Queer Visibility and Solidarity
This week, we’re taking a closer look at what’s on the agenda – the Gay Agenda. Plus, it’s Pride Month, which means it’s the perfect time to give you a lesson on queer history. So take out a pen and paper, because you can’t find this information in your high school textbooks. V sits down with RuPaul’s Drag Race queen Mrs. Kasha Davis aka Edward Popil and queer public relations icon Cathy Renna to discuss crucial past events that shaped anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. They’ll share what it was like being out in the 80s and 90s and how becoming more visible often attracted more backlash. We’ll also hear about the importance of queer representation, solidarity and activism.Follow Cathy online at @CathyRenna & Mrs. Kasha Davis at @KashaDavis.
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V Spehar, Cathy Renna, Ed Popil
V Spehar 00:00
I’m V Spehar, and welcome to V INTERESTING. As you know, on our Friday episodes, we dive a bit deeper into what I’m most curious about. And this month, you guessed it, it’s still Pride. So, I wanted to spend some time talking a little bit about queer history because let’s be honest, we have to educate ourselves. The same goes history is often written by the survivor, the victor, which partially explains why so little queer history is widely available, though it does exist. It just, I don’t know, I guess the word. I guess I would say it’s been closeted up by the folks who write the books and determine what type of history is fit to be celebrated. There’s 2500 years of queer documentation and China’s history, which includes teachings that even encouraged female queerness to increase Yang, native culture has long celebrated two spirits and third gender folks. And the Victorian era was a literal rainbow of queerness, including the birth of our first non-binary American figure, the public universal friend. It is no secret that LGBTQIA+ people, like many other marginalized folks in this country have experienced the peaks and valleys of equality, from the rise of the gay panic defense, to the fall of the Defense of Marriage Act, from losing 1000s of lives in the 80s and 90s, to embracing millions of people who are coming out to live their authentic truth and share their journey online. And right now in this country, we are seeing a resurgence of the anti-gay movement gain momentum. There is legislation out there that bans drag queen story time, there has been an increase in anti-trans legislation that targets kids, and fears that hard fought wins like marriage equality could be overturned by an overly biased Supreme Court. It does feel like we’re in a valley right now. To get some clarity on all of this and to unpack our history. I’m gonna call in some help because we have to have hope and if anybody can give it to us, it’s these two guests.
V Spehar 02:04
My guest today are Edward Popil, aka Mrs. Kasha Davis, and Cathy Renna, to amazing figures who are dedicated to improving queer spaces and advocating for the queer community, Ed blessed our screens back in season seven of RuPaul’s Drag Race as Mrs. Kasha Davis and has since traveled the world entertaining audiences with her wit in Down Home charm. Kathy Rana is a queer PR veteran now at the National LGBTQ Task Force. Before that she spent more than a decade at GLAAD where she fought for marriage equality and the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell bill. Ed and Cathy, thank you so much for joining me today.
Ed Popil 02:46
Cathy Renna 02:49
All right. I can’t do that well, but thank you for having me on.
V Spehar 02:52
I love it. Yes. And it wouldn’t be a show without Ed/Mrs. Kasha Davis without the woo’s. So I appreciate that we got them in on the upfront.
Ed Popil 03:01
That’s what it is. That’s what it’s all about. And I’m […] today, if you noticed, it’s early. So I haven’t grown out my hair for the day.
V Spehar 03:09
It’s early. And we’ve been having a heatwave in Rochester. So I very much appreciate the cute hat today.
Cathy Renna 03:15
I’m not going to sing. I apologize. I also don’t have my wig. It’s at the dry cleaner. So but it’s great to be here. Super happy to be here and be talking pride and all the things as you said.
V Spehar 03:25
Yes. All of the things. So we often joke and we’ve heard a million times people write about this idea, the idea of the gay agenda. But what folks might not know is the roots of the term are actually in the Christian right. In the early 1990s. Springs of life ministry is produced and sold a video titled The Gay Agenda. It was produced with the hope of convincing Americans, especially high level politicians, that homosexuality was indecent and should be outlawed. And we know that the queer community has since reclaimed the phrase as we often reclaim a lot of the hateful phrases that are thrown at us. Cathy, when I say the gay agenda now, what does that mean to you?
Cathy Renna 04:07
I actually was recently asked this question by Sam Jay, on her HBO, Show Pause with Sam Jay. I think she made it a little more snarkily than you do. But I probably have the same answer, which is just like a world where we’re treated equally with respect. Like, there’s your agenda, and then you know, maybe brunch, but it’s pretty simple. And I think we need to reclaim the word agenda. I know a lot of people have, but it always gets thrown at us like we have some kind of nefarious plan to take over the world. And well, I mean, maybe we are a little bit but you know, it’s pretty basic.
V Spehar 04:40
Lights, Camera, Action, and not a lot of time for agenda, not when you got to put this all together, you know? And Ed, tell me what’s your idea? What does the Gay Agenda mean to you?
Ed Popil 04:50
You know, very similarly, I’m thinking of my work with Imagination Station and when asked, you know, is there an agenda? Yes, the agenda is Do treat each other with kindness. And most especially if you happen to see somebody who’s different in this world, treat them with kindness. And that’s the simple message that I have and that I will continue to have with those programs that I work on. And absolutely, to be seen to be heard, and to be and love yourself.
V Spehar 05:21
Yeah, I think that’s such great feedback on that point, the agenda is to be seen and to be able to love yourself it’s an agenda of inclusion of love, of joy, and not have anything negative whatsoever. The agenda is if you’d like to come to brunch, you’re welcome. And if you don’t, then please just don’t talk about me. That would be great.
Ed Popil 05:39
I mean, brunches, brunches keep me afloat these days. I’ll tell you what RuPaul Drag Race is spreading all over the world. And all the street people in the world now want to see drag in the form of brunch, and I’m happy to deliver.
V Spehar 05:52
I know, I’ve been to your drag shows it is an inclusive space for everyone. It is gay, it is straight is mostly straight, which we will get into sort of a how RuPaul drag race really did bring the idea of drag and entertainment and ballroom culture to the mainstream. But starting kind of like at the beginning, right? Not necessarily the total beginning of the gay agenda, I guess, because that would go back to technically biblical times. Because Lilith all that business, Adams first wife, a lot of it. I got the Catholic indoctrination. So I’m gonna bring that in when we can, right? But when we think of the gay agenda, oftentimes, especially for folks living in this generation, we think of it starting with Stonewall. And then from Stonewall to the AIDS crisis, because that’s what’s gotten the most attention, right? These incredibly desperate and sad chapters of our history, like, all history, we always start with the beginning. And we oftentimes don’t get to where it got better. We just get to these; this is how it happened. It was terrible. It was gory, it was difficult. And then the next generation of classes starts again, with this is where it started. This is where it happened. This is where it got gory. What I want to talk about, and what this show is about is what happens after those headlines. So I want you all to kind of talk to me a little bit about the 70s and 80s, the things that we didn’t hear about, like, for me, the thing that I always think of is yes, we had the AIDS crisis. But when doctors and nurses were turning their backs on taking care of gay men dying of AIDS, the lesbian community, which didn’t really have a strong relationship with gay men up through that point, stepped in to take care of them. So I wanted you all to sort of have an opportunity to just share some of those lesser told stories with me and Cathy, you are already nodding. So I’m going to start with you.
Cathy Renna 07:36
Sure, absolutely. I think in many ways, it’s hard to describe it as a silver lining. But in so many ways, the AIDS epidemic is what forged our queer community to come together more particularly gay men and lesbians. And, you know, and we’re continuing to work on that with so many other marginalized parts of our community as a larger, more cohesive, intersectional community. But even before that, like one of the things when I first started doing this work in Washington, DC in the late 80s and early 90s, I had the benefit of meeting people like Frank Kennedy and Barbara Giddings, and folks who were literally protesting in front of the White House and picketing the White House really like the month I was born in 1965. So pre Stonewall, there were things going on, there were other riots similar to the Stonewall riots. And I think that’s what’s so insidiously horrifying about these bands, like the don’t say gay ban, and all of the attacks on schools and book bands is our current generation. And even some of us who are older and are still around, don’t know our own history. And it’s so important that we know our history. And so I always try and foster, you know, telling of those stories. And I think what you’re saying is absolutely true. You know, the we’re living in the middle of another pandemic now. And I think we learned a lot of lessons about what not to do, and from within the community, what we can do for each other.
V Spehar 09:01
Truly and Ed, same question for you back in the 70s and 80s. What was the gay experience like I have a really young audience. And so we know Marsha P. Johnson, we know Sylvia Rivera, we know some of the big names that came again out of the Stonewall riots, but we don’t always know just what was the day to day like in the 80s?
Ed Popil 09:20
Oh, goodness, I have so many things I want to touch on. And the first thing that I would say is that was mentioned with regard to knowing our history. Thank goodness, thank goodness for social media and for the streaming platforms where more and more is being shown, and seen, and talked about because we can continue to learn even those of us that were around then back in the 70s and 80s. For me, I grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and it was a very, very closeted life for me and for anyone that I had seen. And let me tell you when the AIDS epidemic and crisis was that will always going on, the message I got was don’t go to the gym. because if you touch that treadmill, you’re gonna get AIDS. There was so much misinformation so much, so many uneducated people on not understanding and not a lot more than some news stories that kept to do that. So for me there, there’s just wasn’t a lot other than thinking to myself, the Gay Agenda for me was to be suppressed the everyone in my life everyone, my family, friends, school everyone, but they were trying to do was they were trying to encourage the straight agenda. I mean, they were forcing me to do everything to become this other person that they wanted me to be. The bottom line is, it never works. So why would if I were having a gay agenda to force anything on anyone else, it’s not going to work if it’s not you.
V Spehar 10:53
As a conversion camp drop out, I can also say I really did put quite a bit of effort into that. And, you know, thank God for father Kelly, who I was like, Father Kelly, I’m really trying, he’s like, I know you are a kid. I know. And, you know, I agree. I don’t think it’s going to work. So we’re gonna let you out. That’s gonna be okay. You know, it was, you have those couple of adults in your life in the 70s and 80s growing up as a kid when there wasn’t really any representation. When the President wouldn’t say the word gay on television. Now we hear it quite a bit. And we can feel the reverence and importance that we get to hear those words now on TV. But in the 80s, Reagan wouldn’t talk about it. Everything that had to do with the AIDS crisis was hidden. It was demonized. It was scary. It was kind of like the beginning of Coronavirus when people were washing their groceries, except it was targeted almost entirely at the gay community as these folks who were like, in some ways that some people were saying they deserved it, if you could imagine that? In some ways, they were saying well, we’re going to continue to keep ourselves segregated for our own safety, which was, of course, a different type of agenda just to continue to other gay people.
Cathy Renna 11:58
I remember many of those years. I’m only a few years older than Ed, but I do remember colleagues and myself like, we were constantly a protest, we were constantly, you know, I had a friend who she kept a black blazer on the back of her office door because she was going to funerals on a regular basis and wanted to always be ready. You know, I remember the need was to get in the streets. I remember seeing the AIDS quilt when it was still small enough to fit on the mall, in Washington, DC, and Bush’s helicopter going overhead and people chanting shame, shame, shame, you know, it. The depths of grief and loss is something that for many, many younger people is just unimaginable. And that, of course, what Ed is saying the suppression, the othering, the sense of fear, like being afraid to live your life, being afraid to be intimate with other people. It was deep, and it was it was incredibly difficult. And then to feel that the government just did not care about you at all, is devastating. And it’s a good thing, like as you said, you know, other folks in the community rushed in to help but, you know, people really need to go back and look at the stories.
V Spehar 13:11
My mother was a nurse at the peak of the AIDS crisis. And she was one of the few nurses who would go and help these folks out. We live just outside of New Haven, she was working in New Haven, and her very best friend in the whole world, Danny Lindsey, she tells the story quite a bit had gotten AIDS. And she had seen firsthand the deterioration of him and she didn’t want these other men to feel alone. And she would go to our school and say, Please stop telling my kids that they can’t use the restroom because they’re gonna get AIDS, please stop telling my kids that if they do blood brothers with their 8 year old friend on the playground, because that was like a weird culty thing we did in elementary school, they’re gonna get AIDS and die like it was it became like, I saw her as a young nurse, really, in her own little way trying to combat this discrimination against the community that at that time, I mean, it was only eight years old, right? So it would be exactly 20 more days before I told my mother that I was gay, because I knew as a kid, a lot of people did. But it just was so sad. And even as a child watching the adults and set that example for how we were going to treat people or what was going to happen or being afraid or like, on the other side hearing some of their friends talk about like, well, they deserve it. And like Maureen, why are you getting involved with these guys? It’s got nothing to do with us. And like, just that frustration, and that breaking down of family values and breaking down of communities around this issue is something that we still feel a lot, you know, when we have our parents maybe subscribe to a certain type of media that has told them that they should reject their queer children even to this day. And you think that we’re going to run past it, but it’s like, we’re on that 40 year loop or we’re almost coming back on it again, this othering.
Cathy Renna 14:50
Not almost, we are, we’re in the middle of it. I mean, one of the things I most appreciated about the show Pose was how they represented the dynamics of It was happening around the HIV epidemic, not just the fact that, you know, gay and bisexual men were just being devastated in New York, but the racial dynamics, the economic dynamics, it was real, it was very real. And so for those of us who lived through a lot of it, it was very affirming for young people who hadn’t, it was shocking, because they didn’t know. And they, you know, we’ve spent all these decades doing this work to get to a better place in so many different ways. I mean, I have a teenage daughter who’s queer, and, you know, she looks at things very, very differently than I do. And when she watched Pose , she said, I had no idea that, you know, there was such a divide, a racial divide in the community, and there still is some but it was so devastatingly stark at the time.
V Spehar 15:42
Yeah. And Ed, for you, as a kid, also, you know, growing up and coming into this world, at the time of the AIDS crisis, what was that like for you experiencing that firsthand?
Ed Popil 15:53
Well, basically, the idea, as was mentioned, was that if I were to be myself, I would die. And it literally was told to me at church, it was told to me at home, and I was shameful it was, it was embarrassing, and I need to suppress. So now when you think about this, so I’m a, I don’t know, teenager, going into my 20s, I’m in the closet, I’m marrying a woman now, because I’m have to suppress, I’m sneaking to wear to parks and to and to restrooms, to experience my sexuality. So now I’m unsafe. So guess what, I’m not educated, I’m not learning. And what I’m doing is basically spreading potentially, you know, disease, and also, because of all these unsafe, you know, things that were going on, there’s depression, there’s anxiety, then there’s, for me, there was alcoholism, that began to be where I wouldn’t have to […]. And so therefore, the depression, the anxiety, the drug and alcohol abuse these things, because of this, bullying, essentially. And because of this type of mentality, and less of the talks we’re having right now, these types of things happen. And I still believe I still believe that there is a degree of that, that is still happening. And I was extremely naive, I did not know much more than what was exposed to me. And it took time for me until I moved here to Rochester in the late 90s, where I started to understand that there was this, this this world and the things that were happening, and then I began to grow and evolve. But even still, it took a long time for me to understand that I could have a marriage and a family. I thought it was only meant to live in a bathhouse or into a seedy bar.
V Spehar 17:46
Yes. And thank you for sharing that that’s deeply personal and so relevant, because there are going to be so many people right now that are in that same situation, who maybe are doing the thing where they’re like, you know, I’m going to do my best. I’m going to try so hard to live in the way that I’ve been told, safe and best for me. And so I’m going to ignore the truth of the person that I am and the person I am as someone who deeply cares for people and is full of love and just needs to find that matching love. All right. When we come back we’ll have more queer history with my guests, Cathy Renna and Ed Popil. Stay with us. Now, this idea that there is a moral wrongness to being gay is something that was it came from somewhere, right? It came from an exact place. And that place is Jerry Falwell. So in 1977, Jerry Falwell founded what he called the Moral Majority. And this was the beginning, truly, of not hiding this idea of marrying religion and politics together, as he called on politicians to defund any organization that supported homosexuality. Now, Cathy, I know that you have firsthand experience fighting the Moral Majority, what we might now more recognized as the Christian right. And I just wanted to hear from you a little bit about how these cases and these experiences are playing out in the court system, because on one side, you’ve got the civil rights and the 14th Amendment and the right to be gay and the right to privacy. And then they’re using the First Amendment, the right to religious freedom as a means to discriminate. Can you talk a little bit about that terrible interplay?
Cathy Renna 19:30
Sure. I don’t know if it’s a little bit of a kind of a thing to talk about. And I do vividly remember debating Jerry Falwell on MSNBC when Ellen came out. He was calling her Ellen Degenerate. It was one of my most interesting debates because what I said to him is that not to him but to the audience’s that basically, he’s ignoring reality. And the reality is that we are part of families and communities and, and faith institutions. I think that the way to look at this is, you know, even before 77, I think that anti LGBTQ organizations, essentially anti-progressive organizations were losing the battle on abortion. And of course, this will fast forward to we can talk about what’s going to happen in the next few weeks. And they saw an opportunity by in attacking, then the gay and lesbian community. And you know, I vividly remember that I mean, these folks are strategic, they’re well-funded, they stay on message. We hear these arguments in Florida around the Don’t Say Gay bill. And, you know, I can, I can be a little bit glib and say, hey, and […] Jerry Falwell called, they want their talking points back. But the reality is, they are the same talking points. And they continue to be effective, because what they do is they instill fear. So what these organizations, Jerry Falwell, and all of those who came after they’re playing on people’s fears in ignorance. And as we become more visible as more people get to know queer people, as individuals, we’ve seen progress. So we’ve seen, you know, marriage equality, we’ve seen the repeal of […] hotel, we’ve seen just more acceptance in general, around individuals in our families and communities, because so many more of us are out. But when I say us, it’s really more the L and the G, we still have so much work to do, to help people understand the BI community, which is, is numbers wise, the majority of folks in the queer community. And there’s obviously a deep understanding by our opposition, that not enough people know trans people, that is still very difficult to be trans or non-binary. And out. In this culture, there’s support structures to provide resources for young people and adults. I mean, I have a friend who just started transitioning at age 65. And I also have friends and colleagues who’ve been identifying as non-binary for, you know, 20 years. So it’s not like a new phenomenon. But culturally, visibility wise, we’re way behind the curve. And the other side is taking advantage of that. And that’s why you’re seeing literally hundreds of bills at the state level, that are attacking trans youth, trans youth participation in sports, access to transforming health care, they’re getting their families reported to Child Protective Services, if they support them, like, we’re in a very, very bad time right now. I mean, we don’t, I don’t hesitate to call it a state of emergency because it is and as we’re, you know, near in the middle of Pride month here, I think this is an opportunity to have a serious conversation about these issues and provide some safe space and joy for folks in our community who need to come together to r-energize and revitalize between the pandemic and all of these attacks, it’s been a very difficult period.
Ed Popil 22:43
You know, just listening, I have to mention that Cathy mentioned, the idea of it comes from fear. And it’s such an, it’s such a low brow way to try to change people, we want to have these safe spaces and these opportunities to celebrate where people can see and bringing the allies. You know, we joke about drag brunch all the time. And V mentioned that the majority of the people that come to drag brunch on a weekly basis are straight. That’s wonderful. If you think about it, we’re having Pride every week for straight people to say yes, sometimes they’re laughing at us in a way because we’re clown like, but they’re seeing happy, healthy people experiencing life, and being productive. That continued exposure and celebration helps people to take a look at things just a little bit differently. We’re so much more alike than we are different. And then finally, I have to bring this up, because it’s been in my mind so much. I grew up in a Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Do you know the first gown and crown I saw that I loved was by the priest on what I thought was a stage. I thought that’s what I want to do. That’s the most gorgeous rhinestone gown it was gold, it had capes. And that person is revered as the one who’s making the decision of whether I’m going to heaven or hell, and I’m being damned, and they’re in a gown, but I’m not allowed to wear it. So it’s just so funny in a way, you know, to look at this, right?
Cathy Renna 24:17
The irony is not lost on those of us who grew up in. And I didn’t really even grow up in a Catholic faith tradition, like my parents left the church because they were told they couldn’t use contraception. I grew up with a super accepting family. And, you know, my dad used to always say, Oh, I love the values, the dogma, not so much, you know. So I think we really have to look deeply at that. I mean, at the taskforce, we have a faith work director, and she’s amazing. She’s a Latina trans woman. She’s the first ordained trans minister in the Lutheran church and is out there, you know, is, is out there for herself but it’s also out there for other trans people of faith. I mean, the reality is that for those of us who do activism are super engaged in the community. We’ve seen a tremendous amount of progress in faith denominations not across the board, but you know many. Matthew Shepard is now buried in the National Cathedral with Helen Keller like that would have been unimaginable to people of faith even Episcopalians or Unitarians, or you know, like the more progressive denominations, you know, even a couple of decades ago. So we are making some progress, but Ed’s right, it’s really, it’s the seed of lot of the fear.
V Spehar 25:25
Ed, Cathy, with that, we’re gonna take a quick break. We will have more with Kathy and Miss Kasha Davis after the break. Welcome back, friends, and thank you for joining us for the 90s because the 90s are back the fashion is back. The stories are back. Cathy, your early experience in queer crisis PR, covering queer issues of the 90s like the killing of Matthew Shepard, who you just chatted about, which led to some anti-bullying and anti-hate crime legislation, leading the charge against the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which, of course now has led to trans and queer folks being able to serve openly in the military, and even recognition of civil unions, which led to full marriage equality. It seems like it was such a powerful place of like seeing that needle move so far.
Cathy Renna 26:30
Yeah, the 90s were it was like being on a roller coaster of activism, I went and put my Doc Martens on for this thing. The 90s were huge. I mean, if you think about it, just you know, as we went through, like the early 90s, you had Bill Clinton who was elected and there was a lot of hope. And then there was a lot of disappointment, the defensive Marriage Act, don’t ask, don’t tell. But It energized us as we got into the mid-90s, to really explode. And I think if you look at what happened over the course of the latter part of the 90s, whether it’s 1997, when Elon came out, which was huge, Cover Time Magazine, I went actually went down to Birmingham, Alabama, which was the only ABC affiliate that refused to air the coming out episode, which is really stupid, because it was like, why don’t you just put up a lightning rod, they were the only one I spent two weeks in Birmingham, we fill the stadium with several 1000 people who paid five bucks to see a sitcom. Right? And it was, you know, it was not just queer people it was a lot of allies. We also had metal detectors and bomb sniffing dogs like it was a challenging time. And then in 1998, the death of Matthew Shepard was an absolute watershed for this community and the movement. And you cannot underestimate the impact that, that had, it was an international story, it put the issue of hate crimes on the map. And you know, we could do a whole show about why. But it opened the door to have the conversation. And so now when you talk to his parents, they talk about the epidemic of hate violence against trans women of color, which was happening, then it continues to happen. So and then we had Will & Grace. You know, that was absolutely huge, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. And, you know, the common denominator here, if you’re paying attention is I see a lot of White people, right? And so the challenge for us at GLAAD was to really push for more diverse representations, which I was always doing. But it was getting a little bit easier as we opened up some of these doors. And I think, you know, like I said, you can’t underestimate the visibility and the conversations that were had around service members. LGB service members, you know, we went from talking about showers and submarines, to talking about serving our country. And it was an institution that, you know, in many ways marriage and the military are too, so American institutions, that in some ways I use easier with a small E, but easier to introduce because when you say those things, people know what marriage is. When you say I want to serve my country, people understand that. And so it was a way into the psyche and the hearts and minds of folks in this country to have a conversation about who we were as queer people.
V Spehar 29:12
Right. Because it is the American distinction of what is a good person, somebody who gets married has kids white picket fence serves their country. And those were things that we wanted to do that the side that thought that we were the evils and the worst cockroaches in humanity, we’re like, wait, you value that you like them? You like America, you like the things that I like, you couldn’t be the other when we were so hard fighting for things that are considered traditional American heterosexual values. Right?
Cathy Renna 29:42
Well, that’s the caveat is that we didn’t, it didn’t bring all of us along. There are certainly folks who you know, remember that we are founded as a movement in sexual liberation. So when you start talking about marriage, you’re going to bump up against sexual liberation but we have to look at the long game, we have to look at this as a process.
V Spehar 30:04
And Ed going back to our childhood in the 90s. You’ve now gotten out of Scranton, it’s the 90s. You’re in Rochester. Like all kids who grew up in the suburbs, myself included in the suburbs of Connecticut, I was like, if I could just get to New York, I could be saved forever, I could be who I want to be, I’ll cut my hair, I’ll go to the club, I’ll have a great time. Like, I’ll feel safe, I’ll have community, is this When Miss Kasha Davis was born or tell me about dragging in the 90s or culture in the 90s.
Ed Popil 30:30
The first thing I will say is that in listening to you, Cathy, I was reaching for my tissues, because I started to remember the different stories that you were mentioning, and the different changes and the things that came bigger, that were brought to the news. And I was graduated college and married in 93′, and divorced in 98′. And the whole time I started to hear about these things and see hope and see that I could be okay. That I was, I could live freely because of the work that people like yourself did. And bringing these stories and these changes to the media. And I started to see that there was another life and so I was less and less scared. It took a long time, but I was less and less scared. And so when I moved to Rochester, it wasn’t until 99. And that’s when I started to see I didn’t even know what a rainbow flag is. I saw the rainbow flag in at a Pride festival. And I saw people holding hands and I thought my gosh, it’s Oz, I was brought to Oz, I didn’t know that this has existed, you know, small town to midsize city. And so I then began to see to see drag. And I started to learn more about the culture, the community and etc. So I thank you is really what I want to say for the work that you did. And just I could listen to you for hours. And, it is very emotional for me because although you were, you know, protesting and or, you know, bringing stories to light that were not the most positive things, they were life saving for those of us listening and hearing it.
V Spehar 32:18
Ed, thank you for sharing that with me. And thank you for trusting me. Cathy, what did it feel like for you in the 90s just walking on the streets, I have a really young audience, they’re not going to remember what the 90s were like.
Cathy Renna 32:31
I mean, I was living in DC for the 90s. But I also traveled a lot for GLAAD I was doing a lot of media training. So I’d go to places like Alabama and Kentucky and, you know, Wyoming. And so although even in Washington, you know, there were neighborhoods that you stayed it and neighborhoods that you didn’t walk in, there were neighborhoods where, you know, if I was holding my girlfriend’s hand, we would get, you know, a barrage, sometimes even in Dupont Circle, which is like was the sort of queer center of queer Washington at the time. You know, I remember I used to joke that like one day I literally got called dyke and fag within like a three block radius in Dupont Circle. It happens gender, what can I say?
V Spehar 33:15
For everyone listening, you will never forget the first time you get called fag. It is such a scary, hard, overwhelming moment. And for anyone who is feeling that right now, like we’re feeling that with you. And if I could eradicate one thing, it would be being catcalled with that particular term.
Cathy Renna 33:31
Yeah, and I grew up in New York, just on Long Island, and I was in New York City a lot as a teenager and in college. So I was lucky to have community and affirmation. But that doesn’t mean that I have not forever dealt with misgendering and some name calling. And it really in the 90s was, it was that challenge of as you become more visible, there’s more backlash. As there’s more backlash, there’s more bullying. And as there’s, it’s like what we’re living in now, it’s not that different, like, what happened during the Trump years feels a lot like things as they were in the 80s and 90s. Except we have social media, which makes it public spectacle, like, you know, that’s really challenging to deal with. So there’s cyber bullying as well. But it feels like this, there was like a permissible climate of hate, it was okay to do that stuff. You know, and that, you know, especially for young people or people with without a ton of support in their lives. That’s a scary way to live. I mean, I worked with, we work with so many folks in the trans community and that today still, that the idea of walking while trans of being seen as trans, or being clocked as trans, is an unsafe thing.
Ed Popil 33:40
It is, and I really resonate with the idea of remembering in the late 90s that yes, I was out but I could only be out late at night, or I can only be out on this particular street or that this club would have show after this time, and God, there’s absolutely no holding hands. And multiple people in my circle in my family unit. Cell phones were starting, but they would, we’d have to hope that they made it home because they were walking home after being out. And many times car would pull over and beat them up. I watched coming to a club, darling, trans woman Andrea, get out of her car. And just she would always go to support our shows. She got there early, she got out and this car pulled up for young White fellas, jumped out, beat her to the ground, she brushed herself off and went inside. And this was the type of thing that was happening. And so you’re you were brave enough to come out. But this was what you now, yes, it kind of went away and more is exposed. And yes, we’re doing, you know, daytime brunches, and things and on television and social media and stuff. But as was mentioned, the Trump era felt very much like, oh, wow, we’re going back to that again. Oh, that felt a bit tangible, that that was all going to happen again.
V Spehar 36:08
And I want to go back to the ballroom culture into dragon to the late night shows that were you know, the late 90s, early 2000s, before RuPaul’s drag race really made it sort of something that like, you know, kids are quoting. And it’s been, you know, mainstreamed in some ways. But that culture of having to grow a thick skin or knowing how to read all came from being constantly bullied and constantly having to hold space and keep your guard up. And I just want to like give a little bit more room to that because I think folks think, Oh, well the gays are so witty and they’re so snappy. And like reading is fundamental. And it’s like no reading came from being able to, like if you watch it, I love that scene in Pose to where she does this. It came from having to match that energy with some of the most hateful and abhorrent rhetoric that was coming at us, you had to like, turn it back around and match their energy.
Cathy Renna 37:01
It was a way of fighting back, because it’s exactly what you’re saying. And I’ve worked with the Ali Forney Center here in New York City, which is they work with homeless LGBTQ youth, but the vast majority of them are youth of color. Many are trans. And you know, it’s been around for many years. But that was, it was created to help support a population that is exactly the population you’re talking about that was involved in the ballroom scene back in the you know, 80s-90s, of course, it was happening even before that. So, you know, it’s that paradox of survival skills, right? That we have to create, when we want to be visible when we want to have a presence. I mean, you open up queer bars, you open up queer spaces, you become more visible, you also create targets. And that was happening in the 90s. That was happening commonly in, you know, what people would call, you know, gay ghettos where high school kids on a Friday night would go, bash the F word we use prior that we don’t like to say, right? That was like, that was a weekend hobby for kids who were homophobic, insecure, whatever. I remember, you know, standing in front of the courtroom, trying to explain the scope of the problem to people like this is not an isolated incident. This doesn’t just happen in the Wild West, as they kept the media kept trying to portray it that way. And I was like, no, this is about and then they tried to use the gay panic defense. And so of course, I had to talk about internalized homophobia and the double standard. And if you know, just help drive that point home that this we were living, especially in the 90s, at a time when we were targeted, and we had no rights, we had no protections are very, very few. Now we have one.
V Spehar 38:49
And I want to clarify for folks who may not have heard that phrase before the gay panic defense, there was an actual, like legal defense that you could give, that you could say, oh, I beat, killed, murdered XYZ this person because they did a gay thing at me. And that was considered an acceptable response for many years. And we saw that in high schools at a lesser level with the no homo culture, right? I mean, again, the early 2000s Anything that you liked, that could have been perceived as in any way homosexual or even emotional, the no homo culture is the same that kids were doing at 17 as adults was being used in courts of law to justify the slaughtering of trans women or queer people in general, whether they were making a pass that you or not, and often cases not, certainly not.
Ed Popil 39:44
A lot to unpack and I’m listening to the idea of reading and sometimes to be honest with you, I feel as though reading is just is put out there as like this really fun thing to do. And while it can be with those people sometimes in a, you know, a family unit and they tease one another, it becomes bullying sometimes online, and people are thinking, I’m just reading you, and then they’ll go to another level of things like, as we’ve heard with people where they’re good, you should just go die. That’s not reading, that’s not sassy. That’s not creative. That’s not so. And it’s unfortunate that a big part of our defense mechanism was to, you know, find ways to get back. But it was constant bullying. I don’t remember a time from the beginning of my existence where I was teased, you’re a fairy, you’re light in the loafers you’re gay, you’re a fag, you’re, you know, and my father was workout, workout, workout, get ready to defend, my mother was kill them with kindness, you know, say something like when the tackle on the football team says your fairy just say you like his blouse. Well, first and foremost blouse really got me into another hole predicament. But the idea was she was saying trying to get them to laugh. Why do I have to? Why do I have to entertain everyone. And that began to cause you know, anxiety, and there was just constant, it’s constant. And so finding these different ways of, of defending yourself is good. But then I’m glad to see that more and more is happening where people are being celebrated for their uniqueness and for being exactly who they are.
V Spehar 41:39
I don’t know if we could say that on the show.
Ed Popil 41:42
I think Jonathan Van Ness, first and foremost, who’s just fabulous in every way, you know, and in every possible way. And is continues to be celebrated. And this is good. This this type of exposure and celebration, I think is good, because it will be less need to find a creative way to insult people.
V Spehar 42:06
All right, and with that, we are going to take another break to hear from the products and services that support this podcast. And I do want to know, because you were on drag race in 2015, the same year that gay marriage became legalized, it was very much in my mind, like the height of drag race culture, when people drag queens are really starting to be seen as major mainstream celebrities. There was so much opportunity that’s been created for people to express themselves in this way. And then in smaller ways from there. Can you just talk a little bit about what that was like being in the room at the time when this opportunity was being birthed?
Ed Popil 42:52
Well, first and foremost, the gay marriage equality was the absolute dream and shock come true. I remember when it was being presented that my husband and I would say, well, that would be great if we could potentially see that in our lifetime. And then when it happened, and we were able to have our second legal marriage, it was just incredible. And so many people celebrating us at that time and our family and it just, I can’t even begin to express how wonderful that was. And then to walk into RuPaul Drag Race Set, I knew immediately my life was changing. It was a pivotal shift in my life in every possible way. And that sounds a little dramatic. But so many things changed for me, I thrust myself into a full time career as a drag entertainer left a job of 18 years because of the support of my husband and children. And I addressed my addiction I did approaching seven years sober this summer, and began to see how that being open about that. And I can help the LGBTQ plus community as well as anybody watching and I credit that all to RuPaul drag race into that opportunity to have that powerful shift.
V Spehar 44:10
And I’ve been very grateful even just as a viewer to see how much space RuPaul’s Drag Race has made within our community to learn and change, right, because trans women weren’t always allowed to be drag queens as soon as you transitioned, then you weren’t allowed to be a drag queen anymore. And we’ve all had to learn even in our own communities. There is no us versus them. We’re all learning as humans, and now to see great performers like Jasmine Kennedy or Carrie Colby or Gia Gunn, coming out and saying or cornbread recently to coming out and saying, I am a trans woman and being, I’m getting chills and being embraced and being celebrated and getting to remain a part of your community. Such a huge lesson for us and such a great model for kids right now. To be able to know that unapologetically how you evolve even as a queer person. You will still be a part of this family; you will still be accepted and celebrate.
Cathy Renna 45:01
I’ve watched that as well. I think that, you know, if we look at the history of drag, right, I mean, I remember the days, if we go back to talking about the 90s, and drag queens, leather folk, they were the folks that were raising money for HIV organizations, they were the folks who were, you know, all those singles that I was, you know, tucking into drag queens garter belt, where they were going to, you know, organizations that were trying to help folks in the queer community. But I do think it’s been really great to see that evolution. I know, there were some bumps along the way. But, you know, now we’re looking at folks who are much more gender queer, you know, you will see a drag queen with a beater. Like it’s, you know, it’s really important that we get beyond the binary as I, as I constantly say, and it really does show the show, because I remember the days when, you know, RuPaul was just starting out. And, and I know that there were times where there was a lot of tension around some comments around the trans community. But we all have to give each other some space, we have to give each other some grace. And we have to allow, you know, everyone to grow.
V Spehar 46:00
Yeah, my grandma used to say, everybody has to feel above somebody, right? When it was a kid, like everyone has to feel above somebody. So even within your own community, right? Gay men felt above lesbians, lesbians felt above trans women, trans women felt above the sex workers maybe, or whatever the case might be. And now we’re starting to realize as humans, because we have these opportunities to connect through podcasts and social media and following each other, and television shows that we don’t have to try to feel above each other within our community, we need to raise the entire community up or holds the entire community down. And that is just something that I have loved about the last decade of the gay experience that I’ve had, which is learning lessons and acceptance, learning lessons in raising people up and getting to meet some people that I’m so grateful feel that they can be their full self, because they are doing such incredible work. And when you’re not just surviving the day, you can thrive, you can bring joy to other people, we can get better art, we can get better music, we can get better legislation. And that’s kind of where we’re at now, right is like people who are queer, who are trans are in government, they are making laws that affect the way that we are allowed to show up in the world the protections that we have the way we serve in the military, the way that we’re perceived, generally. So at the beginning, I asked what is the Gay Agenda means to you and I kind of want to close with also asking, like, what is the potential of the gay agenda at this point? How much more can we look forward to
Ed Popil 47:27
Listening to you, I just kept thinking to myself, if you’re not learning, you’re not living. Someone said to me the other day, you’re like a walking fortune cookie. That’s okay. We can use some positivity, but it’s true, you know, listening to the comments you just made, you know, I get inspired by people who may or may be making a mistake, and you see the changes in their learning, and they’re living in that gay experience and they’re finding, okay, that was what we did before. And it’s no longer acceptable today. And that’s okay. Because we’re willing to learn and we’re willing to say, you know, what, I’m so sorry, I’m still learning. And I just wanted to put that out there and just say that that’s terrific to note.
Cathy Renna 48:15
I’m making a t shirt, that is the best. I love that. And it’s true. I mean, I’m, you know, I just turned 57 I learned every day in doing the work that I do, because I get to interact with such amazing folks in our community. If you stop doing that what happens and we see it is that you have folks who do exactly what, you know, what you’re saying is that there’s some houses it’s like hierarchy of oppression, like my oppression is, it’s like the oppression Olympics, as they call it, my oppression versus your oppression. Right? And it’s, we have to, the place where we need to go as a community is that is this place, like the conversation we’re having, we’re all very different people. And yet, we’re having this amazing conversation about so many different things like, and helping understand how we connect across communities. I mean, our community still has a lot of work to do, around issues of classism, and sexism, and racism, and ableism and all of those things. And so when we started getting in the streets for black lives matter, I was thrilled to see so many people get out there around Black trans lives and how that they became Black trans lives matters, protests, and that I went to. Those are the connections that we need to be making. So that to me is like the next step for our community. And I hope that pride this year is reflective of that. I think everyone’s trying to you know, make that a priority make that part of the platform make that part of what Ed said whether you go to a picnic in a park, at a tiny pride or whether you go come to New York City, you know, it’s that’s what it’s all about.
V Spehar 49:49
And we have to allow people those spaces because you know there’s so much conversation does kink belong to pride now that pride is a family friendly event and it’s like yeah, man, they started it, it’s part of the deal, you know, you have to choose your own journey and be responsible for your own experience when you’re coming into a community as broad and diverse and exciting and colorful as the queer community to say, Okay, where am I most comfortable? What do I want to do, and when you don’t have to go for I wish I somebody gave me this advice when I was a kid, so I’m gonna give it to you. Now, you don’t have to go from the closet to the Pride Parade, right? There are some steps you can take in between, you can get yourself used to it as a person, figure out what you’re comfortable with, your first Pride brings up a lot of feelings for you a lot of fear, a lot of excitement, a lot of what didn’t even know that was an option. So you take your time, you get your schedule, you figure it out what makes sense. And to my bisexual boys out there in particular, who oftentimes don’t feel included, they don’t feel entitled invited to the dance, you are invited, you’re invited, we are excited for you, we’re here to support you. And we see you and you are just as much a valid part of this as anyone else. And I think we need to name those things, right? Because I grew up and I only knew gay men, because that was my mom’s community. I didn’t even see a lesbian till I was maybe in like college. I mean, I saw them on TV, but not in real life. If you don’t see yourself out there, you were out here, there are more people just like you out here. And when you stop trying to kind of like fit in, you’ll be able to signal who you truly are. And then you’ll be able to find where you belong. And we’re waiting for you. We’re waiting for you. And we’re excited for you to come and join the parade. Is there anything more legislatively, Cathy, you can give us some hope, before that legacy Equality Act maybe gonna come through? Is there any protections for trans-kids we can hope for? I mean, they’re passing the trans bans on drag shows real fast, but I’m not seeing a lot of protections,.
Cathy Renna 51:38
Well, there are some states like New Hampshire and some others that are that are beating back these laws. I mean, I think, unfortunately, the best thing we can say is that, you know, we’re seeing folks who are having success at making them fail. That’s the best way to say it. The Equality Act, you know, we’ve been struggling and fighting for the Equality Act forever, what I would love to see is to just vote on the damn thing, because I want to know who’s on my side, and who’s not on my side so that when I vote November, in the midterms, I’ll know who’s on the right side of history and who’s not. So that’s got to continue to be a priority. But the reality is, if we don’t get our butts in gear and clear the vote in the midterms, we could have the potential to go back even further, if we lose the Senate. And a lot of these, you know, on the local level, a lot of these fights that we’re having around, particularly around trans youth. Sorry, I’m usually much more positive.
V Spehar 52:33
No, it’s important.
Cathy Renna 52:35
It’s kind of a crappy time right now.
Ed Popil 52:37
I think it’s very positive in a way because you’re saying, we don’t just need people to vote, we did an excessive amount of people to vote. And as was mentioned, by V, we have a young audience who sometimes think, oh, it doesn’t matter. Every vote matters. So to participate is important. I will not be involved necessarily with legislation. But what I’m hoping to do and what I’m doing, I should say manifestation is that I’m in negotiations with PBS to have a children’s television program called Imagination Station, we have four episodes done. It is a imagine Mrs. Doubtfire hosting Pee Wee’s Playhouse at Fred Rogers Neighborhood. And it is that is the way we describe it. And it’s, it’s myself and Mr. Davis and our community. And we have special guests. And it is, I would say, is got a green light, we’re doing some testing with some audiences. And we’re gonna start with PBS, because I feel most comfortable that is the place where we would want to be at home. And I think that if we start with the youth and show kindness and show, this is just people living, there’s not going to be an explanation of how and what is happening. But people will be able to see themselves, kids and adults will be able to see themselves and their children and treating each other with kindness going through normal, everyday things like going to the doctor, and all of the different life experiences, parents divorcing, etc. And so I’m very, very excited to be able to do that. And that’ll be in my own way. My protest and my sort of example of what can be and hopefully it will spark others to do just the same.
V Spehar 54:22
Yes, and I am so excited. I’ve seen a couple of the previews of Imagination Station and it is a delight. It is exactly that thing that we were looking for. Just a way to get people comfortable with doing everyday things. But it happens to be led by the fabulous Davis family and the cast of characters, including many queer folks who are just living in the neighborhood just like other neighborhoods. So I want to thank you both so very much for being here with me today and for sharing your experiences and education and your hopefulness for the future. In the show notes we’ll have where you can find Mrs. Kasha Davis and Cathy Renna. I’m just so proud of you guys of us of this community and where we’re going and I’m just grateful to be proud of it. And so I’m grateful that you were here with me today as well.
Cathy Renna 55:13
And thanks for making the space for this. It was great.
Ed Popil 55:15
Absolutely. Thank you.
V Spehar 55:20
Y’all give it up for Cathy Renna and Ed Popil aka Mrs. Kasha Davis. It was so inspiring to root down in a conversation about queer history, solidarity, and activism. As we move through the rest of Pride Month, let us remember that we can all play a part in helping to diversify spaces, whether that’s marching in a protest, going out to vote, or just sharing LGBTQ shows and stories with your friends and family. Hopefully, you’ve been inspired by our conversation today and are already thinking of ways to be your own rainbow. Even if that rainbow is inside of assist straight body because we love and we need the allies too. We’re all a part of this, each of you and your own special way and I am so grateful for you. Make sure to follow Cathy Renna on Twitter at @CathyRenna. And Ed, aka Ms. Kasha Davis at @KashaDavis. She’s on Tik Tok. She’s on Instagram. She’s on Twitter. She’s everywhere. Also, keep an eye out for the launch of Imagination Station. While we’re doing things making a list of stuff to listen to and enjoy. Also tune into Tuesday’s episode where we’ll be covering the headlines you care about most; you can leave me a voicemail at 612-293-8550 I would love to hear from you what you’re thinking about what you’re learning about what you care about. And subscribe to Lemonada premium on Apple podcasts so we can keep making great content for you. Thank you so much for being here. I will see you on Tuesday.
V Spehar 56:57
V INTERESTING is a Lemonada Media Original. Our producers are Rachel Neel, Xorje Olivares, Martín Macías, Jr. And Dani Matias. Executive Producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Mixing and Scoring is by Brian Castillo, Johnny Evans and Ivan Kuraev. music is by Seth Applebaum. Please help others find the show by rating and reviewing wherever you listen and follow us across all social platforms at @VitusSpehar and @UnderTheDeskNews, also, @LemonadaMedia. If you want more be interesting, subscribe to Lemonada premium only on Apple podcasts.