Steven Canals Wants to Build Hollywood a Brand New Boat

On a Saturday afternoon in Hollywood, a room filled with Latino filmmakers, producers and general Hollywood types hangs on Steven Canals’ every word. We’re sitting in neat rows of chairs in a hotel conference room at the official 2018 media summit for the National Association of Latino Independent Producers and everyone wants to know more about Canals, the queer Afro-Latinx creator of Pose, but even more, people want to know how it all happened.

They want to know how Pose made its way onto one of television’s hottest channels and how Canals came to work with TV mega producer Ryan Murphy, who became Pose’s executive producer. They want to know how Canals overcame the number of doors slammed in his face. They want to know how something so queer, so black and so brown somehow made it onto our screens.

Pose’s very existence is impressive. But the true miracle, Canals insists, is that queer people get to make it. It features the largest cast of transgender actors ever assembled. The show’s own Janet Mock is the first trans woman to write, direct and produce a television series. At every level of creation in front of and behind the camera, queer people mold the show. And before its season finale aired, FX announced a second season.

“I’m concerned not so much with ‘Are the stories being told?’ but who is telling the story,” he says to applause. “I think we have not been allowed in the room to tell our own narratives.”

He specifically cites the importance of his Pose trans collaborators Mock and Our Lady J, who also writes and produces.

“For us to have a seat at the table to tell that story, that’s progress,” he adds. “That’s how you’re going to see narratives that will open up discourse in healthy, critical way. For too long, that hasn’t been happening.”

Canals discusses serious complex realities like colorism, transphobia and intersectionality all while making everyone, including myself, guffaw. Pose is a serious show — it tackles the lives of black and brown queer and trans people living through the simultaneous epidemics of poverty, HIV and drugs in 1980s New York City. But Canals is all smiles and levity. He draws laughter out of you. It’s a skill he wields in public as he continues to speak in support of the fledgling series that could.

He’s the writer, executive producer and creator of one of the queer community’s favorite shows, but in his sneakers, glasses and enamel pin-laden denim jacket, he just looks like familia. When his fellow panelist (and One Day At a Time star) Isabella Gomez tells a story about her friend “Rita,” and clarifies that she means “Rita Moreno,” Canals lifts his mic up and says, “Girl, we know.” The room and his fellow panelists burst into even deeper laughter.

As magnetic as Canals is, he’s also adept at sharing credit. He possesses an uncanny generosity that lends itself perfectly to Pose’s ethos. He’s not just about making sure his story is told: he wants to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table. When audience members and panelists praise Pose, he makes sure the audience walks away hearing the names Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Janet Mock, and Our Lady J. He speaks about his fellow producers like the characters on Pose might discuss the House of Evangelista — with love. Later, in private, he jokes that the writers’ room dubbed itself the House of Murphy.

During its first season, Pose jostled its way onto every queer person’s calendar, their Twitter fingers going into overdrive every Sunday night to discuss the show’s characters and the complex psychological world they dared to inhabit. But, how did Canals go from working as a student affairs administrator in eastern Pennsylvania to tweeting along with his #PoseFamily every Sunday night in only a few short years?

The show’s origin story, it turns out, is shade.

In 2012, Canals was a college administrator at a university in Pennsylvania. A resident assistant during his undergraduate years, he was unsure if a career behind the camera called to him — and several professors dissuaded him from his artistic pursuits. He fell into student affairs and worked in a campus multicultural office telling students that they should be their best selves. All the while, he ignored his own creative impulses.

“I felt like a fraud,” Canals said to me in his Los Angeles home. His apartment is uncluttered and open. The most dominating visual in the room is a big book bearing Keith Haring’s name. He also wore a t-shirt with the legendary gay artist’s recognizable figures on the chest. He’s laid out cheese, grapes and preserves.  His denim jacket and my own were hanging side-by-side next to the door.

One evening, an art professor invited Canals to a soiree at his apartment with other artists. Canals said another creative approached him and asked him, “What’s your art?” At that moment, the art professor happened to be walking by and muttered, “He’s not an artist.”

Canals called the moment “soul crushing.”

“I’d never given myself the label of ‘artist,’ but at that moment, having it taken away from me, it didn’t feel good,” he said. He had contemplated returning to school for some time and, within a month of the incident, he turned in his application to UCLA’s MFA screenwriting program.

Pose didn’t come to life until Canals’ final semester in the program. Burnt out from writing features, he felt his idea well had run dry. All he had in his back pocket, he thought, was a semi-autobiographical piece about Bronx in the 1980s. But it didn’t feel right. A graduate program in screenwriting, he says, is all about branding, and he had branded himself as the gritty, urban scribe. The story seemed to fit his brand, but it wasn’t the right moment.

“At the time, I didn’t have the confidence as a writer,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was the person who should tell the story or if I was ready to tell it.” On a walk near campus, his friend, The Magicians writer Noga Landau, prodded him until he realized his back pocket held one more idea.

In 2004, as an undergraduate at Binghamton University, Canals watched Paris Is Burning for the first time. The film stuck with him not only for its historical significance, but for the potential of even more stories in the world its director Jennie Livingston chronicled. Later, as he walked through the residence halls a name popped into his head — Damon, the name of a young boy who would move to New York City and enter the ball culture.

Canals, and Hollywood, slept on Paris Is Burning for a long time. At one point, Precious director Lee Daniels was meant to helm a musical version of the film for television. And prior to Pose, Murphy bought the rights to Livingston’s documentary, set on making another hit TV show based off its characters.

Ten years after watching Burning in class, Canals wrote the pilot for Pose in just 10 weeks.

Canals is a natural storyteller. To hear him answer a question is to be brought to another world. His answers contain beginnings, middles and ends. When I ask him about being a writer, his whole family plays the cast in his answer.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Canals let his parents turn him into a genre cinephile. He learned story from a steady diet of highbrow popcorn flicks like Terminator 2, Alien, and Aliens, movies his father loved. His mother, an educator, read to him at night. Sometimes, she concocted his bedtime stories in her own head. Canals’ media leash was long.

“They let me watch whatever and we’d have a conversation about it after,” Canals said. “Nothing was off limits.”

Even in play, Canals couldn’t leave story behind. While other kids played freeform with their action figures, Canals invented scenarios and crafted yarns for his Thundercats and Ninja Turtles figures.

“I used to suck the fun out of play,” he said. “I was the kid that had a notebook and would write down storylines.”

Canals was 15 when he knew his love for story would translate to a career. With an after-school arts program, he and other students in his 10th grade class produced a documentary about gang violence with help from a then-fledgling HBO Family. Canals and his friends interviewed community members and worked for eight months to create the final product. But as they came to the end of the academic year, one of his peers — a co-producer on the film — was shot and killed.

“Her death was for me … I think it’s one that I still haven’t quite emotionally processed to be honest,” Canals said. “We went from highlighting a very particular experience to all of a sudden having that experience of loss at 15 and not having the emotional intelligence to comprehend how it could happen.”

With life imitating art, Canals said this is when the power of film and television truly resonated with him. These stories were not just there to entertain — they could educate.

“I think that’s where my own personal work always lives,” Canals said. “I always want to live at the intersection of [education and entertainment].”

And Pose does. The show traffics as much in queer reality as it does in queer fantasy. As much as it depicts queer and trans people’s lived experiences, Canals and the rest of the writer’s room knew that they’d be writing scenes never before depicted on television. For instance, Murphy and Canals knew that when Blanca spoke to Damon about gay sex, it would be the first time a young queer kid on television got “the talk” from his mother.

“The first time that I went to go attack the page, the first draft was super clinical,” Canals said. It felt as if Canals had just Googled a checklist about queer sexual health. “It wasn’t funny. The humor had been sucked right out of the conversation.”

After a quick kiki with Murphy and four days of rewrites, Canals said they arrived at the final conversation, which covered tops, bottoms, and more. Canals described the final scene as an “honest conversation” between a son and his mother — “a mother who happens to have a young boy who’s attracted to boys.”

“You can research any particular topic as much as you want until you’re blue in the face,” Canals said. “When it comes to crafting the narrative, you have to let all that go. You just have to tell the story.”    

Storylines around HIV also showed Canals and crew’s deft ability to toe the line between information and amusement. In episode four, ballroom MC Pray Tell talks to the young queer men in the House of Evangelista about getting tested in a restaurant booth. Scenes later, Pray Tell takes the younger generation to test at a clinic. And in episode six, he throws an AIDS cabaret to honor his dying lover. Canals said that the former plotline is meant to send a message, while the latter is meant to send the viewer a message about humanity.

While Pose does employ fantasy, it does so in the pursuit of justice. Canals said that every week, he received tweets during beats of the show about the character Angel (Indya Moore), who pursues a relationship with the upper middle class banker Stan (Evan Peters). He’d see tweets concerned for Angel’s safety, considering how much violence against trans women is often intimate partner violence. Canals saw the disconnect early on when the scene the writer’s room had concocted as the beginning of a love story between Angel and Stan was taken as a dangerous moment for Angel.

But, Canals said, that’s not what they wanted to portray. The life of Venus Xtravaganza, one of the most infamous members of New York City’s ballroom scene, and star of Paris Is Burning, inspired the character. Yet Angel is meant to be a blueprint for what her life could’ve been if she weren’t killed.

“We looked at Venus’s life and art in the documentary, and everyone was so moved and touched by her,” he said. “We decided to honor her by telling a story where that’s not her ending.”

Other characters take inspiration from Canals’ own life, as well. His favorite character to write is Blanca Evangelista, inspired, he said, by his own mother. Her love is a tough love: she forces Damon to apply for dance school, but only to meet his potential.

“Blanca is a fighter and my mom is — she’s just resilient,” he said. After our conversation, Canals took a moment to go to his room and came back with three pictures of his mother in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One picture has Canals as a baby.

“Blanca is truly just my mom on the page,” he said. “I understand her and understand how to write for her from growing up in a household with three really strong, complex, intelligent outspoken Black and Puerto Rican women.”

And as for Lil Papi, a young homeless Latinx man trying to get out of the drug game, he’s inspired by straight men Canals knew growing up in the Bronx who had no qualms with Canals being queer. Canals wrote an impassioned email to Ryan Murphy defending the character of Lil Papi being male after the writer’s room had a large discussion about whether they should change the character to be a lesbian. However, so much of Lil Papi came from Canals’ upbringing that he didn’t want to see the character’s gender altered.

On the first day that Angel Curiel, the actor playing Lil Papi, came to set, Canals said Murphy gave him the greatest compliment yet: “I’m glad you fought me on that one.”

Pose has proved to be a years-long lesson in what it means to be an Afro-Latinx creator in Hollywood. After writing the first draft in 2014, Canals said the show’s first pitches landed with a huge thud.

Pose opened every single door, but it would not keep me in the room,” he said. Executives would say it was too niche or use coded terms like “urban” to suggest that it wouldn’t connect with viewers. Everyone was enamored with the strength of the pilot; no one would foot the bill to see it realized.

Enter Ryan Murphy. Canals first met with Murphy in September 2016, days after Murphy won nine trophies at the Emmy Awards for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Canals’ personal favorite series of that year. Canals had been a fan of Murphy’s since Popular, his short-lived but much-loved WB series. The two spent 45 minutes together discussing Pose and what it might look like to work together. Canals said that with most pitches, he strayed conservative, not giving away too many details. But with Murphy, he put all his cards on the table.

“I felt like the ball had been in his court, but my team had been mindful about saying, ‘In reality, it’s in yours,’” he said. “You can go in there and if you don’t get along with him or you feel like it’s not the right fit, you don’t have to work with him.”

But, after the 45 minutes had ended, Canals knew the pair would be a fit. Canals said there was one moment that cinched that Murphy understood his vision for the show. Like every other executive, Murphy asked him who he envisioned in the series. When Canals couldn’t name big name actors to star as the show’s five central characters, most executives’ eyes glazed over. To Murphy, Canals said: “I don’t know, I haven’t met them yet.”

When Murphy agreed with Canals’ instincts, the two became a pair.

Murphy, Canals, and frequent Murphy collaborator Brad Falchuk began re-imagining Canals’ original script. The Damon storyline of the dancer coming to New York City was brought over wholesale from the original, but Murphy did make a few changes. He owned the rights to Paris Is Burning and, at one point, Pose had fictional characters interacting with real people like Pepper LaBeija and Dorian Corey. But that was eventually scrapped. Canals admits that for his own personal taste, authentic has always meant gritty, but Murphy suggested that the tone be lighter. Canals worried the show might veer into Glee territory when it came to lightness, but Murphy assured him that that was not what he was talking about.

“The word for the writer’s room for the entire season was ‘aspirational,’” he said. For Canals, the tone of Pose was so much larger than just how the viewer might receive it. Potentially flubbing the show might in turn cost himself and other creators of color jobs. Canals said the fate of Pose weighed heavy on him in that way.

“If I fuck up, then I just shut the door for everyone else who’s come after me,” he said.

Canals thinks about his relative privilege in the industry all the time. When I ask him how long it took for his own impostor syndrome to wear off, he replied, “I don’t think it has.”

Canals launched into a story, his modus operandi. He said a friend of his, a woman who’s been around the Hollywood block, explained to him that Tinseltown is a tugboat filled with white men. Every once in a while, the white men allow one person unlike them onto the ship, but it’s only one at a time and only when they feel like extending the invitation. They let you into the room and they usher you back out.

“Aside from reaching over and pulling people out of the water onto the boat, the other option, which is equally as important is to say, ‘Fuck it!’ and build another boat,” Canals said. “Just build my own goddamn boat, I’ll decide who is on it.”

Canals’ dedication to getting Hollywood a bigger boat probably stems from his own confusion as to why he is here rather than anyone else he grew up with. Why does he have a show on FX and others from the Bronx don’t? Why does he have a show with several trans writers, directors and actresses of color? He doesn’t know the answer.

“I’m always going to have that feeling of ‘I don’t know why I got here,’” he said. “I don’t know why the universe selected me as the person to make it out of that environment. There’s plenty of people with the same story as me, born and raised in the Bronx in the 1980s that don’t have the same opportunities I’ve had.”

“I don’t know why the universe decided I would be the person,” Canals said, “but I’m grateful for it.”

Photo Credit: Alex Schmider/INTO

Hayley Kiyoko Wants To Be The Lesbian Pop Star to Win At The VMAs and Then Take Over Top 40

Hayley Kiyoko’s self-directed music videos get millions of views on YouTube (her 2015 video for “Girls Like Girls” has 94 million as of press time), and now the actor-director-turned-pop star has two VMA nominations (Best New Artist and Push Artist of the Year). Still, when Kiyoko stepped onto the stage with Taylor Swift to perform together at the Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, MA two weeks ago, she felt a new level of fame. 

“[Taylor] was like ‘Is this your first stadium performance?” Kiyoko relays. It was. “It was as amazing as it could seem in the sense of, I had met her that day and did the sound check. … It was incredible and I’m very thankful for her. I’ll never forget that day.”

Swift had specifically requested they sing “Curious” together, a single off Kiyoko’s spring release Expectations that was about a relationship with a game-playing woman who has a boyfriend but won’t stop toying with Kiyoko’s heart. The two came in together on the chorus in front of an ecstatic crowd — some likely familiar with Kiyoko, others surely leaving new fans — singing:

“If you let him touch ya, touch ya, touch ya, touch ya, touch ya, touch ya (yeah)
The way I used to, used to, used to, used to, used to, used to (yeah)
Did you take him to the pier in Santa Monica?
Forget to bring a jacket, wrap up in him cause you wanted to?
I’m just curious, is it serious?”
 
At 27, Kiyoko has become one of the fastest rising pop stars of what she’s dubbed 20GayTeen, a phrase apropos of her adoring audience who are largely queer millennials looking to express themselves through music that doesn’t force them to use opposite gender pronouns. The experiences Kiyoko laments in her lyrics are ones rarely sung about in mainstream pop, which is why she’s called “Lesbian Jesus” by fans, and by the media who have found the idea fascinating if not slightly humorous. 
 

But the thing is, Kiyoko doesn’t take herself too seriously. It’s her combined sense of humor and self-confidence that has crowds clamoring for more. Currently opening for Panic! at the Disco, Kiyoko’s influence can be seen nightly, as fans emulate her laidback androgynous athleisure style.  

“It’s really cute,” Kiyoko tells INTO. “A lot of them will wear like Hawaiian shirts because I’ve worn several of them in my music videos. It’s just really fun. Some people dress up as like the characters from the music videos and it’s just really cool.”

Kiyoko’s music videos are a huge part of why she’s become so successful in a world full of female pop stars churning out titillating tunes about sexual curiosity. She frequently stars in and directs her own videos opposite female love interests. She has male backup dancers who follow her lead in choreography that is often a mating call or messaging to the woman at the center of the song. They aren’t big budget affairs with multiple high-fashion costume changes or visual effects like some of her contemporaries; instead, Kiyoko’s videos serve as cinematic love stories that are so palpable, her fans sometimes have trouble believing they aren’t vignettes from her real life. 

“People think I’m like a player because they see me make out with girls in music videos, but it’s because they watch the videos back to back, so it’s like ‘Oh, there’s this girl and this girl,'” she says. “But I’m not — I’m a very one girl kind of girl, you know?”

Cue the heart eyes and sighs from the young women who dream of being Kiyoko’s love interest. Kiyoko says she’s not one to kiss and tell (“I keep my private life private”), but she’s also more focused on her career right now.

“It’s kind of hard to date and to meet people when you’re on the road,” she says. “So I stick with my friends and family.”

Kiyoko has been an out lesbian throughout her musical career and has never shied away from anything related to being a part of an oft-ignored community that rarely gets to hear songs that don’t just speak to them, but for them. She doesn’t take the responsibility lightly, and says she feels lucky that she hadn’t experienced any kind of traumatic homophobia inside an industry that can often push back on artists who try to buck convention, especially when it comes to gender performance. And while Kiyoko doesn’t dismiss femininity, she’s got a certain kind of swagger that also exudes masc qualities rarely displayed by women pop stars, at least not consistently. 

“Everyone has been — at least to my face — accepting,” Kiyoko says. “But obviously everyone has their own opinions. That’s what success is for me — doing so many other things because it’s not only success for myself but it’s success for other people and breaking those walls with those boundaries, people not caring about who you are or what you are and more so just about the music.”

The big boundary Kiyoko’s looking to break next is into Top 40. Because although she’s gone viral and shared a stage with America’s highly debatable best selling sweetheart, Kiyoko’s singles have yet to get radio play.

“That’s on my bucket list,” she says, “and the next step for me as an artist to kind of cross over into the mainstream. … For me to be on the radio and to have a hit and to be, I don’t know, popular and to be myself, and to be a woman, and to be half Japanese, and like girls, it means more — so much more. It’s beyond me, and so it feels like a big win for the community and just for us as people.”

But first, she’s hoping for some other wins — at the upcoming MTV Video Music Awards. Fans can vote until Friday, August 10 for Kiyoko to win Best New Artist and Best Push Artist at the August 20th awards show, which would make her the fourth out lesbian artist to win a VMA. The first was k.d. lang in 1993 (MTV Video Music Award for Best Female Video), and the second was Mary Lambert as part of “Same Love” collaboration with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis for MTV Video Music Award for Best Video with a Social Message in 2013. Young M.A. was nominated for Best New Artist in 2017, and queer artists Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Tyler the Creator, Lauren Jauregui of Fifth Harmony, Michael Stipe of R.E.M., Ricky Martin, Fergie, Whitney Houston, Mel B of the Spice Girls, Demi Lovato, George Michael, David Bowie, Sinéad O’Connor, The B-52’s, Lance Bass of ‘NSYNC have all won VMAs in the past as well. Yet somehow, the most iconic sapphic moment in VMAs history is probably the Madonna, Britney, Christina three-way kiss.

Fifteen years later, and 25 years after k.d.’s win for “Constant Craving,” Lesbian Jesus could take home two highly coveted awards and introduce her unabashed, out and proud music to those who still haven’t come across her just yet. She’s also hoping to meet other contenders for potential collaborations. 

“I’m still new on the scene and so I am so excited to go to the VMAs and meet other artists because I don’t really know a lot of other people personally,” she says. She says it also gives her the kind of validation she’s been looking for from the industry.

“This whole journey has just been about the music and that opportunity — and my music journey has been like grassroots all the way up, so to be nominated for the VMAs and go to the VMAs — just to be invited feels like a victory. For me, personally, it’s a huge victory because I’m like OK, I’m getting invited to the popular group and being recognized and that’s just the best.”

Win or lose, Kiyoko will return to her home in L.A. after the VMAs and get to work on new videos and songs before heading back on the road for a European tour this fall. She says she’s not sure what she has planned for new tracks, but that she’s “definitely planning” to work with “What I Need” collaborator (and fellow QWOC) Kehlani again — “We love working together and I would love to make more music with her,” Kiyoko says.

What she wants most is for people to listen to Expectations, and for them to hear that she’s not stuck in one genre; that, like Hayley Kiyoko the actor/singer/dancer/director; half-Japanese lesbian pop star,  her music is multi-faceted; multi-hyphenated.

“My music is for everyone, and I really worked hard on my albums to make sure [the listeners] are able to connect and relate to something,” she continues. “It’s not always going to be the same.”

And taking the songs on the road has proven to be even better for that kind of fan-artist connection, the kind that Hayley Kiyoko fans get to experience up close and personal as she brings her rainbow flag on stage and sings about love, lust, and heartbreak — songs about other women. And Kiyoko is happy to hand the songs over to the individuals singing along in the crowd. 

“I think what’s awesome about being an artist is every night you’re getting to explore new things,” Kiyoko says, “so you’re performing the same songs and your feelings can change, or you notice a word or a lyric that someone’s connecting to, and every night it changes.” 

Images by Topher Shrigley

Nine LGBTQ Activists Attacked By Mob of Armenian Villagers

Nine LGBTQ people were attacked by a mob of Armenian villagers on Friday night in a brutal assault that left at least two hospitalized.

The incident began earlier in the day, when two teenagers approached a house in the remote southern village of Shurnukh that was being visited by LGBTQ activists and advocates for women’s rights and environmental causes. They began screaming homophobic slurs at the residence and peppering it with fireworks.

Although the activists reported the harassment to police, local authorities were unable to locate those responsible.

Later that very same evening, a mob of approximately 30 townsfolk descended upon the home and demanded an audience with the activists, as the news website Open Caucasus Media originally reported.

When the group of LGBTQ gathered in the house attempted to leave the premises, reports allege that they were pelted with rocks by the mob — who berated them with anti-LGBTQ obscenities and claimed they were “Turks.” Armenia and its Turkish neighbors have a long history of conflict dating back to the Armenian Genocide of 1915, in which 1.5 million were slaughtered.

Police didn’t arrive on the scene for close to an hour and a half. LGBTQ activists didn’t receive help from authorities until they fled the mob and attempted to flag down passing cars for assistance.

The attackers allegedly instructed those driving by to ignore the pleas for help. “Don’t stop, these are gays,” they said.

Because law enforcement didn’t bring enough vehicles to ensure safe passage for all nine of the victims, police had to ask a bus to take the LGBTQ activists to a police station in Goris — which is more than two hours away.

While a majority of the injuries were minor, two survivors of the attack were taken to the hospital for medical treatment. According to OC Media, one of the activists, Robert, received stitches on his head. He also sustained severe bruises, scratches, and a swollen ankle as a result.

Robert tells the local publication, however, that “the psychological damage” he has suffered in the aftermath “is worse.”

Although local advocates say this attack is the most severe the LGBTQ community has witnessed in recent years, the advocacy group ILGA-Europe claimed it’s far from the first. In a statement, the organization said it’s just one of a string of assaults on LGBTQ people — which includes a similar attack in Goris four months ago.

Two of the individuals targeted on Friday were also involved in that incident — and one was beaten in the face.

ILGA-Europe called for a full investigation into the attacks.

“LGBTQ people are part of Armenian society and should be able to live fully and freely, without fear,” the group claimed in a press release. “We call on local police officers, national law enforcement agencies and policymakers to find the perpetrators, fully investigate this incident without delay, and introduce laws to protect LGBTQ people against bias-motivated crimes.”

The violence was also condemned by the U.S. Embassy in the Armenian capital of Yerevan in a tweet.

Armenian police often decline to pursue charges in cases of anti-LGBTQ hate crimes, but authorities have reportedly begun investigating the August 3 assault. Several suspects were brought in for questioning over the weekend.

Activists, though, are not hopeful justice will be served. Elvira Meliksetyan, former media manager of the Women’s Resource Center in Armenia, posted a photo on Facebook which she claims depicts former Shurnukh mayor Hakob Arshakyan conversing “warmly” with one of the alleged attackers.

Armenia — a former Soviet republic bordering Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran — has struggled to embrace its LGBTQ population following independence from the USSR.

According to a 2012 report from the advocacy organization Pink Armenia, 19 percent of respondents in Armenia’s three largest cities believe LGBTQ people are “diseased.” Thirteen percent claimed homosexuality was brought to the country by the West, while 11 percent felt same-sex attractions are a “result of upbringing.”

Meanwhile, more than half (55 percent) said they would cut off connection with a friend, family member, or acquaintance if they discovered that individual was LGBTQ.

Armenia finished in the bottom three in ILGA’s 2017 Rainbow Europe report — which ranks the continent’s most and least LGBTQ-friendly nations. The only countries which fared worse in the survey were Russia and Azerbaijan.

A Dozen Trans People Report Bathroom Discrimination at LoveLoud Festival

It was nearly a hundred degrees in Salt Lake City on Saturday. Organizers with Queer Meals, a nonprofit that provides free meals and groceries in the Provo area, had been waiting for over an hour for a meet and greet with Tim Cook. The openly gay Apple CEO was one of the slated speakers at that evening’s LoveLoud Festival, a benefit concert for LGBTQ Mormon youth.

Bobbee Trans Mooremon, a board member at Queer Meals, asked the group’s handler if she could use the bathroom. All the restrooms at the University of Utah’s Rice-Eccles Stadium were set to be converted into gender-neutral facilities for the July 28 festival, according to LoveLoud organizers.

But when the handler took Mooremon to a men’s restroom, someone using the urinal stopped her. He told her she was in the “wrong” bathroom. When Mooremon — who is transgender — tried to explain about the stadium’s gender-inclusive policy, the man informed her that other facilities in the stadium had been marked as all-gender, but this one was strictly for staff and VIPs.

Mooremon washed her hands and left. She tells INTO the experience felt extremely “dehumanizing” in a space intended to uplift trans people.

“I felt really disappointed and unseen in this concert that was supposed to celebrate LGBTQ people,” she claims. “It was supposed to be bringing the community together — it was supposed to be our night.”

When Mooremon reported the incident to Queer Meals Founder Jerilyn Hassell Pool, the group made the decision to pack up their booth and leave the event. After it was revealed that LoveLoud had only marked two bathrooms as gender-neutral, Pool felt it was no longer a “safe space” for Utah’s trans community. Provo Pride and the Provo’s PFLAG chapter pulled out later that day.

While Mooremon’s story has attracted national attention, she is not alone. Over a dozen trans attendees claim they struggled to access the stadium’s restrooms during the event.

QueerMeals surveyed trans volunteers and community members who attended the concert, headlined by the rock band Imagine Dragons. While some had positive experiences overall, 13 respondents told the nonprofit they were made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome while using the restrooms at LoveLoud; others simply couldn’t find the limited all-gender facilities offered that day.

Some of their stories were shared with INTO under condition of anonymity to protect their identities. They will be referred to using pseudonyms.

At least two attendees report being “stared at” while using the restroom. One individual, Skyler, was reportedly leaving a restroom marked for families and people with disabilities at the time, while Sidney claims the incident took place in the men’s restroom. The former respondent searched the stadium for the gender-neutral facilities and didn’t see any.

“In a place we were supposed to allowed to be ourselves, we couldn’t,” Skyler concludes.

Jordan had similar issues locating the all-gender restrooms. The respondent claims that “while the other bathrooms had large signs visible from a distance, the signs indicating the two gender-neutral bathrooms were tiny.”

“For most of the concert, the indoor sections were full of people sheltering from the heat, which made getting to any bathroom a challenge,” Jordan says.

The tenor of these reports was confirmed in conversation with Chelsea Peahl of Provo Pride’s board of trustees, who claims that several community members had similar experiences at last year’s LoveLoud Festival. Peahl tells INTO that advocacy groups made it “very clear there was a bathroom issue” and their concerns were “ignored.”

When Peahl (who uses gender-neutral pronouns) texted LoveLoud organizers on Saturday to inform them of the limited availability of all-gender bathrooms, they were told organizers would “forward those messages onto individuals at hand.”

“Nothing happened,” Peahl claims in a phone conversation. “Then Bobbee’s situation happened and other individuals were bullied in the restroom. Someone told me about it because he had witnessed a man harassing individuals in the restroom. I have heard from a few people those situations happened.”

“I let them know this was a problem before they started letting ticket holders in,” Peahl adds.

Even for those who were able to use the restroom without incident, LGBTQ groups say having just two all-gender bathrooms on opposite ends of a stadium designed to hold 45,000 people created major challenges for both trans attendees and individuals with disabilities.

For instance, Mooremon would have to travel several floors up to use one of the two gender-neutral facilities. She uses a walker. Even the men’s bathroom she was asked to leave wasn’t ADA accessible — meaning she had to park her walker outside.

Throughout the event, Mooremon felt as if her experience was being “pushed to the back.”

Others agreed. Although trans model Carmen Carrera discussed her journey to self-acceptance in a livestream with Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds, many felt the framing of the event focused explicitly on sending a message of inspiration to gay, lesbian, and bisexual young people.

Suicide is the leading cause of death in Utah among those between the ages of 12 and 17, and many cite homophobia in the LDS Church as a contributing factor. Reynolds starred in an HBO documentary, Believer, earlier this year about the singer’s campaign to further acceptance in his faith. The LoveLoud concert was started with that goal in mind, with its mission to raise $1 million for queer youth in 2018.

But critics note that even the event’s name — LoveLoud — puts an emphasis on sexual orientation, not gender identity.

“The message is more about being with who you love,” Brianna Cluck, a representative of Provo Pride, tells INTO. “That’s great and I support that. But a lot of time the discourse about being with who you love, love is love, and all of that also forgets to include being who you want to be as well.”

What makes these issues so disappointing is trans people claim they already have so few spaces accessible to them in the LDS faith. Although the Book of Mormon doesn’t explicitly mention transgender issues in its text, leaders have interpreted doctrine so that trans individuals face excommunication from the church if they begin the process of surgically or medically transitioning.

“The way [Mormon leaders] phrase it is ‘elective transsexual operations,’ which is nebulous at best,” Cluck says. “There’s not much to go on.”

Groups like QueerMeals and Provo Pride will be meeting with Reynolds and LoveLoud organizers in the coming weeks for round table discussions on how to uphold the concert’s mission of inclusion in future years. Reynolds is expected to be present for those conversations.

Ahead of those meetings, LoveLoud has encouraged community members to share any negative experiences they had at the event — saying in a statement that organizers are “saddened” by Mooremon’s account.

Mooremon believes, though, that this year’s controversy is already starting important conversations in the Mormon faith.

“It’s already creating a conversation around access to bathrooms for trans-identified people, and I think that is really important,” she says. “People’s eyes are being opened by this, and I’m hoping that it can raise awareness. Trans people need to pee just like everybody else.”

James Baldwin On Being Black and Gay In a Straight, White World

James Baldwin is Black gay excellence.

Born in Harlem, New York on August 2nd, 1924 (94 years ago today), Baldwin went on to be one of the most highly regarded novelists, civil rights activists, and social critics of all time. His work and social theory are still an integral part of school teachings to this day, as his words are not just relics that show us important criticisms of the time in which they were levied, but instead, a stark reminder of how much work is still left to do.

The intersection of being Black and gay is a tough crossroads, but even more so in Baldwin’s era. In the early 1980s, just years before his death, Baldwin made critiques about gay culture and intersectionality that ring true to this day. In a spectacular interview in The Village Voice, he delivered poignant critiques about white gay men, their privilege and how they live in it.

“Do black people have the same sense of being gay as white gay people do?” the reporter asks. “I mean, I feel distinct from other white people.”

“Well, that I think is because you are penalized, as it were, unjustly,” Baldwin says. “You’re placed outside a certain safety to which you think you are born. A black gay person who is a sexual conundrum to society is already, long before the question of sexuality comes into it, menaced and marked because he’s black or she’s black. The sexual question comes after the question of color; it’s simply one more aspect of the danger in which all black people live.”

“I think white gay people feel cheated,” he continues, “because they were born, in principle, into a society in which they were supposed to be safe. The anomaly of their sexuality puts them in danger, unexpectedly. Their reaction seems to me in direct proportion to the sense of feeling cheated of the advantages which accrue to white people in a white society. There’s an element, it has always seemed to me, of bewilderment and complaint. Now that may sound very harsh, but the gay world as such is no more prepared to accept black people than anywhere else in society. It’s a very hermetically sealed world with very unattractive features, including racism.”

The queer community is not short on racism by any means. From racial discrimination in our nightlife scene to dating and organizing, there are a lot of racist demons LGBTQs have to wrestle. The queer community, media, and even our advocate groups have long been scrutinized for primarily centering and uplifting the cause of white gay men. That’s not to say that we haven’t made progress in that area, but that the progress has come in response to the voice of non-white queers relentlessly calling for their recognition.

Today’s culture has helped make it so that the voices of those who have been historically ignored can no longer be denied by those who claim to be a voice for an entire community as they once were. Our representation and seats at the table have been argued for by appealing to our sense of unity and highlighting our contributions.

But in analyzing the way we overcome that and look at each other, we shouldn’t find ourselves finding common ground by comparing our struggles. In this same interview, Baldwin highlighted what’s most important about our shared marginalized status in society.

“It’s simply that the whole question has entered my mind another way,” he says. “I know a great many white people, men and women, straight and gay, whatever, who are unlike the majority of their countrymen. On what basis we could form a collation is still an open question. The idea of basing it on sexual preference strikes me as somewhat dubious, strikes me as being less than a firm foundation. It seems to me that a coalition has to be based on the grounds of human dignity. Anyway, what connects us, speaking about the private life, is mainly unspoken.”

It is very important that as we recognize each other’s struggles, and as we search for common ground, we ground that search not in our shared marginalization and pain, but in our rights to dignity. So much of the way we try to connect and be empathetic towards others is by finding ways that things relate directly to our own cause. For gay men, it is often through comparing words like “f*ggot” to the word “n*gger.” While that is a natural propensity and not inherently bad way to search for a connection and bond, those bonds don’t need to be centered and forged around our own experiences.

When living at the intersection of identities, it becomes painstakingly clear that searching for an immediate, personal, and direct comparison to the struggles of those around is not a sustainable model for achieving equality. We have to look beyond the ways in which those who also find themselves denied privileges issued to others in the world relate to us and focus more clearly on each individual’s right to a life free of shame and discrimination. Their dignity is as important as our own whether we can personally connect with it or not. If the litmus test for whether someone’s marginalization matters is your ability to overlap it with it in your own lived experience, that test will fail almost every time.

Our shared desire for dignity should make it clear to everyone that Black issues, immigration issues, women’s issues, issues of the disabled and other socioeconomic issues are all LGBTQ issues whether you can relate to personally affected by them or not. Queerness will never be a catchall that will encompass the oppression that others face.  Bringing down the patriarchy, abuse, and toxic masculinity forged in the heterosexual community that cisgender straight-identifying women are subjected to is in the interest of our community because that oppression contributes to ours. Whether or not queerness seems immediately involved, it should be the moral imperative of the queer community to seek equality for others —  even if we don’t believe or can’t see how it will directly lead to equality for ourselves.

Because the truth is: it actually will.

As the world seems to deteriorate around us during a presidential administration that seems hellbent on stripping away at us day by day, we can all benefit from focusing our activism and empathy outward. Grounding our beliefs in the right of all of us to live free from persecution instead of our own personal worries could very well increase the strength of all of our resistance.

As the saying goes, a rising tide raises all ships.

Images via Getty

‘The Way We Live Now’ Highlights Contemporary QPOC Portraiture

While reports indicate that Tyler Mitchell, the 23-year-old creative from Atlanta, Georgia, could soon be announced as the first black photographer to shoot a cover of VogueNew Yorkers can get a taste of his work in an ongoing exhibition titled “The Way We Live Now,” currently on display in Manhattan. An open submission exhibit that received over 1,000 entrants, the Aperture-organized show features 18 photographers and artists from around the world whose work revolves around conversations happening in culture today.

“What emerged was a broad look of several things,” Antwaun Sargent, an art and cultural critic and co-curator of the exhibition told INTO. “Globalization, modernity, gender politics, race politics, immigration, nations in the midsts of rapid change. Even within that, there’s this exploration by several of the photographers around gender and sexuality and how those things intersect with race, nationality or other areas.”

Camila Falcao

Working with co-curators like Siobhan Bohnacker of The New Yorker, Brendan Embser of Aperture, and Marvin Orellana of New York magazine, the full showing is expansive. Works look at mass incarceration, the crisis of the opioid addiction, the blended cultures that immigration causes, as well as the contradictions of 21st Century life. In one series of images, David Monteleone shoots scenes along Xi Jinping’s proposed Belt and Road initiative. Another photographer depicts recently removed Confederate monuments as cenotaphs, or empty tombs. Mitchell’s photos depict youth culture, particularly young black men, capturing them with what he calls an “honest gaze.”

A few of the artists have created works around gender and sexuality. A photograph and series of videos by Shikeith Cathey explore the eroticism of the black male form while making sure to sidestep any cliches and stereotypes. A series of still lifes by Jonathan Gardenhire use a combination of texts from the likes of James Baldwin and Jane Jacobs, as well as images he’s taken himself and imagery from works like Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book, to visualize the cultural influences surrounding ideas about black men as well as queerness.

Images from Camila Falcao are a part of a larger project titled “Abaixa Que é Tiro,” which loosely translates to “be careful because something wonderful is about to happen” and depict Brazilian trans women in their various states of transition.

“I’ve started this series because I want to help in deconstructing patterns and prejudices against these women and help to build a more realistic perception,” Falcao said, noting that Brazil leads the world in the murder of trans women and also in the consumption of pornography that features trans women. “I also want to show the enormous diversity between them; bodies that have been transitioning for some time, bodies that are not going to change but are still bodies of women, women with penises, with or without breasts, many possible women.”

Bubblegum Club

Gowun Lee’s images, which are portraits of the backs of queer Koreans in public places, are also a statement about her community.

“For foreigners, Korea may not look like a conservative country because of the K-pop Korean drama but it really is conservative,” Lee said. “Although LGBTQ people are living in Korea as members of society as family, friends, and colleagues, many of them are hiding their gender identity because there’s no law to protect their rights. Many Koreans still express bitter hostility toward LGBTQ people, while others simply deny their existence.”

Lee’s portraits are both a representation of how Korea treats its queer population (by turning its back) and the status of queer Korean lives (faceless within the community).

But Falcao is cisgender and Lee is heterosexual in a time where marginalized communities are increasingly demanding to be the decision makers and principals behind projects that are about them.

“There’s a history in photography of a group of people who are not of a group or not of a community, going into cultural spaces and imaging people in the wrong way,” Sargent said of the historical context. “And there’s another history where communities just haven’t had the opportunity to image themselves; the history of photography is largely white men dictating what images people see of the world.”  

Jonathan Gardenhire

And so what exactly makes these images, poignant though they are, different?

“I think we are all affected by these issues, these shifts in culture, shifts in perspectives, shifts in how we identify ourselves,” Sargent said. “To that extent, because everyone is affected in some way or another, I think we are all grappling with these issues. It’s not just the people who are at the front lines of it; it’s not just black men that are affected by perceptions of their sexuality or gender. And it’s also important to acknowledge that these stereotypes were created as a part of the whole culture.”

“But I think the shift here, in this particular exhibition with some artists who are of those groups and some artists that are not, is really respect for the people in those images,” he continued. “When we talk about the way that we live now, we’re very much talking about the way that even in how we take pictures, the relationship between the artist and the subject has changed.”

The Way We Live Now is on exhibit in Manhattan through August 15 at Aperture’s gallery.

Images care of Aperture

Beth Ford Makes History as the First Openly Lesbian CEO of a Fortune 500 Company

The new President and CEO of Land O’Lakes, Beth Ford, will make business history when she assumes the role on Aug. 1 as the first openly lesbian woman leading a Fortune 500 company. The company announced her appointment in a press release last week.

The Land O’Lakes, Inc. Board of Directors made the announcement on July 26. Founded in 1921, the company is one of the U.S.’s largest food and agricultural cooperatives. It sits at number 216 on the Fortune 500.  

Ford will replace Chris Policinski, who is retiring, according to the company’s statement. Prior to being selected as CEO, Ford served as Chief Operating Officer at Land O’Lakes Businesses as well as head of Land O’Lakes Dairy Foods and Purina Animal Nutrition.

“At a time of unprecedented change in the agriculture and food industries, no person is better suited to lead us into the future than Beth Ford,” Board Chairman Pete Kappelman said in the statement. “We are thrilled to have someone of such strong qualifications and character to build on the legacy of growth that Land O’Lakes has established.”

In response to her appointment, Ford said in the statement, “I’m humbled and honored to have the chance to serve this great organization […] I look forward to continuing to work with the talented and dedicated leadership team, as well as our outstanding employees to deliver for our member-owners, customers and communities.”

The statement notes that Ford lives in Minneapolis with her spouse, Jill Schurtz, and three children.

When Ford steps into the CEO role, she’ll join only 24 other women who lead Fortune 500 companies, making up 5 percent of the leadership on the list, according to Fortune. The outlet notes that of those 25, only two are women of color, Geisha Williams of PG&E Corporation and Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo.

CNN reports that between 2017 and 2018, there was a 25 percent drop in women leadership on the Fortune 500.

Ford will also become only the third openly LGBTQ CEO of a company on the Fortune 500 and the first woman, reports Fortune. For queer women, holding top executive positions is rare. Examples, according to CNN, include the CEO of Lloyd’s of London, Inga Beale and United Therapeutics’ Martine Rothblatt, yet none had reached the elite club of the Fortune 500 until Ford.

Speaking to Fortune, she said that the fact that she’s the first openly lesbian to hold the role is “not nothing.” She tells the outlet that during her 20s she felt she could not be her real self in her workplace.

“If [one of a few openly LGBTQ CEOs] gives someone encouragement and belief that they can be their authentic self and live their life and things are possible, then that’s a terrific moment,” Ford said.

“I think I’ve been fortunate since my mid-30s of being just who I am,” she told Fortune. “I think it must be really hard if you feel like you’re in a culture where you can’t be who you are.”

Rights groups have praised Ford’s selection. Deena Fidas, the director of workplace equality at the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), tells CNN, “The fact that she is assuming this role as an out lesbian sends an especially powerful message.

“This is not a story of someone getting into the higher echelons of leadership and then coming out. This is someone walking into this role with her full self,” she added.

As INTO reported previously, HRC released a research report titled “A Workplace Divided: Understanding the climate for LGBTQ Workers Nationwide” in June and found that 46 percent of LGBTQ people surveyed have not come out to their coworkers. Much of this stemmed from a fear of discrimination or experience at work. For instance, more than 50 percent told HRC that they would regularly hear jokes targeting LGBTQ individuals in their office.

Respondents also reported that many of these experiences had increased over the past year.

“While LGBTQ-inclusive corporate policies are becoming the norm, LGBTQ workers too often face a climate of bias in their workplace,” Fidas explained in a statement at the time of the report’s release.

“LGBTQ employees are still avoiding making personal and professional connections at work because they fear coming out—and that hurts not only that employee, but the company as a whole.”

Fifty-nine percent of non-LGBTQ people surveyed also felt that it would be “unprofessional” to discuss sexual orientation or gender identity in the workplace, INTO reported. And 36 percent responded that they would feel uncomfortable listening to an LGBTQ-identifying coworker discuss their dating life. An astonishing 50 percent of non-LGBTQ respondents said that there were no openly LGBTQ people at their work.

Some organizations have begun tracking the best workplaces for LGBTQ-identifying people. Stonewall, a United Kingdom-based LGBTQ rights group, released their list of Top Global Employers on July 19 that included companies like Accenture, BP, and SAP along with 10 others.

“At a time when global LGBT rights are under threat of going backwards, we’re proud to work alongside our Top Global Employers, who operate in some extremely difficult contexts, to ensure all people are protected and welcome at work, wherever they are,” said Stonewall’s Chief Executive, Ruth Hunt, in the list’s announcement.

Ford commended Land O’Lakes Inc. for their support of her. “I am extraordinarily grateful to work at a company that values family, including my own,” Ford told CNN in a statement. “The Board chose the person they felt best met the criteria to drive success in the business. I realize this is an important milestone for many people and I am pleased to share it.”

Dearly Beloved, You Can Be Gay and Christian (But…)

In this week’s Dearly Beloved, the advice column from author Michael Arceneaux, a reader wants to have a reconciliation with faith, only he wrestles with whether or not he can find a space that complements both his Southern Baptist church and the political ideology he’s formed over the years. While many would rightfully argue that Jesus Christ matches Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez more on paper than say, Pat Robertson or whatever other old white evangelical male public figure that resembles and behaves like an aging goblin you can think of, most Christian churches remain staunchly conservative, and thus, confining for queer people.

Still, our dear reader would like that old thing back with respect to religion and seeks counsel on how to turn back to God in a region that may not offer the ideal church community.

If you want Michael’s advice, just email him at [email protected] with your question. Just be sure to include SPECIFICS, and don’t forget to start your letter with Dearly Beloved!

It’s a thing.

 

Dearly Beloved,

I am a gay millennial with a penchant for social justice and democratic socialism. I was also raised in the Southern Baptist church, and these two worlds seem to constantly conflict. During the 2016 election, I had a falling out with faith that has lasted until this day, but I find myself wanting to turn back to God. How can this be done when the church communities surrounding me in north Texas don’t reflect the Jesus I know and love?

I want to find a church community that will allow me to walk hand in hand with my partner down the aisle. I want to find a church community that cares about Flint and Puerto Rico and gun violence. I want to find a church community that cares about migrant children separated from their families at the border. I want to find a church community that in the face of police shootings boldly professes that black lives do in fact matter. Is this all asking for too much?

We were not designed to walk on this earth alone, yet I feel like it’s hard to find a Christian community that is willing to walk with me. What should I do?

Sincerely,

Curtis

Dear Curtis,

I’m a recovering Catholic who just published a book entitled I Can’t Date Jesus, so needless to say, I understand your dilemma. The book begins with my first time returning to a church. I’m not sure if it fits every single one of your requests, but overall, it was exactly the kind of church that would welcome our kind with open arms. The sort of religious space that truly lived up to the virtues of Christ — advocating for the poor, disenfranchised, and anyone else suffering from any strain of oppression.

In my case, I had already concluded that my life as a churchgoer was long over, but as I’ve said in the book and to anyone who asks, I completely respect the role religion plays in people’s lives. To your point, it is very difficult to walk this world alone. Faith matters and it is indeed easier to experience faith with a flock of the faithful.

And yes, there are churches like First Corinthians Baptist Church in Harlem and pastors throughout the country that are working to make their churches more inclusive to queer people. Moreover, there are writers like Matthew Vines who pen books like God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships that seek to challenge traditional teachings about homosexuality within the church. The same goes for Dr. Idan Dershowitz, a biblical scholar who recently published the piece “The Secret History of Leviticus” in the New York Times. And there are documentaries seeking the same mission like For The Bible Tells Me So.

There are many, many people out there doing the work, but as you appear to have noticed, that isn’t the case everywhere. To be blunt, I’m not sure you’re going to find a Southern Baptist Church that will give you what you are looking for. They remind me of the Catholic Church in that way. You may be able to find some other church that will accommodate all that you require, but it will likely take quite some time.

Try as many churches as possible. Ask around. Do your research. If you want to find a safe space, get your Scooby-Doo Mystery Machine on. In the meantime, I suggest you do as much as you can to tend to your spiritual health, even if done individually. Or you can find other Christians like you and make your own space. Yes, I know I sound like a bit of an after school special, but finding a Southern Baptist church that’s going to serve you Democratic Socialist realness is as likely as Assata Shakur giving Sweet Potato Saddam a bear hug on the White House lawn.

It’s gon’ take you time, beloved, but in all seriousness, I appreciate your diligence. People like you are going to make Christian churches live up to the ideals of Christ. Some of us didn’t have the fight in us. God bless you and good luck to you.

Signed,

Beloved!

How NPR’s Sam Sanders Became The Most Vocal Queer, Black Voice On The Radio

“As a journalist, of course I’m critical of everything that’s happening in the world right now, and that’s a huge part of the show. It’s important to have conversations that move us in the right direction. But I also want listeners to have fun, to laugh, to be entertained.”

When you listen to Sam Sanders, journalist and host of NPR’s podcast It’s Been a Minute, it feels like you’re with the friend who will always show you a good time. You know you’re in for a few laughs, some lessons, and a streak of optimism.

Sanders’ confidence, intelligence, and humor come naturally. The show–which is simply a blend of the things Sanders likes to talk about: politics, journalism, and the many avenues of pop culture that are entwined with them–celebrated its first birthday this past June.

Sanders is one of just a few black and openly gay podcast hosts in digital media, and the intersections of his identity are only heightened at National Public Radio, where people of color are few and far between, and queer people of color even more so. Still, he relishes his place among his peers and the platform his show has built, citing NPR as the home that raised him, professionally, as a self-described late-comer to public radio.

“Growing up, until I could drive, my mother had control of the radio when we were in the car, which meant we were listening to sermons and gospel music.” he tells INTO. “I don’t even think I listened to an actual radio show until I was in college. When I did I became obsessed with news and current events.”

From there he knew he wanted to pursue a career in journalism and radio, and after completing a master’s in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, he was off and running with NPR as a Kroc Fellow. However, it was Sanders’ work as a member of NPR’s election unit in the months leading up to the 2016 election, when he played a key role in covering the intersection of culture, pop culture, and politics, that the opportunity arrived for him to lead his own show of his own design.

It’s Been a Minute, Sanders believes, is emblematic of a larger cultural and journalistic shift, one in which those intersections–everything from the reality television star-turned-president to the very existence and acclaim of FX’s POSE–are now visible, and taken seriously as political markers.

“Politics doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” Sanders says. “As media representation grows, particularly for people from underrepresented identities, the landscape evolves. And it should evolve, because that representation can spark dialogue, bring about larger conversations, and change minds — all of which affects policy.”

Sanders considers his own identity, and his presence at NPR, an opportunity to facilitate these kinds of conversations. “I’m aware of the fact that because of my platform, the majority of my listeners are white, straight, and liberal.” In some ways, he sees this as a chance to be on the front lines breaking down barriers.

“For some listeners I might be the most vocal queer or black voice in their everyday lives,” he says.  

Sanders welcomes the responsibility that comes with that role, because his passion for the news, and for radio, stems from a love of conversation. He’s quick to add, though, that the one-way nature of hosting a podcast, especially when the majority of your listeners are not necessarily walking through life in your shoes, has its pitfalls as well.

But Sanders doesn’t shy away from engaging with his listeners, whether they’re calling-in to provide a hot take, or writing letters and emails as a way of taking part in the conversation.

“There have been times when white listeners have presumed to school me on what racism actually is because they didn’t like my take on an issue, or felt that perhaps my perspective wasn’t inclusive of a broader, more universal perspective,” he says.

“And sometimes I’ve addressed it on the show.”

At a time when more often than not, queer media personalities are targeting queer audiences, and black personalities are targeting black audiences, and so forth, Sanders hopes his show can be a source of learning and entertainment for everyone: “Not everyone wants to do that, or sees their work reaching that audience, but I want to.”

There’s bravery in his willingness to engage so thoroughly, and so publicly, but Sanders does have limits. The intimacy generated between a good radio host and their listeners can sometimes facilitate familiarity that doesn’t really exist. Audience engagement regularly veers into questions about his dating life, or his family, crossing a boundary Sanders works hard to maintain.

“If I make a side comment about the fact that some people are perfectly happy being single, the next day I’ve got an inbox full of emails from listeners telling me not to give up hope.” He laughs. “It’s kind, but it leaves me wondering if they’re really listening.”

He’s glad for the relationship he’s built with his audience, and grateful for its role in his success, but in caring for himself, Sanders feels it’s important to keep his private life private. And it’s a fair line to draw across the sand: these things are not the subject of his show, nor are they the reasons he became a journalist. And it’s reasonable to consider whether or not listeners might be so concerned with his personal life if Sanders were straight and white.

But still, the thing he loves most about his audience is the level of engagement. In a politically tumultuous climate, and as a queer person of color and public figure, there are days when the show serves as his own source of optimism — the result of a tone which, as the host, he works hard to set.

“I try to host a show that listeners can depend on for great conversation, quality entertainment, moving stories, and hopefully they walk away with a slightly clearer path forward.”

The Fight to Reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act Is Critical for LGBTQ Americans

A group of Democrats are pushing to reauthorize a landmark bill earmarking federal funding for programs on domestic violence and sexual assault.

First signed into law in 1994 by President Bill Clinton, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) set aside more than $489 million for nonprofits and community organizations that seek to reduce violence against women. According to the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW) in the Department of Justice (DOJ), the bill’s passage had a major impact on rates of intimate partner violence in the United States: Annual reports of domestic violence dropped 64 percent between 1993 and 2010.

On Thursday, Democratic leaders Rep. Steny Hoyer, Rep. Sheila Jackson, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, and Sen. Nancy Pelosi urged colleagues to renew funding for the legislation — which faces a Congressional vote every five years.

“Today’s bill upholds our oath to protect all Americans ensuring protections for every woman, brother, in the LGBTQ, tribal lands and among immigrants,” Pelosi claimed in a brief speech noting lack of support among conservatives. “VAWA has been historically bipartisan. We hope our Republican colleagues will be joining. They are certainly welcome.”

When the Violence Against Women Act was first introduced 24 years ago, one of the leading champions of the bill was Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). In addition to serving as a key co-sponsor of the legislation, he co-authored it with future Vice President Joe Biden.

The Republican was closely linked enough to the Violence Against Women Act that he once referred to it as the “Biden-Hatch Bill.”

Not a single conservative, however, has come out in support of the 2018 legislation after the Violence Against Women Act faced historic challenges to passage five years ago over inclusions for LGBTQ domestic abuse and sexual assault survivors. For the first time, the 2013 version included language preventing anti-violence programs that receive federal funding through Violence Against Women Act from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Emily Waters, senior manager of national research and policy for the Anti-Violence Project, claimed intimate partner violence perpetrated against LGBTQ people long went underrecognized and underreported. This is despite the fact that intimate partner violence occurs at equal rates in same-sex relationships as it does in heterosexual ones.

Trans people, however, experience domestic violence and sexual assault at extremely disproportionate levels. Up to half of transgender individuals say they have been abused or assaulted by a romantic or sexual partner.

“The domestic violence protections were built around cisgender women and this model of cisgender men committing violence against cisgender women, while not taking into account the sexual orientations of those people,” Waters told INTO over the phone. “And that means the services that had been in place for decades weren’t created to be inclusive of LGBTQ people.”

“The inclusion of LGBTQ people in the Violence Against Women Act gave advocates something to hold service providers accountable to,” she added.

Conservative opposition to those inclusions, though, held up the 2013 Violence Against Women Act for an additional 500 days after the legislation expired. House Republicans attempted to push their own version of the legislation without the nondiscrimination protections, but it was voted down.

Although the reauthorization eventually passed both houses, it was nonetheless met with widespread opposition from Congressional Republicans — particularly men.

Twenty-two Senators and 138 Republicans voted against it. These named include Reps. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), Steve King (R-Iowa), Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), and Steve Scalise (R-Ind.) in the House, and Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) in the Senate.

The biggest indicator of the changing tides was that Hatch voted against a bill he wrote two decades earlier. He accused Democrats of pushing the LGBTQ inclusions as a means of railroading the legislation, claiming they were “designed to shatter” the Violence Against Women Act.

“[Democrats] tried to politicize it,” Hatch claimed, “and that irritated the heck out of me, after I took all kinds of abuse for being the prime sponsor and helping to write the original bill, and then they come up and politicize it.”

“These are the kinds of things that drive me nuts about the Democrats,” he added.

The inclusive Violence Against Women Act may find no easier road to passage should Congressional Republicans oppose its emphasis on equal access for queer and trans survivors. This year’s draft goes farther than the previous version by “building upon the provisions that were included in the 2013 reauthorization,” according to Waters.

“It makes it clearer for states that receive funding on how they have to meet the nondiscrimination provisions and ensures better implementation for the protections that are already in place,” she said.

Waters claimed these provisions are critically important at a time when the current administration is rolling back LGBTQ protections in the areas of housing and health care. Earlier this year the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rescinded guidelines for homeless shelters detailing best practices on serving transgender clients, while abandoning a survey of pilot programs offering resources to LGBTQ homeless youth in Houston and Cincinnati.

In addition, the Trump administration has announced the restructuring of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to create a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division allowing faith-based care providers to turn away trans people and individuals living with HIV.

Waters claimed the Violence Against Women Act has, thus, become even more critical for LGBTQ people who rely on access to federal programs. Its reauthorization would mean survivors “have some protections in those areas.”

“We can use the Violence Against Women Act as a way of ensuring protection,” she claimed. “The inclusion of LGBTQ people in the Violence Against Women Act is law. That cannot be rolled back unless Congress reauthorizes another piece of legislation that does not have nondiscrimination protections.”

Time is running out to ensure those protections, however. When Congress resumes in September after a month-long recess, Democrats will have just 11 legislative days until the Violence Against Women Act expires.

Advocates are hopeful conservatives will back the legislation.

“This is a hard time to introduce any piece of legislation, but it still has realistic enhancements Republicans should be able to get behind,” Waters claimed. “At its core, it’s about people being able to access care at some of the most vulnerable moments of their lives.”

“That’s what the intention of the bill was and that’s what the intention of this reauthorization should be,” she added. “Let’s hope Republicans see that and respond to this bill and push it forward.”