Behind the Scenes

“It’s Fun to Play Tour Guide”

The ’mos behind Slate’s new “Ask a Homo” videos.

Illustration by Charlie Powell.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

In this Slate Plus conversation, Slate culture critic and Outward editor June Thomas and assistant editor J. Bryan Lowder talk about the origins of their new video series, Ask a Homo.

June Thomas: We were doing the thing that journalists do when they want to start a new feature that relies on getting mail from readers: They ask their co-workers what they want to know. At first I used “Ask a Homo” in internal emails only, and I wrote a very uptight note to the effect of “Don’t worry, that’s not going to be the real name.” When at least four people wrote to me and said, “You really should call it that,” I thought to myself, “We really should call it that!”

J. Bryan Lowder: Yeah, when we started Outward back in 2013, one of the ideas we had was to do a regular feature in the famous Slate Explainer style that would tackle queer issues. We knew that much of our audience, this being a general interest magazine instead of a gay-focused one, might have a lot of basic questions about things we take for granted.

We also wanted to toy with the idea of “safe space,” extending it to our straight friends instead of claiming it only for ourselves. This means not getting (too) offended when people ask questions that might be pushing it in terms of respect. (Obviously, we ignore outright homophobic stuff.) The idea is to educate instead of dismiss if people wanna know, for example, how anal sex could possibly feel good. See this week’s segment for that!

Thomas: One of the things I’ve learned from the first seven months or so of Outward is that there are a lot of people who are relatively ignorant about gay people’s lives. They might have picked up a few general ideas—lesbians like flannel, they move in together super-quickly, gay guys are either pitchers or catchers—but they’ve never gone beyond those headlines. 

Attitudes to queer America are changing so quickly, straight people have a lot of catching up to do, and I think we’re playing a genuine role in closing the gaps in their knowledge. Which doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun along the way.

Lowder: Yeah, that’s totally right. While this isn’t true for all gay people (see my investigation of the Gaybros), I think a lot of us live our social lives in worlds that vary pretty widely from what our straight colleagues or friends might be familiar with. There are special linguistic tics, points of etiquette, understandings about who can say certain words and who can’t, debates about the meaning of gender presentation (e.g., doing drag does not mean you want to be a woman) that we are immersed in but that our readers may have no clue about. It’s fun to play tour guide!

Thomas: Of course, as much as I hate to admit it, I don’t know the answers to some of the questions, which means I’m ignorant, too. The hardest ones are always “Why not?” For example: If there’s a stereotypically gay male way of speaking—and although that’s up for debate, we at least know what that’s referring to—why isn’t there a lesbian accent? I have some theories, but what actual expertise do I have? Other than being a big old ’mo of long standing?

Lowder: Oh, that’s so true! It’s been fun doing research to back up ideas and explanations that I had sort of come by via gay osmosis. That was particularly true with the gay lisp video—I didn’t really know that research had been done on that; my theories were all pretty anecdotal. I’m glad our readers spurred me to look into it.

Thomas: On that note, I take pride in having pissed some people off with my answer to our first question, which was about gay bar etiquette. If we’re offering our readers a safe space, I deserve the leeway to offer my honest opinion. This is “Ask a Homo,” not “Ask All the Homos and Average Out Their Responses.”

Lowder: I’ll admit you and I differ on that particular question to some degree—I have brought and/or welcomed straight friends to my neighborhood gay bar, Suite, on many occasions, and seeing your video, many of them expressed concern that they had encroached on my space! While I have been irritated by the occasional rude bachelorette party at the drag show, a few well-meaning friends don’t get my goat.

Thomas: My opinions on gay bar etiquette were pretty much settled business because I did a Fresca on the future of the gay bar back in 2011, so I had done a lot of thinking about the subject. That’s not true about all the things we’ve been asked about. Needless to say, although I’m theoretically a separatist, I can definitely see times when the straights should be welcome.

My friends know that I’m all talk, so they’re never offended. The responses that bother me are the ones from people who, for example, can’t see the difference between a lesbian expressing concern about straight guys treating a lesbian bar like a zoo where you can see exotic creatures in their natural habitat, and Donald Sterling spewing racist hatred.

That’s the kind of bigger, more pressing education that I don’t feel equipped or minded to offer. These are three- or five-minute videos that are supposed to educate and entertain, not Privilege 101.

Slate Plus: Where do the questions come from?

Thomas: We’re getting questions from readers now, but, as I say, whenever you start a magazine feature that is going to rely on reader interaction, you launch it with questions from colleagues. (I remember offering a question for Dear Prudence when that column first began back in the 20th century.) It was really eye-opening to see that even our brilliant, super-educated colleagues had some strange ideas. But no judgment!

Lowder: Yes, June, I think you should share maybe a particularly eyebrow-raising example …

Thomas: Let’s just say that the questions about sex seemed to reveal the most misapprehensions. And some of the folks asking questions about lesbians had a hard time letting go of the idea that “real sex” is girl-boy, and whatever happens between women is just messing around.

Lowder: Yeah, it’s funny, I feel like the questions are either cultural—like what’s the deal with Judy Garland—or really interested in sexual mechanics, which, like, we’re not that different. Things just go different places.

Thomas: And for women, it’s different things in the same places!

Lowder: But I’m happy to dispel any misconceptions.

Thomas: Bryan, your mention of Judy Garland reminds me of one of the dirty little secrets of queerdom: Lesbians often don’t know much about gay men, and vice versa. I have some questions about Judy Garland myself! (Though I think I’m fonder of show tunes than you are!)

Lowder: That’s so true. We come from different wings of the queer house and are able to speak to different issues and cover a broader range of stuff together.

Thomas: I’m just really glad that people are curious and open to learning more. And that they’re willing to put up with our hambone antics as we try to fill them in.