Notes from a Southern Boy: a collection of short essays by josh Inocéncio

An ode to southern fringes

This short essay originally appeared in Spectrum South: The Voice of the Queer South.

Everybody’s wonderin’ what and where they all came from, everybody’s worryin’ ‘bout where they’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done. But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me. I think I’ll just let the mystery be.—Iris DeMent

A third of my heart is buried in the Kentucky hills, a land of rich, black soil that nurtured my mother’s childhood. My father’s parents immigrated to the United States from Austria and Mexico, but my mother’s family has lived in eastern Kentucky for generations—far back enough that we don’t know where many of them originated before Appalachia. We are the Greenwoods, the Copes, the Johnsons, and the Hamptons. My mother grew up in and around Laurel County, amid gospel charmers and moonshine makers, amid nocturnal truckers and gaudy quilters. And shortly after she turned 19, she burst from the small town sticks and drove to Houston, one of the biggest cities she could find.

While Kentucky teeters on the northern peaks of the South, the legacies of slavery and homophobia tinge our blood just as permanently as my uncle’s all but faded Confederate flag tattoo. My mom, I suppose, was indifferent to the ol’ Dixie fandom that rallied many men in my family, but when she came to Texas, she carried her Kentucky roots with her. She may have yearned for a big city like Houston, but living in deeply red Texas allowed her firebrand Pentecostal denomination to thrive. This religion, obsessed with catastrophe and apocalypse, remained a staunch border that contained my queerness until I was 23.

I came out to my mother first, unwillingly, in an airport right before we embarked on a mother-son trip to Philadelphia and New York. She choked it out of me, as I joke with her now. For days, I had quietly avoided her, anticipating that I would break—and break I did, tears flowing while blurrily recollecting old memories about first loves, trying to patch together this hidden history to explain myself. In her white face and blonde hair, I saw myself as her own eyes welled. Flooded with images of purple sores on AIDS patients, fishnets on drag queens, and whatever else tore into her imagination, she lamented both a past she never knew and a future she couldn’t predict. I was neither a drag queen nor HIV-positive, but her limited dose of “gay culture” on the nightly news was enough to unnerve.

But long before I came out to her on that June morning, I had to wrestle with coming out to myself despite my religious upbringing. I knew I was queer and attracted to other boys by age 13, but instead of telling my parents or friends, I silenced myself and committed to “praying the gay away.” For 10 years, I wandered in my own desert, devoid of sexual and romantic firsts, as I drank the dregs of religious hope. Even after my family departed Pentecostal radicalism when I was 15, traces of Christian dread and guilt stained my soul. I nestled into a more intellectualized Christianity, inspired by C.S. Lewis and Søren Kierkegaard, but still swallowed my sexuality. Like Paul of Tarsus, I considered queerness a “thorn in my side”—a pain I would always live with, but never embrace.

Ironically, I gathered the courage to come out after living in Tallahassee, a city smaller and more traditionally southern than Houston or anywhere in Kentucky. Hovelled in libraries and theatres as a graduate student at Florida State, my work as a researcher and performer (as well as the miles and miles between Houston and me) allowed for intimate play with the identity collisions I experienced as a queer, a southerner, a Texan, a Latino—and with other guys who were just as conflicted as me. As southern queer boys, we hold a little extra anguish.

My mother and I, both charred in our own ways by conservative youths and false promises of religion, have found a peace with each other, and now she’s protective of her queer son. With a few exceptions, the rest of my family in Kentucky trudges to acceptance, mired in apostolic visions of sexuality and rural worship of masculinity, but time and distance cultivate wondrous feats. My mother defines her childhood religion on her own terms now, while I—after moving from Pentecostal and Baptist affairs to Episcopalian and Catholic flirtations—have found a home in not-knowing, in a kind of agnosticism. As Iris DeMent revels in her ballad, I’m happy to “let the mystery be.”

June 2017.

"Think Globally, act hillbilly": A road-trip through kentucky on grindr, tinder

This short essay originally appeared in Spectrum South: The Voice of the Queer South.

As a kid, family road trips to Kentucky always began with Simon & Garfunkel. Buried under quilts in my makeshift fort in the backseat of our Nissan Pathfinder, I’d wake up somewhere between Houston and Beaumont to their smooth voices singing “Scarborough Fair” or “El Condor Pasa.” And on my first solo drive from Texas to Kentucky, I revived this childhood tradition, allowing Simon & Garfunkel—as well as the Fleet Foxes—to ready me for an eight-day journey throughout the state where I spent so many summers and winters with my Grams and the rest of my mother’s family.

This time, however, my aim wasn’t to just visit family. A huge part of me grew up closeted in Kentucky, and I know that—in a state of roughly four million folks—lots of other boys did, too. And while the cities of Louisville and Lexington brim with gay bars and rainbow crosswalks, there are plenty of guys living out and proud in smaller towns, too. I wanted to meet and connect with these fellow gay men across Kentucky, so I rebooted Tinder and Grindr.

My family mostly lives in London, the seat of Laurel County right off Interstate 75, so I set up camp there first. A small city in eastern Kentucky (as one can see from actor Stephen Fry’s road-trip stop there on BBC’s Stephen Fry in America), London’s nifty advantage is that other cities in the state are, for the most part, just a day trip away. When I first jumped on Tinder, I set my radius to 12 miles, wanting to match with guys in the rural regions. But given that Grindr is more popular in rural areas because it allows for greater anonymity for discreet users, the Tinder algorithms threw me beyond my narrow radius and into bigger cities like Lexington, Louisville, Bowling Green, and Berea where queer boys can comfortably be out. Thus, it was up to Grindr to link me with guys in more rural areas. And the app didn’t disappoint.

Within hours of arriving in London, several guys messaged me on Grindr, wondering why, as my profile indicated, I was writing about Kentucky. “Why Appalachia?” a guy named Jacob, the son of a Baptist minister, asked immediately. “If you’re a writer, I feel like I could offer you a unique perspective. I just don’t want wrong presumptions of this area to be made.”

Another guy warned me against indulging in “poverty porn.” Another recommended American Hollow, an HBO film directed by Rory Kennedy that featured his family and their lives in eastern Kentucky.

But the main suspicion, it seemed, was that I had no familiarity with the region, that I was from a coastal city like New York or Los Angeles, and that I was just another journalist in a tired lineage there to blast the desolation of Appalachia. Certainly, these reservations eased when I disclosed the time I had spent in Kentucky. But what every guy proved was that Kentucky—despite challenges of homophobia—is a place where gay men can thrive. That, just like Texas, the state government’s homophobic legislation (or Kim Davis) does not represent the views of every Kentuckian.

After establishing links over our families in Kentucky, Jacob and I met in person for a beach day at Laurel Lake. Tucked into the Daniel Boone National Forest where I hiked trails as a child in a coonskin cap, we rendezvoused in neighboring Whitley County and then drove to the spillway with the white sand beach.

Now, I had hiked in Daniel Boone before, but prior to this trip, I had never gone down to the lake (my mother would later tell me that she had many a wild night there as a teenager). But Jacob recommended the lake and unabashedly showed up to this rather conservative spot in a neon speedo. “I can generally tell if I’m going to get along with someone by how they react to the way I’m dressed,” he said.

With a backdrop of anti-Trump graffiti, Jacob and I chatted about Kentucky roots, going to college followed by grad school, staying well read, and traveling around the world. He had studied at the University of Louisville for a Master’s in College Student Personnel, and, like me, had moved back home to live with his parents and save money before his next move. We also talked about using Grindr to make friends in an area with no gay bars or gayborhoods.

After London, I drove to Berea for a weekend to visit friends and interview a gay writer who teaches at the city’s college. Founded with social justice aims in 1855, Berea was the first desegregated and co-educational college in the South. And while the town itself has struggled with LGBT rights, Berea College is a haven for queer Appalachian students. On Grindr, one student gave travel recommendations, such as the Berea Pinnacles (which are a fun hike!), and even offered me wine and homemade doughnuts while hanging out with a group of friends. In fact, everyone in Berea welcomed me when they saw I was a traveler, inviting me to community events and coffee conversations.

As far as Tinder in Kentucky, I matched and struck up conversations with several guys in Lexington, Louisville, and Bowling Green. From western Kentucky, I connected with a fellow Latino who had no desire to move to a bigger city because he loved the vibe in Bowling Green. And while we couldn’t meet this trip, we followed each other on Instagram and agreed to hang out next time.

But the most adventurous stop was Lexington.

I matched with Nate, who studied English in college. Right away we discovered we were both writers and swapped our favorite poets and playwrights on the app. When I got to Lexington, we met up and headed over to Third Street Stuff—a colorful coffeehouse that sells quirky trinkets—and discussed queer and non-queer cinema (we even made a Google doc to exchange titles). Embedded in our cinephilia, we shared how we had both obsessed over The Wizard of Oz as kids, even dressing up as Dorothy in red high heels. After coffee, he generously showed me around Lexington on a little walking tour that started near the Transylvania University campus and took us to plantation-style homes converted into contemporary condos. “I smell a mix of barbecue and KFC,” he sniffed, as we weaved through a public gathering filled with food-stands and U.S. flags. “It’s a Kentucky Fourth!”

As dusk approached, we grabbed dinner at The Village Idiot before exploring a 24-hour art exhibit at the Kentucky-based 21c Museum Hotel downtown. There, we bonded over indie music and the human-animal sculptures on display. Plus, he packed my summer reading list with queer poets and novelists, including C.P. Cavafy, Frank Bidart, Garth Greenwell, and Pajtim Statovci.

When my last day arrived, I found myself already planning my next road trip to Kentucky. Bearing a renewed sense of harmony after connecting with fellow gay guys in the state, I left for the next part of my journey. And as the rain poured down on the interstate, I cranked up the new Fleet Foxes album, Crack-Up, and wept tears of joy on the drive out of Appalachia.

July 2017.

Sacred steps: a Pilgrimage to mexico city

This short essay originally appeared on Spectrum South: The Voice of the Queer South.

“No way,” I groaned from the hotel bed as my skin squirmed with chills. “There’s no way I have Montezuma’s Revenge. Not after all the street shit and creepy crawlies I ate in Guadalajara and Seoul a few years back.”

I boast an easy tan (and I thought an iron stomach) that’s no doubt because of the Mexican drips of blood in my body, but my fairer skin and blonde hair speedily betray my Austrian and Appalachian roots. Hours later, I hurled a swirl of green chunks into the porcelain sink and a gag that burned two generations back.

For half a century before my first visit to the Mexican capital, my Austrian grandma, Fritzi, toured the country, all the way down to Michoacán and Mexico City, to see her husband’s homeland. She, too, got sick and whittled her weight down on the journey.

But the history of my family (and an outrageously cheap Expedia deal) is why I ventured to Mexico City in May, to finally look upon the sites that compose a whole third of my ancestors. And though Montezuma’s Revenge confined me to an entire day of gulping peach Pedialite and binging Master of None, I still paid pilgrimage to everything I wanted to see. From the Catholic cathedrals to the Teotihuacan pyramids to Frida Kahlo’s studio, my three friends and I spent five full days delighting in Mexico City’s offerings.

The flight to Mexico City is less than two hours from Houston and Bush airport has plenty of early voyages. We arrived in the city by 10 a.m., our hotels in the Centro Histórico by 11:30 a.m., and we had sampled our first street tacos by the Zócalo square by noon. The day included walking over to the 17th century Metropolitan Cathedral, the Supreme Court justice building brimming with Jose Clemente Orozco murals, and a cab ride over to the Basilica de Guadalupe about 30 minutes north of the Centro Histórico.

Seventy years ago, my great-grandpa Jesus Ynosencio dug his knees into the dirt and crawled to the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City. This was the eve of America’s role in Europe during World War II, and Jesus, a strawberry farmer, wanted to prevent his sons, immigrants to the United States, from going to battle overseas. His prayers to La Virgen weren’t answered, and Jesus’s three sons (including my grandfather José) traded wartime for U.S. citizenships. All three men survived, and a decade later, my grandfather moved with his Austrian wife, Fritzi (whom he met while he was stationed in Linz), to Texas. And during her road-trip with his family to Mexico City, she saw the same Basilica.

In 2017, the Basilica complex that my great-grandfather and grandmother visited in the 1940s and 1950s has transformed with a new sanctuary, finished in 1976, that houses La Virgen’s shawl. In Mexican tradition, the shawl of La Virgen is a sacred imprint of the visit between Juan Diego—the first Nahuatl convert to Catholicism after Hernan Cortes defeated Tenochtitlan—and the Virgin Mary. According to Mexican lore, however, it wasn’t just La Virgen that visited Juan Diego, but the indigenous goddess Tonantzin in disguise. Many Nahuatl folk and Mesoamerican enthusiasts maintain she dressed as the Virgin Mary to ease tensions between the Spanish and Indian populations.

Within the Basilica, Catholics still crawl on the marble floor from the first pews to the altar that contains the sacred shawl. I didn’t join the knee-bound pilgrims, but I did leave with two rosaries for my Grandma Fritzi and me. Neither of us are Catholics, but we do appreciate our histories.

The next day, the four of us ventured over to Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec. The first floor of the museum contains 12 halls that cover the pre-Columbian history of various indigenous societies. On the second floor, 12 corresponding halls demonstrate contemporary life for indigenous tribes across the country. (Housed in the central Mexica hall is a replica of Emperor Montezuma’s headdress as the original is too fragile to transport from its current home in Vienna—an ethnic irony not lost on me.) Then, following a late lunch in the Polanco neighborhood walking distance from the museum, we took an Uber to Frida Kahlo’s house.

Tucked in the Coyoacan neighborhood just thirty minutes south of Centro Histórico is the Museo Frida Kahlo, which is the former home of Frida and Diego Rivera. The museum includes the guest room where Leon Trotsky stayed when he fled the nascent Soviet Union, a kitchen with Frida’s mole recipe posted on the doorway, her painting studio with the mirror she used for self-portraits, and her bedroom with an urn containing her ashes still on the dressing table.

After you exit the house, there’s an almost-secret exhibit around the corner from the gift shop. Pushing apart black curtains, viewers will find the indigenous-inspired dresses that Frida wore to presence her Mesoamerican identity. But there’s also an extended exhibit, with materials hidden for many years, on the accouterment she wore at first to correct her uneven legs after suffering polio as a child, and then to stabilize her body after her 1953 accident where doctors amputated her leg. In the final four years of her life, she continued to paint from a wheelchair (which is in her studio).

On our third day, we hired an Uber for the nearly two-hour drive north of Mexico City, and my two years studying Mesoamerican myths as a graduate student at Florida State flooded back to my memory as my friends and I hiked the Pyramid of the Moon, the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, and the Pyramid of the Sun. We didn’t book the trip to be among the final hikers to these pre-Aztec pyramids, but we discovered that, after 2017, tourists are no longer allowed to hike the structures. And the Teotihuacan pyramids aren’t the only pyramids that are closing to tourist hikes.

Unfortunately, altitude sunburn mixed with a jolt of Montezuma’s Revenge slayed me the evening we returned from the pyramids. But, in the name of history, my eyes—as well as my stomach—relived the journeys before me to Mexico City.

A few other stops thrown in, such as the Palacio Nacional and the Templo Mayor, made for a perfect week in an international city that is at once indigenous and Catholic, Latin American and European. Like New York or London, the streets whir with Dutch, Italian, German, French, and Japanese as travelers from the world over bustle in to see the western hemisphere’s largest city.

July 2017.

Traveling under trump

This short essay originally appeared in OutSmart Magazine.

“I heard the first foreign leader Trump is meeting with is Theresa May. Tell me, boys, will he grab her fanny?” quipped an Irish cab driver as my friend Jeff and I piled into his car on our way to a train station in Dublin.

Witty questions like these rained over our recent trip to Ireland and the United Kingdom, a stark reminder not only of realities back across the Atlantic but our changing image in Europe as President Barack Obama ended his eight-year tenure to make way for President Donald J. Trump. And while we mustered laughs in response, our somber transition from Obama to Trump was as gloomy as the moors we rode through from Dublin to Galway.

By coincidence, Jeff and I departed Houston for a research trip the day before the inauguration. We may not have purposely planned to miss the ceremony on American soil, but I’m thankful we witnessed it brimming with bold reactions from the Irish in Dublin, Galway, and even the rural island of Inishmore. And even though the British residents we encountered in London were less outspoken (perhaps from mutual shame over the Brexit mess), the members of Parliament in our tourist visit to the House of Commons weren’t restrained in their debate over the “threat of Trump.”

To be sure, the sting of embarrassment abroad over our raucous new leader was familiar. Shortly after I graduated high school in 2008, I left for Europe and toured seven nations over the course of five weeks. You could see the exhaustion many Europeans had with the waning Bush administration and the hope for then-senator Barack Obama. Traveling through Europe then, I couldn’t avoid political conversations over breakfasts in Lübeck or Bergen. What would America do, they wondered?

Nearly nine years later and in a new nation, my interactions with the Irish were no less pointed. As soon as we arrived in Dublin on our first day, our 70-year-old cab driver lamented Hillary Clinton’s loss.

“She did a good job as the secretary of state,” he said, as local news about the United States’ big day played on his radio. “She deserves credit for that.” Later as we checked into our hotel near St. Stephen’s Green, the receptionist handed us an Irish newspaper and chortled, “Going to watch the big show in a bit?”

We did watch, trodden with jetlag yet armed with the full repertoire of sarcasm from the BBC’s Katty Kay as she comically navigated the disbelief and dismay at Trump’s victorious march into the White House.

In Dublin, we had participated in the Women’s March—one of many international marches all over the world—and we discovered remnants of a smaller one in the college town of Galway. We found signs plastered in Eyre Square (where President John F. Kennedy visited in 1963) that read, “Galway Stands Opposed to Trump,” and graffiti that proclaimed, “My Body, My Choice.” The battle for reproductive rights is more fraught in Ireland as the 8th amendment in their constitution bans abortions.

This anti-Trump sentiment was just as ripe in Inishmore, a small island off the coast of Galway. In the States, you’d expect to find Trump havens in less cosmopolitan regions, but not so on Inishmore. As I browsed Celtic artwork in a stonewalled shop on my way to Dún Aonghasa (an ancient fort nearly 4,000 years old), the shopkeeper, an older woman, asked, “Are you American?”

“Yes.”

“Oh! Your president is a madman.”

She then asked if I “did YouTube” and urged me to watch the America First, The Netherlands Second parody video.

Certainly, there are Trump admirers in Ireland. But in all of our interactions across the tiny country, the Irish lampooned the new president. And while Ireland remains a conservative bastion in the West for anti-abortion forces, they are no strangers to progress. They remain the only nation in the world that has legalized same-sex marriage by popular referendum. With a fast growing economy, their capital city is home to the European headquarters for both Google and Facebook. And despite their own right-wing parties, they have so far navigated through the brash nationalism swallowing the continent.

And as with many of our Western European allies, the Irish are deeply fond of Barack Obama who, like Kennedy, has ancestral roots in Ireland. While conservatives in the States peddled the absurd narrative that President Obama was harming America’s image abroad, our relationships to Ireland, Germany, France, and other allies only fortified after the rickety Bush years. In fact, a Pew Research Center poll last year “conducted in 10 European nations, four major Asia-Pacific countries, Canada, and the United States finds that half or more of those polled in 15 of 16 countries express confidence in the American leader.”

But far more worried than the jocular Irish were the British MPs in Parliament. In our visit to the House of Commons just hours before their Brexit vote, the government and the opposition both discussed imminent threats from President Trump and cast concerns on exiting the European Union amid uncertainty from the United States’ commitment to the proverbial “special relationship.” Naturally, the Labour Party was most resolute in their disdain for handing over negotiation powers to Prime Minister Theresa May, and several Scottish MPs offered colorful speeches with hellish predictions for the U.K. and Trump.

In a landslide vote hours later, they passed the Brexit resolution to allow May to trigger Article 50 and begin negotiations on a Brexit deal with Europe. Yet both sides in the House led by Speaker John Bercow have agreed that President Trump will not address Parliament during his state visit. Instead of a formal rejection, the visit will take place when Parliament isn’t in session in late July or early August—when Queen Elizabeth II is at her residence in Scotland. Thus, the British government is seeking to keep Trump not only out of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, but out of London to avoid protests (especially considering Londoners organized a massive women’s march).

Trump has barely hung up his golden curtains in the Oval Office and he’s created headaches for our European friends. Far from demanding respect for America, Trump has almost overnight made us appear both clownish and menacing.

Through a decade of traveling to foreign countries, I’ve unpacked most of my American exceptionalism. Many of our imperial ventures thrived under Obama as well, sewing animosity with our declared enemies. But as we teeter on a gusty precipice with Trump, I do fear the increasing mistrust from our most loyal allies. We may have domestic issues to confront, but we’re far too privileged and interconnected to espouse an “only America First” position in a globalized world. It’s true that Trump is only temporary, thanks to the prescient 22nd Amendment, yet his decisions may cultivate an irreparable isolation that a centrist Republican or Democrat could only wearily repair.

On behalf of our global influence, American citizens must continue to resist. The only way to sustain faith in the United States is through resisting Trump. We would be foolish to abate for four years until the next presidential election. Our reputation on this planet now depends on our durability as free citizens. Now isn’t the time to withdraw, but to stay informed and active. As we’ve seen over the last few weeks, resistance works.

After all, as the Oscar Wilde monument in Dublin reads, “There is no sin except stupidity.”

February 2017.

First, we march: A texas boy in dublin

This short essay originally appeared in OutSmart Magazine.

“It will be a long time before men let women be. It will be a long time before women leave women alone.

Thus spoke Anna Karenina, the titular character in Irish playwright Marina Carr’s new theatrical version of Leo Tolstoy’s novel, to her prudish sister-in-law. My friend Jeff and I watched this premiere play at The Abbey, Ireland’s national theater located just north of the River Liffey in Dublin, shortly after marching with hundreds of women and fellow allies through the Irish capital’s streets as a sister event to the Women’s March on Washington on January 21.

Hours after the election on November 8, plans emerged not only for the national march in Washington DC but a sister march in Austin, Texas. Distraught but motivated from the election, I committed to the Austin march immediately—not only to demonstrate solidarity with women who stand to lose so much under the new administration, but to get more involved with local politics. While I had canvassed for the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance and Mayor Sylvester Turner in 2015, Trump’s election was a jolt that increased my commitment to local issues, as the stakes for women and other marginalized groups skyrocketed. Many of us got cozy under President Obama, an ally to a myriad of communities.

But my plans changed with the opportunity to assist my friend and colleague with his research trip to Ireland and the U.K. And while I lamented missing the Austin march with fellow Texans (and of going to the D.C. one, for that matter), I found the burgeoning march in Dublin, one of the many international cities standing with American women and opposing the freshly sworn-in president that had so nastily disrespected women.

Thus, on our second day in Ireland, Jeff and I journeyed to the Garden of Remembrance still wobbly from jetlag. As the morning drifted into a cloudy afternoon, a tiny group of women holding the official Women’s March banner transformed into a legion of female and male marchers with signs opposing President Trump and demanding the repeal of the eighth amendment in the Irish constitution that bans abortion—a rallying point for both Irish and American women and a stark reminder of the shortcomings of reproductive rights even in the “progressive West.” And while those present were mostly Irish, there was no shortage of Americans, both travelers and expats, including a Kansas woman Jeff and I connected and remained with the entire march.

Around 12:30 p.m., as the garden and nearby street were brimming with marchers eager to spill through Dublin’s streets, an American and then an Irish speaker took the stage. The American woman somberly lamented Trump’s victory while the Irish woman roused the crowd with battle cries to organize, repeal the eighth in Ireland, and challenge Trump in the States. No stranger to oppressive forces in Ireland, she roared for a united alliance among women of every race, men, and the queer community.

Energized by her unrelenting vision of equality, we took to the shut-down streets in a group longer than three city blocks and marched south across the River Liffey and back up again. Flurries of signs floated above marchers’ heads, including richly colored exclamations of “Pussy Power!” and the yet unrealized phrase coined by Hillary Clinton that “Women’s Rights are Human Rights.” And there were comical posters, too. My favorite was a drawing of a vagina with Gandalf the Grey in front shouting, “You Shall Not Pass!”

As the march ended, I watched The Guardian and The New York Timesupdate their photo threads of marches around the world. Washington, of course. And London, Paris, Austin, Los Angeles, Boise, Nairobi, Melbourne, Atlanta, Houston, Nashville, Santiago, Antarctica, to name a few. From red states to nations with more restrictive abortion laws, women and allies organized. This was the first act of resistance to President Trump, and we triumphed as a global collective.

And days later, when Trump trounced over women’s health the world over by reviving the notorious “gag rule,” we must remember that the Women’s March wasn’t in vain. Our grassroots actions will irk Trump’s insecurities and cultivate his backlash. After all, we have rankled the new president because he can’t stand that his inauguration numbers were but dregs to the deluge of women opposing him all over the United States. But while he set the tone of his apocalyptic presidency with a pallid speech, we set the tone of our hopeful agenda with stirring solidarity.

Witnessing the international solidarity of the Women’s March, I thought to myself, “Well, Mr. Trump got one thing right in his inaugural address: the people will rule again. But it will be in our united resistance against him.”

At least, I dare to hope so.

January 2017.

gay with a gun

This short essay originally appeared in OutSmart Magazine.

When I turned a year old, my dad gave me his Colt Python .357 magnum revolver from his detective days at Harris County Sheriff’s Office. When I reached 21, I obtained a Concealed Handgun License (CHL) with the Texas Department of Public Safety. And last week, I renewed that CHL before my 26th birthday by merely filling out the appropriate online forms.

I didn’t grow up with a huge investment in gun culture. I’m not well versed on types or brand names. I don’t hunt or compete. While I’m a good target shooter, I’m not a range junkie. And I don’t enjoy carrying a gun on my person even though I have the license. With my father’s police background, he wanted me to have an added layer of self-defense, which I understand and embrace. The weapon is there to protect me—hopefully, as a last resort.

But growing up, learning how to safely use a gun and developing an acute awareness of how dangerous they are has only increased my support for gun control in the United States, including federal background checks and bans on military-style weapons for civilians.

While the Texas course for a CHL is surprisingly more rigorous than other states, the one-day session certainly isn’t producing “good guys with a gun” equipped to stop mass shooters in gay bars, elementary schools, or movie theaters. While shooting to obtain the CHL, I could give my utmost concentration to the stationary paper figure hanging across the desolate range. And yes, students in the course can fail the target-practice section; but the learning curve is steep and they get multiple attempts. However, right-wing gun apologists craft a narrative that by virtue of owning a gun or taking a CHL course, you’ve received action-packed training in Dirty Harry-style scenarios where students are blasting moving and threatening objects. Unencumbered by any external forces, I was hardly prepared to “save the day” from a storming shooter by the end of the course.

The need for a CHL, or even to own a gun, is tied to American masculinity’s deep fascination with Hollywood heroism and a misplaced nostalgia for a past that includes righteous gunslingers saving the day throughout the Wild West. Sure, there are more logical and grounded reasons to pursue a CHL in Texas, but the “good guy with a gun” is mythic and the dregs of its reality mostly cause problems. The harsh truth for gun-toting Americans is that a few rounds on the range aren’t enough for heroic measures, particularly in chaotic scenarios like at the Pulse club in Orlando. On the rare occasions that a civilian prevents or stalls a mass shooting, such as at Oregon Community College or on the French Thalys train last year, the rescuer is an individual with military or police training.

Not to mention, multiple civilians with guns in a crowded area only perplexes law enforcement. They are trained to eliminate perceived threats, not to tarry while deciding who is the good guy and who is the bad guy in a room (as we saw at the Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco last year). Guns in public only increase the propensity for violence; they do not curtail the macabre. And this is largely a reason why I’m uncomfortable carrying my .38 in public spaces. I would much rather try to escape than duel with a shooter wielding an AR-15, which is going to obliterate my odds with a six-shooter anyway. Could I defend myself against a household intruder or a burglar approaching my broken-down vehicle? Most likely. And I’ll seal my faith into those odds.

But I have no combat training. The katana hanging up in my bedroom doesn’t make me a samurai any more than my .38 makes me Blondie from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

There are days when, as a gay man in Texas, I fear getting mugged or jibed in Houston for sporting my rainbow Star Trek shirt or openly conversing with friends about dating guys. I carry fears here in Texas that I don’t have when I’m in New England or Western Europe. In theory, packing heat should make me feel safer on city streets. But it doesn’t. And it’s not just a lack of combat training. In a world of increasingly televised slaughter, I can’t bring myself to walk the world constantly armed and just accepting the normalcy of violence toward queer people and people of color.

I own a gun. And because I own a device that can easily end a life, I know the answer is not more guns. We don’t need more violence. As queer people, we can change the culture by challenging toxic masculinity. As activists, we can change the policies by demanding reasonable gun control. It’s necessary for our physical and cultural survival.

July 2016. 

This independence day, i'm just flying the pride flag

This short essay originally appeared in OutSmart Magazine.

he Chicago pride parade I attended last June was only two days after the Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. With a huge achievement for the LGBT community, the crowd roared in celebration as politicians, church leaders, entrepreneurs, artists, and others marched through Boystown, Chicago’s gayborhood. But most interestingly, there were chants of “’Murica, ’Murica, ’Murica!,” an oft-used word with a conservative inflection to demonstrate American patriotism and exceptionalism.

For a moment I found myself exhaling the chant, too, but then three years of queer theory and 24 years as a gay man flashed before my eyes as I asked, “Is this what we’re fighting for?”

Don’t get me wrong. Marriage equality was significant. We don’t have full equality in the United States until we can access the same rights as heterosexuals. But my fear is that as we collect equality triumphs, we’re likely to assimilate into the pre-existing, heteronormative imperialist structure that requires us to abandon what makes us queer.

Queer sex is unabashedly about pleasure, which many social conservatives in this nation find threatening to the heterosexual homogeneity they claim holds together religious unity and procreation. I mean, for the first half of my life, gay sex (not gay love) was illegal in Texas. Gender-nonconformity still conjures anxiety, as many Americans are incapable of processing the difference between “gender” and “sex.” To exist as a queer man or woman or neither or both in the United States remains a radical act. But this is changing, and not always for the good.

As the late historian Howard Zinn noted in A People’s History of the United States, the most radical gains for African Americans, women, and other marginalized groups still needed the approval of the predominantly white male nation-state that mediates minoritarian agendas to serve its own purposes.

On July 1, the Defense Department lifted the ban on transgender service-members. Again, we should celebrate. Anyone who can survive armed forces training should be able to serve, if they choose. Nothing about my cisgender maleness makes me more qualified than a transman or -woman to participate in the U.S. military. However, as we acknowledge this inclusivity, let’s not forget that the military is still an instrument of American imperialism, particularly in developing Latin American, South Asian, and sub-Saharan African nations, protecting our economic and military dominance at the expense of mostly poor people of color.

We will always need allies in privileged spaces. President Obama has uplifted the LGBT community through his administration, and a President Hillary Clinton would continue to do so through hers. But as we saw in Orlando last month and in the reactions from the right, there are still swaths of the populace that don’t want to acknowledge our struggles or don’t want us to even exist. The Democrats have called us to patriotic unity and declared that “discrimination” isn’t an American value. And while I appreciate their sentiment, the reality is that discrimination is, perhaps, the oldest American value, which creates a challenge to embrace a patriotism that so many straight and mostly white people take for granted.

With childhood memories watching the AIDS crisis unfold on TV in the early ’90s, hearing rhetoric every day from Texas and Washington politicians seeking to undermine gay rights, listening to pundits refer to gay men as “pedophiles,” growing up in a church that condemned homosexuality as a stain upon America that would accelerate the apocalypse, and witnessing the surge in LGBT hate crimes now, there are just a few moments where I’ve felt resolutely proud to be an American.

But while a small group of evangelical Republicans excoriates us now, they’re waiting for us to assimilate. The more we assimilate, the more we’ll ignore the imperial ventures that sustain the United States as a superpower. Silence arrives with privileges. There are already gays and lesbians swallowing Trump’s xenophobia. There are white gay men waiting for the moment they don’t have to say #BlackLivesMatter or worry about reproductive rights. Femme-shaming is rampant among Millennials. This nation has subsisted on a “divide and conquer” strategy between marginalized groups; we won’t be tacit teammates forever.

Unless we stay woke. And stay queer. This means not compromising with the policy shifts, but changing the culture that makes the policy shifts.

As Zinn said, “There is very little in the government that I admire—certainly not in the present, and certainly not in recent years—but there is much that I admire in the United States, and what I admire is the spirit of independence and thought, which has allowed so many Americans to protest against policies they disagreed with.”

I find pride in our resilience, our ability to survive in a culture that prefers us silent. And that’s why, this July 4, I’m flying the rainbow flag.

July 2016.

Beam us UP: Why the next star trek series needs an openly gay captain

This short essay originally appeared in OutSmart Magazine.

In November, CBS announced that Star Trek would return to television in 2017, a platform where, as the New York Times joked, it’s boldly been before.

As we watch the sci-fi franchise venture back into familiar territory, I challenge the creators to boldly go where no Star Trek series has gone before: placing an openly gay captain at the helm of the Enterprise. That’s right. A gay captain. Not some expendable red-shirt who’s dead by episode three.

The reason I love Star Trek (even slightly more than Star Wars—yes, I said it!) is because the series has always soared to the final frontier of social-justice issues. During the Civil Rights movement and the Cold War, the original 1966 Star Trek presented us with a diverse crew featuring Sulu, a Japanese helmsman; Chekov, a Russian security officer; and Uhura, an African communications officer. Although 1960s-era sexism did infiltrate the writing, Star Trek projected a future where there is no longer any race or gender discrimination on Earth (as characters in each installment frequently point out). By the 1990s, Deep Space Nine and Voyager even featured an African-American captain and a female captain, respectively. Yet despite this longstanding commitment to representing minority groups, the show hasn’t been nearly as progressive with representing LGBT individuals.

To be fair, Star Trek is no stranger to LGBT-themed episodes. There are scarce examples in The Original Series, but The Next Generation, starring Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, pushed the envelope with several episodes, including “The Offspring” where Commander Data creates a genderless android child who chooses to be a woman, and “The Outcast” where Commander Riker falls in love with Soren, a female-identified member of the androgynous J’naii species that shuns gender binaries and ultimately persecutes Soren. Later, Deep Space Nineand Star Trek: Enterprise featured episodes that lightly addressed LGBT-related issues, but none with an openly gay or lesbian character.

As we can see, Star Trek has a history of producing episodes that challenge gender and sexuality norms. But other sci-fi and superhero series are in LGBT warp drive, rapidly leaving Star Trek stuck in the 20th century—the same bygone era that it professes to have evolved beyond. For example, the X-Men films have introduced a pansexual Deadpool, the comics have confirmed a gay Iceman, and CW’s The Flashand Arrow have featured a gay villain and a bisexual superhero. When asked if society is ready for a gay superhero, Arrow actor John Barrowman replied, “Personally, I don’t care if they are or not. It’s time we had one.”

So not only does the prevalence of LGBT characters on television set the stage for a gay captain in Star Trek, but we are also living in an era where our president has repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and has appointed the first openly gay Secretary of the Army. Since Starfleet is a military entity, I’m sure Spock would agree that a gay captain is only logical.

Of course, even with the Supreme Court’s marriage-equality ruling and the repeal of DADT, our society still hasn’t abandoned homophobia. But since we’re increasingly rejecting strict gender and sexuality roles, a gay captain would further challenge heteronormativity by promoting equal representation. Fans—especially Millennials who are coming out of the closet at younger ages—are ready for a gay man or a lesbian to assume the captain’s chair. In addition, a gay captain (the most authoritative figure on a starship) would absolutely empower young people who are questioning their identities and coming to terms with their sexuality.

And does anyone question the contributions of gay Star Trek actors George Takei and Zachary Quinto? With these two activists rallying Trekkies across the sexuality spectrum, I don’t think fans doubt the ability of a gay captain to explore strange new worlds and face-offs with Klingons.

At the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1992, Mark Altman revealed in theCinefantastique magazine article “Tackling Gay Rights” that creator Gene Roddenberry told LGBT fans that he’d commit to representing gay characters in The Next Generation. One of the show’s writers, David Gerrold, even wrote an episode called “Blood and Fire” that featured a same-sex couple. However, the episode went unproduced because Roddenberry and the creative team ultimately weren’t ready to air material that seemed too controversial at the time. Certainly, the writers for the new series can redress this exclusion.

If Star Trek is going to continue envisioning a utopian future with advanced medical technology, peace on Earth, and the Prime Directive that seeks to rectify colonialism, it’s only going to blast itself in the foot by marginalizing queer identities. The show that brought us the first television kiss in U.S. history between a white man and a black woman can’t afford to neglect any demographic without reneging on its continuing mission.

And for goodness’ sake, let’s not forget that the show has been comfortably representing interspecies relationships ever since the 1960s. If Captain Kirk is shacking up with green aliens, I daresay a gay captain pursuing a romance on the Enterprise wouldn’t be out of this galaxy!

Your move, CBS.

January 2016.