Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation

July 29 2016 12:03 PM

Islam, Equality, and Pocket Constitutions: How the DNC Did Religious Liberty Right

Khizr Khan, a Muslim immigrant whose son was killed while serving in Iraq, brought the Democratic National Convention to tears and raucous applause on Thursday when he held up his pocket Constitution and admonished Donald Trump: “Have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy.” Khan’s rebuke was, of course, a profoundly moving and very necessary rejoinder to Trump’s rampant Islamophobia. But that powerful moment, as well as Khan’s entire address, also revealed that after years of surrendering the issue to the GOP, Democrats have finally learned how to talk about and present a progressive vision of religious liberty.

Indeed, that very phrase—religious liberty—has become so freighted with discriminatory overtones that I hesitate to use it. The fight for “religious liberty” has come to dominate the Republican Party in recent years, through a series of campaigns that aim to promote prejudiced Christians’ freedom over everybody else’s. We saw conservative advocacy groups persuade the Supreme Court that for-profit corporations have a religious right to discriminate against female employees who wished to access contraception through their own health insurance. We saw Republicans endorse the idea that religious businesses should be able to refuse to serve same-sex couples. We’ve even seen laws that, under the banner of religious freedom, give mental health counselors and medical doctors the right to refuse to treat gay and trans patients.

July 28 2016 6:02 PM

Sarah McBride Just Became the First Trans Person to Address a National Convention

The big “first” of this week’s Democratic National Convention is, of course, the nomination of a woman for the office of president of the United States. But a close runner-up took place on Thursday with the appearance of Sarah McBride on the Philadelphia stage. McBride is the national press secretary for the LGBTQ advocacy organization Human Rights Campaign, and, at 25, she’s already made a name for herself in Washington as a fighter for progressive causes. She’s also transgender, and her address marks the first time a trans American has addressed a national major party convention.

McBride, who was introduced by openly gay New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney in an LGBTQ-focused segment of the program, began her speech with a declaration: "I am a proud transgender American." From there, she acknowleged the rapid change that has been achieved on certain queer issues in recent years, but reminded viewers that we're not done:

But despite our progress, so much work remains. Will we be a nation where there is only one way to love, only one way to look, and only one way to live? Or will we be a nation where everyone has the freedom to live live freely and openly? A nation that's stronger together? That is the question in this election.

McBride then made the stakes personal, recounting the story of her late husband Andrew, a transgender man and activist who passed away from terminal cancer shortly after their wedding. "Knowing Andy left me profoundly changed," she said. "But more than anything else, his passing taught me that every day matters when it comes to building a world where every person can live their life to the fullest. Hillary Clinton understand the urgency of our fight."

On the importance of making the speech, for which she received an invitation from the Democratic LGBT Caucus, McBride said in an HRC statement earlier this week that her goal was to promote understanding around queer issues: “People must understand that even as we face daily harassment, tragic violence, and an onslaught of anti-LGBTQ political attacks across the country, we are real people merely seeking to be treated with the dignity and respect every person deserves. I'm so proud to stand with the LGBT Caucus and speak out in support of Hillary Clinton, because we know she stands with us.”

McBride joins more than two dozen self-identifying transgender delegates at the DNC, marking it as presumably the most trans-inclusive official political event in American history. And her own firsts don’t stop with her address. A Time profile of McBride reveals that, after coming out as trans during college, she took an internship at the White House—a role that she believes made her the first openly trans woman to work there. She’s also been vocal in the fight against North Carolina’s transphobic HB2 “bathroom law”; her protest photo in an NC women’s room ably demonstrated the bigotry and illogic at the heart such measures and subsequently went viral.

Firsts may be exciting, but for McBride, the real purpose of her appearance is to extend a bit of inspiration to those who are not in the stadium. As she put it in an interview with Time: “[M]y hope is that for anyone who is watching, who worries that their dreams and their identity are mutually exclusive, who worry about whether they can be accepted and succeed as who they are, that they can find some comfort and some hope in the fact that a person will be standing on that stage saying those words.”

July 28 2016 12:45 PM

In Relationship, Artists Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst Explore Love in a Time of Transition

In Relationship, their new book of photographs, artists Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker document the six-year span of their romantic union—a time period when their careers and lives were undergoing incredible (and parallel) shifts. By 2014, when the book concludes, they’d gone from grad students in the arts to artists featured in the Whitney Biennial (where these photos debuted publicly), and from making films at home on severely limited budgets to working on the blockbuster Amazon show Transparent.

Relationship, #11, 2008 - 2013

Photography © 2016 Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst. Courtesy of the artists and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

Simultaneously, both were also undergoing gender-confirming physical transformations, Drucker to match her female identity and Ernst to match his male. Today, the trans community is much more visible than ever before. However, mainstream visibility is almost always filtered through the eyes of the cisgender people who write the TV scripts, cast the actors, and curate the art shows. Relationship is different. It has its genesis in the love Ernst and Drucker shared, and they never originally considered showing these photos publicly. Thus, not only is this project unconcerned with the reception of a larger cisgender world, it is also (for the most part) unconcerned with the artists’ own trans identities. Instead, these photos are simply a document of love, which happened to exist between two trans people at a time when loving one’s trans self (or trans lover) is a radical act.


I saw down with Drucker to discuss Relationship, photography as an art form, and the difficult balance of being both an artist and an activist.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In the text you wrote to accompany the photos, you mention that when you and Rhys first met with Stuart Comer (curator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial), you didn’t even show him these photos. Why not?

At the time Rhys and I met, we were both starting to transition, which is such a vulnerable period for anybody. You're an adult and your body is going through a second puberty. I think that had something to do with it—not feeling compelled to share immediately because it was a sensitive, awkward time.

Relationship, #62, 2014

Photography © 2016 Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst. Courtesy of the artists and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

But after time had passed and we had amassed this collection of images, we realized it was this incredible archive, and there were so many images, such a variety of experiences and moods and times in our lives, that we began to see the overall journey. The series basically takes place in the house that we were living in, which was a world that we had constructed together. So even if one of us was out of town and the other took a self-portrait or something, it was considered fair game.

Relationship, #9, 2008 - 2013

Photography © 2016 Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst. Courtesy of the artists and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles

It was so interesting because the film that we made, She Gone Rogue [which was also featured in the Whitney Biennial], was a piece that we put a year of blood, sweat, and tears into, and we still consider it such a masterful work in many ways. And the photographs were so easy: They were just what was happening. They were our daily lives, and it felt, for us, too easy to be work, to be art. I was in the photography/media program at Cal Arts, and I think I had to disabuse myself of the kind of rigorous, theoretical, and conceptual process of Cal Arts, which is so antithetical to photography because photography is so much about visual pleasure and spontaneity. We found that the photographs cut to the core and spoke to viewers in a way that She Gone Rogue didn’t. The film demanded 25 minutes of the viewer’s attention, and that's very hard to do in a museum or exhibition space. But anybody walking by a set of documentary photographs has 90 seconds to absorb the content. There’s something so direct about that approach. It wasn't complicated by language or the person speaking back to you, so it reached more people.

I’ve seen these photos compared to everyone from Nan Goldin to Cindy Sherman to Catherine Opie. Do any of those analogies speak to you?

I'm sure there are common denominators. I think Nan Goldin loved people through her photographs, and the love that Rhys and I were sharing is communicated through our photographs really effectively. I have a very traditional photography background, but I think Relationship is more influenced by filmmaking and by narrative. We certainly edited it as a photo project and as a book, with a narrative arc. We were really thinking about how to construct this story, not necessarily in a linear way, but in an abstract way. It's loosely chronological, but there are many times that the sequencing falls out of that chronology

Before this project, I was always taking photographs as a documentation of performance. Relationship is a life performance. So I think elements of other mediums and performativities are infused in the photographs.

Relationship, #37, 2008 - 2013

Photography © 2016 Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst. Courtesy of the artists and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

One thing I found a little off-putting was that, aside from Kate Bornstein’s essay, the other texts in the book felt a little overly focused on your gender identities, not the fact of your connection to each other. It’s called Relationship, after all, not Transition. Did you feel that way?

The thing that I respond to about what you just said is that when Rhys and I were taking the pictures, the only time we thought of [transitioning] was when there was that picture of the Band-Aids on our butts. Like, that is a trans photograph. But otherwise we were just photographing the person that we were in love with and obsessed with. We were really just enamored with each other. There was no piece of that that was like "this is the photograph of my trans lover." It was “this is my lover.”

But it was an honor to have all their voices in the book. Kate is just a huge archetype for both of us. Maggie Nelson is such an incredible writer, a person we both revere and read avidly. And Stuart was like a third collaborator on the project.

Relationship, #12

Photography © 2016 Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst. Courtesy of the artists and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

Both you and Rhys are powerful advocates for trans folks. How do you balance that with your art-making?

It’s such a unique time to be a trans person in America, and it necessitates filling multiple roles. For me, that’s not only being an artist, but also being a responsible advocate and community member.

It’s unusual because as an artist you're really consumed by representing your own experience and there isn't this imperative of helping a community. I see them in a lot of ways as separate, but our role on Transparent really balances art and activism, because the form itself is art. The show is this incredible mosaic, this work of art that so many people have come together to create, but what's happening behind the scenes? Rhys and I do a lot of activism in pushing the 200 people involved toward really understanding a trans experience, what they’re part of, and what they’re representing. And then there's all the other stuff, like talking about Transparent and hiring as many trans and gender queer folks as possible behind the scenes.

The simplest way to put it is as artists, we complicate meaning, we add layers, and we don't make it easy because then it's not interesting. It's just one line. But as an activist, you deconstruct all those layers of meaning to speak across borders and boundaries, and to reach as many people as possible. You're really looking for the common denominator. You're looking at how to reach humanity.

Relationship, #33, 2008 - 2013

Photography © 2016 Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst. Courtesy of the artists and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

July 27 2016 9:05 PM

Orlando Shooting Victim’s Mother Gives the Heartbreaking, Angry, Eloquent Must-Watch Speech of the DNC

Bearing witness is often painful, but it is essential if we are to understand how terrible things come to pass. Listening to survivors testifying about their loss sometimes gives us the strength to fight so that the kinds of tragedies they’ve suffered never happen again.

For a few hours on Wednesday night, the Democratic National Convention became a place for survivors to bear witness The speakers included Jamie Dorff, whose husband was killed in action in Iraq; Erica Smegielski, the daughter of the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School who was murdered trying to protect her students from a gunman’s rampage; and Christine Leoninen, the mother of Christopher “Drew” Leoninen, who was killed in the June 12 massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

July 25 2016 6:24 PM

The Path to 2016’s Incredibly LGBTQ-Friendly Democratic Platform Began in 1972

In 2016, no constituency of the Democratic Party has more reason to want to reaffirm and extend the legacy of President Barack Obama than LGBTQ Americans. What Lyndon Johnson was to black civil rights, Obama has been to LGBTQ civil rights. The breakthrough—including the fall of DADT, the securing of marriage equality, and transgender-inclusive policies adopted by federal agencies—came faster than many expected. Yet the roots of this triumphant, if precarious, moment lie nearly half a century ago, during the 1972 presidential election—the first one after the Stonewall uprising—when the two major U.S. political parties first diverged on social issues.

That July, the Democratic Party allowed both a lesbian and a gay man to speak from the podium at its presidential nominating convention about being gay. Forty-four years and 11 presidential elections later, the Republicans last week made it halfway to that mark with Peter Thiel, who, though openly gay,actively minimized his sexuality in his address. Meanwhile, Democrats will make history again this Thursday with the first transgender convention speaker.

July 25 2016 5:51 PM

The AbFab Movie Isn’t a Supersized TV Episode. It’s a Mash Note to the Show’s Worldview.

The first three episodes of Absolutely Fabulous, which aired in Britain in November 1992, were titled “Fashion,” “Fat,” and “France.” That those words also accurately describe the themes of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, which opened in the U.S. this weekend, could be seen as a sign of creative stagnation, a sad commentary on a show that never really expanded its worldview. It could also mean that when Jennifer Saunders created useless publicist Edina Monson (played by Saunders), her constant companion Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley), daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha), and assistant Bubble (Jane Horrocks) and plopped them into a seething cauldron of PR, fame, and fantasy, she hit upon a universal fascination—a timeless exploration of the most fraught topics of our time.

The truth is probably somewhere in between. Absolutely Fabulous was rarely laugh-out-loud funny—at least to me, and I consider myself a fan—but it was unmissable because it was reliably fearless and shocking in its willingness to question the values of our age. Even after 24 years, 39 TV episodes, and a movie, I’m still not entirely sure if it has been poking politically incorrect fun at a pair of pathetic middle-aged women who are desperate to seem hipper and younger than they are, or if it’s an exposé of the hypocrisy of a society that is obsessed with fame, consumerism, and bad behavior but hates anyone who admits to seeking the first and enjoying the last two.

July 25 2016 11:25 AM

Trump’s Pro-LGBTQ Rhetoric Is a New Twist on an Old GOP Tactic

On July 21, when Donald Trump, in his GOP nomination acceptance speech, said that he would “protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology,” it wasn’t particularly surprising that he would make such an appeal. Yes, Trump’s running mate Mike Pence has a particularly distinguished history of attacking LGBTQ people. Yes, the party passed, with this convention, a brutally anti-LGBTQ platform. Yes, Trump, while claiming to protect LGBTQ people, has made targeting Latino and Muslim members of that same community a keystone of his campaign. And yes, the modern GOP has made attacking LGBTQ people one of its signature issues.

But the GOP’s attempted romance of the working class through the last several decades shows us that the party is perfectly fine with claiming support for a group while openly attacking it.

July 22 2016 5:30 PM

The Looking Finale Isn’t Good—but the Show Was Great for Gay Art

When Looking premiered back in 2014, you could say I found it politically troubling. Those issues faded somewhat in Season 2; but by then, I had decided that politics aside, the earnest tone and gauzy approach of director Andrew Haigh and writer Michael Lannan just weren’t for me. If you like misty shots of the San Francisco skyline and close-ups of Jonathan Groff’s variations on a pained smile, you may enjoy Looking: The Movie, the show’s feature-length finale airing Saturday on HBO.

The film follows our hero Patrick during a visit to town for a wedding after a nine-month absence in Denver. Along the way, there’s copious dimestore wisdom on relationships and finding “something close to adulthood,” and plenty of moments where folks like Richie (Raúl Castillo) or a 22-year-old trick of Patrick’s named Jimmy (Michael Rosen) impregnate pauses with unbearably freighted clichés. The latter, on playing nicely with exes: “You have to bury your dead real good, you know? So they don’t come back and haunt you.” Jimmy, we’re meant to understand, has more going on than a great ass, which we watch Patrick devour in the film’s single—but truly great—sex scene.


Again, whether or not such lines make you groan at your screen is a matter of taste. But if there’s anything interesting about this film, it’s how self-aware it is about the division in reception, especially in terms of the ideological charges leveled against it by haters like me. I had to admire the writers for including—in a logic-vexing scene where Patrick attempts to “close a chapter” by having coffee with his philandering but somehow here morally superior old boss Kevin (Russell Tovey)—criticisms of the show in the guise of reviews of the pair’s failing smartphone app: “Stereotype, cliché-ridden dross,” and “What the fuck is the point?” And later, at a drunken post-nuptials party, there’s a nasty exchange between Patrick and Richie’s queer-blogger boyfriend, “leader of the gay thought police” Brady (Chris Perfetti). It made me LOL with its literal portrayal of the debate over gay representation that’s surrounded the series.

Brady: Is your femmephobia a joke?
Patrick: It’s OK, you can say it. It’s not like it’s the first time you’ve implied that I’m everything that’s wrong with the gay community. … I promise to read more of your articles and hope that one day I can finally learn how to be gay and be as perfectly adjusted as you!

Appreciate the clicks, pato.

On the point of marriage, the film deserves credit for attempting to explore many queer people’s ambivalence around taking part in such a conservative institution, even if the various positions are rather bluntly rendered. Points also for throwing something of a grappling hook to gay political history, with Patrick briefly acknowledging “all those people that came before us that actually had to struggle against something” and legendary activist Cleve Jones making a cameo during the wedding toasts to speak of the need to teach queer youth that “their lives do matter.” (Speaking of cameos, Tyne Daly’s turn as a City Hall marriage officiant provides the only eddy in a steady stream of “how to relationship” bromides that’s genuinely affecting.) Even these small gestures made this visit to Looking-land feel much more connected to the gay world I live in than it had before.

But overall, the stakes of the narrative remain too low to justify the reverence with which they’re treated. Aside from Patrick’s continuing to be a manipulative love tornado, Dom’s (Murray Bartlett) choice to focus on career over sex for a spell is presented as a major conflict point, and Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez), who finds himself with steady job and a great relationship, actually says the words: “I’m not who I thought I’d be, and that’s tough for me to take.” In a story where apparently the bravest thing a person can do is move to another major city for another good job, this kind of hand-wringing is also tough to take.

Indeed, the only person whose life feels in any way worth exploring is Richie. We hear a snippet about his troubled relationship with his father, and Castillo’s superior acting skills make the character’s emotional travails feel more meaningful. As the film lost itself in Patrick’s puppy-dog eyes, I found myself wondering how the series might have turned out differently had it been told from Richie’s point-of-view, with Patrick as an occasional interruption and Agustín ideally appearing not at all. Who knows? Given that this film represents HBO’s no-hard-feelings farewell to the series, I doubt we’ll get to see a spin-off; but a show about the journeys of a handsome salon-truck owner is something I’d give a shot.

In any case, with Looking at an end, it’s worth asking what we found. Because precious few examples exist in the world, any art that seriously attempts to represent the gay experience will be asked to do an unfair amount of work, to meet the incommensurable expectations of an innumerable audience. For some, Looking was a gorgeous and subtle portrait of a specific collection of flawed humans by the bay. To others, all those moody hues were imbued with tropes too familiar and grating to ignore. And still others found it, well, boring. Haigh, Lannan, and company could never hope to satisfy us all.

In the final analysis, though, I’m glad the show existed. During Patrick and Brady’s catfight, galpal Doris (Lauren Weedman) chimes in with a helpful comment: “I love it when gays fight with other gays about being gays.” This seems intended as a blanket dismissal of criticisms like mine (and the rejoinders to them), but I actually think Doris is onto something. Anything that gets queer people thinking about our place in the larger culture, rather than just ambling passively through it, cannot be all bad. In fact, starting those fights could be seen as a kind of activism, a necessary spur to get us moving toward the queerer future—one with space enough for the Patricks and the Bradys—we’re all looking for.

Disclosure: Slate editor Julia Turner's husband works on the show.

When Looking premiered back in 2014, you could say I found it politically troubling. Those issues faded somewhat in season two; but by then, I had decided that, politics aside, the earnest tone and gauzy approach of director Andrew Haigh and writer Michael Lannan just wasn’t for me.
When Looking premiered back in 2014, you could say I found it politically troubling. Those issues faded somewhat in season two; but by then, I had decided that, politics aside, the earnest tone and gauzy approach of director Andrew Haigh and writer Michael Lannan just wasn’t for me.

July 21 2016 11:54 PM

Peter Thiel Says Trans Bathroom Access Is a Distraction

Peter Thiel, the openly gay PayPal co-founder and Silicon Valley entrepreneur who spent almost a decade plotting the destruction of Gawker for publishing the open secret of his sexual orientation in 2007, told the crowd at the Republican National Convention Thursday night that personal identity doesn’t matter all that much. Instead of worrying about protecting marginalized Americans from identity-based violence and discrimination, Thiel suggested, we should be focusing on the economy and getting to Mars.

Here’s the transcript:

When I was a kid, the great debate was about how to defeat the Soviet Union. And we won. Now we are told that the great debate is about who gets to use which bathroom. This is a distraction from our real problems. Who cares? Of course, every American has a unique identity. I am proud to be gay. I’m proud to be a Republican. But most of all, I am proud to be an American. I don’t pretend to agree with every plank in our party’s platform, but fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline. And nobody in this race is being honest about it except Donald Trump.

Who cares! In the bathroom line, Thiel is referring to the ongoing battle over the right of transgender people to use gendered facilities that comport with their identities. A generous reading of his intent here, given his vocal libertarianism, is that the state shouldn’t be involved in policing where people pee. With this, trans folks and their supporters would generally agree. The trouble is, plenty of people, both in the government and on the street, are extremely interested in policing, often violently, bathroom use and many other private activities that are part of LGBTQ lives. Which is why nondiscrimination laws—like the one in Charlotte that North Carolina’s HB2 overruled—are so necessary. Until such protections are in place, “fake culture wars” are very real indeed.

Of course, all the arrogance of this statement really proves is that Thiel lives in a reality-disrupting cocoon of privilege. Only in the last few years could a white gay man like him feel secure enough in American society to think that identity-based discrimination isn’t a “real problem.” Luckily, most of the LGBTQ community isn’t so blind.


Bryan Lowder

July 21 2016 11:06 PM

Donald Trump Just Promised to Protect LGBTQ People—Don’t Believe Him

On Thursday night at the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump took a moment in his nomination acceptance speech to address an unlikely constituency: LGBTQ Americans. In a segment of the remarks focused on fighting ISIS and terrorism, Trump invoked the June 12 massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, claiming that he would “protect” queer people from similar violence:

Only weeks ago, in Orlando, Florida, 49 wonderful Americans were savagely murdered by an Islamic terrorist. This time, the terrorist targeted LGBTQ community. No good. And we're going to stop it. As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology. Believe me! And I have to say as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said. Thank you.

This statement, and the cheers in the room, are simply galling, not least because Trump’s party just approved a virulently anti-LGBTQ platform, including everything from overturning marriage equality to supporting dangerous "conversion therapy" and anti-trans bathroom laws. But it’s a rhetorical move Trump has been attempting since the days after the attack, when—after thanking supporters for “the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism”—he argued that queer people should support him, our true “friend,” over Hillary Clinton because she isn’t an Islamophobic racist.

I’ve explained at length why this logic is both fallacious and offensive, but it’s worth a quick revisit here, lest RNC viewers be tempted to give credit to Trump or his party for appearing to support LGBT people. For one thing, the large majority of the “wonderful Americans” slaughtered at Pulse were Latino, some undocumented. Trump has spent much of his campaign demeaning, threatening deportation to, and promising to build a wall against such people. Additionally, investigations have revealed that Omar Mateen was almost certainly not connected to any actual “Islamic terrorist” group; indeed, his invocation of ISIS during the attack appears to have been a gambit for attention more than a statement of genuine affiliation. And finally, the idea that a Republican president is going to protect LGBTQ people from “oppression” is, in a word, laughable. In fact, while homophobia in certain parts of Muslim culture is a real problem, queer Americans don't need to look to a “hateful foreign ideology” to find something to fear. We have more than enough homophobia and transphobia to deal with right here at home—much of it emanating from the white, straight, nominally Christian people who make up Trump’s base.

So yeah, you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t put much stock in the idea of a President Trump as queer savior. It’s disgusting—if not surprising—that he’d exploit the memory of our murdered brothers and sisters to try and turn queer people against Muslims. But thankfully, the effort is doomed: LGBTQ people are familiar, painfully so, with what happens when a group of people are demonized as a threat to the safety of the nation. It’s not Muslims we need protecting from; it’s charismatic, prevaricating bigots like Trump.