When artists cry out for help, how do we justify our silence?

I recently watched the Oscar-nominated Amy Winehouse documentary. Having gone through college at the height of both Winehouse’s popularity and notoriety, the film was uncomfortable to watch.

Of course, in retrospect, the late-night monologues that mocked the incredible singer’s substance abuse issues and eating disorders feel incredibly tone-deaf and abusive in their own right. Shouldn’t we have known better? Well, we didn’t. But at that time, Winehouse was everyone’s favorite go-to punchline and mockery — track marks were just as important as the cat eye for any complete Amy Winehouse Halloween costume.

Even after Winehouse died in 2011, we didn’t take responsibility for how we — as a culture happily gobbling up every piece of gossipy tabloid trash tossed into our mouths — all but certainly contributed to this young woman’s demise at the age of just 27. And, in the curious case of Kanye West, we arguably are doing it again.

Look, I’m not going to defend Kanye West’s misogyny. Nor his defense of a certain high-profile alleged rapist. But West’s outbursts have become so extreme and so commonplace so as to clearly suggest there’s more to the story than just some publicity-seeking rich rapper. But instead, we happily share the latest hot take on the latest Kanye incident and shake our heads: “Can you believe this guy? Who the f*** does he think he is?!”

We’re not asking the questions we should be of one of the music industry’s most innovating rappers of all time. Questions like, “Is he OK? Is he getting the help he might need? Is he surrounded by people who will see to it he gets that help, should he need it, before it’s too late?”

As Amy made painfully clear, money doesn’t buy happiness. And it doesn’t buy health. And just because an artist seems to have every tool in their box to overcome whatever challenge they are facing, not everyone is so lucky.

And not everyone is brave or savvy enough to do what they need to do to face their demons. In a interview taped last year for ABC’s Nightline show, Australian pop music genius Sia sat down to explain why she has taken the unusual approach to not exposing her face in interviews, live performances or videos.

In the interview, she explains that, in 2010, she reached a breaking point where she was struggling with her budding status as a celebrity and touring musician, and how she turned to substance abuse to cope. Not exposing her face has made it possible for her to go about her life in a way that works for her.

I couldn’t help but think back to April of that year, when I was lucky enough to interview Sia over the phone for EDGE Media, an LGBT-focused news website, amid what appears will be her final proper concert tour.

Over the phone from the back of her tour bus, Sia described how she’s “scared of people” and becoming “a bit messy, shaky and anxious.” The response struck me as a bit strange and I delved further, but, at the same time, I can’t help but feel guilty that I didn’t feel more concerned for her wellbeing. I felt detached from it, an observer, even as she articulated her feelings of unhappiness:

“When I’m doing jazz hands for these thousands of people I don’t know but for some reason have become important to me, I don’t have any energy left over for my friends or family. I used to be entertaining in my private life, the class clown and the heart of the party. I was silly and would bring everyone costumes to have fun and play board games. But I have no energy for that anymore. I’m exhausted. And that’s not really OK with me. I’ve decided that I really want to give the people I love and am close to more of my energy while working out what’s best for me in the long term.”

Sia was able to figure out a way to go about her career in a way that was healthy for her.

But people like me didn’t help her do that. People like me probably aren’t concerned for ‘Ye either, just like they weren’t for Amy. Maybe we should be.

Manboobs and me

I was asked to read an essay as part of the Marrow reading series’ event at the Pitchfork Book Fort in Union Park on Sunday, July 20. This is what I read that day.

I remember when I noticed my body was very different from most of the boys I knew. When I first came to understand I’d almost certainly never look like the sexy, long-haired guys playing guitar I ogled subconsciously while watching “Wayne’s World” on repeat with my brother. I definitely had a thing for ripped up jeans.

I was in fifth grade and it happened in the locker room of the tiny gym of my small-town grade school. I’d come to loathe that room and dread walking down the gray concrete stairs to that dark, smelly dungeon of a middle-school gym class locker room.

“What’s up with your boobs, man?” a still-prepubescent classmate asked.

I didn’t know what to say but I remember bringing it up to my mom later that day — how it hurt my feelings and how it made me want to never enter that disgusting dungeon again. How it made me feel, for the first time, that my body was wrong. That it needed fixing.

“It’s just baby fat, hon,” my mom told me, with that 100-percent-guaranteed tone only a mom can have. “You’ll grow out of it.”

The fact that I was a little chubber had really failed to register on my radar before then. I grew up in a happy home in my small family in rural Wisconsin. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but I felt like I didn’t need them. I loved to read, think and play — building giant theatre complexes out of Legos before writing surprisingly sophisticated scripts for my tiny plastic people to perform. I was happy.

But as I was entering middle school, it was different. I came to realize that the “husky” tag on my Arizona Jean Co. jeans set me apart from my classmates — and it didn’t help that I wasn’t particularly gifted athletically or interested in any sports besides figure skating, gymnastics or beauty pageants.

Whenever I found myself near a swimming pool, I was that kid wearing a shirt in the water, fooling everyone with my one-man wet t-shirt contest. The thought of being ridiculed was too much and I never learned how to swim. Land would have to do.

When I told my dad about being bullied for what I soon learned were my “manboobs,” my dad’s comfort was simple: “Look at me,” he would say, “I was always the biggest kid in my school so you know what I did to the first twerp that made fun of me for it? I dunked his head right into a toilet. Fluuuuush. No one ever teased me again. It doesn’t matter what anyone thinks of you. Don’t you ever forget that.”

Though I wasn’t about to physically assault someone — I think he was seriously overestimating my upper body strength — I took the rest of his advice and tried my best to ignore the teasing. And as they say, it got better. Sort of. I retreated into a regrettable Korn-with-a-K-listening-to-nu-metal period of what would turn out to be my not-just-a-phase goth phase. I even played tennis for a couple of years. I lost some weight. When my braces came off and I got contacts at the start of high school, I thought my manboob days were behind me.

Of course, they weren’t.

At my first job, running trays of food to servers at a seafood restaurant at the age of 14, the expediter in the kitchen would yell out “Tits! Come and get it, Tits!” when my table’s food was up.

When my chest remained large, I sometimes wondered if there was a woman trapped in my man body. I’d stare at my penis for a half hour at a time and wonder if it was somehow possible that what I was looking at was actually some sort of lady-like part to match what I’d been told was my lady-like chest. (Sex-ed was not my school’s forte, but shoutout to MTV “Undressed” for clearing that all up.)

I’ve struggled with weight issues ever since, see-sawing between periods of disordered eating and obsessive exercising — when I was eating only half a Pop Tart for breakfast and three mozzarella sticks for lunch for almost an entire year of high school, weighing just 150 pounds — and other periods of complete inactivity, eating constantly and ballooning to almost 100 pounds more than that.

At one point, when I was dressed as Little Edie Beale from “Grey Gardens” for Halloween one year, one of my best friends, dressed as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, approached me at a party and grabbed and squeezed my chest flab.

“What are these MADE of?”

“My skin.”

Time can be funny. I remember feeling absolutely monstrous even at my skinniest, unhealthiest point. When I look back at photos from that time, it’s like I can almost see my skeleton showing through my way-too-thin layers of skin. Who knows, I might feel the same way looking at photos of myself today someday.

Speaking of today, I’m better, thankfully. I’m eating better — I’ve even come to like the taste of kale! — and I go to the gym at least three times a week. I don’t instantly associate rejection with my body the way I used to. I’d say, on a happiness scale of 1 to 10, I’m generally around an 8.

But sometimes the darkness creeps back in, as it tends to. Sometimes I still catch a glimpse of myself in the window of a building as I walk by and cringe at what I see. Some nights I dream of cutting away my extra fleshy parts and bleeding only pure, glittering joy at what was left. I still wake up other days and wish I could pull open my body at the waist to reveal a slightly smaller, otherwise identical version inside, like a matryoshka doll.

Of course, sometimes, the prompts are more external.

Last month, I was watching the Pride Parade as it marched and rolled down Halsted Street. Sandwiched between the entries from local politicians, corporations and bars was a float from a suburban liposuction clinic making their Pride debut. Riding the float were young children hoisting rainbow-hued flags reading “We’ll suck your fat!” And emblazoned on the side of the float was a sign exclaiming: “Say no to manboobs! We can get rid of them!”

I ended up writing a story about the float for my job and spoke with the clinic about their message. The story was later picked up by a number of blogs and news stations. She was shocked that anyone would be upset.

What their spokeswoman told me was that their message was one of love — that they are only trying to help people love themselves and help them look how they would like to look — and she reminded me that many companies would refuse to participate in a Pride Parade. She said she wanted “us” to know that they were “here for you guys.” I wanted to tell her to fuck off.

Of course, I’m not surprised that she was surprised anyone would be upset with their fat-shaming messages interrupting a day that is supposed to be about community and love. Some of the worst body-shaming I’ve ever witnessed has actually happened among members of my own so-called community. But this attack, coming from the outside, stung extra hard.

At one point during our conversation, the spokeswoman asked me what I would have suggested they write on their signs instead. I didn’t answer her question then but, after giving it some thought, I finally have an answer for her today.

What about: “Do what makes you happy!” Or “All bodies are beautiful, dammit!” Or maybe: “Listen to your body, do whatever the hell is right for it!”

I’ve come to understand, manboobs or no manboobs, our bodies are all we have. Let’s treat them like it while we still have them. And fuck anyone who says otherwise.

Election redux

It’s undeniable that many of the developments from this Tuesday’s election were disappointing to Democrats and progressive folk around the country. But I must admit that I had to pause this time before announcing another (mostly empty) threat to leave the country entirely, now that I – once again – live in one dark blue county surrounded by a sea of red.* That’s right – put the whiskey down, my friend: Contrary to the mainstream media narrative comparing the GOP takeover of the House and theoretical shutting down of political productivity in Washington to a tsunami, I think there are a few positives to take from Tuesday’s election results.

Farewell, Senator Feingold.

To be sure, the disappointments are there too, and there are many. Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, known best as the lone dissenting voice against the Patriot Act, was blown out of the water by his heavily-financed-by-out-of-state-$$$ Republican competitor Ron Johnson in my home state. Vehemently anti-war and a friend to the LGBT and immigrant communities, Feingold was a unique politician who truly voted with both his heart and mind — not always with his party. He will be missed dearly.

In Iowa, out-of-state, anti-gay dollars to the estimated tune of at least $600,000 squelched any hope of three state Supreme Court judges there to retain their jobs, collapsing under the weight of a far-reaching campaign to oust them following their affirmation of same-sex marriage in 2008. Brian Brown, leader of the National Organization for Marriage, one of the anti-gay organizations that bankrolled the campaign against the judges, is touting their successful campaign as “sending a powerful message to any judge who thinks they can impose gay marriage by judicial fiat against the wishes of the people.” NOM spent, all told, $7 million on this and other races in the name of “protecting marriage,” rendering mixed results but solidifying its status as the leading, most well-funded anti-gay group in the country.

Another important, mostly under-the-radar development is the likely death of net neutrality — a principle that blocks Internet service providers and governments from having too much influence on the Internet as we see it or creating tiers of “premium” access at different price points. Out-of-state funding here contributed to every single one of the 95 House Democrats who stood against net neutrality losing their races. Al Franken has called this the “First Amendment issue of our time” and, given Tuesday’s results, that may not turn out to be too broad of a hyperbole.

It was further saddening to see Penn. Congressman Patrick Murphy lose his race to Mike Fitzpatrick. Murphy was one of the leading voices in the House for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and was growing into a strong ally for LGBT people there on any number of issues. The fact that Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann earned over 50 percent of the popular vote statewide for the first time in her re-election is also somewhat troubling. Bachmann has consistently described gay people as having “sexual identity disorders” among any number of troubling positions on a number of social and economic issues. She stands a good shot at becoming the GOP’s Conference Chair.

But there is a glimmer of good news for LGBT activists. For the most part, candidates who campaigned on a fringe perspective, embracing anti-gay rhetoric to be used toward our communities and families, lost. And they did so from coast to coast: Senatorial candidates Ken Buck in Colorado, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Joe Miller in Alaska and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. Gubernatorial candidates Carl Paladino and Bill Brady in California and Illinois. I repeat: They all lost.. except for South Carolina’s Senator Jim DeMint, who has said that openly gay and sexually active, unmarried straight teachers should be barred from teaching children.

No dice this time, Miss Angle.

Perhaps now more than ever, public homophobia has become a political liability, unless you live in South Carolina apparently. But that’s not to say that politicians (both parties included here) are going to march, lock in step, toward endorsing equality for LGBT Americans or any other minority group. It seems just as likely that while public disgust with gay people may wane, that bigotry may continue its shift toward open racism against Muslim Americans and immigrant communities. And chances of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or comprehensive immigration reform passing during the lame-duck Senate session appear incredibly slim.

As of earlier this year, a higher percentage of Americans reported having negative feelings toward Muslims than reported opposing same-sex marriage. And while many politicians who utilized anti-Muslim rhetoric during their campaigns lost their elections – including Angle and Paladino who, notably, were also mentioned two paragraphs above – in Oklahoma, a ballot initiative successfully barred judges from “considering Islamic or international law when making a ruling.”

Indeed, bigotry remains alive and well and it would appear that any checks of the growing corporate influence on our politics, culture and lives will continue to be difficult to come by. It’s funny, over the course of this column those glimmers of “good news” have lost some of their sparkle so.. take that for what you will.

I’ll leave you with a song that feels appropriate as a lullaby to progressives everywhere today: Metric’s Emily Haines’ Winning.

*If you don’t already know, I attended college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, based in Dane County, one of only a handful of counties that did not vote to elect former president Bush to his second term in 2004, which marked my first time voting in a presidential race.

Films to see at Reeling ’10

Today, the twenty-ninth annual Reeling Film Festival opens here in Chicago with a lineup of extraordinary queer-centric features, documentaries and shorts. As the second longest-running LGBT film festival in the nation, Reeling has earned a unique status not only as a cultural institution among Chicago’s queer communities, but also among LGBT film festivals worldwide.

I wrote a feature for EDGE last week profiling Andy Blubaugh, the director of just one of the films playing the festival this year, The Adults in the Room. Blubaugh, who lives in Portland, Ore., takes a somewhat unusual approach to his filmmaking, using his own life experiences as a lens through which to view various social phenomena. In this, his first feature, Blubaugh references his experience as a 15-year-old engaging in a romantic relationship which a closeted man nearly twice his age, juxtaposing this narrative both with his own filmmaking process and the controversy surrounding Portland mayor Sam Adams’ relationship with a 17-year-old Beau Breedlove. The film deals with a potentially squeamish subject with a fresh perspective — one that makes it stand out from a lot of other queer cinema.

The Adults in the Room

“It was never my intent to be a ‘gay filmmaker,’ which is not to say that I don’t appreciate the support I’ve gotten from the queer filmmaking community and festivals I’ve been lucky enough to screen at, but I never considered that to be my home. I just make personal films and happen to be gay,” Blubaugh said.

This film, playing the festival Monday, November 8, at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema at 7:30 p.m., is just one of many gems playing the festival. Given the phenomenal contribution Reeling makes to this city’s dialogue on LGBT issues, I wanted to take a moment to spotlight five of its other offerings that would probably be worth your time to check out:

Gen Silent (Saturday, 11/6, 12 p.m.) – A Stu Maddux-directed documentary on the difficulties facing the aging LGBT population, a group that fought so hard to climb out of the closet only to be forced back in the winter of their lives.

JoJo Baby (Saturday, 11/6, 5 p.m.) – A hometown film depicting the man (and the dolls) that lives behind the wild makeup of JoJo Baby, a portrait of a truly inspired and bizarre queer artist. The documentary is produced by horror extraordinaire Clive Barker (Hellraiser, Candyman).

I Killed My Mother (J’ai Tue Ma Mere) (Saturday, 11/6, 7:15 p.m.) – A French coming-of-age feature from writer-director-actor Xavier Dolan telling the story of an angsty gay teen deeply at odds with his family. Bonus: Major hottie factor.

Rock Hudson: Dark and Handsome Stranger (Tuesday, 11/9, 7:15 p.m.) – We like to throw around Hudson’s name knowingly when discussing the legacy of gay actors in Hollywood, but how much do we really know about the former A-Lister, who was outed when he succumbed to AIDS in 1985? This documentary digs deeper.

Undertow (Contracorriente) (Saturday, 11/13, 7 p.m.) – Peru’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2011 Academy Awards is closing out this year’s Reeling. The feature tells the story of a sexy married fisherman’s complicated gay affair.

So… maybe I am a tad biased toward documentaries and foreign films? In addition to these, the Ewan McGregor-Jim Carrey gay film that’s finally seeing its limited American release after innumerable delays, I Love You Phillip Morris, plays Wednesday, 11/10, 9 p.m. And the shorts program titled Love is a Battlefield (Sunday, 11/7, 1:15 p.m.) includes two of James Franco’s shorts — including that naked basketball one.

Support queer film and check out Reeling ’10!

Excitement!

It’s been said that the only constant in life is that it is ever-changing.. And in that vein, comes an exciting announcement from My Writings and Me, Inc.

As of this Friday, I’ll be taking a leave from the fantastical Chicagoist. In the year-ish since I came on board the site, I’ve written 101 posts and enjoyed an incredible opportunity to reach a new audience with my writings on Chicago’s queer communities while dabbling in a bit of witchcraft – er, music coverage – too. (What, you haven’t!?) Dreams came true when I interviewed Mink Stole. I had an outlet for what turned out being a love letter of sorts to Courtney Love and ’90s nostalgia. And, more importantly, I had the opportunity to work closely with a talented bunch of hyper-motivated and hardworking fellow writers who I’m sure will continue to shock and amaze. So, if you haven’t already, please bookmark and follow Chicagoist religiously, as though it were the cult you almost joined in college. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

While you’re bookmarking things, be sure to add the Windy City Times’ home page, where you will shortly find news coverage written by yours truly. As of this week, I’m coming on board the incredible enterprise, which just celebrated its 25th anniversary of publication. I am honored and humbled to have the opportunity to work with such a legendary paper. As I described in my interview with publisher Tracy Baim for ChicagoPride.com, I think the paper provides not only invaluably attentive coverage of this city’s LGBT community, but also crucial visibility. I very much encourage you to check out last week’s special issue commemorating the paper’s silver anniversary to learn more about the paper’s past, present and future.

My work will also continue to be featured on ChicagoPride.com and Edge Media Network. Follow me on Twitter to stay on top of my latest pieces, and also be sure to visit my blog, which will continue to feature various run-off — most recently my response to former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee who, for some reason, is really obsessed with some article I wrote earlier this year.

Thank you all for your support through clicks, retweets, e-mails, “likes,” Facebook postings, comments, etc. etc., etc. As a good friend of mine, Brittany Julious pointed out in a recent interview with ch!cktionary, these are challenging times for freelance writers and every nugget of encouragement is fuel for our passions. Both that and news like this. And songs like this.