Recently, while visiting my boyfriend, Noah, in London, I was able to attend the Queer British Art exhibit at the Tate Britain. I was startled to realize that up until 1967 homosexuality was still illegal in the UK, and that being queer is punishable by imprisonment and sometimes death in 76 countries. In the United States, with the Trump Presidency and Republican control of the House and Senate, there is a silent war being waged against the LGBTQ community.
It’s part of a long and violent history of terrorism against queers, all because of the way we choose to love and express our love.
Standing with Noah at the Tate, our hands touching, reading through a history filled with imprisonment, despair and violence — a history of government-sanctioned homophobia — I couldn’t help but be filled with a kind of pride and hope at the resilience of my community. Of the artists who refused to back down to the discrimination they faced.
I found hope in the work of the Bloomsbury Group, known not only for their freedom of self-expression and sexuality but for their openness and tolerance to all the ways love is expressed.
We like to believe that in 2017 we live in a time that is safer, kinder and more open, in which we are not persecuted for our sexuality or for whom we love. But this idea of safety is, as was shown following Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub massacre, not always true.
But there are heroes out there on the frontier of our community — artists and musicians and performers who refuse to appease societal pressures to conform or be punished.
Here I talk with a few of those heroes:
In April, Noah came to visit me in the States. We drove from L.A. to San Francisco and decided to go out for drinks at a SoMa queer bar. There was a live show of queer punk bands, and one of the bands was Bitch Please. I knew Jacob and Brett, who formed the two-member band, from L.A.
Brett’s drag name is Bretchen Towers, a radical, larger-than-life, punk-rock persona who challenges our ideas of gender and queerness. She is an affront to the societal demands of masculinity while moving fluidly between masculine and feminine roles, celebrating both.
Jacob: There is something bizarre in American culture where to this day dressing opposite your perceived gender is somehow considered a violation of social order. Even in rock music, it all seems so homogenous and heteronormative now. There isn’t anything dangerous or truly magnetic happening on stages these days.
With Brett, I wanted to join forces and create something new and impactful, something automatically confrontational. Something to freak people out again, wake people up. The closer I got to Brett and his drag life, the more I realized how inherently political that identity and presentation can be. We want to remind people that being “other” still isn’t easy and shouldn’t be overlooked just because as a community we are more mainstream.
Being openly queer outside of our big-city bubble can be nerve-wracking, but I feel awesome in that defiance. Being an American means we can live that punk rock life openly and happily just as anyone else is afforded the right to.
Brett (Bretchen Towers): Being queer is like a dog in a car with his head out the window. Though bugs be all hitting her face and drool be flying about, it’s life, and you love it because you know what you’re all about. Gender is being dismantled; everyday we are a little closer to a mass social unfuckening.
You don’t have to prove anything to anyone but yourself. I hope you live your life for you, and fuck all the critics. You have to live your truth out loud and as often as possible.
When we were on tour driving to Austin for the SXSW Music Festival, I was in face (drag) at truckstops and gas stations in Trump territory. That shit was not comfortable. But I’m not going to let anyone tell me who and what I want to be at any moment. People have said terrible things to me, but I have to carry on because no one else is going to do that for me. I mean, look at me. Do you think I care what anyone I don’t know thinks about who I am?
The Boulet Brothers
L.A. based event producers and nightlife promoters the Boulet Brothers refer to themselves as “drag queen overlords, queer media producers and provocateurs.” They made a huge splash recently by self-producing and airing their very own drag competition web series, Dragula. “We create, celebrate and expand gay counterculture through live events and (more recently) our web show.”
Boulet Brothers: The country is a more accepting place than it was 20 years ago. Some queer people are growing up in accepting, supportive families now instead of being shunned by their parents and society. Rigid definitions of what gender is and what it means is mutating. There used to be this idea that to be attractive as a gay man you had to fit this hyper-masculine, muscled, jock stereotype. The straighter-acting you were, the more attractive you were. Obviously that was the product of inner-homophobia and self-hate, bred into guys by the world around them.
Now we see young gay guys at our parties who grew up in loving environments, and they are more truly themselves. They are super gay, unapologetic, well-adjusted and balanced. We don’t see as much of that inner-saboteur today that pushed queer men into that self-hating, hyper-masculine caricature that few of them could ever achieve because it was inauthentic.
Drag queens and people that play with gender are also being perceived differently. I remember a time when being a drag queen was a death sentence on your sex life. You could be a star at the party and be best friends with the hottest guys, but no one was hooking up with you. Now you have these beautiful, genderfluid creatures who get love in and out of drag, and it’s a beautiful thing.
Being queer is inherently political. What we have is a war against enlightened, forward-thinking people as a whole. The whole political climate of last year is a sick joke, and it’s the outcome of the dumbing-down of our society, and the news and government turning into a reality TV show. Queers, people of color, women, culture, art and knowledge are under attack right now.
Donald Trump is like a Frankenstein’s monster built out of the worst elements our society has to offer. He’s an ignorant, insecure, spoiled rich brat filled with pettiness, greed, dishonesty, homophobia, nepotism, racism, and chauvinism, all mixed together and coming at us like a fucking WWF explosion on a Pay Per View channel. He’s like a monster truck with a rebel flag sticking out of it, running over books. Ultimately, we have faith that the queer community will unify and fight as one when our rights are threatened by this administration. I mean, either that or they will all be removed for treason before it comes to that. Dasvidaniya, darlings!
An emerging street artist in Los Angeles who works in abstract representations of countercultural idealism, Mike Habs’ most recent exhibit, Inept, explored themes of transgender identities, isolation and self-deprecation within the punk rock community. His latest project is a music video to help raise awareness and prevent LGBTQ teen suicide.
Mike Habs: The entire purpose of art as I see it is to broaden and change the way we think and perceive the world. As artists, the key to generating change is through communicating with an empathetic understanding of your environment. A great example of that would be Laura Jane Grace, the singer of the punk band Against Me!, who transitioned from male to female at the height of the band’s career.
When I saw them play a few months back, she came out and they played the loud, tough, angry punk rock the band had always been known for, and the mostly straight male crowd was going crazy for it. As I stood there watching the show, I saw there were a lot of trans and queer teens who were there, and they were having a great time screaming and shouting and dancing. They didn’t feel ostracized; they didn’t feel different; and it was all because Laura had the courage to go up on that stage and unapologetically stand there as herself.
As artists, I think our role is to be consistent, unapologetic, and really take the time to understand our environment so we can effectively make changes for the better, creating a more tolerant mindset in our country. When you look at it that way, it’s much more than a role … it’s an obligation.
On Saturday, June 3, when London was reeling from another brutal terrorist attack, Noah and I were at Savage, a queer party at Metropolis, in Shoreditch. Our phones kept beeping, informing us of what was happening nearby. Friends and family texted us. Facebook demanded we proclaim our safety.
In that bar were heroes. Queer kids who refused to stay home, who refused to allow others’ evils dictate their lives. They danced and celebrated and railed against what was happening.
I remember standing with Noah, in the middle of that dancing crowd, and kissing him. I remember feeling the heat of his body, the beat of his heart, the taste of him. I remember thinking, I will love you. In the middle of all this terror and fear, in the middle of a world that sometimes makes no sense, I will love you.
There is courage in loving someone. There is a strength in it. There is a bravery to being who you are, without restraint.
I believe in the strength of all the dancing queer kids out there. Of all the LGBTQ heroes who have come before us and fought for our right to kiss and love and fuck who we want, to marry, to walk freely with, hand-in-hand. For the right to be who we are.
I believe in the strength and beauty of my community. In Bretchen and Jacob, in the Boulet Brothers, in Mike Habs, and in all those who stand at the frontier and refuse to conform.
I remember standing in the Tate Britain, Noah by my side, and feeling proud. Proud to be a gay man. Proud of who we are and who we were. Proud of who we will become.
Fuck anyone who tells us differently.
Jeff Leavell is a writer living between Los Angeles and Berlin. He specializes in queer social commentary, relationships, sexuality, art and Nightlife. His novel Accidental Warlocks will be released by Lethe Press in May 2018. You can find him at his website or on Instagram.
Featured photo by Derek Wanker