Interview: Rachael Sage!

Underneath This had the pleasant experience of interviewing the talented and soulful Rachael Sage. According to the biography in her press kit, Rachael is a vocalist and innovative multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter and producer. She has also become one of the busiest touring artists in independent music, performing over 100 dates a year (!) with her band The Sequins throughout the US, UK, Europe and Asia. She has earned a loyal following for her dynamic piano playing, delicate guitar work, soulful vocals. and improvisational audience interaction.

Sage has shared stages with Sarah McLachlan, A Great Big World, Judy Collins, Colin Hay, Shawn Colvin, Marc Cohn, The Animals and Ani DiFranco. She has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and received numerous songwriting awards including The John Lennon Songwriting Contest (Grand Prize) and several Independent Music Awards. Her songs have appeared on MTV, HBO, the “Fame” soundtrack, and in the current season of Lifetime’s #1 reality series,”Dance Moms.”

Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez

Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez

Before proceeding to the interview, check out some of Rachael’s music videos.

Please describe your trajectory to becoming a musician.

I have been playing piano since I was two and a half, apparently! I can’t really remember a time where I didn’t have some kind of relationship to the piano. I would hear songs in synagogue, or at school or in ballet class or just in my house from my parent’s doo-wop and Broadway collections, and sound out the melodies by ear. By the time I was four I was writing lyrics and by five I already had dozens of little pop songs influenced mostly by what was playing on Top 40 Radio at the time. I’d use the phrase “making love” in all my songs and I had no idea what it meant, but I knew it sounded like what people sang on the radio! After that I just became know in school and at camp as “that girl who writes songs”, and constantly presented them to friends, teachers, at talent shows or wherever…basically, for anyone who’d listen. Upon an uncle’s suggestion who worked in TV News, my relatives pooled together and gave me a four-track tape recorder for my Bat Mitzvah gift, which set me on my path as both a producer and recording artist.

You started your own record label when this was less common. What was that like?

I started my own record label as a very practical decision, really. I’d been making pop music demos since I was in junior high school, programming drum machines and synthesizers, and literally recording hundreds of songs to play for publishers, managers – anyone who’d listen to a little kid with stars in her eyes. I got pretty “far” with it too; in high school I was offered a major publishing deal with Famous Music that my parents (lamentably) wouldn’t let me sign because they felt I was too young, and I also was represented by Debbie Gibson’s manager, which let’s just say, was “an adventure!”

Ultimately, during college I did a 180 musically and my motivation for wanting to be a songwriter and recording artist shifted quite a bit. I became a lot more eager to get my music out there myself, and to say what I wanted to say without anyone telling me what lyrics needed to be cut or what arrangement to play or even what to wear. I was really inspired by the Bay Area folk scene and also, by a summer I spent in Ireland where a large number of local artists were already self-releasing, so it just seemed like the natural thing to do. I pressed up my first album right after college, pretended to be my own manager by wearing my hair in a bun and putting on glasses, walked into Tower Records and somehow managed to schmooze my way into getting them to take in 10 copies. That same week, the buyer decided to put it in their listening station, which really changed things for me as it became their best-selling indie release.

Shortly thereafter, I landed a slot with Lilith Fair and then sent my album to college radio where it received a lot of airplay and charted high enough to prompt some offers from national distributors. It was a very different music biz back then, and things like college radio and moving units at a local record store had a lot more impact, career-wise. Now it’s more about YouTube, iTunes and social networking, but for me it all started from just wanting to learn how to represent myself as professionally as possible, and to self-develop as an artist.

Uncut Magazine has described your music as “one part Elton John, one part Kate Bush.” Have these artists influenced your style? Who and what else have been influential?

I was not influenced by Kate Bush, no. I probably would’ve been if I’d been exposed to her, but I was not aware of her music until lots of people had compared me to her! Eventually I became curious a picked up a copy of The Sensual World which absolutely blew me away. I definitely heard a kindred spirit in her lyrics, but I feel our voices are quite different. Maybe the fact that we both have dance backgrounds prompted the comparisons, I’m not sure. I’m always flattered by them, though!

I was much more aware of Elton John through his massive radio hits, and would definitely say that he and even more so, Billy Joel, was an influence. I would play his music by ear – anything/everything in the Top 40 really – and in general in junior high school I gravitated toward music from the 70’s like Carole King, Cat Stevens and James Taylor. In high school I discovered Elvis Costello whose music inspired me enormously, and all throughout I was listening to tons of Classical music via my ballet classes. My biggest influence, hands-down, has been The Beatles. When I first really dug into their music around age 11, my brain exploded and the possibilities of what one could do with pop music literally seemed endless. Since then my influences have been too numerous and eclectic to name here, but I’ve been equally inspired by classical, pop, blues, folk and even old-fashioned theatrical music especially from Fred Astaire & Gene Kelly films. Anything with great lyrics and a killer melody, and I’m bound to appreciate it!

How did the Sequins come together?

I met each of the fine players in The Sequins in NYC, in the last few years. My wonderful violinist, Kelly Halloran, was first introduced to me through my label-mate Seth Glier, who grew up with her in Massachusetts. Ward Williams, our cellist/electric guitarist, was in another band prior called Jump Little Children of which I was a huge fan, but I didn’t realize that when I met him or I’d have been pretty starstruck! We first chatted after a mutual friend’s gig – Alex Wong – and I was so impressed by his beautiful playing with Alex that I shamelessly said, “hey, I’d love to play with you…do you have a card?” We’ve been playing together ever since! Drummer Andy Mac is the most recent member of our band, and I met him a long time ago but only as a fellow singer-songwriter. I have Facebook to thank for introducing me to his amazing drumming skills via a handful of videos posted on his page, and after I realized what a kick-ass drummer he was, I invited him to play with us and I can easily say he’s the most dynamically sensitive player I’ve ever worked with. They’re all great people I love being around, which makes playing and touring together an absolute pleasure!

Photo Credit: Tom Moore

Photo Credit: Tom Moore

What have been some highlights of performing live?

Many of my favorite live performance experiences have been in Europe. I had the incredible opportunity a while back to tour with the great Eric Burdon & The Animals throughout Germany and Austria, which was just a wild and eye-opening adventure! He has lived through and forged so much rock ‘n roll history, and the opportunity to be around a legend like that, to watch and learn still sticks in my mind as one of my favorite experiences. I’ve also really appreciated the opportunity to play in Japan – which was such an entirely different culture, and a very humbling experience to not have anyone around us speak any English. The cities I played in were all beautiful and fascinating in different ways, and I hope some day to go back!

What was the experience like of performing at Lilith Fair? What was that era for you like musically?

I was invited to perform at Lilith Fair in 1999 after winning a local NYC talent search contest they hosted, at The Westbeth Theater in the West Village. Of course it was a ridiculously exciting experience, not only to open the show itself (I was the first act on) but also to meet Sarah McLachlan and so many other artists I admired, including Suzanne Vega and Sandra Bernhard, who’ve both inspired me a great deal. Musically, I think I was definitely striving to expose my emotions in a much more hyper-personal way then than I am apt to now; I was so full of angst and, as one is after college, eager to share all the novel ideas I believed I had, spiritually, politically and otherwise. I was very idealistic – so I guess it was the perfect time to be playing my first festival!

From your experience, how has the treatment of heterosexual cisgender women and LGBTQ people in folk and adult alternative music changed since then?

That’s a very interesting question, that honestly, I’m not sure I have an answer to. I’ve always been very openly bisexual, but on the other hand I’ve never been overly focused on sexuality or my sexual preference at all, as a creative artist; I’m a pretty private individual. So generally, it’s rarely come up unless I’ve brought it up myself – for instance volunteering to play an LGBTQ benefit or a Pride event. I have composed plenty of songs informed by my experiences with women, but as a songwriter I’ve always aimed to write songs with which anyone can identify so it hasn’t always been obvious (apparently!). Conversely, there have been songs of mine that have been written about a man who my lesbian listeners have assumed were about a woman and I’ve always just been happy if people found resonance with my work, period, as human beings who love other human beings. Many of my songs aren’t even about me or my life at all, versus based on fiction or a film or a friend’s experience but I think ultimately the “treatment” of artists tends to reflect social bias in general….so I’m sure you could find examples galore of ways in which bias has affected careers adversely; that’s a big part of why I remained indie though admittedly. I wanted to be less reactive and more in control of how I put myself out here (no pun intended). For me, it always just boils down to the music: am I making the best possible records I can make, and am I putting my heart and soul into each live show. I think if you do your job well and respect that everyone in this community of musicians – whether straight or LGBT – has the same goal of self-expression, there are no limits whatsoever anymore in terms of how far you can go as an indie artist. Music is music, and that’s why it’s such an incredible space for all voices to be heard!

In what ways is your music feminist?

I think my music is necessarily feminist because it aims to celebrate the female experience, while also acknowledging our vulnerabilities and that we can derive strength from the entire range of female expression and emotion. I grew up distinctly fearing that certain qualities I had as a woman were weak or inappropriate or just not fit to be emphasized. My work is all about individuality and creativity and striving to find what it is in each of us that is both uniquely ourselves, and worth sharing with and celebrating in each other.

For me, music had been incredibly healing especially because I was badly bullied as a child, by other young girls. The behavior was either completely ignored by teachers or encouraged by parents, and the fact that I was at an all girl school made it hard for me to trust other women until I went to college and realized the girl-culture I experienced was not exactly the norm. Feminism and the concept of supporting and nurturing other women through the arts was something I grew into in my 20’s, and as a member of several female music collectives, I have continued to learn more about how we can support rather than compete with each other are women, in music and the broader entertainment industry.

I love being a part of the organization Women In Music, for instance, and have also been a member of such groups as Indiegrrl and GoGirls Music, as well as an artist salon called UrbanMuse comprised of NY-based female singer-songwriters. All of these groups have helped me get and keep my bearings not only as a female/feminist artist, but as an artist, period. I hope that sense of empathy and compassion in general comes through in my work, even when it’s exploring darker themes.

You and several other musicians collaborated to raise funds for homeless youth. Kudos to you all! How did that endeavor come about?

Well, we’ve been releasing charity compilations on my label MPress Records for a number of years. The fourth volume of the compilation series “New Arrivals” benefits National Network For Youth, primarily because as New Yorkers it’s impossible to not be acutely aware of the homelessness problem throughout our city. I also happen to live right next to a homeless shelter, so when the topic came up re: which charity to pick, it just seemed like we should try to do something around homelessness. My tour manager and I visited the offices of NN4Y in Washington, D.C. on tour, really admired what they were doing, and they were eager to have us become involved through our efforts.

With what other activist causes are you involved?

Through my label MPress Records and individually, I have been involved in fundraising for World Hunger Year (founded by Harry Chapin), NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association), Habitat For Humanity, Doctors Without Borders, and a handful of local NYC organizations that continue to assist those affected by Hurricane Sandy. You can read more about our charity compilation series at http://www.newarrivalscd.com.

I was touched by your writing about the definition of a home (http://www.themortonreport.com/celebrity/causes/celebrity-causes-rachael-sage-for-artists-against-youth-homelessness/). What places feel like home to you these days?

I feel most at home in New York City, my literal home, but I also feel very at ease in Dublin, Ireland, San Francisco, CA, and Boston, MA. I also really like London, where I am currently!

What was it like collaborating with Dar Williams on “Invisible Light” on your 2012 album, “Haunted by You?”

Dar Williams is just such a delightfully down to earth and warm person, you almost forget what an extraordinary artist she is until she opens her mouth to sing! She came over to my home studio very well prepared, and sang the song “Invisible Light” in just a few passes. She was very generous with her ideas, and kept the mood playful and light. Honestly, it felt like we were just hanging out chatting and laughing, and then suddenly the track was done as it was time to go have a coffee together. It’s a day I will certainly never forget!!

Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez

Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez

“New Destination” is your 11th album. Congrats! The record seems to possess a different sonic feel than many of your earlier records. It also seems like there is a different energy. What do you make of the differences and similarities between these songs and your earlier ones?

Thank you! New Destination is actually my first EP of previously unrecorded material, i.e. a short-form recording of only four tracks. (My 11th full album isn’t coming out until Fall 2014). I decided to release these four tunes because once I’d written the title-track, it felt like this group of songs just belonged together and I wanted to share them right away especially as I’d been playing them all already live. New Destination was musically inspired by Carole King’s song I Feel The Earth Move, which I heard on Broadway last year in the musical “Beautiful.” So it has a very positive, uptempo energy and lyrically I wrote it for a good friend who was going through a tough breakup…but it could really be about anyone just trying to shift their perspective and make some kind of a change. It came out in the Spring, and I definitely think it was a good seasonal sentiment! In terms of the other tracks on the EP I think they all explore some aspect of transformation, and hopefully, a feeling that there’s a glimmer of light at the end of even the coldest, darkest tunnel.

What was it like making this album? What was your favorite track to record? The most challenging?

Of course I loved recording all of these tracks, but I think my favorite was Wax, because it’s just a very different kind of groove for me. Doug Yowell played the drums, and he has such a brilliant sense of dynamics. We recorded it as a duo, just me on piano and him playing drums live, and then we built the rest of the tune around that foundation. It’s also the first song I ever played electric guitar on, so that was a blast!

My favorite song on the album is “Misery’s Grace.” What is the story behind that song?

I wrote Misery’s Grace for an old friend of mine who lost his wife to cancer. I first learned of his loss on Facebook, as we’d been out of touch for several years, and the outpouring of love and support was staggering, but also clearly, not much consolation for this man who seemed to have had a Hollywood Movie-esque romance with his true soul mate, who left this earth inexplicably to soon. The song is a tribute to their relationship, and the only way I knew how to reach out to my friend, to show him he was in my thoughts and I understood his enormous loss.

“I’m not Leaving You” was written based on the reactions to the death of Cory Monteith. What was it like recording this song? Have you played it live?

I actually wrote the song from what I imagined was his girlfriend’s perspective, earlier in their relationship. I tried to put myself in her (Leah Michelle’s) place emotionally, and to imagine what it must be like to be so young, talented, in love and under so much constant pressure from the media. It’s a song about loyalty, about braving the elements – whatever they may be – together and essentially, loving someone unconditionally in spite of any and all obstacles. I dated someone in my early 20’s who struggled with addiction, and while it’s easy for me to look back now and question my choices or my willingness to stick with that person in spite of my need for sobriety, the fact is I loved him deeply and in many other ways we were beautifully alike. Losing someone to substance abuse it’s just about the most painful experience I can imagine…so the song was my attempt to capture what I imagine must have been a very strong bond between two much-beloved talents, one of whom we lost tragically too soon.

If you could cover any song, what would be?

I can cover any song! Who’s going to stop me? 🙂 I haven’t done many covers because I just tend to write so many originals, but I’ve covered songs by Neil Young, Hall & Oates, Marc Cohn, Sinead O’ Connor and a version of the song “Fame” by Irene Cara, among others. I’ve enjoyed giving those songs my own spin, and I think it would be a positive challenge for me to cover a song by Judy Collins. I only grew up aware of her cover versions of songs like Both Sides Now and Send In The Clowns because she had such big hits with her versions of them; but her own songwriting is really extraordinary, and her piano playing has such a gorgeous flow to it…I think I should definitely attempt to cover some of her music, especially since she’s been such a wonderful supporter of mine!

Photo Credit: Bill Bernstein

Photo Credit: Bill Bernstein

You have also acted and danced. In your experience, how do these art forms compare to making music?

I think acting and dance are both much more about what’s happening physically and emotionally…what you’re able to summon to project onto your own personal canvas to help tell a story or convey a feeling. That canvas is some combination of one’s body, one’s sense of musicality (even with acting), and one’s personal voice i.e. character. You’re using yourself as the vessel to do all of that and it takes years of training and some degree of intuition and ‘talent’ to be a great actor or dancer. I loved the training that acting and dancing required, and I know that the discipline and endurance I learned from both continue to inform my approach to music. But the main difference has been that as a composer I am also my own director. I choose my material, I choose whether or not to improvise or stick to a set list, and of course I get to do all my own ‘casting’. What I miss sometimes about dance is the sheer ability to let go, and not be in one’s head. Dancers are so intelligent – they have to be to govern their bodies so meticulously and to absorb choreography as they do; but there is a feeling of getting lost entirely in the dance itself or even the language of a play written by someone centuries ago that is very different from the adrenaline rush of playing music. I try to include aspects of my dance and theatre backgrounds in my live performances, but it’s true often wish that I could still perform on pointe or go join a Broadway production! I would appreciate being part of an ensemble in a much different way now I think, now that I’ve forced myself to learn all facets of composing, performing and producing. I think it might be somewhat of a relief to immerse myself in a character and be part of someone else’s fantasy world for a while! Never say never…

On what projects are you working next?

I am currently completing my 11th album, “Blue Roses”, and am so excited that it’s almost finished after over a year of working on it!

What insights do you have for aspiring musicians?

The best advice I never received was to get a regular gig, and shed, shed, shed until you know who you are, what you do best, and how to connect with an audience. I wrote songs nearly all of my life, and I wanted to be an entertainer so badly, but I really didn’t have much experience outside my own living room or school talent shows before I got my first big break, opening for Ani DiFranco. It was a bit of trial-by-fire and looking back, I really wasn’t ready. Much of the time I’d been working so hard to create recorded versions of my music and get them as perfect as possible, I kind of forget about the live performance side, which was when I decided to start touring my tuchus off so I’d get better just by doing it. But I do wish someone had told me the virtues of playing for ten people at a local coffeehouse, every week, early on. There’s so much to learn just by experimenting and making mistakes…which I was always so afraid to do. Embrace your mistakes, and relish the process! And don’t be in such a rush. Music isn’t going anywhere, if it’s truly your passion. But the people and things happening around you are more transient; take the time to be part of your community, to go hear other artists, and to hang out with good people. It will all make you who you are, which is your #1 asset: your point-of-view.

-Sem

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Interview: Chris Stedman!

We had the meaningful experience of interviewing Chris Stedman, activist and author. Please read some more about Chris (from http://faitheistbook.com/theauthor) before proceeding to the interview.

Chris Stedman is the author of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, “an intimate and deeply affecting portrait… [that] proves [he is] an activist in the truest sense and one to watch” (Booklist, Starred Review). The Executive Director and Coordinator of Humanist Life for the Yale Humanist Community, Chris previously served as a Humanist chaplain at Harvard University and as the Values 
in Action Coordinator for the Humanist Community at Harvard (where he was previously
 the inaugural Interfaith and Community Service Fellow). He is the atheist columnist for Religion News Service, Emeritus
 Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal
 of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and founder of the first blog
 dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement,
 NonProphet Status.

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Please describe your path to becoming an activist and author.

I grew up nonreligious but became an evangelical Christian around the age of 11, when I had a dramatic conversion experience. There were two primary causal factors. A year prior, at the age of 10, I read books like Roots, Hiroshima, Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl; these were books that not only increased my awareness of the fact that I lived in a world where people treated others in abusive ways, but they also told stories about what it was like to experience those things in a way that filled me with profoundly difficult questions about justice, purpose, and meaning. As much as any 10-year-old can be consumed by those questions, I was very deeply shaken and did not have a framework to unpack those questions.

The second factor occurred was when I was 11. My parents separated and it was a very disruptive experience—not only because they divorced but also because it set off a chain of events that created a really difficult situation financially and in terms of resources. My mother worked three jobs, worked nights, and was also our primary caretaker. She took courses for insurance licensing, juggled a lot; it was a very uprooting experience, so I was looking for stability and a safe place to land during a tumultuous time. That place happened to be this fundamentalist Christian church that I got invited to by friends from school.

At first, it was a perfect fit and incredibly welcoming. I was excited to be there; the church gave me a sense of community and provided a framework to think about human suffering and injustices. So, it all felt like a great fit. However, it became clear to me before too long that the community was not as welcoming as it seemed; it was vocally and vehemently anti-gay to the point of almost obsession. People would mention homosexuality in sermons for no apparent reason besides wanting to demonize gay people; talked about it in Bible study all the time; and there was a whole section in the church library with resources about homosexuality.

Their basic gist was that homosexuality was at best a bad decision or means of rebellion and, at worst, a sign of demonic possession—which is a terrifying message, particularly for a vulnerable and confused 11-year-old.

That propelled me into a difficult time, where I was fixated on trying to change my sexual orientation through prayer and fasting. I spent every night engaging in Bible study trying to change my sexual orientation. A big irony of the conversion was that I became Christian to address suffering and community, and ultimately ended up isolating myself and my personal suffering increased tenfold.

My mother eventually found a prayer journal that I kept and she took me to speak to someone at another Christian church who told me there was more than one view on homosexuality among Christians, which was the first time I had heard this. He gave me books that explored the intersections of the two, and he helped me find a safe space and acceptance—what I had been really looking for all along.

This was a very important thing for me not, just in terms of personal reconciliation but also became this was my safe space at a time when I started to come out as queer. I was the only openly queer person in my community and in my high school.

In fact, I had profoundly positive experiences in church during high school; so much so that I decided to go to college and thought I might study Christianity and religion with the goal of eventually working in ministry, because the people who helped me most during high school were Christian ministers. I wanted to pay it forward, so I thought I would go into the ministry.

Once there, I started studying religion academically and I was challenged by Christian professors to explore the foundations of my beliefs. It was through this process that I discovered I converted not because I thought the metaphysical premises were true but because I was looking for a community that pursued justice and everyone else said God was the source of these things: of community, of justice. Because this was what I cared about, it made sense. However, as I began to think about these experiences critically for myself, I realized that those passions and interests preceded my becoming Christian. Then, I allowed myself to really ask if I actually believed in God. I read Christian apologetics and felt increasingly unconvinced. Finally, I realized I was an atheist. After that, I was happy to debate religion in the classroom—but when it came to talking to people about my beliefs, I had only two strategies: avoidance or conflict.

This was because I had the assumption that religious disagreement lead to conflict, so either I was going to go into the conflict or just avoid it. In Faitheist, I write about my work at the Brian Coyle Community Center, which I still think about a lot. I once had a conversation with a Muslim woman there about our experiences of being on the margins, on the periphery; though our beliefs and backgrounds were very different, she was inviting me into a humanizing conversation that both recognized the fact that our beliefs were different but also acknowledged that we shared in the experience of being human. That was a kind of conversation that I did not know how to have at that time.

I realized that my “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” approach or all-out-conflict approach to religious differences were both fundamentally limited, and I wanted to find another way forward. I wanted to go into interfaith work, so I went back to school and studied alongside religious communities. In the process, I was reminded of how powerful of a role my Christian community played when I was younger, so I decided I wanted to see what was out there for atheists and nonreligious people. Through this, I discovered a couple of things: atheists are just as susceptible as anyone else to extreme tribalism, to an us-versus-them mentality with exclusionary community politics; but I also discovered humanism. This was the first time I was able to articulate my nonreligious, nontheistic worldview in a positive sense. I was able to express what I do believe, rather than define myself by what I am not. By making strong connections with religious believers, I learned to ground my sense of self in the values that I have.

In American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, there’s a fascinating finding: that religious Americans tend to be more civically engaged, give more money to charity, are more likely to vote, and are “better neighbors.” But the complicating aspect of that finding is that a nonbelieving spouse of a religious person who participated in the community was just as likely as the believing spouse to donate money. Based on this finding, the correlation between religiosity and civic engagement seems to have less to do with belief and more to do with belonging. Being part of a community that opens up a space for you to ask what it means to be a good person, gives a place to ground that work, and encourages you to be a moral agent for change in the world. Putnam and Campbell even speculated that morally bound communities for nonreligious people can serve a similar function of helping the nonreligious be more civically engaged. I wanted to see nonreligious people become more involved in civic initiatives that orient around religion, such as interfaith dialogues, and so I rediscovered the importance of community.

If my goal was to bring religious people and atheists together for the common good of humanity, I realized that I needed to invest in the idea of community for the nonreligious. So, I made the focus of my master’s degree pastoral care and counseling and studied community organizing and building. I became interested in the ideas that colleges and universities are great places for these conversations to happen, as colleges and universities can be a microcosm of the greater diversity we see in society. College is the first opportunity that many people have to be in really close community; for many people, it’s the first time they have experiences with people who have different beliefs and backgrounds. It is a great context for establishing identity and community, and learning more about different people’s experiences. Though I struggled to have those conversations while in college, it still was transformative in that way—and because my mother didn’t go to college, it was really something that I cherished. Now, the work that I do in both the university and broader contexts is very grounded in a recognition that, in the same way that colleges and universities take other aspects of identity seriously (i.e., race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status), they must also take religious identities just as seriously—including people who identify as atheists, agnostics, and humanists.

How have your social and personal identities informed your work?

I think that being a nontheist is a big element of this, because if I take seriously the conviction that it is unlikely that divine forces will intervene in human affairs and solve our problems for us, then I have to be the change I want to see in the world, if you will. As a single individual, I cannot do that alone. I have to pursue common ground and find shared values with people whose identities are located on the margins in our broader cultural context.

As a queer person and an atheist, I stand on the margins in a number of different conversations, which deeply informs my desire to understand others’ perspective. Being a white male, I benefit from privilege, and I have a strong desire to understand how my own privilege affects the experiences of others and my own limited view of the world. All of this has moved me to try to understand better others’ experiences.
After having a prolonged and profound struggle with reconciling myself with my sexual orientation, I had to learn at a young age that who I was, was not necessarily going to map onto the assumptions of who I was supposed to be. That really cracked me open in an important way to question and challenge other assumptions I inherited, and inspired me to seek intersections with others. I think that everyone’s experiences are important and that everyone has a contribution to make to our understanding of identity, values, and ethics.

In Faitheist, I end the book by thanking the reader for letting me share my story and inviting them to share theirs. The best discussions are grounded in experience. Too often, they are grounded in the theoretical and abstract. By having a window into someone else’s experience, it is much harder to argue against their freedom. Sharing stories invites people to stop and listen so that they can empathize and learn.

You quote Carl Sagan and Rumi at the start of “Faitheist” and Eboo Patel, developer of Interfaith Youth Corps wrote the forward. How have they been inspirational to your activism? Who and what other forces have been influential?

Carl Sagan is someone who has really influenced the way I think about this work, because he recognized that simply trying to argue, with data or statistics, is not going to compel people to action. He was an incredible scientist but more than anything else, he was an effective science communicator; he would tell personal stories, or the stories of others, and did so in a way that was so elegant and that invited others into learning.

Regarding Rumi, Eboo and many others – I am a humanist and nontheist, and so a lot of my worldview has been informed by humanist and nontheistic writers. It is important to also acknowledge that many of the thinkers and writers who have informed who I am and how I see the world are religious thinkers; it is important for us to not just sequester ourselves in our community and only read writers and thinkers whom we think share our views. Some of the things I have been most influenced by, that have challenged me most, are the works of religious writers. It would be silly to try to claim that I have not been influenced by religious studies considering that I have spent much of my life studying religion—and continue to do so.

So I would say there would be so many writers, thinkers, activists, people in general who have influenced my thinking. I do not know where to begin, as my influences continue to change. I like to think that I am a work in progress, and constantly changing and evolving depending on whom I am around and to whom I am exposed. I try to keep my thinking fluid in that way, which was a challenge when thinking about writing a book, because it locks you in place, at least for a moment in time.

What has been the greatest challenge to engaging in and coordinating interfaith dialogues? What has been the most rewarding aspect so far?

The most challenging aspect has been just getting people to the table—because honestly it has been my experience that, once people are at the table, it does not take a ton of work to get the conversation going. I would love to say that facilitating these dialogues requires this really specialized skill set, but it doesn’t. Once you get people to the table and introduce what we’re gathered to do, people begin finding intersections, uncovering shared concerns and shared humanity, and start to share personal experiences. The dialogue goes from there, and the people who participate are the ones who make it happen.

Contentious momentous will arise, but I think one of the hardest aspects has simply been communicating to people—particularly nontheists—that interfaith work is not only something that would include them but also that their voice is really vital.

One of the most rewarding aspects is just watching those conversations unfold; it feels like a huge privilege to be a part of that, to watch people connect, and to see false barriers began to fall way. It is so great to hear that people who have never met a Muslim or an atheist before have an incredibly transformative experience. It is really amazing seeing that “aha” moment that registers for a person, when they realize that the person they saw as really different from them is actually not as different as they thought.

Among reactions to your work, what has been the most surprising?

In the last few years, I have been pleasantly surprised by just how many atheists have embraced this idea that constructive conversation across lines of religious difference is valuable. I’ve also been really surprised to hear from a lot of people in very conservative, Orthodox, and even fundamentalist religious communities who have reached out to say that various aspects of my story connected with them. Every day there is a new surprise, and that is part of what has made this work so exciting and rewarding. I love those moments of surprising connection, and I want to be constantly surprised by how we can find connections with people who seem really different.

I have done events at very, very conservative Christian colleges where students have to sign a waiver that they believe in God, abstain from sex before marriage, and won’t “practice homosexuality,” and I have been amazingly surprised by some of the realizations that have arisen in those moments. There is always a surprise, which is one of the one greatest parts of this work.

Sem: I commend you for taking on this work.

It can be very intimidating; I am intimidated by speaking in front others, I actually do not love public speaking at all – I kind of hate it, actually, but every time I push myself to do it, it’s always worth it. I have learned to really appreciate and even chase after the things that make me afraid. I want to pushing myself to grow as much as I can, and to go into those spaces where these conversations may not be happening already.

How have your family and friends responded to your work and writing?

I am really lucky to have such a supportive family. It was definitely a little challenging when the book came out. They got some threats but they took it in stride and even made jokes about it; I was angry on their behalf and probably got more upset more than they did.

As I have walked down different paths in life, I am so grateful for my family, and the same goes for my friends. I have a loving group of family and friends. I could not do what I do without supportive family and friends, so I am very grateful.

My family does not share 100 percent of my views but it is not about whether we are 100 percent on same page all of the time. We recognize that the love we have for each other is the most important thing.

How has your work been received in particular by queer communities?

That has been one of my favorite aspects of this work. I think that many queer people recognize the power of personal storytelling, and I have learned a lot from the queer movement. The queer community really understands that in order to make change we need to build relationships and share stories. Harvey Milk called us to come out to loved ones, and the queer community really understands that. My approach to this work has been informed by that perspective.

Many queer people have complicated relationships with religious and religious identity. So queer interfaith conversations can be so important. I am really happy with how I’ve seen these discussions unfold in queer spaces.

Some of the earliest and most prominent support for my work was from queer publications and book stores; I feel really grateful to be embraced by the queer community.

When I was in school, I interned in a queer drop-in shelter, and went to one before that. So much of my early experience of the church was in queer spaces. They have a lot to teach about identifying areas of shared humanity through bridge building and storytelling.

Do you maintain communication with people you knew from Teens Encounter Christ and the Brian Coyle Community Center and if so, what has their response been to interfaith dialogues?

I have a very good friend whom I met through Teens Encounter Christ and when I told her that I was an atheist, it was a struggle because she sincerely believes that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. She was legitimately concerned about my well-being and what would happen when I died.

Admittedly it would have been easy for us to go our separate ways but we stuck at it, maintained a friendship, and kept talking. We still have different beliefs but last year, I gave a reading at her wedding. She and her husband gave me the one reading in the service that was not from the Bible; they picked it on purpose so that I could read something that reflected my different worldview, which I thought was really thoughtful.

Most everyone that I still keep in touch with has been so supportive of this work. It says so much about why that was such a supportive community for me in high school. We love one another.

Because I kept a distance and had this wall up during my time at the Brian Coyle Community Center, where I was unwilling to have certain kinds of conversations, the people whom I worked with there didn’t know me very well. I didn’t ask them very much about themselves, so we didn’t keep in touch. But my work there influenced my desire to reach out, listen to, and learn from Muslim communities later on in my activism, so the Brian Coyle Community Center will always have an important place in my heart.

You describe yourself and your friend experiencing a hate crime while in Chicago. I am glad you are okay. How did you get through that experience and what can towns and cities do to make safer spaces for LGBTQ+ identified people?

Thank you. It was not the first time nor the last that I’ve experienced expressions of anti-LGBTQ hatred in my life. There have been many. Some have left me feeling defeated, like things won’t change. When I get into that headspace, I remind myself of the times in my life, where I have had positive encounters and have seen people’s perspectives change, and that reminder gives me hope.

I think it’s important for LGBTQ+ identified people to be careful. I was recently harassed by a stranger on the bus; they followed me for a while, and it was very scary. This is just a part of my reality. Regardless of what others do to make spaces safer, we have to be careful on our own. We have to prioritize our personal safety. And this is of course not just limited to LGB folks; in fact, 1 in 12 transgender people are murdered in the U.S., which is inconceivably horrifying, infuriating, and tragic. Trans people are incredibly targeted, and it’s a huge problem that needs to be addressed now.

Regarding what people can do to make cities, towns, and the broader cultural climate safer: This starts by creating spaces where people can share stories and speak honestly about who they are. I believe that when people are given an opportunity to identify with someone very different from themselves, they can more easily challenge their preconceived notions and biases. These conversations have a butterfly effect; they ripple out into society and make it safer for all people.

I’ve had surprising conversations with anti-gay activists, such as with a group of people who were proselytizing outside of a gay bar. I can’t say I think that people should always have those conversations, because they have to prioritize their own safety. I don’t think you have to build bridges at all times, because of your own safety, but also because I know I can’t always be my best self all the time. I can’t always meet people more than half way, and sometimes I’m just not up to the challenge of these risky conversations. But the more that we as a queer community can step out and have those conversations, the more society will be a safer place for people at large.

The experience you describe of being at the assassination site of Monsignor Oscar Romero was quite powerful. What was it like writing about the experience?

It was very strange; the process of writing personal narrative is strange in general because our experiences are not these rigid, unchanging things. Our connection to our experiences change as we change. It is an interesting experience to place yourself in your own shoes at a time in life that feels very separate from where you are now.

That experience in El Salvador embodies a larger phenomenon. When I stepped out of Christianity, I wanted to compartmentalize myself and say that I am not that person anymore; but we are deeply informed by all of our experiences. I am not a Christian anymore, but I will always be a person who was a Christian.

It was very difficult at times to put myself back in those shoes and try to remember what it felt like to have that experience in El Salvador, or to have an adolescent conversion experience. We are often so busy looking ahead in life to what’s next, that we just move quickly past experiences and put them out of our minds, so writing Faitheist was a very helpful experience for me. Revisiting and remembering enabled me to make peace with those things; I did not realize how much I was carrying around a lot of that weight with me. In El Salvador, I felt this powerful connection to the Christian beliefs I had moved beyond, but because I was uncomfortable with those feelings, I ignored them and pushed the experience aside. So it was very powerful to go back and write about it – to reclaim and revisit it. I am not just going to push those or any other feelings aside from now on; I am going to sit with and explore them.

I’d recommend that everyone go back to challenging or confusing moments in life and reflect on them, through writing or talking with someone about them. It’s a very helpful exercise f. I do not think that everyone needs to write a book to do this; I was lucky to get to publish a book, but there are many other ways to reflect.

From your perspective, what forces led to the rise of the New Atheism?

Some “New Atheists” identify 9-11 as the emergence of New Atheism as a movement. What I think led to the rise of New Atheism is the fact that many atheists for many years had been excluded from participating in broader public life. Atheists have been marginalized and demonized. I think that, combined with very legitimate frustrations that a number of atheists feel about abuses done in the name of religion, led to his pushback.

I believe that much of the “no” of atheism has been said, and that it’s time to speak more publicly and positively about what atheism and humanism are, not just what they aren’t.

How has Interfaith Youth Corps and other interfaith activists responded to New Atheists critiques of interfaith dialogue particularly that these movements do not sufficiently address religious privilege?

I think interfaith work is a prime forum to address religious privilege; that by participating in interfaith conversation, atheists can demonstrate that religion does not have a monopoly on morality—and that in and of itself is incredibly powerful. I think interfaith dialogues are really excellent spaces to have those difficult conversations about religious privilege—if those conversations are grounded in personal relationships. I think it’s much easier for people to hear and understand religious privilege when the explanation is coming from people whom you know and understand and like. Similarly, I’m a realist, and I know that some people will not hear me because I’m queer, or because I’m an atheist—and I can speak until I am out of air and it won’t matter, because they won’t hear me. But they will hear someone from their in-group, someone who shares their identity. So it’s important for me to have friends and allies in religious communities who can go back to their communities and relay what they have learned in an interfaith space. I hear the critique that interfaith dialogue does not address religious privilege, and I think sometimes interfaith groups have done a bad job, but I think that the factors are there for interfaith dialogues to address incredibly powerful forms of religious privilege—and I see it happening already, and it’s going well. When it’s done well, interfaith dialogue is an ideal forum to have these conversations.

What are some insights you have for aspiring activists?

I would say that I have really benefited from taking time to listen to and learn from other activists. I have ideas and opinions, but it’s not wise to barge into conversations without taking time to learn from others, particularly those who have been doing this work for a long time.

I try to think about it this way: for every minute you talk, spend at least 5 minutes listening; for every piece you publish, read 10 other pieces. You really just can’t do enough listening, learning and reading other people’s work. I feel like I have really benefited from that, and I try to continue doing that as much as I can.
Part of why I was nervous about writing this book and doing this work was because I am young, and I know that there is a lot that I do not know. But knowing that shouldn’t stop you from being a part of the conversation. I helped create a website for emerging young thinkers and activists because I think it’s so important for people to know that it is okay to be a work in progress while doing activism. That you can use your voice while still finding and refining it. I fully expect that I will keep growing and improving—but if I let that stop me, I wouldn’t have learned all that I have over the last few years. So I would say, start doing the work and allow yourself to make mistakes and keep learning. You may write something or participate in something, and later look back and say, ‘Wow, I was really wrong on that’ or ‘Yikes, that was not nuanced’—but that is okay. It’s a part of the process.

On what projects are you working currently?

I was the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and now I’m transitioning into the role of Executive Director and Coordinator of Humanist Life for the Yale Humanist Community. I have been working on getting this program going for the last year and I am incredibly excited about it!

Also, I am continuing to work with organizations within the movements I participate in. I have been part of Interfaith Youth Core for years and I am so thrilled that they have had a huge impact on this conversation. Years ago, when I was first getting involved, I did not encounter many other nontheists—now, based on their alumni survey, about 20 percent of [the Interfaith Youth Core] alums identify as secular humanists, atheists, agnostics or non-religious, which is much higher than the national average of people who identify with these labels.

I am also involved with Foundation Beyond Belief, a humanist charity organization. The Challenge the Gap program, part of Foundation Beyond Belief, empowers atheists and humanists to give to religious organizations that engage in work that does not proselytize but improves the conditions of life for others; this also enables us to build relationships with religious groups and people.

I am also continuing to write—I write a regular column for Religion News Service. And I am trying to find the work-life balance. It’s an amazing challenge. I am so passionate about this work, I can always find a million reasons to be up working into the late hours of the night. I feel so privileged and grateful that now this work has gotten to the point to where there are too many different things that I can be contributing to, helping with, or learning from – I feel so fortunate to be in that place, it is truly amazing.

-Sem

Interview: Nancylee Myatt!

Underneath This had the enjoyable and informative experience of interviewing Nancylee Myatt. Please read more about Nancylee before proceeding to the interview that follows.

Nancylee Myatt became a television writer on the advice of a casting-director friend, which prompted an odyssey that would take her from her early days on the television program, Night Court, where she had the honor of writing the series finale, to an NAACP award for her work on Living Single, to co-executive producer, writer and director on the network teen drama South of Nowhere.

Indeed, Nancylee has spent more than a decade writing and producing for prime-time television. She is quite knowledgeable of an experienced in what it takes to get a television show from the page to the screen, but developing a series for the web was a novel frontier for her – one that has been a sure success. For more information about the groundbreaking series, Nikki & Nora, that Nancylee has created, please visit http://www.onemorelesbian.com/tello/webseries/nikki-nora/ .

Recently, Nancylee co-wrote with Ralph Macchio a pilot for ABC Family called “Cupidity.” Her other internet credits include break-out and award-winning web-series 3Way, and the all girl western comedy, Cowgirl Up.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to me and about Nikki & Nora. Before I start rambling about myself I’d like to say that this labor of love, this little engine that could, this series about a couple of young women who love each other and solve crimes in New Orleans, which started as leaked network pilot and became an internet obsession and lighting rod for the lesbian community, took a village to reboot and produce this new series.

And it would not exist without the faithful fans and amazing producing team, who I’d like to give a shout-out to at the top: Executive Producer Christin Mell and her partners at tellofilms.com. These women know their way around the World Wide Web and how to promote and use social media like no other. I bow to their wizardry and producing skills.

Executive Producer Paige Bernhardt. Paige is my partner in our production company, MyHardt productions. Paige and I have a similar network television writing and producing background. And we’ve collaborated for the last couple of decades on scripts, plays, series and webseries. It always helps to have someone who knows you very well and can call you on your stuff.

Co-Executive Producers Liz Vassey and Christina Cox. Liz and Christina were Nikki & Nora in the original network pilot 10 years ago. They have both had successful acting carriers and have been branching out produce and write for network television and film, as well. Having them back, recreating the roles that meant so much to all of us has been beyond spectacular.

We are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with…

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What inspired you to become a screenwriter?

Bad Acting… mine. Like so many other theater geeks, I was drawn to being on stage. Plus I was a class clown. You know the drill of High School; gotta be sporty or funny if you’re not going be a cheerleader or voted onto the Homecoming Court. So I went to college as a theater major. And pre-law, as my parents were big fans for having a Plan B. After graduation, my freshly minted actor friends and I moved to Hollywood and started making some noise. My writing career path was set by one of my best friends, Cecily Adams. She was an actress, comedienne and casting director. And after a bunch of years of watching me trying to get a break and working with me as an actress (I had good timing, but zero memorization skills) she said to me, “Nancylee you suck as an actress. But the shit you write for us is great.” Career Path 101. Happily I was in a good place to hear this, and trusted her and my other friends. I focused on writing and never looked back.

Initially, you wrote for Night Court, one of my favorite series from that era. What was that experience like? I really enjoyed the season finale that you were involved in writing.

Thank you. The premise of the series finale – Dan dreams all the women he wronged put him on trial – had been a card on the board in the Night Court writer’s room for years. It was great timing and luck of the draw that allowed writer Elaine Aronson and I to share the two-part finale.

Night Court was my first job on a network comedy. I had been a writer’s assistant for several years – a great path to writing TV, by the way. And when one of my former writer/producer bosses, Chris Cluess & Stu Kreisman, got hired to run Night Court they asked me if I’d like to come on board as a staff writer. Life changing. I’m forever grateful, and still in contact with most of the staff I worked with for the last two seasons of the series.

What was it like working on “Living Single”? I liked that program as well and perceive that era in television history as uniquely representative of the great diversity, especially of people of color, in the United States. How do you see the present landscape in this regard?

I came to Living Single in its final season. It was a well-oiled machine, and they had done some amazing groundbreaking television. Lucky me, I did get to share in an NAACP Award for their final season. But that path was paved long before I got there. Living Single also launched a lot of careers in front of the camera, and at the writer’s table. I’m lucky to have been a tiny bit of their history and success.

Diversity has always been at the front of most of the shows that I’ve created or been able to influence. When I started, a person could qualify as being “a diversity hire” for just being a woman. And I’m also a Native American, which I had to prove, by the way. You think any other race would put up with that? Having to show a card that says you have a “qualifying” bloodline and percentage. It’s a little Westminster Dog Show if you ask me. Anyway, the production companies got to use my name on two diversity reports. Thank goodness I didn’t have to prove I was a woman, cuz that would have been an awkward meeting.

I think the TV landscape looks better now, much better. And I’d like to give most of the credit to my mentor, Norman Lear. He was way out ahead of everyone with diversity. Race, religion, economic. He made people pay attention to faces and life experiences that weren’t their own. And he did it because his shows were some of the best on television at the time. Write and produce a great show, with the stories that people relate to and root for, and you’ll find, that even if they don’t look like you, or sound like you, or even might love someone of the same sex, you’ll get an audience. And at the end, maybe your show will influence that person’s perception of diversity and the world.

Just a side note: It’s an interesting path we television writers take. Or truthfully, get handed to us. In most scenarios, before you’re a creator or producer and creating your own opportunities, you are a yeoman writer trying to fill a spot at the table. Most creator/writers bring some of the staff with them, people they had worked with and trust and knew what skills they brought. And after that, they fill in the other spots with writers (they hope) who will bring a unique voice or something that’s missing from the mix. And some producer/writers inherit a staff or the network or studio will influence the hiring.

So your career can be this – If your first job is Friends you are set for life, open doors, everyone wants you because they believe you had something to do with the huge success. Or instead of a hit that runs 10 years, you get on a new show that does 6 episodes or one season and out. Then you’re back on the street looking for the next job. I actually worked on the series Jennifer Aniston did before Friends. It was called Muddling Through. Great show, amazing writers who went onto other notable series. But for the most part – very few people remember Jennifer in that one…

Any career in show business is not for the faint of heart. I teach writing and TV production occasionally, and I always tell my students, if there is anything else, that you like or want to do – do it. Because there is no solid path to success in the entertainment business. But if it’s the only thing you see yourself doing, go for it. And again, from my personal experience, be open, as it may not end up looking like you thought it would.

What was the impetus to create the web series, “Nikki & Nora?”

There is no one thing that motivated us to reboot Nikki & Nora for the web. I think it was this perfect storm of a great show that never was, the fans who saw themselves in this couple and refused to let it go away, the changes in programming and diversity in mainstream television, combined with the power of the internet that opened the door for us to revisit it.

The rights of the original project had returned to me and I was thinking about a book series. I was also producing another webseries called 3Way, with Paige Bernhardt and Maeve Quinlan, who I was working with on South of Nowhere. 3Way was a comedy that made a lot of noise on the Internet. It was ahead of its time in that in addition to creating smaller 10-minute webisodes and content, we were also producing half hour episodes just like network television. Within 3Way we had also created some silly spin-off series, shows within the show. One was a soap opera called “Young Doctors Who Cry.” And the other was called “Lady Cops.”

I asked Liz and Christina if they would come and spoof their characters in Lady Cops. They played Mikki & Laura, cops who were partners, who may or may not be involved with each other. That was our way of letting the faithful Nikki & Nora fan base know we were thinking about them. When they responded to the spoof, we knew that they were still there. Waiting. Ready to make it happen. Yet it took 5 more years for us to find that crazy timing of everyone being available to come together to make it happen.

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This series has made history by being the first to have been re-conceptualized for exclusive distribution online. From your point of view, how has technology affected television production and viewing?

First of all, I’d like to repeat what you just said – “This series has made history by being the first to have been re-conceptualized for exclusive distribution online.”

Can we get a round of applause!? The Veronica Mars movie was crowd-funding at the same time we were last year. Their fans wanted more of a TV series they identified with, that they felt went off the air too soon. The VM team raised millions when their fan base rallied. Meanwhile, we were reaching out to an “underground” fanbase that refused to let the idea of Nikki & Nora die. They were emotionally involved with Nikki & Nora and hoping for the resurrection of a show that never aired on network television.

When Nikki & Nora first appeared on the Internet it was at the time when YouTube was just finding its way. People realized they could create entertainment or take existing video and edit it into something that spoke to them. That represented them. When I say Underground Fanbase, I mean that they took a bootlegged DVD of the network pilot of Nikki & Nora and shared it across the web universe. Which launched tons of love letter type music videos to Nikki & Nora, all cut from the original 37-minute pilot. Which then spawned tens of thousands of pages of fanfiction about their favorite New Orleans couple, Nikki & Nora. And let’s just give credit where it belongs — It sure didn’t hurt to have the beautiful and talented Liz Vassey and Christina Cox representing a crime fighting couple that just happens to be gay.

It’s an amazing story. And I can say that because I had nothing to do with it. While we remained very close, Liz, Christina and I had moved on, off to other projects and shows, as it the nature of our business. Nikki & Nora is alive and back again, because of the fans who longed for more of their story.

The Internet and “created for web” content, has changed the way creators get to tell their stories. We don’t have to go through the studio system and the lottery that is the development and pilot process. Or the advertiser driven decision-making that occurs with network television. The end result of doing a web series is that the vision we have is not changed to fit a network demographic. It lets the audience that show was made for find it in its purest form. Now that being said, an Internet-based show is, many times, expected to rise to the levels of network television show. Which is an unfair scale. Because most of the time, as with Nikki & Nora, we had one tenth of a network budget.

When “Nikki and Nora” was first created, it would have been the first lesbian-themed drama series on television. What were barriers to the show being aired then?

The political climate in 2004 was very conservative at the time. The Christian Right was very vocal with regard to TV, Films, Music, etc., which they felt was adding to the corruption of America’s moral fiber. The network and studio behind Nikki & Nora had taken a lot of hits that year from the FCC, so they weren’t ready to ask their advertisers to back a project that had a potential target on it’s back in a George W. Bush America.

After Nikki & Nora I went on to write and produce South of Nowhere for creator Tom Lynch, and had done an article for Afterellen.com about the show focusing on two teenage girls falling love. And then got promptly called on the carpet by the “N” now teen Nick, which was an MTV network where the show was going to air. Apparently, the Christian Right had me on their hit list or watch list or burn the witch list, who knows… But the network was concerned about negative “gay agenda” publicity on a kid’s network. So Lynch and I agreed that he should do all interviews going forward. He created the show. And Tommy is an Irish Catholic father of four boys. Which made it hard for the haters to find an agenda. It made him the perfect person to talk about this story of “love is love.”

With the explosion of cable networks and now web-based entertainment, I no longer believe that the executives are afraid of “controversial” programming. In fact, niche programming and aiming for a smaller demographic is what is building these networks. But, as long as the Broadcast Networks have to answer to advertisers to pay for programming they will always try to program to the middle and a more conservative audience.

Approximately nine years elapsed between the initial development of the series and the online airing. In the interim, what changed for the media representation of LGBTQ+ people and communities?

I’m not the most informed person to answer this question. GLAAD may be your better source for the actual facts and figures, because the majority of my television work does not focus on the GLBTQ community. But again, I always try to make sure that there is a lot of diversity in the shows I create or can influence. I do think that the wider range of entertainment outlets have helped to promote and find homes for more GLBTQ programming. Yet, with the exception of The Fosters on ABC Family, who has a lesbian couple at the head of a family, there is still no adult mainstream show with a lesbian couple as the primary leads. So you would think that Nikki & Nora should have been able to find a home on the networks that program more comfort food procedurals like Castle or Rizzoli and Isles – who contrary to popular belief and audience pandering, those girls are not a couple.

From your perspective, what needs to be different regarding the media portrayal of other minority groups?

As I mentioned before, I think telling a compelling, relatable story cast with the multi-ethnic faces of this nation and world will do the best for visibility and acceptance.

The main characters on “Nikki and Nora” seem realistic. How do you maintain that characterization over time?

Write what you know. Or at the very least, draw or jump off from your own experience. I try to remain authentic to the characters I’ve created, their voices, and how they react in various situations. And I’m a gay woman, who has been in a long relationship, and recently legally married. So I can at speak to the same-sex issues, but I can also speak to the stuff that all couples go through, like nesting and relationship issues. And in my case, this insane drive to remodel and reinvent every house I’ve owned. Instead of @ishakeitup my Twitter name should be @MrsWinchester. (Kudos for those of you who know her twisted story) But I give Liz and Christina the credit for taking my script and these characters and making them their own. With their own rhythms, and humor and pathos. And like any good actor, they are also drawing from their own true-life experiences and finding the touchstones from their life that they can draw from to make it grounded, real and relatable.

How did you decide to set the series in New Orleans?

I set the show in New Orleans because it was a city that I had spent a lot of time in with my family. It was also my favorite place to run to: to play, write and be inspired. It’s a city with a rich history and culture. A city of darkness and light. A city with it’s own voice and look. My mother called it “The Paris of America.” It’s also America’s original party town and has always been a place were the gay community gathered. New Orleans was perfect home for Nikki & Nora.

I’ve said before, that most writer/producers who are shooting cities and locations that have big personalities like to say that their city is also a “character” in the show. I think a successful example of that was what show runner Michael Patrick King did with Sex and the City. He was telling stories and hitting themes for his characters that had were unique to Manhattan. And that’s the way I’ve approached Nikki & Nora in both incarnations.

Were there any other shows or films that influenced “Nikki & Nora?”

The shows I grew up on, those light mystery shows that spent as much time with the main characters or couples at home, as they did with them solving the crime of the week. Like Hart to Hart, McMillian & Wife, The Scarecrow & Mrs. King, Charlie’s Angels, and Moonlighting.

And for me personally, my parents were the original inspiration of what a great couple looked like. They were sexy, funny, hard-working and passionate. They were generous whether they were flat or flush. They were each other’s best friends and partners in crime. They loved New Orleans and never missed a chance to live life large and out loud.

Were there any unexpected moments regarding the fundraising campaign for the series?

I think for me, and probably the actors who play Nikki & Nora, Liz Vassey and Christina Cox, it was the fanfiction writers who surprised us. There were about half a dozen N&N fic writers who were rather well-known in those circles, and they ignited the conversation and campaign with pod casts, a Nikki & Nora panel at fanfic convention, posting the information on fanfic pages and boards, and talked about it in the chat rooms. They invited us to do interviews and told us how much N&N meant to them. And when we launched the Indiegogo page with a video from Liz and Christina speaking directly to the fans, things moved very quickly and the money started to come. While we didn’t ask for the kind of cash that Veronica Mars did, we did raise 30% more than our goal.

Several of the fanfiction writers who helped us with the campaign, and are running one of the Nikki & Nora tumblr pages, came to set and worked on the shoot. In addition to the efforts of the fanfic community, we also had some amazing supporters, who are also now friends, who gave substantial donations to project. We got to spend some time with them during the process, as well. All of this was just another confirmation that we were doing something meaningful. And serving an audience that still wasn’t seeing themselves enough in mainstream television.

It seems like perfect symmetry to have a series that was kept alive on the Internet, rise from the network television ashes to become a show just for the web.

Overall, what have been the most surprising commercial and critical responses to the series?

The funniest critical response we received was that the fans wanted more kissing between Nikki & Nora in the show. All I can say is that we are writing a couple that’s been together for 10 years, and we tried to create a very realistic view of a couple still in love and very comfortable with the rhythms of their life together. However, we will take it under advisement for the next season.

The most frustrating critical response was that several people complained about the $4.99. monthly subscription to tellofilms.com. I usually respond with, “For the price of buying a beer you are getting original programming created just for you. As well as, all the other great series on tellofilms. And if we don’t pay the bills we can’t make and broadcast new content.”

On what other writing and television projects are you working?

Most of us who worked on the webseries of Nikki & Nora, cast, producers, crew, etc., are also working in network and cable television, doing the same jobs we did on Nikki & Nora. So we’ve returned to others shows and/or out pitching and writing new projects.

I’ve got three new scripts going out to various networks. And I’m working with very prolific producers and directors on each. I don’t want to jinx anything by giving too many details, but I’ll tell you that each project is very different. And yet they are right in my wheelhouse, speaking to the audiences that have followed me before. For the young adult audience there is a comedy and a genre drama. And for the grown ups there’s a female driven family drama with a procedural element and a dark twist. Stay Tuned…

What insights do you have for aspiring writers?

I think I covered some of this when I was talking about my path to writing television. But one thing that is really simple and a call to action is that “Writers write.” Whether it’s a TV script or screenplay, articles for magazines or news outlets, novels or short stories, poetry, song lyrics, or fanfiction. It’s not enough to talk about writing, you have to sit down and make it happen. Visualize your future, work for anyone who will let you get the experience in the field that you want to work in. Treat it as your job and give yourself a daily schedule, a page count or a goal.

I heard somewhere that Stephen King writes at least ten pages a day. I don’t know if it’s true, but that’s a lot, whether it’s a novel or a teleplay. When I’m on a deadline I use that as a goal to keep me in the chair. And sometimes I like to change-up my writing location – change my POV and hear some different voices. When I’m home in New Orleans there are a couple of local watering holes in my neighborhood that are cool with me taking over a booth and working for a few hours. We actually shot a scene in one of them, Tracey’s Bar, with Nikki & Nora sitting in the booth, which they called their Satellite Office, where I wrote most of the script. Kind of Meta, don’t you think? (Yes!)

Keep writing. And then one day, things will shift. For me, I know I’m on the right road when the characters I’ve created are so well-formed that they start leading me in the direction they want to go and talking for themselves. And sometimes that happens even when I’m not enjoying a cocktail…

You can find the trailer of Nikki & Nora and all seven webisodes of the first season at:
http://www.onemorelesbian.com/tello/webseries/nikki-nora/

And if you want to see where it all began, here’s a link to the original pilot of Nikki & Nora from 10 years ago. I do not take any responsibility for the putting the bootleg video up on the World Wide Web. But… Enjoy! It was ahead of it’s time, and sadly, still is.

-Sem

Interview: Elliott DeLine (part 2 of 2) !

Underneath This is pleased to present the second part of the interview with talented writer, Elliott DeLine. Please read below!

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Your novels, “Refuse” and “I Know Very Well How I Got My Name” eloquently describes coming-of-age experiences of queer and trans young adults and youth. What inspired you to write these works?

Thank you. My own experiences inspired these works. I wanted to create something different from was out there already. I wrote the books I wanted to read when I was younger and struggling to find reflections of my own experiences.

What have been the most rewarding and challenging aspects of becoming an influential voice within trans and queer literature?

That’s a hard question to answer. I don’t really see myself as influential. Honestly, I have found it very challenging to “break out” so to speak, in the literary world. I’m not sure I’ve influenced other artists, but I have found it very rewarding to hear individually from readers, especially other trans people. I know that I have influenced some people’s lives with my work, and that is an awesome feeling.

I really appreciate your vulnerability in the essay, “Stages of Visibility.” How does composing nonfiction essays compare to writing fiction?

For me, the line between fiction and nonfiction is very blurry. I write both in much the same way. My fiction writing is very personal and almost always based off real life events, and my nonfiction is always using some poetic license.

“I Know Very Well How I Got My Name” includes experiences of bullying. If Dean were coming of age these days, how may his experiences be different?

I’m not sure. I work with queer youth and I get the sense they are still facing a lot of the same issues. Though it does seem like people are learning they are trans earlier and earlier. The media started talking more about bullying the past few years, but I’m skeptical that much has changed in schools. Maybe some schools.

How has the self-publishing process been?

It’s the only way I could do it. I’m a control freak when it comes to my art. But it’s also frustrating, because people don’t always take me as seriously as they do traditionally published authors. And I don’t make much money.

You were recently part of a Huffington Post live panel regarding trans and cisgender gay men dating each other. What do you think have been the barriers between cisgender queer and transgender communities collaborating more for social justice? In what ways has there been progress?

I’m not sure how or if there has been much progress. I’m probably the wrong person to ask. As far as barriers, the trans community is isolated from and misunderstood by cisgender people. Gay cis men are no different. It’s issues of language, class, priorities, privilege, etc., etc., etc. But if you’re asking specifically about cisgender queer people on the whole, I guess there has been some progress. If people identity as “cisgender queer people,” then I figure they at least get that I exist. But most people don’t call themselves that. I don’t think there has been that much progress in the LGB community towards accepting T and Q people. LGB people can be just as invested in upholding gender norms. In fact, if their idea of social justice is acceptance into the larger culture, then T people are really just getting in their way.

What feedback do you have for aspiring writers?

Oh god, I don’t know. Don’t take people’s feedback too seriously. If you realize no one is an authority, then you are more open to feedback. Just do your own thing and say what you mean and don’t freak out about being Literary. I agree with something Kurt Vonnegut said: “If you can talk, you can write.” Just tell a story. Write to be understood. Or don’t. I don’t know. Don’t listen to me.

-Sem

Interview: Bennett Madison!

Underneath This had the pleasure of interviewing Bennett Madison. Per his brief bio statement, Bennett Madison is the author of several books for young people, including September Girls, The Blonde of the Joke and the Lulu Dark Mysteries. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Please describe your path to becoming a writer.

The short version is that I was living with my parents and working in a bookstore after I didn’t quite graduate college. All my friends had graduated at the appropriate time and were mostly in New York and I was miserable. Writing fiction was the only thing I knew I was good at, so I decided that selling a book would be the answer to my problems. It turned out not to be the solution to all of my problems, but at least it did get me out of my parents’ house. (For awhile.)

How do your personal and social identities affect your writing?

I would have a hard time thinking of ways in which my personal and social identities don’t affect my writing. I don’t know… my books are actually mostly about straight people, but, even so, I think they have a pretty obvious queer sensibility. I guess some people would probably disagree that a “queer sensibility” is a thing that even exists, and I’m willing to entertain that argument. But if it does exist, I think my books have it.

How did you decide which genres to write?

My first couple of books were mysteries because I heard publishers wanted mysteries at that moment, and it seemed fun.

For the most part, though, I’m not that wrapped up in the genre thing. I just sort of write what I feel like writing and let people call it whatever genre they want to. Most of what I write usually involves some type of weird mystical bullshit so sometimes it gets categorized as fantasy, which is more than fine with me. But a lot of what I write also takes place in shopping malls, and there are a lot of people who don’t think of that as a fantasy setting.

Basically if you don’t think of the shopping mall as a good place to set a fantasy novel, you probably won’t like my books. (I just thought of that but I think it actually is a pretty good rule of thumb.)

In what ways has growing up near DC affected your creative process?

No one has ever asked me this before! I don’t know– maybe just in the sense that I have an affinity for a certain type of suburban setting?

Actually, I guess the other thing that was nice about where I grew up is that I had a city accessible to me as a teenager. I went to a lot of shows; I sometimes snuck into bars. I spent a certain amount of time standing on street-corners batting my eyelashes and hoping someone would ask me out on a date and every now and then it worked. Particularly because I write mostly about teenagers, those experiences probably inform my work and my sensibility, but I bet not any more than if I had grown up near any other major mid-sized city. DC doesn’t offer a ton of artistic inspiration. Unless you write political thrillers, I guess.

Who and what have been your primary creative influences?

Liquid eyeliner, sparklers, boys, malls, baby-sitters, skipping school, cigarettes (though I quit), sad songs, comic books, trees, weather, certain types of nightclubs. Blond hair, obviously.

In terms of writers, people like Kelly Link, Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, Mark Doty, Francesca Lia Block, Ben Neihart, Cookie Mueller, Lynda Barry. I mean, I don’t know if they’re influences exactly, but I like them and sometimes I try to copy them. More recently I really adored Danielle Evans’s Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self and Ariel Schrag’s Adam, which comes out in a month or two. But I guess I can’t really claim those as “influences” because I haven’t really written much since I read them.

Also: TV shows. Lots of music. Etc!

What has the process been like of writing from female protagonists’ (such as Lulu Dark) perspectives? What has the response been to this?

I’ve written from girls’ perspectives in several novels. It didn’t seem that hard. I wasn’t trying to say some big thing about how women think or what a woman’s perspective is; I was just trying to write from the point of view of these particular teenage girls. And while I’m not a woman, the characters were both similar and different from me in lots of ways.

Actually, writing from the point of view of a straight guy, which I did in September Girls, was kind of the hardest in some ways. (And that’s also the one people gave me the hardest time about, so.

In what ways is your writing feminist?

There are a couple of reasons that I don’t usually describe my writing as feminist.

First, I try not to have a political axe to grind with my fiction– I mean, I think that fiction is fundamentally political but I’m not usually a fan of stories that grow out of any political agenda.

Second, while I’m happy when my work is described as feminist, I don’t really think it’s my role to claim that title for myself.

Those caveats aside: I’m always interested in gender stuff, particularly when it comes to, like, gender performance, and so those things tend to show up in my books. This is probably especially true in September Girls, which has a lot to do with the narratives that are imposed on us because of our gender and the ways those narratives make us perform gender in certain ways and blah blah blah.

But it’s also a book about mythical sea creatures and sad dads and annoying moms and walking around on the beach and making out, because those are also things I’m interested in. I always have to point that.

What inspired you to write, “I Hate Valentine’s Day” and what has the response been to this book?

I Hate Valentine’s Day was a work-for-hire project, which means that someone at the publisher came up with the idea for it and then paid me to write it. In other words, I was twenty-three and I did it for the money. I don’t actually hate Valentine’s Day– in fact, I don’t really have any opinion on Valentine’s Day at all– which made it very hard to write an entire (short) book about it.

It’s not totally my favorite book I’ve ever written and I sort of wish I’d used a pen name on it, but I do think it has some funny parts. Actually I haven’t looked at it in forever, so who knows. I’m not even sure I have a copy anymore. My mom probably does, I guess.

Characters in your book, “The Blonde of the Joke” were ironically described as homophobic. What do you make of this reaction now?

The Blonde of the Joke is about two girls who do a bunch of fucked-up things. Mostly shoplifting, but they also smoke, skip school, drink alcohol. I could go on. Amidst all that bad behavior, they use the word “faggot” a couple of times, in various contexts. A few people had a real problem with that.

I guess I’m one of those annoying people who thinks that language changes meanings depending on the context. I don’t have a lot of patience for the Pee Wee Herman school of social justice, by which I mean, the thing where you make a list of hate-words and then sound the alarm any time anyone says one. The word “faggot” isn’t always homophobic, depending on who uses it and why, and there are plenty of people who manage to be complete homophobic assholes without ever uttering the word “faggot” at all. Also, I sort of hate to play this card, but I’ve been called a fag enough times in my life that it really infuriates me that anyone– especially a straight person, but really anyone– would try to tell me how I can and can’t use it myself.

I’m also annoying in the sense that I don’t think the views of a fictional character are necessarily the same as the perspective of the book they appear in. This issue came up again in a slightly different form when September Girls came out last year. The fact that several characters in the book exhibit fairly unenlightened and disrespectful attitudes about women, and use language to match those attitudes, is not only realistic in my estimation, it’s also a big part of what the book is about.

Every reader is entitled to their own interpretation when it comes to fiction. If you want to think Huckleberry Finn is a racist book because of certain words that appear in it, you can go right ahead. But just because you are allowed your own interpretation doesn’t mean that your own interpretation is not completely missing the point.

While I’m not seriously comparing my own books to Mark Twain’s, I do think that readers are well-served when they consider the way language functions in a novel as a whole rather than focusing on a few objectionable words. At least, I know I am.

That took me about two hours to sort out. I’ll answer the rest of these questions after I smoke a fag.

Have you written about transgender characters?

Not really. There was a recurring character in the Lulu Dark books who was a drag queen, but that’s perhaps different. At any rate, she was kind of a very unusual type of drag queen in that she seemed to be in drag, like, all the time. Which probably is really unrealistic to anything that would happen in real life, and also probably blurs some lines in ways that aren’t that helpful. If I was going to write those books again, I’d probably try to rethink that character. But anyway, the short answer is no.

From your perspective, what is the climate like for LGBTQ+ writers of young adult books these days? Are there differences in climate compared to heterosexual writers?

That’s a hard question. In a lot of ways it’s not an issue. There are obviously tons of queer people who work in the field of kids’ books, and there’s also a pretty strong tradition of gay people being very successful as authors of stuff for kids and teenagers. (Louise Fitzhugh, Maurice Sendak, M.E. Kerr, Ian Falconer, David Levithan, etc. etc.) So, for the most part, I think that the climate is basically great.

At the same time, I think that when it comes to writing gay content, one has to sort of adjust one’s standards of what commercial success is going to look like. By which I mean: swap in a gay character as the protagonist of any of John Green’s books and I don’t think that book would be nearly as successful. (Come to think of it, the one John Green book with a major gay supporting character is I think the only one that’s not on the New York Times bestseller list this week.)

A mass audience is often really reluctant to try anything that isn’t totally familiar to it, and most people aren’t gay. I think a gay love story, or a gay anything, really, is just going to have a much harder time crossing the threshold into real sales. Which is not to say it’s impossible, just that I think expectations are usually going to be lower. Which, you know, has a certain affect on what gets published and also on what people even bother writing.

You know, this week there was this big thing on Twitter this week about how there should be more diversity in YA books. Which, aside from how much I hate “diversity” as a euphemism, I obviously think there should be. Of course!

However! There are already “diverse” books out there. Not as many as there should be, but enough that there are plenty to choose from. It’s not like there’s this complete shortage of books by people who are not straight white men.

And yet… look at the New York Times bestseller list for teen fiction. Last week it was four white men and two white women, all of whom I think are straight (not to mention cisgender). I love a lot of these authors and a lot of these books– Gayle Forman is the total god of me. But as an author who is by some token “diverse,” it’s all a little frustrating. People of color, queer people, trans people, etc. should all be better represented in terms of what’s published, duh.

But what about the books that are already out there?

On what projects are you working on next? Is there another book in the works?

I’m working on another YA book that I think is going to be called THE LAST RULE OF MAGIC. It’s your typical platonic gay love story bildungsroman about magicians in New Jersey. It probably won’t be out for awhile because it’s kicking my ass right now. I’m also working on a grown-up book that will probably never be done. As usual I have more ideas than I can really execute.

What feedback do you have for aspiring writers?

Do your laundry. It’s easier than it seems and you’ll get ahead faster if you don’t stink. I have a hard time following this rule myself– Justine Larbalestier has scolded more than once for stinking– but I do try.

Interview: Elliott DeLine! (Part 1 of 2)

Underneath This just enjoyed interviewing Elliott DeLine. Please read some more about Elliott in his self-penned biographical statement before reading part 1 of the interview. Stay tuned for part two in the following weeks!

Elliott DeLine (born 1988) is a transgender writer and activist from Syracuse, NY. He is the author of the novel Refuse and the novella I Know Very Well How I Got My Name. His work has been featured in the Modern Love essay series of The New York Times, The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, and Original Plumbing Magazine. Elliott attended Purchase College and graduated from Syracuse University in 2012 with a BA in English. He is a founding board member of the nonprofit CNY for Solidarity, Inc., and the general coordinator of Queer Mart, and LGBTQ arts and crafts fair. Elliott currently lives in Syracuse, NY, where he works, volunteers, and writes.

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Please describe your path to becoming a writer.

It probably sounds corny, but I’ve always been writing, since I was able. I used to make books as a kid, with paper and staples. Growing up, writing was always something that came pretty naturally to me. That, along with books, music and art, was my way of escaping and expressing myself. I was pretty involved with my high school literary magazine and had a lot of poems and short pieces I would share that way. When I got to college, I decided I wanted to focus on creative writing the most, and not visual art I didn’t really know much about art, I just enjoyed making it. I didn’t like the classes so I switched to an English major and focused on reading and writing. The first times I was really published were in college literary magazines, prior to writing Refuse. Then I self-published Refuse, and then I was a runner-up in the New York Times Modern Love Essay Contest, and then my story was accepted for The Collection, a transgender anthology. Then I also became a blogger for Original Plumbing. Everything built upon itself and more and more people read Refuse. I started getting semi-regular “fan mail,” requests for interviews, and got to read or speak at some events and colleges. Nothing too crazy, but enough that some people took me seriously. I then self-published I Know Very Well How I Got My Name. That’s all it really was. Mostly, I asked people to read my book, or sell it at their store, or to read at their event, and enough people said yes. And it built upon itself.

How has living in Syracuse, NY informed your writing?

Very much so, given that it’s the setting of probably 75% of what I have written the past few years. I’ve lived here most my life, but it took going away a few times to get perspective on it. I’ve become fascinated with the city and region for these past five years or so. The architecture, history, demographics, crime, everything. It seems like everything about me is tied to my location, and I’d never noticed it before. I feel like Syracuse explained everything. Why I am who I am. It was empowering to stop being embarrassed about my history. I was embarrassed because it was so ordinary and I wasn’t anywhere near as worldly as my college friends at least pretended they were. So I wasn’t from some place hip or interesting. So what. I was glad. I am still glad. And people like that are wrong anyway. I’ve always had a lot of hometown pride. It’s common here. It’s a love-hate sort of thing. I think it’s a unique setting because it’s nothing special. Not to outsiders at least.

In what ways has your work been feminist and/or reflected social justice themes?

Like many trans people, I have a conflicted relationship with feminism. I think my books challenge the ways some (cisgender female) feminists view the world. I was actually surprised my second book, I Know Very Well How I Got My Name, didn’t get more backlash. I have to imagine it’s because so far fewer people read it. I thought the depiction of a trans person sexually abused by a cisgender female would be more controversial. Because it’s sort of the reversal of societal expectations, where the trans person is the predator, and male-identified people are predators, and cisgender women are victims only. Feminism is a tough one, because I’ve seen so many trans women as well as men hurt by the words of self-identified feminists. I don’t think my books are anti-feminist. But that wasn’t my concerns when writing those particular pieces. The social justice themes I am most concerned with in Refuse and I Know.. are probably access to healthcare for trans people and a sorta anticapitalist view of work, particularly given trans unemployment. And I think there is a lot to be said about class and location, like I previously mentioned. But I figure what is good for trans people is good for all gender equality. So in that sense, feminists and I are on the same page.

What was it like being part of the first annual QueerMart arts and craft fair?

It was wonderful. We put a lot of time and energy into promoting it and it really paid off. The crowds were big and everyone was so excited. Most the artists made a decent amount if money. I don’t think there’s ever been anything like it in Syracuse. I’m really proud of it. It really brought people together for something positive and fun. It felt empowering.

How did you become involved with CNY for Solidarity and how has this experience been?

Well, that is a long story. It started out as a small project of me and a few friends, because we wanted to spread the word on the CeCe McDonald story. We decided to march in the Syracuse Pride, which, like most LGBT stuff in the area, is overwhelmingly white and cisgender. We are white, so in a way it felt like, “Is this really our place?” But I was so glad we did it. We tried to make it clear that we weren’t speaking for trans women of color, just showing our support for them. Other women we were honoring included LaTeisha Green, who was murdered in Syracuse in 2008. We don’t want people to forget, because not much has changed since then and it could happen again. We wanted people to realize there are members of the LGBT community who have a lot more to worry about that marriage equality and how to decorate their float. Trans people should be a priority, because we are still second class citizens on the whole, and trans women of color should be the TOP priority because there’s nothing short of genocide against them. To be frank, we were a group of quiet but radical people who hadn’t ever felt connected to the LGBT community, particularly in Syracuse. It’s basically a buzzword for us at this point, but we wanted to focus on intersectionality. Single-issue trans activism really turned us all off. Eventually, the group got larger, and some older, very passionate and intelligent individuals got involved, giving us a huge energy boost. My friend Joey single-handedly did the research to make us an incorporated non-profit, with a board of directors. He established the LGBTQ food pantry, and a bus to get people down to Philadelphia for trans-positive care. It’s a mess up here, in terms of getting on hormones and getting general care as well, as a trans person. We try to focus on the real bare bones stuff, because needs just aren’t being met. We want to get people food, healthcare, shelter, jobs, safety, as well as support and empowerment. We have a support group now called Intersections Cafe, where we serve free coffee and dinner and we’re having another Queer mart on May 3rd. We’re starting an indiegogo soon, as well as applying for grants, and hope open our own center in downtown Syracuse. It would start as a resource center, and hopefully in time, we can also develop a solution for trans health care in Syracuse. The Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia has been very supportive of us in this endeavor. There is no general LGBTQ center in Syracuse. There’s one at Syracuse University for students, one for elderly/aging people, and one for youth. But the rest of us don’t really have anything but scattered support groups and gays bars that are always closing down a month after they open. Really, the amount that has been achieved in Syracuse by others is astounding. But it often seems like the left hand isn’t talking with the right. Unfortunately, that hasn’t really improved. But we offer a slew of new resources and services, and we hope in time that other community organization leaders warm up to us. But we try to focus on the community itself and not get bogged down in the politics. There’s work to be done and I’m trying to just move forward. We’re having elections soon for Board Officers, and forming committees, and hope to do some workshops on name change documents, food stamps, and other stuff that can be harder to obtain when you’re trans. We’ve got plenty of energy and ideas, now we just need the funding.

Who have been your creative inspirations?

I find music the most inspirational, which explains for all the references to Morrissey and The Smiths in my work. Morrissey has probably inspired me more than any other artist. This summer I was very inspired by Joni Mitchell. When it really comes down to it though, it’s the people in my life who inspire me the most. I don’t like the idea of “muses,” because there’s a gendered connotation to it that strikes me as gross. However, my desire to make sense of my relationships often drives my work.

I always have drawn inspiration from marginalized artists who were controversial in their communities. Philip Roth was someone I became fixated on for a while. Native Son by Richard Wright made me feel like it was OK to have a deeply flawed protagonist…one who may even appear on the surface to live up to stereotypes, but in reality, to the careful reader, is ultimately sympathetic and powerful in a way that the “poster boys” can never be. I like authors who play with fire, because that’s how you test your beliefs, and that’s the only way you’ll come to anything like the truth. James Baldwin’s Another Country gave me permission somehow, too- to focus on interpersonal relationships more than plot. Not to the point that it’s a soap opera, but it really is OK to just write about the world around you. It doesn’t have to be something far outside your experience and invented. In fact, I think it’s better when it isn’t.

Have you envisioned your novels being made into films? If so, what may that be like?

Yes. I think about this a lot too. I would love that. I’d want to be very involved of course, and I’d want to cast trans people as actors. I would particularly love to see Refuse as a movie. I’d love to pick the songs for the soundtrack. I always envision the opening scene as Dean riding a bike through the suburbs with the song “Please Help the Cause Against Loneliness” by Morrissey. And I always picture it in black and white. And then he’d go up to his room and sit down at the computer and there would be a sort of cheesy voice over narration as he typed. That would quickly fade into the past, or in other words the story that he’s writing. Those scenes would have no voice over. It would switch back and forth between present and past. Maybe the past could be in color, but the present part where it’s just Dean in his head at his parents’ house would be black and white.

What are some of the most salient issues facing trans people today in the United States? How can individuals be an informed ally to trans folks and communities?

Healthcare, including mental healthcare. The healthcare system really fucks us over. Unemployment and poverty. The real bare bones stuff. Our community really suffers, on a grand scale, with basic needs going unmet. It’s sort of sickening. And then there’s isolation and loneliness. People can become informed by listening to us.

On what projects are you currently working?

I’m currently working on a book I’d like to have finished this summer. That’s all I’ll say.

Interview: Gunner Scott!

Underneath This recently enjoyed interviewing Gunner Scott. Please learn more about Gunner in his self-penned biographical statement before reading the subsequent interview.

Gunner Scott is the Director of Programs at the Pride Foundation and received a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Goddard College, where he completed the oral history project entitled “Boston Area Transgender Community Leaders and the ENDA Crisis.”

Gunner brings over a decade of experience leading change in the LGBTQ community along with extensive experience policy development, program management, training, legislative campaigns, fundraising, and communications. Prior to living in Seattle, he was the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC) where he led a five-year legislative campaign for the Transgender Equal Rights bill, which passed in 2011.

Through Making Waves Coaching & Consulting, he supports artists, activists, creative professionals and entrepreneurs in developing their practices and self confidence in promoting their craft, their brand, and their passion to the world. With a 20 year background in providing mental health, substance abuse, and survivor empowerment counseling, he has supported individuals in making change. Along with his executive level non-profit management experience, he has been creative culture maker producing community arts events, including Boston’s Gender Crash Open Mic and the pop-up art show entitled, Undivided: Dewey Square Pop-up Art Show – Inspired by Occupy Boston/Occupy Wall St.

He has written articles for Boston Phoenix and Bay Windows newspapers, What’s Up magazine, and Sojourner Women’s Forum. He penned “Agitate and Activate,” the introduction to Pinned Down by Pronouns, a 2003 Lambda Literary-nominated anthology and he is a co-author on the study and 2011 American Journal of Public Health article “Transgender Health in Massachusetts: Results from a Household Probability Sample of Adults.”

He is also passionate about saving wild lions from extinction and captivity including advocating for lions to be added to the Endangered Species Act in order to stop the rapid decline of lions.

gunner

Please describe your trajectory to becoming an activist.

Great question, for me it started in high school with regards to environmental activism and student rights. I was not out as queer until about 23 and trans about 1999, and it was the 70s and 80s when I was in middle and high school and to be gay was unheard of let alone transgender at least where I grew up in Plymouth, MA. It was not until the AIDS crisis became more public in 1987/8 did anything about being gay come up and even then it was very homophobic.

I became active in LGBTQ activism in the late 1990s when I joined the Boston Lesbian Avengers. I participated in several direct action events, marches, speak outs, and eventually participated in the vigil march for Rita Hester, an African American transgender woman killed in Allston, MA two weeks after Matthew Shepard. And following the vigil a protest at the Boston Herald and Bay Windows newspaper for their transphobic use of male pronouns and publishing her birth name and making it seem as she had “lived a double life” even though she was well known in Allston/Boston as a woman and a musician. Her murder is still unsolved. After that my trajectory was towards transgender rights and participating in the transgender movement that had been slowly building for a number of years.

Eventually, I was lucky enough to work full time as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, which is still one of very few trans led, trans organizations with paid staff and an office in the country.

How have your social and personal identities informed your work?

I think for me, I have always had a strong streak of fighting for the disenfranchised, maybe my own experience of dealing with homelessness as a young adult, my mom being a single parent when I was very young, having experienced poverty, homophobia, and sexism. Later experiencing transphobia and discrimination in housing and health care, but because of privilege, because of my being white, I have had more opportunities and I am treated significantly different now that my gender expression reflects a white man.

I seriously get angry when I see someone being treated disrespectfully, discriminated against, often dehumanized because they are not in the majority, because they are visible different in some way.

What are similarities and differences between activist communities in Massachusetts and Washington state?

I am not sure I can yet point those out, if there are any significant differences. I was so embedded in Massachusetts activism, politics, and community and here in Washington, I have been slow to get involved, mostly because I needed some personal space and time to take care of myself after working on a legislative campaign for so long. I know there are plenty of opportunities here in Washington when I am ready.

What were the expected and unexpected aspects of the results of the Transgender Health in Massachusetts study you co-authored with Kerith Conron, ScD, MPH, Grace Stowell, MA, and Stewart Landers, JD, MCP ?

I would say one of the unexpected results was the number of transgender people that had a primary care access and I think that is because the survey was done after Massachusetts instituted mandated health insurance. I was also just pleasantly relieved that transgender people did self-identify when asked on a telephone survey. I have heard so often from data geeks and public health folks that asking more than one gender question or asking about being transgender will cause the results to get compromised from too many non-transgender people not understanding or claiming to be transgender to purposely throw off the results or that transgender people may not disclose. I am hoping that our cities and states will add additional gender categories.

How was the process of developing the oral history, “Boston Area Community Leaders and the ENDA crisis?

I wanted to understand how those who live openly as transgender and are community educators, leaders, and/or activists of today were affected by and dealt with the setbacks of the 2007 specifically the “ENDA Crisis.”

It was really out of anger and frustration with constant accusations by some gay, lesbian, and bisexual activists (GLB) and organizations that the transgender community had recently “tagged on” to the equal rights work and the transgender community is trying to get a “free ride” without having done any work for their own rights. It was like some GLB activists and politicians were saying we [transgender people] have just shown up today and expect to be included. In 2007, Representative Barney Frank alluded to this assumption in his statement he released after he introduced an employment non-discrimination bill to be voted on the House that only included sexual orientation after previously introducing an employment non-discrimination bill that included sexual orientation and gender identity.

I knew there were transgender activists that had been doing education work, being visible, changing policy for decades and yet, they were almost completely invisible on state or national stage. So I started with those who were some of my mentors and my peers in my Boston community. I explored their experiences, feelings, and reactions during that time and about Federal-level LGBT equal rights legislation. I wanted to understand how these leaders came into transgender activism, what they think about legislative tactics as way to end discrimination and if they had to express a public message different from their personal feelings with regards to the situation. I wanted to share that transgender people had been fighting for their rights, alongside GLB activists for decades, visibly, without having their stories erased or re-interpreted to fit a gay narrative. Yes, some of my participants are gay/lesbian or bisexual and some were not and some came from the gay or lesbian community before transitioning. I proved my own theory, which is that we, transgender and gender non-conforming people have been part of the “gay rights movement” for as long and in some cases gender non-conforming people have been organizing since before the first “gay rights group was established in the early 1920s.”

You have been a Commissioner on the Massachusetts Commission on GLBT Youth and the Massachusetts Commission on Unaccompanied Homeless Youth. What are the most salient issues affecting LGBTQ+ youth in the United States today?

That we still have LGBTQ homeless youth in general and that parents, foster homes, and/or families still get away with disowning their kid and they are not held accountable for kicking them out and putting them in danger. These parents should be paying child support to the programs that pick up the pieces.

Homelessness and poverty are solvable issues, yet as a society we continue to not solve these problems and too often blame poor people and poor young people for their situation.

Being homeless can and does interrupt the trajectory of a person’s life. I know this. I failed out of college the first time, because I was homeless and trying to work 3 jobs at 18 years old. I was then not able to get my degree until I was almost 40 years old, because constantly trying to get out of the cycle of poverty, my potential was stunted because of that experience and today, I am still making up for lost time. I am excited to say I am buying my first house at the age of 44 with my husband.

From your experience as the Director of Programs at the Pride Foundation, what are some ways that cisgender queer and trans* communities can collaborate to work towards social justice and equality despite differences?

I think just understanding that experiences of discrimination are often based on assumptions about gender expression. When we work to eliminate sexism and gender expression discrimination we are doing something to lift up the whole community. First thing for cisgender queer and straight people, stop talking FOR transgender people and talk with us, that would be awesome.

How can people become and continue to be informed allies to trans* youth and adults?

One easy way to self-educate, read books or watch documentaries, attend a Transgender Film Festival, Seattle’s is in May, set a e-news alert for transgender stories. Question “gay rights” history and why no transgender people are visible in books and some films about Stonewall. Encourage more gender categories on forms in school, work, etc… we don’t necessarily need 50 (but thanks Facebook for giving us all something to strive for!) but at least 4-5 would be great. Allow space for people to self-identify, not just trans people, write letters to the editor when positive and negative stories come out about transgender people. Donate to transgender projects, organizations, and causes. Transgender movement work is the least funded and yet often has a wide impact GLB as well.

How have trans* people diverse in race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, spirituality, and ability worked together for activist causes? What have been challenges and strengths in this collaboration?

This could be a dissertation… short answer is yes and we still need have a long way to go on dealing with racism and classism in the transgender community, much like the GLB and the larger population.

What was it like participating in The “Trans-Form The Occupation” as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement? What is your perception of the movement overall?

Awesome! Just being at Occupy Wall St was amazing as an activist, especially as I was so involved with Occupy Boston. I was just inspired by the number of people that showed up to participate in a workshop that required us to use the “human mic” – I said something then the crowd repeated back so everyone could hear it… might be the loudest transgender 101 I have ever done. The connections made between trans justice and economic justice were incredible, I made so many allies and friends from being a part of that movement.

You have also been actively involved in protecting wild lions from being captured and killed. How do you see animal and human rights activism fitting together?

Easy, when we disrupt the eco-system by eliminating one animal in the larger eco chain we are hurting ourselves especially in terms of adding to climate change and destruction of the environment. For instance, eliminate lions from the plains of Africa, the herbivore population animals are unchecked and can decimate the grasses, which then can lead to drought… as an example.

In addition, what right do we have to trophy hunt an animal in extinction or use up all the land it lives an hunts on, there are similarities to how we treat some people as less than because of who they are and how land ownership and gentrification pushes some out to the farther edges with least amount of resources, this can also be seen in how we treat animals, particularly wild animals.

What insights do you have for aspiring activists?

Breathe, self-care, and work in collaboration or a group. I did not do anything and everything alone, I would as part of a team or group, sometimes I was the most visible and other times I was in the background. Check your ego against what is best for the community and the larger movement and always go with community.

Know when to step aside as a leader and make space for new leaders to emerge. That for me is one the main reasons I stepped down from MTPC and moved across the country. I wanted to make space for new voices and leadership in Boston and Massachusetts.

What are you working on next?

Besides just trying to be really good at my job as a grantmaker with Pride Foundation, I have recently been elected to the Seattle LGBT Commission. I am excited to work on city level policy and contribute to my new community in that way. I really enjoy being civic engaged.

As for other creative things, I have a startup project, Making Waves Coaching & Consulting (http://makingwavescc.wordpress.com/). Through Making Waves Coaching & Consulting, I am looking to coach/support artists, activists, creative professionals and entrepreneurs in developing their practices and self-confidence in promoting their craft, their brand, and their passion to the world. This will also include developing social media campaigns and marketing strategies for artists, activists, creative professionals and entrepreneurs.

-Sem