Expanding the LGBTQ Conversation

March 29 2017 3:04 PM

Some Gay Men on PrEP May Stop Using Condoms. Does It Matter?

When I talk to my adolescent patients about sex and sexuality, there’s a line I usually include in my patter. I tell them that they’re in my office for medical advice, not moral guidance. The questions I ask and information I give are for the purposes of keeping them safe and healthy, not so I can pass judgment on their character.

Ironically, it’s when I have patients who are gay men like me that I sometimes need to keep any moralizing in check.

In 2016, the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund and the National Coalition for LGBT Health noted the need for ongoing education and treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Their guide specifically notes “People on PrEP may be less likely to use condoms, perceiving other STIs/STDs as easily cured despite the troubling rise of drug resistant gonorrhea.”

“PrEP” is short for pre-exposure prophylaxis. It’s a regimen of two different medications that, when taken daily, can substantially reduce the likelihood of being infected with HIV for those at increased risk, including men who have sex with other men (MSM). Reading that people taking it may be less likely to use condoms, I could feel my biases sneeking in and making themselves comfortable.

March 28 2017 9:42 AM

How a Gay Employee Fought Horrific Discrimination and Won a Major Legal Victory

On Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled that Matthew Christiansen could sue his employer for the horrific sexual harassment he allegedly suffered on the job. Specifically, the court found that Christiansen could pursue a claim of sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars sex stereotyping against employees who do not conform to gender norms. In a remarkable concurring opinion, Chief Judge Robert Katzmann wrote separately to explain why Title VII always prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. If Katzmann is correct—and many judges believe he is—then anti-gay workplace discrimination is already illegal in every state.

Shortly after the ruling came down, I spoke with Matthew Christiansen, the plaintiff in the case, and his attorney, Susan Chana Lask, about the harrowing events that led up the 2nd Circuit’s decision in Christiansen v. Omnicom Group. Our interview has been edited and condensed. It should be noted that these allegations, which defendants vigorously dispute, have not yet been proved in court.

Mark Joseph Stern: Tell me about the discrimination you experienced at work.

Matthew Christiansen: It started when I took the job. Former Chief Digital Officer Joe Cianciotto drew caricatures of me on a dry erase board. They were crude and disgusting—rendering me as half-man, half-horse, pooping and peeing, or as an overly pumped gay guy with a huge hard one, saying, “I’m so pumped for marriage equality.”

It grew from that. It extended to the rest of the agency when he hung up this poster for a party that featured my head on the body of a woman on her back in a bikini with her legs up in the air. He posted it all over the agency, and on Facebook. He tagged me in it, and he’s Facebook friends with every top-tier advertising professional you can imagine—all the clients I could want to work with. It was totally humiliating and he spread it around the entire industry. Later he asked people I managed if I had HIV. He accused me of having AIDS and made fun of the way I dressed. He called me a “poof” and a “bottom” and said I “obviously slept with everyone.” He singled me out and tore me down in front of people I’m supposed to manage.

March 27 2017 2:41 PM

2nd Circuit Chief Judge: Anti-Gay Employment Discrimination Is Already Illegal Nationwide

On Monday, Chief Judge Robert Katzmann of the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals wrote that anti-gay employment discrimination is almost certainly prohibited under existing federal law. Katzmann urged the 2nd Circuit to reconsider precedent holding that employees cannot sue for sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, citing recent legal developments that support an expansive interpretation of “sex discrimination.” If Katzmann’s court accepts his challenge, the 2nd Circuit will further a growing consensus among the federal judiciary that Title VII already protects gay employees from workplace throughout the country.

Katzmann’s entreaty comes in the form of a concurrence to a three-judge panel’s majority opinion in Christiansen v. Omnicom Group, Inc. The panel ruled on an employment discrimination lawsuit filed by Matthew Christiansen, an HIV-positive gay man. According to Christiansen, his supervisor drew sexually explicit drawings of him on an office whiteboard—including an image of a buff, naked Christiansen with an erect penis holding an air pump accompanied by text reading, “I’m so pumped for marriage equality.” Another drawing depicted Christiansen in tights and a low‐cut shirt “prancing around.” Yet another portrayed Christiansen’s torso on the body of “a four legged animal with a tail and penis, urinating and defecating.” The supervisor also circulated a “Muscle Beach Party” poster that depicting Christiansen’s head attached to a female body clad in a bikini, lying on the ground with her legs upright in the air.

Then it got worse. “Christiansen’s supervisor also made remarks about the connection between effeminacy, sexual orientation, and HIV status,” the majority explained:

The supervisor allegedly told other employees that Christiansen “was effeminate and gay so he must have AID[S].” Additionally … in a meeting of about 20 people, the supervisor allegedly told everyone in the room that he felt sick and then said to Christiansen, “It feels like I have AIDS. Sorry, you know what that’s like.” At that time, Christiansen kept private the fact that he was HIV‐positive.

March 27 2017 12:17 PM

Federal Judge Blocks Louisiana Law That Prevented Immigrants From Getting Married

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Ivan L.R. Lemelle blocked a Louisiana law that prevented many immigrants from marrying in the state. In a succinct and emphatic ruling, Lemelle found that the Louisiana law violates the 14th Amendment by discriminating on the basis of national origin and infringing upon the fundamental right to marry. His decision marks an important affirmation of Obergefell v. Hodges—at a moment when it is under judicial siege—and a critical vindication of the constitutional rights of immigrants.

The law in question, Act 436, added onerous documentation requirements to the marriage licensing process in Louisiana. Under Act 436, marriage applicants have to provide a Social Security number and birth certificate before receiving a license. If they can’t produce a Social Security number, they must present a birth certificate and a passport. And if they don’t have a passport, they have to provide official documentation proving that they live in the United States legally, in addition to a birth certificate. The birth certificate requirement can only be waived if an individual was born in the U.S. The measure’s sponsors alleged that their bill was necessary to combat immigration fraud, which is not known to be a particular problem in Louisiana—and which the federal government, not the states, is tasked with combatting under the current legal regime.

Victor Anh Vo filed suit against the law, arguing that it violated his constitutional rights. (He was represented by an all-star coalition of attorneys from the National Immigration Law Center, the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, and the law firm Skadden, Arps.) Vo was born in an Indonesian refugee camp after his parents fled Vietnam. Neither Indonesia nor Vietnam recognized his birth, and neither country will issue a birth certificate to him. Vo has lived in Louisiana since he was 3 months old, and he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen at age 8. In 2016, he and his girlfriend, also a U.S. citizen, applied for a marriage license. But because Vo couldn’t produce a birth certificate, the state rejected their application, citing Act 436. This denial, he asserted, violated his equal protection and due process rights.

March 24 2017 11:19 AM

Federal Judge Rules Florida Must Add Same-Sex Spouses to Death Certificates

James Merrick Smith and Hal F.B. Birchfield lived together in Florida for 42 years. They married in New York in 2012, and Smith died in Florida in 2013. At the time, Florida refused to recognize same-sex unions—so Smith’s death certificate listed him as unmarried with no surviving spouse. After the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 that the Constitution protects same-sex couples’ right to marry, Birchfield asked the state to correct Smith’s death certificate. But Florida refused, declaring that it would not correct any death certificate that falsely listed an individual as unmarried with no surviving spouse unless compelled to do so by an individual court order.

Birchfield and another gay widower, Paul Mocko, sued on behalf of themselves—and all other Floridians whose deceased same-sex spouses’ death certificates listed them as unmarried. And on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled in their favor and ordered the state to correct these death certificates. The state must now re-issue an accurate death certificate for Smith and all other people who were incorrectly designated unmarried at time of death because their spouses were of the same sex.

March 23 2017 9:10 AM

For Gay Parents, Deciding Between Adoption and Surrogacy Raises Tough Moral Questions


Hey, Daddy! is a monthly column exploring the joys and struggles of parenting from a gay father’s perspective. Got a topic idea or question for Daddy? Send your letter along to johnculhane@comcast.net.

When my husband David and I became new parents, we thought it would be fun and perhaps even affirming to get involved with a gay dads group. As far as I could tell, the only regular event was a brunch that took place every few months. That sounded promising, a throwback to idle Sundays before the babies made it all about them. The food was always great—these are gay men, after all. But as it turned out, the event was neither fun nor affirming.


The gatherings mostly took place in wealthy suburban redoubts and were marked by a weird social division between two teams: Surrogacy Dads and Adoptive Dads. Some of this division was to be expected. Each group had war stories to share, and it was natural to break the ice with those who had lived through similar experiences. But after one or two brunches, I came to see that this kind of informal division reflected something much deeper: a philosophical debate about how we should form our families. The annoyingly named “gayby boom” has created a knot of moral questions that are impossible to avoid.

Should is a weird word to use in this context, of course. For gay men especially, bringing children into the family is difficult and challenging no matter which route one chooses. Our first instinct should be support for all families, regardless of what route each of us took to realize our dreams. Both surrogacy and adoption present daunting legal obstacles—even now that marriage equality has been achieved.

As I learned when researching a book I co-authored, surrogacy is a state-by-state legal minefield. Some states won’t recognize these contracts at all, while the law in other states is unsettled. And there is the ever-present danger that the woman carrying the child will try to renege on her commitment. Adoption is hardly more secure. The countries offering this choice to gay men are constantly changing. Domestic adoption can be fraught as well either because birth mothers change their minds, or as in our case of adoption through the child welfare system, because the process has no certain outcome.

Beyond the legal hurdles, though, there’s an undeniable moral component to whatever decision we make. Those who can pony up the money for surrogacy—which frequently exceeds $100,000, all in—are faced with the cold fact that they’re selecting an egg donor based on objective calculations of positive attributes. Lesbians do the same with sperm donors, although of course at a much lower cost since no surrogate is needed.

When a case surfaces that draws the uncomfortable selection process into the open, people are left tongue-tied trying to figure out the proper response. A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece for Slate about the case of a lesbian couple that sued a sperm bank for providing the “wrong” material—from a black, rather than a white, donor. As I said at the time, outraged gasps at the couple were “easy, but not completely fair. Because everyone who transacts business with companies that offer sperm and egg donation is looking for a bespoke baby.”

When it comes to the gestational surrogate, there’s the additional issue of contributing to an industry that commodifies the body in an obvious way. The ethical issues multiply when the surrogate is from a developing country, often India, where women are paid much less for their services; but such “surrogacy tourism” just highlights the uncomfortable exchange going on in all these cases.

Those thinking of adopting face internal battles, too. As required by law, case workers confronted David and me with an unsettling battery of questions about the race, age, and sex of the kids we were willing to adopt, as well as delicately phrased inquiries about whether we’d be comfortable dealing with disabled kids—and, if so, they needed to know, what kinds of disabilities did we think we could handle? Really, who knows?

For the most part, straight couples get to ignore these tough questions. Sex, baby, done. Only when infertility leads to surrogacy or to a decision to adopt, or when pre-natal testing reveals a serious anomaly, are heterosexual parents typically forced into this moral maelstrom.

But ignoring these deep issues doesn’t mean they’re not present. Even the decision to procreate the old-fashioned way is a moral one, though my guess is that most straight couples don’t think of it that way. Given the global population of 7-and-a-half billion, it’s at least fair to ask why more potential parents—gay and straight—don’t at least consider adoption rather than swelling that number even further.

I was struck by that omission when reading Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree. After almost 700 pages of deftly describing the remarkable lives of families challenged by children the parents never expected (ranging from deaf, to autistic, to musical prodigies), the book deflates slightly in the final chapter, where Solomon’s thoughtfulness and penetrating insight abandon him when explaining why he decided to go the surrogacy route. Although he acknowledges the problems with surrogacy (its unavailability to people of limited means, and “the aura of manufacturing that clung to the venture”), he brushes aside the possibility of adoption by dismissing critics as folks who hadn’t themselves thought of adopting. In the end, he just preferred to have his own biological child. Full stop.

So even if adoptions were much easier, I’m confident that many gay couples of sufficient means would continue, like Solomon, to prefer surrogacy. Biology, blood lines, ancestry—these imperatives have driven the human race forever.

But why not adoption? What’s so great about biology that it drives people to expensive surrogacy and chancy technologies to try and pass their flawed genome along? Most people, if they’re being honest, realize that their families haven’t exactly reached genetic perfection. Solomon is quite forthright about his own mental health issues, and most of us would have to own up to a bevy of similar concerns for any child we might be chromosomally connected to.

I’ve never fully understood this preference. Almost from the moment our twin daughters arrived, their biological provenance was of little concern to me. What mattered was the human connection we were forming, day by day, as I bathed their tiny bodies, swaddled them in warm clothes, and felt them melt into me as I fed them. Now it’s sitting in their beds, going over Spanish vocabulary words just before they drift off to sleep. It’s the accretion of those moments make them my daughters, and I their father.

In the end, we’ll all have to account for how well we parent our children—no matter their origin, and no matter what we think about the various ways we create our families.

March 22 2017 1:49 PM

Nico Hines, the Daily Beast’s Olympics Grindr Journalist, Is Back. Can the Internet Forgive Him?

On Monday, Nico Hines, the Daily Beast writer and editor who outed gay athletes at the 2016 Olympics, issued a formal apology and announced that he was returning to the website. For his disturbing story, Hines—who is straight—set up a profile on the gay hookup app Grindr and used it to trick Olympic athletes into chatting with him. He did not tell them he was a journalist on assignment unless they asked, and described several athletes with enough detail that any reader could easily identify them. Some lived in oppressively anti-gay countries, meaning Hines' boorish stunt put them at risk of reprisal back home.

March 20 2017 2:13 PM

How Gay Men Use Culture to Navigate Identity, From Mildred Pierce to Jingle All the Way

As a member of the Air Force before the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Brad went to great lengths to prevent his colleagues from finding out about his past. He’d been openly gay in high school, had relationships, and was out to his family and friends—but those experiences were literally a world away from his life as a forklift driver on a base in the Middle East.

The pressure to remain closeted was overwhelming, and so when the ban on open service was lifted, Brad didn’t just come out of the closet: He exploded onstage in high heels and a wig. He was deployed back in the United States at that point, serving in the military by day and transforming into a drag queen by night. He wondered if he’d be able to integrate these two sides of his life—and then, one night, his fellow service members appeared in the audience at his show to cheer for his Moulin Rouge–inspired performance.


Attempting to explain drag to them at work was one thing, he found; but showing them live onstage gave them a new understanding and appreciation, to the point that they nearly started a brawl one night when he lost a drag pageant.

Brad’s just one of the guests I’ve interviewed on my podcast, The Sewers of Paris, where each week I invite a gay man to answer the question: “What’s the entertainment that changed your life?” Some of my guests may be familiar—Dan Savage, Coco Peru, NPR reporter Sonari Glinton—and others are regular folks, from artists to cooks to lawyers to programmers. Recently I reached my 100th guest, and over the span of those episodes a portrait has emerged of the gay experience as told through the books, movies, music, and shows that shape our lives.

Among the stories shared week-to-week, one of the most frequent I hear is of not fitting in. There are an infinite number of ways to be an outsider—as a kid, Peaches Christ performer Joshua Grannell liked to hang out on the beach in full monster makeup, while artist Terry Blas was constantly torn between his Hispanic, Mormon, and gay identities. That feeling of difference is foundational to many personal queer narratives, so it’s no wonder we’re drawn to stories of people who don’t want to fit in.

Joshua Grannell’s life changed when he discovered the work of John Waters, becoming a filmmaker himself and eventually befriending his role model. Terry drew strength from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Bjork, Tori Amos, and Lena Dunham are all frequently mentioned by Sewers of Paris guests, along with films like My Beautiful Laundrette, My So-Called Life, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. These are artists and stories of outsiders who revel in the rejection of the mainstream. When queers express their appreciation for these works, it’s a signal of understanding: “I’m weird. You’re weird. We’ve both been there. We understand.”

Along with that feeling of difference comes heartbreak and pain. Many of my guests found themselves drawn to entertainment that provides reassurance that we’re not all alone, that life and love can be brutal but suffering fades and it's worth it to make yourself vulnerable once again. Movies like Philadelphia, shows like Chess, and the more heartbreaking of Mariah Carey’s songs have all come up on the show. My guest Greg Bloch spoke of the opera Salome as a gateway into cathartic expressions of sadness—and of bonding with other gay opera obsessives.

On another episode, former E! host Steve Kmetko recalled his career hosting countless interviews and red carpet premieres, all the while suffering in a closet alongside a lifetime of baggage and guilt. Since childhood, he identified with Judy Garland’s sadness in Kansas; and after finally coming out in the Advocate, he found acceptance in Hollywood, his version of Oz.

Alongside the stories of difference and stories of pain, we also seek stories of people learning to be brave. Guests have cited Mildred Pierce, Julia Sugarbaker, Storm, and Eddie Izzard as heroes in very different worlds. On one episode Zach Stafford opened up about the anxiety he felt growing up bi-racial and decidedly un-stereotypically masculine; role models like Langston Hughes showed him that sometimes, imperfections can be a strength.

On another episode, Bill Phair reflected on the strength he drew from Judy Garland specials after 9/11 threw him into a deep sadness. Judy’s grace and strength lifted him out of his dark mood and filled him with optimism; he began impersonating her, then created a genius show called JudyCast where he could perform as his heroine. It gave him confidence and optimism he never knew he could have.

It’s impossible to talk about the entertainment that matters to gay men without addressing how camp and satire use queerness to make fun of the mainstream. Many of us use our otherness as a tool to pull back the curtain on just how silly the “normal” people are. Richard Day, who wrote for shows like Ellen and Arrested Development, told me, “Comedy is an outsider looking in, and you’re being told by the country ‘you should want this, but you can’t have it.’ The person that’s told that, whether it’s women or Jews or gays or blacks, anyone outside the sweet spot, develops a comic reaction … it’s half ‘fuck you’ and half ‘please I really do want in.’ ”

When we seek to expose the status quo, we find plenty of material: comedians like Lily Tomlin and Gilda Radner, shows like Desperate Housewives, plays like The Book of Mormon and The Birdcage.

My guest Wes Hurley produces a web series called Capitol Hill that is an aggressive drag-drenched pastiche of ’70s melodrama. What viewers might not know is that kitschy American melodrama is what sustained Wes in his childhood, when he was growing up terrified to be gay in Vladivostok, Russia, and dreaming of fleeing to the safety of the United States.

It’s safety, refuge, and companionship that seem to call the loudest to my guests. We crave stories that provide reassurance: It may seem impossible, it may seem like you're all alone, but there are people out there like you, and love and relationships are waiting for you to find them.

Romances are of course popular topics: novels like Maurice, and movies like Weekend and Trick and Amelie. But entertainment has also helped my guests deepen relationships with family. Fabian Igiraneza grew up in Namibia, where he felt intense pressure to repress any side of himself that didn't conform to tough masculine gender norms. He discovered that he could share American TV shows with strong female characters and sensitive boys—Alias, Glee, and Dawson's Creek—with his family, using fictional characters to explain himself to his parents and ease his emergence from the closet.

It can be hard to find the words to express our lived experiences, which is why we turn to entertainment when we want to talk about being different, about heartbreak, about finding confidence, about mocking the mainstream, and about finding love. Occasionally, we’re fortunate enough to find entertainment that speaks to all of those experiences: Tales of the City, The Golden Girls, Little Shop of Horrors.

Whatever form it takes, culture can give us the images to understand our lives, and the words to express them.

As The Sewers of Paris enters triple-digit episodes, I’m delighted to discover new, surprising stories every week. Far from there being one single queer narrative, my conversations have shown just how endlessly unexpected the stories of gay men can be. (On a recent episode, José González explained how Arnold Schwarzenegger in Jingle All the Way helped him connect with his father.)

There’s so much to love about being queer, and our ability to relate to each other through culture is a source of endless pleasure. Our experiences are varied, our backgrounds are diverse, we come from all families and religions and countries and classes. But it’s culture that connects us and helps us understand one another.

March 17 2017 6:31 PM

Contemporary Color Is a Beautiful Portrait of the Deeply Queer Art of Color Guard

Coming up through my high school marching band program in South Carolina, I was always a little jealous of the color guard kids. A percussionist in the highly visible front ensemble, I sublimated my nascent gayness into the flashier aspects of performance: Hair glitter, overstated body language, a Michaels-worth of snow decorations when the season’s show was winter-themed. But while I was responsible for playing the marimba or crash cymbals, the guard members—with their flags, rifles, sabers, props, and dancing—had, to my mind, the superior expressive power.

I think of one moment from another show (this one with Spanish vibes), where one of the lead guard men moved from a beautiful duet dance with embroidered shawls, to a harrowing saber toss landing on the downbeat of the next piece, to a mock bullfight over the course of a few minutes. I still hold my breath watching that toss on video today; like so much of what color guards do, it was a fantastic achievement of art and athleticism. And one that, given guard’s relative cultural obscurity, few would ever appreciate.

David Byrne, the prolific musician and Talking Heads co-founder, was similarly impressed by color guard’s expressive potential, calling it “a sophisticated folk art form that flies under the official cultural radar.” So in the summer of 2015, he organized what has to be one of the more unlikely collaborative experiments in history. Ten high school color guards teamed up with ten composers to create pieces that would be performed not on football fields or in high school gymnasiums, but in New York’s Barclay’s Center and Toronto’s Air Canada Center in front of thousands. It was called Contemporary Color, and the composers included well-known acts like St. Vincent, Nelly Furtado, and tUnE-yArDs, as well as equally cool, if more niche, artists like the deliciously hipster team of Nico Muhly and Ira Glass. Lucky for us, the filmmakers Bill and Turner Ross were on hand to capture the event in a quirky, arresting documentary that’s rolling out in theaters across the country this March.

March 17 2017 1:35 PM

Shouldn’t Beauty and the Beast’s “Gay” Character Support Marriage Equality in Real Life?

When Beauty and the Beast hits theaters this week, it comes with what director Bill Condon boasts is an "exclusively gay moment"—but emphasis must decidedly go on the word "moment." By all accounts, the only gayness to be found is some fleeting innuendo from Josh Gad's character LeFou; that's followed by some coded euphemisms from Mrs. Potts, and a two-second hand-clasp in a crowded dance scene.

The new LeFou is about as gay as the original LeFou, who dog-whistled in the 1991 film with winking lyrics like "you can ask any Tom, Dick, or Harry/and they'll tell you whose team they prefer to be on." For those of us who'd hoped for an unambiguous same-sex romance, it's fairly disappointing—but not half as disappointing as what Josh Gad said about marriage equality at the film's Australian premiere.