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‘Pray Away’ exposes horrors of ‘conversion therapy’

The fraud is still out there, actively claiming victims

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A scene from ‘Pray Away.’ (Image courtesy Netflix)

It’s fitting that Blumhouse Productions should be among the array of associated companies behind the new documentary “Pray Away,” which debuted on Netflix Aug. 3.

Now a major Hollywood player, Blumhouse Productions spent a decade building its success on creepy horror movies like “Paranormal Activity,” “Insidious,” and “The Purge.” The horrors revealed in “Pray Away” are every bit as disturbing as anything in those movies; the difference is that these are horrors that take place in real life, and that makes them even more chilling.

As its title suggests, the Kristine Stolakis-directed documentary dives into the world of “conversion therapy,” specifically in the form of the Christian “Ex-Gay” movement, and unspools its history from its beginnings in the 1970s. That was when five men, struggling with being gay in their Evangelical church, started a Bible study to help each other leave the “homosexual lifestyle.” They quickly received more than 25,000 letters from people asking for help and formalized as Exodus International, the largest and most controversial conversion therapy organization in the world. After decades of spreading anti-LGBTQ propaganda and touting methods based on discredited and pseudoscientific practices, the company was rocked when a multitude of former “success stories” began to come forward and renounce their claims of having become heterosexual. Faced with public outcry and an inescapable recognition of the untold harm they had perpetrated, Exodus officially ended its operations in 2013.

“Pray Away” is not really about Exodus, though, nor is it about scandal – at least not the salacious kind. It’s about the real human pain underneath all of that, and it follows the stories of several men and women who were once connected with Exodus. Once among the leaders and high-profile representatives of the organization, these are individuals who spent years as “Christian superstars” in the religious right before coming out as LGBTQ and disavowing the very movement they helped to start. Through the stories they tell of their personal journeys, and the resolve with which they dedicate themselves to debunking the notion that being queer is something that should or even can be “cured,” they underscore the depth of the influence that conversion therapy – and its proponents – exerts not just on its participants but on LGBTQ society as a whole.

There’s Mike Bussee, one of the co-founders of Exodus, who ultimately became one of the first high-profile members to denounce the group and come out as gay; John Paulk, another former Exodus leader, who along with his “ex-lesbian” wife was the face of the movement through appearances on television and magazine covers until being caught in a gay bar and exposed in the press; and Yvette Cantu, who became a highly visible spokesperson for conversion therapy and even served as a “policy analyst” for the Family Research Council – a virulently anti-LGBTQ organization that has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center – before crippling anxiety forced her to confront her feelings of guilt over the harm she was helping to inflict.

These narratives, interwoven throughout to form a bigger picture, bear witness to the personal damage caused by conversion therapy, but many of them also cast light on the even more ominous nature of the movement’s machinations behind the scenes, as it aligns itself with politicians to gain the power necessary for turning its anti-LGBTQ stance into legislative and judicial policy. Randy Thomas, the former Exodus vice president who disassociated from the group shortly before it disbanded, relates how the movement allied itself with conservative politicians eager to stir up their constituents with a “moral” issue and facilitated the passing of Proposition 8, the California referendum that effectively banned same-sex marriage before being struck down by the Supreme Court in 2015. The implication – that a well-organized minority can gain enough political traction to impose its extreme views on a whole society – is something of which most viewers will already be keenly aware, given the shape of the last few years, but it serves as an chilling reminder of the very real and widespread harm that has been perpetrated by fundamentalist bigots acting in the name of religion.

Of course, “Pray Away” is also a story of triumph; the subjects who share their stories are shown clearly to have moved beyond the lies of conversion therapy to live much happier, fulfilled lives; one, Julie Rodgers, who was once groomed as the poster child for an Exodus-affiliated “ex-gay” ministry, is even in the process of planning a wedding with her girlfriend – perhaps the most appropriate “happy ending” of all, considering the circumstances.

Still, though, the disquieting realities exposed by Stolakis’ documentary are never quite erased by these positive outcomes. Outdated notions that are perennially used to sex-shame queer people and frame their identity as a dysfunction – the parents are to blame, masturbation is bad, gay people are child molesters, girls become lesbians through fear of men, and other such infuriating tropes – keep turning up in the discourse throughout; a procession of pious, white male faces (some belonging to disgraced former “moral leaders” like Jerry Falwell) decry homosexuality as sinful in archival media clips; and in perhaps the most unsettling sequence, we see footage of a notorious “reparative therapy” psychologist – the late Joseph Nicolosi – manipulating a patient (or rather, a victim) through psychological torture.

Most horrifying of all, perhaps, is another narrative that is woven among the others. The film begins with Jeffrey McCall, a Christian activist who was once a transgender woman but claims to have renounced his trans identity for Jesus. We watch as he works to organize a misleadingly named “Freedom March” for “ex-trans” awareness, guides a mother over the phone toward rejecting her child’s trans identity, and participates in a ritualistic “warrior” chant with a group of other former trans people – all without a trace of joy in his face, his voice, or his manner.

It’s that last sequence in which “Pray Away” becomes most reminiscent of one of Blumhouse’s horror films; in the feverish, histrionic abandonment to which they give themselves in their chant, these struggling people evoke the unnatural fervor of a possessed congregation at a cult. Watching the spectacle, it’s easy to see them as deluded and dehumanized. Even so, one can’t help but sense that the tears in their eyes are real; they draw our compassion, and they remind us that the fraud of conversion therapy is still out there, actively claiming victims.

The evil of Exodus may have been vanquished in “Pray Away,” but like any good horror film, it makes sure we know there’s still plenty of room for a sequel.

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Two queer indies rank among the year’s standout films

Don’t miss ‘Big Boys’ and ‘Cora Bora’

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Isaac Krasner and David Johnson III in ‘Big Boys.’ (Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures)

If there is any downside to living in an era when movies about queer people are finally plentiful, it’s that sometimes the best of them are overshadowed by bigger, splashier films and end up getting lost in the mix.

Two such titles are a pair of indie projects, both of which focus on “outsider” queer characters, newly available on the VOD market after brief-and-limited theatrical runs; each of them deserves a better fate than that. 

The first of these, “Big Boys,” was a major hit in the 2023 queer festival circuit, winning multiple awards (including Outstanding Lead Performance honors for its young star, Isaac Krasner, at LA’s Outfest) and emerging as an audience favorite. It’s easy to see why.

Written, produced, and directed by Corey Sherman, it’s a small, slice-of-life story centered on Jamie (Krasner), a bright-but-awkward 14-year-old trying to navigate the dual challenges of growing up as a chubby gay-and-closeted teen, who sets out (along with his slick and more confident older brother Will, played by Taj Cross) on a camping trip with favorite cousin Allie (Dora Madison), though he’s initially disappointed when he finds out her new boyfriend Dan (David Johnson III) is also coming along. His attitude changes, however, when the interloper turns out to be a handsome young man who wears his physical “chunkiness” with an easy confidence. Yes, it’s an instant and impossible crush, leading to a weekend adventure that pushes awkward boundaries for all four campers. But aside from his attractiveness, Dan also emerges as a positive role model for Jamie, who begins to find a confidence of his own.

Equal parts bittersweet coming-of-age story and uncomfortable-yet-endearing comedy, Sherman’s movie wins us over early on, largely through the strength of Krasner’s performance; the young actor exhibits not just the comedic chops necessary to get laughs from even his most painful moments, but the vulnerability to make them ring true. Seemingly unafraid of exploring his own identity through his character, he turns in a tour-de-force which stands up to comparison with some of the greatest “young actor breakthrough” performances of all time.

He’s given an ideal foil in Johnson, whose easygoing charm as Dan still allows us subtle hints of an internal process that keeps him from coming off as callow and clueless – something that pays off well in the film’s quiet-but-heart-stirring climax, which is best left unspoiled here. Madison also provides invaluable support with a performance that captures the conflicted impulses that come between youth and adulthood, and Cross successfully gets past the casual toxicity of his aggressively hetero-centric character to remain sympathetic. 

It’s a stellar collection of performances from an ensemble of relative newcomers, and it goes a long way toward endearing “Big Boys” to a presumably queer audience, which will likely find resonance in the way they each – especially Kasner – convey its theme of trying to claim and define one’s young identity when it goes against the grain of the world around you. But it’s ultimately Sherman, who drew heavily from his own experiences growing up as a plus-size queer kid in creating the film, that deserves full credit – not just for putting it all together, but for having the courage and determination to deliver a queer story that foregoes the glitz and glamour of “gay romance” and connects with the lived experience of viewers who may feel left out of the typically glossy mainstream depictions of queer life.

Cut from a similar cloth is “Cora Bora,” starring “Hacks” fan favorite Meg Stalter as the title character, a bisexual musician who might just be the poster child for clueless self-centeredness. Openly rude, unrepentantly shallow, and blatantly manipulative, she steamrolls her way through life seemingly oblivious to the impact her attitude has on others. Having departed her native Portland – and left behind longtime girlfriend Justine (Jojo T. Gibbs), though ostensibly maintaining a “long-distance open relationship” with her – to pursue a music career in Los Angeles, success has proven elusive. She decides to make a surprise visit back home to re-evaluate, only to find that a new girl (Ayden Mayeri) has moved in to take her place. When her attempts to reassert her claim in the household just make matters worse, Cora is forced to recognize that both her professional and personal lives are a shambles – but can she find the humility it will take to get “real” enough to repair them?

Directed by Hannah Pearl Utt from a screenplay by Rhianon Jones, “Cora Bora” also relies heavily on the talents of its star player. Statler, in a turn that lends a darker, more desperate edge to the comedic persona that has made her “Hacks” character one of that show’s biggest assets, is at once monstrous and endearing, a ridiculously broad yet shrewdly-drawn caricature of modern bourgeois boorishness that serves as a fragile cover for something deeper and – without spoiling anything – profoundly traumatic. The journey we take with her is at once hilarious and powerfully affecting, echoing a time-honored comic tradition of transcending pain by finding humor in a pain that feels universal.

She’s aided by an equally gifted supporting cast, with both Gibbs and Mayeri finding enough heart to keep either of their characters – the other two points of the film’s romantic triangle – from being positioned as a “villain,” and a convincing turn from Manny Jacinto (known for his breakout “himbo” role on TV’s afterlife comedy “The Good Place”), as a character that would otherwise seem too good to be true, lending credibility to an eventual resolution that hinges on a pile of coincidences that would seem absurd without his sincerity. There are also appearances from other familiar faces in cameo roles – such as Margaret Cho as part of a polyamorous commune and Chelsea Peretti as an outraged dog owner – which serve as highlights in a movie already rich with them.

Both “Big Boys” and “Cora Bora” are linked by a common thread. Each of them features a queer protagonist, of course, but they are outsiders even within their own community. Ultimately, their struggles are born of a perspective that separates them from the rest of the world, a lived experience that others around them do not and cannot fully share. It would be easy enough for either film to make its lead character the butt of the joke, but neither of them makes that choice. The humor comes through their relatability, rather than from their “otherness,” and that makes all the difference. Despite these films’ occasional painfulness, their kindness is what comes shining through – not just toward their misfit characters, but toward the misfits in the audience, too.

For our money, that’s what the world needs a lot more of these days, and it places these two hidden gems among 2024’s best releases so far.

Megan Statler stars in ‘Cora Bora.’ (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media)
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LGBTQ critics announce Dorian Award nominations for best of TV

Honorees reflect widely diverse range of cultural experience

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Sam Reid and Jacob Anderson from ‘Interview with the Vampire.’ (Photo courtesy of FX)

They might not be as coveted or as prestigious as some of the other awards out there, but the Dorians — presented annually by GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, at separate ceremonies throughout the year, for excellence in film, television, and theater – nevertheless represent an important and much-needed perspective that “reminds society that the world values the informed Q+ eye on everything entertainment.” Fittingly enough, the 500+ member media journalists’ association, now in its 15th year, chose the 55th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion to announce the group’s 2024 nominations for the best in television and streaming across 24 categories, and the competition – as one might expect –  skews a little bit on the queer side, even if the nominations reflect a widely diverse range of cultural experience.

“A lot of our nominated shows are focused on outcasts trying to punch through norms, and their own fears and flaws, to find peace – a not-easy road, but one our members obviously loved following,” says GALECA founder and Executive Director John Griffiths. “It’s fitting we’re flagging these stories on the same day that, years ago, the brave souls of Stonewall […] took to the streets of Greenwich Village to protest abuse and oppression and hate at the hands of bigots and bullies. Like those protesters, the writers of these Dorian Award-nominated shows remind us that you can’t just pout and clutch pearls if you want a better existence.” 

Leading the nomination tally among dramas are three very disparate series based on period novels, with “Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire” (AMC) snagging six nods, while “Shōgun” (FX/Hulu) and “Fellow Travelers” (Showtime/Paramount+) each earned five. In the comedy field, critical darlings “The Bear” (FX/Hulu) and “Hacks” (Max) – alongside Netflix’s shocking (if darkly amusing) “Baby Reindeer” – all grabbed six nominations. 

This year, GALECA has included a couple of new categories. One of those is Best Written Show, where nominees include the aforementioned “The Bear,” “Hacks,” “Reindeer,” and “Fellow Travelers,” alongside ABC’s “Abbott Elementary,” a show that has been a past favorite with the group and scored additional nods across several categories; the other is for Best Genre TV Show, where the deeply queer “Vampire” competes with Netflix’s haunting “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Amazon Prime’s future-trippy “Fallout” and comedic horror offerings “What We Do in the Shadows” (FX) and “Chucky” (SyFy/USA).

Under the category of “nice surprises,” beloved SNL alumnus Kristen Wiig landed a nod for Best Comedy TV Performance for her work on the fizzy Apple TV+ hit “Palm Royale,” joining fellow SNL vets Maya Rudolph (for “Loot”) and Martin Short (“Only Murders in the Building”) alongside rising stars like Devery Jacobs of “Reservation Dogs. The latter show, about an underdog cadre of Indigenous American friends in Oklahoma, is up for both Best Unsung TV Show – a unique-to-the-Dorians category – and Best TV Comedy.

In fact, each of the Dorians’ acting, performance, and tribute categories – which are all non-gendered (hello, other Awards bodies, time to catch up with the times) – are peppered with beloved names, both big and up-and-coming. Such revered performers as Emma Stone, Jodie Foster, Angela Bassett, Ryan Gosling, Christine Baranski, LeVar Burton, Carol Burnett and Meryl Streep join those races alongside relative newcomers like Kali Reis, Ncuti Gatwa, Moeka Hoshi, Nama Mau, Jessica Gunning, Benny Safdie, Emma D’Arcy and Julio Torres. 

Then there’s GALECA’s most irreverent Dorian Award, for the year’s Campiest TV Show, where  honors could go to doll-gone-wild tale “Chucky,” Netlix’s cheeky post-modernist period romance “Bridgerton,” Peacock’s opportunist reality/competition hit “The Traitors,” the 1970s Manhattan society “true gossip” dishfest “Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans” (FX/Hulu), and the aforementioned “Palm Royale,” which skewers high society in Palm Beach circa 1969 through the story of an average woman (nominee Wiig) seeking acceptance at a posh private resort while discovering there is more to life than the superficial trappings of glamor and ostentatious prosperity for which her fellow vacationers seem to hunger.

Of course, the biggest interest for most queer TV fans lies in knowing which of their fan favorites made the cut for recognition at the Dorians. In the TV Drama category, alongside “Travelers” and “Vampire” (our personal pick for the most thrilling and transgressively queer show of the year, hands down), contenders include fellow genre-labeled series “Fallout,” Broadway-star-slumfest “The Gilded Age,” and the feel-good YA romance “Heartstopper.”

On the comedy side, queer-inclusive critical darlings “Abbot Elementary” and “Hacks” are joined by the under appreciated gem “Reservation Dogs” and the literary remake “Shōgun,” with irreverent fan favorite “What We Do in the Shadows” and Hulu’s “The Bear” rounding out the race.

In the race for Best LGBTQ TV show, “Fellow Travelers” (which also received nods in the Lead and Supporting Performance categories, for Matt Bomer and Jonathan Bailey, respectively) and “Vampire” (likewise for series star and “Game of Thrones” veteran Jacob Anderson) are joined by “Heartstopper,” “Hacks,” and “Baby Reindeer,” while the Best Unsung TV Show category – which also includes “Vampire” – spotlights less high-profile shows like “Chucky,” “Reservation Dogs,” Peacock’s “We Are Lady Parts,” and Max’s now-canceled queer pirate dram-com “Our Flag Means Death.” Not to be ignored, “Ripley,” Netflix’s stylish black-and-white adaptation of iconic queer novelist Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” scored noms for Best TV Movie or miniseries, Best Drama Performance (Andrew Scott), and Most Visually Striking Show – another category unique to the Dorians.

The Dorian Awards, presented by GALECA, the Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, are  chosen democratically by the full membership, and are presented to TV, film and Broadway/Off-Broadway winners at different times of the year. Members work or freelance for a variety of mainstream and niche media outlets, including the Washington and Los Angeles Blade. A nonprofit organization, GALECA also advocates for better pay, access and respect for entertainment journalists, especially the underrepresented. Winners of the 2024 Dorian TV Awards will be announced Aug. 12. The full list of nominees is available on the Blade website.

BEST TV DRAMA

Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (AMC)

The Curse (Showtime/Paramount+)

Fallout (Amazon Prime)

The Gilded Age (HBO)

Heartstopper (Netflix)

Shōgun (FX/Hulu)

BEST TV COMEDY

Abbott Elementary (ABC)

The Bear (FX/Hulu)

Hacks (Max)

Reservation Dogs (FX/Hulu)

What We Do in the Shadows (FX)

BEST LGBTQ TV SHOW

Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (AMC)

Baby Reindeer (Netflix)

Fellow Travelers (Showtime/Paramount+)

Hacks (Max)

Heartstopper (Netflix)

BEST TV MOVIE OR MINISERIES

Baby Reindeer (Netflix)

Fellow Travelers (Showtime/Paramount+)

Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans (FX/Hulu)

Ripley (Netflix) 

True Detective: Night Country (HBO)

BEST UNSUNG TV SHOW

Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (AMC)

Chucky (Syfy/USA)

Our Flag Means Death (Max)

Reservation Dogs (FX/Hulu)

We Are Lady Parts (Peacock)

BEST WRITTEN TV SHOW (new category)

Abbott Elementary (ABC)

Baby Reindeer (Netflix)

The Bear (FX/Hulu)

Fellow Travelers (Showtime/Paramount+)

Hacks (Max)

BEST NON-ENGLISH LANGUAGE TV SHOW

Elite (Netflix)

Lupin (Netflix) 

Shōgun (FX/Hulu)

Tore (Netflix)

Young Royals (Netflix)

BEST LGBTQ NON-ENGLISH LANGUAGE TV SHOW (new category)

Drag Latina (Revry/LATV+)

Elite (Netflix)

Past Lies (Hulu)

Tore (Netflix)

Young Royals (Netflix)

BEST TV PERFORMANCE—DRAMA

Jacob Anderson, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (AMC)

Matt Bomer, Fellow Travelers (Showtime/Paramount+)

Jodie Foster, True Detective: Night Country (HBO)

Richard Gadd, Baby Reindeer (Netflix)

Ncuti Gatwa, Dr. Who (Disney+)

Lily Gladstone, Under the Bridge (Hulu)

Tom Hollander, Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans (FX/Hulu)

Anna Sawai, Shōgun (FX/Hulu)

Andrew Scott, Ripley (Netflix)

Emma Stone, The Curse (Showtime/Paramount+)

BEST SUPPORTING TV PERFORMANCE—DRAMA

Jonathan Bailey, Fellow Travelers (Showtime/Paramount+)

Christine Baranski, The Gilded Age (HBO)

Elizabeth Debicki, The Crown (Netflix)

Jessica Gunning, Baby Reindeer (Netflix)

Moeka Hoshi, Shōgun (FX/Hulu)

Jennifer Jason Leigh, Fargo (FX)

Nama Mau, Baby Reindeer (Netflix)

Jinkx Monsoon, Doctor Who (Disney+)

Kali Reis, True Detective: Night Country (HBO)

Benny Safdie, The Curse (Showtime/Paramount+)

BEST TV PERFORMANCE—COMEDY

Matt Berry, What We Do in the Shadows (FX)

Quinta Brunson, Abbott Elementary (ABC)

Ayo Edebiri, The Bear (FX/Hulu) 

Renée Elise Goldsberry, Girls5Eva (Netflix)

Devery Jacobs, Reservation Dogs (FX/Hulu)

Maya Rudolph, Loot (Apple TV+)

Martin Short, Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)

Jean Smart, Hacks (Max)

Jeremy Allen White, The Bear (FX/Hulu)

Kristen Wiig, Palm Royale (Apple TV+)

BEST SUPPORTING TV PERFORMANCE—COMEDY

Joel Kim Booster, Loot (Apple TV+)

Carol Burnett, Palm Royale (Apple TV+)

Hannah Einbinder, Hacks (Max)

Harvey Guillén, What We Do in the Shadows (FX)

Janelle James, Abbott Elementary (ABC)

Jamie Lee-Curtis, The Bear (FX/Hulu)

Sheryl Lee Ralph, Abbott Elementary (ABC)

Ebon Moss-Bachrach, The Bear (FX/Hulu)

Megan Stalter, Hacks (Max)

Meryl Streep, Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)

BEST TV MUSICAL PERFORMANCE

Miley Cyrus, “Flowers,” 66th Annual Grammy Awards (CBS / Paramount+)

Billie Eilish & Finneas O’Connell, What Was I Made For?,” 96th Academy Awards (ABC)

Ryan Gosling, “I’m Just Ken,” 96th Academy Awards (ABC)

Steve Martin, “Which of the Pickwick Triplets Did It?,” Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)

Maya Rudolph, “Mother,” Saturday Night Live (NBC)

BEST TV DOCUMENTARY OR DOCUMENTARY SERIES

Black Twitter: A People’s History (Hulu)

Girls State (Apple TV+)

The Greatest Night in Pop (Netflix)

Jim Henson Idea Man (Disney+)

Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV (Investigation Discovery)

BEST LGBTQ TV DOCUMENTARY OR DOCUMENTARY SERIES

Beyond the Aggressives: 25 Years Later (Showtime)

Jerrod Carmichael Reality Show (HBO)

Last Call: When A Serial Killer Stalked Queer New York (HBO)

Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed (HBO)

The Stroll (HBO)

BEST CURRENT AFFAIRS SHOW

The Daily Show (Comedy Central)

Hot Ones (YouTube)

Late Night with Seth Meyers (NBC)

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (CBS)

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

BEST REALITY SHOW

Rupaul’s Drag Race (MTV)

Queer Eye (Netflix)

Top Chef (Bravo)

The Traitors (Peacock)

We’re Here (HBO)

BEST GENRE TV SHOW (new category)

Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (AMC)

The Fall of the House of Usher (Netflix)

Fallout (Amazon Prime)

What We Do in the Shadows (FX)

Chucky (SyFy/USA)

BEST ANIMATED SHOW

Blue Eye Samurai (Netflix)

Bobs Burgers (Fox)

Harley Quinn (Max) 

Scott Pilgrim Takes Off (Netflix)

X-Men 97 (Disney+)

MOST VISUALLY STRIKING TV SHOW

Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (AMC)

Fallout (Amazon Prime)

Palm Royale (Apple TV+)

Ripley (Netflix) 

Shōgun (FX/Hulu)

True Detective: Night Country (HBO)

CAMPIEST TV SHOW

Bridgerton (Netflix)

Chucky (SyFy / USA)

Feud: Capote Vs. The Swans (FX/Hulu)

Palm Royale (Apple TV+)

The Traitors (Peacock)

WILDE WIT AWARD

(To a performer, writer or commentator whose observations both challenge and amuse}

Joel Kim Booster

Quinta Brunson

Ayo Edebiri

Hannah Einbinder

Julio Torres

GALECA TV Icon Award

(To a uniquely talented star we adore)

Gillian Anderson

Angela Bassett

Carol Burnett

LeVar Burton

Julia Louis-Dreyfus

GALECA LGBTQIA+ TV Trailblazer Award

(For creating art that inspires empathy, truth and equity)

RuPaul Charles

Margaret Cho

Alan Cumming

Emma D’Arcy

Ncuti Gatwa

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‘Outstanding’ doc brings overdue spotlight to lesbian activist Robin Tyler

‘Whatever they do to us, they need to know that there will be consequences’

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Robin Tyler, on right, with Pat Harrison: an out lesbian comic team that was making waves as far back as 1970. (Photo courtesy of Robin Tyler)

In the new Netflix documentary “Outstanding: A Comedy Revolution” – now streaming on the Netflix platform – filmmaker Page Hurwitz takes viewers behind the scenes of a landmark 2022 performance featuring an all-star lineup of queer stand-up comedians. She also reveals the powerful queer activism that has been pushing mainstream boundaries over the past five decades and beyond through a collection of out-and-proud comics that reads like a “who’s who” of queer comedy icons.

In doing so, its spotlight inevitably lands on Robin Tyler, who – after becoming the first lesbian comic to come out on national television and co-starring in a network series with her partner, Pat Harrison – incurred the wrath of sponsors (after an on-air remark aimed at notorious anti-LGBTQ mouthpiece Anita Bryant) and wound up unceremoniously dropped by the network.

Tyler persisted, and her passion led her to activism, where her contributions are likely well known to many Blade readers. She organized and produced the first three national marches on Washington for LGBTQ rights, including 1987’s “mock wedding” of hundreds of queer couples; she and her future wife (the late Diane Olsen) were the first couple to sue the state of California for the right to be married — leading to the seven-year legal battle that culminated in marriage equality. If you are currently in a same-sex marriage in the United States, you have her to thank.

From left, Diane Olsen and Robin Tyler stand in front of the United States Supreme Court on March 25, 2013. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

We spoke to her about the film and her legacy, and, as always, she pulled no punches. Our conversation is below.

BLADE: ‘Outstanding’ highlights your removal from “prime time” as a setback for queer visibility, but do you still think of it as a setback for your career?

ROBIN TYLER: You know what? Everybody says, “Oh, she gave up this career, she could have been a star,” but what they mean is I could have gotten mainstream acceptance. It’s like saying to Richard Pryor: “If you didn’t tell the truth, maybe white people would have loved you.” The best thing that happened to us is that we didn’t get picked up, because then we could go and be free. It takes your life away, having to live a lie. We gained our freedom and lost nothing.

I don’t care about mainstream acceptance, if it means being in the closet. Don’t forget, 75 million Americans are MAGA supporters. To me, that’s the mainstream.

BLADE: As an organizer, you spearheaded the fight for marriage equality. How did that happen?

 TYLER: In 1987, two men from L.A. wanted me to do the “mock wedding” as part of the ‘87 march on Washington. I took it to the board – there’s always this board of 68 people, it’s different people, but the same attitude, with every march – and they voted it down. They said, ‘no one’s interested in marriage,” and I said “fine.” And I did it anyway, and 5,000 people came. Obviously it was an issue we were interested in.

It was also interesting that a march board would try to decide what people want or not. Well, we did want it, and we got it, now.

BLADE: And yet, it seems we’re still fighting for it.

TYLER: I agree, and I think with this Supreme Court we’re in trouble – but passion is much better than Prozac, so we need to keep aware and be ready to get into the streets again. We can’t just be “armchair activists” on the internet, you know? Because then we’re just reading to each other.”

BLADE: It does seem that the internet has made it easier for us to live in our comfortable bubbles.

TYLER: Yeah, but I’m an organizer, and it’s wonderful for that. I was the national protest coordinator when we stopped Dr. Laura [Schlesinger, the anti-LGBTQ talk radio “psychotherapist” whose transition to television was successfully blocked by community activism in the early 2000s], and we did all the demonstrations locally. We worked with a guy who knew the internet, and we were able to send out information all over the country for the first time. I remember when we just had to go to parades and bars and baseball fields and had to leaflet everyone. This is easier. Less walking.

BLADE: Still, social media has become a space where “cancel culture” seems just to divide us further.

TYLER: That term was created by the right. They can go ahead and say anything they want, but we get to not be called names anymore. At least we have a way to fight back. They call it “cancel culture” and we call it “defending our rights.”

And you know what? Even today, people like Dave Chappelle are doing homophobic jokes, and it’s not just that they’re doing it, it’s that these people sitting in the audience are still laughing at it. They still think they can get away with ridiculing us. You can always punch down and get a laugh. And why is it so bad, with people like Chappelle or Bill Maher? Because anytime you dehumanize anybody, when you snicker at them because you don’t understand, you’re giving other people permission to attack them. They’re attacking these people that are being brutally murdered, and they’re using humor as the weapon. 

We didn’t accept it in the ‘70s, so why are we accepting it now? And why aren’t we calling out Netflix for giving it a platform? It’s not enough to put out “Outstanding” and showcase pro-gay humor. If a comic says something racist, their career is over, yet it’s OK for Chappelle to do homophobic stuff? What if I stood up and changed what he’s saying to make it about race instead of transgender people?

And it’s not just about “right” vs. “left” anyway. Even with the Democrats in, they never deliver. Since 1970, they promised us a “gay civil rights bill,” and we still don’t have one. Why not? Democrats have held power in Congress, the Senate, the presidency, and they never pushed it through. We still can’t rent in 30 states, we can get fired; the United States is not a free country for queer people, and we must hold the government accountable. We have to fight for marriage separately, we have to fight for this and that, separately – and all it would take is one bill!

It’s been 54 years. Isn’t it time? We have to look at who our friends are – but don’t get me wrong, I’m still voting for Biden.

BLADE: So, how do we fix it?

TYLER: Here’s what I believe in: a woman walks into a dentist office, and he’s about to drill her teeth when she grabs him by the balls and says, ‘We’re not going to hurt each other, are we?’ I believe in that approach. Whatever they do to us, they need to know that there will be consequences.

And, also, at Cedars-Sinai they have just one channel in the hospital, and it’s comedy, because laughter is healing. Maybe we should we end on that?

Robin Tyler (Photo courtesy of Robin Tyler)
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