For more than 15 years, writer Benoit Denizet-Lewis has immersed himself in American subcultures to write controversial cover stories for The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Out, and other publications.
We caught up with him to talk about why gay people in particular love dogs so much, the blowback from his recent Times story on bisexuality, and the upcoming James Franco film that's based on his article about a now ex-gay friend.
Out: What is so crazy about America's dog culture?
Benoit Denizet-Lewis: We have the highest rate of dog ownership in the world. We talk a lot about our dogs being our kids, our dogs being members of our families and how spoiled they are--and that's true of a lot of our dogs, but it's not telling the whole story. We don't bring thousands of our kids back to shelters every day because they misbehave, or they don't match our new carpet, or our husband doesn't like them. I was really interested in looking at the different kinds of human-dog relationships we have. Does the homeless person living with their dog on the street in Seattle have the same bond with their dog as a wealthy gay man in Provincetown?
I had a very conflicted and strange relationship with my own dog, and it brought up a lot of my insecurities. This road trip was a chance for me to bond with him and better understand him. I met a guy on the trip. And I got to see a lot of the country I'd never seen before.
You meet some great gay characters along the way.
I met gay cowboys in Colorado, straight out of Brokeback Mountain, who use their Border Collies to herd their cattle. And I met Armistead Maupin and his husband and their dog in San Francisco. I was really interested in exploring the relationship that LGBT people have with their dogs--not to say that heterosexual people don't have incredible profound relationships with their dogs, because they do. In many longterm relationships, gay people don't have kids, so their dog becomes a kind of a kid. But also for a lot of gay men, growing up, their dog was who they could reveal all of themselves to, and be open and vulnerable and come out to. The dog wouldn't judge them, or reject them, or throw them out of the house.
My favorite part of the book is your stop in East St. Louis, where you work alongside a gay guy who has devoted his life to rescuing dogs.
This is hard to say without sounding cliche--I am happiest in the ghetto of East St. Louis rescuing dogs with Randy. It's the most alive I've ever felt. In a way, you're being selfless. You're helping these animals, and it's not about you: It's about them. But we can't just take a person we think is struggling, throw them in the back of a van, take them to a shelter and rehabilitate their life. People come with all kinds of complications and baggage. They're human beings--you can't just move them away from this place you deem unsuitable. But you can do that with dogs. You can just change their life. And I went entire days forgetting to check my cell phone. I said to Randy, maybe I should give up being a writer and just rescue dogs.
Randy's work seems monastic--this calling almost beyond reason, where you can see the value of his work but also what an extreme, kind of crazy life he's chosen.
We talked about that a lot. He says, "Oh yeah, I'm never going to have a boyfriend because my dogs are my partners." Plus he lives in a house with like 12 dogs that he rescued. It was really great to see him and these other LGBT people on the trip--to have this sense of community--because it's a lonely experience to drive around the country for four months.
Bottom line: Is it OK to judge people for not liking dogs?
I had a boyfriend who I dated for a couple years--and he's a really good friend of mine still--who only tolerated dogs. He tolerated Casey, but he'd also make fun of him. He'd give him sort of a courtesy pet, which made me crazily angry. Like, why don't you just have an instinct to be friendly to this animal? Now, I don't know that I would even tolerate that. I think that it would be a dealbreaker. I'm fascinated by people who have a fear of dogs--cynophobia--in a world where there are more and more dogs that we take to more and more places, including public spaces. But you can also get treated for that, but very few people do, they just tolerate it. And what sucks is then they'll very often pass it down to their kids. I try not to judge people, but probably, secretly, maybe I do a little bit.
Let's talk about your most recent cover story for The New York Times Magazine, about research into bisexuality. At Out, stories about bisexuality are often the most shared or commented on, but always generate really intense, often angry responses. Not surprisingly, I read a lot of criticism of your story, as well as how the Times packaged it.
I am proud of that piece, because I think it was a nuanced exploration of the topic. Emails I got from average Joe bisexual people were all very positive. The reaction I got from bisexual activists was mixed. When people don't see their experience reflected in these pieces, that can be very frustrating. This piece was mostly focused on men, because that's where there's still--surprisingly--often this gut reaction that bisexuality doesn't really exist. I was shocked how many of my gay friends would be dismissive of the reality of male bisexuality.
You could also do an entire piece on the health disparities of bisexuals. In studies, bisexual people have poorer health outcomes even than other gay people. I was criticized by some for not focusing my piece on that, but if I had focused on that, someone would say, why are you writing a whole story about how shitty the lives of bisexual people are? I'm used to these cover stories causing a reaction--and I'm fine with it, as long as people have actually read the piece. You'd be surprised how many people react without reading the piece.
Your style of immersive journalism seems to make it especially difficult for readers to separate a portrait of a community from an assumption about your bias or point of view.
One of the hardest things I've had to deal with over the years, whether it was writing about gay marriage or kids coming out in middle school, is this tension between needing to write the truth as I experience it as a journalist and this instinct to want to help the cause, help LGBT people, help equality and put our best face forward. Those two things are not always in agreement. In this bisexuality piece, I'd read the literature; I'd done the research. I didn't want to come at the piece from a suspicious angle or a bisexual chic kind of thing. Sexuality is complicated. People are complicated. So much of journalism that is writing about identity and sexuality is so knee-jerk and political and comes from an agenda, so I really just try to write about people in subcultures as honestly as I can, with all the messiness and all the complications.
I had interviewed James for The Advocate. When my story about Michael came out, James emailed me and said, "Are the rights still available?" Gus Van Sant was interested in producing it. Then Justin Kelly, a young director, got involved. Justin and I have very similar takes on the story. I wasn't interested in demonizing Michael or a knee-jerk take on ex-gays. Michael is this mysterious, maddening, fascinating, and enraging guy--all in one. And he's confusing. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what happened to my friend.
When we were working together at X/Y, if you would have asked anyone who would have been more likely to end up ex-gay in 20 years, everyone would have picked me. He was this crusading queer activist. I was 23, a couple years out of the closet, trying to help X/Y be a better magazine, trying to get laid, trying to get a boyfriend even though I wasn't sure if I wanted one. Michael had read, like, every gay book ever written. Going to Wyoming and meeting this guy again, it was like something out of the Twilight Zone. As a journalist it was fascinating, but as a human being it was very unsettling and uncomfortable.
Will someone be playing you in the movie?
Yes--there's a scene in the X/Y days and a later one when I come to visit him. They're trying to cast that right now. I'm just glad that James is interested in playing Michael and is helping to make this film happen. And Zachary Quinto is playing Michael's boyfriend, Ben, which is amazing. On a personal level, it's fun to see a little of our time at X/Y magazine, which was really a magical time. Michael and I had different perspectives, but we both wanted it to be much more serious than it was. And I've never worked at a magazine that meant more to readers.