Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation

July 31 2015 3:46 PM

Lea DeLaria on Bowie, Butches, and Singing Jazz

Lea DeLaria may be best known for her role as Big Boo on Netflx’s Orange Is the New Black, but she has enjoyed a long career as a jazz singer. In June, she released House of David, an album of jazz versions of 12 classic David Bowie songs. She is now filming Season 4 of Orange and touring for the album on weekends. We spoke just after the album’s July 19 release party at New York City’s Cutting Room.

At the concert, I was really charmed when you explained how jazz works: what solos are and that people should applaud afterward.

When people come to see me live, it’s split between so many different kinds of fans that the etiquette of jazz may not be something that a lot of the people in the audience are familiar with. So I do that right off the bat, to let people know.

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July 31 2015 3:01 PM

Tiger Orange Shows a Gay Culture—and a Gay Actor—in Transition

You might call Tiger Orange the debut feature of Frankie Valenti, a 37-year-old actor with a sly grin and scruff to spare. But if we’re being honest, many of us have appreciated his work for some time now. Valenti is perhaps better known as Johnny Hazzard, an adult-film actor who spent years grunting his way into our hearts with titles like What Men Do and When Bears Attack. He was the kind of old-school marquee star that the porn industry rarely produces anymore—was because he retired, forced out less by his age than by Internet-choked revenues that no longer pay what they used to.   

Pointing out Valenti’s provenance has proven a necessary business when talking about Tiger Orange, the funny, gentle new drama that brings the actor to the (relative) mainstream. Maybe it shouldn’t be. Valenti does spend much of the movie undressed—the gay-themed video-on-demand market has its own commercial imperatives, after all—but otherwise this careful and nuanced film deserves to be approached with fresh, unassuming eyes.

July 31 2015 8:30 AM

Who Benefits When Young Gay Men Come Out on YouTube?

Often during our most formative years, the indeterminate period between coming to terms with our sexuality and sharing our identity with the world, young gay men learn the importance of artifice. Whether it’s because we’re uncomfortable in our own skin or that we’re in an environment that doesn’t appear to be welcoming of our sexual identity, we learn to construct and present a persona to the rest of society, including to family and friends, in order to mask the secret we are hiding. In doing so, we also grasp the importance of control, avoiding situations where the mask could slip and the secret be revealed.

These themes of artifice, personality construction, and control are key to understanding why YouTubing—the act of vlogging (video-blogging) about one’s life on YouTube in a way that appears natural, unscripted, and entirely relatable—has become an important creative outlet for young gay men. More than that, in videos that last a few minutes uploaded weekly over the course of many months or years, many of these YouTubers—including Troye SivanConnor Franta, and Joey Graceffa, who today constitute a core community of vloggers with millions of followers and numerous lucrative side projects from books to music tocoffee—come out in the process of vlogging and choose to invite viewers into that process.

July 30 2015 11:09 AM

The Boy Scouts’ New Policy Doesn't Actually Permit Much Anti-Gay Discrimination

Reports of the Boy Scouts’ decision to end the organization’s ban on openly gay adult leaders came with one significant caveat: Religiously chartered groups canstill discriminate against gays if they so choose. (This exception isn’t really about religious liberty—church-sponsored groups aren’t themselves religious bodies—but, rather, about appeasing anti-gay troops.) This statement of the Boy Scouts’ policy is certainly accurate, but it’s not necessarily correct on a legal level. By abolishing its prohibition on openly gay leaders and scouts, the organization has likely surrendered its own Supreme Court victory—effectively subjecting troops to LGBTQ nondiscrimination laws. 

As the National Review’s Ed Whelan has long asserted, the Boy Scouts’ First Amendment right to ban gay members and leaders rests on a consistent policy of exclusion. In its famous 2000 Dale decision, the Supreme Court found that the Boy Scouts had a First Amendment right of expressive association to exclude gay members. The ruling was based on the Boy Scouts’ purported position that “homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the values it seeks to instill.” (To prove it held this belief, the organization noted that the Scout Oath and Law requires members to be “morally straight” and “clean.”) In order to instill these values, the justices agreed, the Scouts had a right to discriminate against gays.

July 29 2015 1:46 PM

In Defense of Drag’s Offense

Last week, organizers of Glasgow’s “Free Pride,” a more radical alternative to the city’s main Pride festival, sparked controversy when they announced that drag acts would be barred from performing at their annual August shindig. A post on Free Pride’s blog explained the decision:

It was felt that [drag performances] would make some of those who were transgender or questioning their gender uncomfortable. It was felt by the group within the Trans/Non Binary Caucus that some drag performance, particularly cis drag, hinges on the social view of gender and making it into a joke, however transgender individuals do not feel as though their gender identity is a joke.

Critics upbraided Free Pride’s decree as a some-queers-are-more-equal-than-others policy. The Stranger’s Dan Savage wrote that their criteria for excluding drag acts “could be used to exclude a lot of individuals and groups from performing at—or even attending—queer pride events … until there's no one left at pride.” And when Free Pride hastily adjusted their ban to allow trans-drag acts (i.e. trans individuals who sometimes perform in drag for work or fun), the Daily Beast published a critique including angry remarks from Facebook: “How are you going to moderate who is a trans and who is a cis drag act? Maybe they should wear identification. Such as a pink triangle … oh wait, that's been done before ...” Across the rainbow spectrum, queers decried the decision’s divisive implications for an already divided community—until Free Pride caved and lifted the ban.  

Looking at this fracas from my position as a working queen, it wasn’t the banning itself that bothered me most. The most troubling thing from my point of view was the suggestion that “good” drag shouldn’t be making a joke of (or cause discomfort around) gender and identity—that “good” drag shouldn’t offend.

July 28 2015 4:32 PM

Listen to Polari, the Lost Art of Gay Conversation

Of all the cultural forms that gay men have created and elaborated since coalescing into a social group around the late 19th century, Polari, a full-fledged gay English dialect with roots among circus folk, sailors, and prostitutes, has to be one of the most fascinating—not least since it has faded along with the need for discretion and secrecy. While some words remain in common use—zhush or zhoosh (to adjust or embellish something to make it more pleasing) and trade (highly masculine or straight-acting sex partners) come to mind—the richness that we know once defined Polari is difficult to capture in 2015.

So imagine my delight when I stumbled upon Putting on the Dish, a fantastic short by London-based filmmakers Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston, which shows two gay men having an exchange on a park bench, entirely in Polari. The scene takes place in the early 1960s—about the time that Polari began a rapid decline in usage, mainly due to the decriminalization of sodomy in the United Kingdom that started in 1967.


The conversation is only vaguely decipherable to this very gay viewer, so it’s probably totally inscrutable to a total outsider. Luckily, YouTube commenter Amelia Bee has offered a rough outline, which the filmmakers have approved:

Two gay men are on a bench. One comments that he doesn't like the book Clockwork Orange. Using coded language they check to see that one another is gay before letting their guard down and speaking frankly, ogling other men as they pass by, etc. They gossip about a promiscuous mutual acquaintance that got thrown in prison after getting caught having sex with men. The one on the left then laments that he nearly got locked up himself once, after the cops came knocking right as he finished going down on a guy, but narrowly escaped by telling them there was a “poof” inside and ran as they arrested his lover. The one on the right is rightfully disgusted by this revelation and leaves.

It’s a poignant scene, made all the more so by our knowledge that this exquisite mode of communication will soon only exist in museums and preservation documents like this film.

July 28 2015 2:58 PM

On I Am Cait, and TV’s Other Trans Family Narratives, the Drama Is Outside the Frame

In her review of I Am CaitSlate’s TV critic Willa Paskin found Caitlyn Jenner’s new show, which debuted on E! Sunday night, guilty of a sin that is unpardonable on reality television: “dullness.” To those familiar with a genre that requires conflict to be manufactured in the moments before each commercial break, I Am Cait seemed remarkably drama-free: No tables were overturned, no voices were raised, and no hair was pulled—in fact, Jenner’s coiffure was augmented when her daughter Kylie gifted her with some pea-green hair extensions.

This shouldn’t have been surprising. Although Caitlyn Jenner spent nearly 25 years embroiled in the drama of reality TV’s first family, her new show is part of an entirely different subgenre from the Kardashians’ franchise: It is an educational transgender family narrative. Like two other shows currently on the air, ABC Family’s Becoming Us and TLC’s I Am JazzI Am Cait is an upbeat story of a woman accepting and sharing her true self, in which the necessary drama derives not from something that happens to the subjects while the cameras are rolling, but from the threat that every viewer knows is lurking in the world beyond the set.

July 28 2015 9:04 AM

Judge Bemoans Sanctuary Cities, Marijuana Legalization in Hearing on Trans Bathroom Access

On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Doumar held a hearing to resolve a few questions in the legal battle over Gavin Grimm’s right to use the restroom. Grimm, a trans high school student, identifies as male in every way, including on his driver’s license. But the school board in Gloucester County, Virginia, passed a rule barring him, and any other trans students, from using the correct restroom at school. (At the hearing, speakers called Grimm a “freak” and compared him to a dog that urinates on fire hydrants.) Now Grimm is suing, arguing that the rule qualifies as illegal discrimination on the basis of sex.

This case should be straightforward. The Supreme Court has held that a ban on sex discrimination also bars sex stereotyping. In other words, the government can’t mistreat you just because it thinks you’re identifying with the incorrect sex or expressing the wrong gender. Based on that ruling, a growing number of federal courts have held that “sex discrimination” encompasses discrimination on the basis of gender identity and trans status. The Department of Justice, the Department of Education, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission all agreed, holding that federal bans on sex discrimination obviously include trans discrimination.


The Gloucester County School Board singles out trans students and subjects them to differential, stigmatizing treatment on the basis of their gender identity. That is sex discrimination. Title IX of the U.S. Education Amendments of 1972 forbids schools that receive federal funds from being “subjected to discrimination … on the basis of sex.” With this clear statutory command—and the case law to back it up—Doumar should have issued an injunction preventing the school board from kicking Grimm out of the right restroom.

Instead, Doumar kicked Grimm’s sex discrimination claim out of court. “Your case in Title IX is gone, by the way,” Doumar told Grimm’s ACLU attorney Joshua Block, according to Dominic Holden’s disturbing report of the hearing in BuzzFeed. “I have chosen to dismiss Title IX. I decided that before we started.”

Doumar delivered this news before an attorney from the Justice Department—who had come to argue that Title IX protected Grimm—had even spoken. It only got worse from there. Doumar claimed he had “no problem with transgender” but had “a lot of problems with sex.” He explained that he was “convinced” that Grimm “is a biological female who wants to be male.” And throughout the hearing, Doumar asserted that being trans is “a mental disorder.” (Block pushed back, noting that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders states being being transgender is only a problem when trans people can’t properly express their gender identity—to which Doumar retorted, “Where did you get your medical degree?”)

The 84-year-old Reagan appointee also propounded upon his other concerns of the moment, most of which were utterly irrelevant to the case at hand. When the Justice Department’s attorney rose to answer questions, Doumar criticized the government for inconsistently enforcing marijuana prohibition. “I am sorry for the Department of Justice,” he said. “Sanctuary cities. Where are we going?” He quoted Rousseau and Voltaire, complained that Congress passes new laws too quickly, and said he gets “perplexed, very perplexed.”

“I am worried about where we are going,” Doumar declared. “Maybe I am just old-fashioned. … Where the U.S is going scares me. It really scares me.”

As Holden reports, the judge—who once said HIV-positive people “should be shot” if they have unprotected sex—closed the hearing by saying, “Oh well, things are changing.” Then he exited the courtroom.

Although Doumar rejected Grimm’s Title IX claim, he indicated that he would allow the student to pursue his equal protection claim—which is, frankly, a weaker argument. The ACLU will likely appeal Doumar’s decision to the relatively liberal 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. There, Grimm has a better chance of finding judges who follow the law rather than their own fears and puzzlements. As for Doumar, the jurist has served a long career in an honorable profession. It is time for him to retire.  

July 28 2015 8:30 AM

Pride and the United Nations

In the past few months I’ve been getting to grips with my new role as British ambassador to the United Nations. It’s been a fascinating challenge. The issues I face with my colleagues are among the toughest in the world. At times, making progress on them is frustratingly slow. Thankfully, it’s hard to be deterred when you’re surrounded by the energy, vibrancy, and diversity of New York City. It really is a place where you feel anything and everything is possible.


I saw this so clearly during the New York Pride march last month. It was a privilege to be part of such a historic celebration, just 48 hours after the Supreme Court ruling. It was an inspiring day; a day that so many had fought so hard, and for so long, to achieve. I was incredibly proud to march with colleagues and friends on the United Kingdom float. It was a fitting celebration of the activists, leaders, donors, friends, and allies who made LGBT rights a reality in the United States.

July 27 2015 7:42 PM

The Boy Scouts Move One Step Closer to Being “Morally Straight”

In a year that has seen a major legal victory for same-sex marriage and growing exposure for a range of LGBTQ issues, queer people and their allies have one more reason to smile today. On July 27, the Boy Scouts of America’s top leadership voted to end its ban on openly gay adult leaders. (The organization allowed openly gay scouts in 2013.) This is a huge step forward for the typically conservative BSA, a century-old American institution that has been battling public pressure on this issue since affirming its right to discriminate in a Supreme Court case in 2000. However, this policy change won’t bring an end the BSA’s difficulties on LGBTQ issues—in fact, it’s just the beginning of a larger cultural shift that’s sorely needed.