Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation

Aug. 11 2016 5:42 PM

Gay Olympian Amini Fonua Has Words for the Grindr-in-Rio Journalist

The queer internet was dominated on Thursday by backlash to Nico Hines' exploitative Daily Beast storyon athletes' use of sex apps in Rio, with condemnation from LGBTQ press-watchers (including us here at Outward) being universal. But, likely for reasons relating to safety and focus, we've heard relatively little from athletes themselves. That changed Thursday afternoon when Amini Fonua, an Olympic swimmer and gay man representing Tonga at the Rio games, let fly a tweet storm that powerfully captures the damage this story will cause.

Aug. 11 2016 3:23 PM

Why That Daily Beast Piece on Gay Sex Apps in Rio Is More Poisonous Than the Water

So why are all the queer people in my feeds mad about this Daily Beast Grindr story?

Whew. OK, here’s the drama: On Thursday morning, Daily Beast reporter Nico “straight-with-a-wife-and-child” Hines published a dispatch from the Rio Olympic Games, the purpose of which, according to editor John Avlon, was “to see how dating and hook-up apps were being used in Rio by athletes.” Never mind that the obvious answer to this query is … to date and hook up. Our intrepid reporter put in the legwork—or thumb work, anyway—to bring us the real story by using apps like Tinder and Grindr, posing as someone interested in “connecting” long enough to lure sexy athletes into making contact, after which point—surprise!—he’d reveal his totally unsexy profession. He then collected these digital encounters into a saucy, mostly man-for-man-focused story wherein we learn that, indeed, Rio competitors are interested in dating or hooking up via apps. (The original headline was “I Got Three Grindr Dates in an Hour in the Olympic Village.”)

That sounds lame. But queens are, like, pissssed. Am I missing something?

Yeah, it’s super lame. But unfortunately, Hines’ piece was also incredibly dangerous. You see, Avlon had to explain the “concept” in an appended editor’s note, because many readers—especially LGBTQ ones—took the article to be a gross, unethical exercise in entrapment, in which gay and/or same-sex-desiring athletes—many closeted—were unknowingly corralled into a queer zoo exhibit and, in some cases, thereby outed and exposed to the threat of violence. While Hines did not include names, the original version of the article (since edited in a tone-deaf show of concern) included height-and-weight measurements, events, and countries of origin: more than enough info to discern the identities of athletes whose physical stats are widely publicized. Indeed, my colleague Mark Joseph Stern was able to surmise the names of five of Hines’ targets with a few minutes on Google.

Oh! Have I seen any of them on TV?

Maybe, but we’re not going to share our guesses here because, again, violence. And also, before you ask, being a so-called “public figure” for two weeks out of every four years does not mean the details of your sex life are a matter of public concern. That there are many condoms in Rio de Janeiro is a (light) story. The particulars of who is using them are not.

If you say so! But about this “violence” you mention—they don’t have security in Rio?

Sure, but the threat doesn’t end after the games. One of the victims was identified in the original article as being from Kazakhstan, which is considered by LGBTQ advocacy groups to be hostile territory. If he’s outed there, he could be punished, whether in terms of work prospects, social exile, or by physical attack. The point is outing like this, even unintentionally, is a very dangerous game because you cannot know how the revelation will impact the person involved.

That makes sense, but then again, don’t we want people to be out? Maybe Hines was doing them a favor?

In an ideal world, everyone would be able to be open about their sexual desires, gender expression, and the rest of it. Alas, we do not live in that world. Unless you are actively doing LGBTQ people harm or are a true celebrity living in “open secret” land, you have the right to determine when (even if) coming out is safe for you. If some of these athletes were closeted, they likely have good reasons for it. And one more thing: Just because a dude is looking for sex on Grindr doesn’t necessarily make him “gay.” More and more evidence is emerging that human sexuality is more complex than the homo/bi/hetero bins we know and love. Some of these guys might have just been looking to get off without harboring any secret identity. We just don’t know! Which is why, in the end, “outing” someone else is almost never a good idea—and it’s certainly a highly questionable activity for straight journalists to be toying with.

Right, you said something about this being “unethical” before. Did Hines break some kind of code?

Depends on whose code you mean. Over at Mic, Mathew Rodriguez makes a pretty convincing case that Hines violated journalistic standards around “minimizing harm” to sources and using “surreptitious methods” only when necessary to uncover “information vital to the public.” J-school professors will debate the harm question; that this article was deeply unnecessary and thus unworthy of subterfuge seems clearer cut. But so far, the Daily Beast editor, despite his “sorry you were offended” note, is essentially standing behind the piece, so clearly experienced journos differ.*

That’s not very satisfying …

Well, neither was Hines’ cavalier approach to working in a gay space, but here we are. Part of the problem is that norms around reporting on digital platforms aren’t as firm as we might like, and platforms that are organized around sex and sexuality are particularly sensitive. Apps like Grindr and Scruff can be powerful reporting tools: I know gay journalists who have gotten local scoops they otherwise wouldn’t have by using those networks. But in those cases, they identified themselves extremely clearly in the profile section of the interface with something like “I’m a journalist! Msg me if you want to talk about X event,” so that other users know what they’re getting into. By Hines’ own account, he only revealed his job when asked by a user. This, by any common-sense measure, is dishonest, and if I were his editor, there’d be a discussion right about now regarding what his profile looked like and exactly how these interactions took place.

But, like, is he really in the wrong if he told them what he was up to at some point? After all, these athletes are putting themselves on a platform that anyone can join: Isn’t it just like having a conversation in the street or something?

Wrong is in the eye of the beholder, to some extent, but the thing to consider here is that certain social spaces offer their participants certain expectations. Regardless of what its PR team might claim, Grindr in particular is largely a space where men go to find sex of a relatively immediate and more-or-less anonymous sort. (Individual experiences may vary, but this is undeniably the ethos of the place.) Moreover, they pursue hookups with a bluntness that, to generalize, straight people might find surprising. It would not be uncommon there to receive an initial greeting from a stranger in the form of a series of images of his penis, ass, torso, or other body parts, followed by a straightforward query as to interest and ability to travel/host. Pleasantries, much less a date, are not necessarily required. You may or may not find this behavior to your taste, but it is the coin of the realm, and Hines’ interlocutors were not wrong to think he—having not indicated in his profile otherwise—was similarly invested in the currency, rather than there to gawk.

Wait, but surely there are posers and frauds in there all the time! Isn’t this just a risk you take by logging on?

Absolutely. But Hines, as a professional journalist, must be held to a higher standard than the “average Joe.” And part of that standard is treating the communities he drops into, whether physical or digital, with sensitivity and respect. He should not be adding to the risk of exposure and judgment that queer men already must endure while trying to find moments of connection, however shallow those moments might look to an outsider.

Yeah, it sounds like if anyone was going to do this story at all, it probably shouldn’t have been a straight guy like Hines. But does that mean that straight people can never write about gay things without messing up?

My goodness, no! Straight journalists can absolutely cover LGBTQ issues and write about our social worlds well—and indeed, many have for decades. But the risk of error, and thus the standard of care the writer must apply, is unavoidably higher. While Hines might not have intended his piece to be queer-focused at the outset (he tried Tinder and Bumble!), his success at catfishing Grindr users made it so. And with that shift comes an array of questions far more substantial than “how sex happens at the Olympics.”

What does it mean for a straight interloper to be writing about a queer sexual space—a thing that is still relatively precious and rare? How might the consequences of this reporting impact queer subjects differently than straight ones? What are the norms and etiquette, the “social contract” of this space, and what are the risks of breaking it? Why are behaviors in this space even interesting to outsiders in the first place—is it genuine curiosity or a kind of salacious voyeurism? And lastly, am I, perhaps, kind of an asshole for attempting to do this story in the first place?

It’s clear from the article that Hines hadn’t pondered any of these questions before filing his copy—though I expect he’s taking stock over his Twitter feed and a caipirinha right about now. However, if there’s anything good to take away from this debacle, it’s a reminder that writing—and reading—about other people’s sex lives comes with responsibility. It’s unfortunate that, in this instance, a journalist fell far short of the gold.

*Update, Aug. 12, 2016: Later on Thursday night, the Daily Beast removed the article entirely from their site. The URL now redirects to a formal apology.

Aug. 10 2016 1:43 PM

After a Police Raid at Pride, Uganda’s LGBTQ Community Faces an Uncertain Future

In May, I wrote an article asking whether the LGBTQ community in Uganda—a country that, fairly or not, has become an emblem of African homophobia in the eyes of Westerners—could launch another successful Pride Week this year. Now I write to ask the price of launching one.

Uganda’s 2016 Pride celebration has come to a halt after police raided a related pageant event held just outside Kampala on Thursday. The raid affected hundreds of queer people and allies who were trapped in the event space, beaten, humiliated, and threatened with public shaming. At least 16 were arrested. The raid has been followed by threats of violence from public figures including State Minister of Ethics and Integrity Simon Lokodo, who suggested that “if participants were to be beaten by a mob” they would have “brought it upon themselves.” As they attempt to recover from last week’s injuries and humiliation, attendees continue to suffer verbal and physical abuse from emboldened attackers, and all this at a moment when they say anti-gay violence was already on the rise across Uganda.

Because of the relationships I built while writing my last article, I heard about the initial raid about an hour after detainees were released by police. Mark, a makeup artist who worked backstage with the Mr. and Ms. Pride pageant contestants, sent a few clipped messages via Facebook: “We’ve been raided and arrested by police from the venue. We’re many, too many.” But it wasn’t until I spoke with Ritah, an organizer of Pride Uganda, that I learned what the group had experienced.

When the police arrived, Ritah was onstage preparing to thank Pride Uganda’s supporters. “I was behind the mic and suddenly people were saying, ‘Police! The Police have come!’ ” Ritah told me. “We thought it was something rather small. But before we could gather ourselves up, another group of policemen were there, and they started hand-picking trans people.” According to Ritah, nearly 300 people were in attendance, so the arrival of the police sparked a dangerous stampede. “People were scared, they were screaming. But we were in a building on the fourth floor so we could not escape,” Ritah said. Police ordered everyone to sit on the floor in a corner where they could be surrounded and inspected. “They began forcefully checking the trans people, asking ‘Are you male or are you female?’ ” Ritah told me. “People who were not really out were trying to hide their faces. But at one point the police forced us to put our faces up so that they could take pictures.”

Almost more than the threat of physical violence, it was the threat of public exposure that terrified Pride attendees—and some made desperate choices. “I was so scared because of my family,” Pride attendee Harleem told me in a subsequent phone interview. “I didn’t want my face to come out in the newspapers.” Harleem and her friend Gerald were standing near a window as the raid began, and when they saw officers chasing, detaining and photographing their companions they panicked. “My friend asked me ‘what are we going to do now?’” Harleem told me. “And I said ‘Ahhh. I don’t know now what were are going to do. Maybe we can just jump.’” Harleem jumped into a restaurant on the building’s second floor, where she hid alone for several hours. Gerald fell farther and sustained injuries that sent him to the hospital. For Ritah, this story speaks to the terrifying nature of the police force’s tactics. “By the time someone decides to jump from the fourth floor of a building,” Ritah told me, “that means he’s thinking, Better I die this time, this moment.”

Since the raid, there has been an outpouring of verbal support for Uganda’s queer community. The U.S. Ambassador to Uganda, Deborah R. Malac, released a refreshingly clear condemnation of the raid in an official statement: “No one should face abuse or discrimination because of who they are.” Media outlets like the Advocate are celebrating queer Uganda’s vow to “stand prouder” despite obstacles.

But a statement from Polly Namaye Bagambaki, deputy spokesperson of Uganda Police Force, made it clear that official Uganda will not recognize the raid as a violation. The statement suggests that the raid was motivated primarily by public safety concerns: “In attendance, there were close to one thousand (1000) people. ... Such an event would require that the organizers notify the Police within the specified period for purposes of security of those in attendance as well as other members of the public who may be affected directly or indirectly by the event.” Bagambaki added that the Police Force wishes to “dispel all misinformation surrounding the incident,” an offhand dismissal of the many stories about police brutality.

Meanwhile, Pride Uganda 2016 is “canceled until further notice,” according to Mark, and its would-be participants are plagued with fear in an increasingly hostile environment. “This whole event gathered a lot of people who had to witness how the police can harm us and mistreat us. Now many people are traumatized,” Mark told me. “I’m hoping at some point there will be some secretive preparations to crown Mr. and Ms. Pride Uganda. But apparently we’ll just have to go with the flow. What can we do but cope?”

Gerald was only recently released from an undisclosed hospital, where he had been forced to claim that his injuries were the result of a boda boda (motorcycle) accident so that his family would not suspect his involvement with the queer event. And Ritah has already been subjected to another homophobic attack. On her way to a gay-friendly club over the weekend, she was accosted by a motorcyclist with whom she had driven many times. Declaring that Ritah was cross-dressing, and that her clothes were an affront, the motorcyclist and several onlookers began to strip and punch her in clear view of the club’s bouncer, who did nothing. She was able to flee only after a friend loaned her a blazer barely large enough to cover her exposed body. “I felt so bad because someone was yelling that if I didn’t undress I’d be stabbed to death,” Ritah told me. “That place was our safe place, and now I don’t think we can call it safe.”

Thinking about the night of pageant, I’m put in mind of the American organizations and individuals that helped make the event possible. NYC Pride donated items to support the event’s fundraising efforts. I personally helped collect and ship donated wigs for the evening—wigs that had to be torn from contestants’ heads before they drew scrutiny from police. We’ve done a lot of work to help queer Ugandans take risks, risks that they have every right to take. But I wonder if we’ll know what to do now that they’re experiencing the consequences.

Editor’s note: Names of Pride attendees have been changed in the interest of safety.

Aug. 9 2016 1:19 PM

How Do You Get NBC to Ignore a Human Interest Story? Have the Humans Be Gay.

On Monday night, NBC did something that viewers who tune into the Olympics to watch sporting competition have long demanded: They passed over a human-interest story to focus on the action. Apparently, all you have to do to get the network to ignore you is be gay.

NBC’s rare moment of restraint came during its coverage of the men’s synchronized 10-meter platform diving event. As the British team of Tom Daley and Daniel Goodfellow exited the pool after their third dive, the camera scanned the crowd, alighting briefly on two people wearing bright red Team Daley T-shirts. No attempt was made to identify the pair, who were cheering politely; instead, color commentator Cynthia Potter analyzed a slow-motion replay of the Brits’ inward-twisting three and a half somersaults.

Who were the members of Team Daley? Daley’s mother, Debbie, and his fiancé Dustin Lance Black. That’s right, the screenwriter who won the Academy Award for best original screenplay in 2009 for Milk. Was NBC homophobic not to mention Black’s name? Could the network have resisted lingering over an Oscar-winner affianced to an Olympic medal-winner if the relationship didn’t involve two people of the same sex? Let’s weigh the evidence.

Aug. 9 2016 8:30 AM

A Trans Man Walks Into the Men’s Room for the First Time

There’s no getting around it: Early transition is incredibly awkward.

My first attempt to use a public men’s room was a disaster by any measure. I was nervous, you see. I’ve since been told by more than one person that I was excessively nervous, but as far as I’m concerned, my level of terror was appropriate for the experience of walking into a restroom designated for the exclusive use of men, knowing the whole time that anyone who saw me would probably know I was one of those transgenders. I’m 5-foot-2. I have a newly protruding beer belly, while my hips remain quite rounded. When I neglect to shave, I grow facial hair in two or three distinct patches, each a little larger than a quarter. Sometimes my voice sounds like a man’s; at other times it’s more like I have a head cold. I’m in early transition, and right now I don’t fully resemble a man or a woman.

Aug. 5 2016 11:29 AM

Courts Must Protect the Parental Rights of Same-Sex Partners Who Couldn’t Marry or Adopt Pre-Obergefell

By any reasonable definition, Jennifer Zunk is a mother. Zunk helped raise two children from birth. She performed the mundane tasks of parenting—changing diapers, arranging for medical care, preparing meals, and performing other sundry household chores to keep the children in good health. She provided insurance for the children and assisted in planning their education.

The kids call her Mom. The state of Michigan does not.

Zunk is a legal stranger to her children in Michigan. In effect, the state treats her no better than a volunteer nanny. She suffers this indignity because she is not the biological mother of the children, and the children were not born within a marriage of which she was a party. Throughout the last eight years, Zunk reared the children, ages 6 and 8, with her partner of 15 years, Carin Hopps. Hopps is the biological mother of the children. She was impregnated by in vitro fertilization using a sperm donor.

Aug. 4 2016 1:49 PM

In Berlin, a Drag Show Aims to Help Queer Refugees Feel at Home


It was a Saturday night in Berlin in April, just before 10 p.m. The city was only just getting into its nocturnal stride, with people filling sidewalk patios and jostling through the streets carrying bottles of beer. I was standing at the front of The Club, a queer dive bar in Neukölln, a borough southeast of the city center. The place was packed with hippies and hipsters, artists, activists, and their allies. In most bars such a volume of people would be an inconvenience, but this was different: The crowd was a sign of solidarity.




We were there for Queens Against Borders, a twisted, sophisticated drag show that helps raise funds for LGBTQ refugees in the city. Germany took in 1.1 million refugees last year, including an estimated 3,500 queer refugees in Berlin alone, even though Angela Merkel’s government has been criticized by right-wing groups apparently fearful that this influx will lead to terrorism or other crimes against women and LGBTQ folks. Surprisingly, even the Dalai Lama (a refugee himself) recently declared that, to keep Germany from becoming an Arab country, refugees should only be admitted temporarily. Such hostile remarks only add fuel to the right-wing blaze, so explicitly welcoming events like Queens Against Borders are an important means for refugee supporters to push back.


Aug. 3 2016 5:48 PM

Pope Francis Claims Schools Are Conspiring to Teach Kids to Be Transgender

Last week, Pope Francis reiterated his position that the existence of transgender people—and indeed, any expansive notion of gender identity beyond traditional, assigned-at-birth male and female—is contrary to God’s plan. The comments came during a closed-door meeting with Polish bishops, a transcript of which was released on Tuesday by the Vatican. In his remarks, Francis is said to have railed against gender variance, especially as it relates to children. The Catholic Herald, which saw a copy of the transcript, printed the relevant comments:

The Pope also said he had discussed the subject with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who told his successor: “Your Holiness, we are living in an age of sin against God the Creator.”
Pope Francis said this sin was often given financial backing by “very influential countries”: a form of “ideological colonization,” the Pope said, which is “terrible.”  
The Pope said that one example—“I’ll say it clearly with its first and last name—is gender.”
Francis told the Polish bishops: “Today, children are taught this at school: that everyone can choose their own sex. And why do they teach this? Because the books come from those people and institutions who give money,” he said.
“God created man and woman; God created the world like this and we are doing the exact opposite.”

Francis began his tenure on something of a hopeful note for queer followers by asking, in 2013, “who am I to judge?” on the subject of gay Christians, priests in particular. But that glimmer faded when he signaled his particular distaste for gender variance in the May 2015 encyclical Laudato Si—“valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different”—and then, his rejection of gay relationships in the April 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia: “There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”

In other words, though a touch more conspiratorial than Francis’ previous statements, these remarks are more of the same anti-queer—and largely inaccurate—theology church-watchers have come to expect. Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of LGBT Catholic group DignityUSA, explained in a statement what Francis is missing: “What many, including Pope Francis, do not yet understand is that people do not ‘choose’ their genders,” she said.

A gender is assigned at birth, and some people discover that they were incorrectly classified. The narratives of many transgender and gender-nonconforming people show that this often begins long before they go to school. For most, the reality of their identity not matching their assigned gender persists despite incredible social, cultural, familial, and, yes, religious pressures to conform.

Duddy-Burke also pointed out perhaps the most troubling aspect of Francis’ words—namely, that they are dangerous to the lives of trans kids. “It is irresponsible of him to say such things without taking into account the fact that people’s lives are literally at stake,” she said. “We urge the pope and other church leaders to enter into dialogue with transgender people, and to be very cautious in passing judgements that are based on assumptions rather than reality.”

Aug. 3 2016 5:11 PM

Supreme Court Blocks Ruling Allowing Trans Student to Use Public School Bathroom

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court blocked a lower court order requiring a Virginia school board to let a transgender student use the correct bathroom at his public school. Previously, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit had held that Title IX’s ban on sex discrimination forbade the school board from discriminating against a trans student, Gavin Grimm, on the basis of his gender identity. In response, a district court blocked the school board from excluding Grimm from the men’s bathroom. The Supreme Court’s intervention, however, ensures that Grimm may be legally excluded from the proper facilities as he begins his senior year of high school.

Chief Justice John Roberts, along with Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer, and Samuel Alito, voted to halt the lower court’s ruling from taking effect. In an odd concurrence, Breyer explained that he had merely issued a “courtesy” vote to “preserve the status quo” while the court is in recess. (The “status quo” here means that Grimm will be forbidden from using the correct bathroom at school.) If the court decides to hear the case in proper, Wednesday’s stay will remain until it issues a decision. If the court refuses to hear the case, the stay will dissolve. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan dissented from the court’s decision and would have allowed the lower court’s ruling to take effect. Thus, the split was 5-3.

The Virginia school board in question had explicitly targeted Grimm, the only known trans student in the school system, on the basis of his gender identity, singling him out for mistreatment. At one school board hearing, speakers called Grimm a “freak” and compared him to a dog that urinates on fire hydrants. Despite this incessant persecution, Grimm forged ahead while remaining enrolled at the school that sought a legal right to discriminate against him. On Wednesday, thanks to the high court’s conservatives—and Justice Stephen Breyer—Grimm lost the right to begin his senior year with the dignity afforded to him by the law. 

Aug. 2 2016 11:47 AM

Federal Judge Slays Mississippi’s Anti-LGBTQ “Religious Liberty” Law in a Single Paragraph

Mississippi’s viciously anti-LGBTQ Christian supremacist “religious liberty” law—which would legalize discrimination against LGBTQ people in housing, employment, public accommodations, schooling, marriage licensing, and health care—is brazenly unconstitutional. That, at least, was U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves’ conclusion when he blocked the law from taking effect in June, holding that it violated both the Establishment and Equal Protection Clauses of the Constitution. But even after Reeves delivered his bench-slap to the state, Mississippi Republican Gov. Phil Bryant returned to court to ask the judge to let the law take effect while he appealed Reeves’ decision to a higher court.

On Monday, Reeves gave Bryant his answer. It wasn’t pretty. First, Reeves criticized Bryant and his attorneys for botching basic facts about the case, noting pointedly that the errors “may be because, even though the record has been prepared, the appellants did not attend the two-day evidentiary hearing, and are now represented by different counsel who also did not attend the hearing.” Then Reeves castigated Bryant for comparing the Mississippi law—and, in particular, a provision that allows clerks to refuse marriage licenses to gay couples—to statutes that “permit persons to opt-out of going to war or performing abortions.” Issuing a marriage license to a same-sex couple, Reeves wrote, “is not like being forced into armed combat or to assist with an abortion.”