Pride is for everyone and yes, that includes Republicans

Pride. It’s a month out of the year where we reflect what being LGBTQ+ means and how we can not only uplift this community, but everyone else. The LGBTQ+ community has accomplished so much over the years, yes, but there’s still so much ground to cover. Very Good Light is celebrating Pride Month through our very own Pride Week where we delve into diverse voices that push the boundaries of what being LGBTQ+ in 2018 means.

It’s June, which means millions of people around the world in cities big and small are celebrating Pride.

The LGBTQ+ community is famously known for its inclusivity, but there is one sect that doesn’t always feel welcomed: Republicans.

SEE ALSO: I’m gay, Muslim, Persian and completely unstoppable

While at a Virginia Pride event, Anthony LeCounte along with his then boyfriend now fiancé, discovered resistance only when he told people they were both Republican. He’s come to expect that kind of prejudice but it still takes him aback.

It wasn’t the first time something like that has happened. He and his fiancé once met someone at a gay bar who proceeded to lambast them in a Facebook post when finding out they’re Republican. The worst part, it all went down while they were standing right next to each other.

Anthony, who goes by Rek to friends, lives in Arlington, Virginia, a city just outside of Washington D.C. He’s black, openly gay and proudly conservative, and if that sounds like a contradiction he wants to dispel those stereotypes. Gay people have diverse views like any other minority group he tells Very Good Light.

Coming from a military family he moved around a lot—Florida to Tennessee, Tennessee to Kentucky, Kentucky to Germany and then back to the States. He’s been out longer than he’s been republican. Anthony came out his senior year of high school but didn’t cement his political ideology until he began questioning and rethinking his assumptions. That was around the same time he graduated from Yale.

Anthony speaks slowly, with the drawl and the charm that comes with growing up in the South. I ask what misconceptions he faces and he returned with a long list. People tend to think gay Republicans are all “super white,” wealthy, privileged and they don’t care about other members of the LGBTQ+ community. The most repeated stereotype: that they are inherently self-hating.

The idea that being simultaneously gay and Republican somehow means you’re uncomfortable with your sexual identity is something that every one of the handful of gay men I talked to have dealt with. It’s flat-out untrue, they emphasized. They are just as proud of their gay identity as anyone else.

(Chicago Pride Parade 2011. Photo by Jamie Bernstein)

It’s that reason, Anthony is sometimes hesitant to tell gay people he’s Republican. In the same way, he’s sometimes resistant to telling Republicans he’s gay. But he says the reaction he gets from conservatives pales in comparison to the vitriol he’s received from gay liberals.

“It stems from this notion that we are traitors to the gay community,” he tells me. “But at the end of the day, that kind of thinking is reductive and kind of insensitive.”

“It stems from this notion that we are traitors to the gay community.”

Gay conservatives often get a bad wrap at least partially because one of the group’s most vocal members is Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right political commentator and provocateur who recently said, “I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.” Add that to his already long list of controversies including gamergate and comments that suggested he supports pedophilia. But Milo is nowhere near representative of the group as a whole.

Andrew Dresser, 28, confirms that other gay people aren’t always open to civil political discussions. He’s been called a toxic, self-hating person online and told that “Trump supporters shouldn’t reproduce.” Meaning his parents shouldn’t have had him.

We live in a hyper-partisan world and any community will have disagreements but Andrew says, “the [LGBTQ] community as a whole either outright disdains or at best mildly disrespects people who are republican.”

He’s often accused of voting against his own civil rights. He doesn’t pretend that the Republican party’s been supportive of LGBTQ+ rights throughout history but, believe it or not, he says it’s actively improving. According to the Pew Research Center, 61% of Republicans in the 18-29 age group support gay marriage compared to 69% support by all Americans in that group.

Part of that change, he says, comes from his own advocacy and the work of people like him.

Andrew also lives the D.C. metropolitan area and has been active in lobbying Congress on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community. As a board member of the D.C. chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a special interest group composed of gay conservatives that work within the Republican party, he says they’ve made a lot of headway on the local and federal level.

They’ve worked with Republican members of Congress to help repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, sponsor the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a legislative proposal that would ban discrimination in hiring and employment based on gender identity or sexual orientation, and lobby for other issues like marriage equality and gay adoption. Though, Andrew recognizes there’s still a lot they’re trying to do in terms of transgender rights.

“Amicable debates are hard to come by in today’s political climate but are more crucial than ever.”

This year was his fourth operating the Log Cabin booth at D.C. pride and it was his most positive one yet. Aside from a couple of people who were looking to cause strife, people engaged in meaningful, respectful conversations. Those kinds of amicable debates are hard to come by in today’s political climate but are more crucial than ever.

“I think that it’s important, as with any community, that you don’t put your eggs all in one basket,” he says. “In order to be successful on a national level, you have to engage with both parties.”

Dating presents other challenges. Before Anthony met his husband, he was careful about who he shared his political identification with. Andrew’s often wondered if the men who’ve ghosted him have done so because of his political party. Aside from the dual chambers on Capitol Hill, at the end of the day, D.C. is a city known for being able to put aside political disagreements. But politics is also a common conversation topic and it can lead to some awkward moments.

At the end of our conversation, I asked Anthony if there was something he wished people understood. Just like your gender identity or sexual orientation, he says, your political beliefs do not determine your worth as a human being. “Being gay only defines you in the way you let it define you.”

Political disagreements are natural and healthy and ultimately, inevitable, but excluding any LGBTQ+ person based on them is not within the spirit of the community. Debate but do so with respect for others as human beings. Demonizing and stereotyping the other side and creating an intolerant landscape to political disagreements serves no one’s interests.

Raymond Braun is the media personality changing the LGBTQ media landscape

Pride. It’s a month out of the year where we reflect what being LGBTQ+ means and how we can not only uplift this community, but everyone else. The LGBTQ+ community has accomplished so much over the years, yes, but there’s still so much ground to cover. Very Good Light is celebrating Pride Month through our very own Pride Week where we delve into diverse voices that push the boundaries of what being LGBTQ+ in 2018 means.  

Raymond Braun, the journalist, media personality and LGBTQ advocate, can vividly remember the first time he ever saw a queer person on TV.

He was sitting at the kitchen table, doing homework when a 20/20 special came on about Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming. On the night of October 6th, Shepard was robbed, beaten, tortured, tied to a fence and left to die. It was a brutal and harrowing hate crime.

That was 1998.

SEE ALSO:  MRSHLL is the Kpop star the world needs now

Raymond would go on to graduate high school, attend Stanford, start the #proudtolove campaign at YouTube, witness the reversal of DOMA in 2013, full marriage equality in 2015, achieve internet fame and star in an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race.

But all of that would come later.

In 1998, he was still a frightened 8-year-old kid, living in Toledo, Ohio, a city of approximately 250,000 at the western edge of Lake Erie. LGBT people were not visible and his own sexuality was a scary prospect. After being bullied in school, he thought he might live the rest of his life pretending to be straight.

“It was something that I thought I could change or something that I wanted to change,” he tells Very Good Light. He’s sitting on a couch across from me, dressed simply in a gray v-neck and black jeans. We’re in an elaborate coworking office on East 28th street, the bustling heart of Midtown Manhattan. It’s a long way both physically and culturally from Toledo, where Pride is a recent fixture and a contentious one.

“It was something that I thought I could change or something that I wanted to change.”

He can also remember when he first saw a positive representation of queer people in media. It’s summer, he’s high school, he gets dropped off at a Barnes and Noble and secretly buys the Queer as Folk DVD box set. This was the AOL dial-up era when box sets were still a thing he reminds me. He even asked for an extra bag to hide it from his parents.

“I remember I used to watch that at night and I would just pour over it,” he says. “It was so exciting for me to see different gay characters and their lives and the things they were going through and it looked fun and it looked exciting and it looked scary.”

(Photo by Dillon Matthew)

That tangible power of LGBTQ representation became a throughline for all of his work. He recognized early on that social media could become an unprecedented and powerful outlet for people like him, a way to amplify voices and connect disparate individuals.

“I think it is really powerful that if you’re a black trans woman in the deep south, you can find a black trans woman on YouTube talking about her experiences and that might be the first time you see someone through media that you can really identify with,” he says. In addition to his onscreen work, including a political show for Logo and a series for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, he founded RWB Media, a consulting company that works primarily with nonprofits to help them reach their audience.

He maintains steady eye contact and speaks with the polish of a TV presenter, which he has been on multiple occasions.

Representation is everything when it comes to changing hearts and minds. “It’s hard to hate up close,” he says. “It’s hard to hate someone who you’re sitting across the table from.”

He’s the type of activist for whom “hearts and minds” is a common phrase. Laws are important but they don’t necessarily change people’s views, he emphasizes. That’s why his advocacy is rooted in media and storytelling. “The more stories that we’re telling and the more diverse range of stories that we’re telling, the more opportunities for us to open people’s hearts and minds.”

It’s also why his approach always comes from a place of empathy and compassion. While Toledo sits in one of the only counties in Ohio that Trump didn’t carry in the 2016 election it’s far from being a liberal bastion. Coming from a small conservative town, he’s able to speak to people with entirely opposing worldviews. “My one working theory is that ignoring, demeaning, vilifying or insulting people who don’t currently agree with us, does not incentivize them to change,” he says.

Raymond is so naturally prone to positivity it radiates through the room. It’s an infectiously hopeful energy.

He’s able to find the good in most situations. When I ask him if he ever gets discouraged by the state of current affairs after the 2016 election, he immediately flips the question on its head. “One good thing that has come of it is that a lot of people have become more educated and aware and switched on about how politics works,” he says.

His appearance on RuPaul’s Drag Race was a natural extension of his own work. When I mention it, his face immediately lights up and when he smiles, his teeth shine a pearlescent white. “Maybe the two best days of my life,” he says. “I was literally speechless.” Raymond and other social media influencers were invited on the show to be made over into drag queens. He was so excited to enter the workroom, the cameraman couldn’t keep up, he laughs. And it’s true, he’s walking so fast, he steps out of frame.

He was adopted as the drag daughter of Asia O’Hara, one of this season’s top four, and says he discovered a different side of himself in his drag alter-ego, America O’Hara. He remembers staying up practicing walking in heels and barely sleeping. Despite the blisters and the boots being too big, he sashayed down the runway in front of his idols, in stride, wearing a sparkling O’Hara original coat that was both very 80s glam rock and very gay.

(Photo by Jeff Vespa)

The show carries special significance for Raymond. It came out around the same time he did. “It was this beautiful window into queer culture and it helped me work through a lot of my internalized homophobia and my internalized femme shaming,” he says. “It made me feel excited of all the different ways that I could express myself.”

“I really like to talk about messages of empowerment on social media, I really like to encourage people to get involved politically, to speak out about issues that they care about, to really try to foster community among LGBTQ people.”

During the workroom walkthrough, Raymond tells RuPaul something that perfectly encapsulates his work and his perspective: “When people think of social media they often think me, me, me… I really like to talk about messages of empowerment on social media, I really like to encourage people to get involved politically, to speak out about issues that they care about, to really try to foster community among LGBTQ people.”

What’s next for him? For someone who has done so much already, it’s hard to say. More media, more activism, an upcoming show on MTV in which he takes on internet trolls and more smiles, I’m sure.

MRSHLL is the Kpop star the world needs now

(Photo by Hanna Gweun/Very Good Light)

Pride. It’s a month out of the year where we reflect what being LGBTQ+ means and how we can not only uplift this community, but everyone else. The LGBTQ+ community has accomplished so much over the years, but there’s still so much ground to cover. Very Good Light is celebrating Pride Month through our very own Pride Week where we delve into diverse voices that push the boundaries of what being LGBTQ+ means in 2018.  

When MRSHLL (nee Marshall Bang), South Korea’s first openly gay Kpop star first moved to Seoul, he started speaking in a lower register. His mannerisms were more subdued, his body language more rigid, his presence a little more, well, macho. “I’d always try to be more masculine,” he says over the phone from Seoul. “It was a sheer act of survival.”

We’re celebrating his debut album, Breathe, under FeelGhoodMusic, owned by South Korea’s legendary hip hop artists Yoon Mirae (Tasha) and Tiger JK. The EP, Breathe, which debuted earlier this month, includes six original tracks. These include “Nahonza,” a track written with Megan Lee and Zayson, with lyrics by Lee Hi. Another, “OK,” has a special feature with YG Ent songwriter, Lydia Paek. “Every track deals with love in some aspect, whether it’s love through helping others, love as therapy, love as flirting and romance,” he tells me. “But more so, the entire EP is about acceptance.”

SEE ALSO: Meet the first openly gay Kpop star

Acceptance is not always a choice in many parts of the world and being LGBTQ+ in some parts of the world means being persecuted. In South Korea, a country where a majority of its citizens are anti-gay, coming out means is an act of defiance. A 2017 poll showed that only 41% of its citizens approved of same-sex marriage as opposed to 61% in the U.S. Reports from South Korea say that the quality of life for someone who decides to come out is lower than someone who remains closeted. For MRSHLL, deciding to come out was nerve-wracking.

There were plenty of those inside MRSHLL’s inner circle who advised him to come out later, or not at all. “That advice was valid,” he tells Very Good Light, in retrospect. “But I didn’t want it to be scandalous later on. I wanted to be transparent. I’m gay and it doesn’t matter. It’s not that big of a deal. That is a non-issue.” 

But getting to that point took years of self-acceptance and love. For MRSHLL, it took over two decades. To be fully transparent, I knew MRSHLL when he still went by Marshall Bang, a friend who was just a year older than me. I met him my freshman year at USC when we were both bleary-eyed boys who shared a passion for music, God and singing. Back then, Marshall wasn’t out but was ever a free spirit, always unabashedly himself.

In a first-person essay for Very Good Light in 2017, he recounts the many obstacles he faced before coming to terms with his truth. To being called a “f*g,” to “gay” and bullied as a child, to coming to terms with his own femininity and masculinity, he’s been through an entire journey to get to where he is.

And like many Korean Americans, he had deep guilt and it didn’t help that his parents were uber Christian. “Coming from Korean culture of a community based versus individual based culture, I had to somehow reconcile those two halves of me to where I wanted to preserve my parents’ longstanding reputation in the Korean church community,” he wrote for Very Good Light last year. “Yet, I had to move forward with my own life.”

Marshall Bang

(Photo by Hannah Gweun/Very Good Light)

Fast-forward a few years later, he decided to move to Seoul after a producer from a Korean reality show got in touch with him. The producer had discovered one of his videos on YouTuber where he was singing a Boyz II Men song and asked if he’d want to come compete in a singing reality show. He’d all but forgotten singing, as he’d been diagnosed with acid reflux, one that impacted his vocal cords. Instead of performing, he decided to get into the hair industry, assisting here and there in New York City while also working at a salon in Los Angeles.

“I stopped singing and was loving life, living through it,” he tells me.

But that chance at singing in his parent’s homeland was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. So the next day, he flew out and packed enough clothes just for a week. “I didn’t think I was going to be there for a long time,” he says. As the show progressed, so did his vocal cords.

“It got better and better, I thought it was a miracle,” he quips. “I thought it was the universe giving back to me. I’m here for a reason, why don’t I go as for and see what happens?” Long story short, he didn’t win the reality show but instead, decided to remain in Seoul to see how his luck could play out.

“The next five years was an intense journey of self-realization,” he says. “I was a baby gay and I was figuring out what that meant in a foreign country. I was thrown into Korea and unfamiliar with the customs, still a virgin and figuring shit out.”

“Why can’t men wear lipstick? Wear heels?”

He’d taken odd jobs here and there to survive. First, was at a radio station as a Kpop correspondent for As One, the female Korean American duo who made it big in the early aughts. Then, it was teaching dance at a children’s academy, doing SAT prep, working for a style app, also as a music video producer. “That was really fun,” he says. “We produced music videos for Lee Hi, BTS, among other artists. I learned so much about the industry.”

But it was a chance encounter with Tiger JK and Yoon Mirae at a party that would seal his fate. Back in 2009 and 2010, he’d volunteered with Invisible Children, a non-profit that had him traveling throughout the U.S. to bring visibility to the issues in Africa. There, he worked closely with Jason Russell, the organization’s founder. Through him, he met Jason’s friend, director Jon Chu, who would later direct G.I. Joe 2 and the upcoming film, Crazy Rich Asians.

While Jon was in Seoul, he invited MRSHLL out to the premiere. At the after party, Jon brought out a karaoke machine and asked everyone to come up and sing. MRSHLL ended up performing a song. Tiger JK and Yoon Mirae happened to be in the audience. After his impromptu karaoke performance, the two approached him.

“OMG who are you?” Yoon Mirae asked him. He recalls not immediately recognizing the two. After that, the two hit it off and began a friendship. He and Yoon Mirae would text each other ever so often and organically fostered a relationship.

One day while recording on his own, MRSHLL texted Yoon Mirae asking if she’d want to be featured on his track. The two were now friends for years at this point. A text turned into a working relationship. A working relationship then turned into something more than a collaboration. With Yoon Mirae now heading up her own record label, she asked MRSHLL to sign as an artist. Feeling as if it came full circle, he signed onto FeelGhoodMusic without hesitation.

“I want people to know they’re not alone and we’re in this together.”

From the beginning, Yoon Mirae and Tiger JK were supportive of every aspect of MRSHLL – to his sound, his style to his sexuality. “They were like you don’t have to change we love you as you are,” he says. He later came out to his friends one by one, fearing retribution. But to his surprise, every single person was supportive.

He recalls sitting with one of his best friends, Lee Hi, the solo songstress under YG Entertainment. Nervously, he started to open up to her about his sexuality. Fearing rejection, his nerves got the best of him. “I’m gay…” he muttered. As he looked up, he saw that his friend wasn’t shaken.

“Oppa, you’re incredible just the way you are,” she told him. “I 100% support you.” With that came other singers in the industry, like Miss A’s Min, other rappers and R&B stars. Today, it’s almost as if the entire Korean music industry has come out to support him. But with support also came learning moments for those who have not met an out LGBTQ+ person in their lives.

“It’s been a learning moment for a lot of people and teaching from my part,” he says. “People don’t necessarily know certain aspects of the community. There were certain people within our company who didn’t know the difference between trans and gay and different letters of the acronym. In a way, I feel it’s been a journey for all of us. And learning about the community allows them to then tell others as well. I hope I’m making changes on that micro level.”

Marshall Bang

(Photo by Hannah Gweun/Very Good Light)

But being gay isn’t the only part of him that he wants to be known for. He’s an artist first and foremost, and wants to be respected for his music.

“I haven’t talked about me being gay just yet in Korea,” he says. “If reporters type in my name they’ll see who I am. I don’t want to just talk about my sexuality.” And so, he’s being a lot more selective in who he talks to and what he speaks about. “Let’s go deeper and let’s talk about why you’re asking these questions in the first place and what your motives of knowing about my identity are,” he says. “Let’s talk about gender, femininity and masculinity and social structures ruining men from being who they truly are. I feel like if people let people let people be we’d be so much happier. Like, why can’t men wear lipstick? Wear heels?”

These are questions he wants to ask South Koreans and challenge their patriarchy. He wants to continue pushing them while being that one out R&B star that can inspire others.

“I think it’s empowering that I’m the only musician who’s out [other than Holland],” he says. “While I’m only one person and I’m not the end all be all gay representative, it’s a start. Once I make a splash then others will empower others to make a splash themselves.”

Still, being one of the only ones gets lonely. MRSHLL wishes he had more LGBTQ+ friends in Korea, especially when the bullying comments on his Instagram come in. But he keeps moving forward, because that’s all he can do.

“I want people to know they’re not alone and we’re in this together,” he says. “It’s a journey. It’s going to be a long arduous journey with moments of positivity and victories. Let’s keep posing and being loud and proud of who we are. Pride is this month and for everyone and it reminds everyone we’re not going anywhere. We’ve existed for thousands of years and we’re thriving.”