Take the Last Bite

In 2021, what has brought you the most joy or taught you the greatest lessons? In part one of this "small bites" series, we reflect on these questions and more as we discuss quirky, queer animated characters (2:46), collective grief and learning through loss (23:08), and building a relationship with wilderness in the gay outdoors (47:18). Be sure to come back for another serving of small bites on January 4.

Show Notes

In 2021, what has brought you the most joy or taught you the greatest lessons? In part one of this "small bites" series, we reflect on these questions and more as we discuss quirky, queer animated characters (2:46), collective grief and learning through loss (23:08), and building a relationship with wilderness in the gay outdoors (47:18). Be sure to come back for another serving of small bites on January 4.

What is Take the Last Bite?

Take the Last Bite is a direct counter to the Midwest Nice mentality— highlighting advocacy & activism by queer/trans communities in the Midwest region. Each episode unearths the often disregarded and unacknowledged contributions of queer & trans folks to social change through interviews, casual conversations and reflections on Midwest queer time, space, and place.

For questions, comments and feedback: lastbite@sgdinstitute.org

To support this podcast and the Institute, please visit sgdinstitute.org/giving

Host: R.B. Brooks, they/them, director of programs for the Midwest Institute for Sexuality & Gender Diversity

Cover Art: Adrienne McCormick

R.B.:
Hey, hi, hello, y'all. This is R.B. and welcome back. Let's talk about 2021, shall we? If you're anything like me, your concept of linear time has been busted since we got ushered in into shutdowns back in March 2020. So let me offer a little recap, just as a reminder. The start of this year looked like it came straight out of an Octavia Butler book. Every single Wednesday in January offered a new National headline starting with the January 6 Insurrection, followed the next week by the articles of impeachment being put forward against the outgoing President, followed the next week by the inauguration of the incoming President and finishing off in the final week of January with GameStop lovers shocking the stock market to the chagrin of capitalists everywhere. And that's just the first four weeks of 2021. From there, we got vaccinations and antivax propaganda. We got the Montero Album, and an anti-Black anti-queer commentary no one asked for. We added Jojo Siwa, The Potato Head, and Gonzo to the queer family tree. We crossed our fingers that the billionaires who jettisoned themselves into space stayed there, and we snapped, squealed, and lamented during the series finale of Pose. What a year it's been. But before we slip 2021 into the archive and tiptoe cautiously into 2022, our team is reflecting on what has brought us joy and what has taught us the greatest lessons this year in a two part series of small bites. In part one, we talk about queer animation, grief and learning through loss, and building a relationship with wilderness in the gay outdoors. Enjoy these snippets of insight, nerding out, nostalgia, and candor for this special episode of Take the Last Bite.

[Music Playing]

Y'all we cannot do this. We cannot be these stereotypical Midwesterners. Please eat the rest of this food.

We just have these conversations every day with people like this is exhausting. I don't want to do this anymore.

Why can't we be in space with hundreds of other queer and trans folks and having these necessary conversations?

I don't know who you are, but we're going to talk by the potatoes for five minutes

Because aesthetic is the only thing keeping my dysphoria at bay. I'm broke all the time, but I look amazing.

Definitely going to talk about Midwest Nice and if that's as real as it wants to think it is.

Midwest nice is white aggression. That's what it is.

[End Music]

R.B.:
In our first small bite, I chat with our director of technology and resident nerd, Andy Newhouse, about some TV shows that have made them particularly happy this year.

R.B.:
Alright, fam, so let's get into it. We hung out in person a couple of times in the past few months. I came to your place when we were doing some retreat stuff with the full team, and then we were together again in October for the conference and both times you took master control of the remote and decided what we were watching, which was fine. But, you made some very particular choices because there were two shows in particular that we're going to get into, that you wanted to talk about that were part of your immediate response when thinking about what brought you joy or what really made you smile during the past year. So, what were those shows that you made sure that everybody was watching while we were spending time together?

Andy:
The shows were She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and Owl House. She-Ra is on Netflix, and it's a collab between Netflix and DreamWorks, and DreamWorks has been killing it recently with like, just, really awesome animation and shows. And then the other one is Owl House, which is on Disney Plus. And the reason why I was so adamant that we all had to watch them is because they both have pretty awesome queer representation.

It's really cool as an adult remembering watching cartoons and animation as a kid and not having any queer representation, even obliquely. Whereas now it's not only in front of your face, but it's canon.

R.B.: Do you want to talk a little bit about a little bit of the premise of each of those shows? Right. And then we can get into the nitty gritty of the characters and what exactly that clear representation looks like.

Andy:
So She-Ra is a remake of an 80s live action show that apparently is super campy, and I've never watched. But basically, in the first episode, you're dropped into this world where the main character Adora is learning to battle against princesses, and she's fighting for the Horde because she's an orphan, and that's where she's just, like, grown up her whole life. And the princesses are violent instigators that she's taught. And then as you go through, you learn, oh, wait, the Evil Horde has been lying to you the whole time, and they actually stink, and they're trying to take over this planet. And so she allies herself with the princesses and then finds a sword and the sword turns her into She-Ra, which is this mythical Princess from thousands of years ago. There's this whole, like, 20 seconds transformation sequence, which is very anime-esque, like, Sailor Moon vibes. Yeah. So that's the premise of She-Ra. It's like fighting against the evil Horde with a bunch of princesses. And on the whole, when I first heard about this show, I was like, I'm not going to like this because I'm not super into Princesses at all, like pink and flowery. And no, thank you. But after watching an episode of it like, actually, this is good and I like it and we're going to keep watching it. My wife and I watched the whole thing in probably a week.

The other one, Owl House, Luz Noceda gets in trouble at school because she's too weird and her mom wants to send her to a reality check camp, which has some other vibes, but whatever anyway. But instead of going to the summer camp, she accidentally falls into this world of demons and runs into her two be mentor, Eda the Owl Lady, and her companion, King, who's basically a cubone dog mix. And, like Luz’s ambition in the human world was to be a witch. And now she's dropped into a demon realm where being a witch is a reality. And so she has to learn how to do magic even though she isn’t a biological witch, but learns how to do magic anyway. And it's just her and her friends' adventures in the Boiling Isles, and it's pretty cute. And exactly what I would have loved to watch as a twelve year old, ten, twelve year old watching Disney Channel instead of like Lizzie McGuire.

R.B.:
Let's tuck into that a bit more. Right. So you brought up now twice that the appeal of these shows that you're so hyped about is that this was not content that you recall encountering or that you believe existed when you were twelve. So it sounds like maybe there's a level of reclamation of childhood in being able to be how old you are now and watching these shows. What specifically about these shows do you think is so appealing, right? You said that She-Ra, not something you probably would have clicked on, just based on our traditional conceptions of what a Princess is. And then yet you loved it. Was it storyline? Was it truly, like, there's plenty of content, like, books, media, otherwise with queer content. But what is it about maybe some of these characters in either of these shows that were like, wow, this made me binge this in a week?

Andy:
With She-Ra, like, A, it was cool to see Princesses, but not in the Disney kind of princesses looking for a husband. Like, yes, there is a queer relationship. So the major antagonist in She-Ra is Adora's childhood friend Catra. And so, like the entire series, there is, I would say, like sexual tension between them. There is clearly, like an attraction that is beyond just like, friendship and kinship of, like growing up together. But you don't really see that relationship become a thing until the end. Not the last episode, like a lot of other stuff, but like four episodes from the end, but like, also it's just undeniably queer. It just gives off queer vibes from the beginning, where there's like rainbows everywhere, and the characters are actually good friends and actually communicate as well as teenagers can. And, I don't know, I think the undeniable queer vibes as well as knowing there was going to be a queer relationship at the end, and it was a pretty apparent attraction from the beginning. It was just cool. And also like fighting robots and martial arts sequences with swords and magic and stuff that is way up my alley. And I love that kind of stuff.

R.B.:
It helps that you're just a nerd.

Andy:
Yes. It just helps that I am a nerd.

R.B.:
It helps that you're a nerd. And then it's a bonus that it happens to be very queer content.

Andy:
Yes. Owl house. At first I was honestly skeptical of, like, we got a recommendation from a friend to watch it, but we watched one episode. I was like, I don't know, maybe. And we watched the second episode, and I think what really drew me into Owl House was that I could see a lot of myself in the main character. It is canon that the main character is neuro-divergent, which is super cool to see neuro-divergent characters not necessarily explicitly named, but it was something the creator said that this is a thing. And also, like, the cast of characters are just really endearing and cute and silly and I just, coming from She-Ra, which is more of a serious vibe to Owl House, which is more of a, I mean, it's for Disney Channel. It's got a Disney Channel vibe of fun and silliness and has some serious moments, but also has really great character development, and apparently that's the end of that thought.

R.B.:
What I feel like I'm hearing is that with both of these shows, you didn't necessarily have to work very hard mentally to necessarily read the queerness because it's actually there, right?

Andy:
Yeah.

R.B.:
When we talk about it being canon, right. But it's actual. It's an actual thing. I think queer folks oftentimes experience the societal gas lighting, if you will. Where it's like, why are you trying to make everything queer? Like, why are you trying to twist this or warp this? And in this situation, right? You're able to watch something that's comedic. It's quirky, it's cute, it's animated, it's kid friendly, and it's queer without you kind of having to do these mental gymnastics to want it to be queer because it's not baiting us, right? It's actually there.

Andy:
Granted, I got on the Owl House train long after it premiered. It premiered in early 2020, and we're currently as of this recording waiting for the second half of the second season. But to me, it's amazing to see in Owl House, and I guess this is spoilers. But if you've been on the Internet, it's no. Tto see a queer relationship between Luz, the main character and Amity supporting character friend. They cement their relationship as girlfriends midway through the beginning of the second season, rather than it being at the end of the series, like in She-Ra’s case, four episodes before the end that they admit that they're pretty much attracted to each other, but they don't actually cement their relationship in any substantial way until the last episode, or The Legend of Korra, where, like Nickelodeon at the time, wouldn't allow the creators to let girls kiss in the show. So the last scene is Asami and Korra looking at each other's eyes and walking into the spiritual realm. It wasn't until a tweet after the fact that the creators were like, yes, they were together. This is what this was supposed to be. And so that is what I'm kind of used to. It is so cool to see a cemented, no, this is legitimately a relationship. They are cute and they hold hands. And it's also like, in the case of the Owl House, it's not like, okay, they're together and that's that, they're, like, shy about it. And it just really brings up those queer or even like, your first crush. It doesn't matter what the gender or if you're gay or queer or whatever. It just brings back those memories of your first crush. So cute. It is so queer and just fills to you with warm fuzzies. And I'm sorry, what in this world do we need more than warm fuzzies? Because this world kind of sucks right now, and I don't know the escapism of going to the demon realm of the Boiling Isles and watching Luz learn magic while hanging out with her friends, going to magic school without a TERFy creator because the creator of the Owl House is queer. She's bi. There is a nonbinary character in Owl House, which is also played by a nonbinary actor. There's a non binary character in She-Ra, which is played by a nonbinary actor, and it's just like, all of the queers all of the time. This is awesome.

The elephant in the room is that Owl House is being cancelled by Disney. Some speculate that it's like, because it's so queer. But really, I think it's more because Disney has decided that it is too mature for their target audience on Disney Channel. The undeniable trend is that content and especially animation, is getting queerer over time. It's getting more POC over time, both in character representation and actors and actresses playing those characters. So, like, Owl House getting canceled is not my favorite thing, but also the fact that Owl House exists at all is awesome that Disney picked it up in the first place.

It's been especially awesome to see more POC representation. It's not just like your token best friend is POC. Like the main characters are POC.

R.B.:
They're not playing the villain. For decades of animated shows, especially out of Disney, is that, why are all the villains queer coded and POC?

Andy:
Yeah. So yeah, it's really nice seeing, like, okay, She-Ra, the main character's white, but her two best friends are POC. In Owl House, the main character is Dominican, her friends are POC. I don't know. It's just instead of there being one person that's POC, it is a plethora of people. And it's like, is this the end? No. But is it progress? I would say so.

R.B.:
Right. And it seems like both the content that's being put forward and what's happening behind the scenes, right? Like the deliberate choices, the character development, who's in the room, who's doing the voice acting? A lot of that seems to have been shifting and changing for the better to provide you with something worth watching when you're scrolling through your streaming service to click on something that's going to satisfy your nerdy desire to watch animated shows. So you're waiting for part two of Owl House.

Andy:
Correct.

R.B.:
What, without maybe any more spoilers about what's already taken place, but knowing what's already taken place and what is yet to come, what are you hoping for out of part two? That will make you very satisfied with the conclusion?

Andy:
I’m not super sure, but I would love to see Luz's mom kind of accept her for being weird and being quirky as well as being queer, because I don't know if that's a thing that Luz’'s mom knows yet.

R.B.:
Okay.

Andy: I would like to be able to see the demon realm and the human realm kind of more or less coexist. I don't know. I don't want to speculate too much, because then I'm going to like, Is this how I want it to be? Probably not. And I don't want to get disappointed by it. But I also follow a ton of very talented artists on Instagram who, like, write comics and draw comics around, you know, Owl House and She-Ra. And so there's a lot of comics where they're like, oh, this is what this future event could look like, or Luz's mom and Eda, who is Luz's parental figure in the demon realm, them meeting for the first time on what would that look like? And this that and the other. And it's not only exciting to see mainstream media like Netflix and Disney create queer content. It's also just like seeing this community of folks getting really into it and spinning off their own stuff. And it's so inspiring and cool to see. And every time I scroll through Instagram, I'm like, bombarded with these comics, and I'm like, these are so cute, and they fill me with warm fuzzies while I'm waiting for more canon content.

R.B:
So to wrap up, is there any final thoughts? Words of wisdom, additional praise you'd like to give to bookend your expression of joy around queer animation.

Andy:
If you haven't watched She-Ra or Owl House, definitely check it out. If animation TV shows aren't your jam, you should definitely check out The Mitchells vs The Machines, which is also on Netflix, and it's a movie, and it's quirky and queer too.

There's so much animated content out there that I don't think I realized existed until we're trapped at home and scrambling to find stuff on Netflix and all of our streaming stuff. And I think we've watched pretty much all of the animation content that is available, and we just keep watching more and more as it comes out. And I think there is current, a lot of the animators who work at Disney are currently going through contract negotiations. So, like, supporting them in that because they're underappreciated and overworked, as are we all.

R.B.:
Snaps for that.

Andy:
But, yeah, I think snaps to all the creators who are making awesome stuff and making what our kids see much more open and accepting and healthy than what we may have consumed as kids. It's exciting.

R.B.:
Appreciate you, fam, sharing about your TV shows.

Andy:
Yeah, my TV show obsessions, and it was kind of funny, I guess one last little book end. The other thing that I really appreciate of a lot of these animated series that are coming out is they have a story arc, and the creators are sticking to the story arc. When She-Ra ended, it ended at the appropriate time. But damn, do I wish there was more.

[music plays briefly]

R.B.:
And now for something completely different, I talked with chaotic Aries, Robert Alberts, about how to come together during collective grief and other lessons they've learned through loss.

R.B.:
This Small Bite series, we're talking about joy. And we're also talking about extracting lessons from this year, and a combination of both. So for you, could you share one of the things that taught you some deep and meaningful lessons this year?

Robert:
Yeah. I think one of the things that happened this year is that I lost my grandma. I don't know. Maybe. Is it three months ago now, four months ago? I don't know what, but it was one of those pieces where I got a phone call as I was, oh, my God, it was July because I was moving here. Wild. Absolutely wild. Anyways, I got a phone call from my dad, and my dad was like, hey, your grandma is really sick, and I remember being like, okay, what does that mean? My grandma is like, 82 years old, like, really sick or like, old, like, quantify this for me, my guy. And so he was like, she's not doing well. I'm flying down there. Your uncle is down there already, and I just remember my heart, like, speeding up, being like, oh, my God. Is this it? He called me back a few hours later. He was like, we need to book you a flight. Like, you need to come say goodbye. This is the time to do that.

It was one of those moments where, like, I've lost people before. So, my first year of grad school, I lost my aunt. But this feels different. It feels really different. And so saying goodbye to someone and then being able to say goodbye to someone, especially her is like something I'll cherish forever because not everyone is blessed enough to do that, right. Not everyone is afforded that opportunity. And moreso, she got to decide what the end looks like for her, which, again, not everyone is blessed enough for making decisions on that. I think tying right back into this theme of, like, joy and lessons learned, even though it's hard saying goodbye to someone, there's some comfort that I think you can take in being able to make an intentional trip to say goodbye and knowing that they get autonomy and decision making and what that looks like for them at the end, knowing that they've got power behind that, right. They have the ability to control those pieces when so many folks don't have that. So, yeah, I think that's the biggest context for me of where to start.

R.B.:
Yeah, definitely. You kind of mentioned, right, that it's not that this is the first loss you've experienced by any means, but that this one holds particular weight. This one has particular impact. What is it about losing your grandma that has landed the way that it is for you?

Robert:
I think when I was growing up before, I was, like, eight or nine, my dad got remarried when I was, like, eight or nine, and I got older siblings, which was great. And up until then, I was the oldest grandkid, right? And so I was named after my grandfather. I was named after his brother, and I was the first one. I spent a lot of time being the only grandkid for a little bit, which meant that I got to go to Grandma's house all the time. And Grandma spent extra time with me, and we baked cookies, and we did other things. The story my grandma used to love to tell is that my grandma had a heart attack when I was around five or six, and I'm the one who found her passed out. And it was one of those things where she's like, if you didn't come looking for me, if you didn't find me, I wouldn't have made that. And so I think there's that other piece there of like when I was born, I was born ten weeks early, and they weren't sure if I was going to make it. But my grandma stood right by my incubator for weeks, taking pictures and being there. And so it really kind of felt full circle that I didn't realize until I started talking about it now that there is that special bond there. And so I think for me, the loss is heavier only because I don't know. I think losing a grandparent is so different, right? I couldn't imagine losing another family member, another aunt, which I did recently on Thanksgiving Day. I lost an aunt. But losing someone like that is hard, especially because my dad would drop me off for weekends. And so I think to make a short, long story short, we spent a lot of time together and a lot of opportunities. And I think that time really provided a lot of cool memories. But I think it also meant that there was, I'm cognizant of how much is now missing.

R.B.:
Right. A whole lot of not just a person missing the kind of experiential pieces of yourself that then go with that. Something we talked about in prep for this is that I've shared with you that I've known a handful of queer folks in their late 20s or early 30s who lost grandparents, and that I've witnessed that loss mean monumental things for the folks yourself included in my list of folks whom I've known. And that for the folks who've lost grandparents, those relationships were pivotal in place of some really complicated relationships with parents. And we also talked about how, like in the absence of queer elders that you're looking for possibility models and folks who have lived a certain amount of life. And for you like, that is Grandma. What about that rings true for you?

Robert:
Yeah. I think my maternal birth giver was and is a trash human in this world. And so I think Grandma, before my dad remarried, my grandma really fulfilled a lot of those maternal roles, which I think adds some additional complexity. But I think it's hard because when you're a queer person, bonds look really different, right? I think we talk about parenting and not to go too far, a lot of my education has been around counseling and relationship building. And so we talk a lot about when someone gets old enough to be a grandparent. They don't parent anymore, right? They're there for all the fun stuff, especially when they're not the primary caregiver. Being a primary caregiver changes that dynamic a little bit. But when they get to be a grandparent, it's so different than them raising children. And then they have all of the experience, right? Of raising kids. They get to look back on that in whatever way that looks like. And now they have grandkids. Right. And so it's all of the joy. Although that did not apply to my grandmother. She definitely gave me lots of corrections of how I should be behaving. But it's one of those things where it's just the relationship is so different because it also, like, special occasions, right? Like, I went to grandma's house on special times. It was a trip. It was a reward, right? It was exciting. And I think as queer people, it's a different kind of love that we get to learn. I would say it's similar to the love of our chosen family. You get to build a special bond that is outside of that nuclear home, outside of that siblings or, like, parents or whatever that looks like. And so I think you learn a different style of love and connection. And I think that provides a different pathway to grief. So I think for me that's the big center of it.

And just what we talked about perspective. I got a chance to see my great grandma who lived through the Great Depression all the way up to, like, I don't know, 2018, 2019. So she literally saw the Great Depression and saw, like, iPhones, which it's just when you put it in your brain like that, you're just kind of like, what the fuck? But the only reason she couldn't live by herself, she lived to, like, 98 years old. And the only reason she couldn't live by herself was because she just couldn't do steps. That was only the only reason. Otherwise, she was completely chill. She could cook and clean and do all that other stuff. But when you put that in context and you're learning about just the scope of life, it's fascinating. It's so fascinating to learn about perspective. And when there's no queer elders, there's no perspective on history. It siphons it down a little bit and gives you, like, one personal perspective. But it's also connected to people you love, people you care about.

R.B.:
Absolutely. I'm thinking of something you shared earlier, like, kind of learning some interesting tidbits about your grandma after her passing. Right. But that in one sense, that that's kind of disappointing is that those are things that you didn't necessarily get to hear from her. But can you talk about why it's actually kind of valuable and interesting that you're finding these things out about grandma and what some of those things are after her passing.

Robert:
Yeah. I think my grandma was your very traditional white Midwestern woman of, like, I'm not going to take up too much space. I'm not going to be very loud. I'm going to be really humble all the time. I'm going to exist here, right? Like, she grew up in the age of, like, my job is to raise children and cook dinner and be the housewife. That is my role. And she was happy with that. She was really happy with that. Which is why I think she loved her grandkids so much is because it afforded her a second go around in some instances of that. But I remember at her funeral, her sisters were, like, telling us all this stuff about our grand-, it's still baffling. I still can't reconcile the fact that my grandma grew up on a farm in, like, a farming family where her brothers went out to farm and cut shit down. And they had gardens to grow food, and they sewed their clothes. You know what I mean? What is this Oregon Tr-

R.B.:
Not running to Target.

Robert:
Wow. But one of the things is one of my aunts talked about how, great aunt, I don't know, great cousin, aunt, removed twice? I don't really understand how family works.

R.B:
They’re on the tree.

Robert:
Exactly. But she explained that she and my grandma and their other sister went and they're, like, we're going to take some dancing classes. And apparently my grandma was just, like, naturally good at that. And that is something I never would have known. I never saw her dance. I never saw her do anything. But she would go on to shows and win awards. And that was the thing she just did. And it's one of those things where you have a friend who is like, whoops I'm really good. That was her thing. But also she was brilliant. She was a teacher, and she became a math teacher. And in that time, a woman teaching high school level math, teaching algebra and calculus and trigonometry. And not only that, but being a national merit scholar doing those things, it's just baffling to me, like, I never would have expected her. It's not that I wouldn't have expected it. She just wasn't boastful enough to say any of that. And so you get this whole new dimension of this woman of, like, what?

She used to sew quilts. I have a hand sewn quilt from her. And when I say hand sewn, she would literally hand stitch her quilts, which until she got arthritis so bad, she couldn't do that. It's one of those things where you're like, what in the world? And so it's just one of those things of, like, we know that our parents or grandparents are complex humans. But you started learning from them about other people. And you're just like, this is incredible. I wish I could have known this sooner because I think that it would have meant so much more coming from her.

R.B.:
And to that point, right. You shared that maybe these are things you wish you could have asked Grandma about, or there might be things you wish you'd asked Grandma about before her passing, but she may not have told you, or she wouldn't have told you from a vantage point that other people might be sharing in this very glorifying way, this very praised filled way. So, yeah, you're getting elements of Grandma from other people who then get to carry on sentiments about Grandma and who she was as a person to kind of continue her legacy and kind of hold her energy in the context of who she was in ways that you can't get directly from her. But there are still these opportunities to learn more about her and understand who she was as a person.

Robert:
And there's also these deep buried memories, like, it wasn't until her funeral that I remember. So I was like, I don't know, seven or something. And it was one of the last Thanksgivings I had there at Grandma's house before my family took over hosting them. But I said next to Grandma because, of course I did. And we were hungry. And Grandma was like, do you wanna– so my family is really Irish and very Catholic and very religious. So we all had to sit down and wait until everyone could pray together before we could eat. And Grandma was like, do you want to know a prayer that will get us to eat faster? And I was like, yeah, she's like, all right, good bread, good meat, good Lord, let's eat. And of course I said that so loud and my father whipped around and was like, who taught you that? And my grandma just sat there laughing. I'm so sorry. I didn't know that would happen. And it's just like, I say that to people. And they were like, your grandmother taught to you? The woman who went to Church twice a week would go on Sunday morning and then would go with my grandfather when he woke up and would go to Bible study. Like, she's the one who taught you that? And I was like, yes, she did. So it's also cool to be able to contribute those things, too, because it's like, oh, yeah. There's a different side of grandmother you guys did not see.

R.B.:
Sometimes it's just time to eat and God will understand. I'm assuming maybe I'm not the one to make that assertion. So let's pivot a little bit, I guess, right. In thinking about, again, we're talking about this because you have experienced an individualized very specific and close, an important loss in your life. And it's also within the context of this larger pandemic, where collectively the entire planet is experiencing elements of grief, much of which in many ways probably hasn't been contended with. And in many ways we probably as like a society won't know how to contend with. I think I remember tweeting that there's not enough Yankee candles and therapy in the world to really even start to address what's going on here. Yeah. No, we're not going to self care our way out of the grit of this. And so for you, thinking about this larger context, but also what you've experienced just in the past handful of months with your specific loss. What is your perspective on grief and what wisdom do you have in this moment for, like, not to be overwhelmed with it?

Robert:
I think this is the perfect time to talk about Romeo. I wanted to bring up Romeo Jackson and their grief process because I think when they were grieving, it was really difficult for me to fully empathize with them because I had also lost someone as well. Around that time, I was like, how is this so heavy for you? What does this look like? And immediately after I lost my grandma, there was this moment of like, oh, I know, I know all, I understand Romeo's tweets now. Not in the same way. Their relationship with their grandmother was fundamentally different, right? But it was one of those days where I think they really designed a path that spoke to me about what grief looks like. Even still, there's an occasional tweet or two that I see from them about different aspects of grief, even around the holidays or around other important days. And so I think there's some honor and some appreciation there of having them be able to show what it looks like to be able to Romeo and actually grew up like, maybe 30 minutes from each other, maybe 45 minutes from each other. And so there's this also shared, like, growing up experience and knowing each other in some capacity. And so I think number one, they really demonstrated to me and allowed me a path of being okay with sitting with those big emotions and naming them.

I think the other thing, the analogy I use, which isn't completely flushed out. But the analogy I used a while ago is grief feels like a beach to me. There are some days where you're sitting in the sun and you've got your feet just kind of right there in the water and it feels good and like, yeah, it's not ideal yet. You can't go swimming right now, but you're there and it doesn't take away. And then there are some days where you feel like you're stuck at the beach and all of your clothes are wet. You've got sand in your shoes, the water is too cold and you're just stuck there. You're going to have both of those days. And I think when we talk about the pandemic and we talk about grief as well as other loss that's happened, I think everyone's beach is going to look different.

We were talking a little bit earlier about some people have broken glass and rocks and trash and things on their beach that just either make it difficult to navigate or scary to go one way or another, which impacts the way that they engage with their beach, where they engage with their grief and other folks maybe don't have anything on their beach. Maybe this is the first time or this is the first thing. And so maybe they're not sure how to move or they're not experiencing it in the same way. And so I think recognizing that we've all got this limited amount of land that borders this body of water and it's all going to look different.

But that doesn't mean I can't understand what it's like to be on a beach, even if I don't know what it's like to be on yours. And I think holding that and being okay with being on a beach is the first part. And grief culturally looks different for everyone. Right? The passing of someone into whatever comes next is so different. And I think there's this collective like, how do we mourn millions of people, especially people we've never met or will never meet or will never know? And what do we do with that? Because I think there's also this question of responsibility. We feel responsible for celebrating and recognizing people from our personal lives because they meant something to us. How do we recognize meaning from all of these people? We won't get you and never knew.

So it's heavy. And I think being okay with it being heavy and being okay with sitting on your beach sometimes and not knowing how you're going to get the stand out of your shoes or how you're going to dry yourself off, but you're there.

R.B.:
Yeah. It sounds like what a certain call to everyone could be, right is, A, we have to be willing to kind of discuss what our experiences are with our different experiences with grief, right. If folks have these substantive experiences with personal types of grief, where they encounter and experience that which is technically everybody. But some folks have gone through it in ways that others have not. You know, just being willing to share and skill share around, like, here's what I've come to understand here's what I've learned in this conversation itself, right? Just like being able to be articulate about, being willing to articulate, I should say here's what's up here's what I'm experiencing. This is the ebb and flow of it, here's kind of the shifting and change of it, right? Like you naming that just witnessing someone put out tweets about just like here's what I'm reflecting on here's what I'm thinking about here's the days that are hard. Here's the days that are great. Here's what I'm going to claim and name about this very important person.

And then what I'm also thinking about, B, is that marginalized folks broadly, but especially like queer and trans folks, we have a certain skill set in this that a lot of communities don't necessarily have, right. We come to understand the names of people we wouldn't know otherwise because of anti trans violence, racialized, anti trans violence, anti queer violence. Right. We've come to exist in a world where there are people we know through that violent reality. And so I think that being willing to continue to pursue a path where we're giving people their roses before they pass on from this life is something that queer folks are pretty well versed in. And we're also not being deferred to through this global pandemic as far as what a culture of care looks like or what showing true compassion looks like or kind of building mutual aid projects around how do we take care of each other? Because it's just so counter to what society's default is going to be in times of treachery. And the version of treachery in this moment is collective grief.

Robert:
When we talk about grief, I think we also are talking about love and care in my day to day work. I work with survivors and there's a necessity to insert your own love and care as they go through grief, right. And helping them navigate grief in all kinds of ways. And then sitting with your own. I think for me, I made a huge move. I moved. I left my entire job in industry completely behind because I moved to a place where I have some of the most important people in my life within fingertips, right. Within four or six hours at the very most. And so it's one of those things where it's like I was drowning and I could feel myself drowning constantly. And I reached for a life raft, and I reached for the people that I knew, loved and cared and supported me.

And I think it's about recognizing those people and the place they have in their lives, vocally, right, tangibly intentionally, more than we ever have before, because we know that our friends care about us, and we know that we have an important place in their lives, and them and ours. But I don't want to learn about my friends being champion dancers from someone else down the road. I want to sit with them and hear that. I don't want to wait until I'm hearing about a sibling being killed, a queer transgendering being killed or passing away and feeling a loss of another family member before I get a chance to meet them.

And so I think as I get closer and closer to 30, I get closer and closer to this space of, like, I feel this deep connection of, like, wow, I may not be their parent, but I know what it feels like to see a younger sibling or someone that I could parent in some way. And so it feels different because it's a different connection. I'm not going to be the same person at 18 years old, but 18 years old was, like, almost twelve years ago now, which feels absolutely wild to say out loud. And so it's a different relationship because I'm twelve years older, which you're a tiny little nugget to me and not in a condescending way. But I have so much love and care because I know what it was like to be 18 and be excited about the world. And I want to cultivate that. And I want to hug you and embrace you because I wish I could do some of the things that you get to now, depending on the space that you're in. And I'm so joyful that you get that. I'm so joyful to get to learn about you, and love you, and care about you in ways that maybe I wasn't allowed to have people like that because of systems, or because of where I grew up or because of what was available. And so there's this innate want to love and care even more about people. And I think that goes back to that collective care. It goes back to our chosen families and our biological families and everyone. How are we loving and caring about people in ways that demonstrate that.

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R.B.:
Earlier this season. In our Queer Death and Aging episode, I talked about this phenomenon I encountered called Bear Soup, which is when too many daddies get into the pool at the same time without letting their suntan lotion absorb into their skin. I'm on the mic again with executive director, Justin Drwencke, as they share their positive experiences at a queer campground and how the gay outdoors can be a pathway for a meaningful relationship with both people and nature.

R.B.:
This is kind of a follow up if folks have been listening for a while, something that you brought up before and have talked about in other contexts. But we're talking about joy today, and you very much wanted to bring up something that has brought you a lot of joy and taught you some lessons. So what is that for you?

Justin:
Yeah. So I want to talk about the wonderful world of gay campgrounds, and you had an opportunity to join me on an excursion

R.B.:
I sure did.

Justin:
To Campit Outdoor Resort in Saugatuck, Michigan. So, what I want to talk about today, the prompt is what has brought you joy in 2021. And the thing that has not only brought me joy, but also, I think kept me connected to community and helped me survive the pandemic has been going to the gay Campground in Saugatuck, Michigan, and enjoying the outdoor gathering spaces in queer community.

R.B.:
Right, yeah, I know a lot of our virtual meetings you'd hop on and you were in your camper. And I'm like, I'm so jealous even though I was working from home, which was, in my opinion, better than being forced to be in an office. So, clearly you took advantage of being in that space as much as possible when you could get there.

Justin:
Yeah. I think that one of the things that was really hard when the pandemic first started was, A, the uncertainty of what was going on, right? I think I look back at the naivete that we all had at the beginning, and everybody was like, we're going to close down for three weeks and then we'll be back. Well, here we are a year and nine months later. But I think about the uncertainty at the beginning of the pandemic and how we didn't really know a lot about the virus that causes COVID. Right. We didn't have a lot of understanding of how it was transmitted. Everybody was sanitizing, their groceries and Clorox wipes were out of stock and toilet paper was out of stock, and we didn't know what was going on. Right. But then as we started to learn more, it became pretty evident that the primary mode of transmission of COVID is not surfaces, it's in the air, it's airborne transmission. We learned a lot about the difference of indoor air quality versus outdoor air quality and how much that impacted transmission. So it became pretty clear that outdoor gatherings were definitely a safer alternative to indoor gatherings in the times of COVID. Right. And so I just think a lot back to the beginning of the pandemic and just being in my house for weeks on end, where every day kind of felt exactly the same. And like, we were working from home, but also nobody really knew how to work from home yet because that just wasn't an experience. Right.

And so my partner and I came across an opportunity to purchase a travel trailer and keep it at the gay campground. So it became a second home. We leased the space, and it was a place to go to that was still ours. Right. We could isolate in the trailer if we needed to. But it provided a change of scenery that was so important after non-stop same experience in the house. Right. And that was really important.

But what I discovered throughout 2021 was that it wasn't just the change of scenery that was so important to me. It was also about being in community with other queer people and the value that that brings instead of just engaging with my co-workers who don't have that same experience. Right.

R.B.:
Let's take it this way. Right. So again, most of the spaces that we understand as queer community spaces are predicated on maybe educational spaces, gathering spaces indoors. So then when you invited us to your campground in September for a retreat, right. I was just like, what am I getting into? Because there's kind of this discord, I think for a lot of queer folks around, like access or understanding of how to be queer and in outdoor spaces, which I think is another limitation in thinking about, how do you build queer community under the limitations and restrictions and confines of a global pandemic? And I think that that space also has its own model of, like, you can build queer community. You can give folks access to outdoor spaces, right. I don't know what I was expecting, but it was less rustic than I may have anticipated for a gay campground.

Justin:
Yeah. You know, what that brings up for me, too, is that we didn't necessarily have the mental model for what that could look like. Right. I was terrified before I went to that campground for the first time. I had heard about this campground for years and years and years before I ever decided to go. And it was one of our colleagues at the Institute, Andy, who kind of helped me overcome that fear of going. One year, we were just like, what's going on for Labor Day. And we decided to meet in the middle because Andy's in Chicago, I'm in Lansing and Saugatuck is kind of right in the middle. And we went there for Labor Day, and I was like, you know what Andy has this experience of going camping with their family. I don't have any experience of going camping,besides, like, one time in an RV to a KOA campground for my stepdad’s family reunion. Right. Very specific idea of camping and wilderness, right? So I didn't have anything to model that off of. And so I was terrified to go because I was like, I don't know how to exist in wilderness. I don't know how to do this. And there's not, like, media showing us how to do that.

Right. So part of it is a limitation on, like, how are queer people shown to exist in media? Right. That's a whole separate conversation. But the first time I went I was like, oh, my God. This is nothing like what I feared it would be. There's way more amenities than I expected there to be. Right. But also just like the immediate sense of community that I felt in that space, right? Like, it was a totally different environment. I wasn't used to sleeping in a tent, but that didn't matter because of the people that were there, right? Being surrounded by hundreds of other queer people in that space helped me understand that, like, yeah, this is something that I can do. And this is an experience that I can have. It's not just about going to some state park in the middle of nowhere. There are places where you can be with other queer people and also experience nature. And so that was a really powerful experience. And I was pretty sad leaving because I was really sad to leave that sense of community because I was going back into a cis-heronarmative world. And so being able to have the opportunity and the privilege to be able to go to that space regularly now, right? Means that I get to exist in spaces that are not cis-heteronormative. That embrace and affirm queer identity because it's built by queer people and for queer people.

R.B.:
You know, what I think is valuable about it, too, is that when it's not borrowed space, right? Like, you're leasing that space and you get to come back and you get to decorate it how you want, and you kind of get to craft it in your own way. And it's within this larger ecosystem of folks doing the same thing. And I remember we did a tour, if you will, kind of walking through the different areas of the quite sizable, like campground. I was very surprised at the size of it, and I feel like everybody's little section was its own welcome mat. Just folks, like nodding cheersing, stopping to talk, doing whatever. There was just a lot going on, but it also felt like you could choose your own adventure. You could be really interactive with people if you needed that. And you could also kind of recluse your own little space, which it just kind of feels like this queer, futuristic neighborhood model that I feel like we should aspire for, that, just like, oh, everybody in your ecosystem is queer, and you can go knock on their door and ask for sugar or j-lube, or whatever you need.

Justin:
I feel like the campground is just like a vegetable patch away from being like, the perfect queer commune.

R.B.:
It is, like that’s exactly it.. So I think that's the model that is the model. So there's obviously some really amazing things about the campground that you lease at and just the community that you build there. And I'm sure there's plenty of campgrounds I'd like to believe. I guess I don't know. Right. But I'm sure there's other spaces similar to those outdoor spaces or experiences that folks have crafted, especially during the pandemic that offer the same rewarding, meaningful experience. But you also have some examples of outdoor spaces that are the exact opposite of that. And I'm devastated to hear that.

Justin:
Yeah, the world of gay camping is not without controversy. Right. The queer community is not a monolith and gay campgrounds follow that same path. Right. So there's a couple of different gay campgrounds in Michigan, right. I'll make that distinction, that there are additional gay campgrounds. And I say that because they are men's only spaces. They exist, right? And there are certain groups of gay men that want to go to that space. So early in 2021, there was kind of a pretty big controversy that erupted around one of the campgrounds in Michigan that kind of started it at like, Michigan level news. But then it kind of bubbled up to like Out magazine was writing about it, and other national gay media were starting to write about Camp Boomerang.

And the news broke in February of 2021, that Camp Boomerang, which is a men's only campground, would not admit trans men to the campground. And so the owners of the campground took a position that the only people that they would admit to the campground were people who were assigned male at birth, and they did not perceive trans men to be men, which is wrong. Period. Point Blank. But that's the position that they took. And so it erupted pretty quickly. A lot of people were outraged about that. There was a lot of news media coverage about it, and they kind of just dug themselves deeper into that position, and they lost a lot of potential revenue from that.

R.B.:
Good.

Justin:
Yeah. Absolutely. A lot of the people that I'm really close with now at Campit came over to Campit in May because they had originally signed on to be seasonal at this other campground. Then all of their politic came out and they said, no, that's not the space that I want to support, which is great, right? And so they came over to Campit, which is open to anyone. It's not a single gender campground, like some of the other queer campgrounds are here in Michigan.

And I think that those spaces are a reflection of some of the larger politics that we need to contend with within the queer and trans community, that there are ongoing conversations that we need to have about not only supporting but embracing and affirming and uplifting trans people and not deferring to cis, white gays as the definition of what it means to be queer.

R.B.:
100%. And I think what's frustrating and this is me thinking out loud as I say it right, is that we've talked about some of the misconceptions or the complexities of Midwest geography, and that it's often written off as either very red, very conservative, or just like this rural kind of flyover area. And then you have this campground, which I think is intricately tied, like rurality and outdoor spaces and outdoor experiences being exclusive in a really violent way. That kind of sets a bad example for, like instances where with Campit as a redeeming example, right, are instances where you can experience reality and being removed from urban epic centers without having to interact with conservative policy, or conservative politic I should say.

I feel like an instance like that where you have a campground, you have queer folks, gay folks, emphasis on gay folks, creating restrictions and gatekeeping who can interact just creates more restrictions on who can participate in outdoor spaces, who can participate in queer Midwest spaces. And that's totally counter to what we should be doing.

Justin:
And, I think that there's a larger context that I think is important to name, too, right? That Campit is about 6 miles south of downtown Saugatuck, Michigan, which for folks listening who may not be familiar, Saigatuck, Michigan is often referred to as the gay capital of the Midwest, and part of why that is Saugatuck, on the coast of Lake Michigan was founded as an artist commune. Artists from Chicago would take the two hour trip up the coast to Saugatuck, and it became this little arts community. Right. And I don't think we talk enough about the importance of art in shaping queer identity and in shaping our cultural understanding of identity. Without that history of artists coming to Michigan to establish this little commune, right, the environment in that area of the state would probably be totally different, right? Because in that six mile drive from downtown Saugatuck, where there are rainbow flags everywhere to the campground, where there are also rainbow flags everywhere, you also pass Trump flags and other ephemera that indicate that not everything is sunshine and rainbows there, but you have a critical mass of queer people and people who support queer people to make that space feel safe and welcoming for anybody who wants to come there. Right. And so it's pretty incredible that we get to have this space that queer people can gather outdoors in a space that is safer, at least in the current context of the pandemic, right, in a space that allows all queer people to have a little taste of what it means to experience the wilderness, right, where there is infrastructure in place to make that easier. Right? You can come in with a tent, you can come in with an RV, or you can rent a cabin, and there's different levels of amenities for guests to experience that in whatever flavor of the adventure they want to choose.

So if you have all your equipment great, you can set up in the middle of the woods and have your own little space there. If you have no equipment, you can come and rent a cabin and be close to other people who want the fresh air and the woods and the breeze off the lake, but don't have the equipment to necessarily experience that outside of the space.

R.B.:
The city queer was very impressed. I didn't know that history about Saugatuck. That's very interesting. And just like again, how the trajectory of art queers into what is now like this very intentionally crafted space, yeah, I didn't know that. As we're wrapping up, is there any final thoughts, words of wisdom or parting words you would like to add about your joyous experience of the gay campground or anything else surrounding that and this wild year that has been 2021?

Justin:
I will say that anybody who has any desire to experience wilderness in some fashion, right? Check out Campit or another gay campground near you, queer campground near you, and think about gathering in queer centered spaces in an outdoor setting, right? I mean, we can continue to sit at home on our couches and watch Netflix, or you can come to Campit and watch a drag queen do an aerial show in the middle of a field. There are ways that we can gather safely or safer in the middle of the pandemic and still experience queer community. And I think that's how we get through it, right. No person is a monolith. No person can do it alone. We have to to rely on community to get through it. And sometimes that means finding ways to gather, even when the world is telling us it's not safe to be inside together.

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Our inbox is open for all of your insight, feedback, questions, boycotts, memes and other forms of written correspondence. You can contact us at lastbite@sgdinstitute.org. This podcast is made possible by the labor and commitment of the Midwest Institute for Sexuality and Gender Diversity staff. Particular shout out to Justin, Andy and Nick for all of your support with editing, promotion and production. Our amazing and queer as fuck cover art was designed by Adrienne McCormick.

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