John Paul Brammer
Christianna sat down (first over Twitter DM, and later on the phone) with John Paul Brammer, the managing editor of the Trevor Project and ¡Hola Papi! advice columnist for OUT magazine. We talked about being both queer and latinx, legacy media, and, of course, gay dinosaurs. The interview has been cut for length.
Christianna Silva: One of the main reasons we started The Bottom Line was to point out when media does it right, and when we……. don’t. What do you think are some of the biggest issues legacy media is missing from its coverage of queer people?
John Paul Brammer: I think it's missing queer people. I think that legacy media tends to imagine queer issues as being in a silo or being sort of off to the side in a space that doesn't impact modern society or doesn't impact anyone who is not queer ... I wish that legacy media would understand that this is all connected. It's not like queer issues exist in some different state that they can't even possibly approach or care about ... I'm often expected to write from a place of emotion to write from a place of "I statements," so like, oh, I went through this, I'm a queer person and this happened to me. And they tend to trust me less with objective analysis. And I think it's because of the way they view how these issues work and what they are. They see them as feelings-based, they see them as something that we can back up with data, can't back up with facts and it's not, therefore, the job of "real reporters." Which I think is really condescending and I think it's really sad because I've been in a newsroom before where, you know, right after the Trump administration announced via tweets be trans military ban, someone being like, isn't this a distraction from other things? It's just like maybe a lack of imagination and understanding on their part.
CJ: You've written quite a lot about being queer and Latino and the intersection between race and identity and a lot of those pieces have been really impactful for me. Can you tell me a little bit about how being Latino and queer aren't actually these like two huge conflicting identities and how they can be a little bit more seamless?
JP: I see them as absolutely fluid, I mean, you know, I exist. I look through the world as both at the same time. And so I know personally the two feed off each other and create each other and build each other. But getting other people to understand that... most people don't imagine these types of things as having an overlap, but they absolutely do. Like we can only see gender, sexuality, etc, in its own little sphere and then racism in another sphere. And that's just not the case. So when I write the piece from both I'm always hyper-conscious. I'm always afraid that I [might be] calling too much attention to the fact that I'm gay and watching out for what purpose it serves. I'm always afraid of being seen as someone who feels the need to announce these things. But it's the way I move through life and it's my reality. And I think, you know, straight people get to drop things like that all the time. Like when a straight person is writing a story and it doesn't feel like this nail that he has to drop like, "oh my girlfriend," no one thinks, "whoa, why do you have to put that in there?" Whereas if I talk about in a short story or an essay or whatever, the man I was seeing at the time, something in my brain is always like, "Oh, but do we need that? Like do they need to know that this is like a queer story when I'm mostly talking about Latino stuff here or some other issue?" And I'm like "No, I'm a queer Latinx. I have every right to do that. I have every right to fold it into the fabric of the reality of this piece because that's how I live and that's how I go through the world."
CJ: Right, it kind of feels like a burden since white straight people don't necessarily have to constantly think about that.
JP: Yeah. It's like it only feels like a little bit of a burden. Like I'm always thinking about like how much of a chameleon I have to be in these pieces because the straight world is very hypersensitive about having to confront queer identities.
CJ: Right? One of the things that I've noticed writers do a lot and that like I catch myself doing a lot is to sort of sidestep that. If I'm writing a story that isn't about being queer, I'll call them my partner. How do you feel about that sidestepping attempt and the use of partner in general?
JP: I think I sort of depart from a lot of the popular, or at least popular on Twitter, narratives around this. Another thing that comes to mind is like every time a cisgender heterosexual male dresses in a feminine way, the popular quote tweet about it is like, "Oh so we have all this praise for this person when queer people have been dressing like this for a long time and don't get half the praise." And while I think that's true, I kind of celebrate the notion of cis-hetero society-bending and ultimately crumbling because that's sort of my goal. I'm actually kind of all for people who aren't part of the queer community looking at our beliefs and the way we live and our values and being like, hold on, I think they might be right. Because I do think we're right. I do think we have the superior way of looking at gender; the superior way of looking at identity; the superior way of looking at love and how we're all sort of in flux all the time and to not worry so much about rigid binaries. I think that we have submitted a superior argument for how reality works ... So while I recognize that it can be annoying, especially if you've gone through life being more stigmatized by certain behaviors and then to see someone of the dominant group adopt it and be praised for it, yeah, that's really annoying and I totally empathize with that because I felt it too. But I think if we want society to ultimately become a place where that sort of stigmatization is less common, we do need to let our invention, for lack of a better word, take root in society.
CJ: So while I was preparing for this interview, I was talking to Danny and we couldn't stop coming back to an essay you wrote for Buzzfeed shortly after the Pulse shootings on why you started dressing more femininely.
JP: Yeah, I remember that now.
CJ: Yeah. You have a quote in this story that we love that said, "I realized I've been sacrificing a huge part of myself for a safety that was never guaranteed in the first place." I think that's a really universal queer experience. Can you talk about your experience a little bit with that?
JP: I'm from a very rural community in Oklahoma and that tends to shape your imagination about how you view yourself in terms of who you can be and who it's even possible to be. And so the clothes I wore were very tragic. Privately I was very into America's Next Top Model and Project Runway and the notion of beautiful things existing in some other tier of existence thatI'dd probably never actually get to ... When I think of what it was like to inhabit that space, the best example I can really come up with is weirdly enough, that game "operation" where any wrong move you make could set off the buzzer and your job is to not set off the buzzer. So in my hometown, every single decision you made when it comes to presentation carried some sort of weight and could be penalized. And so I think I saw the world as the game of avoiding penalty, because one thing I didn't want was to be attacked or degraded or made to feel worse about myself or made to be a target. When you're in survivor mode at any point in your life, your brain stores that feeling because it needs it to survive later in case something like that pop up again. And for me that is the biggest struggle in terms of like negotiating my self-presentation, even in the present, is negotiating with that muscle memory that has just been so embedded into my body of like, no, we can't be visibly queer because that could cause X, Y or Z bad things. I think a lot of queer people maybe they don't know that's what they're battling, but I do think trauma and oppression has a way of coding itself physically into the body. And I think for me that's what that essay was about. It was just like, how do I overcome the knowledge that something bad could happen to me if I am myself.
CJ: So when you sit down to write a pretty emotionally difficult essay like that, what is your process?
JP: So in that one specifically, I remember it very well because it was a very long and torturous and it's not usually that way with my essays. On that one, I very much remember of the coffee shop where I was, throwing things at the word doc and hoping that they would amount to a ladder that I could climb out of. Because I was like, "Oh God, I'm lost here. I don't know what I'm talking about anymore. There are metaphors here and are weird sentences there. And there are some illustrations that are great and some that aren't, and I don't know what's happening." I will admit that I'm a very unorganized creator. So typically I will sit down and I'll write the very first sentence/ first paragraph, and if that's good, I know the whole piece will be good because that's what establishes the rhythm for me. It's all very rhythm-based. There's an up and down to everything and when I can get in lock-step with it and I can feel it, I can write that all the way to the end of the piece. And that's when I know something's good. Most of them aren't like that. It helps to just not think about it too hard and sort of throw words out there. In my case at least. Because I overthink. I can read a piece and know when I overthought it because I'm like, "oh girl, this is like, it's like melodramatic or it's trying too hard." And I hate when anything tries too hard. That's the one thing I try to avoid. Especially with personal writing, with personal essays, oh my goodness, I would hate for anyone to read a personal essay I wrote and get the thought "Girl, get a diary." I need to be offering something to my reader because it's not just about me.
CJ: So when you're trying to really zone in on that and climb out of that hole, do you have to turn off social media?
JP: So that would be a great idea. Usually, I'll have my word doc open, I'll have Twitter open, I'll have some sort of online store open when I'm just scrolling through clothes, it's chaotic. There've been times in my life where I've deleted Twitter and it has been very helpful for me. I need to read a lot if I'm going to write a lot, otherwise, I forget how to write. So I'll like read a lot of short stories I'll read a lot of what I think of as good prose, and I'll sit down, open the word doc, make it to where only the doc is showing on the screen. And if I can find a way to write in that way, it always ends up better. So you would think that would mean that I would just do it, but that requires a lot of effort for me. I feel like I always need to have twitter open because I want to know what's going on. And then some stupid tweet will compose itself in my head I'm like, oh, I got that to post it now. It's really chaotic. I'm hoping to get it under control.
CJ: These next three questions will hopefully be a bit more fun. What's your favorite Selena song?
JP: Oh Gosh, my favorite Selena song. That's so hard. Because I tend to look at these people, I'm like fascinated with their lives, you know? And the music is sort of like an accessory to that end. It's like the music happened and that was really important, but then like Selena and who she was and how she lived, oh my God, that's such an important element of Chicano identity. I guess I had to pick, I would say Como La Flor is my favorite because it's, it's sad, but it's very Latino. She's comparing herself to a flower and flowers are very beautiful, and then she's like, oh, but how it hurts me. It's very dramatic, there's a lot of pain and beauty and campiness all wrapped up in it. And I think that the great encapsulation of who we are.
CJ: If you were stranded on a desert island and could only be accompanied by one drag queen, who would they be?
JP: My mind immediately goes to who has the most survival instincts, so I'm going to just say Nicole Paige Brooks because I think she's been through some things. That seems like a woman who could really forage if we're looking to build a shelter. I know she can like climb trees because she pole dances very regularly so I know that she'd have a lot of strength and I'm not trying to stay on this island. I'd probably get a kick out of having a drag queen around for like a day and then I'd be like, hey girl, we're like starving. If I want it to be entertained, I'd probably choose Katya. I think we would get along great on the island.
CJ: But you don't think she'd be able to keep you alive?
JP: No we would die so fast. We would probably last lie four days. No, however long you can go without water is how long we would survive.
CJ: What do you think is the gayest dinosaur?
JP: Okay. So I actually did like a whole thread about feathered dinosaurs and how gay they are. This is how fucked up the world is. There's this vested interest from straight men to have feathered dinosaurs not be the thing even though scientifically there were. Like the fact that gender bias has literally impacted the way we see previous life on this planet is just... Like what? Anyway, I would love to just like cheat real quick and say that birds are technically dinosaurs and the shoebill stork is literally a whole mood. I don't know if you've seen videos of it, but it's just this grumpy-looking muppet-like creature that has this like huge head and fluffy body and long legs and it just looks really pissed off all the time and every time it gets posted online people are like oh my God a dinosaur. Oh my God, a muppet. I think that to me is the gayest one because it's the one I relate to the most.