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Meet the Queer Titans of Media Who Made This Year's Out100
Reality television aficionados will know Justin Sylvester as Kyle Richards's "ladysitter" on Bravo's The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. But Sylvester has grown into his own cultural force. He cohosts E!'s Daily Pop, an Emmy-nominated program about the entertainment industry; figures like Rihanna and Jared Leto often stop by to liven up the hour. And the gay host also gets to guest star on Today with Hoda & Jenna, where he brings his pop cultural insights to a network TV audience in a weekly segment, "Trendsday Wednesday."
"I am the person you can rely on for one hour to feel good and hopeful. Everyone needs their own happy hour," says Sylvester. He cites his Out100 inclusion as the year's proudest accomplishment. "I can recall my first time reading an Out magazine as a closeted high schooler in south Louisiana," he says. "I remember wondering if I would ever get a chance to even meet a man influential enough to be in Out. So, to be one is beyond that little boy's dreams."
"I grew up Catholic, went to Catholic school half my life -- so I was taught that being gay was a sin and an abomination," Sylvester adds. "The challenge was coming to the realization that I wasn't a mistake and God knew exactly what they were doing -- all while redefining my faith."
Sylvester will soon make a film cameo in Marry Me with J.Lo and is also starting the long process of fostering a child. -- D.R., Photo Brandon Sosa E! Entertainment
In Out's Last Call column, Alexander Cheves dispenses advice ranging from the need for gender-inclusive packaging of sex toys to the ethics of fashion's fetish appropriation. Although barely 30, Cheves has offered advice related to queer sex since his intern days at The Advocate and later through his popular blog, Love, Beastly, where folks of every age can learn about better bottoming and kink culture alike. Cheves summarizes, "I work in sex, both on the page and off. I am an author, columnist, advice blogger, and sex educator. I am also an occasional sex worker, providing intimate experiences and companionship."
Cheves's life experiences are chronicled in his new memoir, My Love Is a Beast: Confessions, detailing his upbringing on a farm by Christian missionaries alongside his queer sexual awakening. The book -- already in its second printing from Unbound Edition Press and promoted by Cheves in venues like the Folsom Street Fair and fisting festivals -- is a hit, which surprised Cheves. "I had no idea that so many people would want to read about the life of a sex pig," he confesses.
Cheves credits the "men of previous generations" for their support. "They gave me my identity, my HIV meds, and my ability to live as openly as I do, and so much of queer male culture abandons and isolates these great men, these fighters and survivors. I cannot do that -- I was raised by them," he says. "So this book is my love letter...[to them and anyone who] journeys to find where they fit. That's all my story is, just with more lube." -- D.R., Photo Jason Holland
Newspaper columnist, author, TV host
As a New York Times columnist for 13 years, Charles M. Blow has maintained an extraordinary reach and relevance through four presidencies and a stunning degree of social change. Now 51, the bisexual writer, thinker, and father of three has seen his influence grow even wider this year. In January, Blow released The Devil You Know: A Black Power Manifesto. The critically acclaimed book lived up to its bold title, urging Black Americans to move away from northern and western states and return to the South as a way to regain political power and reverse entrenched racism. Blow argues the Great Migration to the North has come full circle -- many police killings of Black Americans are in states far from the old Confederacy. And white power structures in blue and purple states are as harmful to Black lives as the overt anti-Blackness of places like Louisiana, where Blow grew up, impoverished and abused. Blow recounted his painful past and his inspiring ascent in the beloved 2014 memoir Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Just this fall, the Metropolitan Opera in New York premiered an opera based on the book -- the work, composed by Terence Blanchard, was the first opera by a Black composer in the Met's 138-year history.
The writer, who often appears as a commentator on MSNBC and CNN, made the full leap to television personality when his weeknight news show, Prime With Charles Blow, premiered on the Black News Channel in May. The program doesn't just recap the day's news but digs deep, exploring issues like the Black gaze and the influence of Christianity on African-American life. On top of all this, Blow -- walking the walk of The Devil You Know -- moved to Georgia this year.
"I love Atlanta, but change is tough even when it's positive," Blow tells us. --Neal Broverman, Photo Sonia Recchia/Getty
Chaya M. Milchtein knows cars. And she wants you to know them better too. The automotive educator founded Mechanic Shop Femme, Inc. "with the mission of helping the average car owner and driver better understand their vehicle," she states.
The queer femme empowerment speaker also spreads the automotive gospel through a variety of mediums: teaching classes at universities, libraries, nonprofits, and companies; writing for publications like Real Simple and Parents; and sharing lessons on her website, mechanicshopfemme.com. "I conquered my fear of video this year, growing a platform to continue my mission on TikTok to over 400,000 people," she touts.
Folks aren't tuning in just for lessons on maintenance and used car purchasing. In a 2020 profile, The New York Times described Milchtein as a "style influencer" who also specializes in writing about plus-size fashion and queer lifestyle. And she's not afraid of sharing her personal life with her fans. During the pandemic, thousands virtually attended her self-advertised "Biggest, Queerest Wedding of the Year" to her partner, JodyAnn Morgan.
While acknowledging her successes, Milchtein -- who also identifies as Jewish, a first-generation American, and a former foster kid -- is also plain about the hardships everyone has faced recently. "The last two years have been rough for all of us...no matter what our personal struggles [may be]," she says. --D.R., Photo Chana Milchtein
Denne Michele Norris
Denne Michele Norris made history this year when she became the editor in chief of Electric Literature; she is now the first Black transgender woman to helm a major American literary publication. She is a published writer herself, as her work has appeared in esteemed outlets like McSweeney's and American Short Fiction. The New Yorker also cohosts the podcast Food 4 Thot, a popular roundtable about sex, identity, and reading.
While Norris wears many hats, she ultimately identifies as a storyteller. "As an editor, I support many writers in helping them craft and refine stories, essays, novels, and memoirs," she says. "As a writer, I work through the complexities and contradictions of my own life for the sake of better understanding the world and telling the stories I most needed to find and didn't find during the darkest and most joyous moments in my own life."
Norris, a former figure skater and "lapsed violist," cites her embrace of her trans identity to the world as her proudest accomplishment this year. "Every step I've taken -- whether writing about it or simply stepping out of my apartment in an outfit that helps me feel closest to my authentic self -- feels like a small step in reclaiming who I am and doing it in the image of who I've always known myself to be," she attests.
Norris was also surprised to have gotten her EIC post; initially she "almost withdrew my resume from consideration" due to self-doubt, but she is "working hard to break" that mindset. Look out for her debut novel, which is "finally just about ready." -- D.R., Photo Hilary Leichter
George M. Johnson
After establishing a career as an activist and journalist, George M. Johnson made an indelible mark in the literary world with his 2020 "memoir-manifesto," All Boys Aren't Blue -- a series of essays about growing up Black and queer. The New York Times praised the "wit and unflinching vulnerability" they displayed in the retelling of their life's darkest times. Actress Gabrielle Union is now developing the book into a TV series with Johnson.
"The work I do as a Black queer storyteller ensures that Black stories, which have always existed but rarely get told, finally get the attention and respect they deserve from our lens," Johnson says.
The writer follows their successful debut with another memoir this year, We Are Not Broken, which chronicles Johnson's childhood growing up with his brother and cousins, who were all raised by their grandmother. We Are Not Broken "was a way for me to grieve the loss of my grandmother and center her and how she took care of Black community," Johnson shares.
In the past year, Johnson, who identifies as nonbinary, struggled with the isolation brought on by the pandemic. "Being a writer can be isolating which is even harder during a period of life in COVID which further limits human interaction," they say. "My spirituality carried me through it."
There is more writing on the way: a middle-grade novel called Five Second Violation and a nonfiction YA book, Property of No State. -- D.R., Photo Vincent Marc
Streaming moguls LaShawn McGhee, Jonah Blechman, Damian Pelliccione, and Christopher J. Rodriguez
@revrytv, @lashawnmcghee, @jonahblechman, @damianmedia
While streaming queer-themed content is becoming more and more accessible on big-name services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, and Disney+, it's important that there are other platforms out there that are founded and run by queer folks, especially since many mainstream platforms have corporate interests that don't always align with those of the greater LGBTQ+ community.
That's why services like Revry are so important. Besides offering an extensive library of LGBTQ+ TV series, films, and music, the streaming network was founded by a diverse group of LGBTQ+ folks. And in the six years since its founding, Revry has become a go-to place for many queer fans to get all the content they could ever want.
"Cofounding Revry has afforded me the opportunity to present LGBTQ+ voices and perspectives to a global audience," cofounder and chief product officer LaShawn McGhee says. "I facilitate queer representation and, through streaming media, put a human face on our vibrant culture. Revry is a place where we can be seen and where we can discover other experiences within the queer community."
"On a high level, it's a wonderful mix of creativity, strategy, and problem solving," cofounder and chief business officer Christopher J. Rodriguez adds. "In a start-up, every day comes with its own set of hurdles, and you just have to roll with it. That's the fun and the challenge of it all."
"When you are an entrepreneur/founder of a business, there are many large obstacles. It's never really just one," cofounder and CEO Damian Pelliccione says. "Part of being a CEO is learning how to prioritize the challenges being thrown at you constantly. If I could narrow it down to one major obstacle I face year over year, [it] is proving to the investment communities the size and potential scale of the LGBTQ+ market. In the USA alone, LGBTQ+ people spend over $365 billion a year in disposable income. If you were to bottle the spending power of that market it would be the 12th-largest economy in the world. There is power there. Part of my job as CEO is to evangelize this massive growing market and the opportunity as it relates to media and streaming. This year I made a point to speak as loud as I could in public mainstream forums like Forbes magazine and Ad Age. When these articles were published, my inbox was flooded with positive responses. I feel like my message was received and I hope to continue to bring this message to the global stage."
"Amplifying LGBTQ+ representation by growing Revry as head of development and production, while producing and acting in projects with artists I respect and admire," Revry executive Jonah Blechman says about what's next for his work with the streaming platform, which helps up-and-coming creators showcase their work. "And stepping into my directorial feature debut. Of course, I'm always open for collaboration!"
"I want to continue to help Revry scale and eventually produce my own story ideas," McGhee says of her plans. "I also want to join organizations and develop partnerships where I can continue making a difference for the LGBTQ+ community." -- R.E.
Christopher J. Rodriguez, Damian Pelliccione, LaShawn McGhee Photographer Bird Lambro; Jonah Blechman Photographer Gregory Zabilski
In the never-ending culture wars, LGBTQ+ people and religious folks are often pitted against one another. Activists like Ross Murray show a more enlightened path forward. The Lutheran deacon founded a youth ministry for LGBTQ+ youth and allies, the Naming Project, which shows that faith and queer identity can walk hand in hand. The ministry's success inspired Murray to write a book, Made, Known, Loved, a guide for religious leaders "who want to build communities of faith where LGBTQ youth know they are loved in the eyes of God," he says.
Creating a welcoming space is personal for Murray. "Because I had found such acceptance as a gay man in my home and college communities, I assumed that I could be my own charming self and win others over to the idea that someone could be Christian and part of the LGBTQ community. But it didn't work out that way," says Murray, who was once told he was "desecrating" a ministry and kicked out.
Now, Murray preaches the LGBTQ-inclusive gospel as a producer of the Yass, Jesus! podcast. He's also the senior director of education and training at the GLAAD Media Institute, which teaches acceptance nationwide.
"There are a lot of well-intentioned people who feel like they don't know how to stand up and speak out.... I want to help them build those skills because our world...needs more vocal allies," he says. -- D.R., Photo Richard Garnett
Even when we're isolated from each other, art has the power to bring us all together, and that's what makes the work of creators like Ryan Pfluger so important.
A beloved photographer and storyteller, Pfluger's diverse range of portraits capture honest, intimate, and emotional moments that you wouldn't be able to embody through words alone. And though it's been a rough year, Pfluger says he's able to keep his passion for photography going during a time when passion and happiness is exactly what we all need to carry on.
"It's been mentally taxing on all of us and finding ways to navigate that while being a semi-functional human is the best we can ask for," he says of surviving the pandemic, one of his largest obstacles to date, over the past year and a half. "Luckily, I found my comfort in creating."
And that comfort helped him with his latest project, Holding Space, a series of photographs featuring the stories of interracial couples (due out as his first monograph next fall through Princeton Architectural Press). The project helped him "create community and conversation," he says. -- Raffy Ermac, Photo Travis Chantar
Owain Wyn Evans
BBC North West Tonight weather presenter Owain Wyn Evans made headlines this year during the United Kingdom's LGBT History Month, when he opened up about the difficulties of coming out in the media world. Evans specifically detailed what it was like for him growing up in South Wales, the industry pressure to stay closeted, and how he still receives homophobic messages on social media.
"I was fortunate enough to be able to share my coming-out story -- from growing up in a working-class coal mining town, going back into the closet when I got my first TV job, to now, where I'm completely able to be myself on camera," he says. "The response I got from older and younger LGBTQI+ people was incredible."
Wyn describes himself as an "unapologetically flamboyant TV presenter, weatherman, and drummer with a penchant for a nice three-piece suit, brooch, and pocket square."
"Being unapologetically camp on TV can lead to criticism from inside and outside the LGBTQI+ community," Evans says. "The harder obstacle was feeling the need to balance the ridiculous expectation of being a 'masculine' drummer and being a camp TV personality. I decided to reject that overly masculine energy that can sometimes be associated with drumming and be myself -- and do it deliberately, dahling!" -- D.G,. Photo Ali Mills
Host, disco diva @madamejeuge
In April, Gracie Cartier -- a former celebrity hairstylist who has worked with Alicia Silverstone and Jada Pinkett Smith -- came out as living with HIV on her newly launched show, Transcend. The moment marked a major turning point for Cartier, a self-described "proud Black trans queen" who now wanted to use her platform to uplift marginalized people.
"I envisioned that moment for almost 20 years since being diagnosed," Cartier says. "Not to mention, I once modeled for an HIV medicine campaign that was featured in [the] Out Hot List 2012. Talk about full circle."
One person who inspired Cartier is her mother -- she learned the art of hair from her. Her mother sadly passed this year. "She was my everything. Understanding her guidance from the other side gets me through each day," Cartier says.
Now, Cartier is helping others live their truth on Transcend, a series on the platform +Life, co-founded by ABC reporter Karl Schmid to destigmatize HIV. As host, Cartier leads conversations on wellness, mental health issues, health disparities, and more. "I would describe the work I do as an ever-evolving inward journey of self-reflection and discovery," Cartier says. "One that humanizes, informs, and inspires others in such a way to advance dialogues."
It's the latest career move in the Philadelphia native's dazzling resume, which includes runway modeling for Marco Marco and acting in projects like The Pantheon of Queer Mythology, a selection in last year's Tribeca Film Festival. She is also known as Madame Jeuge, "the disco diva of L.A.'s nightlife scene."
But Cartier knows that change is natural: "We are all transforming and coming into the most powerful versions of ourselves." -- D.R., Photo Martin Salgo