Interview

Bourbon County Brent

Brent Schanding, Bourbon County

What does the word queer mean to you? How do you identify?

For me, “queer” is anything different, alternative, out of the norm. It’s a counterculture — a way of life that’s on the fringe of what’s socially acceptable. As a person who’s always felt on the periphery, queer is an identity I’ve long embraced since I came out as a raucous Gen-X teenager in the 90s. I actually told my mom I was gay when I was 16, just after I’d been arrested for shoplifting. I had been running an underground retail operation out of my locker at school where I’d sell stolen clothes and accessories to my classmates. It was a pretty sophisticated business operation — I even took checks, haha!

On our long drive home from jail, I blurted out to my mother that I was gay. I reasoned she would have to deal with the larger issue of my sexuality instead of focusing on my punishment. I still got punished.

Also, I should note that I no longer shoplift, but I’m still very mischievous and have the brain of a hustling entrepreneur.

Where are you originally from and explain how was it growing up/living in Kentucky?

I grew up on a tobacco/horse/cattle farm in rural Bourbon County, about 30+ miles northeast of Lexington. I spent many of my summers barefoot, looking for flint rocks in fields, climbing trees, swimming in ponds and breaking green beans with my mammaw at the picnic table in her front yard.

We were very poor — probably below the poverty line at the time — but my brother and I didn’t know it because our mammaw largely insulated us from the social ills that often come with being at the bottom of the socioeconomic totem pole.

She used to tell us, “Just because you’re poor, doesn’t mean you have to be dirty.” She would scrub me in the bathtub and ferociously wash my head to the point that I’m now convinced most of my hair loss is because of her abrasive grooming techniques.

Growing up, my family went to church every Sunday; mom played piano and my mammaw prepared the bread and wine (actually it was Welch’s grape juice because the congregation was some conservative offshoot of Southern Baptists). One of my favorite childhood memories is hanging out with my mom and mammaw after church as they bussed the communion trays. My brother and I would “shoot” the remaining cups of grape juice and pretend like we were drunk at a bar!

Growing up in rural Kentucky, I often felt very isolated from civilization. We lived pretty far away from everything and if a family member was going into town, I was running to jump in the car to tag along. My FOMO was real.

I was the first kid on the school bus in the morning and the last kid off the bus in the afternoon, and the ride usually took well more than an hour.

Often I’d stand in the small space that separated my bus driver’s seat from the rest of the passengers and braid my bus driver’s hair while she drove us down bumpy country roads. Her name was Peggy George and she was more like a mentor/therapist/spiritual guru for an 8-year-old queer kid than a bus driver.

We had very adult conversations and she was probably the first person to see me for who I truly was without passing judgment.

What would you say to any person struggling to come into their own identity?

We all feel like imposters sometimes. The struggle to find a sense of belonging is universal. But I’d encourage people to focus on defining their core values. Set ambitious goals and do whatever it takes to crush them. Try to live a life of joy and happiness. Each night, examine your day and ask yourself if it was a day you’d be willing to live again based on the choices you made.

If not, you have the power to make different choices. Too often, we let others dictate our identities based on who we think they want us to be. If people see you as a failure, you’ll likely live up to those expectations unless you stay focused on your own success. We must live intentionally and not allow others to create the narrative of our life. As a queer youth, I learned early to dismiss the haters in the hallways who felt I should act or dress a certain way.

When kids called me “fag,” “queer” or “homo” I understood that it was actually a reflection of their own identity as insecure assholes. It had nothing to do with my identity as an empowered punk queer who refused to take shit from anyone.

How does your own identity run how you carry yourself? Or does it?

I think people are layered and complex, so I have several identities: I’m a skeptic, I’m an introvert, I’m an analyzer, I’m a planner, I’m a dreamer, I’m a creator, and I’m a stressed-out anxious mess sometimes … My sexual identity is also a part of who I am. And while being queer definitely influences my politics and worldview, it doesn’t wholly define me as a person. My identity is constantly evolving as I process new experiences and react to them. Though pockmarked and troubled, I wouldn’t trade my past for anything because those experiences have all shaped my current identity. And despite lots of  mistakes, I’m pretty OK and still very proud of who I am today. And I feel comfort in knowing that I can always change the me I will be in the future.

What issues do you see in the queer community?

I’m not a spokesperson for the queer community, but I believe our issues largely mirror those in greater society: Poverty, addiction, violence, discrimination, security, to name a few. The queer community is a microcosm of the larger community, so to me, it’s not “our issues” vs. “their issues” — it’s simply “issues.” As humans, we must all work together to resolve our problems for the betterment of humanity.

What do you think would solve those issues? 

Empathy, patience, understanding, communication and maybe a little bit of cannabis.

Do you feel excluded from the “mainstream” queer community? Why or why not? 

Yes, but often that’s because I have problems with allowing myself to feel vulnerable. I’ve also never wanted to fit in with the “mainstream.” I’ve always been pretty independent.

I’m not going to adapt or assimilate to join mainstream society if it means compromising who I am or any of my core values. No one should. This means I’m often outside the “inner circles” — but that’s a very comfortable place for me to be these days.

Where do you feel “at your best” (safe, happy, fabulous, comfortable, etc)

As a journalist, I often feel safe in newsrooms, surrounded by other freethinkers who are questioning the “whos, whats and whys” of our society in an effort to make sense of the crazy times we live in. I jive with idealists. I love hanging out in coffee shops with artists, philosophers, intellectuals and those who are interested in talking about ways to change the world. I also love being surrounded by nature and plants — being alone in a botanical gardens can definitely help reset my batteries. I also feel comfortable in chaos and unfamiliar settings. I love traveling to new, foreign places where I don’t speak the language because it’s very humbling. The more I learn about different people, places and cultures, the better I am at responding and adapting to adversity.

Who influenced the life you live now?

My therapist.

Also, I’ve always been motivated by critics and doubters. When someone doubts I can do something, it makes me more determined to do it. Proving haters wrong is like flipping them a hard middle finger — and sometimes being able to succeed and do that feels really good!

Black, Queer and Powerful

Kaila Adia Story, PhD

What does the word queer mean to you?

To me, Queer means not letting society, institutions, friends or loved ones define who you are, or you hope to be. It means defining yourself, for yourself. It means living freely, unapologetically and boldly. It means feeling so emboldened within your queer self that you free others. That you challenge others. It means that your queer presence frees those around you. It means working from your own center and letting others know and see that you are force of freedom and light who would rather live truthfully than silenced, stifled and afraid.

How do you identify? 

I identify as Black Feminist Lesbian Femme. A Black and Queer sexual identity and gender performance rooted in embodying a resistive Black femininity. It is one that transcends and challenges White supremacist, homo-normative, and patriarchal ideas of femininity and queerness as White. My identity also to me, challenges the hetero-patriarchal assertion that power is innate to manhood, maleness and/or masculinity.

Where are you originally from? And Explain how was it moving to/living in Kentucky? 

I’m originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was a great experience to grow up in Ann Arbor. I left when I was 18 to pursue my bachelors at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. After completing my B.A. in Women’s & Gender Studies, I moved to Philadelphia, PA to attend graduate school at Temple University. After receiving my M.A. in African American Studies and my PhD in African American Studies with a graduate certificate in Women’s & Gender Studies, I was hired by the University of Louisville’s Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies & Pan African Studies Departments as an Assistant Professor and Audre Lorde Endowed Chair in Race, Gender, Class and Sexuality Studies in 2007.

The Audre Lorde chair was created by Carla Wallace, longtime Louisville activist and one of the founders of the Fairness Campaign in Louisville, KY. Carla’s monies were matched with monies from the Buck for Brains initiative in Louisville to create the endowed chair. Dr. Angela Y. Davis, who had taught at the University of Louisville and who was longtime friend of Carla’s named the endowed chair after Black feminist activist, warrior, poet, Audre Lorde. The Audre Lorde chair was designed to have a professor come to the University and through their scholarship, teaching, and activism create an ideological bridge between the departments of Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies and Pan African Studies, and also develop LGBTQ+ curriculum.

I was an integral part of establishing the LGBTQ+ Studies minor in 2009 in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Louisville. The Audre Lorde Chair has allowed me through my publications, presentations, forums, talks, and workshops, to create more visibility to my position, my departments, the University, and, ultimately, the larger Louisville community. I also served as one of the co-coordinators and members of the Fairness Campaign, when I arrived in Louisville and in 2012 me and my best friend Jaison Gardner were offered the opportunity to create a podcast for the local NPR affiliate here in Louisville, WFPL.

Our podcast, “Strange Fruit: Musings on Politics, Pop Culture and Black Gay Life,”  has recorded to date over 290+ episodes and we have been included in the Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (NKAA), and were honored by Bluegrass Black Pride in Lexington with a 2017 Trailblazer Award, and a 2015 PRIDEINDEX.COM™ ESTEEM AWARD in Chicago for “Outstanding Podcast.” The show now has international listeners ship of more than 6,000 downloads weekly and 24,000 downloads each month. We have also been able to extend our reach of the podcast through in-person events like movie screenings and talkbacks at the Speed Cinema, the “Dialogues on Gender” Series in conjunction with the Speed Museum, and our recent lecture on diversity and inclusion for more than 400 people for Creative Mornings.

Now as an Associate Professor at U of L, and after having lived in Louisville for 12 years, I can truly say that I love the life I have created here. Im grateful for the people I’ve met, the movements and organizations I’ve joined and the community that surrounds me.

What would you say to any person struggling to come into their own identity? 

I think everyone’s journey to self-acceptance is different. Complex. So, I don’t want this to come across as advice. I can only speak to what helped me become more comfortable with who I am. I came out when I was 16 and I found that the more I struggled internally about my identity, the more I projected that discomfort to others, I was always met with questions like: “But you don’t look like a lesbian?” or “how can you really know for sure that you’re a lesbian?”. The questions really began to infuriate me, so I decided that I needed to really do some interior work within my own spirit to begin to project the proud lesbian I felt I could become. To silence the questions and queries. I found the more “out,” I was, the more comfortable I became with who I was as Black Lesbian Femme, the more I was met with affirmation, awe and in some instances praise. Books also helped me become more prideful with who I was and what community I was now a part of. Black Lesbian Feminism and Black Queer Theory solidified this pride. There writings and activism gave me the necessary experiential grounding, affirmation, and confidence in my identity as Black Lesbian Femme. I knew after reading and studying these theories that I am a part of a wondrous and magical community. A community that has always been here and has a fascinating and compelling history. The global community of queer folk.

How does your own identity run how you carry yourself? Or does it? 

As a Black lesbian feminist femme, I have constantly had to navigate radicalized and gendered projections upon my person. Many folks in the past refused to see and/or acknowledge that they were in the presence of a Black lesbian feminist femme. While my blackness in many queer and non-queer spaces made me extremely hyper-visible, it was always the combination of my radicalized difference and my performance of intentional femininity through my chosen Black femme identity that seemed to deem who I truly was, invisible.

This to me, hinted at the longstanding tradition of racial and gendered erasure that functions inside and outside of queer spaces. As such, my incidents with hyper-visibility and invisibility do not exist in isolation apart from other Black femmes and/or other queer Black women. The racist and heteronormative politics at work, within and outside of queer communities of work and leisure, continue to render Black femmes and others as either something they don’t declare themselves to be and/or erases the many signifiers they adopt to be seen as who they truly are. Eventually I had to realize, that my identity as a Black Feminist Lesbian femme had everything to do with the way I saw myself, and not the way others saw me. I wasn’t going to be “boxed” by anyone anymore.  I found through readings and talking with other Black femmes that a Black Femme Lesbian Feminist identity was an identity with Black feminist roots and revolutionary potentials.

Audre Lorde’s work on the Black and divine feminine also helped me to recognize that not only had the divine feminine been celebrated and exalted within ancient Black cultures, but it also solidified my own subjective feelings that my Black femme identity was an identity that came out of an ancient space of strength, power, and divinity, and not an identity that was based upon heteronormative complacency and/or socialized expectations of gender. My Black femme identity is based on a Black feminist tradition of recovering and resistance that seeks to undermine the racist and heteronormative assumptions that choose to see femininity as inherently White, and power as inherently male. For me, this is the definition of Black Femme-ness that sits well with my spirit, and it’s a definition that articulated who, in fact, I actually felt I was. As soon as I began embodying and performing my newfound identity in every space I entered, I still got looks of confusion and invasive questions as to who I was, but it certainly less than before.

What issues do you see in the queer community? 

Unfortunately, racism, sexism, homo-normativity, and transphobia are still ever present within many queer communities. Ours. Theirs. Every queer community. From the racism, fetishizing, and transphobia folks experience on the dating apps. To the blatant and covert expressions of racism in the nightclubs. To the questions and queries that non-binary folks are bombarded with on a daily basis by other queer folks. These are the issues that are bringing us harm, that are hurting our community.

What do you think would solve those issues? 

Education and activism are the keys to resolving these issues to me. Folks who exist in spaces of privilege within queer communities in terms of race, cis identity, gender identity, etc. need to work on being open to receive what Black queer folks, Black trans folks, Black Femmes, and Black Butch Queens have been saying for decades. Queer Liberation can’t happen when our community is still tethered to these repugnant and terroristic ideas about race, trans identities, or non-binary identities.

Do you feel excluded from the “mainstream” queer community? Why or why not? 

I don’t. I don’t consider White, Cis Gay Inc. the mainstream queer community either. I recognize that the Gay Inc. queer community is certainly the most visible, the most amplified, but that Ain’t my queer community. It’s never been. My queer community that I consider mainstream, meaning that it has always been the community that I see myself as a part of is the Black Queer community. Remember, I work from my own center. That center is Blackness and Queerness. Always. All ways.

Where do you feel “at your best” (safe, happy, fabulous, comfortable, etc.) 

When I’m at home with my wife and my parents. We have so much fun and they bring out the best version of me. They are literally home for me. I love them madly and I would be absolutely lost without them.

 

Stop the Pan and Bi erasure

Kalee Johnson

What does the word queer mean to you?

Historically I’ve been called queer in ways that were detrimental and harmful to me, and I know that many, many others have shared that experience. There’s a lot of hate that lived behind the word queer, and that hatred fueled those who used it against me. When I think of the word queer now, and how it applies to my life and transformation, the first concept that comes to my mind is strength. Queer people continue to fight for fair and equal treatment. There are struggles all queer people have lived through whether it be societal, mental, or emotional. I think openly identifying as queer shows incredible strength in choosing to live as authentically as possible. By taking back the word queer, I feel I’ve been able to take back the parts of myself that were damaged by others.

How do you identify, Why?

I have spent a lot of time exploring who I am, and I feel, for maybe the first time, that pansexuality fits with my identity. I have lived most of my life identifying as bisexual, however four years ago I began researching pansexuality for a grad school project and it was like a lightning flash of positive feelings. Sexuality is a spectrum and identifying as bisexual was a big part of my queer experience. Now, however, I truly feel like pansexuality aligns with how I live and love; with a fierceness that is not limited to biological sex, gender, or gender identity. I am new to this part of my identity. I don’t have it all figured out just yet, and I’m okay with that.

Where are you originally from and explain how it was growing up/ living in Kentucky?

I grew up in Southern Indiana, actually, and only visited Louisville occasionally as I grew older. I lived closeted until my early twenties. I moved back from out of state and Louisville felt like where I wanted to be. I never felt comfortable to be truly myself before Louisville. Maybe it was a combination of age and the inclusiveness of the city. For me, the LGBTQ+ visibility was such a positive and overwhelming circumstance of living in a progressive city. Not to mention the nightlife was magical, and the women were entrancing.  The vibes of the city made me more comfortable with my sexuality.

What would you say to any person struggling to come into their own identity?

First and foremost, be patient with yourself, even as difficult as that may be. It may not all happen at the “right time,” but it will happen as you learn and grow. Love yourself, because you are worthy and valid no matter how you present or what you identify as. As cliché as it sounds, I implore you to be true to yourself, because no one knows you better than you and it’s ok to not have everything figured out. And try to have fun, because in the end, you’ll thank yourself for stepping out of your comfort zones and diving head first into self-love.

How does your own identity run how you carry yourself? Or does it?

I work in mental health, so it’s important for me to promote visibility by creating a safe space for my clients. I keep LGBTQ+ magazines in my office. I talk drag race with clients in session to help them feel more at ease and supported. I am open to talking about my sexuality to clients if I feel it could help the therapeutic relationship. Queer people are so likely to experience mental health issues, so one of my biggest priorities is to foster an open and accepting environment.

What issues do you see in the queer community?

I am married to a man, however contrary to popular belief, my current partnership in no way negates my sexuality or identity. This erasure of Pan/Bi identity is a huge problem in the queer community. Misconceptions that people who identify as Pan/Bi as being just gay, straight, or maybe “haven’t figured it out yet.” I’ve had my identity questioned and denied, and I know others in the queer community share these experiences.

What do you think would solve those issues?

Identities are fluid, and no one should ever be shamed for moving in and out of the bisexual or pansexual community. The more visibility and nurturance we can create, the better. We need to accept each other’s identities in full. Our voices need to be present, supported, and visible. When folks speak out and openly discuss their pansexuality or bisexuality, awareness and understanding increases. I think we’ve come a long way in terms of acceptance, but that doesn’t mean this issue isn’t still very nuanced and complex.

Do you feel excluded from the “mainstream” queer community? Why or why not?

My entire life I struggled to understand how I could be so open to love, when all I was taught was how to be straight. Entering the LGBTQ+ community changed my life for the better, but it was still really hard to open up to my friends about who I am and then I was met with concern about if I “really meant it” or if I was “just confused.” I have struggled with feeling like I belong and being part of the community since I have been with my husband. I’ve been mislabeled as an ally and while that’s a great thing to be it’s been hurtful to me because I feel like my experience shouldn’t be invalidated and that I am queer too.

Where do you feel “at your best”

My heart is with theater arts. I love singing, dancing, and creating. Recently I started acting again, and I’ve been in two musicals in the past year. Being on stage is so freeing to me. I struggle with anxiety and while learning a role and being part of a production is anxiety provoking, I have never felt so at ease as when I am performing. Aside from being in shows, I have always loved being in the audience at plays and especially drag performances. Drag is an obsession of mine. I have been going to drag shows since I was 18, and I am so grateful for what that did for my tiny queer heart. As a more seasoned and queerer adult, going to Play means so much to me. It’s the only place where I truly feel comfortable and I have a great community of friends there, too. Talking drag race with people is nice but supporting local drag is most important to me.  

Who influence the life you live now?

I am very close with my grandparents. I had my first mental health episode when I was 19 and my grandparents really helped me through it. They live in Evansville, so we don’t get to see each other as often as we would like but we do talk on the phone almost every day. My grandparents have loved and supported me through many life challenges and I am so thankful for their kindness.  My grandparents had differing opinions on LGBTQ+ issues and for a while that was hard on our relationship. I was not out with them for most of my life, however we worked through difficult conversations and I am proud of their growth. My Pepaw always asks for pictures of the queens I’m going to see, and my Memaw tells me of any queer issues in the news. They’re pretty cute, and I am lucky they’re mine.

Racism within the Queer Community runs deep

Derek Guy, Kentucky by way of Atlanta, Georgia

What does the word queer mean to you? How do you identify? Why? Or why don’t you identify as anything at all?

Queer means that I am as fluid as the colors surrounding us. I identify as a queer transman and my identity grows with me and changes to match my heart. I believe that my life and my identity is a living document and I don’t believe that even queer is overlapping enough to encompass my identities but it’s the language that I have now that I feel fits the best.

Where are you originally from and explain how was it growing up/living in Kentucky?

I am originally from Atlanta, GA. Living in Kentucky has been the most demeaning, dehumanizing experience of my life. I never thought being black or being transgender was a negative thing until I have had the experiences I have had here in Kentucky. It’s an incredibly backwards state that has a way of showing the worst of itself over trivial things. I highly dislike living in this state but for now, it’s the only option my family has. Running for office in this state was the scariest and most disheartening thing I have ever done. I don’t think this state is safe for black transgender people to be out and open with their identity in this state.

What would you say to any person struggling to come into their own identity?

Find your people. They are out there and you can find a family that fits you and loves you no matter what. I believe for everyone there is someone and there is a group for everyone to belong to.

How does your own identity run how you carry yourself? Or does it?

I’m ever cautious and aware of how present my presence to others. I have noticed that I have gone from a woman who is timid, to a scary black man overnight and that is sometimes hard to deal with. I am often over cautious of how I speak, how I carry myself, how much of an imposition I am being to others. It’s hard to live in a world that hates the color of my skin, without knowing the man in this skin.

What issues do you see in the queer community?

The queer community is racist ASF. It’s the most disheartening and disgusting thing for there to be so much racism and transphobia in the lgbtq+ community. There is only safety in the lgbtq community if you are white. I often experience more racism and transphobia from white lgbtq people than any others in the community.

What do you think would solve those issues?

Getting rid of ignorant hierarchy and people acknowledging that once they have come for me, they will come for you.

Do you feel excluded from the “mainstream” queer community? Why or why not?

Yes because it’s often white transgender people or attractive transgender people. I often see black transgender men in any aspect mainstream queer community.

Where do you feel “at your best” (safe, happy, fabulous, comfortable, etc)

At home in the comfort of the people I know who do love me unconditionally.

Who influenced the life you live now?

My life is influenced by the people who are no longer with me in this world. I go on for those who can’t anymore. But I am also influenced by my son and the kids and women I work with every day. I work hard to be the best man I can be, and I work hard to be an example of positivity for them. I love my work and the kids and women I work with and they inspire me every day.

“Blake Writes”

Blake Reichenbach, Lincoln County, Ky.

What does the word queer mean to you? How do you identify? & Why? Or why don’t you identify as anything at all?

I see queerness as a claim of liberation. In fact, I generally refer to myself as “queer man” rather than a “gay man” even though gay is the label that I see more commonly. I grew up in a very conservative, religious environment in which even accepting that my sexuality was something other than straight was a huge struggle. Into my teens, as I finally did accept that the gay couldn’t be prayed away, I was convinced that the best way for me to live my life was as a straight-passing, masculine gay man. It was such a narrow box to try to cram myself into and it never really fit. It wasn’t until I got to college and got to spend time with fabulously queer, liberated people that I realized that there didn’t need to be a box at all. I could just BE. That is what it is to be queer to me. Queerness is about living without the box of being confined to the expectations of a specific sexuality or gender identity. When I launched my website– BlakeWrites (www.blakewrites.com)– that was my core focus: creating content for guys and masc-identifying individuals that didn’t set expectations about how one should live or who they should be.

Where are you originally from and explain how was it growing up/living in Kentucky?

I’m originally from Lincoln County, which is a very rural county in south-central Kentucky. Like so many others in the Bible Belt, I grew up in the church and even went to a private, Christian high school with very conservative Southern Baptist roots. Growing up, the only narrative of queerness that I heard was one of shame and violence. Kids at school would brag about the fact that their youth ministers would play “smear the queer” at church; classmates lamented the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell because they believed “everyone in the military would get AIDS”; if someone else was perceived as being gay, they were mocked relentlessly behind their backs and I didn’t know how to protect myself without laughing along at their jokes. In fact, the first person who I heard speak up on behalf of gay people was Lady Gaga in 2008. Prior to the words of an inescapable megastar, I heard nothing but derogatory and hateful comments about the queer community.

Naturally, as a byproduct, I spent my teenage years deep within the throws of pretty severe depression and anxiety, and it’s something that I’m still medicating and working through today. At the same time, having lived in a position of privilege that has allowed me to venture out of the state, out of the country, and to come to terms with and embracing my queerness, I no longer resent or fear my homeland in the way that I once did. In fact, I chose to move back to Kentucky from Los Angeles, and have settled close to home in Richmond (Madison County). Once again, it goes back to understanding my identity as a queer person– I’m free now, and I know that I’m strong enough to make an impact and help other queer people by being myself and being visibly, proudly queer.

What would you say to any person struggling to come into their own identity?

Don’t let others’ expectations cloud your perceptions of yourself. Coming to terms with your own identity is rough, especially in the Bible Belt, but I promise you that at the end of the road, living authentically will be worth it. In all things, be true to that voice in your heart, and be willing to see yourself change and adapt over time. Virtually every queer person I know goes through phases of discovering themselves– the wild hair phase, the bad facial hair phase, the militant phase, the angry phase, the promiscuous phase. They’re all valid and they’re all a part of figuring out who you ultimately are. What’s important is that in each stage of your journey, you listen to yourself and do what’s good and what’s right for you, not what others are expecting of you.

How does your own identity run how you carry yourself? Or does it?

Now that I’m an adult, I try to be the adult who I needed in my life when I was a kid. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I launched my own website– www.blakewrites.com. I spent a while doing freelance writing and content marketing full-time, and most of my clients were in the men’s fashion industry. Feeling incredibly burnt out with the content I was writing, I took a step back and realized that it was draining me because I was writing about an experience of masculinity that wasn’t my own. The audience I was tasked within writing for was white, heterosexual, wealthy, and lived in places like New York City or Los Angeles. I was betraying my identity and my community each time I silently let an editor erase my efforts to include trans men, plus-sized men, black men, Asian men, or low-income men into my content. I finally got fed up with it and resigned from those jobs, launching my own platform to create content for men and masc-identifying folks that doesn’t assume anything about their experiences with masculinity, and that actively seeks to break down the walls of toxic masculinity.

What issues do you see in the queer community? & What do you think would solve those issues?

There is a lot of work that needs to be done within the queer community. You can’t scroll through a gay dating app, or even walk through a gay bar or gay event space, without seeing clear signs that racism, misogyny, transphobia, body shaming, and classism is deeply engrained within the way in which the queer community. As a cis-gender, white man with a comfortably middle-class job, I find it painfully obvious that the way I’m treated is quite different from the way my trans friends, queer PoC friends, and lower-income friends are treated and viewed by the general public as well from within the queer community. As a community, I think we need to work extra hard on educating each other and speaking to each other about privilege and the role that it plays in the dynamics of the queer community. We are a community– we’re not siloed groups within our own, separate spaces. If we are to rise as a community, it has to be all together as a community, and we won’t be able to do that without learning to use privilege as a way of lifting others up rather than pushing them down or elevating ourselves.

Do you feel excluded from the “mainstream” queer community? Why or why not?

I’ll confess that I wrote out an answer to this question and erased it three or four times. To be honest, I don’t know how to answer this question. While I’ve never felt particularly excluded from the queer community, I also don’t have a local, queer tribe yet. My big gay family lives on the other side of the state from me now, and it’s been a challenge for me to actually find a queer community where I now live. If you would have asked me two or three years ago, my answer would have definitively been that I wasn’t excluded. Today, I’m in a position where I find myself wondering if I’d have a more solid community if I was thinner, more muscular, wealthier, more outgoing, or something along those lines; I essentially remind myself on a daily basis that being queer is having a permission slip to not fit into any of those “If I was more ____” definitions, and that my community will come in time.

Where do you feel “at your best” (safe, happy, fabulous, comfortable, etc)

Maybe it’s a symptom of working for a tech company, but I feel like I’m at my best when I’m out at a coffee shop or cafe on my computer creating content that can empower and uplift the queer community.

Who influenced the life you live now?

I don’t think I’ve ever told her, but the first person I ever met who was openly and proudly black and queer was Arielle Clark. She was an upperclassman during my freshman year at Bellarmine University, and she was a leader within the school’s gay-straight alliance. There was something very magnetic about her– she was powerful and smart and proud and visible. Eventually, I realized that the power she possessed came from her pride in her identify. She embraced it, she lived it, and she celebrated. I wanted what she had, and couldn’t have it without embracing my queerness as well.

What Arielle set in motion, my friend Haley Adams saw through to completion. Haley has been by my side and supported me through all the various phases of my journey to live authentically… even the weird facial hair and “maybe I should present myself as masculine and kinda conservative” phases. I don’t know how she was always so patient and able to gently guide me and educate me.

‘The simplest thing is – You are not alone’

What does the word queer mean to you?

To me queer has always equated with “outside of the other categories you’ve given me to choose from.” Which I like personally and I have always admired those who had adopted the label early. But then I catch the juxtaposition of choosing the “other” label (behold, it’s still a label) and wonder about the irony.

How do you identify?

Definitely queer, but my vernacular has always leaned toward “I’m gay” in conversation. The girl that I had a crush on in second grade called me gay, and I thought she meant happy. I had never heard the term before. She was right, and it stuck.

Why? Or why don’t you identify as anything at all?

Right. I don’t think about much day-to-day anymore. I’m very fortunate that I live most of my life in a set of environments that I contact more acceptance than judgement for behavior related to my sexuality.

Where are you originally from and explain how was it growing up/living in Kentucky?

I’m originally from a small town of 3,000 people in WV, called Weston. It’s very similar to small towns here in Kentucky. I had a very good childhood, with very loving family, but I perceived a lack of gay men and women in town – and the ridicule and judgement that seemed to be part of the lives of those I knew. I certainly knew my predilections were something to hide or repress. I had to move away from home to feel like I could be myself openly. I transferred to Centre College after my freshman year of college. Kentucky has been home ever since.

What would you say to any person struggling to come into their own identity?

Shew. It feels presumptuous to even try! It’s so personal. The simplest thing is – You are not alone. The right people will love you for being exactly who you are. It takes time. It’s time worth taking.

How does your own identity run how you carry yourself? Or does it?

I think I had so much early teasing and ridicule for acting/looking “like a tomboy,” or dressing in a way that doesn’t match my personal gender, that I have learned to be confident in a fluid or non-binary gender aesthetic. I’m comfortable with my androgyny, but it’s been an evolution of years, and is still evolving really.

Do you feel excluded from the “mainstream” queer community? Why or why not?

No, I don’t feel excluded. I’ll quote Margaret Cho here on a somewhat related topic: “You feel left out? It’s like a group outing! Nobody’s invited. Everybody just knows to come!”

Where do you feel “at your best” (safe, happy, fabulous, comfortable, etc).

At my home, and with my loved ones.

Who influenced the life you live now?

Family (given and chosen), and a plethora of art and artists.

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