Love, Simon’s Greg Berlanti Was Blackmailed

What’s harder than being a gay teen in high school? Making a movie about a gay teen with a major film studio. It hasn’t existed — until Love, Simon “came out” this month. The film’s journey to the big screen was no straight line.

Simon Spier was first introduced in a 2015 young adult novel by Becky Albertalli, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. Albertalli seems an unlikely source for a book about a closeted high-schooler battling digital blackmail. The 30-something Georgia native is a straight, married woman with kids; who worked as a clinical psychologist before penning Simon.

But Albertalli knows what it’s like to be an outsider. Growing up in the Atlanta suburbs, she was bullied for her body type, and she drew from this experience to craft her gay 16-year-old protagonist. “He’s a lot like me,” Albertalli revealed: “a theater kid” who is “full of secrets” and “piecing together” how to grow up.

Simon was a hit with critics and readers. It found its way to the desk of Greg Berlanti — the gay producer behind The Broken Hearts Club and the CW’s Arrowverse. Berlanti fell in love with Albertalli’s book and pursued a potential film adaptation. However, Fox 2000 Pictures and Temple Hill Productions beat Berlanti to the punch, commissioning a screenplay by Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger.

Berlanti still wanted to be involved, and he visited the studio one Saturday afternoon to share his notes about his imagined adaptation. In return, producers offered him the opportunity to direct, and Berlanti happily accepted. Albertalli, a Berlanti fan, was thrilled. “It feels very special that this movie is coming out, that Fox is taking this chance right now,” she said.

Berlanti connected with the book “in a very personal way,” he said, and “really tapped back into myself, the sense of isolation I felt as a closeted gay teenager.” He used this perspective to advise writers, producers, and actors in creative choices. With them, he was “more open and vulnerable than I usually am about my own story.”

“I realized for me to be the best shepherd of this, I’m going to have to be as personal as I can be. And maybe that will invite other people to be personal too,” he reasoned.

There are also many parallels between Berlanti and Simon. The 45-year-old director grew up “really closeted” in a town outside New York City. He felt “a sense of isolation” within his family. He was a theater geek who studied playwriting at Northwestern University, where he encountered another “bizarre” overlap while in a fraternity.

“I was with someone before I was out, and someone threatened to out both of us in a letter when I was still in college,” said Berlanti, who was “terrified” by the experience. “I was living a double life in school.”

Fortunately, Berlanti resolved the situation by approaching the blackmailer, who “melted down” after the confrontation. “I think they were going through stuff themselves. Again, there wasn’t as much ability to express who you were [back then]. That can cause people to act all sorts of ways where they aren’t their best selves,” he said.

Berlanti eventually came out at 23. Initially, his parents “had a rather rough time with it.” During the “cooling-off period,” Berlanti wrote a letter to them expressing a theme also addressed in Love, Simon — that being gay was only one aspect of who he was. It must have been persuasive. Within a year, his parents were attending a party at a gay bar for a film he had made.

Today, Berlanti also understands what it’s like to be a parent. He and his husband, soccer player Robbie Rogers, welcomed a son, Caleb, through surrogacy in 2016. The experience taught Berlanti a lot about children.

“You try and figure them out more than you try to imprint on them,” Berlanti said. “I’m not sure I realized how true that was — that our son has his own desires and wants and personalities. I’m sure they’ll keep unfolding to us as he grows up.”

For parents, seeing Love, Simon with their kids might help them with this discovery. Berlanti recounted “a really emotional moment” at a test screening in Kansas, when a 13-year-old came out to his father.

It demonstrated how a film like Love, Simon was necessary in both red and blue states. “People in the heart of Kansas were just as passionate talking about the importance or the reason people needed a movie like this as the people in California,” Berlanti said. “At the end of the day, it’s good for us all to remind each other that we’re all human beings, and people aren’t as different as they think.”

This lesson is vital. As the #MeToo movement has shown, the perils of being closeted can extend well past high school. Sexual predators like Harvey Weinstein have used threats of outing to manipulate vulnerable queer people.

To fight this abuse of power, Berlanti quoted Harvey Milk: “Every gay person must come out.” But unlike in Love, Simon, where “that moment gets stolen from our hero,” it’s up to individuals to take control of their own narrative. Coming out is “not something that should be taken away from anyone,” Berlanti stressed. But it is inevitable.

He concluded, “Everybody in their lifetime, in one way or another, has to learn how to say to the world, ‘This is who I am.’”

Love, Simon's Joey Pollari: Every Love Story Is a Coming Out Story

In Love, Simon, a closeted teen, Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) wrestles with his identity. Despite having supportive friends and family members, he fears being an out gay person might affect these relationships. He worries the future he had envisioned for himself will be destroyed. 

It’s a situation familiar to many members of the LGBT community, including Joey Pollari, who portrays Lyle — a potential love interest for Simon — in the groundbreaking romantic comedy, which is the first backed by a major studio to center on a gay teen.

“His experience was similar to mine,” said the 23-year-old actor, who began his career in  Disney Channel movies like Skyrunners and Avalon High before graduating to ABC’s American Crime.

In Love, Simon, Pollari plays a server at a Waffle House who may or may not be Blue, a closeted teen who corresponds with Simon through email. For most of the film, Blue’s identity is a secret, leaving a lovestruck Simon to guess who the identity of his crush might be. Along the way, Simon is blackmailed by a fellow classmate, who discovers that he is gay and uses that information against him.

Pollari came out as gay at age 18 to friends and family — although thankfully, unlike Simon, he did not have to contend with blackmail. Overall, Pollari’s coming-out was a “positive” experience. “I think all my friends and family knew on some level. I think maybe two people were shocked.”

“The only part that was difficult was me coming out to myself. And I think that is the most difficult coming out,” he said. His supportive mother had been “waiting for a very, very long time” to hear her son speak those words. “My mom knew. She laid hints for me everywhere,” he said, recalling conversations they had in the past about acceptance of gay people.

There were other early indicators for the Minnesota native — a love of The Wizard of Oz and Judy Garland that inspired a Wicked Witch Halloween costume at age 2; an early interest in foreign films like Y Tu Mama Tambien with a “completely different approach to sexuality” than American fare, with exceptions like Brokeback Mountain, which he had seen by age 12; an interest in gay literature like James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (a “heartbreaking rite of passage” for a gay person) and the work of AIDS activist and playwright Larry Kramer.

But for a long time, despite these resources and a support network, something held Pollari back.

“A lot of the trouble was self shame. I do believe a system of power, of patriarchy, of masculinity did impact me,” he reflected, adding, “The greatest difficulty I found was that it didn’t match my idea of myself. It seemed incongruent with the future I imagined for myself, the identity I had struck up with others. The interplay between me and women, me and men, now suddenly seemed entirely different. That just didn’t seem fair or right.”

Fortunately, Pollari discovered that his greatest fears of being out were unfounded.

“While it does have a big impact on [my] identity, it doesn’t in the ways that I thought it would,” he said. When he was in the closet, his mind would often contemplate “nightmares” about what being an out gay man would be like. “On the other side, it’s a lot plainer than I thought,” he found.

“The real scary stuff and the real exciting stuff is falling in love with someone,” Pollari said. That’s the prize of it.” In addition, of course, to the prize “loving oneself.”

Pollari also sees this message in Love, Simon. The film transcends some of the “more stereotypical torture” present in queer films, he perceived, because Simon’s coming out as gay “is tied to a narrative of finding love and self love.” It’s an experience he believes any audience would relate to.

“Every love story, gay or straight, has to come from a place of coming out of some closet of some previous fear into a new territory. This one just makes it a little bit more explicit and ties it to the gay experience,” he said. 

In fact, Pollari has found that there are a million things to come out about, in addition to being gay. Life is a series of “different doors to go through, into bigger, and bigger, and bigger rooms,” he said.

Love, Simon‘s historic representation as a gay-centered teen rom-com is not lost on Pollari, who reflected on the “positive impact” such a production would have had on him growing up. “It feels great to be a part of something that people could connect to the LGBTQ plus community, and youth could find themselves in or be moved by. That’s a cool experience.”

This is not Pollari’s first project that was a milestone in LGBT visibility. The actor was in in season 2 of American Crime, in which he portrayed Eric Tanner, a gay high school basketball player accused of sexually assaulting another male student. The acclaimed production aired in 2016, but it dealt with many issues that reverberate today, among them campus rape, as well as the dangers of toxic masculinity and the closet.

Although Pollari had recently experienced a closeted high school life himself, he found his character struggled with a “magnified” shame that came from “a masculinity tribe, his basketball team,” he said. “Although I wanted part in that as a teenager I was, I was in theater, in plays, and going to see foreign films, reading books. I took a little bit of an outside approach to that stuff.”

While Eric may or may not have committed a crime, he’s no one-dimensional villain. His father is not accepting of his sexuality, he is outed to his school, and his gay identity is used as a political weapon by the administration. Portraying him was educational for Pollari. “The show is centered around, its emotional core, sexuality, but it’s really about truth. And he finds that this truth [of his gay identity] has actually come to define him. It’s curious that he sees the injustice of it. I don’t think that’s hard to relate to. Having one’s self defined by their sexuality or defined by any one part of yourself can be frustrating.”

Overall, Pollari called the experience on American Crime, created by John Ridley and starring Felicity Huffman, Regina King, and Timothy Hutton, a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to work with top names in the entertainment industry for an impactful social message. “I dreamed of as a kid [to] get to be part of that community,” he said.

On Love, Simon, Pollari also discovered a community of passionate people who cared about the film’s social meaning. The movie is directed by the gay director Greg Berlanti (“wonderful to work with,” said Pollari) as well as several gay actors, like Clark Moore, who understood firsthand the importance of visibility as well as the power of being out.

From an early age, Pollari recognized the importance of queer public figures to his own life. It’s why he felt it was important for him to be out as an actor.

“It’s part of my goal to be more transparent, especially in the public sphere,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing. Anybody who’s out? It was helpful to me when I was in the closet. I think just adding another voice there is a good thing to do.” 

“It meant a lot to me when I was younger,” he added. “To see people who are out, to see people who are all kinds of things — people who are so clear in their anger, people who are clear about their arrogance, their pettiness, their desperation. I mean, that’s why I go to the movies… I go to learn something about someone else. In a byproduct, I learn about myself. That’s the power of representation.”

Love, Simon premieres March 16. Watch the trailer below.

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My Grandparents Created PFLAG

Since my early childhood my family made it clear that to them a person’s sexual orientation was simply part of who they were, the  same as their hair or eye color. I was taught that if you were a good person, didn’t hurt anyone, and had good manners, you should be judged based on your words and actions, not on who you loved. I had no idea that this message would also become the basis for an organization that would change — and save — lives over the next four decades. 

My grandparents, Jeanne and Jules Manford, were the founders of PFLAG, and this year we mark 45 years of family love, acceptance, and celebration, something I saw every day in my home that now lives in hearts and homes everywhere thanks to my grandparents; it’s a legacy I am very proud to carry on as a parent and ally.

Forty-five years ago, I was only 4 years old when my uncle, gay activist Morty Manford, was beaten during an act of civil disobedience. His mother, my grandmother, was furious and wrote a letter to the New York Post criticizing the bullies who beat him and declaring her love for her son. “My son is a homosexual,” she wrote, “And I love him.” It was 1972. This kind of public declaration was a revolutionary act.

My uncle asked my grandmother to protest with him in the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, an early precursor to New York Pride. She said yes, but “only if I can carry a sign.” So she marched, carrying a homemade sign that said “Parents of Gays: Unite in Support for Our Children.” So many young people begged her to talk to their parents, and soon our home phone began to ring. Parents of Gays (now PFLAG) was born.

People began to visit us, meeting in our living room in the Flushing section of Queens. Soon the meetings grew bigger, and the first official meeting was held at the Metropolitan Community Church in lower Manhattan in March 1973.

In every other way, my days were pretty average and, in retrospect, idyllic when I was a child living in Flushing with my grandparents, uncle, and mom. I played outside, went to school, ate cereal, and watched Sesame Street on Saturday mornings.

Once a month, however, I’d spend Saturday morning with my grandparents on the 7 train to Penn Station, from which we would make our way to Greenwich Village for the meetings. The meetings were pretty boring for a little kid. I felt sorry for the crying adults who couldn’t understand what was taught to me at such a young age: Their kids were fine. Honestly. My grandparents tried to comfort, listen, and explain.

I went to Parents of Gays meetings, marched in gay pride parades, and accompanied my grandparents all over the country when they appeared on radio and TV shows simply to declare their love for my uncle.

Some of my earliest memories are of these meetings and trips, and learning from my grandparents and uncle that just because someone is different from you doesn’t mean  they are better or worse. To think otherwise, I was taught, is bigotry — unthinking, uneducated discrimination based on fear without facts or cause.

As I sit down to write these words, it seems so basic. It is like learning about colors and letters to me. Like so many others right now, I am stunned that we have to revisit these simple ideas, yet in a cultural and political climate that is increasingly hostile to diversity and difference, we need to bring out this message more than ever.

At the time, I didn’t realize how extraordinary it was for my grandmother, a shy schoolteacher, and my humble (and very ill) grandfather to put their friendships and careers on the line to make these public statements.

The fear that others might have felt, however, didn’t matter to them. To them, the worst had already happened. You see, they had three children, but their eldest, Charles, had died by suicide. My Uncle Morty was their youngest child, their golden boy, and he too had tried to end his own life when he was first grappling with his sexuality. They were not going to let that happen.

What my grandparents didn’t know was that their intuition — that parental support and family affirmation could save their child’s life — was right on target; in fact, their instincts would turn out to be evidence-based facts.

The Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University has found that LGBT youth who experience high levels of rejection by their families are:  

·      More than 8 times as likely to have attempted suicide
·      Nearly 6 times as likely to report high levels of depression
·      More than 3 times as likely to use illegal drugs, and
·      More than 3 times as likely to be at high risk for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases when compared with youth who are not rejected by their families because of their gay or transgender identities.

However, even the smallest amount of family acceptance can turn these numbers around.

The simple building blocks of common decency I was taught in my childhood have helped shape who I am as a person, a parent, and a doctor. I specialize in family medicine and try to give advice that is going to help the body, spirit, and mind — all related. In my office, I have patients, some young children, who are just figuring out their identity and sexuality. I have had children suffer with depression until their parents figured out that their insistence on a gender identity other than that with which they were born was not a phase. Once they are accepted for who they are, I see the happy looks on their faces and the ease in their bodies. Doctor visits for tummy aches for which there is no physical cause disappear.

The opposite, unfortunately, is also a reality: Young people who have been thrown out of their house due to their sexuality show up in my practice frequently with chronic complaints or depression. For these folks, the best path that I have seen is when they develop a community outside of family that can help with resilience and self-acceptance. There is always sadness, however, and my patients who have been rejected by their families do frequently struggle with depression, anxiety, and sometimes substance abuse. 

Having a medical home in which sexuality and gender identity are accepted as a given is important — I am so happy to provide that — but my really successful patients are the ones for whom their family primarily provides such an environment. 

My grandparents, Jeanne and Jules Manford, are gone now. They provided me with a remarkable childhood full of love and life lessons. I saw firsthand through their relationships and activities how the political was personal. I saw how individuals could make a difference by using their voices and hearts. I began, as a child, to understand how the mental and physical health of each family member was dependent on the others. My grandparents shared with me the pain of having lost a child, and they taught me through their words, political activities, and actions at home how to save a life. I believe that their message of love, pride, and acceptance is needed now more than ever, and I am so grateful that 45 years later, PFLAG carries on what they started. 

AVRIL SWAN is family physician based in San Francisco and a proud granddaughter of Jeanne and Jules Manford, the founders of PFLAG.

Exclusive: Maxine Waters Answers Trump's Attack on Her Intelligence

LOS ANGELES — The president gave Rep. Maxine Waters the spotlight and she used it to blast him in an interview and a blistering speech before the Human Rights Campaign’s annual dinner in Los Angeles on Saturday. 

Before rallying an audience of more than 1,000 people at HRC’s fundraiser held at the J.W. Marriott (Olympian Gus Kenworthy called it a “mic drop moment”), Waters spoke backstage with The Advocate exclusively about the president’s latest attack on her intelligence. 

During a speech in Pennsylvania earlier in the afternoon, Trump called the California congresswoman “a very low I.Q. individual.” He seemed especially bothered by her repeated calls for impeachment—which Waters not only doubled down on in the interview but then expanded her suggestions of wrongdoing to the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who she said is “in danger.” 

Waters specifically called out Kushner over the required disclosure forms he filed (and re-filed) to work in the White House. “In addition to maybe having left things out, I think he may have lied on his disclosure,” she said. Waters accused him of also lying while under oath when facing three hours of questions from the House Intelligence Committee in July.

“I believe that he’s lying and that he has lied,” she told The Advocate. Waters suggested the special counsel’s charges against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort could impact Kushner. “I believe that Kushner can be caught having lied, and I think he can be caught involved I think in some of the money laundering involved with Manafort,” she said.

That’s exactly the kind of talk that appears to perturb Trump. He complained to an audience during a campaign-style rally in Moon Township, Pennsylvania, that “We have to defeat Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters, a very low I.Q. individual.“ The audience booed Waters’ name. “Ever see her? You ever see her? ‘We will impeach him! We will impeach the president.’ But he hasn’t done anything wrong. ‘It doesn’t matter, we will impeach him.’ She’s a low I.Q. individual. You can’t help it. She really is.”

It wasn’t the first time Trump went after Waters’ brains. 

“He started with at the Gridiron when he said I need to have an I.Q. test,” recalled Waters before taking the stage in Los Angeles. Waters said “I’m not surprised at all” about being attacked, or that Trump would belittle her intelligence. “I’ve been saying some things about him for a while. I think it’s gotten to him, finally. I’ve been very vocal, and I’ve been very confrontational almost. And I’ve been on the point calling for his impeachment, and I think that bothers him a lot. What I’m told about his speech in Pennsylvania was that he kept saying, ‘she keeps calling for impeachment,’ so I think it bothers him.”

And with that, Waters reiterated her call for impeachment. “I’ve always believed that there was enough there certainly to impeach him, and I believe even more so now that Mueller has been more than connecting the dots,” she said. “This latest revelation about the secret meeting in the Seychelles was very very telling.” Waters is using her moment in Trump’s spotlight to note reports that adviser Erik Prince might have lied while testifying under oath to Congress, having insisted a meeting there had not been intended to set up a back channel with Russia.

Waters then went on stage for the HRC fundraiser and ripped Trump for much of her 20 minutes. At one point she powered through a huge list of Trump controversies, naming everything from his bragging about grabbing women to the Russia investigation. “I am not going to back down,” she promised. “I believe that all of us deserve better than Donald Trump.”

The kicker got the biggest applause, though. Waters said she had great faith in Mueller’s investigation, but hinted at a backup plan. “In the final analysis I think he is going to get him. And if for some reason he is not able to get him, I’m counting on Stormy to do it.”

Watch the entire HRC speech in the video below.

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NEAL BROVERMAN contributed to this report.

Report: Illinois Pol Once Said Child Abusers Preferable to Gay Parents

A candidate for Illinois attorney general reportedly once said she’d rather see children placed with foster parents who were known child abusers than with a gay couple.

The information about Republican Erika Harold surfaced Thursday in a report by Chicago TV station WMAQ.

When Harold was competing in the Miss Illinois pageant in 2000, she was asked the question because her mother was a social worker responsible for child placement in foster care, sources involved with the pageant told the station. In a private interview, pageant officials asked her, “If she, like her mother, was responsible to place a child in foster care and had to choose between a.) A loving gay couple or b.) A heterosexual couple who were known child abusers, which would she chose?” according to WMAQ. All three sources the station spoke to, who were present when she answered, said she chose the child abusers.

“I remember it because it was so shocking,” said one of the sources, identified as a pageant official. “She took some time to answer it. And that drew people in. It stopped the room. The official added, “It said a lot about her, she spoke about reading the Bible daily and said her beliefs could not subject a child to the gay lifestyle.” Another pageant official said Harold was quite young at the time but clearly intelligent.

After repeated requests from WMAQ, Harold’s campaign released this statement: “Voters should first know that NBC Chicago has chosen to air an unverified story from anonymous sources twelve days before an election about an alleged event that supposedly occurred nearly two decades ago when Erika was 20 years old. Erika does not recall the alleged exchange, but Erika certainly support[s] same-sex adoption and foster care placement.”

The Illinois primary election will be held March 20. Harold, who has worked with some major law firms, is vying with Gary Grasso, who has held political offices in the Chicago suburbs, for the Republican nomination for attorney general. Grasso said he was “appalled” by Harold’s statement. Harold has received praise and campaign contributions from Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner. There are eight candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for the office, including Sharon Fairley, who has been a federal prosecutor and has received some high-profile endorsements, and former Gov. Pat Quinn. Incumbent Lisa Madigan, a Democrat, is not seeking reelection.

Watch the WMAQ report below.

A Trans Woman's Experiences at the Conservative Movement's Woodstock

In life, sometimes you come back to a place where, in many ways, you feel at home, while others in your tribe may feel fear and dread. Such a place may also be where, like Liam Neeson’s character in Taken, you have a “special set of skills” through which you can make positive change happen. Your skills and your uniqueness may bridge gaps that seem unbridgeable to others.

That is exactly what happened recently when three other transgender women and I attended the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md. We each were there for four days to meet and network with our fellow conservatives and to advocate for transgender Americans and our broader LGBTQ community. For those unfamiliar with CPAC, it is the conservative movement’s annual Woodstock, with an expected 14,000 attendees coming from the United States and around the world.

None of us are wealthy, and all of us made our own way to CPAC without financial support from any political action committee, donor, advocacy group, or anyone else telling us what to do or how to do it. We ventured from across the country as happy rainbow warriors looking to network, exchange views, learn, and make inroads for the future as we represented our transgender community. We met fellow conservatives from red states, blue states, and purple states as well as from Europe, Australia, and Japan.

Our message was simple: “We are equals, we agree on many things (but not all), and if you aren’t already on board with LGBTQ liberty, freedom, and equality … let’s have a conversation!” We expected to have a lot of interesting discussions, but what we didn’t expect was to have about two dozen LGBTQ community members or their parents and relatives share a hug and introduce themselves as they thanked us for being there. In addition to interactions with these amazing, supportive folks, we received more hugs, fist bumps, high fives, and even a few kisses on the cheek as we engaged with our fellow conservatives in real discussions about our community. Many CPAC attendees asked us to pose for pictures with them and to come back next year.

To help make conversations happen, Adelynn Campbell, Jordan Evans, Gina Roberts, and I dressed in business attire and wore distinct handmade pins my wife had made that said, “Proud to Be Conservative … Proud to Be Transgender … Proud to Be American … #SameTeam.” To make sure that no was confused about our message, she also placed a Republican elephant with one-half of the inset being the great Transgender Pride flag. One thing I learned when I began my LGBTQ advocacy as the only openly transgender delegate at the massive Republican National Convention was that if you want to meet a lot of people and dispel any myths and fears they may have about our community, you need to advertise. Politely introducing yourself to people one by one is great, but being small in number won’t allow you to achieve critical mass. In addition to our loud and proud buttons, we also held my wife’s handmade signs with the same “Proud to Be…” slogan in large type to make sure no one missed us or the positive message that we sought to bring.

This wouldn’t be the first time that these special signs and buttons appeared at CPAC. Last year, my colleague Jordan Evans joined me to advocate for our transgender community and help hold a replica of our country’s original Gadsden (“Don’t Tread on Me”) flag from the American Revolution. It was quite effective in helping us capture the eyeballs of passersby last year and create great moments of conversation after CPAC attendees flashed surprise at two real-life transgender people being in their midst. This occurred the very day after President Trump’s administration rescinded the Obama guidance on accommodations that helped protect transgender schoolchildren in the United States. To say that Jordan Evans and I were unhappy about the Trump administration’s unwise decision would be a vast understatement, and as 2017 rolled along, we did everything we could to advocate against this action and others that followed.

Obviously, this past year has been a difficult one for our LGBTQ tribe and especially our transgender community. Even as Republicans and conservative Americans, we felt the sting and frustration of what seemed like an unrelenting round of announcements, press conferences, tweets, breaking news, and actual actions regarding our administration’s direction on the lives of LGBTQ Americans. We also had to contend with state-level discriminatory actions against transgender people around our country and campaign against them when they cropped up. So this year, I knew that we would need to go one better with our using an attention-grabbing flag representing  freedom, liberty, and equality. Fortunately, our colleague Gina Roberts graciously donated a rainbow flag with the famous Gadsden snake and “Don’t Tread on Me” emblazoned on it.

Each of us who advocated at CPAC realize that many in our LGBTQ community who don’t share our conservative and Republican perspectives may prefer that we demonstrate, display anger, or outwardly challenge our fellow CPAC attendees. For reaching our brothers and sisters in the conservative movement, that is not a winning strategy. In our collective opinion, to win any hearts and minds of this crowd and many other conservatives and Republicans around the country, one needs to be respectful, civil, and prepared to elicit questions and provide honest, fact-filled, yet heartfelt answers as needed. You must also share your own story over and over and over. Not through confrontation or name-calling.

There are many conservatives and Republicans who actually don’t hate or dislike LGBTQ people, nor reject others based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and who are embarrassed by what some others are doing in their name. They actually do support our community. However, as we have found at CPAC, many have never been offered the opportunity to meet or express their support to someone who is LGBTQ. Some conservatives have met a lesbian, gay, or bisexual person, but most have never met a transgender person before. By letting them meet us, we as advocates were given the chance to change their hearts and then, their minds — what I call the “Harvey Milk Rule.”

To paraphrase the great Harvey Milk: Maybe, just maybe, once they connect with us, they will become much less likely to vote against LGBTQ people instead of voting to help strip away our freedoms, liberties, and rights. In our case, the conservatives and Republicans we met would remember “those nice ladies from CPAC” before voting to hurt our community.

By being present at the Conservative Political Action Conference and inviting a conversation, we achieved our goal. We had the type of conversations that need to be had at this time. Over the many hours we stood with our rainbow Gadsden flag, message signs, GOP/Trans Pride buttons, and smiles and roamed CPAC, we spoke with hundreds of attendees. Many thousands more saw us as they walked back and forth between speeches and breakout sessions.

We worked hard to have those necessary conversations, minute by minute, hour by hour, with conservatives from all demographics and age groups. As one might imagine, we were more popular with millennials than with older generations. As a Gen X member myself, I know that most of my generation are supportive of LGBTQ people, but transgender liberty and freedom still seem to be a work in progress. Overall, millennial conservatives clearly have less issues with LGBTQ people than someone like Ben Shapiro would suggest.

After Shapiro’s appearance at CPAC, three of us were challenged to a debate by a group of young college men loaded for bear with talking points. Adelynn Campbell, Jordan Evans, and I held our rainbow Gadsden flag and our signs as defused their prepared arguments for denying our existence as transgender Americans. We also provided more than enough Trans 101 to destroy their myths about our community before a growing crowd for nearly 30 minutes. At one point in the debate, Jordan Evans and I switched places in order to tackle different questions from our debate opponents. By being at CPAC as fellow conservatives, we were able to counter and refute anti-transgender comments in speeches by Shapiro, Michelle Malkin, and France’s Marion Le Pen, live and in person. Nothing could stop us from taking questions and advocating for our community; not even a guy walking behind us with a crucifix a few times.

We were also able to offer a beacon of support to a number of LGBT conservatives who came to speak with us. We shared some of our experiences and were able to tell them things are getting better on our side of the aisle and that they too can be part of the change they want to see. It was wonderful to meet with them and to realize that the number of LGBTQ conservatives and Republicans is growing and that they already have a home in the fight to protect our community’s liberties, freedoms, and equality. I was honored to meet a quiet young gay man from North Carolina and learn about his desire to get more involved politically in his community and party. I’d like to think meeting some transgender women at CPAC may have made his decision and his journey a little easier.

However, some of our most meaningful conversations were with military veterans. Several veterans spoke with us to express their support for our using our right to free speech that they fought for in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other tough places. One Navy veteran said, “I may not understand everything about y’all, but I’m really glad you are here!” It was hard not to tear up through my smile as he slowly made his way to another speech. I would never try to convince Advocate readers that we changed the world, but I do think we are changing our little corner of it.

Two years ago, I attended CPAC 2016 alone in order to reintroduce myself to many old friends. Of the several dozen people whom I nervously reintroduced myself to, each one said that they were still my friend, but they all asked me the same question: “Are you still a conservative (or a Republican)?” Once I said yes, they were relieved at my answer. I saw great potential for the future in those quiet, friendly encounters where I shared my authenticity with my fellow conservatives. I learned that I could be a conservative advocate for my transgender/LGBTQ community on the right side of the aisle. Last year, one transgender conservative advocate at CPAC became two, and this year, there were four of us. I feel blessed to have had three more sisters from our community who happen to be conservative and Republican break with convention to advocate with me without any guarantee of a safe or successful outcome.

Now it is up to the rest of our greater LGBTQ community to keep the conversation going. We can achieve more by working together and engaging others whom too many not have given a chance in the past. No matter our political labels, ultimately we are in this fight for liberty and freedom together.

JENNIFER WILLIAMS is a transgender activist and was the first out trans delegate at the Republican National Convention.

2018’s Icons, Innovators, and Disruptors

LGBT innovators are disrupting their industries in new and exciting ways. In this special report, we look at leaders revolutionizing TV (such as Nafessa Williams as superhero Thunder in Black Lightning — and The Magicians‘ Hale Appleman), fitness (Caleb Marshall), music (bell’s roar, pictured above, center), comics (Gerard Way and Tee Franklin), stand-up (Matteo Lane, pictured above, right), nonprofit organizations (Rye Young), and more.


Come On, We Can Beat the NRA

Gun violence has reached an all-time high in our country, and the American people are fed up with the failure of our elected officials to do anything to try to stem the tide of gun deaths. In the three weeks since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., there has been a renewed push for gun reform. This comes a mere five months after our nation experienced the worst mass shooting in U.S. history in Las Vegas, which took the lives of 58 people and injured 527 others.

We are at a boiling point on the issue of gun reform. After an alarming spike in the frequency and severity of mass shootings and the slaughter of innocent clubgoers, concert attendees, people in church, and students, people are saying enough of this drama. This growing public outrage has its sights set on three targets: the National Rifle Association, corporations that do business with the NRA, and politicians who are bought and paid for by the NRA and its campaign donations.

The latest data shows that approximately 38,000 Americans die each year as a result of gun violence, a number that includes murders, accidental shootings, and suicides. This is an absolute public health crisis that must be taken seriously, and action is needed immediately to protect our communities from this epidemic. However, there are two main reasons why our elected officials have refused to act.

First, the Republican Party is bought and paid for by the NRA. In the 2016 election cycle, the gun lobby spent almost $53 million to influence our elections through direct campaign contributions to Republican candidates and dark money spending on independent expenditures in support of the NRA’s preferred candidates. This significant financial influence has bought a direct line to these members of Congress. Politicians, even moderate Republicans, fear taking action because they fear the repercussions. The NRA will unleash fury and potentially withhold campaign checks, despite overwhelming public support for commonsense policies.

Second, the NRA is one of the most well-funded, well-organized political machines I have ever seen. Any time there is a remote possibility of gun reform, the NRA can immediately mobilize thousands or hundreds of thousands of its supporters to call, email, and visit their members of Congress or state legislatures. Since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, gun violence prevention groups have invested in significant technology efforts to improve grassroots organizing on our side, and a lot of progress has been made.

With the latest mass shooting, there is now a new cohort of allies in the fight for gun reform — corporate America. Since the Parkland shooting, we have seen dozens of national corporations, such as Delta, United Airlines, Avis, and Enterprise, cut formal ties with the NRA, ending corporate discounts to members of the gun lobby. In addition, we have seen businesses enact policy changes since Congress won’t act. Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO Edward Stack announced the chain would immediately stop selling assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, and that it would not sell guns to anyone under the age of 21, regardless of local laws. Walmart is following suit to raise the minimum buying age, which is a critical step because it is the largest arms dealer in the United States. These decisions are important because it’s corporate America finally rejecting the NRA’s agenda due to popular demand.

Public opinion, even among gun owners, is on our side. Ninety-seven percent of voters support expanding background checks to cover all gun sales; 67 percent support banning assault-style weapons; and 72 percent support banning high-capacity magazines.

Pride Fund to End Gun Violence was formed in the days following the Pulse nightclub shooting that claimed the lives of 49 people in Orlando with the goal of mobilizing the LGBTQ community and our allies in the fight for gun reform. In the 20 months since our establishment, Pride Fund has traveled throughout the country and has had significant impacts in the 2016 and 2017 elections to help ensure the right leaders are in office, the ones who will prioritize their constituents over the gun lobby. Two of our top policy priorities are banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, both of which make shootings much more lethal.

I am an Iraq war veteran. I served in the Army Reserve for 14 years, and I carried an assault rifle on the streets of Baghdad. I am firmly convinced that weapons very similar to those I carried in combat, which are available for sale here in America, should be banned. That is why I especially praise Dick’s Sporting Goods for its move to no longer sell them. Not every organization and not every business is willing to make such a bold move.  Let me be crystal clear, assault weapons were designed for the specific purpose of killing human beings as quickly and as efficiently as possible and don’t belong on our streets.

So what are the takeaways? When lawmakers won’t act, it’s up to private citizens and responsible businesses to do the right thing. We applaud Dick’s Sporting Goods for its sensible steps to keep assault weapons off our streets and ensure that guns remain out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them. We need to keep educating the public by conveying the truth about the NRA, the facts behind gun violence, and the complicity of NRA-backed Republicans. We can shift the tide by electing new leaders who support commonsense gun reform and show the country that gun violence prevention is a winning strategy, and it is what the overwhelming majority of Americans support.

It’s not enough anymore to hope the NRA will see the light on sensible gun reforms; we know it never will. Its hunkered-down approach to Parkland has insulted the teen survivors and victims of the shooting, disrespected the lives of those killed, and angered our national community. It has reignited the flames of the gun violence prevention movement and renewed the vigor with which we fight. We all have a responsibility to stand up to gun violence and take a side. Either you stand with the gun lobby or you stand with the safety of our communities. You can’t do both.  

To get involved, volunteer, or donate to help enact real gun reform, visit our website at

JASON LINDSAY is founder and executive director of Pride Fund to End Gun Violence, a political action committee that supports state and federal candidates who will act on sensible gun policy reforms and champion LGBTQ equality. Lindsay is a seasoned political operative with 14 years of experience working in politics, government, and campaigns. He also served for 14 years in the U.S. Army Reserve and was deployed to Iraq in 2003.

Alan Cumming: From 'Cabaret' to a Queer 'Murder, She Wrote'

Alan Cumming is no stranger to breaking ground. The Scottish-American bisexual actor and activist has never held back from expressing his opinions or tackling unconventional roles. Now Cumming is setting a new precedent, playing the first out gay lead character in a network TV drama.

In Instinct, a CBS series premiering Sunday and based on James Patterson’s 2017 book Murder Games, Cumming plays Dr. Dylan Reinhart, a gifted author, university professor, and former CIA operative who is lured back to his old life when New York detective Lizzie Needham (Bojana Novakovic) recruits him to track down a serial killer. The killer, it turns out, is using Reinhart’s book as a tutorial for murder.

Oddly enough, Cumming says he wasn’t a Patterson fan before being cast, and jokes that he “had no idea that one in 17 books sold in this country are written by him.”

“I met him and had a lovely chat with him, actually,” Cumming says. “I was sent a very early draft of [Murder Games] and found it a real page-turner. The combination of the many traits the character Dylan has — and also this kind of page-turner murder mystery, and the aspect that he was gay and how it wasn’t conforming to people’s expectation — I found it all enticing.”

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For an artist as precise and authentic as Cumming, it’s not surprising the most interesting aspect of his researching the role was learning from real CIA operatives what life was like undercover.

“They all shared this idea that what a kind of strange and odd and lonely life it was … living this double life,” he says. “I found that really fascinating. One of the most fascinating things I found out is that somewhere around 30 percent of the CIA are Mormon. Isn’t that crazy? Go figure.”

In many ways, being a CIA operative is no different from acting: Both professions require you to observe human behavior and appear to be someone you are not.

“I always say, observation is the first rule of acting — and I really think it is,” Cumming says. “That’s what’s difficult about becoming more and more well-known, is that it’s less easy to observe people because most people are observing you. But I find it really fascinating to watch people and listen to them. You find out so much by just a hand gesture or a tapping of a foot or an intonation. I think that’s at the root of my study of acting or [Dylan’s] study in abnormal behavior: watching and listening.”

The actor has had a string of hits and projects, from a popular role on CBS’s The Good Wife to his Tony Award-winning turn in Cabaret. There are blockbusters (X2) and thinky films (Emma), a stint on PBS, a memoir, a novel, a kids’ book, and even a cologne called — tongue-in-cheekily — Cumming.

Despite Cumming’s immense success, the actor-activist says that starting his rise to stardom later in life has proven to be a huge blessing. The Scotsman first moved to America at 30 and says, “I had a whole life — really 30 years of my life — in a totally different environment and a totally different culture. I think that stands me in good stead for having a healthy attitude about life now. … If something went wrong and I couldn’t tug it, I’m confident, I know that I existed and was happy in the life I had before. And that’s a really heartening thing to know.”

Now 53, Cumming has been married to Grant Shaffer since 2012.

“The life I have now is so alien to anything I could have possibly imagined in high school,” he admits looking back. “People say to me, ‘Oh, you must be living your dream,’ and I’m like, ‘No, I’m not,’ because I didn’t dream about this. I think that’s why I have a really good attitude — being an outsider in your own life is actually healthy, and I think it gives you a good perspective.”

Discriminating in the Name of God Is Still Discrimination

Across the United States, there are an estimated 438,000 children in foster care, many of whom are hoping to find families to accept, nurture and protect them. Having represented thousands of these youth in federal class actions that challenge the lack of safe, stable foster homes and the overinstitutionalization of our kids, I know the importance of recruiting as many loving foster and adoptive parents as possible — including in Georgia, where children in state care have recently slept in hotels or offices due a lack of available homes.

But a new bill that recently passed the state Senate would actually deprive children of loving families.

Known as the Keep Faith in Adoption and Foster Care Act, the bill paves the way for child-placing agencies, such as adoption organizations and foster care providers, to create unnecessary obstacles for potential LGBTQ adoptive and foster parents. It would also allow these agencies to refuse to serve LGBTQ youth on the basis of “religious freedom.”

As lead counsel on Kenny A. v. Deal, I represent a broad class of children that has suffered from the lack of appropriate homes in metro Atlanta. When we filed in 2002, our named plaintiffs included Kara B., a 14-year-old girl who had up to 15 different placements before ending up in a residential treatment facility where a staff member sexually abused her. Maya C., a former honor student, grew hopeless and abandoned her education after being placed in an emergency shelter.

Fast forward to 2018, when there has been a 73 percent increase in the foster care population — from 7,800 in 2013 to 13,500 in 2017 — due, in part, to the opioid epidemic. We desperately need more foster and adoptive homes, including affirming homes for LGBTQ youth, who are overrepresented in Georgia and across the country. A survey by the Williams Institute found that 13.6 percent of foster youth identified as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and 5.6 percent as transgender, compared to 7.2 percent and 2.25 percent of the general youth population respectively.

These kids are at a heightened risk of being physically, verbally. and sexually assaulted or exploited, being placed in inappropriate and overly restrictive settings, and receiving inadequate and nonaffirming healthcare services. They are also at risk of experiencing rejection, violence, trauma, and religious condemnation due to their gender identity or sexuality, having suicidal thoughts, abusing substances, being vulnerable to sex trafficking, and resorting to survival sex to access safe places to stay.

In the face of this, Georgia stands out as being one of 10 states with no express protection against discrimination on account of sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex (or gender) in child welfare policy, according to “Safe Havens,” a landmark report by Children’s Rights, Lambda Legal, and the Center for the Study of Social Policy. Meanwhile, Atlanta is lovingly referred to as the epicenter of the LGBTQ South. Georgia is home to over 260,000 LGBTQ adults and over 21,000 same-sex couples. Twenty percent of these couples are raising children, and 12 percent are raising adopted children, compared to 3 percent of different-sex couples

If state law authorizes providers to discriminate against this community, we lose an excellent potential foster and adoption resource. These LGBTQ couples will be alienated from the system, keeping loving families from being built, and inflicting needless trauma on the vulnerable young people the state of Georgia is charged with protecting. Additionally, the bill dramatically increases the risk that young people who identify as LGBTQ or are questioning their identity will be inadvertently placed in the custody of a provider who discriminates.

The consequences of that can be devastating. I remember interviewing a young man who had aged out of foster care a success story but was still haunted by the discrimination he experienced while in care. He went to college, had a part-time job working for the Methodist Children’s Home, and even purchased a car on his own. But with tears in his eyes, he told me he still believed what his foster parents had told him for years — that gay people were condemned to hell.

Under color of state law, Georgia is trying to officially sanction this type of condemnation and discrimination. Now is the time to send Georgia’s House a strong message: the state cannot license providers to discriminate against loving foster or adoptive parents and youth in the name of God.

CHRISTINA WILSON REMLIN is a lead attorney for Children’s Rights, a national nonprofit advocacy organization.