer on an Emmy award-winning TV show. That’s like really something…from the funky punk and underground scene to reach those kinds of heights. It’s really, really, really, really something.

And I do get letters from a lot of the young kids from all over the world, really, who contact me and I get invited to a lot of causes and art schools and universities, blah blah blah, and you know, they always want to know about what it was like back in the old days in the ’80s, in the early-’80s and the mid-’80s and the early ’90s and you know, I’m still nostalgic about my past. I’m all about the future, you know. I try not to dwell so much about the past. I don’t believe in having a nostalgia fetish. I like to get moving on and keep, just keep on truckin’ and keep on doing the work that I do and you know, whether people are interested in it or not, you know. 

I think it’s probably best to do your work and be the sort of soft sell approach as opposed to the hard sell. Because so many people now, these days, so many people are such careerists and they’re always self-promoting, with all these social media things and blah blah blah. And I have a presence on these things. I don’t really do them myself. I have some young people that like, the young person that has a Vaginal Davis fan page on Facebook, he tweets that, and some other people that have done little pages saluting me on Facebook. And then another former student of mine when I taught in Sweden, she created an official Vaginal Davis Instagram page and she puts up all the things that I have some representation in that world.

I’m not technical in the least. If anything, if I’m near a television set — even if it’s analog technology or digital technology — and it comes near me, I think the electrical currents in my body, things with any kind of technology, it stops working. My smartphone will stop working. I don’t know why, it stops working. I think it’s something to do with electrical currents that come out of me. Somehow it’s just like any kind of technology, whether it’s analog technology or it’s digital technology. The currents in my body just makes these things sometimes crazy and stop working. It’s so bizarre. It really is. That’s just the way of my life, I guess.

Do you have any specific plans for the money you received from the award?

Well, here in Germany, I have artists’ insurance, health insurance for artists and it’s really, really good because my general practitioner is a doctor — he’s very famous here in Germany. He does both Eastern and Western medicine, so my health insurance, it pays for free acupuncture, it pays for free massages. The only thing it doesn’t really pay so well for is dental work. 

There’s some things I need to take care of with my teeth and so the prize money, since it’s no strings attached prize money, I’m going to really just put it into my mouth. A lot of the money is going to go to that because there’s a lot of things I just haven’t dealt with because I didn’t really have the extra money to deal with it. But now I can like get it taken care of and so, oh my god, that is such a blessing, especially since I never thought in a million years I’d ever get — I’d win an art prize. I never in a billion, trillion years did I ever think I’d win an art prize, so I’m just like, I still think maybe it is a, it still is a Nigerian scam. But the scamming is coming from HBO because it’s not like they’d given me the money yet. Like I haven’t seen this money so I don’t believe I really won something until it actually like, I actually see the money into my bank account, you know? 

Let me know if you don’t get it because I’ll call them out. But I’m pretty sure you’ll get it.

Honey, I will be the first to give that story. I will be screaming and yelling and getting all excited like this. With my luck, that would be the thing. “Oh, well we were going to give you the money until we ran out.”

Images via Getty and Facebook

‘Trans Military’ Documents the Lives of Trans Service Members Serving in Trump’s America

There are approximately 15,500 transgender service members in the United States Military, making it the largest employer of the trans community in the country. And although the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was a step in the right direction for the acceptance and respect of our LGBTQ service members, trans people were not — and are all too often still not — a part of the equation when it comes to equality within the military.

It was after the repeal that filmmaker and activist Fiona Dawson decided to share the stories of four transgender service members in her new documentary, Trans Military.

“I was one of the many advocates around the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” Dawson told INTO, “and it wasn’t until after that repeal that I came to understand that it allowed lesbian, gay and bisexual people to serve, but transgender people were still banned due to outdated policy. I felt ashamed that I had been this advocate and constantly said, ‘LGBT’ but actually it was not making change for the ‘T’ at all.”

In a combined effort with director Gabriel Silverman and writer and producer Jamie Coughlin, Dawson and the team began to attend meetings of an organization called SPART*A, which advocates for actively serving transgender military members, veterans, and their families. It was there that they were introduced to the characters of Trans Military, Senior Airman Logan Ireland, Corporal Laila Ireland (Villanueva), Captain Jennifer Peace, and First Lieutenant El Cook.

“There was a secret meeting, the first of its kind actually, in Houston in January of 2014 I believe,” Dawson said. “And that is when the first time active duty transgender members got together for a conference and really were able to talk about how we can change the policy and also empower them on how to share their story. So I met 20 active duty service members at that conference and did preliminary interviews with them and just really formed friendships. I think it all really comes down to trust and them trusting myself and my team to be able to document and share their story accurately and fairly.” 

Trans Military gives a glimpse into both the personal and professional lives of the characters and some of the struggles they face as service members who live in constant worry that they will be outed or if they are out, how they will be treated by their superiors and their peers. Dawson spoke of one instance in particular when she and Senior Airman Logan Ireland were on a Skype interview while he was on deployment and how he had to hide while speaking to her for fear of being outed. 

 “He had a couple of friends with him who knew he was trans and were completely cool with it,” Dawson said. “And there was a moment in that when he stopped mid-sentence and said, ‘Hang on,’ and you could see the look of fear on his face as three to four leaders came in and were looking around assessing the situation.”

Just when Dawson thought the film was complete and ready to be shown to the world, Trump sent out a series of tweets saying he was effectively banning all transgender people from serving in any capacity in the U.S. Military — and just like that, the progress made in the fight for trans service members took a step backward and Dawson had to re-think the ending to the film.

We had a rough cut and we thought we were finished in May of last year,” Dawson said, “but on July 26, 2017, Trump made the decision to reinstate the ban and that really shifted the film — one, in terms of how we ended the story so we had to go back into production a little bit to change the ending, but it also gave us the opportunity to reach an audience who had otherwise kind of been blind to the issue. All of a sudden mainstream film producers and mainstream audiences wanted to know more.”

Although there were moments of worry and fear for the featured service members in the film, as well as vile and hateful rhetoric coming from Trump, there were also moments of bravery and accomplishment that made what they were fighting for worth it.

In the beginning when we first started filming, the ban on open trans service had not been lifted,” said Corporal Laila Ireland. “So deciding to step forward to brave the journey of telling my story took some serious intestinal fortitude. It meant that I needed to be aware of the consequences I was willing to take in order to help make a historical change for the better.”

“After sitting down with the team and sharing my story with them, they assured me and then again reassured me that what I was doing, was in fact one of the bravest things they’ve known anyone to do,” she continued. “I was putting my life and my career on the line. It meant that I could lose absolutely everything. And they were willing to walk that line with me. The team made it easier to dive into the dark details and really capture what it was like to be a transgender person serving in today’s military.”

Trans Military has won numerous awards at film festivals throughout the country including the Audience Award and Best Feature Documentary Award at SXSW where it premiered earlier this year. The effect this film has had on audiences around the world has been groundbreaking, especially noticeable amongst the featured service members.

Since the premiere, the conversation surrounding transgender service has been taken to heights I never could have imagined,” said Corporal Ireland. “The impact of this film has been nothing less than positive and has seen support from so many different crowds across the nation. The film’s premiere is monumentally important and couldn’t come at a better time. With the current political climate constantly looming over marginalized communities, we are forced to the forefront of this fight for equality, for the right to exist. While this film is a small victory for the transgender community, there is still so much more work to do.”

Trans Military premieres tonight at 8pm on Logo and it is Dawson’s hope that during this holiday season, LGBTQ people will be able to take this film and show it to their family members and friends who may need more education or conversation around trans service members.

“I hope this film isn’t preaching to the choir,” Dawson said, “but empowering the choir.”

Trans Military premieres tonight on Logo.

‘Original Plumbing’ Ceases Publishing After 10 Years of Trans-Masculine Art and Journalism

In 2009, Rocco Kayiatos (then rapping under the moniker Katastrophe) and photographer Amos Mac first conceived of a zine for and about trans men. For 10 years and 20 issues, Original Plumbing (or OP) provided a platform that centered transmasculine individuals, putting them on the covers with themes like “Jock,” “Family,” “Read,” and “Fashion.” Alongside the co-creators, trans writers, including notable journalists and authors such as T. Cooper, Thomas Page McBee, and Diana Tourjee, contributed Q&As, essays, and other written works. This was the sort of work that had, up until then, been rarely published elsewhere, from points of view that were largely ignored.

But from the beginning, OP was bigger than a magazine. Kayiatos and Mac threw regular parties, fundraisers, and events celebrating trans men and allies, providing a much-needed space for community. OP spawned trans-affirming merchandise, including T-shirts that said “Nobody knows I’m transsexual,” pin-up centerfold posters, snapbacks, and calendars. Fans flocked to OP as a consistently affirming, exalting, diverse portrait of trans men’s lives and experiences.

A handful of years before Time magazine declared that America had reached the Trans Tipping Point, OP helped to change the narratives about trans men. Ten years after OP launched, though, trans men and transmasculine people are still largely invisible, even within LGBTQ media. There are still only a handful of trans male characters seen on screen, none of them series regulars or starring in their own films, and the only trans man who comes close to being a household name remains Chaz Bono. Boys Don’t Cry remains the only trans-male focused feature film that has ever garnered mainstream attention. 

Which is why OP followers will be sad to hear that Kayiatos and Mac are announcing their 20th issue — the forthcoming “Issues” Issue — will be its last. Kayiatos is now the Head of Video at INTO and Mac works in television, where they continue their work to create trans visibility. They have also announced that a collection of editorial and photos from OP will be available in book form from Feminist Press this spring. Original Plumbing: The Best of Ten Years of Trans Male Culture includes an introduction from trans activist Tiq Milan as well as curated content from issues past, including interviews with Janet Mock, Silas Howard, Margaret Cho, and Ian Harvie, as well as creative writing, fiction, and visual art. 

INTO sat down with Kayiatos and Mac to talk about the history of the magazine, cultivating a space for their community, and why they’ve decided to end OP after a decade.

On the inception of OP

Amos Mac: I loved Butt magazine, you know? I thought it was really beautiful photographs and interesting interviews and things like that, and I wanted to create a zine out of photographs of trans men and have interviews with them to give trans people more of a well-rounded representation of themselves while allowing them the space to talk for themselves alongside photographs because I’ve seen a lot of photos of people, of trans people in galleries and things like that that were taken by cis artists and it was like different body scars, you know what I mean? They’re body portraits but without any context and we all knew that they were trans portraits but like…they had a name, but what is their actual story? They had inspired me to kind of create a photo series about trans guys. And that’s like my part of it, you know? That was like a big part of where it started I think for me.

Rocco Kayiatos: You had just moved back to San Francisco, right?

AM: Yeah, I’d been there for like not very long. I moved there in 2008.

RK: And you’d just done that photo series around Rhi’s book coming up, the Creamsicle photo series.

AM: Yeah, The Creamsicle, which is based on her book and documenting those queers.

RK: And then you photographed me for that and then chatted and we became friends. That’s 2000. And then he was going to do a series, like a little zine called Boys in Their Bedrooms. Is that what you were going to call it?

AM: I don’t know if it had a name even.

RK: You were talking about doing a photo series of like trans guys in their bedrooms.

AM: Yeah, with interviews.

RK: Yeah, with interviews and all that. And then we sat down — I remember this well — at Morning Due Café, which was the café that was under my house, and we started talking about it … so from this conception of our friendship and cooperation, we were like hot air balloons. We started talking together and I was like “I have a Rolodex of guys — I’ve been traveling across the country and I know trans guys in every city. What if we like do this thing?” And it kept ballooning and ballooning and becoming a bigger thing.

And similar to what Amos was saying, for me, having been a trans performer for so long, and having my transness be the central point of interest from any media outlet, I felt like what an incredible thing it would be if we created a magazine, featuring trans people that was not about their transness; that hadn’t existed before and to be able to create something like that would be revolutionary because it would shift the narrative away from talking about trans people only as either medicalized, in academia, or politicized bodies and it would just be about the human experience instead of the footnote being that you have like, people would be like “Oh, so you’re on board, great. Let’s talk about what surgery you’ve had.” … Whereas instead for us, the footnote was that they’re trans, so it felt like this nice shift and we committed to doing it for a year, because both of us were busy with our own side projects, like a million different things each, and committed to do it for a year. We also did like a vision board of what could this be? And then we launched a Facebook page first.

AM: Tuck made a little mock — I did a little promo zine of like I think Tuck with a sword, naked in his bedroom, but like the logo on there. I think the logo was in like Courier font [laughs] and just sitting across it, like really crude and yeah, it went crazy. People were really into it.

RK: Then we did presales — we created a Paypal account and then we did presales and it sold out.

AM: And they shut us down, Paypal shut us down.

RK: Thought that we were fraudulent because we were doing the sales so we could afford to print the magazine. It was that and then there was this guy who was a singer at the time, I think he still sings, Joshua Klipp who’s a trans guy in The Bay who did a fundraiser for us one year about the project. So fundraiser and the presales allowed us to pay for the first issue. 

AM: I think it was just like a time of who was around and I was just trying to shoot guys in San Francisco because that was who was accessible to me at the time. I feel like we didn’t like plan it out so intensely; it felt very organic in terms of who was coming around, who was passing through San Francisco, where we were going to be traveling, who I could shoot in different places at the time and it just really, for the first year or so, we were just able to really organize the current issue and like the coming issues I think very organically. Do you agree?

RK: Yeah I do. The only thing I would add to that is that the most intentional part of the entire process of putting each thing together and holistically the entire project is that we wanted to make sure that each issue as a genuine thing was a diverse representation of identities, so age, race…

AM: Sexualities.

RK: Sexualities, self-identities, stages of transition. Like, it was never just a white, normative, buff, trans guy. They could be a part of it, but a small part of it.

AM: One example, there’s no one way to be a trans person. We were trying to really embody that, that there’s not a right way, there’s not a wrong way, there’s no one way to be trans and here is a beautiful zine that proves that.

RK: Anyone can pick up a copy and feel like they could see themselves reflected in the pages. And the first issue of OP came out in September 2009.

AM: Yeah, first it was like 500 [copies] and then  — or was it first 1,000 and then we did 1,000 more?

RK: I think so. We found a local feminist printing press that was run by two punks–

AM: 1984. 1984 Printing. They’re amazing.

On the most fulfilling aspect of creating OP

RK: For me? It was creating a physical space that was a component of the magazine. The magazine felt like an entry point to creating actual real-life community and this was before like YouTube was a big thing, before Instagram existed, so this was where trans men saw their lives reflected at all, so then we started throwing parties not long after that. The whole thing was born out of a party, right? And then we started doing fundraiser parties that were like — we did the trans dating game for a little while, where we did like the partition thing and someone was like, there was a trans guy who was trying to, people were trying to win a date with.

AM: It was really funny. I still have the old flyers for that.

RK: The flyers are hilarious. It’s like me dressed as ’70s…

AM: You’re photoshopped on like the head of a ’70s game show host. Your head is photoshopped, yes.

RK: We moved it around. Once we became successful, we had parties everywhere, like I had been, I mean, obviously in New York, we had a couple of parties here. Where else did we have parties? Montreal.

AM: Yeah and then did we do like Seattle? Something? I don’t remember.

RK: So major cities and then I was invited to be the grand marshal of the pride parade at Pocatello, Idaho. Do you remember that party?

AM: Yeah. Oh my god, I do.

AM: I think the benefits of the magazine and the events and things like that — the events were great to connect with other people and to see that it had such a far reach outside of like the bedroom where we were making these magazines, you know? It felt very insular some of the time until we left town and realized that people needed this project. They needed the magazine, they need the space and it was — it just felt very good to have to have created it.

RK:  I think the benefit of creating media where there is no other media is that you afforded the ability to change lives and also save lives. I know that sounds grandiose, but it’s really true that if you don’t see yourself, if you can’t imagine your future and someone helps by creating something that allows you to, it’s like a lighthouse and it shines a path for you to feel like you can make it and there’s something larger. And I think it’s something that something OP did or does even now, we did so in a way that felt elevated and cool and sexy and relevant and not this kind of derivative, tragic… OP was an art book first and a trans platform second, and it shows when you look at a copy of the magazine and see the layout and the photographs and how visually compelling it is.

And in some ways, it’s why we were able to do things like table at the New York and LA Art Book Fair and have interest from people who aren’t in the community. And it even serves as an entry point for gay men to understand the trans men. And then we’re also afforded the ability to enter into the larger cultural zeitgeist of awareness around trans men’s existence because the magazine was sexy and cute and fun and felt alive instead of this traditional narrative being told by other people around trans identities, which is what existed before around the tragic challenge of “What a brave thing you’re doing!” We don’t have that so it was just fun and sexy and relevant for young people and then gay men became interested and then the New York Times wrote about us. We were on the cover of some kind of lifestyle magazine?

AM: I don’t know, like some nightlife thing. Where we’re hugging. There was a moment where it was as if the gay male cultural community at large slash media, the gay male media acted like they had just founded trans men.

RK: And then they invited us to the Out 100 that year. We were constantly being interviewed.

AM: It was years of constantly being interviewed and it was also like, there was a lot of underlying things I felt — it’s great to feel noticed and to feel seen by other non-trans media but there was that feeling of like discovery of like check out this hot new thing I found which was interesting.

RK: In some ways, OP created this space for trans men to use Grindr. I do think OP had a hand in commodifying trans men as a  sexy, viable option for gay cis men.

AM: Yeah, I think so. Well, via visibility, yes. It was such a visible project and we were very visible because of the project and interviews and places that were getting a lot of attention in different outlets because of the project so even if people didn’t see OP, they saw the people who made OP and they heard people talking about it a lot and it was like this cultural moment that definitely opened up the conversation and educated people.

AM: [Queer women] became huge fans, right? I felt like it was nothing but positivity from females. Like early on, don’t you remember like some of the earliest supporters like sending pictures of themselves holding the magazine like doing little photo shoots with the magazine. It was really sweet.

On creating a platform for trans people in the media before the Trans Tipping Point

RK: I think that it’s important to include a person of that experience from the inception to the actualization of something, so I don’t feel like I’m the right person to create a platform for trans women. That’s arrogant and misguided in my opinion. It’s the same when cis photographers are like “I’d love to photograph your trans body.” No thank you — I don’t want you to. It’s the same — like a trans woman should make a trans woman’s magazine. But we do feature trans women, most notably when we did the heroes issue of OP, we featured Kate Bornstein and Janet Mock before her book came out.

AM: Her first book.

RK: Hari Nef.

AM: So Hari Nef, yeah, Diana Tourjee, who’s now like a big editor at Broadly.  I always knew  Diana was a talented writer — I found her on Tumblr. You know, we met at like an event and I loved her writing and I thought that she could speak so well to what we were trying to accomplish for the website and have a trans female perspective. And yeah, it does legitimize it. I don’t really, I never really thought about it that way before. I just always thought that I had talented friends. [laughs] Honestly, that’s what it felt like to me is like of course she’s going to go on and be successful. There’s other people, too. Thomas McBee was already a published author before he was blogging for us. And who else?

RK: T. Cooper.

AM: T. Cooper was already out there. I’m just trying to think of people who were like, like Chris Mosier — I always felt like they were already famous.

RK: We did [an Indiegogo] to create a bigger website and the intention of the website was to expand to a larger community so when Diana came on, we saw her as the female counterpart to kind of cultivate that part of the site. The site is defunct, in part because it’s just like we’re seeing this through to the end and we both have other careers now. But I can’t think of anyone else whose career launched as a result of–

AM: Tuck had a huge popularity because of the photos I think and the magazine thing — that spawned a career for him of sorts.

RK: Arisce as well. She said like if it weren’t for OP, she wouldn’t have gotten other opportunities and been enabled to expand her career outside of modeling, to be able to write and post things. Obviously they benefited from having the magazine culturally, but I can’t think of anyone who it helped launch their career.

On early success and struggles

RK: There was a moment because it was so fast to pick up, from the moment we launched it, we could tell that there was just some kind of like magic, even if was just like a rocket for a second. So those first two years were very magical, but everything was easy, there was no struggle, people were so excited. There was just a really magical kind of energy around the entire project and then subsequently around our relationship as creators I think, too. I don’t want to speak for you but it felt like that for me. We have been gifted with each other to be able to gift the world with this larger thing and it felt like we spent all of our time together. We lived together, we had a small office together, before we had the office, when we were still living in San Francisco, our office was my front room in the house that I lived in on 17th and Church. And everyone wanted to volunteer to be a part of it because it felt so important and magical. “This is it, we’re going to break the mainstream media for them to care about trans people!”

And maybe this is grandiose but I see it in a way that OP was always an altruistic like less ego-driven project for me as an artist and it always felt like OP, because of the timing, because of everything aligning, sort of ushered in this new way of media consciousness and focus on trans people that then filled in the place that we’re at now.

So it was like we happened to gather all of these people and all of these things aligned in this way that media didn’t stop being interested in trans people after their interest for OP waned, it just shifted. And then Janet Mock came out with a book so then it was that leg of it, and then Laverne Cox became established — it felt like it was the beginning of the downhill roll of the snowball and then all of that gathered to that tipping point on time.

AM: Yeah. It was just like the natural progression of the way that culture works, right? There’s like something that’s very popular and meaningful for a moment and then things evolve and there’s another viewpoint, you know, that comes to the forefront. It felt like natural to me. It felt normal but like definitely I remember a shift.

It felt like we were too accessible, actually. I felt like we were too accessible as human beings for a lot of the way that some people reacted toward the magazine. People would get personal because maybe we lived in the same city or they had an issue with there being a magazine about trans men. It was never really critiques about the magazine as much as it was about Rocco and I, right?

RK: Yeah. They also would critique the magazine without ever having one in their hands.

AM: Oh yeah. There was a lot of that, definitely.

RK: And who were pre-T, there’s not enough men who have not had surgery, there’s not enough men of color when at that point it was like we had only featured two white men on the cover ever, and we really had a keen eye on making sure that diversity was the first way that we would cast each issue. So none of the critiques about the project felt true and they felt rooted in a larger kind of community experience of cannibalism that in my opinion is rooted in unresolved trauma and scarcity issues.

The only people who wanted to advertise on an ongoing basis were sex toys.

AM: Yeah, it was like we actually couldn’t get it in enough spaces, because we were doing it all independently and it was quite the task, you know? I mean now we have like a very small distributor that will deal with the distribution to kind of West Coast stuff so we’re not really in stores anymore but like for the first many years, it was very much a self-distributed thing at stores across the world really.

RK: And also by self-distributed we mean like literally hand stuffing each envelope.

On ending OP

AM: We always promised, we worked together on how many issues we were going to create and I think we decided that 20 would be a nice number, you know? Like the number for a box set. It’s a good number in general and it just took so long to create these last few issues because we both have careers and things like that that takes a lot of our time. For a long time, we were freelancing and we had a lot more free time to commit to this project and to make this project our career in terms of you know, finding a way to be able to pay our rent with things creating around the project. Not necessarily the magazine but with events and things like that.

So now I think it was just in the pipeline for a while and it seemed like a good way to honor the project, to actually to have a book come out at the very end. That was kind of the intention from the very beginning.

RK: That was something we wrote down in that first year of like the visions that we wanted.

AM: Yeah, I thought like a great idea to have a book come out, like a coffee table book I think was the language. But of course before we even had like an issue out, that was something that we wanted.

RK: Oh, remember we did calendars?

AM: We did calendars one year for Christmas. I mean, you think of the little things like creating this merch, like each piece of merch was this whole other job, like creating the calendar. I didn’t realize how large they were going to be and the shipping was always like way off and I would end up like never breaking even. But it was always fun to do.

RK: Then we started making clothing and it did well for us as well.

RK: Pinups, like Teen Beat. It was like butts withTeen Beat on it.

AM: There was one of like James Darling, a poster of James Darling, posters of like Chris Mosier and like the guys, Kye Allum from the jock issue.

On the book

RK: We culled through and pulled out the best stuff. It’s a big book, though. 20 issues is a shit load. Each issue was at least 54 pages. The Hero issue — how many pages was the Hero issue?

AM: The Hero issue? I don’t know, like 100 pages. Right? 90? I don’t know, but it was like bursting at the seams. Literally the “Heroes” issue was like busting and then you were like, remember when you yelled at the printmaker because they stapled it? Like they’re fucked up. It wasn’t 1984 — it was someplace in Queens.

RK: And I was happy to be a pit bull so there were these moments in our collaborative relationship where Amos would get “Can you do this, can you talk?” And I’d be like, “What the fuck is this!?”

AM: But Rocco’s just better at communicating when it comes to like getting a discount or like a, getting a deal when something would go wrong. Like standing up for the project in a way where I would be like it’s “Okay, that’s fine. I’ll pay you more.”

RK: [People think] that we were sitting on a fucking golden toilet. I think people thought that we were rich.

AM: Yeah.

RK:  I mean to the point where we’d be like “Oh, we’re collecting all our tuppence to be able to. I got a wooden nickel!”

AM: Oh my God, I think we literally looked at a copy of Butt magazine and saw how much they charged. There was not even — like I feel like the whole math of the business end of this project was the last thing on my mind because I just couldn’t comprehend financial business things. 

RK: Yeah, I feel like I understood business things slightly more than you because I had been in business for myself for so long. When me and Amos started this project, once it launched and was successful, I insisted that he quit his job. No, no, no, you had gotten laid off.

AM: I got laid off the day that Michael Jackson died. I was working at like a media company that made videos. I was working at the front desk and they were doing tons of layoffs and I was the lucky one, and then you said that you lit a candle so that I would never have to work again at a normal job and then I like went with it like “Okay.”

RK: I firmly believed that like jobs aren’t necessary if you’re working on your artistic career. They’re a means to an end.

AM:  It was hard for me to realize I had to go get another — like actually get another job after that because I was really instilled and really inspired to not have to do anything that I didn’t want to do ever again. You said that. You were like “You will never have to work again.”

RK: And now here we both are, working in corporate America in digital media. [laughs] But I do believe that this is a good pit stop for you to figure out like how to grow more skills to do what you want to do.

AM: I mean it is, yeah, and it’s not a bad thing. I’m enjoying everything. I enjoy my job and I enjoy everything. It just makes sense that I think then I was being idealistic and strange about working for a while.

RK: It’s almost a decade of not having to work is cool.

AM: I was not but I mean I kind of, I would have benefitted from working, from having some sort of financial help. Because I was working, you know what I mean? But I was not like getting a lot of money.

On fans being sad about the end of OP

AM: I feel like I’ve already been getting emails asking if we still publish and saying they’ve heard we’re coming to a close and is it true and how they’re really sad about it but I feel like the book will allow it to move on, you know? People can have the book and revisit that as much as they’d like and I’m sure something else will come along. Maybe something that is even more groundbreaking. Something in the next chapter of trans culture.

RK: My hopes for this project closing is that the book does really well because not only will that allow OP to live on in the entirely of this one volume, but it’s also like a time capsule, so it stands for a decade of male gay culture in a way that nothing else does and I think for queer people and queer history, it doesn’t really get preserved often and so much has been created over the last decade around trans media and around acceptability or visibility, but it’s my hope that the generation that didn’t have OP is able to look at that book and see how OP informed their lives even if they hadn’t seen it.

AM: Yeah, I mean it would be great for people to find it on the bookshelves and say “Oh my god — something like this existed for 10 years and I was not aware” or “I was too young,” you know what I mean? Or “I wasn’t trans yet.” Or even for non-trans people to see this stack of cultural moments in paper form. I think that the book will be — it’s like the perfect ending for me because I’ve always had this connection to print and that one of the first questions that people always ask in the very beginning is “Why didn’t you just make a website or a blog or a web magazine?” and I was like “Because I don’t want to.” And it was like when print was dying when we first started, or like quote unquote print was dying and that was like the hot topic of the moment, so I just — I don’t know what it is about print. There’s something about print that feels better to me.

RK: Even when you say it lasts longer, it actually does last longer because that’s something that you can hold in your hands whereas a website is not — you don’t have the same intimate connection. You won’t feel invested in reading it cover to cover because it’s never-ending, it’s ongoing, it’s every day, it’s constantly being updated whereas this thing is literally just a time capsule. It’s of a specific era and that’s it and it’s frozen like that forever and that’s so beautiful and incredible to be able to actually physically hold this in your hands. I would have never been interested in making a website.

AM: We ended up doing it but it was like a complement to the magazine. It had to come in print because that is, from my experience, print was something that like drew me to the culture that introduced me to new things, you know? With some like Sassy magazine to Butt magazine to even like Highlights for Children when I was a kid, you know, reading about new things and getting something in the mail that was just for me was like integral part of how I formed my relationship to the arts and culture and who I was as a young person. So that’s why I’m so rooted to the magazine and the book.

And the book came around because of Michelle Tea. I was having a conversation with her, telling her “We want a book, we want a book,” and then she was like oh my god, well I’m making an imprint for Feminist Press. Do you remember when I told you that? I think I was like having coffee with Michelle and was saying how we had been pitching the book and it wasn’t going anywhere and she had just started this imprint with Feminist Press and that it would be a perfect match, right?

RK: Before that though, when we were still looking at New York, Michelle was really generous and gave me a bunch of contacts for agents to pitch that book and nobody could imagine it. That was like pre-trans tipping point, too, that we were shopping with agents and no one was interested. They were like “We don’t really understand what the market would be for it.”

AM: We weren’t big enough for them financially, I think, was the deal. Not big enough names at the time.

RK: Yup.

AM: It’s been so fun, though. It’s been fun. I’m so proud of this project, though.  I feel like my mother’s the one that always reminds me what it big deal it is that we started this project and how proud we should be of it and it’s like, sometimes it just takes a mom to remind you. But you know what I mean, when you’re like on to the next project or on to the next full-time job or things like that, it’s hard to put things in perspective and see what exactly you created and when you actually take time to look at it, it actually is major. It’s a huge project that we created for a very long time and we’re very proud of. It wouldn’t have been the same, you know what I mean, if it was anybody else doing it. I think it never would have been what it is. It was like the perfect storm.

RK: We had a really nice counterbalance of people and how we approached the project and how we approached the larger world and it would have been great if we had a finance person to help us a little bit.

AM: He would have been a bummer. We would have fired him. You know it.

RK: What are we going to do next? Oh, create a TV show. It’s like Lisa Ling but it’s us.

AM: That would be great. Put that in there. See who’s interested.

Photos via Amos Mac and Rocco Kayiatos. Black and white shots by Alex Schmider 

Massachusetts Affirmed My Humanity As Black Latinx Trans Teen

This victory still feels surreal. After months and months of sharing my story, connecting with people, having mindful conversations, educating families and friends, and knocking on strangers’ doors, we finally did it.

My name is Ashton Mota. I’m a 14-year-old high school freshman. I live in Lowell, Massachusetts and attend an elite private school that my mom, Carmen, fought like hell to get me into. I am a person of faith. I am both Black and Latinx (yes it is possible — look up “intersectionality”).

I love to play basketball, and listen to music (specifically J. Cole). I am on the speech and debate team, so don’t argue with me because it won’t end well for you. I enjoy hanging out with my friends and aspire to pursue a career in law. I also happen to be transgender. As you can see, being trans isn’t the only thing that defines me; it’s but one part of who I am.

However, upon learning that I’m trans I am often stripped of my humanity. I’m no longer viewed as the promise for the future; instead, I’m seen as an issue that needs to be handled. I’ve seen this dynamic play out before my eyes, as my mom has to go toe-to-toe with my school administrators while navigating a minefield of anti-blackness.

Let me be clear: Transgender people are not a burden, and we are not an issue or problem that needs to be handled. We are the salt of the earth and we make our communities better!

It’s not lost on me that as a public face of Yes of 3, I represent thousands of transgender youth of color who haven’t been as lucky as I have been to have a mother who not only affirms me, but is also willing to fight and advocate alongside me.

As a trans student of color, these struggles are real. My mother and I often have to deal with layers of compounded discrimination, sometimes even within the queer community. The stats don’t lie. Whether it’s homelessness, employment discrimination, incarceration, HIV infections, or violence, the brunt of the burden is carried by trans people of color, and we rarely make space for these voices.

To those youth of color who do not have the ability right now to take that step to be visible whether because of safety or cultural reasons, I SEE YOU! You are not alone and I will fight for your right to be seen and heard.

If there is one message I want to send today it is a message of love and kindness. We need to move away from the conversation centered on rights and recenter our conversations on humanity. Trans people are worthy of protection because I am human. We enrich our communities and make this world better. If you are a person of good faith, you believe in justice and equality for all people.

On behalf of all of us young transgender people in Massachusetts, I want to thank everyone who found it in their hearts to do the right thing and vote “Yes” on 3.

But I also know there is still a lot of work to be done, especially in local communities like Lawrence, where the majority voted No on 3. Transgender youth of color continue to carry the brunt of the burden.

To my peers, please know I am committed to continue to use my voice and make our presence known.

This win means that I have the right to exist, that I matter. It also means I’m able to go back to being a teenager and focus on my education and having fun with my friends. It was hard to focus and concentrate in school with so much uncertainty up in the air.

These results have convinced me that love and good is stronger than hate. The message is loud and clear: we the people of Massachusetts have no space for discrimination.

Planningtorock is Feeling ‘Transome’

Ever since their first album was released back in 2006, electronic musician Planningtorock has expressed their political ideals through a distinctively queer filter while also exploring the confines of gender in the process. Drawing on everything from ’90s house to noughties R&B, the music itself works on multiple levels too, drawing you in with synths that will make you want to dance and lyrics that will make you want to think.  

Four years have passed since the non-binary genderqueer artist last released an album, and in that time, they’ve been hard at work recording their most candid body of work to date. Such claims are made with alarming regularity in music journalism, but the truth is that Powerhouse really is a remarkably intimate record, one that tackles issues of family and identity through a confessional and sometimes even painful lens.

INTO spoke with the artist otherwise known as Jam Rostron about the impact of Powerhouse, what it feels like to be “Transome,” and how the #MeToo movement inspired the album’s honesty. 

Why did you choose “Transome” to be the first single?

“Transome” is all about where I am right now and my journey since the last album. It felt like the perfect track to say “Hi everyone, I’m back!” I’ve been working on myself and I’m so excited, scared, proud, shy, in love and I feel so transome.

I read on your Instagram that “Transome” was deemed too explicit for UK radio because of the line, “You make me so wet.” What was your initial reaction to this and why do you think the UK still struggles to grapple with sexuality in this way?

At first, I was surprised and then I was not surprised at all. We live in a sexist world where sexuality and the expression of our sexual desires is dominated and policed by white patriarchy and the UK has its own special form of that.

“Much To Touch” is one of my favorite songs on the album. It’s just so empowering. How did you start working with dancer Maija Karhunen for the video on this project?

“Much To Touch” is about owning one’s muchness, especially when faced with being told, “You’re too much.”

Maija Karhunen and I have been working together since September 2017 on a performance duet in addition to other performative pieces which will feature in my new Planningtorock live show, Powerhouse, which premieres on 16th and 17th January 2019 at Berghain, Berlin.

Through our work together, Maija and I have built a strong creative relationship and I wanted to delve deeper with this notion of “muchness” and our own individual experiences and the methods we have developed to navigate it.

In the “Much To Touch” video Maija explores “muchness” through her choreography, owning it all through her every move.

I’m fascinated by how you deliberately alter the pitch of your voice throughout your music, which is why it’s so interesting to hear a different side to you on the single “Beulah Loves Dancing.” Can you explain why you chose to approach this particular song with your ‘regular’ voice?

Thanks, David, I’m glad you like the pitching of my voice. It’s not just a sonic feature for me. but also a part of my non-linear transitioning and my authentic voices.

I chose to sing “Beulah Loves Dancing” this way because it was important that you hear my dialect. I come from Bolton up north in the UK and it felt an important part of the story.

It’s been a year since the #MeToo movement came to prominence and its impact can be felt throughout Powerhouse’s more intimate moments. Could you please talk me through how #MeToo affected you during the album’s recording?

Writing the track “Dear Brother” was the most surreal and intense experience of my entire creative life. I had to write this song. Music has always been my way out, my way to learn, grow and see myself. This track’s purpose was to help heal me and to help me forgive.

The #MeToo movement was amazing in the way that it helped make it okay to share painful stories of abuse. It gave a space that had not been there before. I just want that the #MeToo movement continues to be supported and that the space which has been for created to support victims of abuse evolves into an even larger place.

Most queer representation seems focused on younger generations. I saw you argue on Instagram that there needs to be more visibility for older trans and gender non conforming people. What can we do to help this become a reality?

I think sharing and including stories of different aged /older transgender/GNF people, say in  TV, film, fashion, and music would be great. Seeing different aged transgender/GNF people has really empowered my journey and given me the hope and the strength to take the first steps to becoming who I am. We learn by example, so the more visibility given to the diverse spectrum of differently aged trans/GNF people, the better we learn and grow as a society.

With that in mind, do you think things are getting better for the LGBTQ community? What do you feel are some of the struggles that we still face today?

It feels that yes, things do get better, yet there are constant setbacks that the LGBTQ community suffer too and we have to stick together, be there for each other, love, care and support.

How the different international administrations protect or erase LBGTQ laws is a huge struggle. I believe that the more LBGTQ people that are actually working in these administrations, the better it will be. Exactly who is making these laws is important to protect human rights.

You’ve said before that you don’t like talking about mainstream artists much as “they get enough attention as it is,” so which alternative artists do you think deserve more attention?

Ah, interesting — I don’t feel that way anymore! There are so many mainstream / big artists that are using their platforms in such amazing ways. I think it’s more about who’s saying what with their music rather than how big they are.

I absolutely loved your recent collaboration with Little Boots on “Eros.” How did that come about?

Oh, thank you! Victoria emailed me asking if I’d like to write a song together for an EP she was making with the concept to collaborate with female identifying producers. Although I no longer identify as femme — I identify as non-binary genderqueer.

It was a lot of fun and I wrote the track in a day. We worked remotely sending each other the changes until it was done.

You’ve been based in Berlin for a huge chunk of time now. What is it about the city that drew you in initially and why have you continued to stay there for as long as you have?

Like a lot of people, I kinda ended up in Berlin by accident. I didn’t plan to move out of London. But when I got here and had stayed for a few months, I loved it.

I think, for me, it was a very emancipating experience. For example, nobody noticed my dialect, so they didn’t know or care that I was working class. It was like being born again. I got to feel myself in a new way and this gave me a lot of space which I very quickly filled with Planningtorock and recording music and making DIY performances around Berlin.

Berlin still gives me a lot and it’s always changing, but at the same time, it’s a super slow city. I love visiting the UK, but I love living in Berlin.

You’ve achieved so much with your music in the past decade. If there’s one thing that you’re most proud of, what would it be?

I think the thing I’m most proud of is how every album I’ve recorded has educated me and that I’ve worked hard to use that education to better myself, to learn and to grow.  Through these creative years, I’ve grown to truly understand the power of music. It has this magical ability to communicate fast and move people like nothing else.

Powerhouse is a fitting title for this extraordinary album. What message would you like fans to take away from this new body of work?

Thank you! This album is about the power of music, the power of care and the power of sharing our personal stories and believing and loving ourselves no matter what.

What’s next in the pipeline for you? You said once that you would love to make a TV series!

I would looooove to make a TV series! I have lots of ideas and would love to make a film. I would also like to write more music for other artists — it’s really fun!

Over winter I’ll be in Stockholm composing a score for the Swedish Cullberg Ballet. Then I’ll be rehearsing the new live show I’ve been producing for Powerhouse, which will premiere 16th / 17th January 2019 in Berlin.

Powerhouse is out now.

Flaming Classics Brings Miami’s Legendary Lost Queer History to Life

As gay as everyone knows Miami to be — more than likely thanks to Mike Nichols’ gleeful film The Birdcage — South Beach was a place that only offered certain kinds of pleasures. There’s the kind of drag you get on television, the kind of gay male-oriented parties that offer nothing but muscle boys and twinks, and not an ounce of focus on the kind of world I wanted to be a part of. I was gay, that was certain, but the gay lifestyle presented to me was unappealing.

My hopes for Miami were different. I wanted the sun setting, a pink hue over the streets of Miami. It would be the kind of lighting that set up a seductive tone for a night of pleasures that I and many others would exist in for hours. There would be bodies intertwining, voices whispering, and light flickering. It would all take place inside of a room whose four walls were made entirely of stained glass: a space known as the Jewel Box.

Club Jewel Box was a nightclub in Miami Beach in the 1940s, created by Danny Brown and Doc Benner, that presented female impersonators to visiting audiences. As a program notes, “their shows have been known for their clean production and outstanding costumes, young, fresh and good performers.” But the Jewel Box was more than a performance space.

As Wayne Anderson explains in his Huffington Post piece, they were queer men who had created a family in their revue, fighting hard to keep the space open until its closure in 1952 (and then continuing on as a tour). They were passionate about having drag seen as an art form and not simply as a burlesque show, and they fostered an environment where queer people could flourish, not only as performers but as people who would go on to help the queer community.

Take, for instance, Stormé Delarverie, an African-American lesbian and drag king who would later be known by some as “the Gay Community’s Rosa Parks” for her role in the Stonewall rebellion in 1969. The Jewel Box playfully billed itself “25 Men and 1 Woman” and Delarverie was the one, spending decades living, working, and traveling with Brown and Benner prior to her life as an activist.

The Club Jewel Box of 2018 was an entirely different experience, though the ghosts of performances long past lingered in the air. Club Jewel Box, as my friend Trae DeLellis and I recreated, was a one-night installation celebrating queer poetry, performance, and cinema. It was a celebration of Miami’s queer past, present, and future, as well as a cruising space where six films were showcased and enhanced by visual and aural performances.

It was meant to be a night exploring desire, anticipation, and eroticism. For me, it was a night that embodied everything I’d wanted to do in my city since I was a younger queer person who wished there was art out there made specifically for him. Art that would transport me to a world I felt at home in.

This was my big complaint: Where was all the stuff I wanted to see? I stumbled headfirst into it when I met all of the fascinating people that were creating Miami’s unique queer scene. Performers who ignored the standards of gender presentation, whether that was a bodybuilding drag queen, a drag king who specialized in creating heavily phallic immersive performances, or a drag performer whose relationship with identity and gender led to fascinating performance art pieces (from cutting “FAG” into their body on stage to becoming a living, breathing mattress for hours on end).

These were people who embraced an alternative image and were comfortable with themselves because they had a community that supported them. Individuals who were taking over traditionally heteronormative spaces and making them their own, even if it was just for one night a month at a party like Counter Corner.

But this wasn’t enough for me. And it wasn’t enough for those I knew who also had an interest in film. Another complaint arose: Why weren’t the movies screening here the kind of movies I could find myself in? Why was I forced to attend endless repertory cinema screenings that involved nothing but straight men watching movies made for them? I shouldn’t have felt uncomfortable in my favorite space – a movie theater – while watching Boogie Nights, where a man chose to loudly yell at and make fun of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s queer character when he is rejected. So we said, “Fuck it. Let’s make a film series.”

Our series was named Flaming Classics, inspired by the Alexander Doty book of the same name, centered around queering the film canon. That book, along with Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet, taught me that if they wouldn’t put me in movies, I was going to find myself and claim them as my own. And we were going to give performers the opportunity to do the same, recontextualizing the films by creating their own unique performances themed to the work on screen. We could shove ourselves into the films made for straight people and watch as unsuspecting viewers came in expecting a simple movie screening and ended up experiencing a show they’d hopefully never forget.

Just as I’d stumbled into the local queer scene, now there were people stumbling headfirst into the queer wonderland I’d created with Club Jewel Box. James Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus, full of young men barely covered with colorful transparent fabrics, created an atmosphere that welcomed any passerby. The expression of a man receiving oral sex in Andy Warhol’s Blowjob was projected onto a wall space that measured two-stories tall, making it more visible than any number of billboards sexualizing women for the male gaze nearby.

The light of a 16mm projector reflected beautifully in the eyes of audiences, watching a woman dominating another woman in Mano Destra. Just below where Barbara Rubin’s Christmas on Earth was projected, a queer body laid enveloping within a stained mattress, a performance art piece that would come to life sporadically as the night went on.

You could open a door and find someone dressed as a sailor, standing in haphazardly placed bushes, stroking the phallic stone object they’d pulled out of their pants. The poetry of Langston Hughes filled the air, as read by one of our performers, and the voices of numerous local queer poets boomed over a speaker, their original work entrancing a large crowd.

For over a year now, I’ve been doing Flaming Classics — showing films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Little Mermaid and Velvet Goldmine — but it never felt truly perfect until the night of Club Jewel Box. The years I’d spent complaining had come to an end and it was because I learned that change comes if you make it come. And maybe some queer teen who felt that Miami was as unfulfilling as I did years ago could show up to this place and realize that there was a world out there where he felt at home.

I found a queer family in the people who helped me build Flaming Classics: my partner-in-crime Trae DeLellis, who built it from the ground up with me practically a decade after we met on Scruff and talked about our mutual adoration of Martyrs; performers like Captain Midnight, Ded Cooter, Jupiter Velvet, Miss Toto, King Femme, Kunst, and Opal Am Rah, all of whom contributed to creating a space that was safe, sensual, and surreal in equal parts; and even the queer writers outside of my city who have shown me new ways to look at film, like my frequent collaborators Kyle Turner, Willow Maclay, and Caden Mark Gardner, the last of which wrote thousands of words on the art shown during Club Jewel Box for our guests to read.

With Flaming Classics, with Club Jewel Box, with my queer Miami peers, I found myself. It may have taken over a decade of awkwardness, of bad experiences in various spaces, of never really knowing who I was, but I was there now.

Olly Alexander Is Leaning Into The Gay Thing

“I started to hear people referring to me as ‘that gay singer’ and a part of ‘that gay band,’ and I said to myself ‘You know what? I am.’ I decided to lean into the gay.”

English actor, pop star, and frontman of the synth-pop band Years & Years Olly Alexander has found himself growing more and more comfortable with his sexuality as it relates to his artistry. Having just released the band’s sophomore album, Palo Santo, this summer, Alexander says he found himself embracing his identity, and “the multifaceted nature of it.”

“You know, inside I’m still kind of this scared gay boy that got bullied at school,” he tells INTO. “But having the kind of response we got from audiences and success that we had after the first album, I felt more comfortable, confident, and okay being more explicit.”

At the age of  28, has been out publicly as long as Years & Years has existed, ignoring the advice of his media trainer who encouraged him to keep his sexuality out of public persona.

And Palo Santo is a reflection of that; the album takes a more direct route when addressing his sexuality, using more male-specific pronouns in the lyrics in comparison to the band’s first album, Communion. Alexander has also been much more free in discussing his sexuality, advocating for HIV screenings, promoting safer sex practices and even supporting anti-LGBTQ bullying campaigns.

Seated in the corner of a New York cafe wearing a Rihanna T-shirt and lounge pants, Alexander’s confidence and charisma exude a certain type of energy that grows as he speaks about the things he loves with such candor.

In just a few hours, Alexander would be performing a sold-out show at Terminal 5. He’s grateful for where he is, sharing thoughtful sentiments as he talks about his fans and his work. He knows that at this point in time, when so many queer people have the wind in their face, right now, it’s at his back and he can soar brightly into the future.

As the main songwriter and leading visionary for Year & Years, Alexander is pushing himself not only as an artist but also as a public-facing advocate.

“Obviously, the UK is stuff I’m most familiar with, but globally we’re all kind of witnessing this dumpster fire descent to Hell,” he says. “Though, I don’t always think it’s that bad.”

“Personally,” he continues, “I didn’t ever imagine I’d be engaging in advocacy the way that I have, but I just find it so meaningful. It makes me feel like I have a purpose in life. Getting out of bed and feeling like you’re working to create positive change is a good feeling.”

One of the hallmarks of poor advocacy is arrogance, a self-centeredness Alexander seems hellbent on avoiding. Being a white gay man comes with a lot of privileges, and he is aware of that, referencing it often as a limitation of his own worldview. He’s chipping away at the underpinnings of our how oppression operates with a precision and consciousness you might not expect from someone who had been cast in an Academy Award-nominated film before being old enough to to vote, acting alongside Dame Judi Dench (“a naughty grandma who only drinks champagne,” he says of his one-time co-star) in his early twenties before launching his international music career. Still, he notes, “This [advocacy]  has been a journey for me and I’m still learning every day.”

“There are so few queer people taking up space in media or in a public forum and I feel like there is a responsibility to use it properly, because people are listening to what you say and so many people aren’t being listened to,” Alexander says. “Silence is complicity. You have to come with something.”

He seems exasperated by the idea that everyone isn’t working to liberate others from their struggles.

“We can’t really step outside all of society’s rules and things that govern us anyway. Like white patriarchy, just because we’re gay that doesn’t go away. We have all the same structural oppressions that exist outside of that. We’ve chosen to band together because we’ve had to and there are so many benefits to that, but we’re so diverse and it makes us ripe for conflict.”

Right now, Alexander is concerned about the Gender Recognition Act in the UK, a proposed reform of the act that will make it easier for trans folks to self-identify.

“It’s created this insane hysterical discourse in the UK media and public. It has been a full-on assault on trans people in a way that’s so horrifying. It’s front page news in the media every day.” Alexander says. He likens it to the fear-mongering that gay people have gone through in the past. He wants to use his privilege to do everything he can to help.

It’s not all just talk for Alexander, who’s well aware that change doesn’t come through just bloviating on platforms to crowds who already espouse your beliefs, but through action that helps others be heard. He’s working alongside other public figures including Sir Patrick Stewart to pay the travel costs of UK citizens who want to attend the march that will be calling for a referendum on the final Brexit deal. Those in opposition to Brexit, which has been scrutinized heavily by many for it’s classist and xenophobic motivations, have been advocating for a second vote on the plan, confident that the majority of citizens don’t really support it.

“We can hide behind this kind of veneer of sending a tweet or retweeting someone’s post or saying ‘I’m woke,’” he says. “But are we really doing the work?”

Behind that motivated and eager passion for change is a gay man still exploring facets of his sexuality with zero fear and even less shame. He giggles in excitement with a “Yay” as he reads over my list of topics filed under “GAY SEX STUFF.”

“I use Grindr now, but I didn’t use it in my early twenties because I was going out and meeting men at clubs and hooking up that way,” he says. “Then I was in a couple of monogamous relationships, so I thought it was gonna be weird, but also a sort of initiation [into modern gay culture].”

That fear didn’t stop him from pursuing that desire to meet men for hookups and fun. “I’ve managed to hook up a couple of times through [apps], but it’s difficult because it’s hard to establish trust,” Alexander says. “People are like ‘Are you using a fake picture?’ or ‘Are you really Olly Alexander?’ And that becomes less sexy. I’m also not about to send a dick pic.”

Being a celebrity in a digital dating culture surely has its struggles, but he’s found that Grindr’s utility serves as a comfort for him in a different way.

“I like to open it up just to see that there other gay people around me, because I travel quite a lot. Sometimes [just so] that gay people are so visible to each other,” Alexander says. “We’ve created networks to find each other.”

In these kinds of social networks, queer people also find ourselves shaping the way we view each other and ourselves. Alexander finds the apps to be a place where so much time can be wasted just soaking up the attention and he isn’t above the kind of validation that connections made through such apps can provide.

“It’s like a dopamine hit when someone likes you or sends you a nice comment and I really understand how that feels good, but then following that up seems like hard work,” he says. “Then you’re like, ‘Oh, but what about someone else?’ It becomes this sort of endless appetite for sexual desires and I think that’s kind of changed the way we view intimacy. I don’t know if it’s for better or worse, but it’s definitely made some interactions harder.”

He’s not wrong. The apps can soak up so much time for those who love being bombarded with validation, but it’s not true for everyone. While it has made access to the type of intimacy that gays had to “work harder” to get in the past easily accessible, for many people, it provides a space where they can feel more confident than in the crowded and judgmental spaces that are gay bars and clubs. Also, perhaps, it’s just highlighted the way we’ve viewed intimacy all along.

His growth and journey with intimacy have changed over the years. He speaks as someone who wants his relationships to be as progressive as his politics. Unsatisfied with the idea that gay relationships need to fit cultural norms, Alexander discusses his most recent open relationship as a challenge that turns him on more than causes him fear.

“It presents a different set of challenges than you experience in a monogamous relationship,” he says. “In a monogamous relationship, you have like one rule which is: don’t cheat, basically.  In an open one you literally write the rulebook yourself, so you have to communicate with your partner a kind of endless list of potentially hard to talk about topics. Who are you allowed to sleep with? How many times? Are you allowed to see them more than once? Is anal okay? Is it just oral?”

Aroused by the idea of these difficult topics that many people would find a hassle to breach over and over, he thinks the ideas difficult to talk about in an open relationship greatly outweigh the simplicity of establishing monogamous trust. His light fetish seems to be emotional masochism that leads to self-discovery.

“In lots of ways, confronting those issues with someone and being able to get into the nitty-gritty of things, you have to go into some really emotionally intense and raw places,” Alexander says. “Those kinds of feelings are what make them more of fit for me than something monogamous which isn’t quite right for me. I’m glad I did it, because I learned a lot about myself and how I deal with aspects of intimacy.”  

Olly Alexander is an explorer, expanding his boundaries and expectations. He speaks openly about his love of daddy porn, smiling in recognition of the cliche. Alexander is curious and demanding of the content he consumes. “[All I want] is for the people to look like they’re enjoying it and for their dicks to be hard,” he says. “Obviously, whoever is fucking their dick is gonna be hard, but if someone is being fucked, I also want them to have a hard dick. Maybe I’m wrong. I’m sure they might still be enjoying it, but when I’m doing it I’m hard. I just like to see both people turned on.”

For Olly Alexander, sex as a gay man should be free of shame and be easier to talk about. He opens up about a sexual experience gone awry: “I guess a lot of people in the US are circumcised but most people in the UK aren’t.” He uses his hands to demonstrate how the frenulum (colloquially called a “banjo string)” is attached to the penis.

“One night, I was in the hotel with my boyfriend and we were having sex. I fell off the bed and basically tore this string right off,” he recalls. “ It was like a crime scene in the hotel. Obviously, like my dick was erect and had so much blood rushing to it so it was like fountains of blood squirting everywhere.”

Alexander and his partner at the time ended up in an emergency room shortly thereafter where his attending nurse recognized him and began talking about his music. Even in that awkward circumstance, he manages to be so excited that someone knows and loves his music.

They should love his music. It’s incredible in its range but most impressive in storytelling.  The performance later that night is electric — the audience hanging onto every word and Alexander consuming every bit of that energy. It’s as if without it, he’d be incapable of finishing the performance.

In a sheer white leotard, shiny black pants, and large bedazzled necklace that borders on gaudy, Alexander leads the audience through Palo Santo. Alexander’s voice rings throughout the three-story concert hall filled with young queers belting every lyric to the band’s hit single “If You’re Over Me.” He leads the audience and his bandmates through an electrifying set, running around with a rainbow flag he was gifted from a front-row audience member.

“I just want everyone having a good time,” he tells the crowd.

They absolutely are.

Images via Getty