Agender People Debunk Myths About Their Identities

Agender people often do not feel a desire to perform within gender roles, as they often feel they exist outside of them.

“A person who is agender sees themselves as neither man nor woman, has no gender identity, or no gender to express,” Dr. Meredith Chapman, a psychiatrist at the Children’s Health Genecis Program told Teen Vogue.

In order to continue the ongoing conversation and growing knowledge of the various ways in which gender exists, it’s important that we shed more light on agender people’s experiences — so that the cisgender and the LGBTQ community alike can better understand how this community exists. It’s especially important for others who may be questioning if they are agender to find any resources that can to help them navigate their identities.

INTO interviewed eight agender people about the myths they would like to debunk about their identities, and what society should know about what it means to be agender.

Tab, 29, They/Them

When I was in sixth grade, my head was shaved for medical reasons — and I had a lot of identity crisis issues. I hadn’t hit puberty or anything like that and a lot of kids called me a boy, as if it was sort of an insult. They knew I was one thing and they called me another and it was just sort of a teasing torment. And I remember not wanting to have to dress overtly feminine just avoid getting labeled as a little boy by all of my classmates, like I shouldn’t have to wear pink to not get called a boy. I don’t want to get called a girl, but I don’t want to be called a boy.

In high school, my mother gave me a science fiction book called Commitment Hour. It’s Sci-Fi but [in a] more fantasy setting. It follows the characters in a village where they can basically change their sex every year until their 18th birthday and then they get to choose what they want to be. And if they choose, they’re called “neuts” and so I was like That is me! I don’t want to be one or the other, I don’t want to be anything. From that point — it was around 2004— I was calling myself “neut” and then as I got older I sort of went into hiding.

I guess I’m considered closeted by most standards of identity stuff because it’s kind of hard. My mother’s the only person who’s really supportive of this—the rest of my family is religious. I’m married. My spouse is supportive, but my spouse’s family probably wouldn’t be. So it’s just a weird struggle to self-identify and be proud of who I am, and at the same time, I don’t want to have to get into arguments.

And now there’s words for it — non-binary, gender nonconforming, agender. There are so many names and I’ve been calling it neut for the last 20 years.

Being agender is really hard because even in circles and communities that you think will be supportive, especially LGBT circles or supposedly sex-positive and open communities, you still receive a lot of questioning. I can’t wear anything that shows off my female sex characteristics or whatever because people are like “Oh, how very agender of you” and it’s like what do they expect me to be? Some sort of lifeless blob you can’t identify? Am I supposed to look like an alien with no human features whatsoever?

Even places where you think there’s spaces for you to identify this way, it’s still kind of difficult.

The biggest misconception of being agender is that you have to be completely androgynous.  A lot of people go for androgyny because it’s the closest they can get to sort of registering on both scales, it’s kind of like a compliment for somebody to go “Are you a boy or a girl?” because that legitimately means they cannot identify your sex based off of your looks, which a lot of genderless people try to seek. But by no means do you have be completely androgynous to be agender.

Gender expression is a personal thing — it’s our personal identity. And, yes, we want to be validated and have people accept us when we say “Yeah, I don’t have a gender” — but you can have a full beard and be agender. You can have massive breasts and be agender. Some people feel more comfortable to remove their breasts or shave their beards or grow their hair out long to achieve a balance of whatever their sex traits are, but we shouldn’t have to.

Older people have felt this way for years. The concept of being genderless has existed but we are just now only getting terminology for it. So just understand we do exist, we’re not a bunch of crazy people, we’re not a bunch of young kids just wanting to stand out — most of us are just trying to fit in and be accepted without leaving our comfort zones or going beyond ourselves. You want to be yourself — you don’t want to be somebody else just to be valid.

Dee (Daniel), 33, Any Pronouns

I have been in feminist and in LGBT circles for a long time, and my roommate came out as non-binary years ago. My husband started using they/them and identifying as non-binary about a year ago.

Talking about gender and such with them, I debated a long time whether I counted as cis anymore, because I have never really had a problem with people IDing me as a woman (usually online because I have a beard IRL). I still usually say cis-adjacent for the simple fact that because of my beard, I’ll get IDd as a cis man regardless of if I wear makeup or not. This means I benefit from cis male privilege, even if I don’t think any gender expression feels particularly right to me.

There is a lot to think about and discuss around agender, non-binary, and presentation versus identification. I paint my nails and wear some light makeup, but I still present mostly masculine.

I think one of the misconceptions is that agender folks are trying to force everyone else to be agender — that it’s somehow invalidating trans folks’ or non-binary folks’ lived experience — which couldn’t be farther from the truth. We are all trying to figure out what we are doing with these meat sacks we call a body and live our best lives, as short as they are.

My biggest personal struggle is finding ways to express my lack-of-gender since I don’t like how I look without a beard, but it’s seen as a huge masc identifier. Most of the androgynous tips online are for thin white folks like David Bowie. I’ve started wearing my hair asymmetrical and more gender-neutral in an attempt to get some semblance of androgyny.

Society should stop focusing on others’ gender expressions, and if someone asks you to use certain pronouns/name, use them! Everyone’s gender/expression will be different. Even among cis folks, there are huge variants on how people present their gender.

Talk, think, and try things out. Try on different gender expression, try out different pronouns. You’ll probably know when something suddenly feels right, though not always! I’ve been trying out going by Dee instead of Daniel (it was a childhood nickname and more androgynous) and I’m not sure if I like it better or not. And that is OK!

Nicky, 20, He/They

I discovered I was agender when I was in tenth grade. I never felt correct identifying as a woman, nor did I feel like I was a binary trans man. I made a failed attempt to force myself into the binary when I was first exploring what it meant to be trans, and proceeded to bring more misery upon myself. I couldn’t figure it out. If I wasn’t a woman, and I wasn’t a man, what was I?

When I discovered the agender identity, it felt like a breath of fresh air. There were people with similar stories to mine, and what they saw themselves as aligned with what I could see in myself. I first came out as agender when I was 15, and I will be 21 this June.

There’s no correct way to be agender. Being agender doesn’t require androgyny, and androgyny isn’t inherently masculine, as mass media tends to show us. There’s truly no concept of passing when it comes to identifying with no gender at all. You can be agender and present how you want, no matter the gender you were assigned at birth, as agender people’s identities are all incredibly unique.

My experiences as an agender person have been met with confusion. There’s still a long way to go in education about gender identity, as many people I’ve come out to along the way have questioned me endlessly about my gender, often assuming I’m a confused woman, or equating gender exploration with puberty. Sometimes, this is the case, and I’m all about allowing gender to be explored, and no limits or boxes for what it means to identify. But, this is who I am, and who I am proud to be. I’m not a man, I’m not a woman, I’m extraordinarily Nicky James Ballard.

It’s not always difficult, though, and I’m thankful for the people who take the time to understand where I’m coming from, the ones who have met me with open arms and continue to support me.

I can only hope that as we continue to spread the word of gender identity, the concept of identifying with genders other than male or female becomes more normal. I wish that being taught about gender identity, expression, and gender dysphoria was more accepted in the sexual education curriculum in high schools. I want people to know that there is nothing wrong with questioning gender, learning about gender, and exploring their own, and what gender, or lack thereof, means to them.

On, 31, They/Them

There was never one pivotal moment for me in knowing myself as agender. It started four or five years ago when I revisited some of the feelings in my youth, because back then there wasn’t really any equivalent terminology around gender. In hindsight, I would say I was experimenting with gender expression by putting on makeup or more traditional feminine clothing.

I guess it came from a different place but gender definitely played a central part in it. After a while, the pendulum swung in the other direction. I was performing masculinity, and then over time I grew more uneasy with fitting either masculine or feminine identities.

It wasn’t really this one moment where I really realized I was agender. I knew I didn’t know how to really navigate any of those binary genders, and I realized nothing really fits and that it may just be neither. It’s not that I’m in between or somewhere outside, but none of those identities are applicable for me. I wouldn’t know how to position myself in either way.

I definitely pass as a cis male and most of the time I’m just read as a cis male, but it depends on the space and how comfortable I feel in expressing more of my ambiguity. It’s been a difficult experience, but my partner is really supportive and she’s helped me a lot to be more affirmed in who I am, and feel more at ease, and that kind of led to me opening up to my friends a bit more.

It’s still difficult because it’s already hard to even explain what binary trans means to people, and so to explain what an absence of gender means is challenging. It’s been the same with my family as well, they are always assuming that I’m in between two genders.

The most important thing is not to pressure yourself; a lot of the narratives that are circulating about agender people are focusing on this journey that ends at some point and the person feels at home with themselves or they feel more complete and affirmed. And that could put a lot of pressure on people because from my experience that journey slows down and you have a little pause here and there when you think of your gender identity — I believe if you identify as agender today and you realize “Oh, I actually might be cis” the next day, or whatever, that’s completely fine. These different labels can put on a pressure to choose and settle on one identity.

But it’s okay for your identity to be temporal as you begin to know yourself and allow yourself the agency to move around within your own fluidity.

Winter (or Winston), 20, They/Them

It’s funny: I discovered my agender identity in a similar way to how I realized I was asexual about two years prior. I was having trouble understanding who I was and how I wanted to express myself, and how the two connected. I felt like I was missing something that other people seemed to be in touch with. I knew of the term agender for some time in high school but never thought much of it until my senior year, when I suddenly realized that it was actually the perfect word to describe myself.

There are so many misconceptions about agender people, and many of them probably apply to other non-binary genders as well, but here are some that I’ve come across in my day to day life:

People (mostly bigots) tend to have this idea in their minds that agender people just don’t understand nature, biology, psychology, or science in general. I actually excel in biology and psychology. I’m currently working towards a bachelor of science in psychology and started doing undergraduate research in my college’s neurochem lab at the start of my sophomore year. And I identify as agender. So I’m basically living proof that this myth isn’t founded in fact, but prejudice.

People seem to believe that because we are genderless, agender people’s experiences of our genders, how our internal experiences affect how we interact with the world, and how the world treats us, are basically the same as men and women, because how can a gender that’s not there affect a person’s experiences? Our perspectives tend to be ignored in favor of a more gendered, binary world view. However, I think agender people can have very special perspectives that should be taken into consideration when discussing gender-related topics, especially topics like gender discrimination and the patriarchy. I think there is something unique about seeing a world so heavily influenced by gender through a genderless eye. People living in a society that uses gender so heavily to control people, and being still strongly affected by this system even while being genderless, are worth listening to.

When people imagine agender people, they usually picture someone who is AFAB and dresses sort of masculinely. I think this is usually somewhat rooted in two types of sexist thinking. The first being the idea that all AFAB people are weak-minded and easily-influenced girls who can’t be trusted to understand their own experience of gender and must be protected, lest they are tricked into no longer wanting to be girls. The second is that masculinity is seen as a sort of default, while femininity is seen as other, so something that is genderless must be masculine, because if it were feminine then it would be “girly.” However, AMAB agender people exist and feminine agender people exist, and quite frankly I believe they’re too important to be forgotten about.

Agender people are often seen as touchy, angry, confused people who are obsessed with gender. People believe that because we identify in a way they are not familiar with, agender people must spend too much time thinking about gender and must be confused or distressed by it. In reality, I’m very comfortable with my identity and I don’t spend much time at all thinking about anyone’s gender. I feel much more comfortable with myself since coming to realize my agender identity than I did before I knew I wasn’t cis. Really the only time I am reminded of my gender is when I am misgendered, either by a person who uses the wrong pronoun or something, or by a place, like a bathroom or clothing section that is labeled either for men or for women.

As an agender person, all I ask is for people to show me basic human respect. Using the pronouns a person asks you to use for them is basic respect. Calling a person their name is basic respect. Not saying things that would be inappropriate to say to anyone (like questions about a person’s genitals) is basic respect. That is all I want. I don’t ask people to be experts. Allowing yourself to respect people, even if you don’t understand them, is probably the best way to come to understand them in the long run.

Khalypso, 19, They/Them

I knew I didn’t identify with womanhood though it was assigned to me and I certainly don’t feel connected to masculinity. I did some googling and discovered an article about being agender and the descriptions and definition are almost exactly how I feel.

I think with identifying as anything non-binary, especially agender — people see it as some sort of political stance and not an identity. We’re treated like we’re rebelling against the whole world just for existing, and things simply do not work that way. My identity does inform my politics but I shouldn’t be made to feel like a walking protest just for existing as I am.

I’ve experienced a lot of misgendering and harassment since coming out, especially because I made the choice not to seek any hormonal or surgical gender-affirming treatment. It sucks to say that most people are not only ignorant, but hateful towards me for simply wanting to exist and be validated. People take it as a personal affront that you don’t subscribe to a binary so it’s kind of rough just expressing myself.

Society must understand we’re regular people and we do everything people with binary genders do. Stop being afraid of us and stop endangering us. Stop misgendering us and take the time to learn more about the history of gender especially as it pertains to violent Western colonial politics — we’re human beings and we really do just wanna live like everyone else.

James, 28, They/Them

I transitioned to male when I was 19, mostly because I knew I wasn’t female and male seemed like the only other option. I have never been especially uncomfortable with my body or being perceived as either binary gender, but somehow, even at the age of 19, I knew that I would be more comfortable in a body that is as nonbinary as my gender. I discovered nonbinary genders when I was 23, and it was that classic ‘aha’ moment. I have used a lot of different labels to try and define my agender identity, and these days I tend to use gender-null, which is the closest I have gotten to describing how, where most people feel male or female — I just have a void. For me, being agender is not a gender identity defined by the lack of gender, but the lack of any gender identity at all. It’s also possible that I won’t always identify this way! But I am not a time traveler, so I can’t be sure.

Being agender doesn’t mean that you don’t have anything to do with gender or gendered constructs. There are a lot of different ways to feel and be agender. Like any identity category, people who identify as agender have different ideas of what that means (even if the term seems straightforward). They may prefer gendered pronouns, or not. An agender person may present solely femininity or masculinity, or may move between the two, or may blend them to create a sort of nonbinary style. They may pursue transition (and that will look different for everyone) as I have, or they may love their body as it is. Their gender identity may be a significant part of an agender person’s life, or the lack of gender may mean that they don’t think about it at all. Everyone is different, obviously.  

Even though it makes me uncomfortable, I know that providing a space for everyone to name their preferred pronouns is actually really affirming for most people, and I think it is an important practice. Otherwise, what can society do? I honestly think that is just a matter of understanding that there are gender identities and experiences that go beyond male/female. There seems to be some movement toward making nonbinary identities visible, but even then I think there needs to be more emphasis on the fact that there are so many different ways to be nonbinary that the experiences we see in the media don’t even scratch the surface.

There are about various ways to experience gender (or not). They are all valid. Not identifying with any gender at all is valid. Experimenting with gender is the best part about gender, and if you end up at “My gender is agender,” that is cool and you are cool.

Ruth, 39, Any Pronouns (as long as you’re respectful)

I’ve known I was different than my peers since I was four years old. I didn’t know that not being male or female was an option, so at first I thought I was just “weird” or different. I felt like I never quite fit in with my peers. The other girls in school often seemed like a different species from me, but I didn’t feel like I was a boy either.

Then I learned that I’m queer, and I thought that was the answer to how I felt differently than my peers. (I’m open to a romantic relationship with any gender.) I’ve always been interested in “gender-bending” at times, like wearing masculine clothes and having a gender-neutral hairstyle.

It was when I learned about younger people identifying as non-binary that I felt like I found a term that matched how I felt.

A big misconception with being agender is that we’re asking for anything special by trying to get non-binary birth certificates, driver’s licenses, and passports. We just want to be legally acknowledged as who we are, the same as anyone else. (I got my California birth certificate corrected last year and now I’m trying to get my current state – Arizona – to change its laws and issue non-binary driver’s licenses so this topic is on my brain.)

Being non-binary or agender is not a fad and it’s not new. Non-binary people have always existed, but it’s been more recent that we’re being acknowledged.

It’s challenging and draining to be non-binary in a binary-centric society. There are everyday occurrences that people who are cisgender probably don’t even think about but that tell me that I’m excluded as non-binary:

  • Locker rooms (only male and female options).
  • Public bathrooms that have more than one stall (labeled male or female general).
  • Referring to someone as “Sir” or “Ma’am.” There is no gender-neutral option.
  • Ditto for other situations like what am I to my sibling’s baby. I’m not their aunt or uncle. I adopted my own term: “Oggy” (rhymes with “doggy”).
  • When I sign up to run a race, I have to specify if I’m male or female. In my head, I’ve renamed them the testosterone and estrogen divisions.
  • When you buy a plane ticket, you have to specify if you’re male or female. There are no other options and you must pick one.
  • Buying clothes, especially a business suit, can be a nightmare because nothing seems to fit right. I want a masculine style suit, but items in the men’s section aren’t made for someone with my proportions and the women’s section doesn’t have masculine style suits. And my feet are too small to get men’s dress socks in most stores and that’s where the patterns I want are.
  • The TSA – I seem to always set off the spinny-go-round scanner. They’re supposed to give a patdown by someone of the same gender. Every time I’ve asked, they haven’t had a non-binary person there to touch me.

Here’s what happened when I tried to get my travel ID, which everyone in AZ is required to get by January 2020. I brought the required documents, including my non-binary birth certificate, and they couldn’t process the application because the computer can only process a person as male or female.

The risk of being physically attacked or killed is much higher for transgender people, including non-binary people. I’m definitely more aware of my surroundings now.

I find this video by BBC Three titled Things Not To Say To A Non-Binary Person validating when I need it.

There is no one way to be non-binary, so what works for one person may not work for you, and you both may be non-binary people. It’s OK to be confused and questioning. There are websites, online forums, and books you can read as well as LGBTQ groups where you can meet people who are similar to you.

‘Skateboarding is Super Queer’: An Interview with Vanessa Torres

Vanessa Torres was born in 1986 and became a professional skateboarder at age 14. An immensely talented, stylish athlete, she was one of the first women to make a dent in the male-dominated world of street skating, alongside Elissa Steamer and, later, Alexis Sablone. She is also a universal inspiration to a growing generation of younger women skateboarders. Initially sponsored by the renowned company Element, Torres eventually moved to Meow Skateboards, a smaller, all-women outfit that allows her greater creative control.

Torres is also one of the most outspoken gay skateboarders active in the sport today. At one contest, she showed up wearing a “gay rights” T-shirt a friend designed–a bold move in a sport that still clings to its heteronormative side. When I showed a picture of Torres sliding down a large downhill ledge in pajama bottoms and a hot-pink sports bra to a girlfriend of mine, my friend echoed the apocryphal line about James Bond: “I don’t want to be with her, I want to be her.”

INTO reached Torres by phone on her patio in Long Beach, California. 

Is there a large lesbian community in women’s skateboarding?

I feel like the majority of my inner circle are lesbians, or identify as non-binary or queer. I know a lot of straight people too. [laughs] Skateboarding always brings people together, no matter your preferences. I’ve been really fortunate to grow a crew.

Growing up, I skated with a lot of dudes, until I got sponsored [by Element] and started traveling and was able to meet other women who skated. When I was young being queer wasn’t talked about as much. Now it’s like, queer is trending, you know what I mean? Which can be annoying, but in skateboarding it’s rad. Right now skateboarding is super queer, and I love it.

Has that changed in the course of your career?

Yeah, it’s gotten more inclusive. Obviously there are many hardships that still lie within skateboarding. I’ve been dating my partner for over a year now, and it’s wild the way she sees the world. I see it in the same way, but I never thought about so many things, especially in skateboarding.

Traveling with dudes, I got so accustomed to a certain energy. There’s this constant banter that everyone has to uphold that can be misogynistic and objectifying. I’m not saying I contributed to the conversation, but I was outside it looking in, really close to it, and they were obviously comfortable with that. Now, being 32 and looking back, I’m like, “Holy shit.” I don’t want to be like, all cis men, I don’t want to point the finger, but in my own experience, more often than not, those are the people that are having these conversations without any regard for how damaging and harmful they can be.

Anyway, there are so many things going on right now in queer skateboarding, so many events and gatherings. Queer people are doing so much for skateboarding, reinforcing safe spaces, community, support and inclusivity. I’ve been getting more involved with that as well, because the energy feels right for me in those spaces, with my people.

In many skate videos, especially older ones, there’s the trope of the security-guard altercation. There’s a lot less of that in the all-women skate video Quit Your Day Jobwhere you have a part.

Right, it’s like [the guys] are upholding something: “Fuck the system.” I was obviously on all the sessions for Quit Your Day Job. I think honestly we just got lucky. Also, when you get older, you want to avoid citations, so if a cop tells you to go, you probably go. I can’t afford that shit. [laughs]

I think we’re all still rebellious, we’re just trying to be a little smarter about it these days. I’m not a minor anymore. I remember getting cited when I was a teenager for skating a school, and I was so scared and freaked out. There was such a crazy strong stigma around the presence of a cop. I just started crying.

Tom of Finland has a skateboarding collection, and while it’s a small thing, skateboarding gear that’s pretty sexual and geared toward gay men is definitely out there. Does the same thing exist for women?

Do you mean the same concept but by women, for women?

Yeah, exactly.

That would be fucking rad. I don’t think it’s going to be long before something like that does come out, to be honest. Everything is constantly evolving, and people are expressing themselves a lot more within skateboarding.

Maybe I’ll do it. Or maybe I know somebody who could carry the torch, and I could play some role.

I was watching Nyjah Houston’s Nike SB part the other day. But Quit Your Day Job gets me so much more excited to go skate, because it’s not just an endless succession of huge stairs and handrails.

Yeah. It offers a variety of different styles of skating. Everyone’s having fun. I think you feel that what we filmed is authentic. Grab your crew, go skate, make friends.

The more creative and authentic something presents itself to be, the more pumped I’m going to get off of it, because I relate more to it. Watching Nyja is like, Mmmmh. He’s really fucking good. But that just doesn’t get me off.

In an interview with Transworld, Lacey Baker said that while men often have the option of not skating contests, because they can survive from money from their sponsors, women never had that choice. Would you skate contests if you didn’t have to financially?

From, say, age 14 to 17, contests were really fun for me. I was experiencing that atmosphere for the first time. I was a kid who just wanted to skate. It was good meeting people and being able to go to new places. Also, I skated Street League in 2015, and had a lot of fun. Even more so because I was recently sober, and I had all this energy and was experiencing things really clearly.

But at the end of my twenties, I started having a lot more emotion toward skating contests. Like: “God, I fucking hate this.” I literally felt like I was going to fucking throw up. I’ve been skating contests for so long, but the feeling that I get has never changed. I drop in, I black out, and it’s over, and hopefully I did well. I know I’m not just speaking for myself: a lot is riding on it. There were a lot of contests in the last couple years I skated for financial reasons. I did enjoy myself a little bit, but it was more stress than actually having a good time. Associating that with skating didn’t feel right to me. I don’t want to dislike something that brings me pure happiness. I’ll occasionally skate a contest if it’s some independent thing where the skateboarding is genuine. And where you don’t have huge-ass cameras in your face.

I mean, it’s really great if you have sponsors that offer you a travel budget, and a lot more of that is happening now. I’m just going to say it: I think it’s Olympic related. They’re picking up really amazing women who fucking rip and deserve it, but it’s a little bittersweet in my opinion that because the Olympics are happening now, they’re “woke.”

I’m also just not a competitive person. I know what it takes to podium, which is where you want to be because that’s where the money is, and I’m like, “I don’t want to do that shit to my body anymore.” Mariah [Duran], Lacey [Baker], Jenn Soto—y’all have fun.

You mentioned getting sober. Why do you think alcoholism and drug addiction are so prevalent in skateboarding?

My own personal experience is that it was very normalized. I’m sure it’s like being a punk rocker—the bad kids club, you know? But being around Mariah and Jenn and the younger girls, they’re approaching life and health so differently. They do physical therapy and go to the gym. You get up early and go for a run? That’s really fucking rad.

I feel like I played a part by fucking up and being a pile of shit for so long, and then getting my shit together. Also, it’s rough to party for a really long time at a certain level. After 25 it’s just not cute. “You’re an adult hot fucking mess”—that was me.

Obviously, past age 30, a lot of things in skateboarding get harder. Has anything gotten easier for you?

I’ve brought down the level of pressure that I put on myself. I moved to Long Beach from LA, and I love it here. Cherry Park is nearby, and there’s a ditch spot super close to the water, which is rad to skate at sunset. I’ve actually learned a couple tricks in the last year. Apparently, learning new tricks is still a thing in your thirties? And that’s the shit that motivates me—that excitement of what it felt like to land your first kickflip.

You can extend the lifespan of your skating by taking care of yourself. I need to start doing yoga, but I do go to physical therapy, because I had surgery on my knee a couple years ago, and it still hurts every day. As a skateboarder, you think you have this amazing balance, but try going to a physical therapist and doing balancing exercises. You’re like, “I’m a hot mess, I can’t even.” It’s crazy. I skate better than I can walk.

This interview has been condensed and edited

Images via Getty, Facebook, YouTube

Victoria’s Secret Has Never Been LGBTQ-Friendly Because It Doesn’t Want To Be

About a month ago, a friend told me she’d had a terrible experience at a nearby Victoria’s Secret. She’s masculine of center — a lesbian — with a short haircut, and more often than not wears clothing from the men’s section. That day, she needed some bras, so she headed to the store internationally known for its undergarments.

“No one asked me if I needed anything or if I needed any help, so I just went into the section I thought would work out,” my friend, Laura Fiorino, told me. “I went and I grabbed a couple sizes and went into the dressing room or the fitting room and the person just kind of looked at me like ‘Can I help you?'”

Fiorino said the Victoria’s Secret employee looked “shocked and surprised.” Once inside a fitting room, she said that the employee came in several times to check on other clients in rooms around her, offering measurements and other sizing and fit options that she never offered to Fiorino.

“She put my name on the door, but never asked if I needed anything, so I had to go out and get another size,” Fiorino said. “I had to go out, get it myself, come back in.”

Frustrated, Fiorino decided to speak with the manager of the location in Los Angeles’s popular Beverly Center shopping mall.

“I said ‘You really need to be more inclusive. People come here – this is LA, all types of people, diversity of background come in here, and you really need to accommodate everyone and not only worry about your femme clientele,'” Fiorino recalled.

But the manager wasn’t very receptive.

“She was just kind of like, ‘That’s really good feedback. Oh, I really appreciate your feedback,’ not really apologetic to the situation at all,” Fiorino said. “I told her ‘I’m actually never coming back here again.'”

This situation is a symptom of a much larger problem, and happened just a few weeks before Ed Razek, chief marketing officer of L Brands, which owns and operates Victoria’s Secret, made headlines for telling Vogue that trans and plus-size models would never be a part of their annually televised runway show.

“If you’re asking if we’ve considered putting a transgender model in the show or looked at putting a plus-size model in the show, we have,” Razek told Vogue. “We invented the plus-size model show in what was our sister division, Lane Bryant. Lane Bryant still sells plus-size lingerie, but it sells a specific range, just like every specialty retailer in the world sells a range of clothing. As do we. We market to who we sell to, and we don’t market to the whole world.”

He went on to say that people often ask, “‘Why doesn’t your show do this? Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show?’ No. No, I don’t think we should. ‘Well, why not?’ Because the show is a fantasy. It’s a 42-minute entertainment special. That’s what it is.”

Razek’s comments echoed a sentiment long believed true of Victoria’s Secret, but one that hadn’t faced as much public scrutiny until now. While it’s long been known that the retail chain prizes and promotes uber-thin, feminine, mostly white cisgender models, the brand has been able to ignore detractors and continue to profit without much damage to their bottom line. Their recently released third-quarter earnings statement for this year noted that the retail locations alone brought in $1.529 billion, and their holiday-timed annual fashion show airing on ABC this Sunday night will surely bring in more online and in-person sales this holiday season.

As Vogue published in their piece, the 2017 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show was seen by 1 billion people in 190 countries. Surely trans and plus-size women, as well as others not represented by their selection of models, were part of that viewership, and part of the spending power that has kept Victoria’s Secret in business for so long. But in its 41 years of existence, Victoria’s Secret has never once participated in any LGBTQ initiative — not even during Pride, when brands often make their first attempt at acknowledging the community — and if the brand is adamant about not marketing to LGBTQs, why should we keep buying what they’re selling?

Rob Smith worked as Victoria’s Secret’s executive vice president of merchandising from 2010 until 2012. He now owns The Phluid Project, an all-gender retail and community space in Manhattan, and says that while L Brands offered an LGBTQ Employee Resource Group and extended same-sex partner benefits that pleased the HRC, there was no interest in marketing to the LGBTQ community. 

There’s the internal organization which … certainly checks off all the boxes in order to get a high ranking like LGBT organizations monitor,” Smith told INTO

Lesbian, gay, and bisexual employees were a part of the larger company based in Columbus, Ohio, but back then, he says, there were no transgender employees, certainly not in any kind of senior-level executive level representation.

“I would say the brand has had tremendous success, and in many ways, the world continues to move forward and I’m not sure that the executives in power embrace the change in the evolution,” Smith said. “And that maybe there’s people talking within the organization but they’re not hearing it.”

There have been attempts at change, though, from the outside. In 2013, GLAAD supported trans model Carmen Carrera’s petition to become their first trans model. 

“I want to do this for the 50,000 people who signed the petition on Change.org,” Carrera told Time. “I want to do this for, of course, me and my career. I’m a showgirl at heart. If I’m going to do fashion shows, this is the one to do. And I want to do it for my family. I want them to be proud of me. I want them to be like, that’s our kid, we raised that girl right there. And my community, for sure.”

But after Razek tweeted that Victoria’s Secret “absolutely would cast a transgender model for the show” and that they’ve had “transgender models come to castings,” Carrera wrote an Instagram post saying she doesn’t know “if this is exactly true.”

“In 2016, contact was made and an audition was set up for me and another girl but then I received a call from my agent that my audition was cancelled,” she wrote. “The morning of the audition.”

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I just want to say that for the record, I do not know if this is exactly true. However, I personally have never auditioned for @victoriassecret. In 2016, contact was made and an audition was set up for me and another girl but then I received a call from my agent that my audition was cancelled. The morning of the audition. I don’t understand if these casting folks just like to make you suffer on purpose or they just wanted to rejoice in their own foolery after they cancelled it. Who knows? All I know is, they knew who I was and how much international support I received to make this happen. Not bragging but it was way more exposure than any other rumored VS prospect they’ve ever had and yet they still chose to sleep on it #facts. I hope they change that real soon! If they are ready for a positive change with a big impact, they know where to find me! Xo

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According to GLAAD’s Chief Communications Officer Rich Ferraro, 2018 was the first time any actual conversation was happening between GLAAD and Victoria’s Secret. But the point of contact was then-CEO Jan Singer, who resigned two weeks ago after two years with the company.

“Earlier this year, GLAAD was in conversation with Victoria’s Secret around a potential series of LGBTQ presentations that would equip corporate and retail staff with ways to be more inclusive of LGBTQ consumers,” Ferraro told INTO. “Those conversations fell apart following the gross comments from CMO Ed Razek and after the CEO Jan Singer – who GLAAD understands to be a supporter of diversity and transgender inclusion – departed. GLAAD was among the voices that slammed Razek’s original comments.” 

After Singer’s departure, Ferraro said, Victoria’s Secret stopped responding.

“We reached out after Razek’s comments, but VS did not engage,” Ferraro said. “He then issued the apology that was not well received. We spoke out publicly after it, as did many.”

GLAAD’s work with the brand would have been extensive in its training, Ferraro said. Retail workers and management would be trained on working with LGBTQ employees and customers. Ferraro said it “certainly have included a push to include LGBTQ models in the televised show and to be inclusive across their channels.”

“We tailor presentations based on brands and companies,” he said, noting that GLAAD tweeted in support of trans models after Razek’s Vogue interview.

Interestingly, some of the models who will appear in this year’s Victoria’s Secret Show have been advocates for the community in the past, but seem to be tightlipped about their support now.

Kendall Jenner, whose parent is Caitlyn Jenner, has not made any statements condemning the brand, who also outfitted Kendall and her sisters as Victoria’s Secret angels in elaborate Halloween sponsored content. The day of the Vogue piece,  Jenner posted an Instagram story with the image of a button reading “Celebrate trans women.” Stella Maxwell, who doesn’t speak publicly about her sexual identity but is in a high-profile relationship with out actress Kristen Stewart, did not respond to requests for comment and has not made any statements to the press. Josephine Skriver, who refers to herself as a “proud rainbow kid” and often advocates for LGBTQs as the product of a gay father and lesbian mother, was also unavailable, and while she didn’t post anything related to Razek’s Vogue interview, she did thank him by name in two Instagram posts.

Bisexual pop stars Halsey and Rita Ora both perform on this year’s show, as does Shawn Mendes, whose producer, Teddy Geiger, came out as trans last year. None of them have reacted to Razek’s comments, but continue to publicize the show. 

One trans woman who has been a longtime VS fan is Laverne Cox. Cox, who tweeted about watching the show in 2011, will likely appear in audience shots, as she attended this year’s taping, sharing Instagram photos and video from the carpet and inside. Cox’s reps also said she was unavailable for comment, and while she hasn’t spoken out directly against Victoria’s Secret, she did share some Instagram posts supporting trans models more generally.

I think they could empower their models to speak,” Smith said. “The thing is, you can’t monitor the things they say and don’t say but I’m sure if you let these women speak out, they’re going to have a much more progressive posture than Victoria’s Secret as a brand does. They are Gen Z, you know? They are reflective of the shifting worldviews. I’m sure their own personal views are, I would guess, possibly more progressive than Victoria’s Secret’s, and they can leverage that.”

That said, Smith thinks they are encouraged not to say anything that would take away from the spectacle of the show.

“If their conversation and their points of view become bigger than the show then I think they feel like they’ve lost the show, which is, in their mind, aspirational fantasy,” he said. 

But whose fantasy, and based on whose ideals? 

“Many people think it’s cisgender straight guys watching the shows,” Smith said. “It’s women who are watching it, and it’s their idea of beauty, so I think society’s got to step back and say ‘What are we doing by supporting this?’ This idea of beauty that looks almost like it’s aspirational, but it’s unrealistic and I think you know what I love about Instagram and the new faces of beauty, and even I don’t like the word beauty but the new faces are so reflective of the spectrum of who we are, in gender, race, size, and socioeconomic status.”

In the last year, despite making more than one billion dollars in one single quarter, Victoria’s Secret has been in a decline. Sales are slumping and select locations are closing, which some perceive to be based on the more inclusive lines from competitors like Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty and Third Love. 

Perhaps it’s time for something new — a new aspirational fantasy. What would Victoria’s Secret stand to lose by becoming a brand less about unrealistic ideas of fantasy and instead, a brand that provides more room at the proverbial bedside table?

There’s a certain point where you see just at the table with traditional straight older white guys, you’re not going to move very far,” Smith said. “You’re not going to move the company as far as it should be moved or it could be moved.”

With Razek at the helm and Singer’s exit as CEO, however, it doesn’t appear the company is moving toward a more inclusive future. Instead, it seems to be continuing down an outdated path of perceived fantastical perfection based on highly-specific body parts fitting into extremely limited sizing. And should customers not reflect who Razek believes the brand is marketing to, then their customer service will continue to turn people off and away to other brands looking to offer alternatives.

“I think it’s such a great opportunity to take something that is so ingrained in our society; it’s something that we celebrate, and it seems completely dated so it’s not just a reflection of Victoria’s Secret, it’s a reflection of us as a society and how we see beauty and how we see women,” Smith said. “If we step back and look at ourselves and say what are we doing to young women by saying ‘this is beauty’ and not being inclusive with non-binary, trans, queer women?”

Smith thinks it could be ultimately helpful for Victoria’s Secret to use this opportunity to shake things up, and to be more progressive, if even for their own benefit. 

I think that’s what companies have to face now. They have to face the risk versus relevance and I think the best example is Nike, who stuck their neck out with Colin Kaepernick. And there’s a lot of people who thought they would suffer, their stock would suffer, their sale would suffer, and the opposite happened, you know? Completely opposite,” Smith said. “They were celebrated and awarded both within their stock value and their sales and customer loyalty. So I would say sure, they’re going to lose some people, possibly, but in order to stay relevant with this younger generation, it’s expected. You know, if they don’t do it, somebody else will, and they’ll lose market share.”

Images via Getty

Wild Times: 8 Queer Adventurers Discuss Diversity in Outdoor Culture

The image of queer-as-city-dweller is a prevalent one, even as many of us feel a pull to the land. But several organizations are working to make the outdoors a safer and more welcoming place for LGBTQ communities. Coming from many different perspectives, these community leaders work actively not just on getting more queers to hike, bike, climb, and learn survival skills — but also to acknowledge the diversity of experience and the range of oppressions that LGBTQ people must deal with in the outdoor community. To find out more about this movement, INTO spoke with eight people who head projects that share the goal of getting queer people outside.

In less than two months, Pattie Gonia, the self-proclaimed “first backpacking queen,” has quickly become the face of drag in nature. Portrayed by 26-year-old Nebraska photographer Wyn Wiley, Pattie Gonia — a riff on the sustainable outdoor clothing company Patagonia — has garnered almost 50,000 followers. The gender-bending drag queen stars in videos set to popular iconically gay songs in various combinations of outdoor and drag wear but always with his signature six-inch heels, dancing through forests, deserts and mountaintops.

What began for Wiley as a fun way to cut loose became an opportunity to bring people with a love of drag and the outdoors together. Wiley is an attractive, masculine ginger and former Eagle Scout, palatable to a wide mainstream audience. As this is Wiley’s first set of publicized drag performances, he realizes that there is lots he has to learn about drag, gender, and the more marginalized queer communities around him; he is incredibly open to it.

“Pattie is going to school,” Wiley tells INTO. “If there is a bridge between [the outdoors and the queer community], I want Pattie to dance on it.”

The Venture Out Project is a bit more straightforward in its approach to a queer outdoor community, though I’m sure there have been some on trail dance moves. The Venture Out Project began leading backpacking, paddling, and skiing trips in 2014 when western Massachusetts based founder Perry Cohen realized he was trans. After a particularly harrowing climb, Cohen said, he realized, “for the very first time I could trust this body,” and wanted to give other queer and trans people that same freedom. Participants have said that traveling as a pack has made the outdoors feel less scary and Cohen echoes that an important part of Venture Out trips is being able to go out with a group that “validates your identity.”

Traveling this way has helped keep participants safe in situations on popular trails which tend to attract a lot of peak-bagging-bros. Cohen recalls an incident in which a man on the Long Trail harassed a Venture Out group. The man asked: “Are you a school group? Are you a church group? Well, then what the hell are you?” Cohen replied, “We are a group of grown-ass adults!” The group decided to pitch their tents elsewhere.

Venture Out group hike

Older and better-funded than a lot of newer groups, The Venture Out Project has a large educational arm both for adults and students. Youth have been a big focus from the beginning, but adults who felt like they missed out on scouting as kids have helped the project grow. Cohen realizes, too, that as a white trans man he may not always be the right person to lead every trip. For that reason, they also partner with several organizations also featured here such as Wild Diversity and Unlikely Hikers.

When Unlikely Hiker’s founder Jenny Bruso first started spending more time in the outdoors about seven years ago, she struggled to find others like her: queer, fat, femme, on the trails. As a newbie hungry for information, the how-tos and blog posts about how and where to enjoy nature were mostly white, often male.

Michaud-Skog offers group hikes in over 16 locations and makes her vehicle her home as she travels across North America. She describes herself as “living the #fatvanlife [and] chatting with folks interested in being ambassadors for creating body positive outdoor community in their cities.” She makes sure to emphasize that no one is left behind, and makes accommodations for people with disabilities. Bruso does as well, organizing her hikes into three categories: general hikes which are five or more miles and can have some significant elevation gain; “Low-Intensity”—three to four miles, with 500 feet of elevation gain or less; and the “Nice and Slow” series—slow paced, flat trails at two miles or less, so that participants can choose the level that’s right for them.

Bruso’s group Unlikely Hikers showcases queer folks, people of color, differently-abled and, especially, fat folks, an identity Bruso finds to be a difficult one in the outdoors community. It has clearly resonated; the Unlikely Hikers Instagram account has over 50,000 followers. Through various sponsorships from outdoors companies, speaking engagements and other freelance projects, Bruso was even able to quit her day job waiting tables and devote herself full time to writing and outdoors projects earlier this year.

“Fatphobia is so widely acceptable,” Bruso told INTO. “There is pretty much no fat or queer representation in outdoor culture. It’s predictable that I am going to hear a lot of body negativity.” And when fat people are given space in queer community she finds that there is pressure to be the “good fattie.”

“There’s a huge responsibility to be the ‘fat outdoorsperson,”’ Bruso said. “People want a very happy, healthy fat person. They want you to exercise five times a week and eat vegan. But I’m the kind of fattie who will eat an entire pizza and then summit a mountain.”

Their advice on gear also fell flat, as many of the clothing items did not come in plus sizes and a lot of the gear was expensive, a sentiment echoed by Fat Girls Hiking founder Summer Michaud-Skog. As queer, fat, working-class women, the outdoors did not seem to reflect them, so both set out to amplify voices both like and unlike their own.

The new print publication Fatventure Mag is a digital and print zine featuring work by fat women and non-binary creators who are into being active but are not into toxic weight-loss culture. Co-founders Samantha Puc and Alice Lesperance, two self-described fat lesbians who are based in Rhode Island and North Carolina respectively, have struggled with this dichotomy.

“I ride my bike a lot,” says Puc, “but whenever people learn that, their immediate follow-up 90 percent of the time is, ‘How much weight have you lost?’ It’s so frustrating because I don’t ride my bike to lose weight — I ride my bike because I love it. I’ve been called all kinds of horrible things while out riding. People seem to feel very entitled to comment on my body and its shape, size and ability, particularly men, and that’s infuriating.”

Both are keen to give back to the queer community, donating 25 percent of the proceeds from their inaugural issue to Gender Is Over – If You Want It!, a non-profit that works with grassroots transgender rights organizations. But the Fatventure Mag editors also acknowledge that even fellow LGBTQ people can be discriminatory.

Samantha Puc and Alice Lesperance of Fatventure

“I think I actually face more discrimination from thin queer people than from thin straight people when I talk about outdoor recreation, which is kind of bizarre,” Puc mused.

Lesperance agreed: “Hostility comes from all corners, and being fat is always a problem that thin people, both straight and queer, feel that they need to solve.”

This is a sentiment shared by queer outdoors groups that focus on people of color as well. Mercy Shammah started Wild Diversity, an adventure program for queers and people of color, because of a sense of hopelessness she felt as a black person in Portland, Oregon. She loves the outdoors of all kinds and leads trips dedicated to a wide variety of activities such as camping, canoeing, snowshoeing, archery, mushroom hunting and more. Wild Diversity even has a gear library that low-income users can borrow from. Portland is a great place for all these outdoor activities. But Shammah said what Portland lacks is racial diversity and support. Even when partnering with liberal organizations, Shammah said she often feels tokenized and used, to make it look like the organization has put in the work around race.

“It’s like a relationship,” Shammah explained. “On my next Tinder date [with an organization], I’ll know exactly what to ask. How many members in your organization are people of color? I don’t want to be the only one in the room. It’s uncomfortable, and it concerns me if people of color don’t stay.” She said she hopes that her reasons for not partnering with such orgs will help them look at what they are doing to make people of color feel welcome.

Pinar Sinopoulos-Lloyd from the “education and ancestral skills program” Queer Nature also finds it difficult to find people of color in leadership positions, even in LGBTQ Outdoor communities. The mixed native Huanca, Turkish, and Chinese non-binary person runs the program with their white non-binary partner So Sinopoulos-Lloyd. Based in Boulder, Colorado, Pinar makes it a point to identify the native inhabitants of the land, in this case the Ute, Arapaho, and Cheyenne. Queer Nature teaches naturalist studies, handcrafts, survival skills, and recognition of colonial and indigenous histories of land. The interracial nature of their foundation creates a space that at once centers voices of color while still welcoming white folks willing to engage in a learning process.

“Biodiversity creates resilience,” Sinopoulos-Lloyd explained, adding that this holds true for both nature and people, which they also see as inherently linked.

They work within DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) communities that focus largely on getting people of color into the outdoors. While this is a goal they wholeheartedly support, they would like to see more attention paid to aspects other than race as well. “I continuously get misgendered, even in those spaces,” Pinar said sadly, “and it’s heartbreaking.”

Pinar Sinopoulos-Lloyd of Queer Nature

Facing gender discrimination and a lack of knowledge around pronouns and gender identity is taxing and takes a lot of internal resources for anyone, let alone someone with mental health and neurodivergence issues, which Pinar said is also rarely addressed in both outdoor and DEI settings. But Pinar also has a sense of humor about it all, laughing about they and their partner are colonizer and colonized. Or when talking about the struggle over resources and how diverse groups in the outdoors often see each other as competitors rather than allies, a stance perpetuated by the industry. Pinar jokes, “It’s like the Hunger Games sometimes. This horizontal oppression comes from long-term trauma and makes our liberation more difficult by perpetuating that which we are fighting against,. Co-liberatory work that isn’t trauma and resilience informed isn’t anti-oppressive.”

LGBTQ people might not see ourselves reflected in mainstream outdoors media or products yet, but even big companies like REI and Outside magazine are beginning to take notice, and some brands have sponsored Bruso, Venture Out and others. What most of these groups find most important, however, is honoring and supporting each other. Spread across North America, most are already in contact and offering each other support.

The queer outdoors community is small but mighty, one with a goal that Pinar Sinopoulos-Llyod summarizes with a simple motto: “I want to be an honorable ancestor for future beings. Have compassion.”

The Captain of the Swim Team Is Gay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riding in Cars With Moms

If there’s an origin story behind the myth that gays can’t drive, perhaps it lies in the fact that our moms drove us everywhere. Much of my childhood was spent in my family’s Chevy Blazer listening to disco and running errands with my mother. Mostly, we ran errands on Sundays. My mother and I drove over the Bayonne Bridge from New Jersey to Staten Island for church. My mother, a devout Christian, would only worship at a place she absolutely loved, so every Sunday, we’d pay the toll to cross into another state, even though the journey took all of 10 minutes.

I thought about my mother and my many passenger-side journeys while watching several recent movies. Some of our most beloved actresses are portraying loving, complicated mothers in this year’s slate of awards fare. Nicole Kidman shepherds Lucas Hedges back and forth to conversion therapy classes in Boy Erased. Julia Roberts chauffeurs Lucas Hedges (once again!) while he’s on the lam from rehab in Ben Is Back. And Maura Tierney chases an elusive Timothee Chalamet in a soccer mom van for the most thrilling five minutes of Beautiful Boy.

On some level, this feels like a waste of these actresses’ considerable talent. Why hire Nicole or Julia or sweet Maura when you’re just gonna shove them behind a wheel for most of the film? And on some level, you’d be right. But on another, the car feels like a perfect setting for mother-son character work, if based solely on my own experience as a queer youth.

Traditionally, the kitchen table is thought of as the place for conversation. Families gather there and have deep heart to hearts (and I’ve been there, too.) But there’s something about the claustrophobia of the car — just you, another person and the road — that inspires a deep talk. And, with queer youth, there’s always a conversation to be had with a parent. Maybe it’s because parents of queer youth are always guessing about their own children, or maybe it’s because queer youth are always hiding something from our parents. One thing you learn in fiction writing class is that, in any scene, each character has to have a clear vision of what they want. And when two characters interact, and they each want something out of each other, they have to talk until they get there. Where better for that kind of action than a moving vehicle?

After thinking so much about this year’s slate of car-based acting, I thought about the previous year and the scenes it brought us as well. Maybe one of the most memorable scenes of cinema in 2017 was Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird catapulting herself out of the passenger’s side of her mom, Laurie Metcalf’s, car.

Lady Bird, of course, is not gay, though you’d be hard pressed to convince me she doesn’t read as queer. (And even if she weren’t queer, enough people saw themselves in Ronan’s portrayal that the argument here holds water.) Part of Lady Bird’s frustration, and what propels her out of a moving vehicle, is that gap between parent and child, that chasm that sometimes feels too far to be bridged. And while it’s a bit too far to say that there’s something inherently queer about that gap, it’s not too far to say that that gap feels inherent to queer adolescence. If you spend your entire adolescence trying to figure yourself out, then how are we supposed to clue others in to what’s going on around us?

My mother and I didn’t speak much about my sexuality growing up. But one day, when I was 12 years old, she picked me up from soccer practice and I was crying. Soccer practice was already an emotional experience for me. A lot of the other boys from school were on my team. I was bullied in school for being too femme all the time. And while in school, I felt at least academically superior to my bullies, on the soccer field, I was an uncoordinated mess. It didn’t help that, on some level, I knew my mom had signed me up for this torture because she was afraid of me evolving from a fat kid to a fat adult. So, she thought, she’d get me active.

Anyway, back to the story. So my mom picks me up and I’m crying. She asks why.

“Everyone keeps calling me gay,” I told her, sobbing. My mom, at that point, was a little silent with me. Looking back on it, she knew this day would come when I would have to say that word out loud. And I know that she had been building up to some kind of speech about it.

I don’t remember exactly what she said to comfort me, but it was some kinda work ethic-based talk about how even if I were gay, I could be just as good at sports or school or anything as anybody else. I remember her saying that there were rumors for years that Mike Piazza of the Mets was gay, but who cares — he goes out there and does his job just as good, if not better, than anybody else. Her solution, I guess, was for me to go out and slay on the soccer field. A statistical improbability.

But what is most memorable about this interaction in a car isn’t what she said, but how she said it. My mother always smoked a cigarette while she drove. So she was sitting in the driver’s seat with the window open a smidge to let out the smoke and ash, and she was yelling. She wasn’t yelling at me, as the person who was being bullied. But she was screaming out of frustration. Maybe she was frustrated that her son was being bullied or that her son might be gay — or both. Maybe she was frustrated because she couldn’t be with me at all hours of the day to defend me because she knew I wasn’t really vocal or quick enough to defend myself. But either way, her pep talk was at high volume. Something about the car hotboxes our feelings. The recycled warm air expands our emotions to fill the space. Like I said, to this day, I remember more how she said what she said, the decibel level, more than the words.

In Call Me By Your Name, Elio (also Chalamet) calls his mother to pick him up from a train station just as he’s waved goodbye to Oliver (Armie Hammer) for what might be the last time ever. While everyone remembers Michael Stuhlbarg’s emotional speech in the film’s final scenes, few talk about the quiet strength of Elio’s mom (Amira Casar). The way she lovingly strokes his hair while smoking a cigarette, like my mother, as her son tries to hold in sobs and weeps only three feet from her.

So, yes, I’d prefer Julia sparring with Albert Finney or Nicole traipsing around the Moulin Rouge, but there’s an emotional honesty to a mom behind the wheel, taking a journey with her son, that will always get me.

There’s Now a White Nationalist Video Game Where You Can Kill LGBTQ People in a Nightclub

If you thought 2018 couldn’t get more horrifying, you’d be incorrect. I hope you’re still on a good election high because it’s about to get a little dark.

Christopher Cantwell, the white nationalist best known as the face of the 2017 far-right Charlottesville rallies, has released Angry Goy II, a new video game — and it’s just as bad as you think. The game, which was posted on Cantwell’s blog, is about shooting down minorities, journalists, and Democrats. Per the description on the site, “Left-wing terrorists have kidnapped the President! If he is not rescued, Western civilization will fall. Do you have what it takes, or are you a cuck?”

Levels of the game include the “Communist Headquarters” or the “Fake News Network,” making reference the many beliefs of far-right nationalists. The level I found footage of was the Communist HQ, which included enemies that yell things like  “I smoke weed,” “You’re a white male” and “I’m with her,” because you know, communists are huge fans of Hillary Clinton.

According to LGBTQ Nation, one of the levels is titled “LGBTQ+ Agenda HQ,” where players break into a gay nightclub and shoot gay men and trans people. Apparently, posters outside of the virtual nightclub also say “CHILDREN WELCOME,” which is a little on the nose, but I digress. This level feels horrifically reminiscent of the Pulse shooting in Orlando and if we’re being honest, we know that that’s no accident.

In addition to the regular game mode, there is a survival game mode that takes place in Charlottesville and has enemies from all the different levels. They have rabbis, gay men, men in turbans, Black men in baseball caps and jeans, etc. The gay men specifically shout things like “we’re here, we’re queer” and “I was born this way,” when they’re being shot at by the player.

Unfortunately, this is not the first game like this — not by a long shot. Nazis have been creating their own games for years, with titles Ethnic Cleansing and Muslim Massacre which, as you can imagine, are very violent against non-white people. In addition to that, some people add modifications to other games in order to make them more racist. In the space empire building game Stellaris, someone added a mod in order to make an entirely white space empire.

I’ve been reporting about these games for over a year and a half and I haven’t come to a specific conclusion on how we handle games, or even far-right media in general, that have horrific images. My first reaction is to, of course, be disgusted and terrified. But on the other hand, these games are extremely stupid. They’re poorly made, the writing in them is terrible. In some ways, I think if we allow ourselves to be terrified by them, we’re giving them too much credit.

If we review these games in terms of their efficacy as propaganda, I can’t imagine anyone being convinced. These games aren’t created to shift the minds of potential future alt-right people, they’re created for teens who think it’s funny to be offensive or for existing white nationalists who think mainstream gaming is getting too “politically correct.”

What we should perhaps be more focused on is the mainstream media that white nationalists do enjoy. In Red Dead Redemption 2, some gamers were seeking out and killing a “feminist” character who was advocating for women’s right to vote. Videos of players effectively torturing this character went viral online. Those clips were viewed around a million times and by extension, do way more for far-right propaganda.

Another example is the game AIDS Simulator, which was at one point, allowed on the PC gaming platform, Steam, because of their relaxed “anything goes” policy. “Welcome to Africa, you’ve got HIV! Now you’re mad and want to kill all Africans that gave you AIDS to get revenge,” the description used to read.

Eventually, the backlash was too great and Steam removed the game along with other offensive titles. If we continue to hold these major gaming companies accountable for the violence they perpetrate, we’ll take away the true power of alt-right media. We’ll relegate these Nazis to the crappy little games they make on their own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the inception of OP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AM: Yeah, with interviews.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AM: Sexualities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the most fulfilling aspect of creating OP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AM: Yeah. Oh my god, I do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AM: Her first book.

RK: Hari Nef.

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

RK: T. Cooper.

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

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

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

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

On early success and struggles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On ending OP

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

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

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

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

RK: Oh, remember we did calendars?

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

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

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

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

On the book

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

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

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

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

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

AM: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On fans being sad about the end of OP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RK: Yup.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To All The Men I Thought I Loved Before

I have been attracted to women for as long as I can remember.

My attraction to men, however, was always something up for debate in the very back of my mind. I identify as bisexual but have always flirted with the idea that I might just be gay. Some men are beautiful, sure, but was I attracted to them? Did I want to be with them or was I subconsciously clinging onto the concept of heterosexuality because it had been drilled into my brain from the moment I was cognizant?

My last boyfriend—who I broke up with because I mistook our incompatibility for me not being capable of romantic attraction to men—asked me a question after I broke up with him that forced me to analyze the decisions I was making in my romantic life: “Why did you date me if you knew you had liked women more?”

At the time, I didn’t have the answer. I still didn’t know the answer until I began the process of writing this article. It’s not that I had never had a crush on a guy, and, on paper, Will* is exactly the kind of guy I should like. But in reality, I just didn’t feel that tingle in my gut when we held hands. Throughout my life, I’ve had crushes on and relationships with both men and women, but none of my experiences with the former lived up to the ones I’ve had with the latter. Still, I don’t rule out the possibility of being attracted to a man in the same way I am to a woman.

It took a while for me to come to terms with the fact that my sexuality doesn’t require a label and that I don’t owe anyone an explanation for what I feel. From growing up thinking I was an alien in my own skin because of my attraction to women to reconciling that I still have a capacity for an attraction to men, becoming comfortable with how I identify has been a long and arduous process, and I haven’t done it alone. I want to take you through my life of crushes and flings and relationships, both from my perspective and theirs. I want to tell you how I became comfortable just being myself through my eyes and the eyes of friends and family who watched me grow. I want to give you the whole story.

Let’s travel back in time.

I’m 11 years old. I like to watch Spongebob when I get home from school while I eat a Little Debbie snack cake. I also have a crush on a boy named Ryan, who I’ve liked since the fourth grade. He’s blond, sweet and has circular wire-rimmed glasses—an accessory I still find attractive to this day. Tonight, I’m spending the night at my friend Kate’s* house. Kate has news: she has new a boyfriend who goes to a different school. I’m mad at him. I hate him. I also haven’t met him before.

“Do you guys kiss?” I ask Kate while holding up the pixelated picture of him she printed from her computer and hung up in her room. I feel sick to my stomach.

“Yeah,” she says, annoyed that I won’t stop prying for details about her romance with this mysterious boy.

“I don’t like him,” I respond. He’s not half bad looking. I pinpoint the feeling that holding his photo makes bubble inside of me: jealousy. I attribute it to me being jealous of her for dating a cute, out-of-town guy. That night at our sleepover, I want to touch her. Not in a sexual way; I just want to feel her skin. I imagine her new boyfriend holding her hand. I never want to see her again.

Randi, my hometown neighbor and good friend who I consider a second mom, remembers having a feeling that I was repressing my sexuality, “I felt [you were queer] when you were growing up. I don’t want to say I had a suspicion because that sounds like I’m accusing you of something. I just had a feeling.”

Let’s fast-forward another two years.

It’s the summer of 2008. I’m about to go into my last year of middle school. Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” is at its peak popularity. The first time I hear it, I enter crisis mode. Can girls kiss other girls? The thought hadn’t crossed my mind. I sneak onto the desktop in my house’s designated computer room and frantically Google. I learn that girls who kiss other girls are called lesbians.

“Is it a sin to be a lesbian?” I ask the Internet. I get a mixed bag of answers, but I grew up in the church and need to know for sure: is wanting to kiss girls a ticket to eternal damnation?

The election is coming up in November, and I admire Sarah Palin because she’s a woman and my parents like her.

“What does Sarah Palin say about lesbians?” I search, desperately needing some sort of comfort. The results are less than ideal. I decide to shove my feelings as far down as I possibly can. I promise myself I will never speak of this to anyone. Most importantly, I do not want to kiss girls.

My parents, who love me very much, are old school conservatives and were most concerned with economics; at the time, LGBTQ rights just weren’t on their radar. I don’t blame them for not knowing that a negative stance on same-sex marriage from a politician they endorsed might impact me. My dad explained to me that my sexuality never even crossed his mind, “I didn’t really contemplate one way or the other. It wasn’t something that was a particular concern of mine.”

Randi notes that it was around this time that I became more reclusive, “I thought you were just growing up and going through teenagehood. I just thought you had the stresses of a normal teen. Really, behind that, you were suppressing who you thought you were.”

I traded in my otherwise goofy personality for a reserved one, fearing that if I inched out of my shell even the slightest bit that I would accidentally reveal more than I wanted to, eventually ostracizing myself from my friends and family.

Let’s go forward a little bit further to 2009.

I don’t care what Sarah Palin has to say anymore, but I still don’t feel comfortable in my own skin. Who does at 15? Still, high school is hard enough without concealing your attraction to your new best friend.

Everything I feel for Greta* is too strong to deny. I spend every day with her. She calls me every night. She tells me she wants to kiss me, but she won’t. She’s as scared as I am. I more than like her—I love her.

We spend three years as best friends, only breaching the line of friendship a handful of times towards the very end. We have a falling out after I tell one of our mutual friends about what we’d been doing together, who in turn shares it with Greta.

Greta denies ever partaking in anything remotely homosexual with me; it was all in my head, she says. I start to wonder if maybe she was right—maybe it was all in my head. I’m afraid I won’t ever love anyone like this again. I’m afraid I’ve ruined my life. I know that a good bit of my fear is irrational and stems from lack of perspective, but at the same time, mine is the only perspective I have.

A good chunk of time has passed between our falling out and the time of me writing this—about six years, to be exact. We have since reconciled and there is no bad blood between us. I wanted to talk to her for this piece. I wanted to ask her how my being so openly attracted to her made her feel and if it had influenced the way she behaved towards me. At first she obliged to be interviewed but became elusive when it came to actually setting a time to talk. It’s disappointing, but I understand. Maybe she truly doesn’t care anymore and it just isn’t a priority. Maybe I was a blip in her timeline and talking about it would remind her of a piece of herself she’s not ready to revisit. This is a feeling I can empathize with.

Now let’s go forward to college.

I’m depressed. I don’t know what I want to do with my life. Boys like me. I don’t really care. I hook up with a few of them, but nothing is permanent. I don’t care to date. Sophomore year, I form a crush on a girl in my Social Sciences class. I have yet to feel anything remotely close to what I felt for Greta for anyone else, but this girl may be a good candidate. We have a group project together and get along great. We have the same sense of humor. I’m incredibly attracted to her.

I take a leap and send her a risky text, “Hey, hopefully this isn’t weird or anything because I’m a girl. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable. But would you maybe want to go out sometime? No pressure.”

My palms are more sweaty than usual when I see three dots emerge on the screen. Her reply pops up rather quickly. She’s straight, unfortunately. But she tells me something that’s stuck with me, “Don’t ever apologize for asking a girl out. It’s not weird. Screw any girl who thinks it’s weird.”

Damn, I think. I’m disheartened, sure, but I’m also completely reinvigorated. It’s not weird. I keep playing the words on a loop in my head. I decide to stop hiding myself from the world. I write a note in my phone to remind myself, “People will think you are who you behave to be, so be yourself.”

Let’s travel into the much nearer past: March of 2018.

At this point in time, I’ve dated a couple of women but mostly men, purely because the ratio of boys I consider dateable to girls I’m attracted to who are also attracted to me is about 50:1.

I meet Hanna.* I can already tell she’s going to break my heart, but that doesn’t stop me because I’m a little bit stupid. She tells me she’s never felt this way for a girl before. We’re inseparable for about a week, and then she starts to trickle away. She’s busy. She’s not in a place to be in a relationship. I take the hint. She doesn’t want to be in a relationship with me. I move on. I meet a Will. We start dating in July.

I love her.

Now it’s September.

Will is beautiful and I had faith that we’d be good together. In the beginning, it was normal; now, he’s extremely possessive. I can’t breathe without him worrying I’ll leave. He’s terrified that I still like Hanna. Every single one of my actions, however minute and meaningless, is analyzed to no end and I have to reassure him daily that I still want to be with him. I don’t know how to tell him I don’t.

It’s late. I post a screenshot of the song I’m listening to—Phoebe Bridgers’ “Motion Sickness”—onto my Instagram story, not for any reason in particular other than I just like the song. Within a couple of minutes, somebody replies to my story: “!!! Phoebe Bridgers is the love of my life.” I recognize the username.

Familiar goosebumps rise and I know I’m about to jump down a rabbit hole I won’t be able to climb back out of. We don’t know each other aside from following one another on Instagram. She’s stunning. She’s brilliant. She’s just my type. I have a boyfriend. I’m not going to flirt.

We message back and forth, mostly about nothing, and I start to form a crush. I feel safe and divulge my secrets to her. I tell her I felt guilty for not feeling what I have felt for girls for Will and that I feel trapped by his insecurity. She tells me what I need to hear: “You can make the really hard choices now and maybe fuck up or you can wake up 20 years from now with a whole lot of regret about not doing what your gut was screaming at you to do the whole time.”

The next day, I come out to my parents. I also tell them I plan to break up with Will.

About a half hour after I come out to them, I drive to Will’s house to tell him I’m gay. As expected, he was devastated. I knew to prepare for the worst when I rescinded my verbal agreement to be with him. The version of me he had in his head was not the me who lives in reality, and I am partially responsible for that.

For a lot of my life, I was acting. I was performing because I feared I would hurt someone if they knew the truth. I feared for his well-being and prioritized it over my own—an unfortunate commonality in women who stay with men they know aren’t right for them. It is expected that we sacrifice ourselves for the happiness of others. This is not fair. The space that should have been reserved for my emotions was overshadowed by his insecurities, and any ounce of doubt on my end—real or perceived—was not handled well.

Will texted me a couple days after the breakup, “I know it happened and it was good but everything I thought I had was a lie? Sounds corny but I’m for real.” He is not entirely wrong. He is also not blameless in the creation of this lie. Idealization is not love. Backing someone into a corner by making them feel like it will destroy you if you don’t reciprocate their feelings is not love. He is not a bad person for not loving me right just as I am not a bad person for not being able to love him.

Michael,* one of my exes who shared the same fears as Will when he dated me, has a valuable perspective to offer. He had an inkling that I wasn’t offering myself to him in the same capacity I had previously offered myself to women. “I wouldn’t say I was worried because you identified as bisexual, but I definitely had thoughts like, ‘What if an ex comes back who’s a girl?’ I was worried in the same way that any couple might worry about the other person’s ex. But there is definitely a different dynamic there because I knew you were able to have a different understanding with a woman.”

Hanna came back into my life briefly a week after Will and I broke up. We hung out one night as friends, which we quickly realized neither of us is very good at. When we said goodnight, she kissed me, told me she’d missed me and would see me soon. The next morning, she told me that she had feelings for me but had been seeing someone else. A few weeks later, she posted a picture of her and her new boyfriend on Instagram. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt, but just as I’m entitled to be who I am, she’s entitled to be who she is.

Will found out about the kiss and sent me a less than pleasant text: “You used me, Darby. You led me on. You used me to lie to yourself.”

Part of me wants to be apologetic for dating Michael and Will when at my core I knew that I had felt more for women in the past. An overwhelming part of me is sympathetic to myself. I still don’t rule out the possibility of feeling for a man what I have felt for women, and I will continue to date who I want to date. Gender is a factor, but not a determining one. There are no rules for which two souls can have a connection. It just so happens that I’ve only had those connections with a handful of people—all women—up to this point in my life.

Randi explains my transformation better than I could, “I think when you were younger you were very quiet. You kept a lot of things in. I think you’re more expressive now. You’re not editing what you say anymore. You don’t care about judgment and you feel freer in your speech. I have always adored you as a person and your sexual preference doesn’t define you. It’s just one small part of who you are.”

We all deserve to be ourselves. We all deserve happiness. Be with whoever makes you feel good. If you aren’t sure if someone will make you feel good, it’s okay to test the waters. If you end up not liking them, that’s fine. If you end up loving them, that’s fine, too. Live your life without pretense. There’s no use for it. The people who love you will stick around; just be you.

*Pseudonym

Image via Getty