Arts & Culture » Television

The Lavender Tube in the End Times

by Victoria A. Brownworth

Jon Stewart took over "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," when he arrived to give a well-placed rant against Trump. Photo: CBS-TV
Jon Stewart took over "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," when he arrived to give a well-placed rant against Trump. Photo: CBS-TV  

We thought we would be writing about new, neo-noir summer series, like HBO's "Sharp Objects" or FX's "The Sinner," debuting in July. We thought we'd be writing about breezy summer fare like the incalculably gay "Wedding Cake Championship" (why do we even need straight people baking our cakes when we have so many great gay bakers?) and "America's Got Talent" and that in-your-face lesbian on "Master Chef."

We thought we'd be writing about how with each successive episode, we fall more deeply in love with the characters on "Pose," that this show has elevated our community to a new level with its depth and emotion, its historical perspective, its peeling back the layers of trans life and telling tales out of school, and its brutal honesty. If we had forgotten what it was like to watch our friends seroconvert, sicken and die with their dinner trays left out in the hall of the hospital, if we had forgotten those gauzy yellow gowns we were supposed to wear, if we had forgotten climbing into the hospital beds of our dying friends, holding them, singing softly and murmuring whatever they needed to hear, "Pose" is there to re-fire that pain, rage and loss.

If we had forgotten what it was like to get that first HIV test with our friends, waiting to get the results, "Pose" told that story with a gut-punch. If we had forgotten the risks our trans women friends had to take just to live as themselves in the world, "Pose" is telling that story, reminding us how hard it is to live in two worlds.

We thought we'd be writing about the surreal, bittersweet beauty in the final two episodes of Anthony Bourdain's "Parts Unknown," with the amazing commentary of his mask in the Acadian Louisiana Mardi Gras, or the chilling coda of him participating in a death ritual in Bhutan.

We thought we'd be writing about Jon Stewart's surprise visit on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," where he literally popped up out of the floor to give a well-placed rant against Trump on June 28 that we so needed to hear. To wild audience applause, Stewart spoke to Trump directly. "Hello, Donald. It's me, the guy you made sure everyone knew was Jewish on Twitter," Stewart said, referencing Trump's anti-Semitic comments about Stewart in the past. "I know you're upset about all the criticism you've been taking in the 'fake news' and the 'fake late-night shows.' It's just that we're all still having a little trouble adjusting to your presidency as it goes into its 500th year." The applause was fierce.

Stewart continued, "One hallmark to your presidency we're finding the most difficult is that no matter what you do it always comes with an extra layer of gleeful cruelty and dickishness. It's not just that you don't want people taking a knee, it's that they're sons of bitches if they do. It's not just denying women who accuse you of sexual assault, it's saying they were too ugly anyway. You can't just be against the media, they're 'enemies of the people.'"

About the immigration crisis Trump created, Stewart said, "You could have absolutely made a more stringent border policy that would have made your point about enforcement. But I guess it wouldn't have felt right without a Dickensian level of villainy. You casually separated people seeking asylum from their children, from babies."

Stewart ended with a call to the audience: "What Donald Trump wants is for us to stop calling his cruelty and fear and divisiveness wrong, but to join him in calling it right. And this we cannot do. And I say, by not yielding, we will prevail!" That was a moment. Watch the entire segment at CBS.com or on YouTube.

We thought that Pride would end gracefully, with the big parades on either coast and the beauty we never fail to appreciate of our community out there, in all its multi-cultural, multi-generational glory, showing America we are indeed here and queer and if you aren't used to it by now, well, sad for you.

We thought it would be TV as usual, TV with some gay highs, not TV for the end times. We were wrong. As we write this, we have been crying for close to 24 hours. Crying what Oprah rightly calls the "ugly cry." For at least 12 hours we had our TV on straight news (don't do this, it's too emotionally overwhelming) watching all there was to watch about the murders of five journalists in Maryland at the Capital Gazette, sister paper to The Baltimore Sun, for which we wrote for 17 years until 2008. All we could think about was every time Trump called the press the "enemy of the people," claimed we were "fake news," or put the press in cattle cages at his rallies.

All we could think about was Sarah Huckabee Sanders calling the press liars from her podium at press briefings. Just a day before, CNN's Jim Acosta, who has been a frequent target of both Trump and Sanders, and whose Latinx heritage has been raised at more than one press briefing, had been attacked while covering Trump's South Carolina rally on June 27. One woman even came up to him yelling in his face, "Get the fuck out of here. Out of here. Out. Out. Out. Out."
All we could think about was disgraced gay neo-Nazi Milo Yiannopoulos telling Observer reporters just two days earlier, "I can't wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight." After the murders at the Capital Gazette, Milo waved a hand and claimed of his incendiary threat, "It was just a troll."

Those of us who report news have been under threat since Trump took office. And for LGBT reporters like us, that threat has ratcheted up with violent comments online, via email, and even calls to our homes. It was hard to witness what happened at the Capital Gazette, a paper not unlike the B.A.R., and not think of how at risk we all are now.

Those of us who report stories that no one else will - like LGBT stories, stories of undocumented workers, of women in hiding from abuse, of queer homeless - are most under threat. Particularly without the backing of a big newspaper behind us as protection.

We didn't know the folks who were killed at Capital Gazette, but some of our former colleagues at The Sun did, and had nothing but praise for them. Their loss is a loss to our journalistic community. It is also a red flag, because the suspect in the killings was angry about a story the paper had written about him. All of us who write news have angered someone at some point who didn't like the way we wrote that story, or that we wrote that story. Watching TV news from the time the shots rang out through the wee hours of the morning, we saw how shaken reporters were by what had happened.

TV is always at its best in real time: taking us to the scenes we don't want to visit but must, be it the awfulness of the Pulse massacre in 2016, or the Las Vegas massacre on Oct. 1, 2017, or the Parkland shooting on Valentine's Day. This was different.

We have had some dicey experiences as a reporter. A gun held to our head in Newark. A shotgun pulled on us in the Central Valley. A car trying to run us down in North Philadelphia. Being punched in the face in Los Angeles. Death threats for different series exposing public officials. We survived. We wrote the stories anyway. But no journalist expects to be killed sitting at their desk on a Thursday afternoon in peaceful Anne Arundel County, Maryland on a hot, sunny June day.

The news cycle will shift soon, it always does. The story of five journalists killed at work will be revised to be about yet another white male malcontent lone shooter with a history of violence against women, and not about a president who attacks the press nearly every day, either on Twitter or at a rally televised to every single American household, with the full weight of its vitriolic message going out to similar malcontents with guns.

The Capital Gazette killings were a local story, not a terrorist or even political act. But that isn't the whole story. And we can't dare to let it be. Every night Trump is on our TV screens with some new authoritarian action. We don't need to be conspiracy theorists to see the road America is on because of 77 votes in the electoral college in 2016. We can watch Don Lemon instead of Rachel Maddow. We can listen to the earnest pleading of Chris Cuomo in prime time as he calls for civility from "both sides" - because sure, it's both sides refusing service to gays and lesbians, it's both sides instituting a ban against trans men and women in the military, it's both sides marching with Tiki torches yelling, "Jews will not replace us!," it's both sides trying to end repro rights and keep LGBT people from taking discrimination cases to the federal courts in America.

It is not both sides. Those of us living it know it is not both sides. Those of us watching TV news every night know it is not both sides. The Capital Gazette killings might be a local TV news story that made it onto our national newscasts because it was the 154th mass shooting in America since January 1, but it is also true that the president has created an atmosphere where violence against the press, our free press protected by the Constitution, is a goal.

Before the Capital Gazette murders, the news cycle was the end of the U.S. Supreme Court term, as the SCOTUS delivered its final rulings. The evening news was rife with stories about each decision. CNN and MSNBC went deep. These rulings were juxtaposed against the looming crisis at our Southern border: immigrants desperate to save their lives and the lives of their children being taken away in handcuffs, children as young as three months pulled from their breastfeeding mothers and taken to detention centers.

SCOTUS and Baby Jails. That's how we've ended the most bittersweet Pride month in years: with the high court saying we not only don't get cake, we don't get flowers, either. Oh, and btw, if you want to vote in states with repressive gerrymandering and redistricting? Rethink that, too. The pièce de résistance, though, was Justice Anthony Kennedy announcing on June 27 (our actual Pride day, the night the Stonewall riots began in 1969) that he was retiring.

Back in the mid-late 80s, the SCOTUS was our newspaper beat for three years. It's a daunting job, but amazing. Because cameras and TV are not allowed in the SCOTUS, the role of reporters is huge. There is no video. There is only us, sitting in a velvet-draped box to the left of the dais on which the justices sit. There are the icons of SCOTUS reporting, like NPR's Nina Totenberg and Slate's Dahlia Lithwick, then there is everyone else.

For three years, we were there. Our tenure at SCOTUS began the year of Bowers v. Hardwick. So we got to report on the court ruling against us. We got to speak with Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the incendiary dissent in that case and who stood in the blazing sun in front of the court yelling about how wrong the decision was, how it contravened the Constitution and created a second-class citizenship for lesbians and gay men. It was an unplanned moment, so the cameras weren't there. A handful of us reporters were lagging when he came out.

And then it was over for us until 2003 and Anthony Kennedy's opinion in Lawrence v. Texas in which he vitiated Bowers v. Hardwick, said the court had been wrong, and granted us the right to legally have consensual sex with each other. It was an extraordinary moment. The late Antonin Scalia was outraged, saying Kennedy's ruling paved the way for same-sex marriage. Scalia was right. In 2015 Kennedy again made history with his beautifully written opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges. It was now legal for us to marry.

So the news on June 27 was devastating on several fronts. Not only were LGBT people losing an ally on whom we had come to depend, despite his swing votes on other issues, but now Trump would get to appoint yet another justice, and create a Trump SCOTUS for at least another 25 years.

We listened to legal scholar after legal scholar on CNN, MSNBC, ABC and PBS explaining how the opinions that would be most under threat with a second Trump justice would be Roe v. Wade, which Blackmun had authored back in 1973, and the cases Kennedy had ruled on for us: Lawrence and Obergefell.

And now the news breaks that Kennedy's retirement may be part of yet another Trump corruption scam, and the man who gave us the two most important rulings in gay history may be responsible for them being taken away.

As you read this, Independence Day is over. The fireworks, the musical tributes, the celebration of the land of the free and home of the brave, it's over for this year, just like Pride. We don't know what to tell you to watch to soothe you: our stories writ lushly in "Pose," our frolicsome moments in "Wedding Cake Championship," or our DVD'd episodes of "Drag Race." If you want rage, "Dietland" works. If you want to be taken out of yourself, PBS' "Poldark" and "Endeavor" will do it. If you need fewer white people, "Queen Sugar," "Snowfall," "Queen of the South" and "Claws" all work. Just remember that in a democracy on the skids or an autocracy in the making, you really must stay tuned.

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