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Monkey See, Monkey Rape?

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Is it possible that pornography is actually contributing to sexual assault and rape?

(Houston) – One of the leading headlines currently in the news is the number of sexual assaults committed by men wielding power. Victims have come out in masses, detailing their personal stories. The forms of assault accounted for vary from inappropriate groping to blatant rape.

Though the majority of our society demonizes these violations, these acts are also common scenarios that play out in pornographic films. While it could be damaging to state that pornography is to blame for sexual assault – as the actors do consent to sexual activity – it doesn’t take away from the fact that some people who watch porn have begun to fetishize sexual assault. In fact when the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence wrote an article investigating the correlation between pornography and rape, the conclusion was that porn did not contribute to rape. The ways in which porn shapes the values of human sexuality is something important to note in how it incorporates into our lives. Pornography has the ability to give viewers sexual representation of the desires and fetishes they may not be able to obtain. Unfortunately, those fantasies can be inclusive of sexual assault.

During this recent revolution of bringing sex abuse in Hollywood to light, one of the first high-powered celebrity men to be held accountable by victims was Bill Cosby (though there were many before him). At that time, many were under the impression that sexual assault was a rare incident, and Bill Cosby left many of his fans shocked and in disbelief. Few people suspected this comedian and supposed-family man of such atrocities. Even when Donald Trump was recorded talking about sexual assault with Billy Bush, this subject matter was referred to as “locker room talk” by many. Though Trump attempted to brush off the scandal, many were then and remain outraged. In October of this year, the story broke that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein – who assaulted more than 50 women – opening the flood doors for victims of other assaults to come forward, many of which going back decades. There had been many speculations of Harvey Weinstein being a sexual assailant, with even Courtney Love and Rose McGowan speaking out against him in the past. However, most were afraid to speak out due to fear of losing out on career opportunities. Still, it took time for these accusations to be reported on by the media, which brought public intrigue into this aerated secret.

It appears the number of incidents being reported increases with each passing day with new perpetrators named almost as frequently. With the accusations, of course, come the PR statements. Kevin Spacey took his allegation as a time to reveal his sexual identity in the most inappropriate fashion. Louis CK, a once-beloved comedian by many, had been well known for his actions, but was only held accountable as of late. The list goes on from Roy Moore, to Al Franken, to Jeremy Piven, to Charlie Rose, and far beyond.

The sexual assault scandal has affected many outside the entertainment industry, with people on Facebook sparking the #MeToo movement. This movement, though new to many, was revived with the help of celebrities such as Alyssa Milano nearly a decade after being initiated by Tarana Burke to raise awareness of sexual abuse and to give victims from all walks of life a voice. Though some are facing this much worse than others – specifically women and people of color – no demographic has been spared this hardship, including the LGBTQIA community. 

While sexual assault has been vilified by most, it remains a sexual fantasy many have fetishized, including in gay porn. Sexual assault in gay pornography can include scenes simulating coercion of “twinks” and men who identify as straight, as well as college hazing rituals that often involved forced acts of oral and penetrative anal sex. It is a genre that is often viewed and enjoyed by people from all parts of the sexual orientation spectrum, not just gay men. Despite coming out as gay following allegations of sexual assault against Anthony Rapp,  Kevin Spacey’s true sexuality identity is up for question. Spacey’s coming out is viewed by many as an opportunistic approach to draw attention away from the fact that he not only sexually assaulted someone, but that the person in question was, at the time, a minor. Moreover, there should be made a distinction between being gay and having sexual desires towards men without emotional attachment. Men are open to being objectified just as women are, even if the frequency is less. An example of this being the aforementioned incident of Anthony Rapp being victimized. So, the question arises: how does gay porn that depicts forms of sexual assault differentiate from reality? Is this really an outlet for gay culture? Or could this form of fantasy be simulating existing thoughts of sexual abuse to potential assailants that may serve as a springboard for action?

Gay adult film star, Flip [surname eliminated for privacy], shed some light on this topic. When asked about sexual assault portrayed in gay porn, Flip said, “You have to realize everything that you’re seeing is not real. No matter how graphic or crazy these adult films get, it’s all consensual. You need to separate reality and fantasy.” With the argument that pornography does provide a safe outlet for living taboo fantasies, Flip added that the benefits of porn can have in society. “[Porn] is a good outlet to see the fantasies play out. Just like with movies, there are people who enjoy violent movies, but they are just everyday people. I think the same thing goes with porn. Some people enjoy violent, graphic porn, but [the actors] are very normal people.” Flip’s opinion has actually been backed by data that shows porn has decreased the statistics on sexual misconduct. Michael Castleman, a sexuality journalist had noted that the cases of sexual misbehaviors has dropped since the 1990s with the introduction of internet pornography. While both points are certainly valid, it does not eliminate the correlation of rape porn to real life sexual assault and rape. In fact, it seemed so evident that, following the case of Brock Turner (the Stanford University student who was convicted on two counts of sexual assault and one count of intent to rape), porn site xHamster established the Brock Turner Rule. Under this rule, xHamster began a ban on all porn videos depicting rape or sexual assault from their website. It certainly begs the real question: why are there people fantasizing about sexual assault? What about it is sexy?

The content of pornography has long been seen as sexually violent toward women, and has been proven to be so statistically. Interviews with sexual assault victims and survivors have reported that the simulation of most pornography (whether simulating rape or not) is congruent with real world sexual assault, including the language used in the pornography. Similar language associated with men against women (“slut,” “bitch,” “whore,” cunt”) in non-homosexual porn pervades gay porn, as well (“cum dumpster,” “cum slut,” “bitch,” “cocksucker”). Therefore, it perpetuates a similar belief about sexually submissive men or “bottoms.” Ana Bridges, an Arkansas psychologist, believes that men try to incorporate what they are observing in porn into their own sexual practices. A study she conducted with 487 college-age males (their sexual orientations were not disclosed) revealed that, “… the more men used pornography, the more likely they were to try to act out the same scenes and rely on pornography-inspired fantasies to engage in sex,” according to the Washington Times. Though merely conjecture at this point, it isn’t improbable to conclude that of those men who incorporate what they see in porn into their own sexual escapades, some of them have probably viewed porn depicting rape and sexual assault.

A common theme in sexual assaults, regardless of the industry it involves, is the advantage taken of an individual by someone who feels they are free to assault. In fact, in the study Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, fraternity college students were questioned about their sexual habits, as well as potential rape. The study found that 83% had viewed mainstream porn within the last 12 months. That same study found that 51% of those men would likely rape a person if they could be assured that they would neither be caught nor punished. Finally, the report showed that those who watched sadomasochist porn reported a higher score of committing sexual assault.

Even if gay porn were to stop producing scenes depicting sexual assault and rape, sexual assault and rape would still exist. It should be noted that pornography does not define human sexuality, but rather is a mirror of the desires and fantasies of the individual. Still, sexual assaults carried out by persons of power are a result of their own will, whether or not they have been influenced by pornographic material or a sexual addiction. The problem of sexual misconduct is an issue that rests solely on society, and porn can act as a red herring to the real issue of what constitutes proper sexual conduct and objectification of men and women. The fact that these issues are hitting the national spotlight is an indicator that society no longer brushes off these violations as “boys being boys.” The evolution of how we perceive human sexuality, and what is appropriate conduct continue to change as society evolves its moral compass. What were once expected norms in the Hollywood industry have now impacted society as a giant problem, as well as bringing to light sexual assault that happens in every facet of society. Perhaps the fetishization of sexual assault in pornography will change as the tastes and morals of viewers change with the times. That in mind, if society wishes to put an end to sexual assault in the real world, it may be time to begin regulating the content of pornography to eliminate the predilection of porn depicting rape and sexual assault. After all, isn’t the old saying, “monkey see, monkey do”? It is possible that this could be applied to the idea of pornography and rape culture.


Anthony Ramirez contributed to this article. 

Charmed Again, Again: The POC & LGBTQ Dichotomy

The internal conflict of an LGBTQ Latino stemming from the original Charmed‘s importance to queer people and representation of POC in the new.

On 7 October 1998, the world was introduced to a trio of sisters. Prudence, Piper, and Phoebe Halliwell graced the screen (respectively portrayed by Shannen Doherty, Holly Marie Combs, and Alyssa Milano) on the then-WB Network’s Wednesday night line-up. For the twenty-something years that the Halliwell sisters had existed prior to our introduction to them, they were just like any other adult siblings. Prue, the eldest, was a hard-working museum auction expert with unwavering focus, set and achieved goals, sharp leadership skills, and a belief in only what could be seen and held. Piper, the middle child, played the mediator between her other two sisters, a chef-turned-club owner longing to succeed and show her skills (and later the fierce, sharp-tongued eldest sister after Prue’s death in 2001). Phoebe, the youngest Halliwell (or so we thought for three years), was the directionless little sister whose spats with Prue often put Piper in awkward situations. Her curiosity and imagination led her not only to be a renowned magazine columnist, but also led to the discovery of the sisters’ centuries-old heritage as witches, descended from their great-great-great-great-great-great-something grandmother straight out of Salem, Melinda Warren. Of course, then there was Paige Matthews, the true youngest Halliwell sister given up at birth for fear the girls may not inherit their Charmed powers (more on this below), and reunited with Phoebe and Piper after Prue’s death.

Charmed was a modern take on the novel idea of witchcraft, but was truly the first of its class to incorporate not only mythological magic and creatures from all spectrums of folklore — from Romanian gypsy magic to Greek gods and titans — but also modern day Wicca with an emphasized magical v. magickal twist. The story followed the three sisters (in both groupings) as they discovered their supernatural powers (Prue’s telekinesis and astral projection, Piper’s ability to freeze time and blow things up, Paige’s ability to teleport herself and objects, and Phoebe’s foresight and seven hundred other powers she gained and lost over the eight years Charmed ran). But they, of course, were not just any witches. No, no. The trio of sisters congregated to become the Charmed Ones — the most powerful witches to ever exist destined to rid the world of evil.

charmedspell Charmed Again, Again: The POC & LGBTQ Dichotomy
Doherty, Combs, and Milano in the original Charmed.

That’s right. This feminist powerhouse of a show led by three women at a time portrayed a world in which demons from literally Hell (or, the Underworld) got their asses kicked every week for roughly twenty weeks out of the year and banished to oblivion. But that was one part of the beauty of Charmed, it’s feminism. The other part that seemed so genuine was just how involved their magic was in their real lives. Because, as show producer E. Duke Vincent once put it, this was not a show that was about three witches who happened to be sisters. This was a show about three sisters who just so happened to be witches. Charmed succeeded because — while fantastical, and in later seasons even a little cartoonish with the monsters — the loglines of each episode were rooted in the lives of the sisters, not in the battles of the witches. For eight years, four leading ladies and countless writers, producers, directors, and crew members challenged the status quo of super-heroism all the while making sure not to lose sight of the core value: a group of sisters who meant more to one another than anything. Women who fight for women. Bad ass women, to boot.

The show, which ran from 1998 until 2006, went on to become one of the most successful female-led series in television history, at one time even earning the trophy for longest-running hour-long TV series led by a female ensemble cast over its 178 episode run, not beat out until six years later in 2012 when Marc Cherry’s Desperate Housewives ended with 180 episodes over its own eight seasons. Although, over the course of its history, Charmed, its cast, and its crew were nominated for Saturn Awards, TV Guide Awards, and more — albeit never an Emmy, which many believe was due in part to the networks (first the WB before it became the CW) lack of promotional advertising. But Charmed did so much more than just break the glass ceiling — which there is no doubt that it did. It also inspired a sort of renaissance of witch-centric shows that came for years after, each following Charmed‘s structure that sort of became the formula for many witch shows, novels, and movies to follow. While Charmed, Practical Magic, and The Craft of the 90s were all very different in formula — their ideas and runs were novel even for the time — witch media that followed were not quite as original. The Secret Circle (although written originally as a series of novels by Vampire Diaries author L. J. Smith in 1992) followed the same formula, straying from its basis book of the same name; Witches of East End (also first a book before a Lifetime television series) bore striking similarities is the sister-witch formula and also strayed from its source material greatly; and even American Horror Story: Coven (though a fan favorite) struggled to present anything that hadn’t already been done by boy wizard Harry Potter or the Charmed Ones first. All these shows began to incorporate mythology, or books of shadows and other Wiccan traditions, and the storylines soon followed suit. But that’s what has kept Charmed so popular, even as newer generations who did not grow up with it the way that many of us in our 20s and 30s did: it as the OG. (OW?)

charmed-reboot-e1533583719173 Charmed Again, Again: The POC & LGBTQ Dichotomy
Diaz, Jeffrey, and Mantock in the Charmed reboot.

Fast-forward to the present day when Hollywood is constantly running out ideas for television series that are original (witch-related or not) and is rebooting literally everything. From the still-hilarious and successful Will & Grace to the less successful and canceled X-Files reboot, no old favorites are sacred any longer. And in this age of reboots, Charmed was not going to get away without at least a try. Sure enough in 2013, CBS Television Studios (the company which owns the Charmed franchise) tried to reboot the show as a retelling of the original featuring four sisters (sound familiar?) who discover their witchcraft and have to kick demon ass and … well … you know the rest. But that version never came to fruition on film; and in 2017, it was announced that Jane the Virgin creator Jennie Snyder Urman had been tapped to pen yet another reboot script — this version following a trio of sister witches in 1970s New England for the CW. The network passed on this version of the script, as well, but kept Snyder Urman on board to executive produce and retool the show in the present day.

And in January of 2018, that version got the greenlight for a pilot — eventually becoming a story about three sister witches of color (two having grown up together and one long-lost) who discover their magic after their mother dies and use it to fight not only demons, but the injustices and evils of the #MeToo era (which stars newcomers Madeleine Mantock, Melonie Diaz, and Sarah Jeffrey as sisters Macy, Mel, and Maggie). And at just that, it sounds like a truly amazing show. What more could we ask for in 2018 when the President of the United States is still holding office after admitting on tape to grabbing women “by the pussy” and when men in all fields of work are slowly but surely being brought to justice for rape and other sexual misconduct in the workplace?

The answer? The only thing more that Charmed fans new and old could ask for is the one thing the show will not feature: its original cast.

Here lies the dichotomy of the situation, at least as it pertains to me and some friends I’ve discussed this with more in-depth. On the one hand, Charmed was and remains to be the success that it is today because it has always had such a loyal fan base. To this day, stars Holly Marie Combs, Shannen Doherty, and Brian Krause make rounds at Comic-Con conventions around the world talking about the show they created and starred in for nearly a decade. And Charmed fans are nothing if not loyal. They came to the aid of Doherty when the media smeared her as “hard to work with” and a drug addict after her departure from the show in 2001, but still stuck around to watch Rose McGowan step into to fill her shoes. They have kept up-to-date with the ventures of Alyssa Milano (from the sometimes unpleasant ABC drama Mistresses to her newest work Insatiable), not to mention even tuning into the then-ABC Family drama Pretty Little Liars just to catch glimpses of the never-aging Combs throughout the series’ run. And let’s not forget standing up beside both Milano and McGowan as they’ve fought tirelessly in the #MeToo movement to free women everywhere from the shackles of sexual assault and rape.

But on the opposite side of that token, and in a time where the rights of women, the LGBTQ community, and POC have never been more important or closer to the precipice of being lost, isn’t it time that we see a show about ass-kicking women of color? One of them even a lesbian! I don’t think any of the original fans would disagree. But still, therein lies a hesitancy. And there certainly has been a similar reaction from the cast of the original series, as well. While Shannen Doherty has done her best to be supportive, she couldn’t help but point out that part of what makes the reboot so problematic lay within its marketing. The original show, which was nothing if not a feminist manifesto and call-to-action, has been unintentionally smeared by the new version in its PR moves, as the new production earlier touted itself as a “feminist reboot” of the original.

Ouch. 

Doherty, however, did carry out a constructive conversation with followers of herself. She pointed out how important it was to create more jobs for women, asked fans their thoughts about the reboot, and postulated how everyone would feel if the show had similar elements under a different name. She even said:

Screen-Shot-2018-08-08-at-8.35.00-PM Charmed Again, Again: The POC & LGBTQ DichotomyBut Combs was not so taken with this description, at first. Upon reading a headline on Twitter about the not-so-newfound feminism of the production, Combs took to Twitter to say:

Screen-Shot-2018-08-08-at-8.36.31-PM Charmed Again, Again: The POC & LGBTQ DichotomyScreen-Shot-2018-08-08-at-8.38.27-PM Charmed Again, Again: The POC & LGBTQ Dichotomy

And finally offered this nugget of information regarding her opinions of the reboot:

“Let me say first that I appreciate the jobs and opportunities the Charmed reboot has created. But I will never understand what is fierce, funny, or feminist in creating a show that basically says the original actresses are too old to do a job they did 12 years ago. I hope the new show is far better than the marketing so the true legacy does remain.”

So, the question remains: are Combs’ frustrations founded?

… Yeah. I think so.

For me, as a Latino, gay man, I began watching Charmed when I was four-years-old in 1998. I’d always been fascinated with the idea of magic, specifically that of witches, and Charmed was one of the few shows that presented it in a brand new, modern, real life sort of way. And for a very long time, it was unclear to even me why I’d been so obsessed with the show — even hoping I’d inherit my own magical powers after my mother gave birth to her third child. Although, as I grew up, it began to make a helluva lot more sense to me.

I identified with the Halliwell sisters. Weird, right? A child, then teenager, than adult male understanding the Halliwells and relating my life to theirs? It sounds silly, but when you take into account that I grew up Latino and knew that I was gay from a very young age, it’s not that hard to wrap your head around. And, if I’m not being presumptuous, I think it may be similar to many queer people’s connection to the show, even those who don’t realize it. You see, one of the center struggles of the Charmed Ones was that which pertained to their sense of identity. It started out the way it does for a lot of LGBTQIA people when they’re young (and if you think about it, the Charmed girls had to start their lives over when they realized they were witches, like children who have to learn everything for the first time). It was the question of: why am I this way? Why am the one who has to be different? And in the throes of trying to understand all of that came the fact that the sisters were made to feel by society that they had to hide their witchiness from the world — a stark parallel to the expectations set up in the real lives of queer people, both those raised liberally and conservatively. And as the years progressed, and the witches were able to reconcile this within themselves and accept who they were (another queer parallel), they finally became capable of sharing their secret with the people they loved. But even still, there was a hesitancy for them to be completely … well … out. 

The Halliwells, though accepting of themselves, still struggled to exist in a world that wasn’t entirely accepting of them. And look at where queer people are today. Pride parades across the country are plagued with protestors, trans murder rates are at an all-time high, and the sitting Vice President and many Washington big-wigs are staunchly against queerness and the rights of LGBTQ people. Is that not a clear parallel? Then let’s discuss how the sisters had to struggle with their identity even further — trying not to be defined by the fact that they were witches. Yes, they knew it was a part of them and that it always would be, but Piper was not just a witch, but a chef and business owner! Phoebe became a famous magazine columnist; Paige juggled being a healer and a teacher. These weren’t just witches — they were women and sisters, at that. They had lives, children, spouses, families, jobs, and purposes outside of saving the world. And haven’t we all felt that way to some extent as queer people? Yeah, we might be gay or trans or nonbinary or asexual … but haven’t we always wanted to escape the label? To be known as writers and soldiers and activists and doctors and chefs as an aside of the labels of our sexual orientations or gender identities? That’s how these characters felt. Even after trying — and failing — to give up their witchhood (as I’m sure many LGBTQ people have tried to do with their identities) and then finally accepting it, they still wanted to be remembered not as Witches #1, 2, 3, and 4, but as just Piper, Prue, Phoebe, and Paige. And isn’t that something we’ve all struggled with at Thanksgiving dinner when our obnoxious aunt has made some gay joke in poor taste, even if just trying to relate to you? Or what children thrown from their homes have been through because their parents could no longer believe that they were still their children, simply because of who they fell in love with or which gender they identified with?

And sure, for a lot of us (as well as for the Halliwells) we get to a place of acceptance. Certainly not all of us, mind you, but a some of us. Still, there’s an outrageous number of queer people who take their own lives, who are murdered by bigots, and who hide in closets their entire lives because acceptances in this world are few and far between. Queer people have historically been (and continue to be all around the world) the subject of witch hunts. And that was the struggle of the Halliwells, too, albeit a bit more literally. But the Halliwells were a beacon of hope for us over those eight years. Because, by the end of it all, the sisters hadn’t just accepted being witches and fought against being witches and struggled through being witches, they’d learned to have pride in being witches. Certainly it was not their only identifier. But at least at the end of it all, as they learned and as they taught their children to do after them, the witches of the Halliwell line reveled in who they were so as to be able to begin to normalize something the world didn’t understand.

That, my friends, was the true magic of Charmed.

And for those of us who are true and loyal fans of the original, seeing that legacy replicated without those women who felt like our very own sisters is difficult. Charmed — at least for me — got me through my coming out, through my identity crisis, and through a lot of nights of feeling like no one understood me, that no one accepted me, that no one would ever love me, and that no one cared. And we have Doherty, Combs, Milano, McGowan, and the entire talented team behind Charmed to thank for that. Sure, it was a sometimes silly show about witches and magic; but at its core it was a show about family — and family, especially chosen family, is what we queer folk call our fellow queer friends. Isn’t it?

But with all of that in mind, I do think that we have to extend that opportunity to the new batch of witches, as well. Do we have to watch it? No. Will we? Maybe yes, maybe no. But herein lies the opportunity for a new generation to get to tell that story all over again for people younger than many of us that need to hear it. And, sure, they could just as easily hear it by rewatching the show on Netflix. But if there’s a chance to extend that message to we people of color by representing us on screen, as well as we queer people by representing us on screen, I think it might just be worth the try. Do I wish they weren’t using the Charmed brand to do this? Yeah. I seriously do. And I seriously hurt for the show’s original stars and crew who put so much into a show and to not be given the option to return for a second go-round, especially when it seems like every other show in the world of its time is being resurrected with its original casts. But more so it hurts because I think that the original leading ladies could really tackle these issues of the #MeToo era in a really beautiful way — especially when two of the former stars commit so much time to fighting such injustices — while also incorporating into the program people of color and who identify as LGBTQ. But if nothing else, and I think that all the original Charmed Ones would agree, we should at least hope for the successes of the new, some queer and some POC Charmed Ones and hope that they spread the same kind of message to their incoming fans that Doherty, Combs, Milano, and McGowan spread to us from 1998 to 2006 and well beyond.

Nevertheless, I am grateful for the Charmed that was, as I’m sure many queer people are. And though I want to see both the new and old continue to succeed, this is my love letter to the original Charmed — specifically to Holly Marie Combs, whose Piper I identified and continue to identify with daily. I’ve watched the series a dozen times through, own all eight seasons on DVD, and have on my list on Netflix forever. The show even inspired my second novel, Witches of the Deep South (which you can preorder by following this link). It’s my love letter for all of those reasons and one more: because those sisters of the Halliwell coven made queer people feel not only less alone, but magical in our very own way.

Editor’s Note: Infighting, Woodlands Pride, + the Room Bar

Update: Both Ryan Elkins and The Woodlands Pride issued statements and apologies to the Room Bar & Lounge this afternoon following this piece. 

Screen-Shot-2018-08-24-at-8.51.17-PM Editor's Note: Infighting, Woodlands Pride, + the Room Bar

Let me start by saying that this is not going to be a gossipy piece about some silly Facebook argument. If that’s what you’re looking for, it’s best to go and trot back along to Facebook. What this is is an opinion piece about the behavior of an individual high in the rankings of Texas’s newest Pride celebration that made remarks about something I hold near and dear to my heart, how it has the potential to negatively affect the LGBTQIA community, and why that’s not okay.

This past weekend, the Woodlands hosted its inaugural Pride celebration to mixed emotions when the news initially came out (no pun intended) many months ago. Many were excited and proud, and many were also curious as to why the Woodlands (which is only an approximate 40 minutes outside of Downtown Houston) needed its own Pride. I, personally, thought that the idea was lovely and wanted to support the Woodlands Pride in whatever way we could. While the Woodlands is considered by most to be a part of the Greater Houston Area, the cultures of LGBTQ Houston and LGBTQ Woodlands are quite different in many ways, which is something important to remember. The bars in North Houston for LGBTQ people are limited and there is no “gayborhood” proper like Houston has in Montrose. To add to that, and in a more general sense, life outside the loop is far different than life inside it. But what I’d like to focus on the most is that second point I made about the bars.

In The Woodlands — which is an independent township in Montgomery County lying partly in Spring, TX and partly in Shenandoah, TX (basically South Conroe) — there is only one gay bar, Ranch Hill Saloon. Ranch Hill is owned by Debbie Steele, a prominent member of the North Houston LGBTQ community that dedicates her life and bar to serving its people. And in the rest of North Houston, there is only one other gay bar for people of our community to flock to, the Room Bar & Lounge. The Room is owned by another important person of notoriety, Lorraine Crowne, who opened one of Spring’s first gay bars in 1997, the Rainbow Room (a separate entity). Both Ranch Hill and the Room are excellent bars in separate ways, and also in those that intermingle. They both have excellent staffs, small and hometown feels, and serve a community of LGBTQ people that don’t have a lot of other places within their niche to relax and be themselves on their side of town. That being said, they’re also very different bars. Ranch Hill serves a more rural, country feel to it that one might expect at a place such as Neon Boots in Houston, while the Room has a more go-with-the-flow vibe and sort of acclimates to whatever audience walks through the door.

But their aesthetic differences and similarities aren’t really the point here. The point, if I may, is that both are bars that serve an underserved community of people in a predominantly conservative area of Houston.Both, however, prove to get very busy on the weekends; and since they are so small, they often see a variety of patrons that cross over from the other’s side of the tracks. They’re both hosts of several events that support the community with fundraisers, drag shows, karaoke nights, and more. Neither is perfect, but both are pretty fantastic. And that ain’t easy, folks; and it certainly does not come without hardship.

That’s why it struck me as odd when I was directed to the Room Bar’s Facebook page this weekend and saw a negative review (which has since been deleted) about the Room Bar from board director of the Woodlands Pride, Ryan Elkins. The review read as follows:

Screen-Shot-2018-09-10-at-1.34.44-AM Editor's Note: Infighting, Woodlands Pride, + the Room BarThis rubs me the wrong way for two reasons: one of which is a bit personal, and the other regards our social actions toward one another in the LGBTQIA community. I’ll start with the latter. I’ve also included some personal photos here to show just how much time I have spent at the Room Bar and why I love it (you’ll have to pardon some of them, as I’ve lost about 50lbs since they were taken).

Historically, gay bars were the only places in the world that LGBTQ people could go and be themselves. When Sodomy laws and the criminalization of homosexuality was prevalent, these bars were the only places to go and be around people like you. Moreover, they were some of the only places queer people could go to meet partners and friends that shared adversities, trials, tribulations, successes, and joys. In 2018, it may not seem as though queer bars hold quite as much significance, but the fact of the matter is that they still do. Being LGBTQIA is still illegal in many places around the world — some of which are even known for punishing these people by death. Gay bars are churches, homes, safe havens to people on the LGBTQIA spectrum. There are still many in the world who feel forced to remain in closets or fear coming out that seek out these places in order to let out a sigh of relief. It’s a bit like that cigarette you sneak at work when things get particularly overwhelming or that dance you do when you get out of the shower naked because no one can see you and you just need to feel a reprieve from real life. Granted, it is both of these things and much more on a greater scale. It is, however, a similar sensation.

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Friends and I at the Room Bar in 2017.

And that’s what makes this review not just useless to our community, but degrading and regressive. Surely the board of directors at the Woodlands Pride has a partial attitude toward Ranch Hill, as Ranch was the official after party sponsor for the Woodlands Pride and the Room was not. Making Ranch Hill the official after party venue was a smart decision. It’s not only a great venue, but it is conveniently located to the site of the Woodlands Pride, and the visitors of the event were likely familiar fans of the bar. But what does it say about the attitude of at least one member of the board of directors of the Woodlands Pride about the community when one of those directors is publicly smearing a safe haven for queer people on social media? How is it progressing us toward equality and normalization if we are tearing one another apart rather than lifting one another up?

With that said, I don’t know what Elkins’ experience at the Room in late August was like before he posted that status update. I have a few details from sources close to the situation that say Elkins allegedly was served by a bartender who didn’t seem all that interested in customer service. I also am not completely cognizant of what exactly went down at the Woodlands Pride between them and the Room Bar. In a comment left on the original review, Elkins stated that there were comments being made about the after party at Ranch Hill that were unkind to both Ranch and Woodlands Pride. From my understanding, these comments, however, did not come from the staff of the Room Bar, and were unbeknownst to the staff until after the review was posted online.

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Actor James Reed Lowrance and I rehearsing the live performance of About’s “The Anthony Project” in July 2017 at the Room Bar.

And I’d like it to be said that if that was the case, I am in no way making excuses for the Room Bar’s staff or patrons. The issue here isn’t one on the side of the bar exclusively. It’s an issue of why we, as LGBTQIA people, feel the need to perpetuate infighting within our community rather than rising above snide remarks, regardless of who they come from. It’s also one of why higher-ups in Pride Celebrations don’t recognize that they have a responsibility to set that example. I, for one, worked as the volunteer coordinator for Pride Houston for two years, and was an occasional volunteer in the years that passed before that. What I learned in that time — and not without a lot of working on myself to make changes to my behavior — is that everything that we do is a perpetuation of the organization we represent. I had my ass handed to me more times than a few from our board directors about how I behaved and spoke on social media. And while I’m a staunch believer that everyone has a right to say and behave how they feel so long as it isn’t hurting anyone, I also understand that when affiliated with something, your words and actions not only impact your reputation, but that of the others around you. More importantly, I had to learn for myself as the volunteer coordinator then and as the editor-in-chief of one of Houston’s largest queer publications that our job as pillars of the community is not to put down one another or to react to silly commentaries that ultimately are trivial in the long run.

But as I said before, I have a personal connection to the Room Bar. While I (again) don’t know the experience in great specificity that Ryan Elkins had at the bar, I’d like to share with everyone my experience with the bar, its staff, and the community I became a part of there in order to reiterate that one bad day does not undo the good that a person or establishment does over many years. That statement is two-fold. This one bad Facebook review does not undo all the good that I know Ryan Elkins to have done and continue to do in the community, nor does it undo the good of the Room Bar.

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Room Bar bartender Natalie Brackin and I at Bunnies on the Bayou 2018.

The Room Bar has been open at 4915 Fm 2920 Road #148 for eight years now, the better part of a decade. Its owner, Lorraine Crown, may not be LGBTQ herself; but she has been in this community advocating for our rights and providing a safe space for queer people for over twenty years. Back in 1997, she opened one of the first gay bars in the area, The Rainbow Room located off of Ella and I-45. When the Rainbow Room shut down several years ago, Crown opened the Room Bar and Lounge on 2920, transforming what was once a bar named Uncle Sam’s.

The Room Bar was my very first gay bar. I wasn’t even out to anyone yet except for a handful of close friends, and I would sneak over to the Room when I had nothing else going on — scared and hoping I’d not run into anyone that I knew for fear they’d tell my mother. What I was met with was not a tension of anxiety, however, but a sigh of relief. From the moment I walked in and saw the flame-haired bartender Natalie Brackin standing on the other side of the bar, I was made to feel like I was a part of a family. Brackin introduced me to new friends, took the time to get to know me, and remains to be one of my closest friends to this day, some three years or so later. That bar was my reprieve for the next couple of years. I’d spend my time there after work to take solace in being around people like me after being overwhelmed by homophobia at work, met my first boyfriend there, hosted our first fundraiser for my forthcoming TV show there, released my American Library Association Award-nominated book there, and made some of my favorite memories there.

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Table tents at the Room Bar for the release of my novel “Where He Lay Down” in April 2017.

While I neither live on that side of town any longer nor make it out to the Room Bar as often as I’d like, I still spend a great deal of time with Brackin, as well as my other friends that I made there. My close friend Nick and I still get together for drinks and good music, my friend Ryan (Fuller) is the karaoke DJ there who goes to great lengths and key transpositions to let me sing any song I want, and some of my best friends and drag queens perform there on a weekly basis. The Room was even kind enough to let us film an episode of Wineding Down with Anthony there just a few weeks back. Brackin, in particular, has a way of making people feel special, and not because she’s looking for a fat tip. It’s because Natalie Brackin is genuinely invested in the bar and wants it to succeed; but this is more so because she is genuinely interested in the people that pass through its doors and wants to see them happy and well. That’s a rare thing to find amongst bartenders, who truly have some of the most chaotic and stressful jobs in the world. They’re friends of patrons, therapists of patrons, and sometimes even the only family patrons have, especially so in this community. It speaks not only to the Brackin’s work ethic that she behaves this way, but also to her heart. In the years that I’ve been patronizing the Room, I’ve never once seen or heard Natalie treat any new customer differently than the next or those that she’s been friends with for years. The bar’s manager, Chris Vega, is equally kind, which is what has made them such an effective team since Vega made his way to the Room Bar after leaving Ranch Hill a little over a year ago. When Brackin recruited him, he brought a new kind of life into the bar — not to mention many of Ranch Hill’s customers — and took it upon himself to aid in reinventing the bar’s aesthetic. He too is a genuinely kind person who speaks in a soft voice that he almost never raises and smiles and laughs with all his friends and customers. You couldn’t find two better bartenders.

It’s also fair to mention that they make excellent drinks.

The Room Bar — just as I’m sure Ranch Hill is to many — is a special place to me even after being out and moving into Houston where I quickly ingratiated myself into the LGBTQ community deeper than I ever had been with my role at Pride Houston and here at About. But there was a moment when I realized how special the bar was to me that I’m certain to never forget for as long as I live.

It was in the wee hours of the morning of June 12th, 2016 when I was at the Room Bar while another gay bar in Orlando, FL was being gunned down by a domestic terrorist. I was at the Room to see the Tatiana Mala-Niña perform in her monthly drag performance at their “Roomers” show, which also featured Veronica Strutts and since-retired Akira Sky and Estella Blow. Many other people like me were at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando that night having the same sort of fun we were, until a man entered the club and opened fire, killing 49 queer people of color simply because they identified as LGBTQ and dared to go out and celebrate themselves.

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Rebekah Knight, Tatiana Mala-Niña, and myself at the Room the morning of the Pulse Nightclub shooting.

I remember waking up later that morning, seeing the news of the shooting, and crying like I’d never cried before. These people — while different from me, certainly — were like me in a lot of ways. Many of them were gay Latinx people like myself who had only gone out to have a good time with their friends. Some of them were out of the closet to their families and friends, but others — like me — were not. I couldn’t help but think about how real the violence against LGBTQIA people was and how that could have been any bar in the world, including that same night that I sat on a bar stool on the left side of the Room bar watching my soon-to-be friend Tatiana celebrate herself and her audience.

That evening, I made a trip to my mother’s house and deliberated all night long how to tell her that I was gay. We watched the coverage together as I working up the nerve to tell her during it, backing out, and trying again. I spent the night at her house because I couldn’t make myself do it then, and I went to bed sick at my stomach, never having felt before that I’d been lying so blatantly about something in life. But the next morning when I got up for work, I took a shower, caught my mother outside while she was smoking a cigarette, sat down with her and told her the truth about who I was and the life I’d begun to put my toes in the water of over the last year.

“I’m gay.”

Once I said it, before I even saw how she was going to react, my whole life changed. Weights I’d been carrying around for twenty-two years flew off of me and I could finally move my extremities again because the chains and shackles had come off. I felt liberated, and I owed it in immense amounts to those poor souls that had lost their lives at Pulse Nightclub the morning before in a way I knew they’d never get to know. They changed my life, which is the least respect I could pay to them after they’d met such a tragic end. I wished they’d been around for me to thank them. And my mother was supportive, and she was kind, and we moved on with life as per the usual. She was raised a conservative Christian, but as a nurse knew that there was science emerging daily to prove that people are not making a choice to be gay. How could they? Who makes a choice to live a life of ridicule and adversity, all-too-often one that ends the way it did for those 49 people in Orlando. But she asked me that very same question I’d been asking myself all along through the coverage of the Pulse Massacre: what if it had been you?

And, you know, what’s funny about coming out is that even moments after you do it, you have these tiny, pocket-sized moments of clarity that just seem to make you go, “Oh. I’m not sure why I didn’t see that before.” I had one of those right then, thinking about how much fun I’d had the night before with my friends — new and old, gay and straight — as I danced and drank and took for granted the fact that I had been safe in my own safe haven.

“You know, I would never want to die,” I told my mother, “but if I were to have died last night, I can’t think of anywhere else I would have wanted to be or where I would have been happier.”

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Bartender Natalie Brackin welcoming a regular’s new fur baby.

You don’t have to understand my story, Ryan Elkins; although I’m sure that if you look back in your own timeline as a gay man, you have a similar story relating to a similar establishment or person. Maybe for you that’s Ranch Hill. Maybe not. But if you don’t think that that’s something ‘unique’ or ‘special’ about the Room Bar, as stated in your review, I’m not quite sure what else is. Because, you see, LGBTQ bars are sometimes hit-or-miss. But the defining aspect of them is not one person’s snide opinion about the establishment; it’s the way they protect our people from the ugly, nasty world out there where we are not yet equal or normalized. And as leaders of our community, as you and I both are, it is our job to see to it that all LGBTQ businesses that are working toward goodwill, equality, intersectionality, and normalization are boasted rather than shot down.

This is not the part of this letter where I call for Ryan Elkins’ resignation or anything. Quite the contrary. I know Ryan through mutual friends, and I like him a great deal. Thanks to those mutual friends, we have had the opportunity to have spent time together. I have always and will always continue to support The Woodlands Pride, including in our forthcoming highlight of it on Wednesday that two reporters from About wrote up about the event. They were so impressed, and I was sad to have missed it due to having plans with a close friend of mine I’d had scheduled for several months. I think it is a lovely — and clearly successful — endeavor to have another Pride in our larger, spread out area of Texas. But I will say this to Ryan Elkins here publicly: Shame on you for posting a nasty review about a bar that paid to be an entry into your festival, that showed up and supported our community and your cause — as well as countless others throughout its near-10 year life, and that continues to do so inside its four walls in more ways than I think you realize. But more to the point: Shame on you for doing so while preaching about equality, diversity, intersectionality, and inclusion to the LGBTQIA community of North Houston. I know you enough to say that you are better than this.

And to the Room Bar, I say this: Get your people. If you hear something, saying something. I am not here to excuse any actions or words that may have been perpetuated, as they clearly upset Mr. Elkins and the staff of both the Woodlands Pride and Ranch Hill. We cannot, however and to both parties, continue infighting in the community if we want success and normalization of our people. We must set aside our differences and come together to continue to raise people up. The Room Bar has a responsibility to the community just as Mr. Elkins does. I do not, however, believe that anyone on its staff or any of its regulars were the speakers of the not-so-nice language, nor do I believe they have it in them to intentionally hurt anyone. They wanted to support the Woodlands Pride, and that’s what they were there — like so many others — to do.

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About Media writers and producers Lea Alonso, myself, and Allie Bakeman at the Room Bar following the first table read of “The Anthony Project.”

This is, however, the part of the letter, where I call on not only Ryan Elkins, but the Woodlands Pride as a whole, to issue an apology to the Room Bar for Elkins’ commentary. While he is entitled to his opinion, just as I am here in this letter, it is important for all of us to be more accountable of the things we say and do. I for one am not innocent of behaving the same way. I often make jokes like, “Screw OutSmart!” as there is a misguided belief that OutSmart and About have some sort of rivalry going on. But anyone who knows me or my publication knows that I genuinely support OutSmart and all our other publishing partners in the community. We’re all hear with a similar goal (to spotlight and raise up our community) and we all do so in different, yet equally effective ways. And I know for fact that Mr. Elkins wants the same for Woodlands Pride. Unfortunately, words of inclusion and diversity and support are not enough when you perpetuate actions that speak louder than hollow words.

The Room Bar is small, and quaint, and it is sometimes dead as hell. But whether there is 1 patron in the bar or 100, the staff always does its very best to give the community — myself included — a place to call home.

Do better. Be better. Love each other.

Love always,

Screen-Shot-2018-08-24-at-8.45.43-PM Editor's Note: Infighting, Woodlands Pride, + the Room Bar

Anthony Ramirez
Editor-in-Chief
About Magazine + About Media Group

Prostitution by Any Other Name

Photo by: Eric E Castro

Why is the world okay with sex, but not okay selling it?

pic2-300x160 Prostitution by Any Other NameHooker. Bawd. Concubine. Harlot. Streetwalker. Whore. Working girl. Gigolo. No matter what you call them, prostitutes have held a prominent place in society throughout the timeline of humanity. They also do so much more than provide sexual release. If you had ever engaged their services, you would know that prostitutes are also very capable councilors and massage therapists. Sex workers may provide a way for people to play out their fantasies without the risk of offending or harming someone. In some rare cases, sex workers even keep people from serious offenses by granting consent for the illusion of non-consent. 

Since the dawn of time, humans have spent a significant amount of time devoted to the pursuit of sexual contact. We join online dating apps, hang out in bars, and approach strangers with the intention of getting to know them better. In the Victorian Age, writers became famous based on their erotica. The ruins of Pompeii are a smorgasbord of nudesignpic-225x300 Prostitution by Any Other Name art, and sex was so plentiful that the women there brought a plant capable of preventing pregnancy to extinction.  In modern times, people are encouraged to live out their fantasies, as long as it only involves consenting adult partners. So, why is it that we still have an issue with prostitution?

Why are we so offended at the thought of people selling their truest possession? Is it religion? Society? Maybe the media is to blame. I think it’s a combination of many factors. Societies are often built around religion, and the media plays a strong role in what we believe. When we surround ourselves with a constant barrage of information from others, we tend to form our beliefs from that input. We mirror the thoughts of our friends and family. It’s very hard to change those ideals, even when presented with conflicting information. If we meet someone who is a sex worker, we may judge them based on nothing but that, because that’s what we have been told to think.

pic1-300x263 Prostitution by Any Other NameSo, here’s the challenge. Many of you reading this may know me personally. I’m sure you have opinions about who I am as an individual. I’ve worked hard to build a solidly positive reputation. To break this taboo, I’m going to share something personal:

I was once a prostitute. That’s right … me. I advertised my services through a website and would take clients after they had been vetted by the company I contracted with. I was very popular and received requests from all over the state. My work provided me with a comfortable living, but in the end, it just wasn’t for me. Living as a woman was hard enough; but as a transgender man, being treated like one during intimate scenarios just proved too much as my dysphoria worsened. I do not, however, regret a moment of my work, and in many ways found it rewarding. What’s better than giving someone happiness, or providing a release they may not find otherwise? The lack of sexual contact can result in depression and social anxiety. By giving someone an orgasm and allowing them to feel intimate contact, a person can provide them with a momentary distraction from their loneliness.

The next time someone you know brings up the topic of prostitution, challenge the taboo. Speak openly about the subject, without fear or shame. Do what you can to change an opinion respectfully. If you hear someone making fun of a sex worker, let them know that it’s not okay to shame anyone, regardless of their chosen profession–especially considering that many sex workers have fallen into this industry due to the fact that they’ve run out of options. In challenging others, you may find your own opinions evolving as well. Get to know someone for who they are, not what they do. Imagine scenarios where you could have had to do anything to survive, and know that not everyone who lives this way is desperate. In the end, you may find a respect for sex workers you never thought possible. It’s time to realize that the oldest profession humanity has ever established isn’t shameful, after all.