In an era when documentaries often seem geared more toward a slick and buzzy “docu-tainment” style than to the unfiltered presentation of real-world facts and experiences, “Welcome to Chechnya” blasts you in the face like a gust of icy wind.
A harrowing look at the “underground railroad” that sprung up within Russia to help the victims of the notorious “gay genocide” being perpetrated under Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, it’s a film that makes you want to look away but doesn’t let you do it. It conveys the unthinkable trauma of living in a constant state of terror while making a desperate, clandestine run for your very life; more than that, it permits us to put a human face – albeit a digitally altered one – on the crisis.
Part of the film’s impact undoubtedly stems from its subject matter, but it’s at least equally due to the artistry of its director, David France. It’s not the first time he’s been behind a heavyweight LGBTQ documentary. The longtime journalist made his directing debut with “How to Survive a Plague” in 2012, documenting the early years of the AIDS epidemic with an activist’s passion in a film that won him a host of awards and nominations for several more, including an Oscar.
Now, “Chechnya,” which premiered at last year’s Sundance Festival and was released by HBO last summer, has made the shortlist for this year’s Academy Awards, raising the possibility for a second chance at taking home the coveted statue. Yet Oscar gold was not what France had on his mind when he had a conversation with the Blade about the film earlier this week. Rather, he wanted to discuss the people in the film.
France, like everyone else, had been appalled by the tales coming out of Chechnya in 2017. “We all read the stories,” he tells us now, “but it wasn’t until I read Masha Gessen’s New Yorker piece about the work that ordinary Russians were having to take upon themselves that I became really fascinated.”
He is referring to the network of LGBTQ activists that mobilized in the absence of outside help to extract refugees in daring escapes, hide them in safe houses across Russia, and work with groups around the world to get them out of the country. In “Welcome to Chechnya,” he follows a handful of these accidental heroes, as well as several of the survivors they protect, as they orchestrate and enact spycraft that would be right at home in an episode of “The Americans.” In the process, he shines a light on more than just the atrocities being committed against queer people in Chechnya. He also illuminates a level of courage that most of us have never had to muster.
“That’s what drew me in,” France says. “The fact that ordinary citizens took it upon themselves to intervene, to try and save lives, while the rest of the world was doing so little about it.”
“It’s not like they had been already doing this work,” he explains. “Olga [Baranova, one of the activists who appears in the film] was running a community center that had an annual arts fair – that’s the extent of her training for the kind of cape-wearing heroics that you see her carrying out.”
With his cameraman and producer Askold Kurov, France spent months in the underground, chronicling the efforts of the activists and the stories of the survivors under their care, and getting plenty of first-hand experience with the kind of fear under which they had willingly chosen to live, day after day. After all, getting out of Chechnya wasn’t enough to make anyone safe; Chechen authorities were willing to stop at nothing to make sure nobody had a chance to expose what was going on, up to and including tracking down, recapturing, and maybe even killing any potential witnesses – and anyone who stood in the way was putting themselves in peril, too.
“I remember going on one of the extractions,” he relates. “We were getting ready to make a run with a couple whose location had been found out. We had only a few hours to get them to the airport, and then we got word of a rumor that a group of assassins had been dispatched to prevent them from leaving the country. We had one bodyguard, with one sidearm, with us.
“That kind of unbelievable peril is what hung over, and what still hangs over, every aspect of the work these ordinary Russian activists have taken on for themselves.”
It’s also what made it a challenge to film the refugees, for whom anonymity was a matter of life or death.
“I wanted to show what they looked like,” he tells us. “The pain that they wore on their faces, the hope – and certainly the fear. And most of them wanted the world to know what had happened to them, to expose these crimes – but they also understood what it would mean for them and their families if they stood up publicly and revealed their truths. They were terrified, and here I was asking them to let me film them anyway and then figure out how to solve this problem later.”
There is still a touch of awe in his voice as he says, “Remarkably, a couple of dozen people agreed to let me do that.”
He continues, “There were people, of course, who couldn’t take that leap with me. There was one person who was nervous even about me filming other people in the shelter. These were people who had just escaped the most horrific abuse and torture, and violation from their own families. They were hiding from their brothers and their uncles, from their own fathers. That dislocation of familial love was so traumatic to everybody there that some of them were just on a very sharp edge – unable to reckon with the past, unable to find security in the present or see hope in the future. You see that in the film with one of them, who even attempts suicide. For those people, it was a difficult arrangement to have me shooting even on the other side of the shelter house. I understood that and I tried to be very respectful.”
The challenge of maintaining privacy would eventually be surmounted by new, state-of-the-art identity protection software, a high-tech touch that France – savvy storyteller that he is – was able to parlay into one of the film’s most dramatic and unexpected moments. A considerable amount of screen time in “Welcome to Chechnya” is devoted to an anonymous refugee who has escaped from his tormentors into the network, where he is reunited with his family and his boyfriend of 10 years; a turning point comes when, despite being poised for removal to another country, he chooses to go public with his story and make an official complaint to the Russian government. As he makes that decision, the false features realistically rendered over his real ones melt away before our eyes, revealing his unaltered face – and with it, his true identity. It’s a powerful effect, and it’s our official introduction to Maxim Lapunov, whose subsequent appearance before a Russian court to tell his story is captured in the movie. Unsurprisingly, his claims are dismissed, and the need to get him and his loved ones out of the country becomes even more imperative.
In talking about Lapunov, the awe returns to France’s voice. “Maxim’s moral courage is unmatched. It was really clear that his life was going to be fucked up for the foreseeable future, no matter what he did. The courage that he showed was the courage to throw his body in the way to make sure that other people don’t get treated the way that he was treated – to save people’s lives. He could have gone anywhere in the world, and just nursed his post-traumatic memories in safety, but instead he went back into the fire. That was remarkable. I watched him make those decisions, I watched him take on that risk, I watched him bring his family along on that journey and win their allegiance in these choices – these are human dramas like you see in Hollywood films that actually are taking place in the queer battle against the crimes in Russia.”
He segues into a similar expression of respect for David Isteev, another activist prominently featured in “Chechnya.”
“When you look at his face, you just get this incredible sense of high alert and of moral purpose. It makes me think of the stories we have heard from the Holocaust, of citizens who would otherwise have been untouched who reach into some deep reserve to do something. That’s him. And being in the presence of that was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life.”
If it sounds like he has bonded with his subjects, it’s because he has. Being embedded in the shelter network for such an extended period of time, he and Kurov became part of the underground themselves. “We were no longer visitors from outside,” he says. “We were experiencing what they were. I spent nights full of terror inside those safe houses, when rumors were flying about people who might have been seen, locations that might have been revealed, dangers that might have been heightened – I felt that with them. We huddled together, and, in a way, I became part of their journey.
“I do feel personally attached to those people having been through that with them. It’s something like the bond of warfare that you read about. I would do anything for David. I would do anything for Maxim and his family.”
The real emotion apparent in these professions of kinship is surely one of the reasons why the documentarian is still, more than six months after his film’s debut, eager to talk about it. The people with whom he developed these strong bonds are still very much at risk.
The biggest horrors in “Welcome to Chechnya” are only glimpsed briefly in dark and blurry videos intercepted from the web by the network, or described in the stories of torment, humiliation and brutality told by the survivors, but they cast a dark enough shadow over the imagination to make us want to believe they are safely in the past. Unfortunately, as France is quick to remind us, LGBTQ persecution in Chechnya is still very much “an ongoing humanitarian crisis.” Just last week, two refugees were kidnapped from the network by Russian authorities and returned to Chechnya, an incident that brought the situation there back into the headlines.
“These were two very young men, one of them 20, and the other 17 – not even a man,” relates France. “They had been abducted last summer in Chechnya and tortured, they barely got out alive. They were rescued and extracted by the network and were being held in a safe house while the work was being done with foreign partners to try and get them out. Now they are back in detention in Chechnya. It’s a very volatile situation.”
Yet it’s also a situation in which, perhaps ironically, he sees a hope that has been scarce for the past four years.
“The United States, in this new administration, has expressed great concern for those two kids and demanded information on their safety,” he points out. “The European Court for Human Rights has demanded access to them, and safe passage for them to get back to the safe house where they were being held.”
For him, it’s a call to action. “The Russian LGBT network is on the ground, still fighting this fight,” he says. “We can urgently throw our voices behind their efforts with regard to these two youngsters – we could save their lives. There are petitions, but that’s not enough. We know from watching these activists’ work that it’s essential, it’s extensive, and as you can imagine, it’s costly. They cannot raise money within Russia, so they’ve asked people who see the film to help them by donating. There’s a donation page on the movie site. We’ve just watched almost $200,000 move through there, in the six months since the film came out, and that money goes to the Moscow Community Center, Olga’s group that runs the shelter system, to the Russian LGBT Network that does the extractions and runs the global hotline for the crisis. And it also goes to Maxim and his legal case, which is still percolating through, and showing great progress in, the European courts.
“So, I think there’s hope, but we have to act urgently. I think what’s shocked us all, in the last few years, is how easily we can lose ground. All this progress that we’ve made over the last 30 or 40 years can be reversed in a heartbeat, and that’s what’s happened in Russia, and Russia has led the way in this dramatic reversal of queer progress, all across Europe. It’s going to take a lot of people coming together internationally to stop that, but it is possible.”
He’s a realist in his expectations, though. “We can’t hope for regime change in Chechnya or in Russia. Those are not practical, immediate goals. But we can force Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya to stop this. He is a puppet of Putin’s. If we make it politically untenable for Putin not to intervene there, then he will lift up the telephone and say to Kadyrov, ‘Stop it.’ That’s all that it takes. It’s that simple. We haven’t gotten there because we haven’t had the kind of global leadership that can bring collective pressure on Putin to do that. I think we’re in a place where we can now.
“Even just watching the film is an important step. The Russian government has said repeatedly that this is not happening, that there’s no evidence, even – ridiculously – that there are no queer Chechens. They say that no one has come forward, but Maxim did that, officially, and they rejected his claims. The people protected by the digital technology we deployed in the film have also spelled out their stories, so they are witnesses. And we’re all witnesses, now.”
The passion creeps back into France’s voice as he recalls, “That was my promise to the people in the network, when I said I wanted to film with them, that I was going to help make this so that everybody in the world knows what’s happening.
“Anybody who sees the film becomes a witness, and it becomes an act of resistance just to talk about what you see in it.”
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Meet the ‘CEO of Everything Gay’ who just bought the Abbey
Tristan Schukraft, who owns Mistr, takes over iconic LA nightclub
WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — Tristan Schukraft laughs when I suggest he’s building a gay empire, but he doesn’t deny it.
When it was announced last month that the owner of the iconic Abbey and Chapel nightclubs in Los Angeles had entered into an agreement to sell the business to Schukraft, it seemed like a strange move for the jet-setting tech CEO.
But the portfolio he’s building – founder and owner of the telemedicine app for gay men Mistr, owner of the queer nightclub Circo and Tryst Hotel in Puerto Rico – appears to be bent toward Hoovering up more pink dollars by getting involved in an ever wider section of queer life.
The Los Angeles Blade spoke to Schukraft at The Abbey during its annual tree-lighting fundraiser for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation about what he plans to do with the storied nightclub, and how he became one of America’s most visible gay moguls.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
BLADE: Why the Abbey?
SCHUKRAFT: Well, I wanted to make sure it stayed in the hands of the gay community. You know, it’s an institution. It’s a cornerstone of West Hollywood gay life, but more importantly, it’s I think it’s a cornerstone of the gay community far beyond West Hollywood, right?
BLADE: Looking at your background in tech companies, your recent shift into the nightclub and hospitality industry seems like a bit of a left turn.
SCHUKRAFT: You know, I’ve been drinking here for a long time. So now, after all that investment, I’m actually gonna start getting money back. I basically bought it so I can get free drinks.
You know, at the end of the day, I’m an operations guy. I’m a technology guy. I own hotels. With hotels, you have bars and restaurants, so it’s not too far off the track. It’s a little off track. Why not? Right?
You know, after watching “The Birdcage,” I always wanted my own hotel [like Robin Williams’s character in the 1996 film] and somebody shattered my dreams the other day by telling me it was a nightclub. I’m like, what? It was a nightclub? And then I watched it, and it’s true, it was a nightclub. So, now I have a nightclub. Yeah, so it all started with “The Birdcage.”
BLADE: You’re known for being a disrupter of the things that you invest in. Is there a disruption plan for the Abbey, or for Weho? Are you planning to change things here?
SCHUKRAFT: Not a major disruption here at The Abbey. I’m gonna put my touches on it. But yeah, it’s a pretty well-oiled machine. We’re definitely going to focus on our values of being LGBTQ. I got some ideas for new nights and I definitely want to make it an epicenter of the gay community. And I think there’s opportunities to take it beyond West Hollywood.
BLADE: Can you give any kind of sneak peek at what you’re thinking?
SCHUKRAFT: East Coast. That’s your sneak peek right now. East Coast.
I think you’ll see in a couple months what I’m gonna do with the Abbey. But you know as far as taking it outside of West Hollywood, I see there’s opportunities on the East Coast right now.
I think that’s where David [Cooley, the founder and current owner of The Abbey] and I really we both appreciate the value of The Abbey brand. I think it’s world famous, right? It’s the biggest gay bar. It’s one of the longest lasting. Obviously you have the Stonewalls of the world. But this is like a bar where people go on a regular night versus a tourist attraction. Maybe for some it’s a tourist attraction, but I mean, it really is an institution. It’s a community gathering point. It’s a name that people recognize that we can bring into other communities.
BLADE: Do you have any plans to put a hotel somewhere here?
SCHUKRAFT: [Laughs] People are like, “Are you gonna paint it blue for Mistr?” Or, “You’re gonna make it a hotel?” But no, we’re not building a hotel here. That would be terrible to build. I mean build a hotel and Abbey would be out. I don’t think the Abbey’s ever closed in 33 years, besides COVID. Minus that, it’s never closed for construction. You know, when David did his expansion, it was always open.
I was looking at those old photos and I’m like, oh my God, I remember the wall of candles. I’ve been coming here a very long time.
So you’re more or less like keeping the same sort of operation going here, keeping the team in place?
The team, I mean, I think that’s what kind of really makes The Abbey unique. It’s like a place where everybody knows your name.
When I bought the hotel in Puerto Rico, obviously I don’t know anyone. Buying here. I’m like, oh, yeah. I know Todd. I know everybody, right? Not everybody, but a majority of people. And I think that’s why people come here. Because it’s their staple. They go every Sunday. They know they have their favorite bartender. So, you know, everybody will be kept in place, no changes to personnel.
BLADE: You gave an interview to Authority Magazine where you said you promised your partner that you wouldn’t be starting up any new businesses. How did you get him on board with jumping into becoming a WeHo nightlife impresario?
SCHUKRAFT: I broke that promise two or three times since I said that. I mean, no, I just buy him gifts to make him happy.
I work long hours, right? And he’s like, I don’t know why.
BLADE: You’ve created and run several tech companies. How did you get started in that business? Where did that money come from?
SCHUKRAFT: I started my very first company at 21 with a $10,000 loan. I was living in Hong Kong at the time. I think my father really wanted me to come back [to California]. My dad’s a corporate guy, not a big risk taker, but he’s like, ‘I’ll give you $10,000 to start your company.’ It wasn’t enough to start the company, so I imported 437 Razor scooters and I thought I was gonna sell out in two weeks. It was very popular at the time – this is like 23 years ago. It took me six and a half weeks. I was selling them out of my truck. I went to every swap meet in Southern California. Sold the last six on Christmas Eve and learned a couple lessons in business from that. But with the money I made from selling those scooters combined with the loan, I started my first company, which was like an Expedia for airline personnel.
And then I got into e-ticketing, and at that time, I didn’t know how to turn on the computer. So, I really surround myself with people that know what they’re doing, that are experts. So, do I know how to run a bar? No, but I’m an operations guy and I hire the talent to make it happen. That’s how I got started and I built that company and others along the way.
BLADE: Other than that first $10,000 loan from your parents, you’re basically self-made then?
SCHUKRAFT: Yeah. You know, I looked for investment. I did end up raising $18 million for my second company, but I put in a lot of money. I mean at 25, my first company was going really well, and there was this e-ticketing mandate and I said, oh there’s a real opportunity here. And I had a home and was doing good for a 25-year-old, and I kind of leveraged it all. And I thought, “Oh my God, what did I do? I just fucked up my whole life. Why did I do this?” Anyways, I got that first investor, got that first client, and it just kind of took off from there.
BLADE: And now with Mistr, The Abbey, your Puerto Rico clubs, are you starting a gay empire?
SCHUKRAFT: The CEO of Everything Gay, yes. I have a few more things. You know, all the businesses are very complementary, right? So, you come to The Abbey, then you go to the Tryst Hotel or Circo in Puerto Rico, and obviously all of the people that come here or the Tryst, they’re all perfect candidates for Mistr. So yeah, so it looks a little weird. But it is very complementary to our various business units
The ultimate guide to queer gift giving
Perfect presents for everyone from roommates to soulmates
Searching for special deliveries for that special someone? Consider these elf-approved, consciously curated presents perfect for everyone from roommates to soulmates.
Star Wars Home Collection
Movie nights in bed get a comfort upgrade from the Force – for those who uphold Jedi code in the streets but embrace the Dark Side in the sheets – with Sobel Westex’s Star Wars Home Collection, five- to seven-piece twin, queen and king sets suitable for either alliance. Cop a bootleg of the infamous “Star Wars Holiday Special” (legal copies don’t exist, nor has it been rebroadcast since its one-and-only airing in 1978) and settle in for a snacky screening with premade Johnson’s Popcorn (a Jersey Shore staple) or Pop ’N Dulge’s DIY gourmet kits. SobelAtHome.com, $350-$390; JohnsonsPopcorn.com, $27+; PopNDulge.com, $23
Bird Buddy Smart Feeder
Avian enthusiasts get up close and semi-personal with feathered friends thanks to the Bird Buddy smart feeder that allows safe viewing via a solar-powered, app-enabled camera, along with adorable add-ons like a suet ball holder and three-in-one nutrition set to keep the neighborhood’s population happy and healthy. MyBirdBuddy.com, $299-$415
Link x Lou Permanent Jewelry Pop-Ups
Jewelry – but make it an experience. That’s the premise behind Link x Lou, a quick-fitting accessory service providing recipients with in-person appointments for custom-linked, clasp-less 14-karat white- and yellow-gold necklaces, bracelets, anklets, and rings that wear until they’re worn out. Money’s on ’em lasting longer than the situationship you’ve got goin’, but may the odds be ever in your favor. LinkxLou.com, $55-$500
Orttu Shelton Puffer
Guess who’s coming to dinner? It’s you as an alt-timeline Tom of Finland in Orttu’s fully quilted, oversized Shelton Puffer comprised of double-layered high-sheen fabric and press-stud fastening that results in a slick style statement vers-er than you are. Orttu.com, $203
Winter Discovery Mini Scented Candle Set
Apotheke takes the guesswork out of choosing just the right ambiance-inducing aroma with its Winter Discovery Mini Scented Candle Set, featuring six fragrant two-ounce tins in seasonal smells that include birchwood apple, black cypress, blackberry honey, cardamon chestnut, charred fig, and firewood (with a combined 90-hour burn time), and packaged in a nostalgically illustrated gift box accentuated by festive gold detailing. ApothekeCo.com, $64
Polaris General 1000 Sport
Resort communities across the country have adopted golf carts as a preferred mode of transportation, and you can establish yourself as a local baddie in Polaris’ General 1000 Sport – in ethereal colorways like ghost gray – equipped with a four-stroke DOHC twin-cylinder engine, 100 horsepower, 1,500-pound hitch-towing capacity, and enough street cred for Boomers to shake their fists at. Polaris.com, $17,500+
‘Arquivistas’ Crystal Book
Brazilian crystal devotee Tatiana Dorow has curated an impressive collection of more than 1,000 rare and exquisite minerals – ranging from one ounce to over 5,000 pounds – the comprehensive record of which is now compiled in the sizable coffee-table tome “Arquivistas” (Portuguese for archivist) that’s sure to satisfy, delight, and provide endless holiday-party talking points to the New Agers in your life. (You know they will.) ArtAndAnthropologyPress.com, $350
Bovem Globe Trimmer 2.0
There are plenty of manscaping tools on the market, but perhaps none are designed with your delicate bits in mind like the handsome second-gen Bovem Globe body and groin trimmer with its ergonomic textured grip, powerful 6500 RPM with low vibration, varying guards, and replaceable TrimSafe blades that tidy you up without cutting skin or pulling rough hair. Deck the halls! – no more bloody Christmas balls. Bovem.co, $60-$87
Lexington Glassworks Decanter Set
Pour one out from Lexington Glassworks’ hand-blown whiskey decanter, each one individually crafted in the company’s Asheville, N.C., studio and detailed with an elegant crackle finish that lends an air of sophistication to any home bar cart. Pair with a set of LG’s complementary rocks glasses, in the same distinguished style, for a cherished gift. LexingtonGlassworks.com, $280
Joule Turbo Sous Vide
Your fave chefs’ autopilot cooking technique hits home countertops in Breville’s sleek Joule Turbo Sous Vide stick, which cooks seasoned-and-bagged meats and veggies to a faster-than-ever optimal internal temperature (unattended, no less) before a lickety-split sear and serve results in restaurant-quality dishes deserving of at least a couple Michelin stars for your minimal-mess kitchen. Breville.com, $250
Outlines Shower Liner System
Holiday hosts can practice responsible replenishment amid our planetary plastic-waste crisis when you gift Outlines’ thoughtfully designed Shower Liner System that provides users with a machine-washable cotton top piece and fully recyclable bottom to replace when it’s time to ditch the grime. Set it and forget it with three-, six- or nine-month auto-deliveries. LivingOutlines.com, $50
Fight the patriarchy doused in Barbie’s sweet-and-fresh fragrance that, from top to bottom, features notes of strawberry nectar and red cherry, peony and pink magnolia, and sandalwood and soft musk for an extraordinary scent that’s more than Kenough. DefineMeCreativeStudio.com, $65
AiRROBO Pet Grooming Vacuum
Posh pets enjoy salon-style luxury in the comfort of their homes when treated to a grooming session by the AiRROBO vacuum (think Flowbee for cats and dogs), a five-tool, one-stop solution for keeping furbabies’ hair, dander, allergens and mites to a minimum. The portable pamperer includes an electric clipper, crevice and de-shedding tools, and grooming and cleaning brushes housed in a space-saving, HEPA-filtered capsule. US.Air-Robo.com, $110
Aura Smart Sleep Mask
What does the future of total relaxation and deep sleep look like? Blackout darkness and complete serenity in a dream-state sanctuary when you spend your nights in the Aura Smart Sleep Mask with built-in speakers for guided meditation and snooze-inducing ASMR, zero-pressure eye cushioning, and light and sunrise therapy to help you wake rested and refreshed at home and (especially) away. Indiegogo.com, $190
Mikey Rox is an award-winning journalist and LGBTQ lifestyle expert whose work has been published in more than 100 outlets across the world. Connect with Mikey on Instagram @mikeyroxtravels.
Anatomy of a post-cancellation comedy tour: Ashley Gavin in D.C.
After doxxing and death threats, a focus on jokes that transcend identity
I was dressing up to go to Ashley Gavin’s stand-up comedy show at the Lincoln Theatre when I got a text from Sydnie, Ashley’s assistant. I didn’t remember giving Sydnie my number — although I must have, surely? We had been in contact the past few days about setting up an interview with Ashley about her show here in D.C., and just today we had managed to schedule a time for tomorrow afternoon.
But suddenly the interview wasn’t looking so sure. Sydnie was texting to ask for a list of my questions for the interview, and if I didn’t provide them, I wouldn’t be getting tickets to tonight’s show. I had two hours to get back to her. “So sorry about that!” Sydnie texted.
The ultimatum caught me off guard — but perhaps it shouldn’t have. Ashley Gavin was the subject of controversy this summer for some of her crowd work during a show in Indianapolis. After a fan cheered a little too loudly at a joke, Ashley informed her she was the “the most annoying fan who has ever been to one of her shows,” and that she should “kill herself.” When the fan responded, “I’ve already tried,” Ashley responded that she didn’t try hard enough, and implored her again and again to kill herself. The fan broke down in tears, and left the show.
The familiar cycle of celebrity cancellation played out. Calls were made on Reddit to boycott Ashley’s shows. Ashley released an apology video. YouTubers scrutinized the apology clip-by-clip on their channels. Ashley reported getting doxxed in death threats. (The irony!) The fan Ashley accosted, Olivia Neely, raised money for suicide awareness online. And now Ashley Gavin is back on tour, for the first time since the incident. No wonder Ashley had her assistant screening my questions.
When Ashley took the stage at the Lincoln Theatre, it quickly became clear that her audience is kindling for controversy fire. All the way up front, in the first few rows, are Ashley’s die-hard fans. Some of these fans have paid hundreds of dollars for meet-and-greet tickets after the show. They’re on the younger side, and are largely lesbian or queer. They turned 21 during the pandemic, and they haven’t necessarily been to a comedy show before. They’re fans from online — of Ashley’s TikTok, or her podcast. But all the way in the back are more casual viewers, people who aren’t fans of Ashley specifically, but of comedy more generally. They might have bought their tickets last minute. They’re a little older than the die-hard fans, a little less queer, and they’re more familiar with the offline comedy club scene.
It’s great that these two different groups can come together to enjoy a comedy show. But there’s one big problem. The online die-hards and the offline comedy regulars have very different expectations for the show. And Ashley isn’t looking to satisfy all of them.
On the one hand, the comedy regulars aren’t necessarily used to the content of her show, which especially on this tour, is largely comprised of material about being lesbian. Ashley wants the straight people in the room to know these jokes are for them too. One of the few bits Ashley carried over from her first special to this new tour involves picking out a random straight man in the audience. She’ll learn his name, and then check in on him after this or that joke later in the set as the ‘representative straight man’ in the crowd. “I’m speaking to the people who might not feel comfortable in the room,” Ashley explained to me during our interview. “I’m saying like, hey, I know you’re there, and this is for you. And I’m really glad that you’re here, you know.”
But if Ashley wants the comedy regulars to adjust to the content of her show, she also wants her online, die-hard fans to adjust to the form of her show, which is offline, at a comedy club or theater. Her die-hard fans are new to the comedy scene, and she wants to make a proper introduction. This isn’t simply out of magnanimity. Ashley intends to put on the kind of show the comedy regulars are there to see. And if her fans from TikTok or her podcast are going to enjoy it, that means adjusting their expectations.
“I’ve read it in my comments [online] before,” Ashley lamented. “I’ve read like, ‘This was not a safe space.’ Maybe because of gross things, or some of the darkness of the jokes. I’m frequently like, what made you think it was going to be a safe space? Art is not a safe space.”
As Ashley sees things, part of going to a comedy show is letting go and not worrying about whether the jokes are offensive. It’s giving the comedian the benefit of the doubt, especially if you know them from online. And she thinks letting go of your worries isn’t giving up on your political convictions — it’s empowering. “[My fans] are very into social justice, and very into doing the right thing, [and] I want to give them the opportunity to let go a little bit, and release some of their tension, and their pain, and their struggle.”
So one of the more unique things Ashley will do as a comedian is address her online, die-hard fans directly at the beginning of her show. She’ll tell them that she’s on the right side of things, that she won’t pull the rug out from under them, politically speaking. She’ll tell them that they should feel free to laugh, to let it out, not cover their mouths. “I know who my audience is, and they want some safety. And they want some trust. And the fastest way that I can earn that trust is to be up front, and just say I’m not going to trick you tonight. The person you came to see, the person you think I am, I am that person.” But it’s a difficult balancing act. How do you promise your audience safety, while maintaining that a comedy show is not a “safe space”? It’s no wonder the kindling might catch fire, despite Ashley’s best efforts. You’d be forgiven for wondering whether there wasn’t an easier way. Why ask fans who want safety to ride out a non-safe space?
I think it helps to understand what Ashley wants out of being a comedian. A major theme of Ashley’s first comedy special was her frustration with being called a “lesbian comedian.” She talks about wanting to be called a great comedian, not a lesbian one — someone who is in the running with other great comedians, whose jokes transcend any particular identity. And if you want to be a great comedian, and not “the lesbian comedian,” it makes sense that you might want your mostly queer online audience to acclimate to the comedy club scene. She doesn’t want to put on a lesbian show. She wants to put on a great comedy show.
So what of Ashley’s hopes for being a great comedian, post-cancellation? On her Chosen Family podcast, taped just one day before her show in D.C., Ashley gave a picture of where she thought things stood. “My audience has changed. I’m experiencing this new audience now that might be a better fit. Because it’s the folks that saw what happened and kind of understand, OK, these were meant to be jokes,” Ashley told her co-hosts. “The folks who don’t see it that way aren’t really at the show anymore, and the show is far more enjoyable for everybody there.”
When I surveyed the audience after Ashley’s show, her prediction seemed to bear out. Everyone I talked to either didn’t know about the summer’s controversy, or didn’t care. “I know nothing of drama. That takes a lot of energy to follow,” said Sunshine, a fan of Ashley’s from over the pandemic. People wanted to chat about Ashley’s crowd work, particularly the drunk girl from Missouri who just wouldn’t give up. They had nothing to say about Indianapolis. Perhaps for Ashley Gavin, the post-cancellation cycle doesn’t end with her remaining fans forgiving and forgetting. Just the forgetting, and moving on.
CJ Higgins is a postdoctoral fellow with the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
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