Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation

Dec. 1 2015 12:33 PM

On World AIDS Day, Catch Up on the Fight With Countdown to Zero

Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day, a time for us to remember the millions we’ve lost in the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, even as we take heart in how far we’ve progressed toward defeating the virus. Indeed, strides toward a vaccine and even a cure have accelerated at a stunning pace in recent years, and preventative innovations like Truvada-as-PrEP are poised to further reduce new infections. It is not an exaggeration at the end of 2015 to say that we are within reach of an “AIDS-Free Generation.”

How we got here is the focus of Countdown to Zero, an informative, well-paced documentary from VICE and HBO that airs tonight at 9 p.m. While the film opens with the expected—and still emotionally wrenching—footage of mostly gay men wasting away from AIDS in the 1980s and early '90s, it quickly shifts its gaze to the present and future of the disease. Countdown is smartly organized into six segments: Outbreak, Vaccine, Trials, An AIDS-Free Generation, PrEP, and Cure, each of which efficiently communicates where we are now and where we might be very soon. And because HIV isn’t just an affliction of the LGBTQ community, the doc rightly focuses on other at-risk groups as well. “Outbreak,” for example, drops in on an on-going epidemic in the small community of Austin, Indiana, that began due to the sharing of needles between intravenous drug users in a state with less-than-enlightened public health policies. And the core of the film looks at the situation in Africa—where an estimated 25 million people are infected—and efforts within the country of South Africa, specifically, to test vaccines and end mother-to-child transmission.


The most surprising aspect of Countdown, in fact, is its insistence on presenting former President George W. Bush as an AIDS warrior. The producers got him to agree to a rare interview in which he discusses his administration’s support of the United Nations’ Global Fund and later the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR)—support which his unlikely partner-in-advocacy Bono credits with bringing us within sight of victory.

But Bush and Bono are hardly the only heroes in this story. That title also belongs to the researchers pioneering new immunotherapy techniques that may lead to a real cure, and to the many doctors and health care workers fighting AIDS on the ground, who daily strive to educate communities and stand up to denial-ridden governments. It also belongs to activists like Peter Staley, who here touts PrEP as perhaps the most immediately useful method we have in stemming new infections, especially within the gay male population. It belongs to Timothy Ray Brown, the “Berlin Patient,” who, due to his remarkable status as the only human ever to have been truly cured of AIDS, has dedicated his own body as a tool in the battle. And last but not least, there are the survivors—both those who fight on through profound loss and those who fight for their own health. These are heroes, too.

Countdown to Zero airs Tuesday, Dec. 1 at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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Dec. 1 2015 12:11 PM

Listen to Reagan’s Press Secretary Laugh About Gay People Dying of AIDS

On Oct. 15, 1982, at a White House press briefing, reporter Lester Kinsolving asked Press Secretary Larry Speakes about a horrifying new disease called AIDS that was ravaging the gay community.

“What’s AIDS?” Speakes asked.

“It’s known as the ‘gay plague,’ ” Kinsolving replied.

Everyone laughed.

Dec. 1 2015 10:40 AM

The Republican Donor Class Is Abandoning Its Opposition to Gay Rights. Will the Base?

The race for the 2016 presidential nomination is increasingly serving to highlight key divisions between the powerful Republican donor class and the Republican voting and activist base. Using recently released Cooperative Congressional Election Study data (an election year survey with more than 50,000 respondents) from 2014, we found that same-sex marriage is an issue that splits the more cosmopolitan and business-friendly Republican donor class from the party’s more socially conservative base. We also learned that off-cycle elections may hamper progress on gay rights by bringing out a more conservative, whiter, and older electorate.

The CCES allows us to compare the attitudes of non-donors who identify as Republican and Democrat, as well as small donors (those who give less than $1,000) and large donors (who give more than $1,000). We found that among Democratic donors there is more support for gay marriage than among non-donors. This is in line with the literature on donors: They tend to be more strongly partisan than non-donors. On the Republican side, however, an interesting pattern emerges. Small Republican donors are more conservative—in line with the observation that donors tend to be more extreme—while large donors are far more supportive of gay rights (44 percent in favor, compared with 28 percent of small donors).

Nov. 27 2015 2:48 PM

Is Social Acceptance Killing Queer Cinema?

Is wider social acceptance causing queer cinema to lose its edge? That’s the consensus that emerges from a recent “Critics’ Notebook” dialogue betweenHollywood Reporter reviews editor Jon Frosch and critic David Rooney.

Frosch sets up the debate by recalling the sense of anticipation that built up earlier this year for what appeared to be a strong fall slate of gay-themed films, only to declare, “What a sense of deflation, then, to discover the squarest, stodgiest group of movies imaginable.” Frosch dismisses Freeheld and Stonewall as “bland, gloppy slices of history”; notes that the Weinstein Co. unceremoniously yanked trans teen drama About Ray from its autumn slate; and then declares himself unimpressed by The Danish Girl and Carol. “This is a relentlessly somber, self-important group of films—all tears, torment and tragic poses, with characters who register more as causes and symbols than flesh-and-blood humans,” he writes. Finally, he declares himself nostalgic for the guilty pleasures of gay cinema past—movies like The BirdcageBound, and even The Boys in the Band.

Nov. 25 2015 11:46 AM

Love Actually Almost Included a Lesbian Romance 

There are two kinds of people in this world: Those who think Love Actually is a terrible, hackneyed, lazily anti-American trash bin of a movie, and philistines with no taste. Despite the presence of many wonderful actors who I adore in pretty much every other movie (I’ll wait while you collect yourself after thinking about Emma Thompson’s hankie-dampening scenes), I feel myself getting crabby every time I think of its cheap, hacky, and did I mention lazily anti-American schlock. I always took comfort in the fact that writer/director Richard Curtis at least left the homosexuals out of his sugary parade of vignettes.

This week, Entertainment Weekly, via BuzzFeed, surfaced some material from the Love Actually DVD that made me realize that were it not for a storytelling snafu, I might have been won over by this terrible movie.

On the DVD, Curtis describes a storyline that was written and filmed but had to be cut from the final version when an element in another story was changed. The plot involved Anne Reid, who viewers would first meet as a stern headmistress, only later to learn that she was a lesbian whose lover, played by Frances de la Tour, was terminally ill.

Nov. 25 2015 10:09 AM

I Was a Teenage Lesbian Cybersex Junkie 

When I was 15 or 16, I thought I was in love with a married Midwestern housewife. She wrote telling me how sad she was to be trapped in an abusive relationship with a man she’d never loved, and I responded with stories about how I was tough and could take on her husband. She was probably somewhere between 30 and 40, I was a 5’2” eleventh-grader who’d never thrown a punch. Although I later grew a lot more skeptical about the things I heard online, I’ve always assumed she really was female (largely because the amorous content of her messages always stopped at kissing)—but her actual age, sex, and location, and her real domestic situation are all details I could never verify. “Heather” stopped messaging me abruptly several months after we started talking. She was a grown woman, and I never lied about how young I was. Even so, I’ve never been quite sure which one of us was being catfished. After all, I certainly had zero intention of flying to Kansas—or wherever she was from—to try to beat up an abusive husband.

Growing up gay online in the late ’90s and early 2000s was complicated like that. There were headlines about sexual predators and vulnerable children, there were jokes about how there were no girls on the Internet, and then there was the reality of muddled, questioning, socially isolated adolescents, staying up all night, typing at whoever was out there. As one of those awkward, Internet-obsessed young people, my experiences growing up online have been stamped indelibly, for good or for ill, on my awkward, Internet-obsessed adulthood.

Nov. 24 2015 1:09 PM

DWTS Goes Super Queer With Who Is Fancy, Ariana Grande, and Meghan Trainor

Monday night’s episode of Dancing With the Stars—the first of a two-part season finale—featured the usual updated takes on classic dances like the foxtrot and the quickstep. But the show, and presumably much of its audience, was treated to something fantastically fresh and very queer when special guest performers Who Is Fancy, Ariana Grande, and Meghan Trainor took the floor to perform Fancy’s soulful new single “Boys Like You.”

The song, which features verses and sexy harmonies from all three singers, details their shared penchant for crossing lines and breaking rules to get at a certain kind of boy. That a desire for men is spread equally in the lyrics among a gay man and straight women is already progressive, but add a phalanx of handsome, suspendered DWTS dancers to the mix—as well as Fancy’s femme self-stylings (werk that caftan!) and sultry affect—and you’ve got the makings of a breathtakingly queer performance. While DWTS came under criticism last week for reportedly denying the choreographer’s request for full-blown same-sex dancing in the number, “Boys Like You” still managed to be plenty subversive. Instead of presenting male same-sex desire as a special case, the show put it on equal footing with opposite-sex lust—and, perhaps even better, held up men to the same kind of erotic gaze that women endure constantly in pop culture whether they want it or not. Good on DWTS for trusting their audience to handle a truly queer presentation, and a huge congrats to Who Is Fancy for the premiere. He earned at least one new fan last night, and I suspect I’m not the only one. 

Nov. 24 2015 10:11 AM

Jessica Jones’ Lesbian Divorce Storyline Is Fabulous, Frustrating

Netflix’s new series Jessica Jones has many things going for it: Krysten Ritter is electrifying as a cynical, booze-soaked sexual-assault survivor with superstrength and a devastating sense of humor. David Tennant is absolutely creep-tastic as a psychopath who can compel people to do his bidding, no matter how bizarre his instructions. It’s a serious, nuanced look at PTSD, female friendship, and the essential weirdness of the “caring professions,” which so often seem to involve damaged people meddling in the lives of total strangers. It also represents Marvel’s first look at lesbian divorce.

The lesbians involved are Jeri Hogarth (Carrie-Anne Moss)—a bad-bitch defense attorney who is so dour and focused on her work we’re told she was on the phone with clients all through her honeymoon—and Wendy Ross-Hogarth (Robin Weigert), a physician who put her wife through law school, then used the income from her law practice to subsidize her work in low-income clinics. Their parting is far from amicable. Hogarth has fallen for her secretary, the lovely Pam (Susie Abromeit), whose entire wardrobe consists of cleavage-revealing wrap dresses. It’s a story as old as capitalism—the more career-focused partner in a marriage trades in the old wife when a younger, more worshipful model comes along—but now everyone in the triangle is female.

Nov. 23 2015 5:10 PM

National Organization for Marriage Violates Federal Law, Refuses to Release Tax Forms

The National Organization for Marriage was created for one reason: to prevent gay and bisexual Americans from marrying the person they love. It failed. But even before NOM’s catastrophic defeat at the Supreme Court, the organization was collapsing into debt; its tax filings for 2013 revealed a 50 percent drop in earnings and a donor exodus. Given that sharp decline, many journalists and LGBTQ groups were eager to see NOM’s 2014 tax filings, which the group was required to release by Nov. 16.

But instead of complying with federal law and releasing its tax information, NOM has decided to—well, just blatantly violate federal law, I guess. The organization refused to release its Form 990s on Nov. 16. On Nov. 17, a Human Rights Campaign employee visited NOM’s office and knocked on the door, but nobody answered. She placed a written request for the forms, then called later in the afternoon—but again, no one answered. NOM ignored another call on Nov. 19 and another office visit on Nov. 20. Unless the organization has quietly disbanded, it would appear NOM is intentionally neglecting to comply with federal law.

Nov. 23 2015 4:40 PM

Academy to Consider Trans Tangerine Actresses in Their Proper Gender Category

If you missed Tangerine when it first appeared over the summer, now’s a good time to catch up: The film—director Sean Baker’s sensitive, honest, and often funny look at the lives of a pair of transgender prostitutes over the course of a particularly eventful L.A. Christmas Eve—is sure to be the subject of much discussion this Oscar campaign season. With the support of producers Mark and Jay Duplass and distributor Magnolia Pictures, Tangerine’s trans stars are being advanced as candidates for the best actress and best supporting actress awards. This is a big deal—according to Variety, “It’s the first time a movie distributor has ever backed an awards season push for a transgender actress in Hollywood history.”

That the Duplass brothers and Magnolia are throwing their weight behind a nomination is itself an encouraging—and welcome, considering the performances in question—development. Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (up for the best actress category) and Mya Taylor (best supporting actress) are both new to feature filmmaking; and yet their acting in Tangerine (in front of an iPhone 5s, no less) is deeply compelling, organically modulating from girlfriend comedy to stark portrait of life on the margins with style and verve. But more important, while cis-playing-trans performances have been nominated for the Academy Award before, this push marks the first time actual trans actresses will be seriously considered.