RIP Another Queer Woman Character On TV

*Caution: Spoilers for the Lifetime series You ahead*

“James Franco and I did not end well,” is just one of the absurd quips to cross the lips of Peach Salinger on Lifetime’s new stalker-drama series You.

Played by Shay Mitchell — who also played gay on Pretty Little Liars — Peach was queer and struggled with her identity in the narrow-minded world of haughty Manhattan socialites. She was the fictional heiress of J.D. Salinger and was equal parts caring and manipulative in an obsession with her best friend that spiraled beyond her control.

She was probably one of my favorite TV characters of all time, her queerness being just the icing on her bitchy cake — and yes, I’m using the past tense, because last night, Peach Salinger was killed off of You.

Though she was often cruel and conniving, she deserves to be eulogized just like every other victim of the Bury Your Gays trope. So, let’s pour out an expensive cocktail for Peach. 

You is based on the novel by Caroline Kepnes and follows Beck (Elizabeth Lail) and Joe (Penn Badgley) — or rather, Joe is the one following Beck. Beck is your average starving poet who has a habit of bewitching everyone she encounters, including Joe, a hopeless romantic bookstore clerk with a dark side. (To borrow Penn Badgley’s nickname from Gossip Girl, he’s basically Lonely Boy 2.0.) He becomes obsessed with Beck and begins stalking her, then dating her while stalking her and putting hits out on anyone who treats her badly. It’s terrifying, but a brilliant testament to the writing (the writers’ room skews female) that viewers can even care about him when he’s, well, just another murderous stalker dude.

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Joe’s first major roadblock is a guy Beck is hooking up with, who he murders in cold blood. But he finds his greatest enemy in Beck’s best friend from college, Peach, who we come to find out is also in love with — and sort of stalking — Beck. Because Beck and Joe are both bookworms, Peach is like a shiny, glittery celebrity when Beck first introduces them. Beck points her out to Joe and brags: yes, like “that” Salinger. Peach is always wearing the chicest and sexiest outfits, sipping swanky drinks, and popping pills in a way that only rich people on TV tend to — as in, “I’m rich, I need a Valium to take the edge off.”

Right off the bat, Joe finds out that Peach cares deeply for her best friend, and shows it in the only ways she knows how — by spoiling her with rent checks and generous offers like “let’s move to Paris together, for free.” However, he also learns not to trust Peach, and sees how she dangles her charisma, her closeness with Beck, and her generous favors over her best friend’s head like they’re in a gang together—which they’re not, but if Gossip Girl taught me anything, it’s that well-dressed, drug-addled socialites really are in their own mafia-like family.

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So, if Peach is so awful, why do we love her? Well, first of all, I have a type, and it’s mean girls with defined clavicles who are Shay Mitchell. But seriously, we’ve all had that friend who holds things over our heads in a visibly unhealthy way — one that’s toxic in hindsight, but can be easily confused for a meaningful, mutually respectful relationship. So, I get why Beck loves her, and when you have so much rich history together, like they do, it can be hard to sever ties.

Plus, Peach is the most elegant monster I’ve ever seen. She traffics in chicness, exchanging favors for introductions to Manhattan’s finest—she knows everyone, and she lets you know it. In one of her final episodes, she decides she has a stalker, in that problematic, victim-blamey “I’m hot and rich, obviously somebody wants to stalk me” type of way. And even though it’s Joe who’s tailing her, she immediately assumes it’s James Franco. All of Peach’s “friends” are drug users, social climbers, and douches, one of whom gets fucked up and gropes Beck, and when Beck reports the incident back to Peach, Peach quips, “He hasn’t used since 9/11!”

Peach is iconic, from every jeer to every devilish smirk and long tress of Pantene commercial-looking hair she flips over her bony shoulders. She’s easy to worship in the same way that Regina George once was — if Regina was queer and desperately needed to be held and freed from her childhood traumas.

Late in Peach’s storyline, Joe uncovers a result of such traumas — Peach’s biggest secret: a folder on her laptop titled “GB” (Guinevere Beck — Beck’s real name), which is loaded with photos of her best friend, from as far back as college. Some of the photos are nude — most of them were taken without her permission.

Afterward, Joe monologues about how bad he actually feels for Peach, his greatest competition, having been raised in world that made her stifle who she was and who she wanted to love so much so that she buried it away, told herself it was dirty, locked it in a secret folder, and suffocated it until it screamed for air and transmogrified into a psychotic obsession.

You offers an important commentary on the real-life dangers and repercussions of repression, homophobia and internalized homophobia. So, while it’d be easy to lump Peach’s character into the trope of evil bisexuals, or the Bury Your Gays trope — she’s more complicated than that. To be fair, the show is just following the original narrative from the book, and her death wasn’t gratuitous, or all for nothing. You is definitely a queer ally — one that smirks at you with a depraved, wink-wink-nudge-nudge type of grin.

With that being said, Peach is absolutely an evil queer—but it’s just sort of awesome. In her final moments, she saunters toward Joe wearing jet black lingerie and a silk robe, aiming a handgun at his skull, and suddenly, I found myself wanting her to murder me. There I was Sunday night, sinking deep into my couch nest, wanting to get chased through the bright green grassy grounds of an heiress’s estate by an armed, evil bisexual.

Peach Salinger was sinister — every word that spilled from her glossy lips was a veiled threat. If she told you “nice jacket,” you’d know damn well not to show your face in public again in that jacket. And I know by this point I sound like the “One time she punched me in the face — it was awesome” chick from Mean Girls, but seriously; one time, Peach Salinger (allegedly) leaked a video of her friend drunkenly making racist remarks at a college party, simply as retribution—earlier that day, that same friend posted a #tbt of her and Peach before Peach’s nose job—a carnal sin.

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But while I’m being the “one time she punched me in the face” girl, here’s a run of Peach’s greatest hits: She took molly and pegged a man in her mansion. She demanded Beck ask Joe to leave because “having male energy in her healing space” wasn’t “optimal.” She faked an overdose so Beck would ditch her man and come sleep over. Peach is a psychotic closet monster who’s completely devoid of any self-awareness, and I fucking stan.

But I also feel for her. A younger version of me would’ve been completely spooked and offended by any sort of predatory depiction of a queer woman on TV—but this one wasn’t necessarily predatory, even if she did get Beck high and kiss her (WHICH ROCKED), and ultimately left Beck feeling confused and manipulated. But Peach fell in love with her best friend in a world that told her she’d never be able to say that out loud, or receive that love back — and sure, she spiraled into a well of irreparable, sociopathic darkness — but it made my heart sink to watch.

So, rest in peace, Peach Salinger. I’m sorry you never loved yourself enough to feel worthy of another person’s love. I’m sorry you had to bury your secret and cover it with drug use, bombast, and drop-dead gorgeous dresses. You were thrilling to watch, and I’m devastated by the loss of another queer character, especially one this vivacious.

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And though I’ll miss your cheap shots and wicked leers, I’m not mad it’s over — I’m grinning devilishly because it happened.

Header image via Getty

Lambda Legal Goes After Kansas Trans Birth Certificate Ban

Kansas is one of just three states that bar trans people from changing the gender marker on their birth certificates, and Lambda Legal is taking aim at that ban.

On Monday, the group hit the state with a federal lawsuit on behalf of four transgender Kansans who want their birth certificates updated.

“The birth certificate policy at issue in this case is archaic and discriminatory,” said Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, senior attorney at Lambda Legal, in a statement. “By denying people the ability to correct their gender marker on their birth certificates, Kansas is forcing transgender people in effect to lie about who they are and to navigate life with inaccurate identity documents.”

Among the plaintiffs is Jessica Hicklin, a Missouri inmate who made history earlier this year by successfully challenging that state’s policy of denying trans people affirming medical care they weren’t receiving prior to arrest. Hicklin was born in Kansas, and the state will not issue her a birth certificate recognizing her as female.

Other plaintiffs include LGBTQ youth and anti-violence activist Nyla Foster as well as transgender and disability advocate Luc Bensimon. A fourth trans male plaintiff who wishes to remain anonymous has been identified only by the initials C.K. He lives in Tulsa, Okla., where he worries the birth certificate places him at risk of violence from being outed.

The suit further argues that the current policy forces trans people to out themselves in sensitive situations, like starting a new job.

Plaintiff Luc Bensimon, who has a mild form of cerebral palsy, said the policy complicates every aspect of his life.

“Having to present a birth certificate that incorrectly identifies me as female makes it easier for people to discriminate against me based on my gender identity, on top of the discrimination I already confront based on my disability,” he said in a statement.

The suit says the state violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. It also points out that it’s out of sync with federal procedures on updating passports and in-state protocol for issuing driver’s licenses.

In an email to INTO, Kansas Department of Health and Environment Deputy Secretary of Public Affairs Theresa Freed said the matter has already played out in a state court. In 2016, a Topeka woman unsuccessfully sued to change her birth certificate. In that case, a Shawnee County District Court judge ruled that it was beyond the Department’s purview to amend birth certificates.

“The Kansas Department of Health and Environment does not have the authority to change an individual’s birth certificate, with the exception of minor corrections or by court order,” Freed said. “Gender identity would not be considered a minor correction.”

Image via Lambda Legal

Nomi Ruiz Welcomes You To Her Resistance

Nomi Ruiz isn’t trying to cause trouble — most of the time.

Over her now 15-year-career, the performing artist-turned-actress has made international headlines for being herself.

“I think when I see people sort of resist, that it makes me want to do it more,” she says. She’s not being cheeky—although she’s great at that, too — she’s being honest. “I don’t know if that’s a rebellious thing or — I mean it is me.”

Take, for instance, the time she performed on live television in Greece. She’d been living there for several months, writing music, engaging in “Greek soap opera” love affairs, including a short-lived marriage (“I was married less time than Kim Kardashian was. 77 days? I didn’t even make it that far.”), when she was invited to perform with one of the country’s biggest male pop stars, Sakis Rouvas.

“We were singing a duet together on stage and we had this kiss at the end that was unexpected,” Ruiz says. “I was just having fun and then the next day, it was this huge thing — a trans woman kissed this famous guy on TV and the whole country was in a debate. We were in every newspaper and every talk show and it was sort of a scandal.”

Her friend told her not to leave her apartment.

“I was like ‘Wow, I didn’t expect that,’” Ruiz recalls. “But then I was like ‘That is awesome  — people needed to be shaken up.”

Ruiz is ultimately happy to be making headlines, even if she doesn’t personally find it so radical for her to have received a peck on stage. But as a Latinx trans woman, she’s long dealt with others politicizing her body and identity, especially gatekeepers of the music industry.

“I’ve been told time and time again — maybe because I’m Latin and a woman of trans experience — they’re like, ‘You need to tone down your sexuality because a lot of people don’t process.’ I’m like ‘What?’ I’m not gonna change because I’m trying to attain a certain level of success and it may be easier to wear a sweatshirt and sneakers. It’s easier for people to absorb something that’s not so femme or female or not supposed to be, I guess?”

Even in a sweatsuit, Nomi Ruiz would exude sex, though — it’s just what comes natural to her. Sitting casually comfortable in a No Sesso denim mini-skirt jumper that hugs at her hips after posing in several different looks throughout the cover shoot, Ruiz isn’t apologizing for being what some have told her comes off as “sexually threatening.”

“I’ve been told I can’t be sexy and be a feminist — ‘You can’t dress that way and be provocative and feed into misogyny’ or something,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I own my body. I own my sexuality. I’m proud of my body. I’m proud of my sex. And I love having sex with men, and that doesn’t affect my stance of empowerment.”

Ruiz says she’s channeling this furor into a new song for a forthcoming solo album, a song called “Feminist.”

“It’s funny when women say that to other women — that’s the extreme opposite of feminism. You’re being misogynist because you’re telling a woman what she can and cannot do,” she says. “For me, the whole point of feminism is we do whatever the fuck we want with whoever we want however we want while wearing whatever we want.”

Ruiz grew up in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a New York neighborhood the Times deemed “not quite trendy” two years ago, but has seen some gentrification since, which means it’s suddenly “cool and still affordable.” A largely Latinx and Asian population calls the neighborhood home, and Ruiz says she was raised on a steady diet of R&B and hip-hop and her Puerto Rican parents. Her mom and brother were her earliest encouragers, she says, as was Anohni, the Grammy-nominated artist who introduced a young Ruiz to Andy Butler of Hercules and Love Affair after Anohni’s collaboration with the project spawned the hit disco-pop single “Blind” and other tracks that ended up on Hercules’s debut album.

“Over the years, Anohni has really been someone who has been pushing me to elevate myself and also give me an example of an artist who was so sure to their own identity,” Ruiz says. “And their own sound, too  — a really unique sound and when I saw that become so successful, it really gave me hope that ‘Oh yeah, believe in yourself — don’t try to conform. Do what you do. Be the realest you can be.’ That’s what people really honor.”

Ruiz’s first big break came touring with Hercules, of which Andy Butler is the only consistent member. She took on Anohni’s vocal parts (Anohni wasn’t interested in touring), becoming recognizable as part of the ensemble that, at the time, also included DJ Kim Ann Foxman, Morgan Wiley, and Andrew Raposo. The press for the self-titled debut was exciting Ruiz was photographed and interviewed by the likes of Vogue for the first time. Still, it was all-too-clear to Ruiz that she had no ownership over Hercules, and was ultimately disappointed when she returned home from tour broke.

“With Hercules, even though it was successful, it didn’t turn out to be what I hoped it would be,” she says. “It was something that I thought I would get more support, feel more supported and feel more like a family vibe. It was my first real taste of what the industry could be like — ‘Oh, this is not RuPaul’s Best Friend Race.’ But I guess that was a good hard lesson, and it also taught me to once again believe in myself and my own talents because it was so easy to depend on that machine — I’m playing the biggest shows, I’m on every magazine, everything seems great but within my soul, I was feeling bad and not fulfilled as an artist, not what I’d worked so hard for to feel this way. “

Trans and gender nonconforming musicians have fought to elevate their profiles and prove their talent in a more public way, but are often relegated to the background. In some cases, they’re heard and not seen. Earlier this year, Drake sampled Big Freedia in his ode-to-women “Nice for What” but, despite casting several prominent performers for the music video, the New Orleans bounce artist was oddly MIA. This wasn’t the first time this had happened to Big Freedia either — Beyonce employed Freedia’s voice in her “Formation” music video, and later, for her Lemonade tour, but didn’t include her in any of the visual elements. Later, Drake would invite Freedia to appear in his “In My Feelings” video and Beyonce brought Freedia to the stage on a tour stop in New Orleans, but, as Myles Johnson pointed out in his piece “The Ghost of Big Freedia,” “Big Freedia has been continuously used for her voice, words, and energy, but her body is always abstracted from the visual element of these mainstream moments.”

Ruiz has experienced a similar phenomenon, though, in her experience, her invite has been reliant on being a guest of the white cis men accompanying her.

“I don’t know if I was doing it intentionally, but I was realizing I was being accepted because of Hercules,” she says. “Everyone is allowing me now finally into the industry because I was working behind this white boy. I’m like ‘OK, I see what’s going on here.’”

After Hercules, she started her own electro-pop group, Jessica 6, the name inspired partly by a character in the dystopian novel-turned-film Logan’s Run and Prince’s girl groups featuring Apollonia, including Apollonia 6 and Vanity 6. But in the early iteration of that group, she also worked with two other men.

“I was like ‘OK, if I put myself in a place where I’m showing people two guys, it’s easier to absorb than just this sexually threatening trans woman,’” she explains. “I noticed over time that on the features I’ve been on — I’ve worked with a lot of male DJs and producers over my career, labels are quick to flock to those if it’s just a feature, if it’s not really me. It’s easier for them to sort of absorb and promote and market — they feel more comfortable in that way. So I’ve done a lot of that but now I think I’m getting to the point where I’m like ‘You know what? Now it’s time to write my own.’”

On her new Jessica 6 album, The Eliot Sessions, Ruiz is the undisputed focus. The album is an eight-song collection of party-perfect grooves with Ruiz emoting and harmonizing over synthesizers and sensual beats, at times demanding, others pleading. On oceanic opener “The Storm Inside,” she sings about the tsunami threatening to spill out of her: “Can you feel the weather inside me, crashing into the shore/Can you see the storm inside my eyes/Crying out for more?”

“‘The Storm Inside’ is about facing your fear and diving into love which is what I’ve been like — which is not always the best idea, but I’ve always been that way with everything in my life,” Ruiz says. “I try not to let my fear guide me, even with my relationships. I take risks. I’m not afraid to go deep and if it goes left, it can always go right.”

“Get Loaded” is a double-entendre but, instead of focusing on the inebriation one might assume, Ruiz sings about wanting white picket fences, marriage, a baby carriage: “Beautiful girls of the world deserve it all /We have the right to get loaded/We want the good life too!/We have the right to get loaded.”

“There’s a lot of beautiful, heartbreaking love songs on there, too, like there’s one called ‘Drunk On Your Love’ which is really cool — which is about fucking to forget someone, which doesn’t work,” she laments.

 

“Drunk On Your Love” is a sad plea for her lover to return and replenish her “liquid high.” “Do You Love Me?” has her professing her need for her love “like a rose needs water.”  “Dance For Your Love” ends with the upbeat club-fit “toast to life”: “Don’t you want to live your truth and always survive?”

“It’s a really colorful record,” she says. “It goes in a lot of different places.”

I mention to Ruiz that some of her work is an interesting juxtaposition, successfully pairing club with some of the saddest ruminations on the record — and past records as well.

“I think there’s something cool about having music you can move to — it subliminally gets into your system, you know? When you’re dancing and you’re in a club — when we go out we’re trying to escape the day or the pressures of just moving along in society. We go out and listen to music and we’re dancing. The work I do is more escapist. So I think to put these elements of real deep emotion while you’re just sort of letting go helps the spiritual aspect of shaking off the demons in a way.”

Recently, Ruiz has been exploring a new creative pursuit — acting. She appeared on the second episode of FX’s Sons of Anarchy spinoff Mayans M.C. in September and is starring in the upcoming feature, The Haymaker, from director Nicholas Sasso. Both projects are set in highly-masculine scenarios — Mayans M.C. is about a Latinx biker gang and The Haymaker follows a Muay Thai fighter (Sasso) who meets Ruiz’s character, a trans performer, and becomes her bodyguard, confidant, and lover. While she enjoyed the experiences, Ruiz says she’s been inspired to write roles for herself now — the kind that she wishes had been available for her to see other women like her inhabit when she was coming of age and exploration.

“I wonder what that would be like if I’d grown up seeing images like that on television,” she says. “I would have probably felt a little more normal. I’m hoping that that’s what I can do for other girls.”

Ruiz is always looking out for her sisters. Her friendship with Chilean actress Daniela Vega, star of the Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman, inspired some international headlines, just like her 2012 moment in Greece. The two met in New York and reconnected when Ruiz went to Chile to play a music festival.

“[Daniela] was like ‘I want to walk the red carpet with you, hand in hand, I want it to be a moment for us,’” Ruiz remembers. “It was really that moment that launched so much — it was another one of these moments where the next day it was in every newspaper and on TV and making history. It’s funny how these things make history just by being present by just being in a space where you’re not supposed to be.”

The excitement spurred another idea: a doubleheader with Ruiz and Vega performing together live.

“We’re so strong together you know? It’s such a powerful image to see how people are moved by our connection and seeing us work together and holding hands together,” Ruiz says. “It was really a moment that launched so much.”

Again, there was politicizing and backlash from the conservative right.

“Because of a concert! So intense,” Ruiz says. “We’re like ‘We’re going to call it the Resistance Show. You want to make it political? Fine! It’s called the Resistance Show. You’re only allowed to come if you’re not a bigot and we’re going to change all of the bathrooms to gender neutral, which they’d never done in the country before. We made it a real cool moment for fans there.”

Ruiz speaks about this kind of advocacy proudly but casually. She finds it amusing that some people feel so strongly about her putting on a show, something she’s both born and called to do. Part of that calling is helping to elevate other artists with her record label, Park Side Records. The first is model and multi-media artist Martine, whose debut single, “Origin,” features Ruiz in a collaboration born of their friendship as well as a partnership.

“I think I have a good ear and eye and Martine is pretty bomb,” Ruiz says. “I mean she’s epic and I just want people to see her and hear her the way I have.”

Ruiz says she’s still learning how to run a label because she’s never really worked closely with the “machine” that is that part of the industry, one she says she never trusted. She’s mostly self-released (The Eliot Sessions is on Park Side, too) and so this is the first time she’s utilizing her pull to promote another artist.

“I want artists to feel like their part of a family and trust who they are giving their music to and still own their music,” Ruiz says. “There are so many little nuances in the music industry and record contracts and I think a lot of artists are not even aware of and get trapped in these publishing deals and get caught up in having your face everywhere and performing you don’t really see the cloak of deception that exists in the music industry. I feel like the music industry is even further behind in time than Hollywood — there’s still all this really sleazy stuff going on and that’s something I want to work on with my artists. I want them to really trust me and I want them to feel they’re free to leave if they want to. I just want them to grow and I want the label to give them a little push.”

There’s potential for Vega to also release something on Park Side, though Ruiz can’t confirm anything for her friend just yet.

“It’s been talked about,” she teases. “I’m going to lock her in the studio.”

Vega likely wouldn’t protest — Ruiz has a way of drawing people in, which is maybe why she’s so threatening to opposing forces. She creates an intimacy that’s difficult to emulate; an authenticity that can’t be feigned. Whether it’s through her alter ego as Jessica 6 or a character on screen, she embodies a kind of approachability that invites and inspires everyone around her. It seems that might be intentional, as well as inherent. There’s no separating the art from the artist.

“I feel like when artists — I’ve experienced this with artists who I love that write their own songs—you’re always going to love what they do if they write their own material. I keep that in mind: Whatever I do, I’m writing it, so if I love it, whatever I love my fans will love, so, I feel like that’s what people want from me,” Ruiz says. “They want something authentic, that I really love. They want the truth. They want that realness. I think that’s really my signature — keeping it really real.”

Photography – Navi

MUA – Gloria Noto

Hair – Moe Alvarez

Styling – Malcolm Robinson

Stacey Abrams Pledges to Be ‘Ally in the Governor’s Mansion’ After Historic Appearance at Atlanta Pride

The woman who could be Georgia’s first black female governor was also the first to march in the Atlanta Pride Parade this weekend.

Democrat Stacey Abrams made history on Saturday by addressing the exuberant crowds gathered in midtown for the 48th annual LGBTQ event. In a speech to the estimated 300,000 attendees, Abrams — who arrived in a white SUV — pledged to uphold the rights of queer and transgender people if elected to office next month.

“We’re here because we stand together, because we know that allies do not run from fights and because we know we all have pride in Georgia,” she said, in comments first reported by the Atlanta Constitution-Journal.

“We stand with you and not against you,” Abrams added.

The candidate expanded on those sentiments in comments shared exclusively with INTO, in which she pledged to be an “ally in the governor’s mansion.”

“I am running to be the governor for all of Georgia because I am committed to making our state an inclusive place where everyone — no matter who you are, who you love, or how you identify — feels welcomed and has the opportunity to thrive,” Abrams said in a statement.

“As a woman of faith, I believe in standing up for everyone and ensuring they can live up to their highest potential,” she continued.

Prior to this weekend’s Pride parade, Abrams pledged her support for “robust anti-discrimination laws” which protect the rights of “all workers.” As the minority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives for six years, she voted against the passage of a 2016 bill combining anti-LGBTQ elements of the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) and the Pastor Protection Act.

If passed, the proposal would have allowed people of faith to deny services to LGBTQ people on the basis of their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

In 2015, Abrams co-sponsored legislation which would have prevented state government employees from being fired or denied employment on the basis of their sexual orientation. Georgia is one of 30 states which lacks fully inclusive statewide laws preventing discrimination against LGBTQ workers.

These positions place Abrams in stark contrast to her Republican opponent.

Republican Brian Kemp has voiced his support for a “religious liberty” bill if he is tapped to replace incumbent Gov. Nathan Deal next month. Kemp stated that he hopes to sign a “mirror image” of the federal legislation President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1993, which states that the government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.”

“It’s time to do that, put that behind us so we can move on. It’s the same bill Nathan Deal voted on when he was in Congress,” the conservative said in August. “That’s all I’m committing to do.”

“Anything else, I’ll veto it,” he promised.

In 2016, Deal vetoed a Georgia RFRA bill after companies like Disney and Marvel threatened to pull out of the state in protest. The superhero movies Captain America: Civil War and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 were both filmed in the state, bringing in millions of dollars in revenue.

While Kemp suggested any bill would be more limited in scope than that effort, the candidate’s actions send a decidedly mixed message.

On Oct. 11, Vice President Mike Pence appeared at a “Victory Dinner” in support of Kemp’s gubernatorial bid — the second time this year he stumped for Kemp. The fundraising event, which was rescheduled due to flooding from Hurricane Florence, just happened to coincide with National Coming Out Day.

As governor of Indiana, Pence signed into law a controversial RFRA bill which led to a $60 million boycott of the state. Provisions allowing people of faith to discriminate against the LGBTQ community were later removed.

The local Democratic party alleged Kemp was “trolling Georgia’s LGBTQ community” by inviting Pence to the state just days before Pride.

“By inviting the pioneer of RFRA to Georgia on the eve of Pride weekend, it seems Brian Kemp is trolling Georgia’s LGBTQ community and the 400+ major Georgia employers who oppose his plan to sign RFRA into law after all the chaos this law wreaked on Indiana’s economy,” said Seth Bringman, a spokesperson for the Georgia Democratic Party, said in a statement to the LGBTQ website Project Q.

“Unfortunately for Mr. Kemp, Georgians won’t stand for discrimination,” he added.

Kemp did not appear at Atlanta Pride this weekend, nor did organizers say he reached out about doing so. In contrast, Saturday’s event actually marked the second time that Abrams has marched in the parade; she first appeared alongside Democratic primary opponent House Rep. Stacey Evans last year.

Recent polls show that Abrams and Kemp are statistically tied in an extremely close race. According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution survey, he leads by just 1.4 points.

If elected, Abrams would be the first black woman to serve as governor of a U.S. state.

Image via Getty

Wrestling With Mass Tourism in Phang Nga Bay

Earlier this month, Maya Bay, one of southern Thailand’s most popular tourist destinations, closed indefinitely to allow coral reefs and ecosystems surrounding Ko Phi Phi Le island a chance to recover.

The stunning area was once the location for the 2000 film, The Beach, which featured a svelte, post-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio in a paradise-gone-awry thriller. While the movie didn’t steal many hearts (it received a 20% on Rotten Tomatoes), its setting did. Alongside the James Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun, also shot in the region, the film put the limestone karst islands and their gold sand beaches on the map as one of the hottest spots in southeast Asia.

The island of Phuket, beyond its natural beauty, is also known notoriously as a party paradise where backpackers come from far and wide to let loose in the monthly Full Moon parties. While these parties draw a more heteronormative crowd (though they can at times and in certain pockets be quite queer-friendly), the island also hosts some of the best queer nightlife in Thailand outside of Bangkok.

It is in fact the only province to organize a Pride festival, a large colorful (and wild) week that takes place every April. Aside from the festival, the island hosts incredible drag cabaret shows in a collection of gay establishments that make the region incredibly popular for queer tourists.

Because of the many attractive factors drawing tourists to the Phuket region, many of the beaches and bays surrounding Phuket and Phi Phi now consequently bear an overabundance of activity. To say it kindly—they are being loved to death. In Maya Bay’s case, sometimes as many as 5,000 people a day are crammed onto the thin beach while 200 boats bob side by side in the warm, polluted (yet beautifully green) waters where nearly 80% of coral reefs have diminished.

When I visited Phuket over the summer, I was aware of Maya’s closure (the bay was originally temporarily closed for a few months over the summer before being closed indefinitely this fall) as well as the national park, Ao Phang Nga National Park, being placed on Fodor’s “no” list for 2018 to give the area a chance to recover. I felt guilty about visiting, concerned about my place as a tourist, another invasive number in the region’s mass of tourists, contributing pollution simply by my presence.

As a backpacker and hiker, I’ve always valued leave-no-trace principles— leaving places the same (or better) than I’ve found them. But as a travel writer, I wanted to see firsthand what drew so many tourists to the region. I wanted to witness the spectacle of mass tourism and decide if the must-do boat trip was even worth recommending if it rightfully deserved its place on the “no” list.

I decided to join despite my initial reservations, comforted that I would be seeing the region with John Gray’s Sea Canoes, a thirty-six-year-old company that has won recognitions like the Skal Ecotourism award and has been praised for its commitment to hiring only local guides.

I was also partially persuaded after reading about the owner, John “Caveman” Gray, a wild, crunchy man who often cleaning up the sea by kayak. In one photo, he paddles an entire shattered plastic chair on the stern and a heavy bag of plastics on the bow.

At the end of Gray’s mission statement on his website, he says, “Never Give Up! Mother Nature cannot afford to lose the Battle for Planet Earth!”

Gray’s hippy-dippy, tree-hugging, and ocean-saving online presence gave me an assurance of the company’s commitment to the region, as well as the well being of the world at large, and so, I stepped onto the boat more open to the experience, something I wouldn’t normally partake in because of its large group numbers.

After embarking on a massive two-story boat from Phuket filled with inflatable kayaks, a handful of local guides, chefs, and around 30 guests tackled the day forging across the stunning Andaman Sea that was further dramatized by sheets of rain that the limestone karst formations loomed behind like bashful titans, until a mid-afternoon sun burnt off the rain and the day became perfectly blue.

Our first stop after crossing leagues of open water was to take a look at the famous James Bond Beach. Our guide talked over the microphone about why the company doesn’t stop at the beach or at Phi Phi Islands where many tour boats allow their guests to feed the local, wild monkeys on Monkey Beach.

“We at John Gray Sea Canoe want to take you to places a little more remote,” he told us, “And we don’t want to overwhelm the environment or feed the beautiful animals.”

In front of us at the beautiful James Bond Beach, there must have been around 60 boats and perhaps several hundred tourists squished on the narrow little beach. There were stands set up on the beach selling coconuts and trinkets and drinks. Here, paradise was lost, and it was quite sad to see. There were so many people on the beach, they were almost only able to walk in a line as if they were in a crowded night club, or waiting in line to get into Coachella—going against the tide of bodies would prove difficult.

We forged on, making our way to places “a little more remote.” We came to a set of islands within the national park that surprisingly didn’t have any other boats—except for three other John Gray Sea Canoe tours each carrying the same amount of tourists and guides as our boat. The company certainly knew the islands and caves to explore where basic level tour operators didn’t trek, but by putting four boats in a location at the same time, the tour never seemed remote or particularly wild—but maybe that wasn’t the point.

We were soon assigned our kayak guides, hopped onto the inflatable boats, and were paddled beside the remarkable limestone formations where vines and trees full of tropical birds and buzzing insects screeched and sang.

Gradually, we approached a small opening in the formation, a “sea cave” that was only possible to squeeze below in low tide. My guide paddled us to where the cave ceiling was so low that he had to guide our boat with his hands, pushing slowly against the walls as I laid on my back—the limestone only an inch from my nose—until we entered a beautiful circular inlet of mangroves. It was like being in the middle of a miniature jungle, though, in the middle of the sea. The walls towered hundreds of feet above us as plant life clung on dearly to their sides.

This environment was, to say the least—sensational. The experience was a truly unique adventure made accessible to anyone. A place that typically required caving skills, kayaking skills, a decent level of fitness, a high sense of adventure, as well as complex ocean navigation skills to reach was made accessible to nearly all by John Gray’s Sea Canoe. Over fifty kayaks at a time were paddled around the secluded sinkholes, making the remarkable experience no less stunning, but much busier, constantly reminding me of my presence as a tourist.

I’ve lived a lucky life of exploring beautiful landscapes, but seeing these karst formations with their unexpected sea caves was one of the most exotic and unforgettable experiences I’ve had—it was here in the ease of accessibility to adventure and exploration, coupled with a warm, tropical climate that I realized an obsession for the region. One did not have to be a a hardy outdoorsy person to enjoy the day. It was the perfect blend of excitement, scenery, and relaxation.

For the rest of the afternoon, we explored two other islands, had drinks on the boat, and got the chance to explore one karst formation without our guides, paddling around the warm waters in the late afternoon sun—my favorite part of the day—before eating a delicious Pad Thai dinner on our boat.

We ended the trip just after sunset, pushing floating lanterns (which we collected after use) of leaves, wood, and flowers that we made and lit with candles in the deepest, darkest and most crowded cave of the day as bioluminescent plankton were activated like fireflies with our every paddle stroke. Finally, we hopped on our main boat, before transferring to a speedboat and chugging back to the island of Phuket.

I commend the Thai government and parks service for closing Maya Bay indefinitely to give it a chance to recover, much like I commend the American Bureau of Land Management (in this instance) for managing truly delicate public lands, like Arizona’s Wave, with permits that only allow 20 visitors a day.

The challenge, I believe, in showcasing the world’s most incredible landscapes will always be one of great balance. Our national parks, all over the world, make stunning places accessible to nearly anyone, paving roads to quiet summits, wide trails through rough landscapes, and boat tours to beautiful bays.

Their very designation as a national park—synonymous in my opinion with “spectacular place with millions of visitors”— can ruin the very place we are attempting to protect, whether it be from traffic jammed roads in Yosemite Valley, packed beaches in Thailand,  eyesore developments over the Grand Canyon, or worse of all, by human waste.

I wrestle with this question daily as a travel writer—how do we get everyone to experience these incredible lands so they can begin to care about nature, climate change, and our world’s public lands, without overexposing the landscapes and consequently loving them to death?

It is too easy as a writer to recommend other places near Phang Nga Bay in Thailand that are stunning and lesser visited, but wouldn’t that just help bring more boats and tours their way? What happens when the lesser visited becomes just as popular—will we one day have nothing less?

In the instance of Phang Nga Bay, I do recommend seeing it perhaps in an even more in depth way if you’re looking to avoid crowds, whether it be a multi-day tour with John Gray or other “eco-friendly” companies like Paddle Asia. But even though these trips will offer more solitude, they still expose the hard-to-get places to more humans, but at least in smaller, private groups and with higher leave-no-trace principles there is true respect for ecosystems.

As I would never say “don’t immerse yourself in the granite-walled vistas of the Yosemite Valley” or “don’t walk the rim of Bryce Canyon,” I could never tell someone to avoid the karst landscape of Phang Nga Bay. It is one of the places in the world that makes you feel deeply and wonderfully for our earth. It is the type of place that reinvigorates your own zest for life. The question is: how can we the people protect the earth from humanity so we never forget it, and for that matter, ourselves?

Azusa Pacific University Reinstates Ban on LGBTQ Relationships On Campus

Well, that was fast.

On Thursday, September 27 – only nine days after Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, CA formally announced their new campus policy allowing LGBTQ students to date on campus, as well as the formation of Haven, an official LGBTQ support center – the board of trustees met to plan their response to the mounting pressure from conservative critics of the new policy.

The policy had been in the works for more than a year, with many sides of the LGBTQ debate considered, but the conservative backlash to the final decision moved quickly. In the nine days since the story broke, parents had threatened to withdraw their students from the school. Donors were calling and emailing and commenting on Facebook, refusing to give another cent until Azusa Pacific changed the policy. At least one faculty member demanded that university president Jon Wallace immediately resign. Right-wing and evangelical media outlets like the Christian Post, LifeSite, and the American Conservative had mounted a firestorm of criticism, claiming that the school had “caved” to liberal values and lost the meaning of its “God first” motto.

Just a day after the board’s meeting, with little to no prior warning given to the LGBTQ student community, the board of trustees released a statement officially reinstating the ban on LGBTQ relationships. In addition, the students on staff as Haven’s leaders must rename the office and receive board approval for any planned events.

Alexis Diaz, a queer student at Azusa Pacific who previously praised the administration for their new policy of acceptance, quickly organized a protest in response. Overnight on Sunday, September 30, dozens of students chalked up the campus with rainbows and filled the grounds with sticky notes featuring LGBTQ-affirming messages. The following afternoon, on Monday, October 1, about 200 students gathered in front of the Richard and Vivian Felix Event Center to pray and sing in opposition to the decision.

“This decision didn’t really seem like it [was made] in the best interest of students,” Diaz said. “Things were happening at a hundred miles per hour, and it felt like we weren’t a priority. Like, ‘Oh, what’s the next item of business? Yes, let’s just go ahead and reverse that.’ It didn’t seem well thought-out.”

Diaz cites threats from donors and parents as a key reason the board decided to change the policy. “From approving the LGBTQ pilot program in the first place, it sounded like [the administration] had thought about it, and that felt really good. Now to have it switched around and to have all of these different terms and conditions under which we [LGBTQ students] can meet, it just feels like… outside factors made them think it was the wrong decision.”

Azusa Pacific University certainly is facing its fair share of financial problems. According to ZuNews, the school’s student newspaper, the university ended the 2017-18 school year with $10 million in debt, and in response, the university has cut $17 million of projected spending this year.

Despite this, the university denies that financial burdens played any role in the board’s decision. Rachel White, Azusa’s associate director of public relations, emphasized, “The board takes its responsibility to steward the mission of the university seriously, while staying at the table in dialogue about how to support all students. The board’s decision reflects its convictions and unwillingness to be swayed by any pressures.” White could not clarify whether these outside pressures included the LGBTQ students with whom the university had already been negotiating for over a year.

Similarly, in an interview with AirTalk, board chair David Poole declined to answer whether the board would ever reconsider their swift backtracking. “We remain firmly anchored to our biblical position that we have adhered to for many years,” he said, “but we are engaging and talking with the community about how we can best minister to them in the context of who we are as the university.”

A major concern for LGBTQ students now is whether those who opened up about their relationship status during the period in which the dating ban was dropped will now face disciplinary measures. Previously, students in a same-sex relationship faced “vague” consequences, according to Courtney Fredericks, one of Haven’s leaders. “If a student complained about two students being in a same-sex relationship, that would initiate a conversation [with administration],” she said. “If the accused students are in leadership, they’ll be given a choice of stepping down from leadership or breaking up.”

Fredericks has not yet heard from the board or administration about what will happen to students who now must go put their relationships back in the closet, but she expects a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell kind of policy. “I think it’s most likely that students… will just be given a pass, that it will just be ignored,” she said. “It’s not like APU wants to go out and find students who are in relationships.”

Since the October 1 protests, students have not taken other steps to address the change. However, Erin Green, a lesbian alum of APU who helped craft the original policy change, insists that the fight will continue. She now serves as co-executive director of Brave Commons, a college-focused “intersectional, queer and POC-led Christian organization seeking to provoke a movement of faith and justice in the academy and beyond.”

“We’re taking a breather for a couple weeks and coming back with some serious energy around what we want to do. What’s in the works right now is a letter to the board and a petition… to show the extent of the support for the students at APU,” Green said.

While a letter and petition may build up a network of allies, Diaz questions what it will take for the board to listen to students. “Do they even care about student feedback if the policy reversal happened in the first place? I don’t know how much they actually care about what we’re experiencing,” she said. “I want to stay positive, but I think a lot of students are really guarded right now.”

And of course, beyond stubborn board members and angry donors, one of the greatest challenges the students face is time. Amidst organizing work, students still have to, well, study. And of course, eventually, students graduate and have the opportunity to build a life outside of a discriminatory campus. When the board can, in one afternoon, overturn a decision that was a year in the making, the four years students typically spend at Azusa suddenly seem very short.

Diaz, a senior, feels this pressure. While she’s not entirely sure what her post-grad plans hold, she remains committed to advocating on behalf of students that face discrimination. “Because I do really care about the university and what it has offered me, and because I do care about students who are affected by this policy, it would be hard for me to just walk away from that.”

Cayla Hailwood, another queer senior at Azusa Pacific, faces the same problem, but she remains motivated by the larger justice movement she sees happening in Christian spaces like the progressive Episcopal church she was raised in. She’s working with the student government association to craft a resolution in support of LGBTQ students. “God is moving within this,” she said. “We are seeing a shift within our generation of Christians. We are having Biblical Studies professors who study the word of God and are teaching about it with a very open interpretation of Scripture. More and more students are saying, ‘Let’s err on the side of love and not hate.’”

There’s much uncertainty about what the future holds for LGBTQ students at Azusa Pacific, but one thing seems clear: LGBTQ and ally students and alumni are done with just talking. They’re ready to act. “David Poole said… more dialogue is a part of remaining anchored and centered in Christ. Well, I think we’ve heard enough dialogue,” Green said. “We’re done talking. We’ve lost trust in the university and their capacity to handle discussion. So the next steps are action because if we just sit around talking, we’re not going to get very much done.”

It’s Time for Gay Men to Stan Regina Hall

It’s a good time to be Regina Hall. In 2018 alone, she’s delivered an Oscar-worthy performance in Support the Girls — which is streaming on demand and demanding your attention right now — and played emotional anchor as mom Lisa in YA adaptation The Hate U Give. The latter film, which is currently in limited release and goes wide Friday, is just the latest reminder of what a reliably excellent actress Hall is.

So why don’t gay men stan her?

Yes, obviously, there are gay men out there who already stan Hall. We see you, we appreciate you. But what we’re talking about here is not individual standom. We as a collective need to add Hall to the ranks of the collectively beloved — the contemporary actresses who are so adored by gay men that they become easy to reference as gay icons. The Laura Derns. The Meryl Streeps. The Julianne Moores. Hall deserves her place in that hall of fame (pun absolutely intended).

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If you spend a good deal of your time online, chances are you primarily encounter Hall as Brenda in the Scary Movie franchises. This is thanks to a particularly memorable and memeable scene in the original Scary Movie, when Brenda loudly reacts to the movie she’s watching. “Oh, this is some scary shit!” is the most oft-GIF’d and oft-Vined line, thanks to Hall’s exuberant delivery and pronouncing “scary” as “scurry.”

That the moment is still so frequently used online 18 years later is a testament to how good Hall is as Brenda. She’s one of only two characters to appear in the first four Scary Movie installments (Anna Faris’ protagonist Cindy being the other), and is reliably the funniest part of each movie. Brenda is a broad, energetic character, and Hall plays her to the hilt every time.

It’s wild to think of Hall as both the wild Brenda and the even-keeled Lisa in The Hate U Give, but that’s how strong Hall’s range is. Just take a look at her résumé: She can go from romcoms like the Best Man series and Love & Basketball, to a thriller like When the Bough Breaks, to a phenomenon like Girls Trip. And she feels at home in all of them! She’s even done extended stints on TV shows like Ally McBeal and the short-lived Law & Order: LA.

Let’s take Girls Trip as a singular example. Ostensibly, Hall is the straight man as Ryan — the stable and sensible friend of the Flossy Posse whose professional connections are what make the trip to Essence Fest possible at all. But Ryan is also thrilled to zipline across Bourbon Street, and when she accidentally drinks absinthe, Hall wrings every possible laugh out of the subsequent tripping scene.

Yet not long after those scenes, Hall has to flip a switch back to serious when the Flossy Posse looks ready to break up. In just one sequence, Hall has to balance Ryan’s concerns for her marriage and brand with her pain at feeling betrayed by a friend — all while making her seem like the same character who was screaming while ziplining shortly before. And don’t get us started on how she makes us cry during the final speech scene. It’s a deceptively difficult role, one Hall positively crushed. The lack of Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy still stings.

Support the Girls and The Hate U Give make for a spectacular double play this year, but Hall isn’t letting up. Next year, she’ll star alongside Don Cheadle and Andrew Rannells in the Showtime series Black Monday. She’s also got several films in the pipeline, including — hopefully! — a Girls Trip sequel. That is Hall’s greatest strength as a star: She may not be the biggest one, but she so consistently works that you never have a chance to forget about her.

Regina Hall has given us far too much for us to not stan in return. Now is the time to add her to the canon of gay-beloved actresses. Now is the time to support this girl.

Image via Getty

Texas Conservatives File Lawsuit Against Austin’s LGBTQ-Inclusive Nondiscrimination Laws

Two conservative groups in Texas filed lawsuits against Austin’s nondiscrimination ordinance claiming it infringes on their religious beliefs.

The first of these was filed in federal court last Saturday on behalf of the U.S. Pastor Council, which claims to represent 25 churches in the Austin area.” The complainants allege that Austin’s laws banning discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, or disability” fail to uphold the “religious freedom” of faith groups opposed to LGBTQ rights.

“Because these member churches rely on the Bible rather than modern-day cultural fads for religious and moral guidance, they will not hire practicing homosexuals or transgendered [sic] people,” the lawsuit reads.

In a letter to the Austin City Council, U.S. Pastor Council Executive Director argued these laws effectively force churches to hire “homosexuals as clergy.”

“These are the stingiest religious exemptions we have ever seen in an anti-discrimination law,” he wrote in July. “It is inexcusable that you would purport to subject a church’s hiring decisions to your city’s antidiscrimination ordinance.”

The U.S. Pastor Council claims Austin’s hiring laws violate a slew of state and federal laws that it argues allow churches to fire or refuse to hire anyone they like if employing those individuals would violate their religious beliefs. In addition to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the group says the ordinance contravenes the Texas Constitution and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Passed in 1999, Texas’ RFRA proclaims that governmental agencies cannot “substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion.”

While the U.S. Pastor Council’s complaint specifically regards the Austin’s regulation of local hiring practices, a second suit filed just days later is far more sweeping in its scope. The conservative policy organization Texas Values seeks to allow landlords to deny housing to LGBTQ tenants, clergy to refuse to perform same-sex weddings, and employers to deny partner benefits to LGBTQ employees,

Its lawsuit also includes a backdoor attempt to ban trans people from using public restrooms that correspond with their gender identity. According to complainants, faith-based businesses should have the right to restrict bathroom access based upon “biological sex.”

The complaint, however, doesn’t just apply to members of the LGBTQ community.

Texas Values argues that property owners should have the right to refuse to rent to individuals “who are engaged in non-marital sex of any sort, including homosexual behavior.”

City officials claimed Austin would not back down from protecting its LGBTQ citizens in all areas of public life.

“The ordinance reflects our values and culture respecting the dignity and rights of every individual,” said city spokesperson David Green in a statement released earlier this week. “We are prepared to vigorously defend the City against this challenge to the City’s civil rights protections.”

LGBTQ advocates believe the city of Austin will prevail in court.

“Nondiscrimination ordinances are designed to protect populations that are vulnerable to discrimination, and they exist because these municipalities have determined that discrimination is wrong and that fairness and equal treatment are values that they want to support,” Equality Texas CEO Chuck Smith told the Austin American-Statesman in a statement.

“These are lawsuits whose purpose is to demonize and stigmatize LGBTQ people and attack municipalities that enact ordinances that reflect the views and values of residents of those cities,” Smith added.

Supporters of the nondiscrimination ordinance point to the fact that critics of the law have yet to cite injuries resulting from its enactment.

After filing its challenge to the law in an Austin District Court on Monday, Texas Values President Jonathan Saenz said the group receives calls “all the time” from people who “are afraid if they simply exercise their rights that they are going to be prosecuted or punished.”

But when local news media asked Saenz for any instance in which a person of faith’s rights were infringed upon, he reportedly could “not provide a specific example.”

Although Texas is one of 30 states without laws forbidding discrimination on the basis of both gender identity and sexual orientation, several cities have enacted laws like Austin’s with little backlash. These municipalities include Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio.

Image via Getty

Take a Look Inside Folsom Street Fair, the World’s Biggest Leather Event

Whips and cigars and puppets, oh my. Welcome to Folsom Street Fair, the famous and infamous San Francisco celebration that stands tall as the world’s largest leather event.

Founded back in 1984, the event brings together leather, BDSM, and other kink enthusiasts across the globe every September. Some have been coming to the festival for nearly the entirety of its existence. Others are newer converts, drawn into the scene out of sheer curiosity.

INTO went to Folsom to talk with attendees from all walks of life. What we found was a sense of community, of belonging. As one puppet (!) told us, for those who don’t feel they belong elsewhere: “This is where you fit in.”

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