queer

interview

Getting Seen and Feeling Good with Joshua Byron

“I write a lot about what it means to go viral,” Joshua Byron told me somewhere in the middle of our conversation. The question of internet virality – or as Joshua also puts it, the question of being seen – is something I’d been wrestling with personally for months when it came to this very publication. Just as we decided to produce one final issue of Things Created By People, we got an email from Joshua with a pitch for their latest film project, Idle Cosmopolitan. It was a lucky accident.

Idle Cosmopolitan, which was recently re-released by glo worm, stars Joshua as a relationship writer who enters an alternate dimension. Relationships, romance, and their intersection with trans identity lay at the center of Joshua’s work, whether it’s one of their many video projects, their non-binary dating columns, Neurotic Dope and Trans Monogamist, or their book, NB Carrie Bradshaw.

Joshua is often at the center of their own work in a way that is incredibly intimate. It’s easy to believe that the Joshua you are seeing on-screen or in words is the Joshua Byron you’ll get in real life. But Joshua is a self-described “very intentional person.” While I am consistently amazed at how raw their work is, it is also thought out, curated, intentional. If you’re seeing a part of Joshua Byron, it is because they wanted you to see it. What does it mean to be seen? To seek out being seen, to then not be seen? These questions run through the core of Joshua’s work, and our conversation.


This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Joshua Byron: I think Idle Cosmopolitan came out of this desire to meld the sensibilities that I was exploring. I’d seen a lot of Sex and the City, but I also came out of this very experimental background. I really wanted to combine what I was interested in and the themes I was thinking through, which are usually very immediate, and usually presented in very autobiographical narratives, with something a little bit more abstract, and more like Haruki Murakami.

I think a lot of it came out of a desire to think through sex and love in a way that was more than one-note. It’s an experimental, semi-autobiographical narrative about not getting married at 21. That’s what the press release said. It’s sort of like how life devolves into these endless forks in the road. In this case, it’s about a relationship advice writer who keeps going left instead of right and gets dragged along by no force of their own. And not even just led by outside forces, but just ends up going into a queer world, which is sort of an alternate dimension.

Adam Cecil: I think the other way I saw it described on your website was “a ghost story about the queer world.”

Joshua: Yeah, that’s the easier way to blurb it. It’s a ghost story, it’s about an alternate dimension, and it’s about death, in a light-hearted way.

Adam: You were telling me that your book NB Carrie Bradshaw is not a diary. And it’s definitely not structured at all like that. But the quality of the writing is very much so ripped from the pages of a diary. How do you keep that quality when you’re curating and condensing and editing?

Joshua: I think it’s a very careful distinction, and it’s something that I’ve thought a lot about. Okay, so, vulnerability. How is it different in terms of art, right? Because we always think this artist is giving themselves to us. It’s sort of a strange metaphor that we have when somebody’s being open. But I really don’t think it’s true because they’re giving us an object, and that’s it. I think vulnerability is much more reciprocal, it’s much more unfiltered. But an object, you can’t ask it a question. You can’t get more out of it than there is.

For me, it’s much harder to labor on an object that feels vulnerable, but you’re not giving your whole self. You’re not dumping a diary on somebody. A book, while vulnerable, is not the same. I can give you something, and you can see me, but I can’t see you. And I can still hold back.

Adam: But for somebody who’s reading it, they’re playing around with your vulnerability without you there. To me, that’s terrifying.

Joshua: Right. There were a few things that I took out from the book that I was like, “That’s too vulnerable for this context, I don’t want this here.” But there’s nothing in there now that I would think, “Oh, I hope somebody doesn’t read this.” Different people have said, “Wow, I would never have said that.” But this is just the work that I do, the work that I do requires it. This is the tool, this is the medium. Some people work in shapes and colors, and I’m thinking through vulnerability.

Adam: You’ve created a lot of video work under the guise a vlog. Thinking about your work being diary-ish, I’m wondering how you conceptualize the vlog as a medium or art form.

Joshua: My college thesis was on vlogs.

Adam: Oh, perfect.

Joshua: But I am not good at vlogging. Part of what I discovered through thinking through vlogs is that it’s meant for a certain kind of person, it is meant for a certain type of experience. And it’s not an experience I’m good at giving.

But what’s equally important about vlogs is that they’re diaries. They’re not political. They are easily disseminated. There is an emphasis on production quality, and on the attraction and intimacy that is maybe sexual with the person who’s speaking. And maybe they have an accent. That’s another big part of the vlogger. It helps. It doesn’t hurt.

Oh, and usually they have a vague side-project that they try and launch eventually. That sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. The vlog is not the means to an end. It’s always a vehicle for a person or a brand.

My vlogs were more of a means to an end. It was just like, “Here’s the vlog. Here’s what it is.” And I don’t fit a lot of those qualities! But I wanted to see what it was like. Also, I was more interested in using vlogs as a collage space. I was really into Jonas Mekas at the time, when he was doing his video a day project, which I thought was much more engaging than the typical vlog culture.

Of course, there’s also the whole trans vlog community, which has its own collectivity. But it also has that sort of self-destructive, like, certain people are privileged more, certain trans bloggers get more views, etc. So it’s a more contested space that still has all the things about the internet that are controversial. One of the things I discovered, which I don’t think is that surprising, is that white vloggers are getting the most views. It’s also usually the ones who look like they can pass the most, or who have the most inspirational story while looking good doing it. Which is kind of wild!

There are people who have the inspirational journey video, where they show pre-hormone, post-hormone videos. A lot of people feel comfortable doing that, and the people who feel comfortable doing those videos are not wrong for doing it. If that’s how they feel good about their journey, that’s totally valid. But I think for people who don’t transition, or who don’t have the money to transition, or who feel really volatile about pre-hormone or pre-coming-out pictures, those are not the kind of videos they’re going to put up. But those are the videos that the average viewer wants to see, because it’s spectacle. The kind of videos that get privileged are the spectacles, which have this tie to sex.

Adam: Let me back up a little. Thinking about what makes you a bad vlogger – you list out these qualities that go into a vlog as a medium. How did you tackle it knowing that you don’t fit these qualities and knowing that what you’re doing is not what everyone else is doing?

Joshua: I was really interested in the idea that it was a way to keep working. It was a great way to be like, “Okay, this doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be great.” But it’s a great to keep cutting those artistic teeth.

Some were much more interesting and engaging than others. There’s this one where I’m just walking around my living room, and I’m just yelling at things. And then it’s cutting between pictures that I drew. Then there are a few clips of the outside. I think part of it was that I was thinking about domestic and non-domestic spaces, and how are we authentic in different spaces, and how does that change when you collage them together.

I was super into Steve Roggenbuck at the time, so I was thinking through things like who gets to be viral, and what is viral. I wasn’t viral for a number of reasons. But I think that became less important as I was experimenting with collage, and experimenting with, like, “This vlog feels good, this vlog doesn’t, and why is that?” If you’re going to adhere to the rubric, then what makes a good vlog?

Adam: When you started, did you want to go viral?

Joshua: I don’t know if I wanted to go viral. But the goal wasn’t to just have them sit there on YouTube and not do anything. Which is kind of what they became. I did it for six, seven months, and then I realized that it was not how I liked to work.

Adam: If you had gone viral or achieved some level of superficial success, do you think that would’ve changed the way you thought about it or approached it?

Joshua: I think I would’ve done it a lot longer, but I would’ve had to do it for a year or two before anything like that could’ve happened, so that’s already a huge block. I’m also not traditionally attractive, and I don’t mean that as a slight, just you know, in traditional beauty politics. So, it’s hard for me to imagine what that would have been like. It would have felt radical, and not in a political way, but it just would’ve felt like a very big change.

Adam: Do you feel like any kind of work that goes through social media, whether it’s YouTube or something else, is just inherently unsuccessful if it doesn’t achieve some sort of virality?

Joshua: No, no, I don’t think that’s true. But I also don’t think failure is a bad thing! I think failing at one sense of success isn’t the worst thing in the world.

I think people are heralding social media as sort of a democratizer – everyone could have success. But I think it’s actually just the same replication of publishing and media theory that we’ve always seen. Maybe more people have access, and there are great things, revolutions and scary things like that, but there’s still a level of capitalism. Lighting is money! I think that a big thing that Instagram has is that the right lighting is money. That’s a big of part of it – to either have the money to have great lights in your house, or to go to a space that has good lighting, which poor places don’t.

So, I think I’m a little cynical about how social media works.

But I don’t think it’s always bad. I think it has definitely given us things that allow more people to have platforms. Who’s getting that platform and how they’re allowed to use it, I think is a question that has kept coming up in my own work.

I think a lot about the practice of how I’m disseminating my work, and in NB Carrie Bradshaw, I write a lot about what it means to go viral. What does it mean to be visible? How is that connected to identity politics? How is it connected to emotional vulnerability? What does it mean if somebody wants to be seen, and then their Instagram only gets five likes? I think there’s something interesting there.

People may say, “Well, that’s dumb, they shouldn’t care.” But it’s a lot easier to say that than it is to feel that. I think being visible is one of the big human questions that we all want. How do we show up and get seen by other people in a way that feels good? I think social media can kind of twist that question into “How do we get seen?” Not, “How do we get seen and it feels good,” just, “How do we get seen?”


“I don’t think of social media as a medium that I use,” Joshua told me. “We’re accelerating, and my work is not fast-paced.” I admire this quality in Joshua’s work – in a world that is constantly moving forward, it can be nice to sit down and watch a video about a person walking around their living room and yelling at things. But it’s also the fact that the very thing that Joshua is working with – vulnerability – requires us to slow down. It’s not a recipe for massive viewer numbers on the internet, but as Joshua says, there’s more to their work than just being seen. “What does it mean to be seen, and what does it mean to have fun? Can that be the same thing?” Joshua asked themselves at the end of our conversation. “I think it can. It’s a less tangible but more inviting idea of success.”


Find more of Joshua’s work on their website.

audio, interview

Art Collision: Francis Steakknife & Johnny Darlin


Transcript:

One of my favorite moments as an artist living in New York are those magical, perhaps slightly tipsy, one-on-one conversations with other artists. Whether they be friends, collaborators, or strangers you just met at a party, they almost always contain at least a morsel of intense value. Being an artist can be lonely — focusing on something that is part of your soul, and giving it most of your energy, creative and otherwise. When that inward experience turns outward and you are met with someone with similar dreams and living the same confusing but beautiful life, and who believes in you and whom you believe in, it’s impossible not to leave feeling encouraged or at the very least, a bit less alone. Like you’re not being left behind.

I’ve had the idea for a while to turn those moments that happen so frequently in private, into something more public and concrete, all while also giving artists the platform to premiere some of their work. To force two artists to become experts on the other’s output, and then throw them into a conversation and see what happens.

For this first episode, I have made myself, Michael Doshier — I go by Johnny Darlin as an artist — one of the artists. And I can’t think of anyone else Johnny Darlin or Michael Doshier would rather have as my partner than my first guest, Steven Zemanian a.k.a. Francis Steakknife. If the prerequisite for this is being an expert on each other’s work, there’s no one better to join me than Steven. We know each other very well personally and creatively; he produced four out of the five songs on my first EP, Mr. Monogamy, released last year, and is producing three out of the one coming out in 2016. He is a producer who can bring out the brightest lights and the deepest darks in any song I write. He is also a solo artist whose efforts as such I have seen draw hundreds of drunk mid-20s ghouls to a Halloween party in a basement where we shouldn’t have been smoking inside but we were anyway, and where I touched the stair railing only to have my hand soaked in vomit, then stood outside a locked bathroom to wash it off because people were inside fucking their brains out. (And by the way, there is no doubt in my mind the underlying sex drive pulsing in his beats drove these ostensibly sane humans into such animalistic territory).

Despite our collaborative friendship he is also a creative shrouded in mystery for me — especially when it comes to his solo work that somehow finds itself on the Internet seemingly randomly, enlivening my newsfeed with sounds quite different than anything we’ve ever produced together. I was interested to crack this case.

This is Johnny Darlin in conversation with Francis Steakknife, and our favorite drink together is Blue Moon.


Michael Doshier: Today I am joined by Steven Zemanian, also known as Francis Steakknife. I have worked with him on several projects, in fact, most of my musical projects. I’m very excited to have his perspective today. Thank you for joining me, Steven.

Steven Zemanian: I’m excited to be here, thank you.

MD: Steven has an amazing pet bunny named Marvin who is joining us in the studio today (by studio I am referring to his awesome apartment); how is Marvin doing today, Steven?

SZ: He looks pretty good; he’s flopped out right now; you were just here and he ate dinner in front of us so he’s happy but he likes to sleep after dinner.

MD: He looks very content.

***

MD: When it comes to artistic physical spaces that our work together has manifested itself within, I have a surprisingly large amount of places come to mind: a recording studio in Virginia, your parents’ attic in Virginia, this apartment, my apartment, NYU recording studios. And as you’ve mentioned before, space is an important concept to you in regards to recording. I’ve heard you say things like “it’ll be cool to get a vocal take in the same space we recorded the instruments.” And this has always intrigued me because I don’t understand it myself and I find it a really beautiful concept. I would love to get you to elaborate a little on that for me — what does space mean to you in regards to recording music?

SZ: Space is extremely important. It’s an important part of mixing and recording, to make everything sound like it’s either in a surreal environment or a realistic environment. You’re trying to put the listener in the best place to hear the sound when you’re recording and mixing. You kind of want to give them the best place in the house, and that house can be either real or imaginary, which is always fun.

MD: Still in this area of conversation about space, I will say that for me the Francis Steakknife eras that come to mind are Francis-Steakknife-in-Virginia and the work you’ve produced there and Francis-Steakknife-in-New-York-City and I’m curious as to how to the change in physical location has done for you creatively. Has New York made you see the world differently in any sort of way? And has that been affecting the music you’ve been creating?

SZ: Virginia is definitely a much slower pace, and I don’t know if I’ve necessarily thought about how the living environment has affected my music; I don’t know if my music is any faster or more aggressive now. But I loved walking around Norfolk, and that’s one of the things I love about New York is you can walk everywhere; you don’t have to drive anywhere. But yeah, the walking pace and maybe our natural tempos are very different between the two [places]; you can kind of walk however you want in Virginia, whereas in New York you have to keep up with everybody and pass people. Even if you’re not really going anywhere important, you have to act like an asshole and pass somebody; it’s just the way it all works.

MD: I was listening to Delusions — the first album I ever had of yours. That I noticed had more jazz and blues influences in certain songs than I have in more recent work you’ve created in New York.  What are your thoughts on these first Francis Steakknife productions?

SZ: The point with Delusions was I really wanted to make music with a lot of my friends, so most of them are featured on it from college. It was a lot of fun; the whole point was Vincent Van Gough — I loved and still do really like his artwork. So, all of the tracks are named after Vincent Van Gough pieces and I tried to think about how musically to interpret the artwork. The blues and jazz influences come from me being very much interested in strange chord progressions back then, and still am but have tried to reign it in a little more, because some of the things were a little far out.

MD: I want to talk to you about sequencing and cohesiveness. I remember when you asked me my thoughts on Groucho Karl before it had been released, one of my notes was how cohesive the album was from track to track and from beginning to end. As a playwriting student, I come from the world of storytelling and trying to get the story “right.” When we were working on Mr. Monogamy together, both sonically and lyrically it was important to me to put the songs in an order that told some sort of story.

SZ: As far as Groucho Karl goes, I really lucked into a three-act structure. It’s three failed concepts I smashed together, and I used gapless playback to drive that point home further; all the songs go into one other. The songs themselves are little sketches from my notebook I had at the time and I was really into the idea that it should be incomplete; I would sometimes try to make complete songs out of them but it wouldn’t work, so I’d just leave them how they were in little one minute and two minute things that lead into one another. When I ended up sequencing it, I was in New York and had a bunch of material (some of it wasn’t very good) and I tried to take the best parts of it and smash it all together.

MD: In that way, it’s a collection of ideas and thoughts and musical inspirations you’ve had throughout a long period of time in multiple areas. You didn’t sit down and say “I’m going to release this record in this amount of weeks,” it’s more a matter of you being in multiple areas and while you were in New York, finding the ones that worked together. You were building a cohesiveness instead of creating one from the get-go. That’s interesting that it’s something I consider very cohesive and it’s literally an album construed of things you consider failures.

***

Francis Steakknife (Steven Zemanian) and Johnny Darlin (Michael Doshier)

Francis Steakknife (Steven Zemanian) and Johnny Darlin (Michael Doshier)

MD: I have a sort of selfish question. I am curious as to what your favorite track we’ve done together is and if you could tell me why and what that process was like for you.

SZ: “You’ve Quit Praying for Me, Babe” is not out yet, but it will be.

MD: So what’re your first steps? For a lot of our collaborations, we A) work together in a studio and come up with melodies we like, B) sometimes you’ve done full productions on your own and are curious what I can add as a songwriter and vocalist on top of it, and C) sometimes I write songs on my own and send to you and see where they take you as a producer and you turn demos into full songs. So I’m curious what that latter option is like for you.

SZ: So I listen to it and give it a good think and think about what the overall message of the song is, and maybe go from there. If I can use some sort of element to add to that and drive home that this is the message of that song. And then I’ll think about what’s the main instrument of the song — a lot of times with you, it’s the piano, so I will build something around the piano and leave space for the piano that you will eventually play and work my own production around the piano.

***

SZ: There are a lot of things I don’t know about your process. I know with “Nervous Girl/Whiskey Shot” I ended up recording most of the instrumental to that in the Catskills. I really didn’t know what to do with it; I knew I wanted to make a banging pop song (which is sort of a weird thing to do in the middle of the woods). I had no direction lyrically, so I’m wondering what the song is even, broadly, about.

MD: My actual favorite part of the Mr. Monogamy creative process was “Nervous Girl/Whiskey Shot” and “~MaGiCaL! ;)~” because the challenge was that I would be writing to a beat like Ester Dean or some other titan in the pop industry who is given productions and asked to turn them into the biggest hit ever, so that was a very fun role to play. It’s appropriate that I’m getting a little bit drunk now because I did write that song in the shower. All my roommates were gone, I brought my laptop into the bathroom, I had a few pregame beers by my lonesome, and I took a shower and just played “Nervous Girl/Whiskey Shot” the instrument on loop over and over again, while at the same time having my phone on record so whatever I was singing in the shower would be recorded.

I had an idea called “Moody Girl/Whiskey Shot” because I liked the combination of those two phrases separated by a backslash, based off one of my friends who was the life of a party and everyone’s favorite girl at the party, but was getting drunker and drunker and messier and messier throughout the course of the party. I thought “this is a very typical image of anyone our age and of my relationship with her specifically, but I find something poetic about it.” So I channeled my own anxiety that I experience and substituted “moody” for “nervous.” So it’s a combination of that story and my own anxieties and how I act those out by drinking and turning up, which is fun and deals with anxiety in the moment, but I think the song on your end has a darkness to it that musically drives home that it isn’t necessarily the healthy option.

SZ: The next song is “My Sister Went out on a Date Tonight.” Walk me through the sentiment behind that song.

MD: My actual sister was getting ready for an actual date, and I was coming to terms with the idea of coming out to my family. So those anxieties were mixed with my sister who was going on dates that she did not have to explain to my parents, but not only that, they were excited for her and helping her get ready for it. I played a drum loop in GarageBand and started singing over it, literally telling the story of what was actually happening.

SZ: Marvin is freaking out in his crate.

MD: Yes, Marvin is ready to come out and talk to us about his debut album coming out soon.

SZ: I recorded the instrumentals for what came to be “Nervous Girl” and “~MaGiCaL! ;)~” both in the Catskills, at the woods in my Uncle’s house. I didn’t know what to do with it from there because it was a big maximalist pop song, and I sent it to you and you sent it back with something awesome. I really wanted the song to be a very happy instrumental but a very sad lyrical juxtaposition. I actually don’t know where you were mentally when you wrote the lyrics and melody to that song.

MD: As a queer person, I feel like romantic and sexual development for a lot of us is delayed, in the sense that minor crushes and romantic things that hit your heart and interests may take more of a toll on you than had you been dating and kissing and fooling around as a young person. A lot of queer people don’t do that because they’re repressed until they can do that on their own. So the chorus is “How magical that feels, after all these years.” And the line about “I wanted you to meet my family” is supposed to take on an extra weight, for me at least, because that’s a very lofty goal for a lot of queer people: to feel so strongly about someone else that you’d risk the awkwardness of introducing them to your family. So, it was sort of about, what it feels like when a relationship goes wrong in the context of this delayed development.

SZ: That leaves us to the final track of the EP, “Try (For Me).”

MD: I wrote the first version of it as a part of a musical I wrote in middle school. Then, I kept it in my head long enough for it to be there for the Mr. Monogamy process so I revamped it. It’s weird to hear eighth-grade Michael’s melodic thoughts and some of the same lyrical thoughts be released as twenty-three year old Michael’s output into the world and artistic space.

Because it was our first song working on together in person, it was highly collaborative. I remember you teaching me things about how the piano syncs to the computer and how we can manipulate the piano to sound like other things. That was a challenging thing for me to play the piano as if it was going to be the bass. Those were exciting moments for me to grow as a musician at twenty in your attic; it was our first real in-person, teaching each other things, expressing ourselves creatively, which adds an extra layer of it being special.

Thank you for joining me, Steven. This has been awesome and it’s so cool to talk about the past we went through together, but go into a deeper arena as to what we were going through individually in the process. I learned a lot about what you were going through throughout the making of our EP, so thank you for joining me.


I’m going to let 13-year-old me continue to croon as I say thank you to Steven for joining me today. Francis Steakknife’s prolific collection of music can be found at francissteakknife.com or francissteakknife.bandcamp.com.

And Johnny Darlin can be found at johnnydarlin.com or soundcloud.com/johnnydarlin. His Mr. Monogamy EP is also available on iTunes. Both expect to release new music in 2016.

And I want to also say that, as fun as it was getting to talk about my own process, I am excited by the opportunity to invite other artists — friends or strangers to each other — into my home, so that I can sit back and watch inspiration-via-engaging dialogue enter the room, as it did between me and Steven. I invite anyone interested to join me in this journey, whether you have an EP, a play, a web series, an art show. Whether you work as a vocalist, an actor, a writer of long form narratives, non-fiction, or poetry. Whether you’ve been reviewed by enough publications to gather a Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes or just finished your first song yesterday and have a stage name no one has heard of but yourself. No matter what you do or where you are in that doing, you’ll make two new friends who will become experts on your work, and you’ll have it featured online through the amazing Things Created By People. If you’re interested, reach out with a link to your work and your favorite thing to drink over conversations like these. Until next time.


If you would like to contact Michael about participating in the next Art Collision, email him at michaeladoshier@gmail.com.

article

What Koreans, Afghans, and Greeks Can Teach Us About Homophobia

Photograph by the author.

Photograph by the author.

America has recently accomplished some real progress in gay rights; 37 American states allow same sex marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act was shut down, 61% of Americans support same sex marriage, and 70% of Americans can legally get married in the state in which they live. In contrast, Korea recently attempted its first ever gay pride parade. It was filibustered by conservative Christian groups, and banned by the Seoul Metropolitan police. In Korea’s latest survey on moral issues, 57% of the population said that homosexuality was “morally unacceptable,” while only 18% said it was acceptable, the rest said it was a moral non-issue. Yet, in Korea, male-to-male physical affection is ubiquitous. The same grumpy old men who would curse and spit at a man kissing a man will openly hold hands with their friends after a Saturday hike. It is common to see heterosexual, mid-20s Korean males holding hands or sitting on each other’s laps. Korea is one of the most homophobic countries in the developed world, yet Korean men can express their love for each other - verbally and physically - without the fear of being perceived as gay. Despite America’s recent progress in gay rights, the same American males who verbally support gay marriage still fear showing any outward signs of affection for other men. Though Americans have achieved some progress in gay rights, we have established a strict dichotomy of gayness and straightness that makes it extremely difficult for heterosexual men to have deep, serious friendships. The cultures that are the most homophobic are also the most comfortable with male-to-male physical affection. They reap the benefits of close male friendships while American men languish in isolation, too afraid to admit that they want and need to be vulnerable and close with another man.

Close, intimate male friendships are essential for mental and physical well-being. Dr. Dean Ornish says “I am not aware of any other factor – not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery – that has a greater impact on our incidence of illness, and [chance of] premature death.” According to one study, friendship is more effective at treating depression than cognitive therapy or antidepressants. And, yet, 1 in 5 Americans over the age of 45 reports feeling lonely on a regular basis, and 1 in 5 college students reports being “chronically lonely.” Niobe Way, a Professor of Applied Psychology at NYU, blames a sort of masculine posturing that American men tend to develop in the course of their adolescence. One student, who was interviewed on the topic of friendship while a freshman in high school, told Way:

[My best friend and I] love each other… that’s it… you have this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it. It’s just a thing that you know that person is that person… I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect and love for each other.

But, by his senior year, he had this to say about friendship:

[My friend and I] mostly joke around. It’s not like really anything serious or whatever… I don’t talk to nobody about serious stuff… I don’t talk to nobody. I don’t share my feelings really. Not that kind of person or whatever… It’s just something that I don’t do.

Korea has one gay celebrity. If you Google “Gay celebrity in Korea,” the only result will be “Hong Soek-cheon.” For many Koreans, homosexuality is a lurid, outlandish concept. One Korean American who returned to his ancestral homeland said that Koreans “completely ignore the reality of gay people who exist. They pretend that it’s just this fairytale from the West.” Many Americans view Korea as the same kind of uncanny, alien place. Maybe you are one of the 10 million people who saw Conan’s recent video, where he swam in pools and sat in close proximity with old, naked, sweaty Korean men, while they commented on each other’s bodies. This sauna was in New York but it was still a mostly accurate representation of the Korean sauna experience. It was, however, sanitized for American audiences. They missed the part where old naked Korean men soap up each other’s plump, glistening buttocks. This is usually done between friends, but it is also acceptable to ask a stranger “could you please suds-up my buttocks?” (Or some approximate translation if your Korean is up to par.) In Korea it is completely acceptable to caress the dimples on a strange man’s lower back. But, sadly, if you kissed that same man on the lips, you would be met with stares, shock, and likely even shouts of profanity and reprobation from old men who weathered a regime that once arrested men for having long hair or women for having short skirts. In cultures where homosexuality is taboo, heterosexual men can experience a level of comfort with each other that people in more “progressive” cultures cannot.

Homophobic societies consider homosexuality to be so improbable that they are completely comfortable with being physically affectionate and intimate with other heterosexual men. Many straight, relatively progressive Americans can’t put their arms around another man because they fear being perceived as gay. Most Americans would consider it unthinkable to hold hands with their friends, as my students do when a game of English Grammar jeopardy can be won or lost by just a few points. Many straight, relatively progressive Americans will never know the comfort and closeness that comes from participating in a massage train. Many will never experience “the [platonic] love between a man and a man which is more powerful than that between a man and a woman,” that a Greek friend of mine described.

My time as a Protestant Christian missionary in Greece taught me a lot about how much homophobia obstructs the function of healthy, male friendship. Growing up in the states, I remember, at the age of 8, feeling a distinct sense of shame that I still gave my Dad a goodnight kiss on the cheek. I remember my friends returning from a bible distributing, house building, sightseeing trip to Ethiopia and hearing the shock, wonder, and lurid excitement in their voices when they recounted school boys walking hand in hand on dirt roads. When I flew to Greece and started working with a Christian nonprofit that catered to Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi, Moroccan, and Syrian refugees, I remember talking with a friend and trying to hide my discomfort when he gave me a friendly neck message. I tried to smile when an Albanian friend would rest their hand on my thigh while we drank coffee together, and I tried to forget the violation of a coarse beard against my cheek when an Afghan would greet me with a traditional kiss once on my left cheek, then my right, then my left, then my right again. But, once I got used to it, I found a sense of almost delirious happiness in constantly being close to other people. I felt closer to people with a single digit English vocabulary than I have with some people I have talked to for years. I became comfortable talking about my doubts and fears rather than repeating the same jokes, rating the same women, and rehashing the same games and matches and fights. But, when I came home, I found that when I would laugh at a friend’s joke and pat their thigh, the look in their eyes would be like someone who had just seen a huge wasp land on their nose. In their eyes I saw that feeling love or connection with another man was something to be feared. Behind those eyes lay an American mind that perceives the enjoyment of another man’s touch as intrinsically, irretrievably “gay.” And, even if we profess to be progressive, as long as we think that feeling gay or being seen as gay is something to be feared, we continue to give homophobia control of our affections.

In the 4 months I spent in the U.S. after returning from Greece, the first man to say “I love you” to me was my partner. My beer pong partner at a frat party near Union Square. He was clutching my shoulder in one hand and a PBR in the other. It turned out he was from New Jersey too. We had met in line for the urinals, talked for a bit, then our conversation stopped until both of our respective penises were no longer visible. “I fucking love you man, we should definitely hang out in Jersey sometime,” he said, before leaving to meet up with a Tinder date, never to be seen again. Drunken “I love yous” are the only time most American males get to express affection for another man, and they are a poor substitute for a true, deep male friendship. These friendships require throwing off the feelings of shame and latent homophobia that still run in supposedly progressive minds. They require the boldness to shout, as Jonah Hill and Michael Cera say in the privacy of their tent in Superbad:

EVAN: I love you. Why don't we say that everyday? Why can't we say it more often?

SETH: I just love you. I just want to go to the rooftops and scream, "I love my best friend, Evan."

[...]

SETH: "Boop."


Jonathan Friedel is working as a token white guy at a cram school in a suburb of Seoul, South Korea. He is also the founder of the Monmouth County Chocolate Milk Mile, and has sat in the back of police cars in three different countries.

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Dolly Parton is the South's Queer Matriarch (And We Need Her)

Illustration by  Ryan James Hughes

Illustration by Ryan James Hughes

In Dolly Parton’s classic song “Coat of Many Colors,” she sings of a do-it-yourself garment her poverty-stricken mother made her back during the “seasons of [her] youth.”

I recall a box of rags that someone gave us
And how my momma put the rags to use.
There were rags of many colors, and every piece was small,
And I didn’t have a coat, and it was way down in the fall,
Momma sewed the rags together, sewing every piece with love,
She made my coat of many colors that I was so proud of.

Parton sings about how her mother likened the coat to Joseph’s coat of many colors from the Bible, and later of how the kids at school laughed at her upon arrival. Yet Parton stayed strong, informing them that, “one is only poor, only if they choose to be.” 

In many ways, the narrative told within the song is indicative of the sewed together package that has made Dolly Parton an unlikely gay icon of sorts: pride, mockery, pride in the face of mockery, all due to a non-consistent, multi-layered, cheap and colorful object. Parton has connected to a variety of queer fans—from gay men, to lesbians, to drag queens, and beyond, and Parton’s queer appeal, like her coat of many colors, is stitched together from many different fabrics. 

During the 2006 Kennedy Center Honors, Dolly Parton sat firm and proud. She watched, smiling, as country music superstars sang her praises one after the other. A standard loop of Parton’s country devotees covered her classics: Shania Twain with “Coat of Many Colors,” Carrie Underwood joining Parton’s original duet partner Kenny Rogers for a rendition of “Islands in the Stream,” Allison Kraus with “Jolene.” Somewhere within this mix, though, something peculiar happened. Pop star Jessica Simpson took the stage to sing Dolly Parton’s soundtrack anthem “9 to 5.” Simpson was the only performer there outside of the country music genre. She had, of course, been a competitor in the pop boxing ring, battling it out with the likes of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. 

Simpson flubbed Parton’s lyrics and later asked to have her tribute removed from the special before it aired on CBS. This moment, though, becomes interesting when examining it in the context of Dolly Parton’s own career, particularly in the early eighties. At the time of Parton’s Kennedy Center Honors, Simpson was in the midst of a career makeover: she was a little over a year away from releasing her first country album in 2008, after recording it in Nashville, the exact town in which Parton made it big. It’s hard not to see her performance at Dolly Parton’s tribute as part of a career strategy, just like it’s hard not to see the trajectory of Dolly’s film roles circa 1980 as part of a career strategy: Parton was starring in her first feature film, Nine to Five, alongside Hollywood actresses Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, had left the Nashville country music circuit to work with pop producers, and was gaining mainstream exposure left and right. “From Dollywood to Hollywood!” she would later exclaim while performing at the 2006 Academy Awards, and this moment in her career represents just that. The difference between Jessica Simpson’s move toward country and Dolly Parton’s move toward mass-exposure and pop is that Dolly Parton portrayed herself as both hyperaware and willing to discuss this career move as just that—a career move.

“I carry a gun, and she carries a gun in the picture!”: Dolly as Camp

This openness is one of the many reasons why Parton’s film career exposed her to the possibility of being a “gay icon.” As an actress, Parton was not cast to play different roles, but rather, to portray Dolly Parton if Dolly Parton had a different life. This isn’t an insult, or even an assessment of which she isn’t aware herself. In her 1980 Rolling Stone cover story, Parton laughed about the techniques of the more serious actors on set of Nine to Five, saying:

It’s funny how everyone gets into character. I’ve never had an acting lesson in my life... I was lucky in the respect that they had written it according to my personality; I carry a gun, and she carries a gun in the picture! She was really just me as a secretary, so I played it like that.

Examining Parton’s filmography as merely an expansion upon her true self, then, viewers and fans get not a collection of parts Parton became, but rather, parts that became Dolly. So when these roles involved something like camp, Parton herself became camp.

In his essay “The Cinema of Camp (Aka Camp and the Gay Sensibility),” Jack Babuscio sets out to describe what “camp” means and why it connects so successfully to gay audiences. He writes of the notion of a “gay sensibility,” something that camp—“never a thing or person per se, but rather, a relationship between activities, individuals, situations, and gayness”—aligns itself with, therefore relating to the lives of queer people, despite not being explicit. He writes:

I define the gay sensibility as a creative energy reflecting a consciousness that is different from the mainstream; a heightened awareness of certain human complications of feeling that spring from the fact of social oppression; in short, a perception of the world which is coloured, shaped, directed, and defined by the fact of one’s gayness.

He goes on to assign camp four basic principles that create this layered atmosphere: irony, aestheticism, theatricality, and humor. In regards to irony, Babuscio writes, “Camp is ironic insofar as an incongruous contrast can be drawn between an individual/thing and its context/association.” This, he argues, appeals to the gay sensibility because, “The inner knowledge of our unique social situation has produced in us a heightened awareness of the discrepancies that lie between appearance and reality, expression and meaning.”

In Nine to Five, Parton plays Dora Lee, the sexy secretary of misogynist boss Franklin Hart. She befriends coworkers Violet (played by Lily Tomlin) and Judy (played by Jane Fonda) after they realize she hasn’t been sleeping with Franklin, as he’s claimed. One scene from Nine to Five in particular is interesting because it takes up over fifteen minutes of the film without seeming to move the plot along whatsoever. It involves Parton, Tomlin, and Fonda smoking a joint that Tomlin’s character previously confiscated from her son and, very stoned, fantasizing about the ways they’d like to get back at their evil boss. The film gives each of their fantasies an elaborate daydream sequence, and Parton’s involves creating a reverse situation to the one Dora Lee actually lives in: she becomes Hart’s boss and he becomes her prey. At the end of her fantasy, the office turns into a rodeo, Parton as the cowboy and Hart as the cattle. She ropes him (as he desperately tries to escape her office) in “Five seconds! Just five seconds, folks!” the rodeo announcer marvels. 

This is a textbook example of what Babuscio is referring to with his “incongruous contrasts.” Parton’s scene sets up a fantasy: one in which she, as a female secretary, becomes the boss of the man that actually holds power over her. On top of this, her fantasy is accomplished in a distinctly Dolly Parton way: she’s a cowboy. This segment of the film also functions as camp based on what Babuscio says about the gay sensibility and humor:

Camp can thus be a means of undercutting rage by its derision of concentrated bitterness. Its vision of the world is comic. Laughter, rather than tears, is its chosen means of dealing with the painfully incongruous situation of gays in society.

These women, having been subjected to extreme sexism in the workplace, and now existing in the same house discussing it, represent this “concentrated bitterness.” Yet Nine to Five chooses to have them toke up and get giggly, instead of complain in anger.

“That’s what I wanna be, Mama! I wanna be trash!”: Dolly as Queer

With Dolly Parton bringing her raw self to each role, being strikingly honest and candid in every interview she gives, and generally operating as prideful in the way she looks, dresses, and acts, she becomes a “fully out” individual. When asked about constructing her image on British talk show Parkinson in 2007, Parton responded by explaining her inspiration: a social outcast from her childhood. “I really patterned my look, a real country girl’s idea of glamour, after what they call the ‘town tramp,” she starts to explain before the audience erupts into laughter. She continues:

You know they have them in a mountain town, there’s always a few loose women. But this woman—I thought was beautiful. She had this beautiful peroxide hair piled on her head, and red nails, high-heeled shoes. And I just thought she was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. And mama said, “Oh, she ain’t nothing but trash!” So, I thought, “that’s what I wanna be, Mama! I wanna be trash!”

Parton’s version of glamour lies within a social outcast of her conservative hometown. Here is a woman who feels her most beautiful when dolled up as what society considers “trash.” Dolly Parton may be straight, but she is certainly non-normative in her image, and very proudly so. Part of Dolly Parton’s on-screen excitement for queer people is that she represents the idea that a straight person, when fully “out” as an individual, can queer any situation in which she’s placed. She is a queering agent.

One of the best moments to illustrate this comes with her next film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). Parton plays Mona, the Madam of a small Texas town whorehouse, who has continued an ongoing affair with the town sheriff Ed Earl (played by Burt Reynolds). The whorehouse is treated as something largely void of controversy; everyone seems to know its purpose and enjoy its services (“Right from the beginning, the little house was kind of special, like a home away from home,” our narrator explains with glee). It isn’t until it becomes the subject of a statewide broadcast by sensationalist newscaster Melvin P. Thorpe that anyone seems to argue there is anything abnormal or amoral about it. On top of this, the town sheriff, an archetype usually in charge of maintaining order and moral code within a conservative southern environment like this, is sleeping with the exact woman running the whorehouse. And on top of that, he’s also seeing another woman, a relationship Mona calls his “in-town wife,” more public and acceptable than his “secret” relationship with her. Furthermore, the majority of the town seems to know about Ed Earl and Madam’s affair, and simply doesn’t care. When Melvin P. Thorpe comes along to shoot a special on the town’s amorality for allowing such rampant sin via the whorehouse, the town’s inhabitants anxiously await the Sheriff’s arrival to run Thorpe out of the town (and they cheer when he does so successfully.) 

Here we have a film about the inhabitants of a small town in Texas cheering for and siding withthe rampant prostitution right under their noses. This is a certainly a non-normative environment, or at least non-normative portrayal of a standard setting. And Dolly Parton, likeability on fleek, pretty much runs this town (in one of her first scenes, she’s donating to the Little League fund and is praised for her continued generosity to the town: “The town council will probably vote you another plaque!” Parton responds: “I hope not, I got a closet full of them now!”) She is the glue that holds the queer non-normative environment together, and keeps it operating as such. Like with Nine to Five, Parton knows she’s been asked to play the “Madam” version of herself:

I’ve often said… that I honestly do look like a whore or a high-class prostitute, not even so much high-class with the makeup and the bleached hair and the boobs and the tight-fittin’ clothes and heels. [Madame Mona] was everything that I am, except that I’m not a whore. But if I hadn’t made it in this business, who knows?

Parton also gets another chance to emasculate her men. In their first scene together, Dolly Parton reveals she has purchased Burt Reynolds a new type of underwear she’d like for him to wear when they engage in foreplay. “What the hell is this, a Japanese slingshot?” Sheriff Ed Earl asks. Parton responds: “No, it’s jockey shorts with little silver snaps on the side!” Parton’s character is already acting in a non-normative way, as the “buying of sexy underwear for a partner to wear” scene in cinema usually plays the other way, with the male gifting lingerie to the woman. Sheriff Ed Earl staunchly refuses to wear them for a long time until Parton exclaims, “Well fine! Then I’m getting dressed and going home!” to which he immediately responds, “Well fine, I’m going to the bathroom and…trying these on,” he sighs, “It’ll be like putting two bowling balls in a marble bag.” Parton responds, unimpressed: “Braggin’, braggin’.” 

Parton and her prostitutes are never slut-shamed at all during this film, except by the disgraced outsider, and once by Sherriff himself (who calls Madam Mona a “whore” in a heated argument) but this is treated as his ultimate mistake, he hates himself for it, and eventually delivers a sincere apology. This is progressive and sexy. This town is a southern, sex-positive atmosphere where the prostitutes enjoy their work and homosocial camaraderie with each other, the men pay and treat them fairly, and there is no shame to be found within the confines of consensual bedroom playtime. When, in her first number on screen, Parton explains the whorehouse, singing, “there’s nothing dirty going on,” she’s not denying that sex is occurring behind closed doors, she’s simply denying that that is “dirty” in some way.

“Drag Queen, Drag Queen, Drag Queen, Drag Queen, I’m Begging of You Please Don’t Take My Man”: Dolly as Ally

In Parton’s Rolling Stone cover story, writer Chet Flippo asked her, “What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve ever done?” Parton tells a story about how after rehearsal one day, she and her friend Judy were riding home in cars driving parallel to each other and they began engaging in some girlish fun. “Anyhow, I just pulled up my shirt and I flashed them with one of them. Well, they just about wrecked because they thought it was so funny…so the next time around, I mooned them!” Then, still unsatisfied with the extent they’d outdone each other, at the next stop sign, Dolly ran around the cars stark naked, laughing in the moonlight.

This relationship with Judy and the fact that her husband of forty-six years acts more as a looming fact more than an actual partner the public ever sees are two of the reasons that many have questioned Dolly’s sexuality. In a 1977 interview with Parton, Barbara Walters asked about her marriage, “What about when you’re on the road weeks at a time? No temptations?” Dolly responded:

[My husband Carl Dean is] the kind of person and I’m the kind of person that if, by being apart, we were to meet somebody, I would never tell him. He would never know and it would never hurt him. And it’s the same way with him. I wouldn’t want to know it. As long as he loves me and as long as he’s good to me… I don’t think that it matters. I’ve got better things to do than sit in my room and wonder, "Oh, what’s Carl doing tonight?"

This may be the closest a country star from small town Tennessee in 1977 can get to describing an open marriage without invoking severe controversy. And this behavior hasn’t gone unnoticed (or un-queered). In Jean Carlomusto’s documentary L Is For The Way You Look (1991), a group of gay women recount a time when they saw Dolly Parton at a primarily lesbian function. They tell the story with such detail and excitement, each adding their perspective as if any missing detail from the previous installment of the story was the most vital part. This sort of wishful thinking makes perfect sense; Dolly Parton being an openly queer person would be something of extreme excitement for queer people. She’s a country music star. She’s a Christian. Parton being a lesbian would complicate her entire personhood, making her a queer Christian body.

In Queering Christ: Outrageous Acts and Theological Rebellions, Lisa Isherwood writes, “The queer Christian body is a transgressive signifier of radical equality.” She continues:

It attempts to subvert the weight of patriarchy upon it through counter cultural actions. This body lives in the world but is not chained by its narrow definitions and hierarchical power systems. It is a body that acts stubbornly in the face of life as it is, and is a space in which creative rebellion is rooted in the everyday business of life. In the language of Christianity, it is a redemptive space.

It is here in examining Parton’s religion and its history with queer people that we come across a complicated fact: she is a fierce ally to the gay community. “Well I think the gay people have always liked me because I’ve always been myself, I’m not intimidated by how people perceive me, I don’t judge or criticize people…I think all people have the right to be who they are, we’re all God’s children and God should be the one to judge,” Parton says after being asked about her gay appeal on Larry King Live. One of her favorite stories to tell in interviews is the time that she entered a Dolly Parton drag contest, exaggerated her various beauty marks and makeup, then received last place. In one concert, she dedicated perhaps her most acclaimed song “Jolene” to her drag queen fans, telling a story about how they were hitting on her band one day before the show, temporarily changed the words to “Drag queen, drag queen, drag queen, drag queen, I’m begging of you please don’t take my man.”

This spirit exists in the same body as a fierce worshipper of the same Jesus that queer people have been killed in the name of. I am here to argue, however, that Dolly herself exists within a queer body, even if she is a straight, married woman, and thus she embodies Isherwood’s aforementioned description of a “redemptive space.”

Parton’s queer fandom often exists in the southern, rural, small-town audience. 

Now we get personal.

For young queer people growing up in the south or in strictly country-music-loving homes, Parton could very well be the closest thing to a “gay icon” or ally they were exposed to. I’ve noticed this myself. This piece originated as an assignment to explore a gay icon of cinema and while I was conducting my research, those from cosmopolitan areas ask me why I didn’t choose to write about a more obvious gay icon (like Judy Garland), whereas those from the rural south immediately understand the queer connection to Dolly. 

It is for this reason that Parton’s spirituality plays a very important (and “redemptive”) part in her connection to her queer fans. In the documentary Hollywood to Dollywood (2011), gay twin brothers Gary and Larry Lane from North Carolina plan a cross-country trip from Hollywood, California (where they currently live) to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee to present Dolly Parton with a screenplay they’ve written for her. Throughout the film, they discuss what Parton meant to them growing up in a very conservative, restrictive environment under the control of parents that still to this day do not accept their “gay lifestyle.” They lament the fact that they must live a “double life” and don’t get to share their cherished relationships with their parents. However, when it comes to Dolly, Larry makes a point about her position as an ally that immediately turns maternal:

All we want is our parents to be proud of us. And when there’s that one thing that they don’t accept about you, it’s very, very difficult… I think [Dolly] would embrace that one part of our lives that our mom doesn’t embrace. I remember early feelings of acceptance from her. I remember being like, “Well, she could accept me.”

In a sense, Dolly Parton’s existence as an ally is queering Christianity for her queer fans: instead of it being something oppressive to their bodies, sense of worth, and developing sexuality, she frees it to become something of comfort: Their idol, who fully accepts them and has lived her own life in a specifically non-normative fashion herself, is also a Christian. She is also a Christian just like, hypothetically, their mother that disowned them upon their coming out is a Christian. She is a Christian, so they too can accept their sexualities and reconcile them with religious beliefs and, like Parton and the queer Christian body, embody a space of “creative rebellion.” On top of this, she provides a space for queer visibility in the country music circuit. In an interview conducted in Hollywood to Dollywood, a fan explains, “Dolly’s concerts are the most diverse events you’ll ever find. You’ll see a Southern Baptist pastor standing next to a drag queen.” Zoom in on this image of the pastor and the queen sitting together singing the same song, and we see the embodiment of Isherwood’s “creative rebellion.”

It is interesting that Larry and Gary chose to model Hollywood to Dollywood as a road movie. Dolly’s story is also one of traveling: planning her escape from her poverty-striken hometown from the moment she could dream, then loading a Greyhound bus to Nashville to become a country star. Then, her eventual travels from Nashville to Hollywood to entertain crossover success. This narrative of traveling and its association with Parton reaches a pinnacle when considering Parton was asked to compose a song for the 2005 road movie Transamerica, about a pre-operation male-to-female transgender on a cross-country road trip with her son, who doesn’t know this is his father or that this is a biological man. And what did she do other than make a direct lyrical connection between the pre-op transgendered body and the Christian, pre-Christ:

Questions I have many, answers but a few
But we’re here to learn, the spirit burns, to know the greater truth
We’ve all been crucified, and they nailed Jesus to the tree
And when I’m born again, you’re gonna see a change in me.

These lyrics are working on many levels, intertwining Bree’s narrative with that of Jesus Christ himself and that of the “born again” Christian. Regarding the former, Jesus arose from the dead three days after his crucification. This mirrors the idea that once Stanley (Bree’s given name) is officially “dead” during his transition surgery, Bree will then emerge from the ashes. Regarding the latter notion, that of likening Bree to the saved, baptized Christian, we see a very tender correlation between two “rebirths.” When Bree is “born again,” or, emerges from her sex change operation, we will “see a change in [her],” as in she will be physically female, just like when a Christian is “born again” they will have turned their life around for the better. They have devoted their lives to Christ and therefore can be expected (and held accountable to) being kinder, gentler, and more forgiving toward others. In intertwining Bree’s narrative with that of the “born again” Christian, Parton is strongly arguing within the song that Bree has a right to this life and will benefit from doing what makes her happy. “I wanted to write [the song] because I love the message of that movie,” Parton explains, “That everyone has the right to dignity in their lives.” 

Dolly Parton occupies the queer space with us all (even you straighties), but especially us southerner queers who are currently fighting for our protections in states like Arkansas with bills like SB202, aimed at confusing the world into thinking they’re anti-discrimination bills when they’re actually anti-anti-discrimination bills aimed at us. Us southern queers who are living in places, or are from places, where our states are lagging behind the rest of the nation in recognizing same-sex marriage or trans rights. We are the states that nearly universally take Dolly Parton appreciation into Dolly Parton worship. And this is the woman who has proven time and time again in both the roles that she takes on film, the songs that she sings on vinyl, and the life that she lives as an individual and public icon – that she is on the right side of history. 

There is always skepticism within queer communities when a pop star modernizes their beliefs on queer rights issues during major career moves. During release of her seventh album Femme Fatale, accidental gay icon Britney Spears promoted it largely at gay clubs as a launching point, hoping we would all forget her “ew” reaction when in 2002 a reporter asked her if her refusal to change the female-admiring lyrics to the Stones’ “Satisfaction” in her cover was a shout-out to her gay fans. Let’s also not forget the sudden and seemingly invisible lyric change of Taylor Swift’s pre-domination era track “Picture to Burn” between album and single versions - from “So, go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy; that’s fine, I’ll tell mine you’re gay” to “You won’t mind if I say…” (A masterful chorus lead-in that literally works better than the previous homophobia).

But Dolly Parton herself is already a queer person, even as a straight person. At the very least, she’s an agent of queerness within a normative industry–film or country. And she has proven to be able to masterfully create these “redemptive spaces” in her work, religion, and interviews. So, I call on Dolly to speak her mind about these moments in time as they happen, even just as a measure of comfort. Just as I call on us all to find comfort in her words as these laws and the people passing them come for us: “I really do think I stand for being proud of who you are, and not worrying a lick about what other people think,” Dolly says. She goes on, “And I feel fortunate I’ve never had to be anything but myself.”


Michael Doshier is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the creator of the electronic rock project Johnny Darlin and his visual EP Mr. Monogamy, all available at johnnydarlin.com.