Actor Lorenzo Ferro On Playing Argentina’s Notorious Queer Serial Killer in ‘El Angel’

When we first meet Carlos “Carlitos” Robledo Puch in Luis Ortega’s El Angel, he is breezily breaking into a home. He is methodic and cautious, while also careless. We see him roam the rooms of the house, find a record player, put some music on, pour himself a drink, and then, hilariously, start to dance.

With a head full of blonde curls that frame his baby face and his plump lips, young Carlitos (played by newcomer Lorenzo Ferro) seems almost comical. He’s a teenager merely joking around. The Argentine film immediately encourages you to fall for his this angelic rascal. Only those who know the story of Robledo Puch are keyed into the dark comedy Ortega is setting up with this intro.

Dubbed “the angel of death” because of his pretty-boy looks, Robledo Puch remains Argentina’s most infamous serial killer. By the time he was apprehended back in 1972 when he was only 20 years old, he had committed 11 murders and 17 robberies. Most of the people he shot were asleep or turned away from him, adding to the disquieting effect the baby-faced assassin had on the public when he was caught. Headlines at the time probed the all-too-close relationship he had with his first accomplice, Jorge Antonio Ibañez. He’s still serving his sentence in a prison hall exclusively for homosexuals. Offering not so much a biopic as a pop-colored character study of the teenage criminal, El Angel delves deep into the relationship between Carlitos and this school buddy, here refashioned into the handsome Ramón (played by Chino Darín), and turns what was mere speculation into the emotional core of the film.

“I was in school and my dad sent me a message telling me that they were looking for Robledo Puch for the next Luis Ortega film,” Ferro tells INTO. “I didn’t know who either of them were! So I headed to my school’s computer lab and researched them both.”

By the time he was cast (seven callbacks later!), Ferro realized that his prep work would have less to do with the real-life Carlitos, still serving a lifetime prison sentence, than in the heightened version of him Ortega had created. “This is a film that’s inspired by real-life events but it doesn’t follow what happened to a T,” Ferro said. Much of that involved fleshing out Carlitos’ attraction to his friend-turned-accomplice Ramón.

The film hints at the sexual and romantic undertones of the chemistry between the two. When Ramón, who’s tall and imposing and all-around gorgeous, invites his new friend over to his house, his intentions are unclear. As it turns out, he wants to introduce Carlitos to his father. Once he stops being fixated on Ramón’s father’s balls (they’re hanging out his loose boxer shorts, and yes, we see them in full close-up) the young boy is encouraged to shoot his first gun. “You gotta clench your ass,” he’s told by a winking Ramón.

It all begins as a lark, a way to pass the time, but soon the two young men begin jointly planning bigger and deadlier heists. Viewers can’t escape the homoerotic undertones of the piece. After robbing a jewelry store, a recently-showered Ramón falls asleep on the bed. Ogling his friend’s body, Carlitos proceeds to adorn it with the bounty they’ve just amassed. He creates a lustful tableau that’s as sexy as it is prudish, the jewels hiding Ramón’s privates. While El Angel never quite leans into Burnt Money territory (the 2001 Argentine flick about gay lovers-turned-criminals that was also based on real-life events), provocative moments like that suggest there’s a blurred kind of attraction between the two.

“It’s a relationship that is not well-defined, really,” Ferro told INTO. “Carlitos meets Ramón, and he knows he’s strong. He wants to befriend him because he thinks he might be able to protect him. Well, that leads Carlitos to start admiring Ramón and Ramón starts to be amazed by the ‘bicho raro’ that is Carlitos.” Ferro’s expression for his character is a curious one — it means “odd creature” — but “raro” has always carried connotations akin to the word “queer” in English.

The close bond that existed between these two young men, which veers from pulse-pounding violence to tender caresses, is the emotional anchor of the film. “It’s a kind of love,” Ferro says. “It’s not clear whether it’s a romantic relationship (‘un noviazgo’) but they are partners in crime, and at the same time, they have a mutual admiration.”

As the film paints Carlitos and Ramón as a kind of homoerotic Bonnie and Clyde, their chemistry proves to be quite deadly. Their first outings together, robbing a gun store with Ramón’s dad, soon leads to a string of cold-blooded murders. And though it’s all fun and games for Carlitos, his friend sets his sights on disappointingly mundane goals. “Carlitos starts losing that admiration as he realizes Ramón is just like everyone else,” Ferro says, “that he wants fame and wants money, all these things that other people want.”

Part of why this depiction of Robledo Puch strikes a contemporary note is that in El Angel, the heartthrob-turned-killer becomes an icon for radical thought. “He doesn’t take life seriously,” Ferro says “For him, life is a bit of a joke. He sees it in jest. He wants to do whatever he wants to do and however he wants. He doesn’t want to be restricted by any rules or limits that govern everyone else’s lives.”

That thirst for freedom is presented as both alluring and extremely dangerous. And, as it is for Ramón, the mix is intoxicating until it is merely just toxic. For, despite his angelic appearance and his chilling childlike approach to killing innocent bystanders, it’s obvious that Carlitos was nothing more than, as Ferro put it, “a crazy guy, a weirdo.” Which explains why his story still fascinates close to 50 years after he was a tabloid sensation.

El Angel opens in limited engagement on November 9, 2018

Everyone’s Favorite Gay Daddy Dating Game, ‘Dream Daddy,’ Is Coming to PS4 And Steam

If you didn’t think the dads could get dreamier, you’d be wrong. The gay dating simulator and internet sensation Dream Daddy has returned with it’s “Dadrector’s Cut” of the game. According to the game developers, the new version will include some cut (pun intended?) content, new side quests, and a whole new mini-game. The new cut of the game will be coming to PS4 and Steam for the first time and will be available as a free update for PC users who already owned it.

For those who’ve never heard of Dream Daddy, you play as a literal father who meets and flirts with other literal fathers. Each dad fulfills a different archetype fantasy like jock dad, goth dad, artsy dad, etc. Who you decide to romance in the game will dictate how the story progresses and even how the game ends.

The original game was pretty popular among queer folks and straight women online for its representation (the game also included a trans dad) and also because it has become a mainstream trend in the last few years to fawn over older men, the type you might affectionately call “dad.” The game garnered a ton of fan art after its release and overall had a sizable following.

Some critics thought the game didn’t speak true to the gay male experience and was more of a voyeuristic fantasy. In an article for Mic, writer Tim Mulkerin talked about how the game never explicitly uses the word “gay.”

“As a gay man, I found Dream Daddy’s lack of explicitly queer language incredibly frustrating,” Mulkerin wrote. “On the one hand, I’m thrilled that a game with queerness running through its veins is enjoying so much popularity, but Dream Daddy’s biggest failing is that it doesn’t feel like a game made for or by gay people.”

The new Dadrector’s Cut of Dream Daddy will be available for PC, Steam, and PS4 on October 30th.

Was This New York Fashion Week The Queerest Season Ever?

The energy behind New York Fashion Week is always palpable, as Manhattan is the first city to kick off the Spring/Summer 2019 season.

From my perspective as a Londoner, New York City always gets a reputation for being too serious and too ‘fashion’ for its own good. But this season, NYFW brought queer energy in abundance. The queerness that oozed from the catwalk — and from the audience — was hard to miss this season.

Tokenism and the debate behind inclusivity on the runway is always a topic of conversation. However, something felt different this year. Authenticity felt rooted in all that we saw; the art was unapologetic. Members of our communities were using their own voice to channel true fashion moments.

Chromat: In their own words, this season’s show was based around the idea of the wet T-shirt. They reclaimed the experience of both being body-conscious, and then owning it on the runway.

Sheer, knee-length T-shirt dresses cling to the bodies of models of all kinds, in one of the most diverse castings of a show we saw this season. Elegance, confidence and power shone through, as the dresses clung and showed the models and their undergarments at their finest. It’s real and honest, and is a genuine representation of the Chromat customer.

Their inclusion of all bodies was a perfect thing to witness, as people of different skin tones, abilities, sizes, genders and more showed their inner power through Chromat’s collection. Erika Hart, a sexual education worker and powerhouse, stormed the runway, revealing her mastectomy scars. It was a true act of ‘this is me, take it or leave it,’ leaving a lasting impression on the star-studded front row.

Opening Ceremony: Queer icon and RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Sasha Velour revealed that she’d personally picked 40 LGBTQIA+ models to walk the runway for the Opening Ceremony SS19 show. As I vicariously watched via Munroe Bergdorf’s Instagram story, I sat in amazement at the queer expertise that was on display. Sasha started the show with a poignant speech discussing the importance of queer inclusion within fashion and the arts, setting the mood to that of powerful queer excellence. Drag Race alumni sashayed their way down the runway, down the tiny steps into the crowds and back on stage as they mingled and danced as a collective. The likes of Miss Fame, Jiggly Calliente, and Shea Coulée performed in stunning custom gowns, setting up for a finale from the true diva herself, Christina Aguilera. The end of the show formed itself into a magical group performance alongside Xtina, as they all moved and intertwined together, showing just how powerful a group of LGBTQIA+ creatives can be.

Siriano FROW

Christian Siriano: Endorsements from designers usually focus on other brands being emblazoned across garments. But Siriano decided to endorse an all together very different organization this season in his SS19 collection: support for Cynthia Nixon, displayed on T-shirts throughout the collection. It was almost hilarious, considering she was sat front row, amid a group of iconic female celebrities, including Whoopi Goldberg and Judith Light. The political statements also featured on the runway again in a more subtle way in their casting choices, as diversity and inclusion was seamlessly and perfectly infiltrated, with models of all sizes and races displaying their beauty. Nico Tortorella also featured, grabbing the spotlight in a sheer dress and corset. Again, another very well put together show that speaks of the zeitgeist of the moment.

The Blonds

The Blonds: Themed runways seem to be a little hit or miss for critics — but what’s not to love about a Disney Villains collaboration stomping the runway? The Blonds did not disappoint, with what arguably could be described as one of the most dramatic and star-studded catwalks of the season. Paris Hilton holding her tiny dog, marching the catwalk in a black-and-white Cruella De Vil-inspired ensemble, ticks all the goddamn boxes. Queer faces walking included Isshehungry, Desmond Napoles (the 10-year-old drag superstar known as ‘Desmond Is Amazing’), and Austin Smith (@empty.pools). Again, high energy, powerful femme concepts and heels higher than the sequin budget. Stunning.

Telfar: After showing a preview show in London in August, Telfar shared with us their SS19 lineup through a gender-fluid retrospective of the ’60s and ’70s. The all-black show was based around the concept of ‘Not for you, for everyone,’ a sentiment that was maybe used for their London show due to the turbulent goings on regarding Brexit in the UK. However, the political statement surely correlated with the US audience and press, as they stood in rainy Brooklyn to watch an unapologetically black and excellent show of ’70s orange and pastels, on black, high-waisted, smart trousers and clean white vests.

Gypsy Sport: As a devoted Munroe Bergdorf stan, my eyes and ears were primed and ready for the Gypsy Sport Runway. Self describing themselves as ‘uniting through individuality’, the runway was transformed into a mystical other world of fairies, nymphs and magical and very fashionable creatures. A mixture of diverse and beautiful models stormed the runway in another array of realistic expectations for bodies, and also realistic expectations of fashion. It allowed the hierarchy of fashion to be torn down, and for it to become accessible for all. Saying that, the models had hair made of grass, and dresses made of belts, but this is New York. Embracing the wild and having no limits on creativity is what it’s all about.

These brands and houses have queerness in their DNA. Their ethos is queer, and their brands always push boundaries and don’t see issue in creating a statement every season, but there was something different about it all this season.

The energy was coming from the right place, like it always has been, but what it was was the entrepreneurial spirit that we as queer people have to make our shows the biggest and best that they can be. We know that we have to work ten times harder to have our collections seen or watched, and by putting in the hard work, these amazing designers have had their work showcased with what seems like the most press ever.  What we, as a community, are always saying to brands that use us in their creations is to make it authentic and allow us to take the reigns and be at the helm of the creative decisions, and that’s exactly what happened this season.

That’s why we are all gagging for more, and more importantly, why this representation of our beautiful creative bodies and minds means that hopefully, the fashion industry at large will take notice.

Images via Getty and Elvin Tavarez

But How Gay is ‘Crazy Rich Asians’?

In “But How Gay Is It?”, we seek to answer the biggest questions you have about a new movie release in theaters now — including, most crucially, the titular question. Does the movie have any queer characters? Are there stories involving same-sex lovers? Which gay icons star in the film? We’re bringing you all that and more.

What is Crazy Rich Asians? In many ways the culmination of a multi-year arc in Hollywood, Crazy Rich Asians is the first major Hollywood film since The Joy Luck Club to have an entirely Asian main cast. It’s an adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel, and follows an NYU economics professor, Rachel Chu, as she finds herself thrust into a world very different than her own: her absurdly wealthy boyfriend Nick’s family home in Singapore.

The wealth comes as a shock for the modest Rachel — “We’re economy people,” she says through her confusion that she and Nick are put in a private first-class suite — but she doesn’t have much time to recover. Because Nick’s family is judgmental as hell, no one more so than mother Eleanor Young. The film is like watching a game of social chess as a romcom: Rachel has to figure out how to outplay Nick’s family and win her king.

Who’s in it? Constance Wu plays Rachel, and Hollywood should immediately cast her in 10 more romcoms. She is the perfect heroine, just plucky and determined enough without being grating. While Wu is the standout on Fresh Off the Boat, in Crazy Rich Asians she demonstrates a whole new set of skills.

She leads a cast that can be best described as “absurdly beautiful.” Seriously, I kept sighing whenever someone new would enter a scene — male or female! And they’re all great! There’s Henry Golding as Nick, pairing his devastatingly sexy smile with a great heart. There’s Gemma Chan, so ably balancing the fabulous exterior and fragile interior of Nick’s sister Astrid. There’s Pierre Png as Astrid’s husband Michael, introduced to us fresh out of the shower. It is a glorious parade of beauty.

Two supporting actresses steal the show, though. First, there’s Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor. This is easily one of the most subtle, precise performances I’ve ever seen. Nothing is big or broad about Eleanor, even though she’s effectively our villain. She communicates her displeasure through small shifts of her neck, or darts of the eyes. She imbues every line delivery with so many different emotions, it’s arguably more important to listen to the way she says things versus what she’s saying.

Then, on the very opposite end of the spectrum, is Awkwafina as Goh Peik Lin, Rachel’s Singapore-based best friend. She is loud, brash, and over the top — and perfect. The performance has been compared to Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids and Tiffany Haddish in Girls Trip, and for good reason. She gets some of the biggest laughs in the film just through saying “FedEx.” It’s brilliant work.

Why should I see it? Easy: It’s fantastic. I could also make an argument for supporting movies with non-white leads so that Hollywood understands they need to make more, and that’s certainly true. But this isn’t the equivalent of being asked to eat your vegetables. This is a delicious, fluffy, perfectly iced cake, and you’ll be dying to go back for seconds.

But how gay is it? Actually kinda gay! The general vibe of fabulous fashions and hot shirtless men is certainly gay male-appealing, and there’s also Nico Santos as the bitchy-but-generous Oliver, who quickly becomes Rachel’s closest ally in the Young family. He also gets some of the best one-liners, including a fashion sequence where he gets off some great, Michael Kors-esque quips.

There were two other books; will there be sequels? Hopefully! The only way to make sure of that is to see the movie. Multiple times, if you can! Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

Crazy Rich Asians is in theaters now.

Seven Awesome Queer Indie Games Are Available In A Steam Bundle

Steam, a digital distribution platform for games, has put together a queer indie games bundle for purchase. The bundle is priced at 50 percent off the total cost — the original cost of all of the games would be $109.93, but the bundle is selling for $54.93.

The seven titles are pretty diverse in terms of story, so here’s a brief rundown of each of them:

Gone Home is an exploration story-focused game about Katie, a 21-year-old who is returning to her family home after being abroad. The player searches their surroundings to piece together what has happened since she’s been gone. The game includes a prominent sexuality discovery storyline and also discusses abuse and infidelity.

2064: Read Only Memories is a cyberpunk adventure game that takes place in 2064 in Neo-San Francisco. It explores technology and social issues through the main character uncovering a robot-related mystery.

Tacoma is from the developers of Gone Home and is also an exploration game. It’s a sci-fi story that takes place in 2088 and involves the player reviewing actions and conversations from other characters who were a crew on a space station.

Fragments of Him is an immersive game that follows four characters including Will, a bi man who dies early in the game, his ex-girlfriend, current boyfriend and his grandmother. The majority of the story is about grief and how those characters process Will’s death.

Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is described as a “anti-adventure game” and it is  about picking up trash at a space shopping plaza. You play as the Janitor who is trying her hardest to get off of the planet. One interesting component of the game is that it includes a mechanism where the player can change genders at any time.

Ladykiller in a Bind is an erotic romantic comedy visual novel. The story follows a lesbian who dresses as her twin brother and tries to win a popularity contest. It includes a lot of choice driven interactions and BDSM sex scenes. The game was complimented for its positive portrayal of kink as well as mentioning consent often.

Your Royal Gayness is a visual novel about being a gay prince. You play as Prince Amir who is trying to rule his kingdom while coming up with new reasons to avoid marriage. It’s intended to be a fairy tale parody and has a lot of paths the story can take via player choices.

If these games interest you, the bundle will be available on Steam until August 21, 2018.

Genderqueer Author’s New Book Challenges White Kids to Process Privilege

Alex Gino wants to talk to white children about the privilege of growing up without fear of being shot by the police.

The genderqueer author who in 2015 gave us the landmark youth novel George, about a transgender child teetering into her gender identity, is back with a sophomore book that challenges complicity and comfort.

You Don’t Know Everything, Jilly P! (Ages 8-12; Scholastic Press) is the story of a white 12-year-old navigating her own privilege for the first time. Protagonist Jillian Pirillo is waking up to a world of racism and ableism, and she’s making lots of mistakes.

When her sister Emma is born deaf, Jilly is determined to share Emma’s world by learning ASL. She processes her feelings with Derek, an online friend who loves the same fantasy book series as Jillian. But Derek is Black and Deaf and Jillian comes to learn that her education is sometimes coming at the expense of her friend.

Think of Jilly P as a frank conversation about race in America today between one white person and another. Except in this case, the white ally is an adult, and the person on the receiving end is in elementary school.

Like George, which has been among ALA’s Top Ten Most Challenged Books, a list of reads that have been requested pulled from school libraries, Jilly P delves into territory that is surprisingly candid and heartrending considering the age group of the intended readership.

George centered on a transgender girl who navigated gender identity through a quest to play Charlotte in a school production of Charlotte’s Web. The book talked about medical transition and anxieties about the protagonist’s genitalia. That groundbreaking conversation made it as successful as it was controversial. George won the 2016 Stonewall Book Award. The book also faced backlash from anti-trans activists and parents who worried the subject matter was too mature for elementary school kids.

In Jilly P, Jilly is learning what it means to be an ally to her Deaf sister and to Derek. She finds that Derek is not excited when he is the sole person she chooses to share the news that Emma is Deaf.

Jilly digests a string of police shootings of Black teens, piecing together the dangers that face her own cousins and Derek. And she wonders why her parents remain silent throughout. Her aunt Alicia, who is Black and married to her mom’s sister, helps her break it down.

“Black parents in this country have to talk with their kids about being careful around police,” aunt Alicia tells Jilly. “But until white parents can talk about what’s happening to Black kids too, nothing’s going to change.”

Jilly watches in horror as her own extended family makes subtle and not-so-subtle racist comments at the Thanksgiving dinner table, sending aunt Alicia and her family home early. Her own parents fail to challenge the racism around them, catalyzing Jilly into finding her own voice over Christmas dinner.

When the subject of her aunt, who has skipped the family gathering, comes up again, Jilly challenges the family to consider their own racist comments as hurtful and connects them to the violence she sees happening around her.

“Black kids get shot all the time,” Jilly says to her shocked family. “And it happens because no one does anything about it.”

Toward the end of the book, Jilly comes to understand that police, the people who are supposed to protect us, have killed other kids because they were black. White people feel safe with police because they are white, she concludes.

Gino is clear that they are white and hearing. And so at the end of the novel, they append an apology, for a book that centers a white hearing character and kills two Black youth in the process.

“In a world in which so many books are unconsciously written for white audiences, this book is consciously written for white people as a catalyst to talk about modern racism and police violence in the United States,” they write.

The book weaves in LGBTQ characters without much ado. Where the centerpiece of George was a trans protagonist, queer characters pop in and out of Jilly P like their heterosexual counterparts. There is a rare mention of homophobia directed at Aunt Alicia, but for the most part, queer relationships are normalized.

Jilly P is the conversation many white parents need to have with their white kids but don’t know how to. It’s layered with the complexity of queer narratives and a reflection on ableism. But perhaps most importantly, it’s a book that respects the intelligence and humanity of its young readers.

Jilly P goes on sale Sept. 25.

Who is ‘The Boys in the Band’ For Now?

I have not seen The Boys in the Band on Broadway, but not for lack of trying.

I’ve reached out to Polk & Co.—its PR manager—for press tickets, to no response. To date, the production has not been formally reviewed by any queer publication that I can find.

It’s Pride Month, in which we honor the enormous risks taken and sacrifices made by queer people, led by black trans women, in the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Despite the political strides made by LGBTQ+ people over the last 49 years, we remain more likely than our peers to live in poverty. We should be more concerned than ever about democratizing queer representation on stage, and yet, queer people are expected to blindly risk Broadway prices to gain entry to that conversation without the benefit of a queer perspective? I think not.

So I’ve decided to review the lack of access to queer theater, as embodied by this year’s production of The Boys in the Band, instead.

Out ran a piece on April 30 on gay contrarianism through the decades and The Boys in the Band in its “Queer Quibble” section, but it’s not a review, and it ran before the production opened. Les Fabian Brathwaite comes to his verdict on gays, who “can’t like anything,” on community reactions to the 1968 production of the play, its 1970 film adaptation, and various gay films over the last few years. He says, “the beauty of the times we live in is that we don’t have to choose,” pointing to the accessibility to, and variety of, queer films we enjoy in 2018 (to his examples: BPM is available to Hulu subscribers for $8.25/mo; Call Me By Your Nameand A Fantastic Woman are $5.99 to stream on Amazon Prime; Love, Simon costs $14.99 to buy on Amazon). But the cheapest available ticket I could find to Boys in the Band is $99, a difference in price by a factor of 10 from the average U.S. movie ticket price, and certainly much more expensive than streaming. Brathwaite’s argument, predicated on false equivalences and “benefit-of-the-doubt”-ism that has nothing to do with this production, is not to be taken seriously.

I’m not going to review the production, because the issue, as I see it, doesn’t have much to do with its playwright, its actors, its designers, its technical staff, or its director, who are all doing the necessary and courageous work of advancing a living, breathing piece of theater. (I would love to know how the production handles the racial dynamics around Emory and Bernard’s relationship in 2018, though I suppose I’ll never know.) Rather, I’d like to critique the moral turpitude of Broadway decision-makers who continually refuse to represent the most vulnerable people in the LGBTQ+ community on stage and de-democratize access to the people whose histories they exploit, and refuse to participate in critique by the queer press.

The Boys in the Band also uses the pink triangle, which was used to brand homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps, as its website’s faviconNike is currently under fire for similarly appropriating the symbol on a line of shoes—in response, ACT UP has asked Nike to donate to queer causes. As Jason Rosenberg, one of ACT UP’s co-facilitators has said, “We deserve better [than] to have our work be exploited by corporations that profiteer off grassroots resistance imagery.” Is The Boys in the Band donating any of its profits, gained by its exploitation of the symbol, to charity?

And, why this play? Why now? I can’t imagine that Ryan Murphy or David Stone struggle to pay their rent or feed themselves, which, by the way, one in four queer people did as recently as 2016. And, anyway, there’s a film adaptation from 1970, and it’s available to watch on YouTube. (Incidentally, it’s a fine piece—the film is painfully poignant, though it really is of its time.) Is it that producers simply don’t know there are more queer people becoming playwrights all the time? Have they never heard of Google? Or has theater in the United States, at its highest levels of production, become entirely drained of its capacity to shed light on new perspectives?

The people leading Broadway institutions, and the firms that market their engagements, are comfortable with excluding bodies of difference and dissent. If our choice, as queer people, is to either pay rent or see the same old stories reprised year after year, I know where my money’s going.

Images via Getty

Exposed: The Quest

Even in an age when sharing mundane details online is standard, it’s easier than ever to control the way others see us—until, as people often say on social media, someone’s been “exposed.” Welcome to Exposed, a monthly column where author and activist Chris Stedman invites you to get a little more vulnerable.

From the very first moment she held a controller in her hands, Merisa loved video games.

It was the 1980s, and video games had suddenly become much more affordable and accessible to a broader range of Americans. At the beginning of their heyday, it truly felt like they were for everyone; it wasn’t until the 1990s that a broad number of people starting thinking of them as “more of a guy thing.”

It was in this specific window that Merisa, a trans woman who was assigned male at birth, found herself entranced by video games and their blocky 8-bit graphics—in large part because they were one of the few things that seemed acceptable for both boys and girls to be interested in. Little did she know that her love of gaming would lead her to the space where she would first come out.

In the mid-’90s, when Merisa was around 15 years old, she started participating in an online chatroom for people interested in ZZT, a computer program with simple graphics where you could build your own games and share them with others. It was there, in those chat rooms, where everyone was just a display name, that she first came out as trans.

It was actually quite simple: she just changed her display name to something more feminine and said that if anyone had any questions, they could ask her. But no one did. The nonchalance of their acceptance—their unquestioning willingness to simply start calling her by a different name—was almost shocking. And in fact, as it turned out, there were many other trans people in the chat, too.

Online spaces—especially those oriented around creative endeavors, whether it’s a chatroom for users of a cooperative game like ZZT or the pop music stan forums of today—often allow for a degree of anonymity that appeals to queer and trans people in need of a safe space to express their identities. There is something about both the anonymity and creativity of these kinds of online spaces that often make them feel particularly safe for people looking to work through identity questions.

As someone who grew up in the ’90s and early ’00s, I too found that internet chatrooms were the first space I could come safely out as queer. Coming out online felt significantly more low-stakes; in a text-only chat room, no one knew me as anything other than an Aaliyah fan.

So unlike at school, where I later told a few friends who went on to tell others without my consent—resulting in a ridiculously dramatic scene where I literally chased two of them outside of another friend’s birthday party—I knew it wouldn’t spread to other people in my life. In a chatroom, I had greater control over my own story. And I didn’t have to worry about being rejected, as I did with family and friends. If someone was cruel or hostile about my identity, I could just close the chat window.

Like me, Merisa also found radical and much-needed acceptance on the internet. But while her experience of coming out in a chatroom was surprisingly simple, her journey to coming out offline was anything but.

Merisa initially came out as trans to her family and many of her friends in the late ’90s, during her senior year of high school. Some of her friends were supportive, but her parents refused to accept her identity. So after graduating from high school, Merisa moved to San Diego to live with her sister, a city where she could put on a dress and go to the gay bar for ladies night on Saturdays without her parents’ judgment.

But after her sister graduated from school and moved back in with their parents, Merisa was laid off from her job and had to move in with them, too. Stuck living in the home of parents who didn’t understand her, with no health insurance and only a part-time job, she felt like she had no choice but to go back in the closet. I’m going to try being a dude, she thought. I’ll do my best to make it work.

But after almost 10 years in the closet, it definitely wasn’t working. Naturally creative, Merisa loved to express herself; it was a huge part of what appealed to her about gameplay. But the closet made that profoundly difficult, if not impossible. With each passing year, she felt more and more hopeless.

During her decade living at home, however, she did have one outlet for self-expression: online roleplaying games. She got very involved in EverQuest, a massively multiplayer fantasy game where users create custom characters that work in teams to explore dungeons and slay beasts. And even though she generally played with a group of coworkers to whom she wasn’t out, she was able to play as a female character.

Because she was gaming with people who saw her as a man outside of the game, it felt subversive to pick a female character. EverQuest is what’s commonly referred to as a “persistent” game, meaning you stick with the character you create—unlike, say, selecting Princess Peach for a single round of Mario Kart—resuming play as that character every time you return to the game. Because of this, there was an assumption among many EverQuest players that men wouldn’t play a female character.

But this choice represented more than just subversion; it was also a way to express aspects of herself that she couldn’t in just about any other area of her life. It was a way to feel closer to being seen for who she really was than she could at work or home—a way to be seen as a woman, and have people engage with her as one.

Yet even though she had online games, the stress of living at home was eating away at Merisa. Sleep became increasingly evasive, and she would often get panic attacks when trying to go to bed. But one day, someone she knew from the chatrooms she frequented as a teen tweeted about a YouTube series in which people played Minecraft. Merisa found the videos soothing and discovered that watching them helped her fall asleep.

Eventually she started talking with one of the women in the videos through a chatroom she maintained. After five years of chatting they became good friends, and eventually Merisa told her she was trans and planned to transition someday. She became a confidante and resource, helping Merisa navigate and improve her relationship with her parents, and even helping her get voice practice in over Skype.

Three years ago, after Merisa had saved up enough money from her full-time job at a school district to move out of her parents’ house, she came out again and began to transition, and the two started dating.

Today, Merisa and her girlfriend run an online game community together—an explicitly queer and trans-inclusive space for people to play together, because they want to create the kinds of welcoming gaming spaces that Merisa benefited from when she was younger.

But the benefits of gaming have extended far beyond Merisa’s youth. A few years ago, when she was trying to figure out how she wanted to present herself as a woman, gameplay was hugely helpful. She knew she was a woman, but she didn’t fully know what that meant to her. Merisa didn’t have the same experimental teenage or young adult years to try out different styles of dress and figure out what works best, a period of self-definition and exploration cisgender people so often take for granted.

Gameplay gave her an opportunity to explore different things and discover what she liked. It was more than just trying on different styles of clothing; it was a way of experimenting with an overall aesthetic and with different ways of being in the world.

And even today, while she is able to express herself more fully in other areas of her life than she ever could before, Merisa still finds games to be helpful spaces for learning new things about herself and bringing different elements of her personality to the forefront.

Whether we’re regular video game users or not, I think gameplay in a variety of settings functions in this way for many of us. When I was in high school, a good friend from church hosted a murder mystery party. I was assigned the role of an undertaker, and we agreed that I should dress in a manner consistent with what we thought “goth” meant. As I was trying to figure out what to wear, I asked her if she would paint my nails black.

I was already out as queer at that point, but I still had a great deal of internalized homophobia, and I was constantly trying to prove to the world that being queer didn’t mean that I was different from everyone else. But here, in this game, was an opportunity to experiment. To try something I was curious about, something that felt subversive, under the guise of “play” and see how it felt. And sure enough, I liked it.

This may be what draws many queer and trans people like Merisa to gameplay, and surveying the number of queer people who love video games or roleplaying and tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons, she’s far from alone in her interest. Games let us experiment. We’re often not as bound by the conventions and norms of our hetero- and cisnormative society.

Games aren’t escapism as much as they are a vehicle for self-expression—they’re creative, cooperative, world-building exercises where we can define ourselves and the world around us on our own terms. And with enough practice, these invented versions of ourselves can become more real than any game.

Want to get exposed? Email Chris at [email protected] with a short description of a time when you felt truly vulnerable—in either a positive or a painful way (or both).

Want more? Check out the previous installment of Exposed.

But How Gay Is ‘Annihilation’?

In “But How Gay Is It?”, we seek to answer the biggest questions you have about a new movie release in theaters nowincluding, most crucially, the titular question. Does the movie have any queer characters? Are there stories involving same-sex lovers? Which gay icons star in the film? We’re bringing you all that and more.

What is Annihilation? Fuck if I know, honestly.

Director Alex Garland’s follow-up to his artificial intelligence thriller Ex Machina is, at its base, an adaptation of the first book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. It follows a team of scientistsall women, all experts in their fieldas they investigate what they call a “shimmer.” It’s some kind of disturbance on Earth that looks prismatic, and seems to devour everything that enters it either by attacking them, or driving them so crazy they attack themselves.

Beyond that, though, I don’t really know how to summarize Annihilation. It’s sci-fi, but deeply human. It’s a horror film, but also quite beautiful. It’s visually dazzling, but somewhat empty narratively. It’s emotionally devastating, and yet I can’t put into words what I felt.

Are you high? No, but I kinda felt like I was as I walked out of the theater? I also think it might play entirely differently stoned. There’s a lot of visual flair there.

Who’s in it? Natalie Portman plays Lena, the protagonist and the wife of a man (Kane, played by Oscar Isaac) who returns from the shimmer deeply affected. Her fellow crewmembers are Anya (Gina Rodriguez), Cass (Tuva Novotny), Josie (Tessa Thompson), and, in an unnerving and fascinating supporting turn, Jennifer Jason Leigh as expedition leader Dr. Ventress.

Why should I see it? FIrst of all, I think it’s vastly worth supporting ambitious mind-fuckery in cinema, particularly when it centers women (and includes women of color as well). Second, Annihilation really has to be seen to be believed. The film I thought of most while watching it was mother!, not because it’s aggressively off-putting like that movie, but because it dares to try something radically different. What I think works best about Annihilation in comparison to mother! is that it feels less actively angry with its audience, and more interested in taking their hand and exploring something truly bizarre and mystifying.

But how gay is it? More gay than you’d think, in large part because Rodriguez’s Anya is gay. She doesn’t have a big romantic plot or anythingnone of the other supporting characters do, and Lena’s is only told in flashback. But her sexuality is explicitly mentioned, and that’s not nothing.

One of the main reasons I think TV has lapped film when it comes to LGBTQ+ inclusion is that non-specifically gay TV shows will include gay, bi, queer, trans, fluid, and gender nonconforming characters as supporting players. It’s much rarer to see movies do that, largely because they have shorter running times, and pointing out a character’s sexuality when they’re not going to be given a storyline involving their sexuality feels like a bad use of time. But Annihilation is a smart show of how you can acknowledge a character’s sexuality without making it a storyline. Now, a queer woman who sees Annihilation has a better chance of seeing themselves represented in the film, just like a black woman or Latinx woman would by way of characters who reflect them.

I think a lot about Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist when it comes to inclusion in film. That movie is forgettable to me in almost every aspect, except for the fact that two of the supporting male characters were gay. They didn’t have major story arcs, but the script took a moment to specify their sexuality. Thus, as a gay teen watching it, the movie stuck with me a little bit more than it would have otherwise. Not every movie is going to be Call Me By Your Name, Moonlight, Tangerine, or Carol. Some just need to add a little bit more of us.

What’s this I hear about some whitewashing? Yeah, this was an unfortunate one. Garland only read the first book when he was starting his casting process, which doesn’t mention that Portman’s character was of Asian descent. Additionally, Leigh’s character is of partial Native American ancestry in the novels. Garland owned up to his unintentional error, recognizing his complicity, while asserting that this was not a studio or producer decisionthat he was the one who handled the casting.

It’s fair to say Garland erred in the best possible faith. But it’s also more than fair to acknowledge that whitewashing is a systemic, deeply damaging pattern in Hollywood, and no excuse is good enough. Because there will always be an excuse. Does that mean we have to throw out Annihilation entirely? Of course not. Acknowledging a film’s egregious error in casting is important, but it’s not disqualifying. Moreover, I’m hopeful that the incident will make Garland even more aware when casting his next project.

Without spoiling the ending, can you describe what it’s like? It is a visual spectacle unlike anything I’ve ever seen on film. And it is well worth the price of admission.

Annihilation is in theaters now.

The Japanese Queer Festival You Need To Know About

Osaka may be a city best known for its delicious street food, neon-lit entertainment districts, and historic castle, but there’s also a charismatic queer scene bubbling up in clubs like EXPLOSION, Grand Slam, and G Physique. Better still, lesbian bars like JAKE and Marble, as well as club nights like Lady Killer, are on hand to offer an antidote to the men-only clubs which are still depressingly commonplace in queer districts worldwide. In these various venues, locals and tourists alike can expect to find friendly, like-minded club-goers, hilarious drag queens, and tipsy karaoke which often extends into the early hours of the morning.

This culture is, however, not restricted solely to bars and clubs; the Kansai Queer Film Festival is just one pioneering event working to highlight on-screen examples of LGBTQ stories across the globe. 2017 sees the festival enter its 11th year.

The festival comprises a number of screenings, all of which are spread across five non-consecutive days in three different venues across Kyoto and Osaka. Last weekend, the action officially kicked off in Osaka, where two queer community centers screened seven movies to an enraptured audience of culture junkies. In a statement on the official website, the organizers highlighted their desire to curate a program which “showcases films from around the world, including a special program highlighting queer, feminist, and sex-positive themes.” Judging by the movies shown so far, it’s fair to say they have succeeded.

It’s no secret that LGBTQ art often disproportionately homes in on Western culture, and white, gay male protagonists in particular. The festival’s eclectic schedule breaks with this convention by featuring a range of options which are genuinely queer as opposed to merely gay. Characters and storylines develop in handfuls of usually ignored countries worldwide, whereas themes and topics cover everything from cruising and sexual assistance for disabled people, to discrimination against queer parents and even the life and times of Marsha P Johnson, the often-forgotten rebel who was famously the first to fight back in the infamous Stonewall riots.

Refreshingly, the breadth of the movies on offer gives us a glimpse into a truly diverse spectrum of queer experiences; the kinds which are usually either erased, tokenized or simplified by mainstream media.

Alongside portrayals of BDSM and brilliantly unapologetic queer sex scenes, there are also touching love stories such as Sisterhood, an emotive, award-winning movie directed by Tracy Choi. One of the most poignant features on the schedule, Sisterhood follows the development of a young relationship between two women, recounted through nostalgic glimpses of the past. The story is complex, rooted in hope, tragedy, and a series of brilliantly nuanced queer protagonists. When coupled with beautiful cinematography, the result is an excellent example of cinema’s potential to humanize the kind of experiences often lived out but rarely seen on-screen.

Elsewhere on the schedule, When We Are Together We Can Be Everywhere is an example of porn done well. It’s fair to say that most of us are probably so used to tacky clichés, hugely over-dramatized orgasms, and, um, weird salad scenes that we forget porn can be a genuine artistic medium. Director Marit Östberg seeks to remind us of this potential with a documentary that homes in on the sheer beauty that can come of two (or, in many cases, more than two) bodies fucking. There’s no sense of voyeurism; instead, the film purely celebrates a variety of kinks, fetishes, and fantasies without judgement.

Finally, it wouldn’t be a queer festival without some depiction of a gay sauna.Spa Nightticks this box in an extremely impressive fashion, moving beyond tired stereotypes by narrating the story of a young, shy teenager in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. The story of forbidden love is one which is important to highlight – thehandkerchief codesand “tearoom trade” are a crucial part of queer history. This movie illuminates the depressing fact that these stolen romances are still a reality for those not fortunate enough to be born to accepting parents, which is precisely why this story of queer sexual discovery will undoubtedly resonate with audiences worldwide.

As opposed to just showing the features, the festival also offers a series of online educational tools and abreakdown of terminologywhich can be translated loosely into English. This is necessary – even words like “cisgender” can still seem unnecessarily complex so, by breaking down these linguistic barriers, the organizers have assured a clarity in communication which makes this event as perfect for queer people as it is for those simply wanting to learn and understand more. Extensive information on subtitles is provided as well as a sign language interpreter – this rare attention to detail highlights a true desire to create an event which is accessible to all.

In every country worldwide, this dedication to showcasing queer art and breaking down stigma is still necessary. In Japan, however, it seems particularly important. On paper, the country isrelatively progressive– particularly when compared to the 71 countries across the globe which still persecute queerness by law. Same-sex sexual activity has been legal since 1880, and trans people are relatively well-protected in the sense that they have the option to match their legal gender with their true gender identity without any huge obstructions.

Despitesome progress, there is still reluctance to discuss queer rights on any large-scale political forum, meaning that events like the Kansai Queer Film Festival are crucial. From the extensive explanations of queerness on the official website to the conversations promoted in the community centers which act as its venues, every effort is needed to both support and create more exemplary events.

Not only does the festival raise awareness and create visibility, but it also seeks to educate and spark discussion by bringing hidden stories to the big screen.