This LGBTQ Youth Center Is Saving Lives. It’s Also Next Door to the Mormon Church

This year’s Pride Parade in Provo, Utah was derailed by an act of God. Weeks before the modest parade was set to depart from Pioneer Park, a pair of lightning bolts struck the wilderness south of the Mormon stronghold, whose religious devotion is marked with a white letter “Y” carved into the hillside. Signifying the middle initial in Brigham Young University, the concrete apparition is draped in festive Christmas lights during the holiday season.

The fires that tore through Uinta National Forest and Bald Mountain continued to spread throughout the early days of September. It reached a tipping point by Sept. 13 — with the town’s 100,000 residents warned to avoid going outside.

While nearly 50,000 people turned out to the Salt Lake City Pride parade just months earlier, Pioneer Park was empty two days later — save for the smattering of vendors gathered for the weekly farmer’s market. The march wasn’t exactly cancelled. Given the martian brume of smoke which gave the cityscape an otherworldly quality hours before, its dissolution was understood.

But even the viscous air didn’t stop residents from turning out for the annual Pride festival, where attendees gathered with protective masks on. Once tucked away in a tiny park, the event was moved to the town center a few years ago. In a city where being out is an act of daily courage, dozens of vendors gather every year to show support for the LGBTQ community — from advocacy organizations like Human Rights Campaign and the Utah Pride Center to a local African restaurant selling curry chicken.

While Pridegoers gathered on the lawn to witness a lineup of performers ranging from drag queens to an all-LGBTQ cheerleading troupe, a small coterie of smiling figures stood along Center St. wearing “No Sides, Only Love” t-shirts.

That slogan is the motto of Encircle LGBTQ+ Family and Youth Resource Center, which opened in downtown Provo in February 2017; a second location is planned for Salt Lake City. The two-story house, which was built in the 1860s and sits on the National Register of Historic Places, is directly across from the Mormon Temple in Provo, Utah. If you look out the center’s front window, you can see the Mormon house of worship’s single white spire, topped with a golden statue of the angel Moroni playing a trumpet.

The proximity is no accident, according to Encircle Co-Founder Stephenie Larsen.

In 2016, a record number of LGBTQ youth took their own lives. Mama Dragons, a support group of affirming Mormon mothers of queer and trans kids, estimates that over 30 young people took their lives over a three-month span. Larsen, a children’s rights attorney, wanted to open a center “for kids who didn’t feel like their home was a safe place.” Her husband’s uncle, the late Salt Lake restaurateur John Williams, donated $100,000 to start that dream. Williams, who was openly gay, wanted the center to be in a strip mall, but Larsen knew that it had to be visible as possible.

“John wanted the house to be in a neighborhood where the kids could deal with their issues in private, but Provo needs to move forward,” Larsen told INTO. “If you can get your family behind you but you still don’t feel safe in your own community, then you need to leave.”

Unfortunately, many LGBTQ youth in Utah may lack the support of their relatives and loved ones. The state has among the suicide rates in the nation, as suicide is among the leading causes of death for children between the ages 12 of 17. A 2017 report from the Portland Press Herald claimed that 62 percent of queer and trans youth in the Beehive State attempt to take their own lives. There are few kids who haven’t lost someone close to them. Some have explained away this phenomenon as a result of the high altitude and low oxygen levels.

Other youth, who live in a state where an estimated 60 percent of the population is Mormon, cite a different phenomenon. Many young LGBTQ kids face being kicked out of their homes when they come out.

Zac Barker, a teenage student who lives in neighboring Orem, was accidentally outed to his mother after she discovered that he’d searched for instructional videos about “How to Come out to Your Parents” on YouTube. He forgot to delete it from his browser. Barker said that his churchgoing parents “accept [him] fully,” but school has been different. Although he describes his friends as “understanding and kind,” their parents stopped letting them hang out with him. Instead of being bullied or beaten up, Barker was frozen out.

“People don’t want to say anything rude, but they don’t want to be around you either,” Barker told INTO. “I felt alone. I felt like an outcast.”

The isolation that many LGBTQ youth in Utah experience can have devastating impacts. Jacob Dunford was a closeted, gay student at Brigham Young University before joining Encircle as the center’s program director. As a freshman at the conservative college, where homosexuality is still banned as part of its honor code, Dunford told INTO that his suffering was “invisible.” One morning, he put on his running shoes and ran to a secluded field up the street. It was pitch black. Dunford sat down in the middle of the grass and cried.

“I didn’t want anyone to see me crying because they would ask why,” he explained. “Now that we’ve started Encircle, people can run to the center. Now they don’t have to do it alone. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Dunford was instrumental in helping get Encircle off the ground. After transferring to Utah State University, he met Larsen. Although the center is largely operated through volunteer work, the two have worked tirelessly to raise funds for the center. Former NFL quarterback Steve Young, a former BYU student, gave $100,000. Tom Christofferson, whose brother is an LDS apostle, donated $25,000.

But most crucially, Holly Alden — CEO of the headphone manufacturer Skullcandy — offered to buy the property for Encircle and rent it back to them for $1 a month.

Larsen believes that support has been crucial to Encircle’s success. The center runs a packed house. On any given night, over 50 teens and adults attend the weekly events, which include storytelling nights and arts classes. There’s soup on the stove, cookies on the table, and someone ready to listen. One day a mother came to Encircle weeping because she thought her daughter might be a lesbian, and she didn’t know what to do. There was a volunteer waiting at the door with a shoulder to cry on.

“I’ve had youth tell me Encircle has saved their life,” Larsen said. “It gives them hope. It gives them friends. It gives them someone to talk to.”

But as Larsen knows, Utah’s LGBTQ youth need more than an ear to listen. Three years ago, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints enacted what’s now referred to in hushed tones as its “November policy.” Those guidelines stipulated that the children of same-sex couples would be ineligible to receive baptism rites. In order to be blessed by the church, they would have to renounce their parents’ marriage upon turning 18.

“To me, that really showed their true colors of how they feel about LGBTQ people,” Nathan Dalley, an 18-year-old who grew up in LeHigh, told INTO. “In the LDS Church, being gay or having a same-sex relationship is right up there with murder. It’s considered to be the same.”

Dalley, who left the church as a result of the November policy, lost a friend to suicide last year. Wyatt was one of two LGBTQ teenagers who took their own lives within in a single week. Dalley met him on Tinder and they stayed close, checking in with each other every few days. When one of them was having a hard time in school or dealing with their family, he would talk to the other about it.

“I could tell him basically anything,” Dalley said. “He understood what it was like to be gay in Utah. I didn’t have to explain it to him.”

But after a long day at work, Dalley couldn’t get in contact with his friend. This wasn’t like him. Dalley remembers Wyatt as having a “big heart,” the kind of person who took care of his friends before himself. If you were friends with Wyatt, you knew he loved you. Wyatt’s friends began to look for him and sent him frantic messages on Facebook, telling him that they were worried. Where was he?

That night, the boy’s parents posted on Facebook that he had passed away. Wyatt was just 17.

The state has worked in recent years to address this ongoing crisis. In 2017, Utah struck down its “No Promo Homo” law, which forbid teachers from addressing topics related to gender and sexuality in school. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has publicly distanced itself from conversion therapy, the discredited practice of seeking to “change” the sexuality of LGBTQ youth. The Church relaunched its website on LGBTQ issues, Mormon and Gay, in an attempt to welcome queer and trans members into the fold. The banner on the current iteration states: “God Loveth His Children.”

But for every step forward the Mormon Church takes, it leaps right back. When 12-year-old Savannah came out to her Eagle Mountain congregation in May 2017, her mic was cut off. “There were scared of me and what I was saying,” she told the New York Times. The week of the Provo Pride festival, rainbow flags planted around the town were stolen; they were later returned.

While the Mormon Church struggles to accept its LGBTQ members, Encircle will be there waiting. The center operates 10 support groups, including groups for transgender folks, people recovering from addiction, and couples in mixed-orientation marriages — meaning one is gay and the other is straight. It offers low-cost therapy to kids who may be struggling with suicidal ideation. But more than anything, LGBTQ youth can come to Encircle and feel loved.

“Encircle is a place where you can come celebrate who you are,” Larsen said. “Hopefully that’ll add up in these kids lives.”

Clarkisha Explains: Going to the Hospital Shouldn’t Be a Death Sentence For Black Women, But It Is. And Here’s Why

After that infamous U.S. Open tennis match that took place between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka last week, the match’s terrible ending has been all anyone is able to talk about. That and the fact that what should have been an equally joyous, competitive, and historic occasion was trampled on and stolen and both Williams and Osaka were subsequently mistreated on one of the highest stages in the sport.

Because of racism. Because of misogyny. Because of misogynoir.

To say that I was pissed is an understatement. And I was tempted to stew on that anger because so many of us Black femmes understand what it feels like to be mistreated for showing genuine emotions and being able to weather abuse with “grace.” Still. Despite how displeased I was with the conclusion of that match, I still couldn’t help but still feel extremely proud of Serena–despite the bullshit. Just a year ago, Serena had just given birth…and she almost died because of it.

Imagine that. We almost lost the greatest athlete alive because America isn’t one to pause its racism and misogyny — even when it comes to healthcare. And while that is one of the more famous and most recent cases of medical racism…it’s a problem that Black women (like Serena) know all too well.

Case in point: Back in July 2017, 15-year-old Yunique Morris complained of having chest pains and like any person with common sense, she went to the doctor to have herself checked out. The doctor didn’t see anything wrong and sent her back home, chest pains intact. Twice.

She died two weeks later.

I went through a similar ordeal when I went into an ER two years ago to confirm my gallbladder needed to be removed (my family dealt with this before, so I knew what to look for), and it turned into the fight of my life, where I literally had to put on a Broadway show of pain to get the doctor to admit that something was up.

Which begs the question:

Why is it a death sentence every time a Black woman goes to the hospital?

Well. Tis’ simple:

The combinations of medical racism and medical misogyny (re: medical misogynoir) put us at risk.

Black women have been especially vocal about how the intersections of racism and misogyny (misogynoir) really affect our everyday lives. But it is never as apparent as when medicine is involved.

While normally our struggle is one that includes forced mule-ship and hypervisibility, when medicine is involved, suddenly that latter category damn near evaporates entirely.

To explain, the way that society views our Blackness (racism) makes it so that doctors assume that we are literally impervious and invulnerable to pain. The same racism that perceives 9-year-old kids as “men” and “women” and turns teens into “monsters” that should be gunned down or makes grown ass White men “fear for their lives” and result in another Black person losing theirs is the same racism that assumes that any Black person (but especially Black women) doesn’t need the same care and attention versus other [Whiter] patients and can take inordinate amounts of pain while grinning and bearing it because, you guessed it, we are “strong”, “independent”, and “don’t need anyone”.

That last sentence brings us to “The Strong Black Woman” trope.

And I can’t even really dive into that without diving into how misogyny also uniquely affects our medical visits.

If racism ensures that medical professionals think we can tolerate high amounts of pain, misogyny ensures that medical professionals will always downplay our pain or assume that we are lying about its severity because the assumption when it comes to women and individuals with vaginas and uteruses is that all of our pain literally comes back to one thing: our period.

Because women and femmes *obviously* have no redeeming value beyond our reproductive organs and our ability to give birth to more spawn for whatever reason (i.e. a thriving workforce for labor purposes aka capitalism).

Misogyny, femmephobia, and shame surrounding periods ensure that even grown-ass qualified medical professionals get squeamish when periods are brought up and purposely distort the facts around them to alleviate their discomfort in dealing with anyone who has or gets them.

In that same vein, because of purposeful misinformation around periods, including the belief that period pains and cramps are not that serious—when in fact they are as life-threatening as heart attacks—the same grown ass professionals will deem any pain related to a woman or femme as period-related (because those are our only organs apparently—the reproductive ones!) and won’t decide that the issue needs further evaluation until the patient themselves pushes for that evaluation.

I found myself in this position in 2016 when I used my performance to force the doctors into giving me an ultrasound when they wanted to give me an X-Ray—which of course, wouldn’t have found shit and would have sentenced me to an unnecessary and slow death by gallbladder.

This subject brings up two things. The first is self-advocacy and the fact that Black women have to be really good at it in a hospital setting to avoid certain death. And honestly, the subject of medical self-advocacy is one that merits further discussion outside this article. But the second leads us to another part of medicine that is especially dangerous for Black women:

Childbirth.

Which leads us to one last question:

Why is childbirth especially harrowing? And why is self-advocacy especially needed when it happens?

I mentioned earlier that the combination of racism and misogyny sees Black women simultaneously held to withstanding an unfair pain threshold and having our pain downplayed because maintaining periods and having babies (fetuses in this case, if we’re referring to unborn spawn) are more important than our pain and lives. But Black women have an especially long and complicated relationship and history with medicine—and especially childbirth—that goes all the way back to slavery and explains why it is always so harrowing for us.

When the medical history of Black women and America at-large (i.e “The Free World) comes up, people always correctly point out how Black women had our cells taken and used (without our knowledge) for medical advancements and breakthroughs—like in the case of Henrietta Lacks. They also correctly point how Black people in general have had medical trials and experiments done on us like with the Tuskegee syphilis experiment (again, without our knowledge or worse…with half-truths and half-information) in the name of “the greater good” for medicine…but really because medical racism dictated that not only were these patients invulnerable to the pain of these experiments, but that their pain didn’t matter nearly as much as what the reward would be for the medical advancement that resulted from it.

Mind you, that’s modern medical history in all its disgusting and shameful glory. But medical history has its ties to slavery too.

With Black women getting seen as nothing more than moral-destroying sexual punching bags (i.e The Jezebel) for White slavemasters to work out their frustrations on while simultaneously preserving the sexual purity of their White wives AND Black women being nothing more than mules and glorified baby incubators (you know, the kind that The Handmaid’s Tale bites most of its narrative from) for plantations that were in need of more slave labor to yield more cotton product (because, again, capitalism), it’s no wonder that Black women don’t get taken seriously during childbirth.

What slavemaster is gonna invest oodles of money, attention, and time on medicine and medical attention for “property” that they deem expendable and replaceable from the get-go?

Exactly. They wouldn’t. Because that would require them to have empathy for “property” whose humanity they stripped away to achieve a means to an end long ago.

That’s the kind of medical misogynoir that has been woven into modern medicine. That is the kind of detached bigotry that is inextricably tied to present-day medicine.

It’s the same reason fucking Serena Williams and Beyoncé, even with all their oodles of money and fame and celebrity—found themselves knocking on death’s door during and after childbirth. It’s the same reason Williams in particular had to advocate for herself to get a CT scan with contrast and IV heparin (a blood thinner) to detect blood clots that she knew were there (due to her own medical and athletic history) when the doctor was too busy (and ignorant) doing an unnecessary-ass ultrasound on her legs. And it’s the same reason why Yunique and her chest pains were sent home to die and why the same was almost done to me and my gallbladder.

It doesn’t take much for society to strip us of our humanity and reduce us only to the value of our bodies, voices, and labor—but that especially becomes aggressively clear when we step into a hospital and by extension the medical realm.

Suddenly, all that ugly racism and misogyny fueled by America’s equally fugly medical history boils to the surface and is always around the corner to deny us medical attention that should be guaranteed and we should not have to fight for.

And you know what? It is killing us.

And that needs to change.

Pride Flag Featured In New Spider-Man Video Game

A new Spider-Man game was released this week for PS4. It’s the first major release of a Spider-Man title since 2014, when The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was released alongside the Andrew Garfield movie of the same name. The game has been highly anticipated since the first gameplay demo was shown at E3 2017.

Since its release last week, the game has received mostly positive reviews and earned an 87 on Metacritic. A lot of its gameplay involves web swinging around New York City, which with 2018 graphics, can be quite beautiful. Fans have been posting their discoveries online through the new photo mode that the game provides. One such discovery, first made online by author Saladin Ahmed, was the Pride flag.

“Wow. I stopped to perch on a building in Spider-Man and looked over and saw this,” Ahmed tweeted. “Thinking about all the 12-year-old kids who will be playing this game and seeing this in towns where it’s not safe to put that flag up.” Ahmed continued to say that although this isn’t the most radical move, “as someone who came up 30 years ago playing Spider-Man video games with boys who constantly hurled homophobic insults at each other [in real life] this is… different.”

Originally, I definitely didn’t see this addition as a radical act. Why should we give credit for doing the bare minimum? But Ahmed’s second tweet definitely shifted my perspective about it. I literally didn’t play video games for a decade because I was tired of the straight neighborhood boys and I had no one else to play games with. Even now, playing competitive team games gives me anxiety because I’m always afraid that someone in chat will get on mic and yell slurs.

Maybe Saladin had a point.

It’s also important to note that I came out at 14 and never really feared for my life or physical safety in regards to my sexuality. I definitely would tone down my feminine mannerisms for the conservative bubble I grew up in, but I never even considered violence as something that could happen to me. I know that other people have different circumstances and acknowledge that the Pride flag in the game might be more significant to them — which is awesome.

If someone tried to write a think piece applauding a TV show for showing a Pride flag in 2018, it would be met with extremely confused reactions — this isn’t 1995. But this isn’t TV or film; this is video games. Among the many subcultures in our society, the gaming community and the comics community have some of the most tense “culture wars” surrounding identity and diversity. Gamergate — a harassment campaign mostly directed towards women and lefty personalities in the gaming community — has been considered part of the foundation of current alt-right groups. And more recently, a connected movement called Comicsgate has emerged with similar anti-diversity politics.

Both GG and CG believe that diversity in games and comics is the result of our PC culture and is being forced down the throats of real fans. They often argue that women and LGBTQ people don’t actually play games or read comics and simply want to ruin the industries and their communities.

Another reason this point of inclusion doesn’t feel personally compelling is because I, as well as other younger LGBTQ folks I know, admittedly don’t feel an attachment to the Pride flag. One part of that is just a generational thing. The Pride flag is a tool that we don’t feel we need because the cultural acceptance meter has moved several degrees in the positive direction.

That being said, I know that many people have a strong attachment to the flag, especially older folks who grew up in places where they had issues with being gay. Gay health writer Daniel Summers recently wrote a really compelling piece for Slate about his experience revisiting his hometown with his husband and kids for his mother’s funeral. In the piece he talks about bringing his family to a local carnival, but still being worried while he did it.

“My husband and I decided to bring the kids, but it wasn’t until we arrived that I finally relaxed a bit. It was seeing black families and women in hijabs there that made me feel safe there too,” Summers wrote. “When you’re in an often-despised minority, being around other members of often-despised minorities can be incredibly comforting. My hometown has, it seems, become more diverse than I remember growing up.”

I talked to Summers and he told me that the Pride flag brings out a similar feeling of security — almost like a designated safe zone.

“When I see Pride flags, it is a sign that I can be at ease, and that people honor who I am and view me as worthy of respect and equality. It signals a welcome to me that is very important and meaningful, and tells me that I can feel safely myself. The feeling of safety is something I never take for granted, and overt symbols of welcome are genuinely appreciated.”

With all of this in mind, it’s helpful to think about the Pride flags in Spider-Man not in terms of how they fit into our culture generally, but how they fit into the specific medium and its community. Again, in most other aspects of American culture, the simple act of showing a Pride flag might not be that notable. In fact, with the amount of companies that simply adopt the visuals of Pride without doing anything to better the lives of LGBTQ, the flag might even be met with skepticism.

But for a slightly older generation of queer people or maybe queer nerds who don’t have the luxury of being open, seeing the flag in a beloved superhero franchise could be a huge moment. LGBTQ people in gaming and comics do not get a lot of wins, so I’ll let us celebrate this one.

20 Queer Q’s with Matt Bellassai

The 20 Queer Qs series seeks to capture LGBTQ+ individuals (and allies) in a moment of authenticity. We get to know the subjects, what makes them who they are, and what they value.

These intimate conversations aim to leave you, the reader, feeling like you just gained a new friend or a new perspective.

This week, get to know comedian and internet personality Matt Bellassai. He’s known for giving hilarious commentary on a variety of topics (with his trusty bottle of wine in hand). Learn about his advice for LGBTQ+ youth, his preferred drink of choice, what he looks for in an ideal partner, and how comedy has helped him.

Name: Matt Bellassai

Age: 28

Preferred Pronouns: He/Him or That Bitch

Sexually Identifies As: Big Old Gay

 

1. What do you love about the LGBTQ+ community? It’s fun, which is a gross generalization, but I think LGBTQ+ people go through so much and you can immediately connect with someone because there’s that understanding, that telekinetic connection where we get one another because there’s something we have in common.

2. Talk about your first queer kiss? Awkward, sloppy, forgettable.

3. How did you feel attending your first Pride? Dehydrated. I was 19, and even if I wasn’t out, it was important for me to make it about me.  

4. What does pride mean to you? When I perform, I’m lucky that I get to go all over the place. When I’m in the middle of the country, I don’t know if I think about it consciously or while I’m doing it after the fact. I think it’s pretty amazing that I get to tell jokes about being gay and out and it’s not a thing in front of audiences that maybe don’t get to see many gay people or know many gay people. I have to make sure I’m in control of the joke so that it’s not about gay people and not getting an audience to laugh at gay people but to laugh with a gay person. The important thing is that I own everyone.

5. Who is someone you consider to be an LGBTQ+ icon? Honey BooBoo and Ellen.

6. Do you think LGBTQ+ youth have it easier now? I think people have a wider variety of role models today than they used to. But people are gonna pick at a difference no matter what and being gay is still a big difference for a lot of people. I went to DragCon in New York and some of these kids were gayer than I ever could’ve been at their age.

7. What’s advice you have for LGBTQ+ youth? My fear before coming out would be that being gay would be the thing that defined me. My advice to myself if I could go back is that it might define you but it’s one of the greatest parts about who you are so don’t be afraid to let it define you.

8. Do you believe in love? Sure!

9. Favorite drink to order at a bar? Whiskey on the rocks.

10. What are values that you look for in an ideal partner? Somebody who could be my best friend. Someone who is friendly, loyal, fun, outgoing, but also can make me laugh.

11. When did you start leaning into your sexuality? I wasn’t super comfortable until college. I think I put it off for so long because I was afraid of what was going to happen. Finally, it was just realizing that if I ever want to be happy, I need to rip off the bandaid, get it over with and get going with things. That being said, I was always super gay.

12. What is something you want to change about yourself in the next 6 months? I’m trying to be less dependent on my phone. I’m always glued to my phone so I’m trying to be one of those people who can leave my phone in one room and exist in another.

13. Who is the last person to make you smile?  I laugh at anything so the bar is pretty low.

14. What do you feel most insecure about? Comedy is honestly choosing insecurity as a career. It’s just constantly putting yourself in a position to be judged by other people, so my answer is everything.

15. What is the title of the current chapter of your life? Just Don’t Die.

16. Night in or night out? I’m a night in person.

17. Fill in the blank: When I find a guy I’m interested in I ______. Ignore him until magic happens (and it never does.)

18. How has comedy helped you? It’s definitely made me a more confident person. It’s hard to get up on stage and make a bunch of people laugh and feel like you’ve failed. Even if it’s a success, miraculously, I’m able to convince myself that I failed every time. As I work though that insecurity it’s cool to be able to remember you can’t fake making people laugh. It’s a visceral reaction. It’s hard to have any sort of confidence in general but it’s hard to deny it when the laughter is right there.

19. How much does your LGBTQ+ identity play into your overall identity? I think it’s a big part now. I was afraid when I was younger that it would be a big part and now it is and I’m happier that it is. I love being gay, it’s more fun.

20. What value/quality has being queer given you? What have you gained? I definitely think more understanding, empathy, and a social consciousness. I feel like so many people that you see on the internet that are intolerant in some way come from a place of absolute ignorance which I understand, and is no longer an excuse because you can look things up. Nobody is born knowing everything, but I had to learn it myself being a gay person and understanding the kind of journey the people around me had to go through to understand who I am.

I feel like being queer has made me more aware of other marginalized people. If I were a straight person who lived the same life, I don’t know if I would be as aware of that, it’s exposed me to more people.

Stay up to date with Matt over on Twitter and Instagram and be sure to check out his “Unhappy Hour” podcast wherever you listen to podcasts, as well as his “To Be Honest” series over on Facebook.

Gay Rugby Bridges Divide in South Africa

A couple of years ago on a trip to South Africa, I was introduced to a then young new team, the Jozi Cats. A few of the players met up with me to tell me all about the team and their plans for inclusionary rugby in South Africa. At the time, to me, the idea of gay rugby didn’t sound so out of the ordinary. I mean, there were gay sports leagues all over the world, and I didn’t perceive South Africa to be a place that wasn’t tolerant of queers — but apparently I wasn’t totally clued into the homophobia that exists in sports in South Africa. 

Two years after my initial visit, the Jozi Cats are killing it. After just coming back from another trip there, I was thrilled to hear about their growth and especially about how receptive the rugby association and competitive teams were to them. Originally founded in August of 2015, they began their journey with the simple idea of creating a safe and harassment-free environment for everyone to enjoy the game of rugby, along with building a competitive, social and diverse club, which welcomes players with all levels of experience who enjoy the sport. At the time, they were one of the few clubs that catered to adult beginners or previously experienced players looking for some social or competitive touch or contact rugby. Their approach was fairly simple; anyone who shares and commits to their values was welcome to join the Jozi Cats Rugby Club.

In early 2016, the club decided it was time to reach out to the community and really make their mark. They hired a PR firm that staged a bold campaign that turned gay stereotypes inside out by challenging you to ask “what does a gay rugby player look like?” and used the typical gay slurs one would hear on the sports field to tackle homophobia in rugby. The “Rugby, That’s So Gay” campaign launched that May and went viral. Over 350 million people in over 146 countries viewed the Jozi Cats campaign worldwide.

After their campaign, their next mission was to follow that up with action. Africa’s first gay rugby tour commenced in December 2016, with sights firmly set on shifting the conservative narrative of rugby in South Africa. They traveled throughout South Africa, creating awareness that homophobia had no place in sport and even hosted rugby clinics to inspire other LGBTQ communities around the country to start their own safe community space to enjoy rugby.

The world of sports is still a place where homophobia runs rampant. There have been isolated moments that can’t be taken for granted, but which still leave us wanting more. The Jozi Cats may be a small rugby club, all the way in South Africa, but their efforts are felt around the world through their impressive social media campaigns and outreach. Hopefully they will continue to inspire others in the world of sports to be more inclusive, eventually putting an end to the divisiveness that currently exists today.  

Trans Dad Trystan Reese Learns to Reclaim His Story

Trystan Reese and family

Trystan Reese was watching a French talk show on which he’d recently appeared as a guest when the following words crept onto the screen, directly below his image:

“Le maman est à la gauche.”

His French was rusty, but hours of Duolingo lessons weren’t required to get the gist: Trystan, a trans father of three, had just been called a “mother” on Salut les Terriens!, a popular French television program reaching 1.5 million viewers per episode.

Trystan Reese and family

Trystan didn’t set out to become a spokesperson for trans parents. In fact, he never intended to be a dad at all.

Prior to August 2011, he and his husband, Biff Chaplow, who live in Portland, Oregon, spent their weekends attending queer brunches and flying to Vegas on a whim when they received a phone call that would forever change their fabulous, childless lives. Biff’s three-year-old niece and one-year-old nephew were about to be placed in foster care, they were told, unless the couple took the toddlers in. 

“I was terrified about being a parent,” Trystan said, noting that he and Biff were just 27 and 25 respectively when the children first came to live with them. “I knew how to be a good uncle, but did I know how to be a good father?”

“Most people have time to adjust, learn, and process all of the things that come along with parenting,” said Biff. “We didn’t have that.” 

Still, the couple adapted to their identities as dads. And before long, rather than consider fatherhood something foisted upon them, they realized they actually enjoyed their newfound family life. Several years later, the couple started making plans to bring yet another child into their fold.

Only this time, Trystan planned to carry the baby himself.

Trystan Reese

Trystan, whose healthy baby boy was born last July, is by no means the first trans man to become pregnant. He’s not even the first to be the subject of intense public scrutiny for doing so. He was genuinely surprised, then, by the media maelstrom that would end up following him.

It happened, quite literally, overnight. In May 2017, Trystan and Biff were featured on their favorite parenting podcast, WNYC’s The Longest Shortest Time. After hearing the segment, a reporter for Cosmopolitan magazine wrote a short piece on Trystan’s pregnancy, and published it that same day. The Daily Mail — the world’s most visited English-language news website — picked up the story that evening, and just like that, Trystan and Biff were giving cat compilation videos a run for their money as the Internet’s latest viral sensation.

In the months that followed, the couple found themselves fielding quote requests from outlets ranging from The Washington Post to People. As interest in his story snowballed, Trystan reached out to GLAAD, the LGBTQ media watchdog, for some public speaking training. By the time he was misgendered on Salut les Terriens! this past spring, then, he was far from a novice interviewee.

“If you freak out when a certain word is used, then you’ve just lost the chance to tell your story,” Trystan said of his perspective on the experience. “I see it as the media’s job to be curious, and my job to let them know when they’ve hit a boundary.”

Most outlets, he says, have been respectful when informed such a limit had been reached. Not so with Salut les Terriens! After emailing the show’s producers to request a correction for referring to him as a “mother,” Trystan says he was told not to “take offense,” and that “it wasn’t a big deal.” Following this dismissive response, Trystan took his request for an apology to Twitter, which resulted in the following flippant reply from the show’s host, Thierry Ardisson:

“Sorry, Trystan,” the message read in French. “I didn’t know the word ‘mom’ was an insult.”

“It was condescending, belittling, and purposefully misunderstanding of the critique,” Trystan said. “LGBTQ people are always perceived as so angry, we get tone policed all the time. But look what happens when you do things the right way?”

Trystan Reese and family

“The positive aspects have been amazing,” Trystan said, of his time in the national spotlight. “I’ve heard from members of the trans community all over the world who have said seeing our story has renewed their faith in their own ability to build a happy life for themselves.”

Trystan’s outspokenness has even led to a new professional opportunity. Earlier this year, his media appearances caught the attention of the national LGBTQ group, Family Equality Council, who encouraged him to apply for a job as the organization’s Director of Family Formation.

“I got an email from them out of the blue,” Trystan said, who has been working with the group now for six months. “It’s been a dream job.”

Despite these benefits, Trystan’s time in the limelight has also taken a toll.

“To put myself out there time and time again, for the education and amusement of straight people, is hard,” Trystan wrote in an Instagram post shortly following his appearance on the French talk show. “I know I signed up for this so there’s not much I can do about it now, but the constant performance is a bit like a death by a thousand cuts.”

Trystan does his best to avoid that particularly hateful corner of the Internet—the comment section—following every new media appearance. But some particularly dedicated trolls have taken to commenting on every single social media post he’s every made, dating back to 2015. He knows he can’t avoid the negativity completely, and he’s struggled, at times, not to internalize some of the more painful messages he’s received.

“People would talk about how disgusting I am, and how disgusting my body is,” Trystan said of some of the comments. “I had to go to Biff and say, ‘do you believe them? Does this make you see me as disgusting? He helped me see I was just being crazy, but those were some particularly painful conversations.”

Biff, for his part, has taken responsibility for monitoring the couple’s social media accounts to screen out some of the most hateful and violent posts—but the couple agrees that he shouldn’t weed out all of them. “Trystan wants to continue to reach more people,” he explained. “This is something he has to learn to process and deal with. It’s a problem that isn’t going to go away.”

Trystan Reese and family

Trystan will likely never receive the apology he’s owed from the producers and host of Salut les Terriens! And as long as he stays in the public eye, reporters will continue to sensationalize his story. Internet trolls, no doubt, will hound him, wherever his story appears.

Given all this, an outside observer might reasonably wonder: why does Trystan continue to do this to himself?

“I do keep wanting to take a break,” Trystan admitted. “But I have a lot of privileges that other transgender people and families don’t have. Not everyone lives in Portland, or has a supportive family. I don’t think I’d forgive myself if I didn’t take this opportunity to open the door for people who come after me.”

So rather than retreat into the comfort of privacy, Trystan has instead learned to do something more difficult, but empowering: take control of his own narrative. He no longer agrees to every interview request, for instance, particularly if a given media outlet has a history of treating trans interviewees with disrespect.

Recently, when the producers of Piers Morgan Live offered to pay him and Biff to appear on their show, they declined on the spot, offering the following by way of explanation:

“Your host has a track record of sensationalizing, taking advantage of, and belittling transgender people,” Trystan said of his emailed response. “No matter how much money you’re offering, it won’t be enough.”

He’s even found a creative way to cope with trolls. Prior to a recent Facebook Live appearance, he posted a note to his account welcoming questions about his experience. But for any negative, violent, or hateful comment, he cautioned, he would donate $1 to Planned Parenthood. As a result, they received only one negative comment that day.

Trystan has also realized he doesn’t have to answer questions he finds inappropriate, off topic, or even those he simply doesn’t feel like answering. I witnessed this particular life lesson put to action during my own interview with Trystan, after I pushed for specific examples of some of the negative comments he’d received online.

“You know what, I’m kind of done talking about nasty comments,” he told me, after a pause. “I feel like that’s part of the intrusive nature of the media—people basically want me to tell them the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, it’s like disaster porn. You can Google my story and see for yourself some of the horrific comments I’ve received, but I’m done putting those into my body. You know what I mean?”

As someone who has never walked a day in Trystan’s shoes, I did not, truthfully, know what he meant. But did I really need to understand in order to respect the boundary he’d just established?

“No problem,” I said, and we moved on to the next question.

Images via Trystan Reese, Jim Carroll, Kevin Truong, and Shanna Sturgell

Chicago Queer Contra Provides a Safe Space for Nongendered Dance

On a warm August evening, people of all gender identities dance together on the second floor of Chicago’s Second Unitarian Church. A live folk band energetically plays while dancers move gracefully up and down their two lines. They’re smiling, giggling, spinning, twirling, and, when the dance is finished, thunderously applauding. The room is pulsing with joy. The walls echo with shouts of ‘that was so much fun!’ This event, Queer Contra, happens only once a month in Chicago. Clearly, it is something people have been waiting for.

Contra dance is a community folk dance in which pairs dance in long lines with other pairs to live music. It originated in the northeastern United States and stems from 17th century European country dancing. In traditional contra, the roles for each pair are referred to as “ladies” and “gents,” with gents being the leaders and ladies being the followers. These roles, however, tend to alienate queer dancers.

“At any contra dance, even if they’re using ladies and gents, anybody can dance those roles,” says Qwill Duvall, an organizer of Chicago’s queer contra. “But the words are still gendered, which is uncomfortable for a lot of people.” Chicago queer contra organizer Andrea Craft says using the traditional title names affects who asks who to dance and oftentimes means dancers only get to learn one role.

Queer contra is nongendered, meaning anyone can dance any role with any partner. It provides people of all gender expressions and identities a safe, welcoming place to dance. Instead of ladies and gents, roles are known as “larks” and “ravens.” Larks on the left, ravens on the right. It is up to each pair to choose who is who and they can switch whenever they want.

Chicago’s queer contra event averages about 60 people per dance. Often, the age range spans up to seventy years. People come for many reasons. Some have been dancing in one form or another all their lives and wanted a more inclusive way to do so. Some have done absolutely no dancing until the first time they attend queer contra and are in it for the community it offers. There are not many other opportunities, the organizers explain, to attend queer gatherings that are not centered around alcohol.

Regardless of motivation, though, queer contra welcomes anyone with open arms.

“For as long as I’ve been coming,” says organizer Eli Malone, “It has been a very open, welcoming space where you can come however you are, whatever you look like, however you present, and be welcomed and not worry about judgment. It’s not perfect, nothing is, but it’s one of the best places I’ve found for that.”

Contra is an extremely social dance. By dancing up and down the lines with different pairs, dancers are often able to dance with everyone. They are encouraged to change partners between each 5-minute segment, and those who come alone are immediately welcomed with many requests to dance.

Duvall, who identifies as nonbinary, has been doing social partner dancing since high school, but when they moved to Chicago, struggled to find a dance group that did not feel heteronormative. “I felt really stressed about my gender presentation and getting asked to dance,” they explain. When someone told them about Queer Contra, they knew it was what they’d been looking for. “It was so welcoming. Someone asked me to dance every single dance. I could dance whatever role I wanted. There’s a lot of eye contact, which I love. It was playful and welcoming and I have been doing it since that day.”

Queer contra is made very accessible to beginners. For thirty minutes before each monthly dance, the caller—who stands at the front and calls out moves—offers lessons to anyone who has not done contra before. At the August dance, at least ten beginners show up for lessons and are seamlessly integrated into the dances throughout the night.

Craft loves that beginners have the opportunity to learn contra without ever knowing the traditional gender roles. “What our dance is doing,” they say, “Is making nongendered roles the norm. There are people who learn to dance this way without gender roles, and it shows that is a possibility.”

The effects of this nongendered dancing are being felt beyond queer contra. According to Penny, another queer contra organizer, the mere existence of queer contra has helped push Chicago’s weekly contra dance—which is not queer specific—into being less traditional around gender roles. Now, more men are willing to dance on the right and more women willing to dance on the left. There are even straight men who ask other straight men to dance.

While it is imperative queer contra is known as a safe space, Malone emphasizes it isn’t only about that. It’s also about the fun, the sheer joy that dancing together brings. That joy can be felt the moment you enter the room. It can be seen in the width of everyone’s smiles, and heard in the sound of their laughter.

“I love this group so much,” says Craft. “The space we create for trans people is the most important thing for me, but all of these folks I work with are so delightful and cooperative and we enjoy the work we do. It’s really lucky to have a thing that for me is my organizing and for it to be so joyful.”

For others, like Penny, queer contra means even more. When he was invited to his first contra dance, he says he was “absolutely heartbroken.” Queer contra is what saved him. “I felt like I was being pulled out of the ocean. I felt like I was being rescued and healed. I’m happy to say it doesn’t have that effect any longer. It’s had its effect. I feel whole now because of the dancing.”

Save Cuties: L.A.’s LGBTQ Coffee Shop and Community Space Could Close If It Doesn’t Reach Its Goal

This week, two queer-owned venues announced their closing in Los Angeles: Bar Mattachine, a bar named after the first-ever gay rights organization in the U.S., and the Vietnamese staple Good Girl Dinette, run by out chef Diep Tran. Both were subject to rising rents in gentrifying neighborhoods (Downtown Los Angeles and Highland Park) and follow a sad trend over the last decade of lost queer spaces. They join the legendary Oxwood Inn, a bar owned, operated, and patronized by queer and trans women, which closed in June 2017 — and that’s just in L.A. Earlier this year, St. Paul, Minn. saw its beloved Town House turned into a sports bar; residents of Norfolk, Virg. are trying to save the fledgling local LGBTQ dive, Hershee Bar; Attitudes, the oldest gay bar in St. Louis’s Grove, is for sale

What’s perhaps most notable about all of these spots was that they were not gay-specific, but instead, LGBTQ spaces that catered to the entire community. Town House had a sizable lesbian crowd due in part to owner Holly Monnett. Attitudes is also owned by an out lesbian, Jann Brigulio, and Hershee is currently owned by Annette Stone. And while Mattachine was owned by gay actor Garrett McKechnie, the bar boasted a mixed crowd and held events for organizations like the NLGJA (The Association of LGBTQ Journalists) as well as regular drag shows.

So when L.A. queer coffee shop Cuties announced that it needs community support today on its one year anniversary, its Patreon was accompanied by personal pleas from owners Virginia Bauman, Iris Bainum-Houle, and social media manager Leslie Foster to help keep their Virgil Village space open and available for local and visiting LGBTQs.

“Every single day that Cuties is open is a relative miracle,” Bauman writes. “We are proud of our impact on the community. We are giving every ounce of energy, love and skill that we have to make this project work and it has been one of the most rewarding and meaningful experiences of our lives. It’s an understatement that this message is incredibly hard to write and share, but asking for help one more time seems like the right thing to do.”

She goes on to write that “Unless we are able to reach our Patreon goals in August, we will likely have to close our doors.”

Like many queer and trans spaces, most of which are now defunct, Cuties is more than a venue.  The venture first began as a pop-up event called Queers, Coffee, and Donuts, which soon became so popular that it helped fund the start-up costs for the brick-and-mortar, located in a largely Latinx neighborhood adjacent to Silver Lake and East Hollywood. Since opening its doors as a daily operation, the shop has been a dependable safe space for LGBTQs and allies, offering regular opportunities for community building such as Friday Flirts (where 18+ LGBTQIA folx can meet potential new partners), film screenings, craft nights, support groups, and other one-off events. (Queers, Coffee, and Donuts still happens every Sunday, with specialty flavors available such as Bubblegum Plum Buttermilk.)

“Every week I get messages from our queer & trans kin all over the world asking us to open a Cuties in their hometown,” writes Bainum-Houle. “There is a great need for more space. LGBTQIA+ folx deserve a safer space that is all ages and open every day of the week. We deserve to make a living wage at a place of work where our orientation, gender and pronouns are respected. There is power in getting people in a room together, together in our common difference to build community. I want that work to continue. For that to happen I need your help.”

There have been many arguments over why LGBTQ spaces have difficulty staying open, specifically those catering to further marginalized sectors such as women or people of color who might not feel safe or welcome at cis white gay male-owned and operated clubs and venues. But the one that looms largest is the idea we don’t support our own community — that, outside of gay men, those identifying with other parts of the acronym don’t regularly attend or put money into the few initiatives and/or businesses attempting to cater to them. What frustrates about these assertions is that these same people are also those with less ability to give — who are less likely to have jobs or homes, much less extra cash.

The owners of Cuties offer several alternatives to cash donations on their Patreon in acknowledgment of this continued patriarchal problem. At the lowest level, donations can be pledged in amounts of $2 a month, and $5 or $10 per month is also an option. But for those for whom that’s not feasible, they request shares of the link on social media, a Yelp or Google review, or simply, a visit to the space — using it for what it’s intended.

“Hold meetings in the shop, study groups, first dates, co-work!” Bainum-Houle encourages. “Bring a friend who has never been to the shop before. We’d love to meet them!”

Patreon gifts include queer mugs, books, greeting card sets from queer artists, a spot on the wall inside Cuties, and a crash course in donut making for you and four friends.

“For the past 3 years, Iris, myself, Leslie and many other people have given everything to the mission of creating what we felt was missing in our community,” Bauman writes. “We want people within our community to have a few more jobs, a little bit more space to relax, and to facilitate regular daytime events that get people out of their house to see community in person.”

As opportunities to create community become more virtual, physical safe spaces and venues like Cuties are more integral than ever, especially for LBTQs. Frankly, one Cuties isn’t enough — but if even that one isn’t sustainable, where will we go next? If the answer is inevitably straight spaces, what will be sacrificed? That cost is surely more immeasurable than a cup of coffee.

Images via Cuties on Facebook

Clarkisha Explains: An Ode To Zigmund Ortega (and Other Video Game Characters Who Stay With Us)

You ever play a game and have a character — main protagonist or not  leave an incredibly long lasting impression on you?

I have, a handful of times. Some of my faves include Link from Zelda (still mad he’s not Zelda), Kratos from the God of War franchise, Master Chief from the Halo Franchise, Ellie from The Last of Us, Ezio/Desmond from The Assassin’s Creed franchise, and Hannah from Until Dawn.

And there’s more where those come from. But besides Ellie (who is also queer), none of these characters have left quite the impression that a certain Zigmund Ortega has.

I know what you’re thinking: Who the FUCK is that?

Well, he’s a character in a series of games titled The Freshman, The Sophomore, and The Junior, and all of these games come from an app called Choices (which itself is an interactive narrative hosting/storybook app that was created by Pixelberry Studios, a successful offshoot of EA) and every time a new game comes out, he continues to surprise the shit out of me.

This is the case for several reasons and I’m gonna start with the most important one (SPOILERS AHEAD):

1. Believe it or not, the man is probably one of the first and finest instances I have seen of positive bisexual representation. Especially for cis men.

I talk about representation for bisexual folx all the time. Until I am blue in the face really. And I’ve talked about how different that representation (and struggle) can be for cis men and cis women.

But I’ve never seen a character that nails it quite like Zigmund “Zig” Ortega.

Or as I like to say, the rich man’s Beck (from Victorious).


Why, yes you can Z — I mean, Beck.

You meet his character between The Freshman Book 3 and Book 4 and if your character is single, the two of you hit it off very quickly, and if your money (read: diamonds) is right, you can date him right away.

And you also find out right away, albeit very casually, that he is bisexual.

I’ll be honest: I was left shocked. Flabbergasted. Discombobulated.

Mind you, I know now that being queer doesn’t have a “look” and that anyone can be as queer and as fluid with that shit as they want, but when I was first coming to terms with my sexuality like two or three years ago (when I started playing the game), I’ma be honest:

I did not expect something like that to come out of Ortega’s mouth.

I say this because Ortega looks like your standard bad boy (complete with tattoos, a leather jacket, and everything) who has a “troubled past,” but this time around, he is of color (Brown/Latinx, which I will get to) and that affects how his story and character is perceived.

I naturally expected his character to be with the bullshit when he met my stand-in, so imagine my surprise when several chapters later, he’s explaining his anxiety to me about being a bisexual man (of color) and how he used to think he was confused or it was bad to be such a thing, but how he now recognizes it’s not, because all people are hot and he’s not gonna shit on himself for recognizing that. And since my character’s choices thus far had led her down a more queer path herself (she had been so-so dating Kaitlyn, another female character of Asian descent, but that fizzled out — in my mind — due to complexities of what it means to be queer AND out in both the Asian and African diasporas [the former of which Pixelberry actually does a dope job at addressing]), they bonded over that and, well, fell in *deep like* lol.

 

What a babe.

This is super important for a variety of reasons. Mostly because it highlights how different bisexuality is perceived based on gender (Ortega was not surprised when he learned my character was bisexual, but I was gobsmacked when I learned he was — and that’s because it is “accepted” more in women/femmes) and his character and proud ownership of his sexuality starts to get into a concept that is inextricably tied to the discussion of men/male-presenting individuals and their emotional, physical, and sexual expression.

Which is, you guessed it, toxic masculinity.

And also brings me to my last point:

2. His character is one that intentionally recognizes toxic masculinity and does his damnedest to fight against it.

While The Sophomore gets into this a bit more, this is something that is pretty intrinsic to Ortega’s arc and his existence as a character and that is made clear upon his arrival.

NPCs (non-playable characters) in the game can rarely get away with saying something virulently misogynistic in his presence without him threatening to beat the shit out of them.

In addition to this, it is revealed that his “dark and troubled past” actually amounts to him having beat the shit out of his sister’s abuser after he had been caught beating her. And because the system sucks ass (yes, Pixelberry goes there), it is Ortega who is disproportionately punished and has to serve time and carry that stigma of being an ex-con (who is of color, so double yikes). But you know what? Ortega makes it clear that he would do it again, because it was the right thing to do and tbh, I haven’t been this attracted to a fictional character since Trunks of DBZ and Inuyasha…of Inuyasha.


I regret nothing!

But his commitment to fighting toxic masculinity doesn’t stop there. There’s another storyline where Ortega charges himself with addressing another male character (this time Black) who is incredibly toxic about boundaries and who is also struggling with their sexuality, because they’ve been led to perceive bisexuality as being “full gay” and thus “weak” and BOY, I don’t think you realize how invaluable it was to see this unfolding on these virtual pages between Black and Brown (specifically Latinx and/or Hispanic) men.

A MAN.

I say this because both groups have to deal with their own versions of toxic masculinity (the latter as Black hypermasculinity and being hypersexed and the former as a concept known as machismo — which is just as toxic, suffocating, and dangerous) and it was honestly refreshing to have Ortega address all that even though he doesn’t name it.

And you know what? He didn’t have to. Because I got what he was saying right away, with none of the big, clunky jargon you usually get when discussing a social justice issue like this, but with all of the empathy.

It’s so…stunning to me because that empathy is rarely extended to men of color. That space for expression is rarely given.

And that’s pretty much why Zigmund Ortega is a helluva character. And while I don’t know where Pixelberry Studios will be taking his character next, if that path is as amazing and eclectic and inclusive and critical of toxic masculinity (patriarchy) as he is now?

Shiiiiiit. His character will be one who goes down as one of the bisexual greats.

And it will be well-deserved.

20 Queer Q’s with Leland

The 20 Queer Qs series seeks to capture LGBTQ individuals (and allies) in a moment of authenticity as we get to know the subjects, what makes them who they are, and what they value.

These intimate conversations aim to leave you, the reader, feeling like you just gained a new friend or a new perspective.

On this 20 Queer Q’s, get to know singer & songwriter Leland. He’s written for a slew of artists like Selena Gomez, Rachel Platten, Daya, Betty Who, and others! Leland frequently works with Troye Sivan and collaborated on his new album Bloom. Learn about how he feels holding another guy’s hand in public, his advice for LGBTQ+ youth, what he believes allyship to be, and more.

Name: Brett Leland McLaughlin

Age: 31

Preferred Pronouns: He/Him/His

Sexually Identifies As: Gay

 

What do you love about the LGBTQ+ community? I think the LGBTQ+Q community has some of the funniest people, the wittiest people, and the most talented people that I’ve ever encountered.

What are your thoughts on dating in the LGBTQ+ community? I can only speak to my experience. I have dated some wonderful people and I’m dating someone amazing right now and just like the straight community, whether or not it’s harder or easier to date depends on what’s going on in your life. It’s harder to date if you’re financially struggling, it’s harder if you’re driven and focused on your career, so I think it depends on your situation. I’m not a trans woman of color so I can’t speak from that perspective, but as a gay man, I can say that I’ve dated some wonderful people and it has been harder. I wasn’t trying to date someone in Mississippi so that might be harder.

What does pride mean to you? Not just accepting your sexuality, but being confident and open about and acknowledging that being queer isn’t easy for everyone depending on where you live. So it’s being grateful for the situation that I can be a queer man while acknowledging that there’s a lot of work to be done.

Who is someone you consider to be an LGBTQ+ icon? Just because I’m so close to this person and the ins and outs and the things that he does that he doesn’t speak about to help the LGBTQ+ community, I would say in my opinion, Tyler Oakley is an LGBTQ+ icon just because I’ve seen where his content has shifted over the years. It’s always been amazing, but it’s turned into something so important and educational to where new queer kids who are coming up may not know to appreciate their elders and what their elders have done for them so they can have this confidence of being who they are while being queer and open. So someone like Tyler who is bringing awareness and importance to different queer experiences, someone like that to me, makes an LGBTQ+ icon.

What’s a song you consider to be an LGBTQ+ anthem? “Born This Way” is unapologetically queer, it still makes me feel the same every time i hear it.

What’s advice you have for LGBTQ+ youth? Find a mentor. I have an unspoken queer mentor when I was growing up in college. I would take these songwriting workshops in Nashville and I wasn’t really out, didn’t have an out group of friends at the time, and I wasn’t out to my family. But the instructor of one class was Darrell Brown who has written some iconic country and pop songs, he was openly gay and married to his husband at the time so to have someone like that to look up to, to have a mentor, though we didn’t talk about it, once I was out, then for he and I to talk about it, hear his experience, and get his advice for career and personal stuff. So the best advice is to find a mentor whether through email or in person.

Who is the most important ally in your life? I would say my best friend who is straight and my next door neighbor. It’s been an interesting journey as a friend with to watch him evolve into that. To educate himself as I became more open about my queerness and understanding what my queerness meant. He also sought to understand what being an ally meant. Being an ally is more than just going to pride with your LGBTQ+ friend. It’s being beside them in a protest and understanding what they’re going through and doing what you can to help.

Do you believe in love? Yes.

What values would you like in an ideal partner? Loyalty, Drive, Wit.

Use 3-5 words to describe your coming out experience? Christmas, Emotional, Funny

Fill in the Blank: Love is _______. Hard

What hopes do you have for the LGBTQ+ community in the future? To come closer together and tackle issues that might not even be facing you and your queer experience, but to come together as a queer community and attack issues that everyone is up against or different sections of the community is up against. You have to fight for your whole LGBTQ+ family. I’d love to see more collective passion for more activism.

What is something you want to change about yourself in the next 6 months? I want to balance my life more from focusing just on myself to focusing on myself and how I can help others. Maybe helping new queer writers who don’t know how to get a foot in the door or queer kids who are going through what I went through growing up in Mississippi who don’t have an outlet or someone to talk to, just focusing on things beyond myself.

I was talking to someone about this the other day and he said when you move to LA or New York, any place where it’s going to be hard where you have to buckle down and work, it’s very easy, because you’re only focused on surviving. It’s very hard to come out of that mode because for so many years, you’re programmed to think, “I need to pay rent, I gotta survive.” So then you reach a point where you’re financially stable and can take some time to shift some energy somewhere besides myself, which is scary because you wonder how it all worked out and now how do I make the most of my time to help others?

What’s your earliest memory that you felt you were different? I remember in middle school, walking up to a circle where guys were talking about things they’d done with girls and I just remember not being interested in the conversation whatsoever. I also remember when they talked about kissing girls, I remember thinking I want to kiss a boy. I didn’t even contemplate that sticking out as a weird thought, it was just natural for me.

What do you feel most insecure about? My body.

Have you found your chosen family? Yes. They make me feel supported, funny, they make me feel like whether I’m killing it as a writer or will not have songs come out for the next 10-15 years, I still feel like I have a support system and they make me feel confident and make me feel attractive whether I gain or lose 30 pounds.

What is the title of the current chapter of your life? Planting Roots

Did you ever / still feel uncomfortable holding another guys hand? It depends where I am. In LA, New York, London, or Berlin, yes I feel comfortable. In Mississippi, no. There’s some insecurities and fears that are so deeply embedded in you that it’s gonna take your entire life to get rid of those and one of those is holding my boyfriend’s hand in public in a place where I know we might get weird looks.

It’s also fear based, do I want to hold my boyfriend’s hand and potentially get in a fight with someone? Or is that a real fear? You still hear things all the time, even at Prides people get attacked. I grew up in a different place than my boyfriend so we have different fears but it depends where it is, but it is a thought that enters my head.

Fill in the Blank: In 5 years I want to _________ . Keep making music and keep having great friends.

What value or quality has being a gay man given you? It’s given me a determination and a motivation to work harder than anyone else knowing that I can potentially not be given opportunities because I am queer or be looked over for opportunities or be taken less serious. Once I fully accepted who I was with my sexuality and felt liberated by it, it gave me this freedom to express myself when it comes to the music I want to make, how I move my body, my fashion. It gave me this sense of freedom that I don’t think I could’ve had otherwise.

Keep up to date with Leland’s work over on his Twitter and Instagram, stream his music on Spotify, and be sure to check him out in select cities as he opens for Troye Sivan on The Bloom Tour.