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

North Morgan Creates His Own Reality

North Morgan does not want to be anyone’s role model, nor does he endorse having one in the first place. He says as much — multiple times — to the crowd of fans that has gathered at the NYU bookstore in Manhattan to hear him talk about and read from Into?, his third novel since he went from blogger to published author with 2011’s Exit Through the Wound. It’s a question brought up by both the event moderator and one of his fans, both seeming to search for answers as to how his success has changed the way he sees himself in relation to his readers.

The idea of putting another person on a pedestal is a phenomenon Morgan describes as both culturally American and a recipe for disappointment. “I like inspiring people or helping them understand something,” he explains when talking about the effect of his work on others. “I just can’t think of a single person as a perfect role model.”

Idolized or not, Morgan’s acerbic, forthright style depicting life as a gay man has earned fans and praise, offering an alternately hopeless and touching look into cycles of self-destructive behavior and internalized longing. His physical appearance — muscular, square-jawed, blue-eyed — has garnered a fair amount of attention, too, and Morgan’s social media presence is something of a companion piece to his work dating back to his earliest writing, which came out of emails he sent to his straight friends documenting his journey through the gay culture of London. Those emails would eventually become London Preppy, the daily blog chronicling and then sensationalizing a world of parties, drugs, and casual sex. London Preppy would also be the incubator for his work as a novelist.

Photos of Morgan — often shirtless or in attire that suggests he knows his way around a Ralph Lauren store — come paired with ironic commentary or self-deprecating humor. In one post, Morgan stands in front of a mirror with his shirt unbuttoned and parted to reveal a chiseled torso with the caption, “Exhibiting my generation’s psychopathic tendencies and the degradation of the human race by taking another selfie. Previous generations of humans were perfectly fine, of course, keeping slaves, going on world wars, not allowing women to vote, etc.” Where countless other social media personalities would lean in with some combination of a toothy smile, product placement, or reference to Phillippians 4:13, Morgan turns mercilessly on his own hunky, bro’d out physicality.

The end result, on social media and in Morgan’s writing, is a juxtaposition of biting self-awareness and shallow, empty fulfillment: the sensitive soul who loves unconventional music and existentialist literature, but can’t be bothered to go on an art walk and instead settles for a trip to the gay beach. Soho House and Coachella are name-dropped next to Ernesto Sabato and Jean-Paul Sartre.

The details of the protagonists Morgan writes about are often informed by his real life, also a holdover from the London Preppy days. Morgan has developed his fictional characters beyond his own personality, however, and is careful to put some distance between himself and his creations. It’s a lesson learned from blogging in character every day for two years; eventually, the character and his moods bled over into reality, and the mental energy required of Morgan was too damaging. That distance hasn’t kept him from some very good (and very bad) interactions with fans and followers, who can identify so strongly with the character of North Morgan that they feel they know the real man behind it.

At the event and in our conversation, Morgan makes references to the cultural philosophy of metamodernism, a means of interpreting culture in which “basically you oscillate wildly between being very, very honest and upfront and also having a character that’s very cynical.”

As examples, he offers the performance art of Shia LaBeouf, as well as the manufactured persona of Lana Del Rey.

“She produces music through a character; Lana Del Rey is a construct,” he explains. “But at the same time there’s a lot of truth, and vulnerability, and openness to what she does.”

Metamodernism as an aesthetic can also be applied to social media at large, and the ambiguity about where the line exists between performance and reality — if it even exists at all. That Morgan embodies this publicly is perhaps what draws people to him, but his private life is another thing entirely.

The child of Greek parents, Morgan grew up in Athens and later London, moving to Los Angeles to be with a former boyfriend. Coming out fully was a process that took time; his father didn’t find out until 10 years after friends and other family members did. It was during this early years writing London Preppy that Morgan’s distinctive style would take shape: dry retellings of excess, prescription drugs namedropped with specific dosages, and a soundtrack of songs plucked from wide-ranging genres and a selection of books that accented, dulled, or mocked the moments they co-occupied:

“On the tube on the way home, I’m reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath conscious that maybe somebody (a guy, a girl, I’m not fussy) might see this, fall in love with me, walk up to me and kiss me suddenly, hard, before getting off at the next stop without having said a word. This doesn’t happen in the five stops between work and home, so I give up and get off.”

The blog would bring Morgan his first lucky break: the opportunity to make his work into one novel, and then another. Exit Through the Wound and its sequel would follow Maine Hudson and his son Parke, both beautiful men with an eye for satire and contempt for the world around them.

Into? exists apart from the storyline established in Morgan’s first two novels, but the style is a return to the form that brought him success. The book is a loose collection of episodic chapters that are authentic in their irregularity. Sometimes, there’s a series of events or a dramatic encounter; sometimes a day is summed up by one missed connection or small disappointment. Konrad Platt is a freshly-minted Angeleno, arriving in the States after the destruction of his relationship with now-ex-boyfriend Brett and navigating his way through the gay scene in LA. If the premise sounds similar, it should; while the individual decisions Konrad Platt makes may differ, the scenarios are often informed Morgan’s own experiences. This is also why, Morgan explains, his protagonists fit a particular mold.

“I can only write what I know,” he says. “It’s not my place to represent anyone else.” He says his process for writing starts at the end; the concept will exist, and the last sentence or paragraph will already be written. The rest of the text is designed to get to that final moment.

At the end of Into? Morgan offers neither resolution nor optimism. The novel finishes without the character having grown much as a person, and without the last-minute appearance of some grand romance or wonderful opportunity. It’s just a heartbreaking realization about his life, made weightier with the knowledge that the whole story was written around it.

Morgan doesn’t expect to get rich or famous from his writing. “I don’t think I’m ever going to make a living out of this,” he says, “and that’s fine, because the very large majority of writers don’t.” In some ways, he deliberately eschews the spotlight, uninterested in changing his art or losing control of it in favor of huge commercial success. He also goes through cycles when writing, oscillating between wanting to write a new book and — after the fact — vowing to never do it again.

“My relationship with writing is very complicated,” he admits. “It’s the thing that makes me happiest, and I feel most successful doing it, but it’s also the most taxing thing that I do.”

In spite of all this, he sees himself continuing to write as long as he can.

“Genuinely, it is the thing that makes me happiest in the world,” he says. “I don’t really get the same contentment from my day to day job.”

In front of the crowd at NYU, Morgan is gracious and personable, fielding questions and speaking about his journey as a writer and a gay man to the gathered crowd. While he’s candid and kind with his answers, there’s still some ambiguity to where North Morgan the person ends and the character begins.

At the end of the event, the organizer invited those in attendance to come up and have their books signed. Just inside the cover of my copy, scrawled in block letters, Morgan writes: “THINK OF ME WHEN YOU’RE LONELY“ and the line between author and character blurs even more.

Chani Nicholas Offers An Intersectional Queer Feminist Reading of Astrology

Astrology is having a moment. Whether it’s wearing one’s sun sign on a sweatshirt or sharing memes related to astrological attributes, people are invested in what their birth time, place, and date dictate. For so long, mainstream astrologers have delivered heteronormative versions of horoscopes, with women’s magazines offering readers hints on when they might Mr. Right or daily newspapers delivering vague one-sentence sentiments that echo the most unimaginative of fortune cookies.

Enter Chani Nicholas.

Nicholas has become the go-to guide for queer, trans, feminist, and other marginalized people looking for a more inclusive and radical astrologer to read the stars and signs. Her approach is less providing a foreboding fate and more of an exploration on what opportunities individuals have to embrace certain aspects of themselves and the world they are a part of; a chance to consider themselves as part of a larger solar system.

“I’m somebody who is really interested in the process that we’re in as people,” Nicholas tells INTO. “And so I’m always trying to absorb — or I’m always in a process of absorbing what’s coming at us and then where that’s landing for us, and what it might be speaking to psychologically, spiritually, individually, collectively in terms of our justice movements; in terms of what is a response that is needed from us.”

Nicholas’s reach on social media and her own website (which gives fans an opportunity to engage with Nicholas in workshops, classes, and personal readings) has given her a platform to not only help individuals with their own questions, but provide helpful and healing thoughts and projections to the general public. 

Nicholas has been interested in astrology since she was 12, saying it’s “just part of [her] makeup”; that the way she thinks about what’s going in on the world comes through not just her own queer, feminist lens, but through an astrological one.

“There’s something that happens in the sky and then I’m looking to see what’s happening on earth and with ourselves,” she says. “So I’m always looking to see what’s the correlation, what meaning might we make at this moment and given the pain or the difficulty of it, how might we give it context, if that’s what’s called for, or just give our experience of it some compassion and some space and some room to exist.”

Because astrology has long been adopted by others as mostly straight, white, and many times, inaccessible, Nicholas’s highly-specific approach has brought disenfranchised people either back to astrology, or to astrology for the first time. 

“I think what astrology understands, and what queers have been fighting for for so long is that there is an individual expression of each of us,” she says. “And gender is a many varied thing, and there are as many expressions of gender as there are stars in the sky, as there are moments in time, and astrology knows that we are all an amulet of a moment of time. We are the constellation of the crystallization of a specific moment in the solar system, in the galaxy, in the cosmos. And so we are imbued with the property that that moment and each of us is incredibly unique because of that.”

Because of that, Nicholas says astrology is unequivocally queer.

“As queers, we’ve always been saying…there are so many ways to love and there are so many ways to express one’s gender that we needn’t be hung up on any two ways because the universe is infinite and human beings are literally made up of stardust and we are infinite in our expressions and our creative capacity and each moment has its own specific astrological template and each human also has that, and so there’s just so many ways to be yourself and the universe is infinitely creative and so are we.”

Tonight, Nicholas will be honored alongside Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, the late writer/activist Jeanne Cordova, and Malkia Cyril by the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice at their 2018 Fueling the Frontlines Gala. Astraea supports LGBTQ human rights organizations around the world, focusing on racial, economic, social, and gender justice, especially as it pertains to LGBTQ people, and Nicholas’s work is right in line. Outside of uplifting LGBTQs and related issues in her work, she also uses her reach to promote these same organizations, ideals, and work. That work is what makes her feel successful in having cultivated this career path for herself, one that is both very personal and political.

“It feels like a responsibility that I am incredibly grateful that I have, and also I’m always looking toward how I’m using what I’m using and if it’s being the greatest service that it can be,” Nicholas says. “I feel a really deep relationship with my work and I feel a really deep relationship with a lot of the people I work with.”

Nicholas has a book coming out next month and while she doesn’t want to say exactly what it is about, You Were Born For This will likely continue her work to help uncover and develop an individual’s approach to finding one’s self, and finding a way in an evolving (or, some would argue, devolving) world. Nicholas provides hope and cautious optimism through her contextualizations; a challenge to a reader instead of a validation or forecast. She works with those who follow her work, engaging in constant conversation with those who have become faithful followers, whether they simply read her posts or choose to participate further.

“I’m in a really beautiful conversation with thousands of people every year,” she says. “I am the recipient of these extraordinary stories of how people have been using and working with the astrology for self-discovery and healing. I feel like it’s an incredible blessing to be in communication with so many people in so many diverse professions through my one profession. It feels like relationship building in a really resonant way.”

Image via Getty

Elle Hearns Launches Marsha P. Johnson Institute To Support And Empower The Black Trans Community

Transgender activist Elle Hearns is launching a new initiative to empower the Black trans community.

Following the notorious Trump Memo, The Marsha P. Johnson Institute (MPJI) has gained viral attention, raising thousands of dollars in mere hours on its GoFundMe. According to its website, the organization aims to “create a crucial entry point for Black trans women and gender non-conforming femmes to obtain the skills, financial and programmatic resources necessary in advocating for an end to violence against all trans people.” At a much-needed time, MPJI offers those most marginalized within the trans community the power to lead.

The organization is named after the legendary trans activist, drag performer, and Stonewall veteran Marsha P. Johnson. She was the subject of numerous artistic, activist, and scholarly projects this year, giving recognition back to the Black trans women who launched the queer and trans movements. Her reputation within the trans community is nothing short of iconic.

Hearns now stands at the forefront of an upcoming wave of trans leadership. She intends to change the growing anti-trans sentiment around the country. And if anyone can do it, it’s her. Hearns boasts a long resumé of expertise in organizing. She served as an ambassador for the Trans Women of Color Collective and coordinated for GetEQUAL. She also organized The Movement for Black Lives conference in 2015. The Root even named her one of the 100 Most Influential African Americans in 2017.

When asked about how MPJI will continue Johnson’s work, Hearns told INTO the initiative will focus on the communities Johnson was most invested in: “We carry on Marsha’s legacy by committing to prioritizing black trans women in all of the possibilities available to us if the world was free of transphobia, anti-blackness, and white supremacy.”

MPJI will offer several different programs and services. Right now, the Institute offers “leadership development through fellowship programs and coalition building,” according to Hearns. While they’re based in Washington D.C., most of their members are in Johnson’s native New York. As the organization continues to grow, they are committed to “civic engagement, direct action, and utilizing art as a form of resistance and power” to protect and defend Black trans and gender nonconforming communities.

While the institute is still in its seed phase, there are already a number of members. They plan on publicly announcing their official team in early 2019. Hearns is currently fundraising to ensure that MPJI can pay its team for their groundbreaking work. Far too often, Black and trans activists are expected to work without wages. Organizers’ labor is devalued and disparaged even by nonprofits that are regarded as progressive or radical. Thankfully, being the recipient of two grants from the Trans Justice Funding Project in 2017 and 2018, there’s no doubt that MPJI will be able to foster the leadership of Black trans people while also compensating them for their efforts.

Jobs are one of MPJI’s top priorities. While trans people are much more likely to be under- or unemployed than our cis counterparts, Black trans women are among the most likely to not have a job. Employers, educational institutions, and landlords all tend to discriminate against Black trans women and deny them access to basic life necessities. By using jobs as a way to foster Black trans leadership, MPJI actually creates long-term social transformation rather than short-term employment opportunities. Hearns expects MPJI will become a major player for trans resilience during the age of Trump.

The Marsha P. Johnson Institute is still fundraising to expand their work through their GoFundMe. You can also learn more about the institute on their website.

The Queer Guide to Getting Paid

Hello, my queens. It’s me, Fran, writer, editor, and full-time homosexual. I don’t know what it is about the vibe I give, but let’s just say queers always come to me with money questions.

I’ve been a freelancer on and off for about six years, and let me tell you the hustle is real. But what’s even more real is that when it comes to queer folk getting coin, more often than not we are taken advantage of because bigger Companies/Corporations/Old Straight People in Burlington Coat Factory Sale Rack Blazers think that because queer people, queer content, queer labor is a “niche market,” that they don’t have to pay you as much.

This, my sisters, is a falsehood. You are worth every penny of the straight man’s dollar and we are gonna get 👏🏽 you 👏🏽 paid 👏🏽. Behold, the toughest love and best advice I have to give in getting paid as a queer person and freelancer.

Assume They Have Money

Especially when it comes to writing, speaking gigs, or consultation, freelancers like to assume that the potential client doesn’t have money, and categorically, that their work doesn’t have value. This is insane.

Your work has value. Let’s say you go into a nice pottery store and pull a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind fruit bowl off the shelf, walk up to the cashier, and the cashier tells you how much it costs. Do you say to the cashier: “Hmm, how about free?” No! You go find yourself a cheap ass pottery store, or you go back to your piggy bank and save up.

When responding to an inquiry, it’s fair for you to establish that they have a budget in as few emails as possible. Sometimes, even the first email. Provide your rate, even when you were never asked. If it’s a smaller project that has a too-small-to-negotiate flat rate or hourly rate, a question I like to ask in the very first email is: “What is the budget for this project/my service?” even when money was not discussed.

If the client came to you and is chasing you for this job, it’s important you keep the email brief. Like, Miranda Priestly “that’s all” brief. I am partial to the email being literally three sentences, as in: “Hi, _____. [Insert kind, quippy nicety about the fact that the project seems cool and you’d love to work on it.] My rate for a project like this is _____. Let me know if you have questions, and thanks. Xx Fran”

As far as how to reach that rate, there are a few steps to it.

Field Research

All right, you have piqued the interest of a potential client. Before you do anything, it’s time to do a little investigative reporter-level digging. Channel your inner Harriet The Spy and think about who you know works in a similar field or has quoted a similar project. I implore you to go to real people before you consult the interwebs, poorly-designed WordPress blogs, and Quora question landing pages — primarily because there is a lot of misinformation out there and it’s difficult to know where to start, and what makes a viable source.

Text, email, DM as many folks as you can asking them if you can ask a finance-related question, then ask it! It’s embarrassing, it feels overly personal, it feels slimy, but you have to ask: What do they quote for a project like this? Provide the details and be transparent. If they have worked for the exact company/client before, ask them what they quoted. Just ask! The worst that can happen is they say they can’t say, and that’s okay! But you’ll be surprised how open people will be about their projects so long as you are not in direct competition with each other, and are kind when you ask. Don’t forget to thank them! Use the consensus you’ve found to build a potential price point.

If you do not have much of a network yet and do not know a single person who can help you price this job, start with the public sources. Check Glassdoor and pay for the free trial of their premium membership. Check sources like Who Pays Writers and other sites that work to create financial transparency. These sites are truly are last resort, though – I strongly recommend a personal connection first, or even DMing someone you don’t know who might be kind enough to respond!

Pricing Yourself

Okay, let’s say you’ve arrived at the number. The big, scary number. It is so big and so scary, you don’t really know what to do with it. Is it right, is it not? Oh, the fretting. Sure, you have been skirting by getting paid less per-hour for your work than someone who works at a Dairy Queen, but hey, you’re a freelancer! This is your dream! You can just make below-minimum wage work for you! No one in the right mind would ever pay you this number anyway.

The fretting, dear reader, is part of the oppression. You wanna know who doesn’t fret over quoting their freelance numbers? Straight white men. You wanna know who does? Queer and marginalized people. Remind yourself that you are worth so much more than a straight white man.

More importantly, you are worth more than this job. It doesn’t matter if this feels like your absolute dream job and you have been waiting for *Kelly Clarkson voice* a moment like this. This client — they are lucky to have you. They are so damn lucky. Remind yourself that you are doing them a service, not vice versa. Remind yourself that you have the upper hand even when it feels like you don’t. Remind yourself that you are a queen, that you are gorgeous, that you are a high-femme raspy Jonathan Van Ness aphorism.

Okay, remember that feeling of confidence I just gave you? Hold onto that. Keep holding. Okay:

Increase that number by 50 percent.

That’s right — increase it by half. That’s your new number now. That’s right, that’s how much you’re worth.

Why? Because you’re worth it, babe.

Why else? Because if they’re gonna negotiate down, you need to start high, and if they don’t negotiate and just take the number, then hey that is a big juicy paycheck that you deserve anyway, mama.

Okay but really why? The government (which you don’t even like, by the way!) is gonna take 40 percent + of your paycheck after the tax year. So keep that in mind.

Email Disposition

This is my definitive rule as a queer emailer: Carry your email presence with the confidence of a mediocre straight white man. What does that look like?

Strong language instead of weak language. That means we never use the phrases, “I think,” “Maybe,” “I might,” “Should,” “Could,” “If,” and “Kind of.” One of the worst offenders is: “If it’s okay…” It’s always okay. Live in the world of a straight white man where literally everything you do is okay. Here’s another big one: “Unfortunately.” Unfortunate for whomst? Their problems are not your problems. Don’t remind them of things you did not promise nor can provide and be your biggest self.

Never apologize. Nope, never. Not when your response is delayed, not when you sent an email by mistake, not when you didn’t come through or had to backtrack on a promise. Nu-uh, under no circumstances. Rethink your language around what you owe to anyone who emails. This will set you free. We as an email culture apologize too much. Queer people, especially, apologize two-fold because we’ve been conditioned to think less of ourselves. Instead of apologizing, consider some alternatives: “Thanks for flagging!” “Good catch! I’ll make updates/changes.” “Thanks for your patience!” “Thanks for the follow-up/bringing this to my attention!” Think of every apology as a tick mark against your worth. With every apology, you become less competent in the client’s subconscious, and as queer folk, we can’t afford that.

Don’t overjustify. It’s important you know your case as to why your service costs this much: this is the industry standard, or this is how many hours it costs, etc. But you do not need to provide these reasons until asked, over email or phone. To overjustify is to make them nervous, or put into question things they may not have even been thinking about.

After you’ve done all this — I like to sprinkle just a touch of gay onto my emails. Remind the client that you are awesome, personable, and witty. Keep your emails upbeat (but firm!), don’t be afraid to crack a joke, or to be kind.

Negotiation

The first thing is to know your limitations before going in. Are you going to accept lower? Perhaps. Know how low you are willing to go before going in. Though every negotiation is different, I find that anything less than 70 percent of what you asked for is out of bounds, but it varies depending on the service/project. Know your absolute rock bottom.

Okay, now ask for the amount point blank with that Miranda Priestly brevity.

Clients like to do this quirky thing when responding to your rate, which is to make you feel bad. Responses like “Oh wow, we did not have that much budgeted,” or “This rate is a little high for a teeny tiny humble little operation like us,” or an actual email I received which is “Your rate would put us out of business.” Do not let this sink into you. Again, this is not your problem. If you let it sink in, you will resort to accepting a lower negotiation, and we’re gonna undo all this hard work I just did trying to boost your confidence.

If they say good day, then send a Guh-Bye-Thanks-For-Your-Time-Shortest-Email-Ever. You owe them nothing, end of story, Rihanna closing her car window gif.

If they are still up for negotiation, or if they throw out a number that nears your rock-bottom number, I suggest throwing one more negotiation their way, somewhere halfway between their number and your initial price. Again, be brief and firm.

If you are thinking of taking a project for an insanely low number or doing it for free, consider weighing the consequences. Will this client be returning to work for you at the same low rate? Will continually working for a low rate for a client take time, energy, and resources away from clients that might actually meet your full rate? Will the member of this industry share around your rate or make it known to other potential clients that you are a cheap deal, therefore getting you even more I-Could-Be-Making-More-Working-Shifts-At-Forever-21 rates?

The only cases in which I work for cheap/free are: 1. The client is literally one of my best friends. That’s right, I said best friend. I don’t even give my cheapo rates to good friends, friends-of-friends, or acquaintances. Nope! 2. The client is a very, very cool client to add to my website/client list and that adds to my client list ensuring better rates next time because future potential clients will trust you because you worked for a hot sexy brand, and pay you your full rate this time. 3. The project is too good to pass up and truly is a once-in-a-lifetime project.

It’s Hard Because It’s Hard.

No one said this was easy. The system of paying freelancers, dear readers, is broken. Freelancers are treated like shit because this behavior has been normalized. Remind yourself that if they are trying to weasel you into cheap labor, that they are part of the problem in this systemic undervaluing of freelancers. When it comes to getting paid, it takes a lot of trial and error before you get it right, so keep telling yourself that. If they walk, or if you have to walk, remind yourself this is not a failure. The only failure would be taking less than you deserve.

Header image via Getty

Jill Soloway Is Speaking, But Not Everyone Wants To Hear It

The public discussion about transgender representation on television has largely been a conversation about Transparent.

In 2014, when the show first debuted on Amazon, creator Jill Soloway (then a cisgender heterosexual-identified woman) came out about their own parent’s transition (exclusive to the New York Times), which was said to have inspired the show. The casting of Jeffrey Tambor in the lead role of Maura was controversial for those both inside and supportive of the trans community, who have been protesting the casting of cis men in the roles of trans women for as long as cis men have been playing them. Soloway’s hiring and mentoring of trans actors cast and crew satisfied some, but not all. The same 2014 Times profile mentioned a heated exchange where Soloway was first publicly taken to task by a trans person unhappy about Tambor’s casting. Despite the contention, Soloway, Tambor, and Transparent won awards and critical accolades over the first four seasons and helped to foster more cultural conversations around trans identity and people.

Four years later, a lot has changed. 

Soloway now identifies as non-binary, preferring they/them pronouns, and has been dating women after divorcing their husband. These changes were followed by Tambor’s termination for the alleged sexual harassment of two trans women on set (Tambor’s former assistant Van Barnes and Transparent co-star Trace Lysette) and gave way to harsher criticisms of the person behind the show, especially after early statements and reports purported Soloway’s support not of Barnes and Lysette, but of Tambor. Amazon eventually fired Tambor from the show, leaving Soloway to work around Maura’s exit for the fifth and final season.

Their latest work, She Wants It, is a memoir — their second. The first one, from 2005, seems like it was from an entirely different person, and not the same individual who was then a parent to two young sons and a television writer looking to Make It in Hollywood. Musings in that memoir, Tiny Ladies in Shiny Pants: Based on a True Story, were less evolved.

“Much like transgender people who felt their whole lives like something was just off, my soul had actually slipped into the wrong body,” Soloway wrote 10 years before Transparent. “Here it was, finally, the truth: I was a gay man trapped in a woman’s body.” In another section, they write: “How was I supposed to know lesbians had feelings, too?” believing their lesbian professor wouldn’t “take me seriously until the hair on my head was shorter than the hair under my arms.”

She Wants It is Soloway’s update on their own personal evolution, peppered with tidbits of interest to the Hollywood set, LGBTQs paying attention to pop culture’s sudden interest in trans people, and feminists — but mostly to those who are an intersection of the three. The publicity tour included morning talk shows and typical mainstream press, as well as highly-publicized events in major cities boasting guests like Lindy West, Roxane Gay, and Morgan Parker. In a handful of events, Soloway’s sister, Faith, performed songs from the Transparent musical she’s been readying, and in others, feminist debates were staged between the likes of Eileen Myles and Masha Gessen. 

“You know, it was a slow process,” Soloway told INTO. “It wasn’t like a big day of like ‘Hey, I’m queer and non-binary.’ It’s over the course of many years in the book where it’s like I think I might be gay. I think I might be, and then moving to the space that was non-binary identity.”

It’s not difficult to see why some still find Soloway’s whole thing to be a circus act borrowing from marginalized people whose identities have long been co-opted for capital gain. The book is the first account of their parent’s coming out as trans, Soloway’s initial reaction, and the speed at which they spun it into fodder for a TV series. The book is not entirely navel-gazing — there are some thought-provoking ideas regarding the somewhat homoerotic way powerful men regard one another and their use and disposal of women in the process, as well as regarding gendered parenting — but there is certainly a huge focus on Soloway’s late-in-life sex and gender awakening, as well as some details on Tambor’s exit from Transparent

“Well, I’m attempting to take some sort of radical liberation, radical feminist, radical trans liberation and hide them in a kind of more popular culture voice,” Soloway said of the book. “I like to simplify certain aspects of politics, and I also like to do my best to remain vulnerable and likable.”

Perhaps what people want most from Soloway is, well, transparency — to feel like they aren’t being duped into falling for a show, a series, a thought-process that will inevitably disappoint them by being something else entirely. Soloway’s defense of Tambor from when he was first cast up until he was let go from the show had some seeing Soloway as a co-conspirator of sorts; an apologist on the side of the cis straight man accused of harassing members of the community he is not a part of but is honored by Hollywood for portraying. 

Still, as conversations about Woody Allen move toward the culpability of the women who have worked and continue to work with him, so do those about holding women and marginalized people accountable for the actions of the offending men.

I think that anybody who’s not a white male of a certain class is going to be [wrestling with this] because the moment you open your mouth and you put yourself out there and say ‘This is me,’ you’re vulnerable,” Soloway said. 

“We have so much to do and sometimes I feel way too powerful and way too loud,” they continued. “And then, a few days ago I was in New York and I was doing an interview from the floor of the stock exchange for a website called Cheddar. I looked around at the stock exchange and went: ‘Nothing that’s going on here, even for an instant, takes into account the power of queerness or feminism.'”

Soloway straddles two worlds — one in which queerness and feminism reign, and the other is dominated by big business and binaries. Transparent, She Wants It, and subsequent queer, trans, feminist-themed projects (including their book imprint with Amazon) are attempts at marrying the two — which is a difficult task and not one that either side is much interested in. This is especially true when considering that many trans people aren’t thrilled with Soloway — despite now identifying on the trans spectrum — being the mouthpiece for the community. 

“I think it’s kind of scary to interact with people who are more educated than I am in the trans community who are calling me out for speaking from a place of privilege without having experienced certain kinds of oppression,” Soloway said. “I think my privilege around accessing audience and my voice is always going to get in my way. I’m always going to be offending people because I’m always going to be speaking from a place of…I’m always going to be fighting PC around my privilege. That’s, I think, a hard thing to do, to say I don’t know everything yet. I’m going to come out and speak for this movement because I’ve found myself in this place from having made Transparent and that’s scary.”

Soloway is well aware of their critics, specifically from within their own LGBTQ community. 

“People have learned to bully and humiliate others as a way to feel powerful, and so when I see people doing it to me from inside the movement, I just look at them and I think they feel powerless in the exact same way,” Soloway said. “I ask myself if there was somebody I didn’t agree with, how loudly and how angrily would I attack them if they were from my community. Would I want to hang somebody out to dry publicly if they were from within my community? And I don’t do that, you know. I email somebody privately. I have a private conversation with them.”

In She Wants It, Soloway writes about having one of those conversations with Lysette after finding out Lysette went to the press with her allegations against Tambor. 

“We could handle this, I wanted to tell her, but let us do it internally, inside the family,” Soloway writes. “If Trace released a statement, it would be over for Jeffrey. And that meant Maura. The show. Our TV family. Everything.” The emotional conversation, as recalled by Soloway, supports the idea that Soloway would prefer to have some conversations in private — though others, it appears, are totally fine to have in public, or fictionalized on a television show. The week of this conversation, it first became public that Soloway was dating Hannah Gadsby, something else Soloway declines to comment on for now, despite having a very public relationship (and breakup) with poet Eileen Myles (also detailed in the book).

You know, nobody out here really likes the question: ‘What do your kids think?'” Soloway said. “I don’t really like that question. I get asked that. It has absolutely nothing to do with my work. Nobody is asking politicians ‘What your kids think of your work?’ and I’m doing political work. I’m attempting to use the power of story and narrative to create motions of centering. How to center, how to move yourself from the feeling of being other to the feeling of being centered. And so it seems like I’m kind of the creative confessional housewife who’s telling her story because it’s juicy and it’s not that, you know?”

During their first Los Angeles appearance for She Wants It, Soloway took the stage to talk hot topics with Roxane Gay. Gay, a prolific and highly lauded writer and academic, shared that she has recently been trying to be less harsh on people who she finds things in common with, but has fundamental disagreements with — “Like Bernie supporters,” she suggested. Soloway seems to agree with this approach, or at least, finds the position to be more appealing than wasting time listening to detractors and self-doubt.

Sometimes I go ‘Jill, you’re too loud — shut up. Don’t publish the book, don’t speak, people are going to come after you, don’t, don’t,'” Soloway said. “And sometimes I go, ‘Actually, you haven’t even begun to have a real dent.’ I mean, women and queer people haven’t even begun to have a real dent in this political world. So you know, sacrifice the discomfort, sacrifice the potential arrows and just go for it.”

Despite winning highly-coveted awards and million dollar budgets, Soloway believes that the privilege and power they have are still so small compared to the larger, cisgender, male-driven heterosexual world that LGBTQs, women, and minorities exist in. She Wants It deploys some sports metaphors in order to help illustrate some points, and the same is true in conversation. 

“We simply aren’t even really beginning to affect the world in any real way,” Soloway said. “When I think about this budget of Transparent for four years, we’re still not even adding up to a small part of one baseball player’s salary. Four years of production, everybody’s job would be the leg of Giancarlo Stanton. One person — one baseball player and not even his whole body would be all of our capacity at Transparent.

What Soloway wants is for men to read She Wants It. Specifically, they want “cis men to engage in some of the concepts” in the book — like that their toxic homosociality and shame keep them from being able to see women as anything but objects or pawns.

They have been asked by alpha men, ‘Hey, let’s humiliate this woman together just by talking about her, by calling her a slut, by calling her a whore behind her back.’ Straight men need to say ‘I hate that when it happens to me,'” Soloway suggested. “They have been the object of this kind of bullying by being told they’re a pussy or they’re a sissy by men just like this. So I really hope that’s the one thing that would be really cool is if this book was able to move out of LGBTQ biographies, feminist rabble-rousing, and move into — I’m interested in the kind of thought leadership that people like Malcolm Gladwell get to do, and they bring ideas into the culture and the culture discusses them.”

Soloway is looking for more feminist intellectuals — they offer Gay and Jessica Valenti — and their work to break into the cis male mainstream. 

“I’m reading some of the most amazing scholarship about consent and desire and you never see men talking about it, tweeting it, promoting it,” Soloway said. “For years all of us have been — I have been promoting and forwarding and admiring the works of men, whether it’s David Sedaris or Augusten Burroughs or Jon Stewart or David Letterman. Every single man who has defined my culture since the age of 21. So women, queer women, we’ve all been promoting the works of men. Why aren’t men promoting our work? Why aren’t men talking about and promoting and engaging with our ideas and work?”

A valid question, to be sure, but it makes one wonder if Soloway’s latest identity is a manifestation of needing to look more butch in order to feel deserving of that kind of seriousness. In several instances — both pre-She Wants It, in She Wants It, and on the book tour — Soloway insists that part of their new more masculine-of-center appearance is one in which they felt more powerful, “free to be a thinker.” There is a distinct difference between eschewing femininity for its personal aesthetic vs. its public appeal, and at times, it can feel like Soloway’s butchness is an orchestrated look — nonbinary, but make it fashion. Perhaps that’s because the dramatics of the “before” and “after” accompanied by commentary on the change are sometimes off-putting, which is why commentary from some Transparent fans who went to see Soloway’s book tour share a tortured, not-quite-sure sentiment.

Sometimes I’m just inspired by the way somebody like Trump thought he could be president,” Soloway said, “and the way that white men of a certain class believe they have the right to power. And the dream is — you know, for a queer trans person in my lifetime –the dream is for nonbinary vision of God.”

The struggle for Soloway, and other public figures who identify as and ultimately represent marginalized communities such as trans and queer folk, is that their public platform affords them a voice and visibility that has long been denied. Soloway understands that, but doesn’t see it as a reason to ignore the soapbox built for them to step upon, even if others would prefer they give the mic to someone else they deem more qualified. 

“The book feels like it’s really the right thing at the right time for me right now,” they said. “It couldn’t actually be more newsworthy to last week, to be in public — last month in a public, political conversation around confronting Kavanaugh, and this week being in a public political conversation around trans bodies. It actually feels very much the right time and the right book and the right conversation.”

Images via Getty

Isaac Flores and the Queer Muses of Barcelona

I met the Spanish photographer Isaac Flores at a cafe called La Principal, where we sat outside amidst the cars and the people and talked about his work, under the Barcelona sun. Sitting between a coca cola and a coffee, we discussed the thriving underground LGBTQ scene of Barcelona’s nightlife and Flores’s medium of choice. His work — his name — is known within the intimate group of Spanish queens and performers.

When I ask what parties in the city I should attend, he suggests Believe Club, where there is a drag show every night, but admits that most events are word of mouth. If I’m not intertwined with the community (which I’m not as a tourist in Barcelona), it can be difficult to traverse the whereabouts of the gritty underground scene. But if anyone knows, it’s him.

“Color can be a distracting thing,” Flores says of his black-and-white images. “The first thing you may see is a hat, or a lipstick color, or a dress. But in black and white, the first thing you see is the face or the eyes.” Still, he says, “I like to combine. I’m very versatile.”

Las Vichys

The images in the dark, among the club walls, display people in contrast. The whites of their eyes and the blacks of their outfits eliminate unnecessary detail. The viewer is forced to look into the face of the model, their confident faces, their sensual poses. In his Belladonna series, figures in lingerie and strings of pearl necklaces are lumped over one another, looking directly in the camera, their identities both revealed and hidden. BDSM and body modifications are captured in these works alongside performances, freedom of sexuality, and the gritty underground of the city.

The black and white works examine the “present” state of the party, while Flores’s photographs in color are more polished, refined. They act as the “before” to the party. They are before the ripped tights, before the kissing on the dancefloor, before the sun rises the next morning.

La Fernanda

It’s interesting to note when he chooses to decide to utilize color as opposed to black and white. Joy, and glamour are rich in Flores’s images, especially in the portrait of Gilda. The 90-year-old woman fled from a town outside of Barcelona where her brothers were trying to murder her. Gilda found safety in Barcelona. 

“I can’t portray her soul in black and white,” Flores says. “I wanted to portray her in color, because I think she was living a life in darkness.”

Gilda Love

Flores shoots on polaroids, film, and digital, documenting the hearts beating in Barcelona. Through his lens, his models are glorified and, more importantly, archived.

He grew up a little bit outside of the center of the city of Barcelona in Hospitalet de Llobregat, where his mother is a housekeeper and his father was a handyman. He explains that while growing up, he relied on small references to outside culture — like music videos (Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” from director David LaChapelle) — that pertained to his gay sexuality and exploration with more feminine qualities. He didn’t have any references within his community. He was reserved, and never enjoyed school. In order to fit in and stay out of trouble, he reshaped his identity. Because of this, he says, “I feel like I’ve lost an important amount of time from my childhood and teenage years.”

When Flores was 18, his mother bought him his first camera. “My mother has always been supportive,” he says. “I owe her everything.”

In 2017, he bought an analog camera.

I didn’t have any artistic intention, I just wanted to shoot,” he says. At 24, he is shooting what he knows—his friends, muses, and community. He was able to create a style for himself which includes the themes of his immediate surroundings.

Layla D’Angelo

When Flores finished secondary school, he became more intertwined in the Barcelona gay community, going to discotheques, falling in love for the first time.

“When you break with your environment you have to start again,” he says, adding that he feels blessed to now live in Barcelona. “I can dress like a monster and no one will want to punch me in the face. They aren’t going to treat you like a freak.”

In this city, he found a space to fit in, where he could thrive as an individual and be his true self.

“When it’s a party, I go to the club. It’s normal for me,” Flores says.

He usually knows everyone at the party; he isn’t a stranger.

“When you are giving something to the community, the community normally responds,” he says. By celebrating the queer community through photography, the scene welcomes him. Everyone loves a good photo of themselves, supporting a friend practicing their skills. He’s treated well in the clubs — he’s given drinks, admired by his friends, and, in the process, has built his portfolio.

Flores explains that word-of-mouth discos are preferred to the gay nightspots, as the city is attempting to crack down on clubs and their hours of operation. The non-profit social clubs that exist in Barcelona ( “cannabis clubs”)  are being regulated by authorities as the Barcelona City Hall plans to place restrictions on clubs which includes limited hours of operation.

“There are only 10 [LGBTQ] clubs in Barcelona. But when they don’t let you grow, it’s a little difficult,” he says.  “When you start, you think you will go big. But then you see a wall.”

Merltxell “El Rossinyol”

Flores sometimes goes into the club without his camera; without the intent to work.

“The camera is an extra,” he says, “When I was a fashion photographer, I was a fashion photographer. Now, I decide. If I want to go to a party and not take the camera, I don’t take the camera. I take the camera when I know it’s going to work. I want people to see me as a person, not as a photographer.”

As an artist, Flores’s process is always intentional. He’s always choosing to shoot, or not to shoot. To create with color, or work with black and white. While the images are chaotic, wild with sex and parties, his practice is serious and thoughtful.

Flores’s work will always be changing, growing, and celebratory. In the queer utopian community of Barcelona, the parties continue and the shots are taken. At only 24, he is finding his ground documenting his queer underground, the images detailing the blur of the night and freshness of day. He is illustrating a timeline of queer figures in Spain, his work a historical mapping of the artists, performers, dancers, and identities that make up queer and trans Spanish people in this metropolitan city.

Isaac Flores’ book, “Barcelona Se Muere,” is now available.  

Header image of The Woolman Family