We promised a bit of original content, and it’s finally here. For our first Bottom Line Q&A, Christianna sat down (over Twitter DM) with Samantha Allen, author of Love & Estrogen and a senior reporter at the Daily Beast covering LGBTQ issues. We talked about media, her forthcoming book Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States, and, of course, drag queens.
Christianna: 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?
Samantha: Boldness. So much legacy media still resorts to mealy-mouthed “both sides”-ism, especially when it comes to LGBT issues. In other words, the media covers what people say more than how things really are. They’ll print, for example, that LGBT advocates “argue” that conversion therapy is harmful—when, in fact, basically every medical association has condemned it. It’s OK to just say that conversion therapy is harmful because it is! Luckily, newer queer media tends to shoot pretty straight — pun intended — and just call spades spades. (Is that too many metaphors? Probably.)
C: Your first book, Love & Estrogen, is a beautiful love story of you and your wife and your transition. You write, “researching sexuality and gender had become my convoluted mode of self-discovery,” something that really resonated with me. I was wondering when you decided to seek a PhD in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and how that plays into your work as a journalist and reporter.
S: Thank you! Love & Estrogen is my baby. I’m so glad you liked it. As for how I fell into — and out of — academia, it was entirely accidental. I was doing an undergrad thesis at Rutgers, fully expecting to be done with school afterward, when my adviser told me, “You should go to graduate school.”
I said, “I’m not going to graduate school.”
She said, “If you get into a good PhD program, they pay you!”
And I said, “I’m going to graduate school!”
Only later did I discover that grad school wasn’t exactly a lucrative way to spend my mid-twenties; what mattered most to me at the time was that I could strike out on my own and explore interesting ideas. Of course, I think I was also figuring myself out, too. Even in college, my idea of what it meant to be transgender was pretty murky. Like, no one ever told me that you could take pills that would change your secondary sex characteristics. I would have liked to know that at a much younger age! By year three of grad school, I was out and transitioning. Ultimately, academia wasn’t for me, but I took away from it a commitment to doing my homework before writing about anything — and a life partner!
C: I’ve preordered your book, Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States, that’s set to come out in March. When did you start working on the book, and did the 2016 election play into your decision to write it?
S: After the 2016 election, I saw a lot of the usual tired discourse online about how we should just jettison the red states if they’re going to keep voting for politicians like Trump. As someone who spent basically all of her twenties living in Utah, Georgia, and Florida (which, let’s face it, is pretty red these days), that stuff didn’t sit right with me. There are so many progressive, LGBT (and LGBT-friendly) people living in what we think of as “real America.” In fact, as I argue in the book, I feel much more at home as a queer transgender woman among friends in, say, Johnson City, Tennessee than I do at a Brooklyn house party. I wrote the book as almost a direct response to the dismissive attitude that people take toward so-called “flyover states.” Don’t fly over them, people! Drive to them. Visit them. Maybe even live in them.
C: Many of the places you visited in your forthcoming book were familiar to you, from attending BYU in Utah to the Kinsey Institute in Indiana where you met your now-wife. Did you learn anything new or unexpected about the queer experience in those places?
S: When I was living in Provo, Utah and going to school at BYU as a closeted transgender woman, I was basically living inside a survival bunker. I was so depressed and dysphoric, I left my apartment only to go to class and to get tacos from a drive-thru that was literally adjacent to my apartment building. I never could have imagined a thriving LGBT community in a place like Provo. Returning a decade letter was eye-opening. I spent most of my time at a LGBT youth center called Encircle across the street from a Mormon temple. The kids I met there were so brave and so unabashedly themselves. I suddenly felt silly that I had been so scared to be out back in 2007. Being with them, and feeling all of my old shame wash away, was maybe the most powerful experience I had on the trip.
C: The back cover of your book reminded me of In Search of Gay America by Neil Miller. Did you pull inspiration from Miller’s book while writing Real Queer America? Were any other books instrumental for you during the writing process?
S: I think my book is more memoir-y than In Search of Gay America, was but the missions are certainly similar—to show that queerness is thriving in perhaps unexpected places. Lots of queer theory texts found their way into Real Queer America, including some Halberstam, some Sedgwick, and some Muñoz. But my biggest influence was probably an interview that the French philosopher Michel Foucault gave called “Friendship as a Way of Life.” I think there’s a tendency when writing about LGBT people—especially young LGBT people—to make everything seem radical and new and sexy. What Foucault argued in that interview bucked against that trend. He said that the affection, friendship, and community that queer people foster with each other were much more subversive than “grabbing each other’s asses.” I tried in Real Queer America to capture that beautiful connectivity in my community — something that runs so much deeper than sex.
C: The word “queer” has a complex history, and some LGBTQ people refuse to use it altogether. What’s your opinion on reclaiming the term, and was there a specific reason you decided to use the word in the title of your book?
S: I’m sensitive to the concerns of older generations who have only ever heard that word used as a hurtful slur. I think now, though, we’ve crossed a tipping point where “queer” has been embraced and reclaimed by so many that it seemed like the obvious choice for the title. Personally, the word means a lot to me: Before I knew who exactly I was — before I ever knew the word “transgender” — I knew that there was something strange or different about me. I love how the word “queer” captures that slipperiness and indeterminacy. “Queer” is a great place to hang out when you don’t have — or just don’t want to use — specific vocabulary to describe what you are.
C: You cover LGBTQ issues for the Daily Beast. How do you handle negative feedback from trolls on the internet?
S: If it ever starts to get to me, I’ll go read some of the kind notes I’ve received from readers over the years. (If you ever want to say something nice to a writer, by the way, always do it. It will make their day.)
C: You were a regular contributor to multiple media outlets while you were working on your PhD, and you were also publishing academic work largely read among the research community. After earning your degree, you transitioned to being a full-time journalist. What are some of the biggest challenges you faced with that transition?
S: Well, it took a while to get used to people actually reading my writing! (I think maybe 10 people in the world have read my dissertation.) More seriously, though, graduate school trains you to slowly build your case over the course of a lengthy document like a dissertation. Journalism is essentially the opposite: give all the information up front in a really condensed form, and then add contextualizing data. I honestly think the two worlds could learn a lot from each other. The “inverted pyramid” works great for newspaper articles but it often requires sacrificing nuance. Conversely, a lot of academic writing is dreadfully boring.
C: You recently wrote an article that made an impact in many of my group chats, in which you write about your disappointment in Louis CK’s newest “joke” about gender. I loved it, and thought it was particularly interesting at a time when people are worried that you “can’t make jokes anymore.” What other comedians are you flocking to now that you’ve been so disappointed by past favorites?
S: DeAnne Smith’s brand new Netflix special “Gentleman Elf” is incredible. Go watch it now. Robin Tran’s special “Don’t Look at Me” on Hulu is proof that you can make jokes about being transgender that are raunchy and provocative without being demeaning. I’ve long been an Iliza Shlesinger fan — and I just finished reading her wonderful book Girl Logic, which just came out in paperback. And how funny is Ali Wong? I know that I’m late to the party on her but, wow, her stuff is good.
C: Finally, you’re stranded on a desert island and can only be accompanied by one drag queen. Who are they?
S: Spoiled for choice on this one. I saw a lot of amazing drag performances while writing Real Queer America, most memorably at a bar called City Limits in Provo, Utah and then at Wonderlust in Jackson, Mississippi. But I’ll go with someone I interviewed more recently: Angelina DM Trailz, the resident drag queen for a bar called Guava Lamp in Houston, Texas — perhaps the most underrated big city in the country. Angelina is sweet and silly and funny and if I’m going to die a castaway, I at least want to die laughing.