MS. MAGAZINE: Q&A with Documentary Filmmaker Greta Schiller

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

It’s been 50 years this June since three days of rioting outside of New York City’s Stonewall Inn launched the modern LGBTQ rights movement—and 35 since documentary director Greta Schiller uncovered the histories of queer and trans Americans in the decades prior.

“When we set out to make this film,” Schiller has said, “I had no inkling of the meaning it would have around the world.” Indeed, she likely couldn’t have predicted what would come next: funding and support from PBS, which meant broadcasting the film nationwide into the living rooms of everyday Americans, and even an Emmy award. But Schiller’s acclaim has only grown in the years since Before Stonewall: The Making of a Gay and Lesbian Community came out.

After co-founding production company Jezebel Productions, Schiller produced a slate of notable documentaries, including the Teddy Award-winning The Man Who Drove With Mandela and Paris Was a Woman, which was broadcast around the world. She was awarded the City College of New York Townsend Harris Medal for Outstanding Contributions to her Field and a Rachel Carson Fellowship, was the first person to receive a UK/US Fulbright Arts Fellowship in Film and is currently producing a new documentary series as part of her Global Fulbright Award.

First Run Features is now re-releasing Before Stonewall—narrated by author Rita Mae Brown and featuring interviews with activists including Audre Lorde and Barbara Gittings—to mark the current historic moment. But the personal and profound stories of LGBT Americans that populate Schiller’s Emmy award-winning film remain timeless, and so does its urgent reminder of the personal and political battles facing the LGBTQ community.

In advance of the film’s theatrical re-release in New York City on June 21 and Los Angeles on June 28, Schiller opened up to Ms. about what happened before Before Stonewall—and what lessons she has carried with her since.

I always begin with an inception story. Tell us how this movie came to be—why did you decide to make it, and what did it take to make it happen?

The project began when Robert Rosenberg, who became the co-director, approached me with the idea to make a film based on the unpublished work of historian John D’Emilio—which chronicled the early, pre-Stonewall, homophile movement. Early funding came from the New York Council on the Humanities and the NY State Council on the Arts. 

It became clear pretty quickly that I needed to expand the original concept to trace the formation of the mostly hidden lesbian and gay subculture across the country, not just the few homophile organizations.  I decided to tell this story chronologically, decade by decade—from the turn of the century when homosexuality began to be seen as a distinctive identity, rather than simply a sex act, up to the Stonewall Riots, when marginalized gay and lesbian youth fought back against police raids and the modern LGBT movement was born.  

But as the lives of homosexuals pre-Stonewall had been so marginalized, we had a big problem: How could we tell this tale in a visual and engaging way? Even when gay life spilled onto the streets of Greenwich Village—over 5 nights, hundreds of people protested—the news media gave very little coverage to the riots, and there was almost no visual documentation of gay life before then.

Rosenberg, Research Director Andrea Weiss and I were on the project from its inception. Executive Producer John Scagliotti was brought on by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; he was a condition of our funding. Yet they did not give full funding, and in order to match their award, we all worked organizing benefits across the country.

As this was the first GLBT history feature film, we had tremendous support from the burgeoning gay and lesbian community. By drawing attention to the project, these events also helped us locate potential interviewees. Andrea organized research teams to find people who may be willing to share their personal scrapbooks. This was the first time anyone saw their personal artifacts as history. It was difficult to convince many of them that their photos, home movies and love letters were in fact worthy of being considered historical. Today, in our age of instant celebrity, people think even their pets are worthy of such. 

I was inspired by UNION MAIDS, a film by Julia Reichart and Jim Klein—the first filmmakers who used oral history as history in film. The weaving of personal eyewitness testimony into the historical narrative provided a way for me to begin thinking about how to approach my task.  At her retrospective screening last week at MOMA, I saw one parallel I had not seen on first viewing, and that was that communists were also closeted. Even union leaders kept their party membership secret from the public, despite the fact that their entire lives—work, love, family, play—all revolved around party membership.  

We were what would now be called “artisanal” or “boutique”—most of us were doing our jobs for the first time. The sound woman J.T. Tagaki’s first sound job was interviewing Allen Ginsberg! I would film the stills on a 16mm camera while at people’s homes. I drove to Virginia with a sound recordist and had Rita Mae Brown read the narration in her living room.  We carried 16mm prints to festivals to save on shipping. 

It reminds me of this comment of yours—it struck me. “I was a young woman director in the early 1980’s, setting out to tell the ‘History 101’ version of a people systematically ignored and erased from the historical record,” you said. “Perhaps if I had been older, I would not have taken on the task with such naïve zeal.”

But this film ended up having an outsized impact: being the first movie on LGBTQ lives shown on public television, and winning awards for how it shaped our cultural narratives and understandings around gay life. How did that zeal shape your process, and what did it teach you as a filmmaker? What from this process have you carried into your other work?

Today I spend a fair amount of time mentoring young filmmakers. Not all of them are women or gay, but they are talented and marginalized by the media landscape. I had no real mentors; there were literally five or six women and maybe two lesbians who had made feature documentaries.  Emile d’Antonio looked at some edits and gave me valuable feedback.  Filmmaker Artie Bressan was super supportive, and film historian and activist Vito Russo was a good friend and invaluable guide to GLBT representations in cinema.

I grew up at a time when we actually believed we may make a revolution in this country: when women would be equal to men; when workers were paid a living wage; where health care would be universal. My friends were gay, straight, black and white, and I believe this is what gave me that zeal. My co-producers gave feedback, but Andrea Weiss was the most crucial support and critic, and she can be seriously critical in the most demanding way. When I faced obstacles from within the production team itself, she helped me maintain my zeal.

Trusting myself, the importance of holding close my vision for a film’s narrative, listening to collaborators while being confident in my directing, was a process I learned on the making of my first feature documentary. I also learned that when a film is successful, then those who had doubts and drifted from supporting my efforts come back with a roar to stake their claim—so I learned to take much stronger legal protections. When we began this process of making the film, I thought lawyers were only for when problems arise; now I know they can prevent problems down the road. 

It was also a time of collectivism, so some people were given roles beyond their capacity, while others were not given the credit they deserved. My sister Tina Schiller was our San Francisco Production Manager—she organized a benefit screening of an Andy Warhol film, Edie, at the legendary Castro Cinema, and has been amazingly supportive throughout my life and career. Today, I choose my collaborators with much greater care! Making an independent film can be either a dysfunctional family unit or functional one. Coming from a dysfunctional family, I had no idea back then that there was another way. After much work on healing that original family, and having good relationships with my extended families, and being married for 35 years—legally married for one—and raising a daughter and making 15-plus films, I can look back and see that it is a sort of miracle that we pulled the film off at all!

As a director, the film gave me enormous confidence to bring stories hidden from history into the cultural zeitgeist in a way that respected my subjects. To be trusted by African American women, some of them lesbians, was and is a great honor. To collaborate in a deep, productive way with researchers, producers, writers—all of this I learned and grew better at over the years.

I have maintained friendships and in many cases professional relationships with virtually everyone who helped bring Before Stonewall to fruition. My lifelong creative partnership with Andrea began on Before Stonewall. I learned from Before Stonewall that a film has many filmmakers, but one Director, except in very exceptional cases. I co-directed The International Sweethearts of Rhythm with Andrea, but after that we each developed projects as Director, producing one another’s films through our production company. I believe we are the longest-running women’s film production company, at least in the U.S.

My sense of irony, use of music, intimate interview style, writing those who had been written out back into the historical narrative, looking at newsreels and other dominant media through a different lens, reading the subtext, drawing out a narrative that gives a fresh look at history— from the South African liberation struggle to women artists in Paris between the world wars to many other films set in other eras and cultures—this all grew from my first feature documentary. Today I am finishing a film about humans and our relationship to the earth, about ecological restoration—and even in this film, respecting the people, animals, landscapes, wanting to tell their story, comes from the same place.

What do you hope comes of the film’s re-release?

My goals are the same: to bring the story of the making of the LGBT community from a scattered, closeted people into full members of society and do it in a way that engages everyone. Gay, straight, young, old—I hope that everyone enjoys the film.

Even though the LGBTQ movement itself has evolved so much in the last 50 years, and especially since many of the moments in history you touch on that go even further back, so much in this film still resonates—the schisms within the LGBTQ community, for one, and the challenges people at the intersections face in making themselves heard—and we’re still setting records straight, even about Stonewall. What lessons from our history do you think are most critical to remember in this current moment?

One of the most important lessons is to embrace diversity.

I would like to note that we did not really want bi people in the movement back then—we considered them to be confused! Trans rights were not a political issue yet. I fought with my co-producers about opening the film with drag queens, which they saw as too controversial. 

I have always adored a good drag butch or queen; the early homophile movements tried to silence drag queens. Butch women, working class lesbians and gay men and people of color were largely absent from pre-Stonewall organizations. One of our regrets is that when researcher Andrea met Marsha P. Johnson at her home in New Jersey, we did not then interview her.

What fights ahead do you feel are most pivotal?

I anticipate fights around the right to adopt or to marry—these are victories that can be reversed. Violence and homelessness, sexual abuse and suicide among GLBT youth are great concerns. A far-right religious group, Project Blitz, has begun a campaign to discriminate under the auspices of religious freedom—they want to pass bills banning government entities from penalizing people or businesses who’ve donated to or are affiliated with a religious organization, even if those groups are known to have discriminatory practices, and they have already made inroads in the Texas legislature, but for the first time an LGBT caucus exists in the Texas legislature and they have fought to keep and expand protections. Voting really matters, who sits in government matters. The bans on trans people in the military and elsewhere is the easiest and first attack.

History is not linear. While societal attitudes have shifted enormously, there will always be homophobia, and we need to stay vigilant. So much depends on where you live, if the family you grew up in accepts you, if you can get a job. Social service agencies need to provide services for the marginal members of our community.

I’m fascinated, as a queer woman myself, with the urgency and importance we have toward and reverence we owe our elders—and the relationships we have to them. So often, we don’t know who they are. Too often, we never have the chance to witness them. This film introduces us to them. How do you think LGBTQ activists and allies today can best honor them?

I think respect for seniors is a problem everywhere. Cross-generational interaction is nearly non-existent. People push past older people on sidewalks, trains, buses—and many of them are no doubt members of the GLBT community. SAGE hosts intergenerational dinners and events designed to encourage more exchange of ideas and perspectives.

It is very hard for a young person to imagine anything outside of their own experience as valuable, impossible to imagine that simply loving someone of the same sex until the 1970’s was a brave act, punishable under the law of the land in counties ways. I hope seeing my film will help with this, at least a little. 


MS. MAGAZINE: Reporting Live from the Global Women’s Rights Awards Red Carpet

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

Feminists in Los Angeles Monday celebrated the growing momentum for women’s equality worldwide, from the menstrual equity movement taking shape across the globe to the re-invigorated push for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment sweeping the U.S., at the Feminist Majority Foundation’s 14th annual Global Women’s Rights Awards.

“Each year at our Global Women’s Rights Awards, we salute individuals who have contributed significantly to advancing the rights of women and girls and increasing awareness of the injustices women face on account of their gender,” FMF Executive Director and Ms. Executive Editor Katherine Spillar told attendees from the stage at the Pacific Design Center’s SilverScreen Theater. “The Awards are a moment to stop and celebrate the progress we’ve made and reflect on the work that lies ahead.”

Katherine Spillar, Executive Director of the Feminist Majority Foundation and Executive Editor of Ms., speaking at the 14th annual Global Women's Rights Awards. (Dave Banks)
Katherine Spillar, Executive Director of the Feminist Majority Foundation and Executive Editor of Ms., speaking at the 14th annual Global Women’s Rights Awards. (Dave Banks)

This year’s event honored actor and ERA activist Patricia Arquette, alongside Virginia Delegates Hala Ayala and Jennifer Carrol Foy, as well as the transnational team behind the Oscar-winning short documentary Period. End of Sentence.

“Every time I turn around,” Arquette told Ms. on the red carpet before the event, “there’s some new thing to get angry and energized about.” Inside the theater, the FMF board and leadership and the night’s honorees also offered up new reasons for optimism.

Actor and ERA activist Patricia Arquette talked to Ms. Managing Digital Editor Carmen Rios on the red carpet before the event. (Hayley Costey)

The Girls Learn International activists from Oakwood school who launched the Pad Project; producers Melissa Berton, Guneet Monga and Lisa Taback; director Rayka Zehtabchi; and Action India Chair Gouri Choudhury took the stage first, and told their story of how Period. got made and where The Pad Project started.

“I remember those days at our GLI club meetings when we dreamed about how we could make a real difference by purchasing the pad-making machinery for the girls and women of Action India,” Oakwood GLI alum Avery Siegel said on the stage. “In addition to making affordable sanitary pads, we discussed how the machinery could be the basis of a self-sustaining enterprise.”

Siegel also recalled the scrappy fundraising strategies that made the film possible, from bake sales to yoga-thons. “We became quite good at asking everyone we knew,” she joked. “Thank you, mom and dad and grandma—and thank you to all the Oakwood parents here tonight and to everyone who supported our dream!”

Maggie Brown, a current student at Oakwood and GLI activist, also noted that the Pad Project—and the larger fight for menstrual equity—didn’t end on the Oscars stage.

“In getting deeply involved in the Pad Project for Action India, we began to realize that we didn’t have to go halfway around the world to make an impact on this critical issue for women and girls,” she explained. “We discovered that 20 percent of girls in the U.S. missed one or more days of school because of not having access to affordable menstrual protection. I was shell shocked when I found that out.”

Together with other GLI clubs, the Oakwood chapter successfully pushed for a California law mandating free sanitary products for girls in high school bathrooms, which went into effect in January. In the coming weeks the club is heading to Washington, D.C. to meet with Rep. Grace Meng, who is fighting to pass the Menstrual Equity for All Act. When asked on the red carpet what she learned from The Pad Project, Brown offered only optimism: ““When strong women put their minds together,” she said, “anything is possible.”

Berton, who is both a producer of the film and the teacher who heads up the GLI chapter at Oakwood, described the years of work her students have dedicated to making those changes possible as a “wonderful, inspiring ride” to Ms. before the event. Inside the theater, she beamed with pride as past and present students from the chapter took the stage.

“People often ask me why this issue became so important to me,” Berton said. “The answer has something to do with being a high school teacher—where it is my privilege every day to witness the simultaneous beauty of my students’ physical growth into womanhood on the one hand and their intellectual growth that informs the kind of women they will become. I believe it is at this tender and transitional moment that education must be nurtured—and never, ever stopped.”

Melissa Berton (center) with student activists and alumni from the Girls Learn International chapter at Oakwood School in Los Angeles. Berton’s students founded The Pad Project and produced the Oscar-winning short documentary Period. End of Sentence. (Hayley Costey)

Choudhury shares that pride. Action India, which was founded in 1976 to advance women’s equality in the region, was among the first GLI partners overseas. Her daughters were among the first GLI leaders in India.

“I am seeing changes throughout India that I never thought I would, as the menstrual equity movement sweeps across the country,” Choudhury explained, recounting the work it took to make The Pad Project and Period. possible and all that’s come since the installation of a pad machine in Hapur. “I can tell you tonight: the Period. End of Sentence. documentary is accelerating the demand for change all across India. It has broken the silence around the topic of menstruation creating conversation at all levels of society between women and men too. This Oscar shot the topic to the sky—there is no question about it.”

Monga agreed. “The film has put the conversation about menstruation on the map in India,” she explained. “On the ground at Hapur, these young women are now icons reflecting what we know to be true that the combined effect of education, exposure and conversation is empowerment.  As filmmakers, we talk about changing the world, about telling stories that have a real impact and make the world a better place. With this film, I have seen the needle move in this way.”

Zehtabchi has also had a close-up view to the impact of The Pad Project in India, having visited Hapur before the machine was installed and then again to witness changes in its wake.“Here we are now, two and a half years later—thousands of pads made and sold, a second machine installed for Action India, an Academy Award and a permanent home for our film at Netlix for millions of people to view,” she said from the stage. “Our hope is that this documentary will continue to amplify the global menstrual equity movement, and break the silence that has kept women all around the world—and throughout history—shamed and sequestered.”

Taback, whose daughter also produced the film and was a GLI activist involved in the inception of the Project, knows best how impactful an Oscar can be. “People ask me: How do you go from having an idea to fund a pad machine, to making a movie, to winning an Oscar and then opening the floodgates to a conversation about a subject no one wanted to talk about?”

She revealed the answer: “Controlling the narrative.”

Spillar and Taback on the red carpet at the Global Women’s Rights Awards. Taback was a producer on the Oscar-winning short documentary Period. End of Sentence.—and is the proud parent of one of the student leaders and co-producers who made it happen. (Hayley Costey)

“These girls were not interested in a nice piece in the New York Times,” Taback explained. “They didn’t want their 6 minutes on The Today Show sitting with Hoda. They wanted to change the world by telling their truth and shining a light on injustice for young women and girls around the world—and as [FMF Board Chair] Peg Yorkin would say, they fucking did it!”

The movement for menstrual equity showcased in Period. is rooted in cultural change—but that shift isn’t possible without policy to support it. That’s where the renewed fight for the ERA entered the discussion on stage.

(Left to Right) Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, actor and ERA activist Patricia Arquette and Del. Haya Ayala on the red carpet at the 14th annual Global Women’s Rights Awards. Later that evening, the two Delegates from Virginia and the ERA champion hailing from Hollywood joined Spillar and Smeal for a wide-ranging conversation on the importance of constitutional equality. (Hayley Costey)

“The need for a federal Equal Rights Amendment could not be clearer,” Spillar declared on stage, “in light of widespread violence against women, the under-representation of women in elected office, the continuing gender pay gap and the escalating attacks on birth control and abortion.”

The ERA was first introduced in Congress in 1923, but didn’t pass out of the House and Senate until 1972. Despite widespread popular support, it wasn’t ratified by 1982—an arbitrary deadline imposed by Congress—and the movement to advance women’s constitutional equality fell largely dormant. But in 2017, Nevada’s legislature ratified; in 2018, Illinois followed suit. Now, the measure needs only one state to meet the majority for ratification.

Delegates Ayala and Carroll Foy, two fearless women of color legislators, made it their mission decades later to bring the ERA to a vote on the floor of the Virginia legislature for the first time in 42 years after their elections in 2017. In doing so, they became the first women of color to demand a vote on the Amendment.

FMF Board Member and legendary organizer Dolores Huerta celebrated the work of Delegates Haya Ayala and Jennifer Carrol Foy in Virginia. They brought the ERA to the floor for a vote for the first time in 42 years. (Dave Banks)

“Moved to outrage, then action, after Trump was elected president, the founder of Prince William County NOW, Hala Ayala, organized a delegation of 14,000 women to join the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017,” FMF board member Dolores Huerta explained from the stage. “Shortly after, she made the life-changing decision to quit her job as a cybersecurity specialist for the Department of Homeland Security in order to run for office—among the first of what became a wave of hundreds of women across the U.S. running for office.”

Ayala wasn’t alone. “Another first-time candidate in Virginia in 2017, Jennifer Carroll Foy,” Huerta recalled, “was inspired to run for a seat long held by a Republican. But just three weeks after launching her campaign, Jennifer found out she was pregnant with twins. Undaunted, she plowed ahead—and after giving birth prematurely, Jennifer and her husband spent their days campaigning and their nights in the neo-natal intensive care unit with their twin boys. So of course, the twins were in their arms as she took her oath of office in early 2018.”

The effort to ratify the ERA in Virginia ultimately fell short—but by only one vote. In the process, Ayala and Carroll Foy put the issue of the ERA back on the ballot: By forcing a vote by their colleagues on the floor, they made it possible for voters to hold lawmakers who opposed the measure accountable at the polls.

“We need to make sure everyone in Virginia and the country knows there is only one way to spell equality,” Carroll Foy told Ms. on the red carpet before the event, “and that’s E-R-A.”

Ayala—who is Afro-Latina, Lebanese and Irish—also told Ms. on the carpet that the ERA means a lot to her personally, as well as politically. “It means I am now dignified,” she declared. “I have representation in the Constitution. I have a seat at the table. I’m not on the menu.”

Spillar told Ms. before the event that when the ERA wasn’t ratified in the eighties, she was shocked. “I realized it was time for me to get involved,” she explained, “for all of us to get involved.”

The same call was clear throughout the FMF’s program Monday. Whether it’s a matter of menstrual equity or Constitutional equality, it’s time for feminists around the world to continue rising up—and claiming victories that change women’s lives.

WATCH: Carmen Live on the Global Women’s Rights Awards Red Carpet!


MS. MAGAZINE: How State Lawmakers are Responding to Anti-Abortion Laws

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

In a scathing statement released today, 373 state legislators from 46 states denounced the extreme abortion bans being passed by state lawmakers across the country.

“The 2019 state attacks on the legal right to abortion are a crisis,” the lawmakers declared in their joint statement. “As state legislators from around the country and members of the Reproductive Freedom Leadership Council, we condemn this coordinated political strategy to overturn Roe v. Wade and are outraged by efforts to criminalize doctors or patients seeking abortion care. “

The powerful declaration from the Reproductive Freedom Leadership Council, a first-of-its-kind national network of over 350 pro-choice state legislators convened by the State Innovation Exchange (SiX), comes in the wake of two weeks of non-stop attacks on abortion by state legislators and in the midst of individual efforts by state and local lawmakers to fight back against the growing numbers of laws threatening women’s bodily autonomy.

“We envision a nation in which each of us can make our own decisions about our reproductive health, pregnancy and parenting, free from political interference,” the Council continued. “We’re calling on our fellow legislators, governors and the courts to stop these abortion bans and instead take action to ensure all people can access reproductive health care with dignity and respect, no matter where they live or the size of their bank account. We respect the sacred duty of public office and we honor our charge to act for a better future for our constituents and communities—and that means protecting abortion rights.”

In 2019 alone, nearly 30 bans on abortion have been introduced, passed or signed into law by state lawmakers and Governors across the country. Most recently, Georgia banned abortion at six weeks, criminalizing even women who cross state lines to obtain care; in Alabama, a ban on all abortion from the moment of conception signed into law last week also threatened providers with felony charges and up to 99 years in prison. Missouri lawmakers just passed an eight-week ban, and Louisiana is attempting to pass a six-week ban; in both states, the Governors have indicated that they plan to sign them into law as soon as they reach their desks.

This isn’t a new trend: More than 400 state-level abortion restrictions have been enacted since 2011, and abortion is the most heavily-regulated health care service in the country. The measures mentioned above echo similar laws passed in Mississippi, Kentucky and Ohio—and pending bills in Missouri, Tennessee, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New York, South Carolina and West Virginia.

“Anti-abortion state legislators are are emboldened by the extremists in power in Washington and are running scared of the momentum demonstrated by women voters across the country,” Kelly Baden, Director of Reproductive Rights for SiX, said in a statement. “Enacting bans on abortion, whether they are all-out bans like Alabama or near-complete bans like Georgia, flies in the face of common sense, public health and Americans’ support for reproductive dignity and autonomy.”


GIRLBOSS: How To Build Feminism Into Your Business Plan

Click here to read and share the original post from Girlboss: 11 Ways To Build A Formidable Business—That Also Reflects Your Values

The way our culture approaches work is broken—and it’s breaking us. We’re facing toxic and abusive work environments. We’re working more than ever for less than we’re worth. And we’re burnt out AF.

When we think about bad working conditions, a corporation like WalMart comes to mind—because what stands out starkly, despite their current commitments to improve, is how much more they could do if they straightened out their priorities. An organization that employs over one million Americans and forks over a whopping $20 billion to shareholders in stock buybacks can and should do better.

But so can you. We don’t have to wait for the big-wigs to have an awakening and get their shit together. If you have entrepreneurial aspirations, then you have the power to make a better workplace possible—just by committing to a business plan that mirrors your beliefs and works to support not only you, but also those who you employ.

We deserve to feel energized and invigorated by our work and to get credit and advancement opportunities where they’re due. We also deserve to work for people who respect our boundaries, value our contributions, and honor our voices.

Here are 11 ways you can make it happen—by baking your values into your business plan.

Build a budget that supports your employees

Too many corporate budgets are designed around profit alone, and not people. Flip the script in your business plan: Build a budget that ensures everyone on your team can thrive. Commit to paying your employees a fair wage—providing them with not just what they’re worth, but what they need to live well. If someone is working 40 hours a week to drive your success, they shouldn’t have to live paycheck-to-paycheck in order to pay rent, buy food, and fill up their gas tank at the overpriced Exxon across the street from the office.

Building an economically just budget means that if your business plan doesn’t work for your employees, it’s not working. If you don’t have enough money to pay five full-time workers what they’re worth, consider recalibrating your staffing structure instead of their salaries. Similarly, if you can’t afford to expand your business without cutting benefits, reconfigure your expansion plan instead of your health insurance plan.

Building your business with fair wages in mind may mean it will take a little longer for you to become a mogul—but you’ll get there having done right by the people who helped along the way.

Get creative with your benefits package

The Jane Club, co-founded by actor June Diane Raphael and producer Jess Zaino, calls itself “the mother of all workspaces.” And because Raphael and Zaino built their business around lifting moms up, they attracted top internal talent—including co-CEOs Dori Howard and Zoe Reagan.

“We were able to recruit high-level talent to help run The Jane Club—for no money, really—because we offered them childcare,” Raphael explained in a live video interview with me. “We got them because of what we offer here.” (Those offerings include on-site childcare, laundry service, and meals-to-go at the end of the workday.)

Paid maternity leave, paid family leave, sick days, flex time, and other benefits shouldn’t be coveted—they should be common. It’s time for higher standards across workplaces and sectors—and it’s on us to set them.

Raise your bottom line

While you’re building out your budget, you may also want to reconsider your true operating costs—for your neighbors, your surrounding cityscape, and the planet at-large—and hold yourself accountable to them, too.

If you’re in the retail game, you can do right by ethically sourcing your material and offsetting your carbon footprint from constant shipping. If you’re looking to run a brick-and-mortar, you can lift up your community by hiring locally and opening the space up for community groups looking to gather in the evenings.

Pay it forward (and back)

Your employees are helping your soon-to-be-booming business get to the level you’ve always dreamed of. You couldn’t make this happen without them. Those two truths alone are enough reason to reward them when the fruits of their labor that drive your success. They’re also solid reminders that you should strive to give your employees credit where it’s due—and perks where they’re due, too.

Show your employees that you’re grateful for all they’ve helped you accomplish. That could mean something as major as giving them a stake in the business via stock options or offering up bonuses for extraordinary accomplishments, or as fun as putting that windfall to good use with a grand holiday party.

Remember: They deserve it. (Plus, the morale boost alone will be worth it.)

Make more room at the table

Studies show that diversity is good for business and for our well-being—but the persistent white and male dominance in most fields proves that it doesn’t happen by accident. The only way to ensure that everyone gets a seat at the table is to invite them to come sit down. Intentionally recruiting, training, and mentoring people from marginalized communities is the only way to disrupt the hierarchies that privilege white men in every workspace.

“It’s important to us, especially working in film and TV, to center on women, people of color, and queer folks,” Robin Roemer, co-founder of Scheme Machine Studios, explained in an email. “We’ve had several shoots which have had entirely female and non-binary crews. It helps to balance out the male whiteness of Hollywood when you are thoughtful about your hires.”

For Scheme Machine, intentional hiring is about more than principle—it’s about finding the right people to advance their mission of making better media. “We are less interested in making canned, generic content that has been made a million times and more interested in producing and creating entertainment that is not only representative of a diverse world, but isn’t told through one lens,” Roemer said. “When you are interested in lifting up other voices and perspectives, you also have to hire directors, producers, and other crew members that will provide an authentic look into whatever story you want to tell.”

Keep an open mind about the “required” skills needed for a role

Think about it: How many times were we told that we needed a college degree to be good at our jobs? How many of us were pressured into pursuing higher education even though we had the passion and know-how then that is driving our advancement now—without the additional debt weighing us down?

The gatekeeping we’re all accustomed to isn’t just hurting our credit scores. These ideas become barriers for people without wealth and connections that keep them from the dream jobs they deserve.

When you’re hiring and recruiting, challenge yourself on the notion of “qualifications.” Does someone really need a BA and five years of on-the-job experience to do a middle-management job, or do they just need to be a bonafide badass with the business chops to prove it? Consider candidates based on their work ethic and demonstrated skills—not just their degrees.

Practice feminist leadership

Feminism is rooted in the very simple concepts of equality and choice. Part of building better businesses is that it’s on us to be better bosses—which is why feminist leadership involves turning our ideas of hierarchy and power on their heads and reconstructing what workplaces look like.

“Ever since we started our production company together, it has been really important for us to make sure that the people we hire onto projects are valued for their work,” Roemer told me. “We want anyone working with us to not only be fairly compensated, but also given credit for their ideas and the space to do their jobs without a ton of micromanagement. We hire people we trust and then we trust them to do their jobs.”

That might not sound revolutionary, but it is. Building your business around your values means putting feminist theory into practice. It means redefining “work” and “success,” valuing fulfillment over output, encouraging collaboration over competition, and ditching the founders’ syndrome to create more opportunities for tomorrow’s female leaders.

Rethink outdated notions of professionalism

I once asked a former supervisor if she would submit a letter of reference for me—and afterward, she sent me a copy for my brag file. (My brag file had not existed until this day. This is another post in and of itself, but: Start a brag file.) I was struck by what she wrote: That I “bring my whole self” to work. Of course I do!

Then I realized that many of us don’t—and, even worse, many of us can’t. In too many workplaces, showing up authentically can be a liability.

Don’t build that kind of workplace. Our notions of “professionalism” are steeped in every -ism. Ditch them. Scrap the dress code nonsense and let your employees figure out how they can look and feel their best—and do their best work for you. Parse the respectability politics out of your code of conduct.

We do our best work when we feel safe and supported in the office. Giving your team the space to be authentic and honest fosters loyalty and community across cubicles.

Leverage your platform

Do not be the business owner who sits idly by while kids are being separated from their parents at the border, or women are put behind bars for exercising their constitutional right to make their own reproductive choices. None of us can stay silent, especially if we care about the future of this country and the world.

It can be scary to mix politics with your brand, but in these times especially, it’s critical. Speak up about what matters—on your official social media pages and at your in-person events. Owning a business gives you an amplified voice. Raise it every once in a while.

Partner with causes you support

Corporate social responsibility can have a major impact. Forging brand partnerships with non-profits can raise awareness about critical issues. Donating some of your proceeds to worthy causes can provide pivotal resources to the people doing good work on the ground. So don’t just talk the talk—walk the walk, directly to the post office, and mail some checks.

Salesforce pays its employees to offer some of their time, at no cost, to non-profit organizations. That kind of program signals a firm commitment to social justice—and it provides invaluable support to the movement-makers on the ground who are strapped for cash.

If summer is your slow season, tell your team to take Fridays off to help clean up the beaches or escort outside of a clinic. Next time you’re organizing an office-wide clothing swap, pick a shelter and donate what gets left behind. Encouraging your crew, no matter how big or small, to be involved and engaged in changing the world will empower them—and it’s lots of fun.

Put it in writing

Policies around workplace behavior, formal processes for performance reviews and raises, and concrete guidelines for diversity go far when it comes to ensuring that everyone is on the same page, and it ensures that everybody is treated equitably and fairly in sticky situations and as your business and your team expand.

When Roemer and her wife, Carly Usdin, co-founded Scheme Machine with the goal of bringing new perspectives and stories to the fore in media, they wrote an inclusion policy to ensure they achieved it. The difference that emerged from it was tangible.

Put your policies and practices on paper from the get-go. You’ll clarify your own vision for what your ideal workplace looks like—and become even more clear about the values that led you there in the first place.


MS. MAGAZINE: Q&A with Musician, Conductor and AYS “Year of the Women” Champion Carlos Izcaray

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

On February 23, a new vision for classical music will resound in Los Angeles.

Susan Botti’s EchoTempo, a setting of Native American translations for soprano, percussion and orchestra; Lera Auerbach’s Icarus; and Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra will fill UCLA’s Royce Hall. The trio of works, performed by the equitably gender-split American Youth Symphony’s 2018 cohort as a salute to its 2018/19 theme, “The Year of the Woman,” will set a new tone in the field for advancing gender equality—and provide audiences with the rare opportunity to spend a night surrounded only by the sounds of works composed by women. (Ms. and Feminist Majority Foundation are sponsoring the free event, and will be on-site to participate in a pre-concert conversation about gender gaps in classical music.)

Though the orchestra’s season will eventually come to an end, AYS’ commitment to advancing women’s representation—behind the curtain, backstage and in the conductor’s pit—will not waver come summer. The Year of the Woman, inspired by the mounting global fight for women’s equality in every sector and sphere, is only the beginning of AYS’ enduring commitment to shaping the future of classical music.

Carlos Izcaray is steering that powerful vision for progress. He is no stranger to the AYS mission to foster young talent and set a new tone in the field: Just last year, Izcaray’s Strike Fugaz was premiered by AYS in association with Human Rights Watch to celebrate global fights for justice; throughout his career, he has worked with young musicians in workshops and led tours by youth orchestras.

The AYS Music Director, who is splitting his time between AYS and a parallel role at the Alabama Symphony Orchestra, is also a legendary figure in classical music with a storied career, lending more than a note of gravitas to his efforts to diversify the field. Izcaray leads ensembles across the U.S. and around the world, from the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphonies to the Kwazulu-Natal Philharmonic. He has performed in opera theaters as nearby as Utah and as far as Peru. He served as Principal Cello and Artistic President of the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra and was featured as a concert soloist and chamber musician worldwide. He won top prizes at the 2007 Aspen Music Festival and the 2008 Toscanini International Conducting Competition, took home the Best Opera prize at the Irish Theatre Awards, received rave opera reviews and saw praise pour in after the release of “Through the Lens of Time,” his latest release.

Izcaray talked to Ms. about how AYS plans to continue advancing women’s representation, what comes after the Year of the Woman and just what we can expect to experience this weekend.

I always start with an inception story. Tell me how the 2018/2019 AYS season became known as the “Year of the Woman.”

As I was envisioning the season as a whole, I wanted to make a statement regarding women composers. The initial idea was to do a program where all featured composers were women, something that I hadn’t done before. As soon as I started the process though, it quickly became evident that doing just one program wouldn’t be enough. There are just too many great works by an incredible diverse pool of women composers to chose from, and sticking to a single event didn’t have the impact I desired. So the main goal quickly evolved into something much more powerful and meaningful, where AYS would perform a whole season where the majority of living composers were women. Add to that the involvement of several female guest artists and, voila!, the Year of the Woman season was born. This felt like a real statement that we could all stand by, and an example to follow in the future.

You’ve also made your own firm commitment to gender equality in time with this powerful public devotion to the issues women face in getting to the stage. Can you also tell me a little bit about your pledge to produce gender-equitable shows?

One of the challenges with classical music is that our past doesn’t collaborate with the gender gap. In other words, women of previous eras sadly didn’t get the opportunities to shine in the field, or even to start in the musical path, hence we have very little repertoire to choose from. But our era is quite different.

A brief glance at databases like composerdiversity.com shows that the resources are there for us to level the field. So we, as a field, can really make it proportionally fair if we desire, and it’s something we at AYS will continue to do so from here on. Our goal is that 50 percent of all living composers through each of our programming cycles, which last 2-3 years, will be women. From a performing angle, it is also key to give equal opportunity to guest artists, and make sure that there are no gender gaps.

I just want to mention some statistics here about gender in classical music: A 2018 study by Quartz at Work found that, of 2,438 full-time musicians from the world’s 20 greatest orchestras, 69 percent were men. A Post analysis the same year found that women made up nearly 40 percent of the country’s orchestras members—but then held only 21 percent of the principal, or titled, slots. Last year, women occupied just 12 of 73 principal positions in the “big five” orchestras in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York. Of the 1,445 classical concerts performed across the world from 2018 to 2019, only 76 included at least one piece by a woman.

Beyond feminist programming and individual commitments, how do we close these gaps? What will it take for women to achieve parity in classical music, and how can leaders in the field follow your lead and play their own part in making it happen?

I believe the best way to deal with the gender gap is to tackle it head on at every single front. First comes the exposure and instruction for our youth, where every child, no matter that gender they may be, feels that there is equal access and fairness during the first steps of the musical path. Second, there must be equal opportunity for those musicians who strive for advancement in an extremely competitive field. Blind orchestral auditions, where the jury panel is positioned behind a screen and can’t view who is playing, are a great example. Since the practice started a few decades ago, the gender gap has been drastically reduced, and I’m very glad that we at AYS have adopted this practice since the beginning of my tenure. The last part of the equation is the leadership. Whether we’re talking about composers, featured artists, administrators, members of boards of directors, or conductors, it is important to provide an even field and opportunities so that women can also display their talents at the helm of the industry.

What impact do you hope the “Year of the Woman” has, locally and on a larger scale—and how will it shape what’s yet to come from AYS?

With regards to AYS, I hope that our young musicians will see this as a model to follow as they advance in their careers. I foresee that a good number of them will be involved in making artistic or executive decisions in the future, so hopefully they can consider this methodology when it comes to programming and hiring. I also want our audience to feel enriched by being exposed to this diverse roster of composers and performers. On a larger scale, I would encourage other artistic leaders and administrators to apply similar concepts with their respective organizations. This initiative is truly universal in spirit, so it can and should be applied worldwide.

I’m already so looking forward to the “Year of the Woman” celebration concert later this month, produced in partnership with Ms. and the Feminist Majority Foundation. What can those of us in attendance expect that night? 

You can expect to be moved by three amazing composers. Lera Auerbach’s Icarus is driven and fiery, and it provides an energized spark for the concert to take flight. Susan Botti’s Echo Tempo, based on Native American poetry, provides a music tapestry that is truly enchanting. We are also extremely fortunate to have Susan as our voice soloist, and Ted Adkatz will join her with the incredibly complex percussion part. Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra, our closing work, is a journey of epic proportions that features and challenges all the sections of the orchestra. Each composer provides a completely different sound world, with a wide spectrum of emotions to discover.


MS. MAGAZINE: Q&A with “Gloria: A Life” Director Diane Paulus

This piece was published by Ms. magazine.

Diane Paulus has led a storied life in the arts with a distinctly feminist twist: In 2012, she became the third-ever woman to win a Tony award for Best Direction of a Musical for her gender-swapped production of Pippin; in 2015, she worked with the first-ever all-female creative team behind a musical to bring Waitress to life on stage.

Her latest project, however, is far less fictional—and much more movement-oriented.

This season, Paulus directed “Gloria: A Life,” bringing the story of one of the modern women’s movement’s most famous faces to the Daryl Roth Theatre and issuing a nightly call-to-arms in the process. Each performance follows Ms. co-founder Gloria Steinem, played by Christine Lahti, as she walks, quite literally, through her own life; along the way, it provides a pathway to understanding and empowerment for viewers rooted in a corrected version of feminist history that is more diverse and inclusive than any most of us have seen before.

The play’s unusual format—there is no intermission, and the second act is an open conversation between the cast, crew and audience about the issues that matter most to them—is distinctly Gloria. But the engaging performances that fill the black-box theater have Paulus’ name all over them.

Paulus spoke to Ms. about what drew her to the project—and how it challenged and changed her.

Diane Paulus (second from the right) with Gloria Steinem (center) and actors from “Gloria: A Life.” (@gloriatheplay)

I always start with an inception story: You have had a legendary directing career. How did you become a part of this particular play—and, by extension, Gloria’s story? What drew you to this project?

Daryl Roth, our producer, reached out to me about this project initially—and it was a no-brainer for me to get involved. I’m drawn to projects that I know will expand my mind and my soul. The chance to immerse myself in this project and deepen my understanding of Gloria’s life and work has been completely life-altering.

This is such a rich and uniquely interactive theater experience. How did this play upend the typical model of directing for theater? How did you begin to approach the task of telling Gloria’s story and calling the audience to arms in the process?

The whole point of telling Gloria’s story in Act I is to transform the audience and get them to a place where they are ready to share their own stories in Act II. We created an installation in the set design that was all about the audience sitting in an actual circle, so the physical space evokes the Act II talking circle. The audience is always present—there is no fourth wall; they are included and directly involved in the theatrical event.

What was it like watching this play come to life?

One of the most thrilling aspects of watching this play come to life was to experience the meaning this story had for our cast and creative team. The artists that collaborated on this play ranged vastly in age—from our youngest directing assistant, a recent high school graduate, to women in their fifities and sixties, all the way up to Gloria herself at 84. Throughout the process, everyone shared stories of their own lives, and in this way we learned about the history of the women’s movement up to the present moment through our own personal histories.

Watching Act II come to life has been similarly inspiring, hearing the audience share their own experiences about what resonated in the play for them. There have been so many emotional and galvanizing moments.

For so many, the play is a trip down memory lane. And for younger generations, it is an informative lesson of where we came from and what our mothers and grandmothers have been through.

This isn’t your first feminist feat, on stage or on screen. Such a major part of this play is the notion, I think, that Gloria’s story is, in some ways, part of our own stories—and that we have stories just as wild and wonderful to share with the world, and which we must begin to tell to one another. How do you think the feminist movement shaped your own life, and your work? 

I went to an all-girls school growing up: The Brearley School in New York City. There was never any question that we could be whoever we wanted to be and say whatever we wanted to say. In high school, I marched for the ERA and I lobbied for Planned Parenthood in Albany. I actually wanted to go into politics—my goal was to become the mayor of New York. In the end, theater became the way for me to channel that impulse to bring people together and make change.

Now, having done this project, I have an even deeper understanding of how everything that I have been able to do in my life is thanks to the efforts of the women’s movement.

I am so grateful to have had the chance to see this play—I attended the night Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a Ms. Contributor, led the act two talking circle. It’s such an immersive and inspiring event. I’m so curious about the vision that guided everyone toward the shape it ultimately took. What impact were you hoping each performance would have on the audience? What impact has it had which made you most proud so far?

In the play, Gloria says “every social justice movement has started with people sitting in a circle—like this. We called it consciousness raising… It’s all about sharing what’s wrong and what to do about it.” I am most proud of the simple fact that we’ve created a space for people to sit in a circle and to recognize that their own stories have value. I know that audience members leave the theater newly energized and inspired to create their own talking circles.

Yes, absolutely. As the run winds down to a close this spring, I am confident a league of driven and bold women will emerge in its wake. Now, just for fun: If you could invite any five feminists—from contemporary times or ancient history, or anywhere in between—to see this play and then join you afterward for a talking circle, who would you save a seat for?

I would definitely want to include the figures in our play—Dorothy Pittman Hughes, Flo Kennedy, Bella Abzug, Wilma Mankiller.

And Joan of Arc!


BUZZFEED: Complicating the Coming-Out Narrative.

Click here to read and share the original at BuzzFeed: I Didn’t Always Know I Was Gay

Rachel Levit for BuzzFeed News

The year I turned 20 was the year I became the sum of a thousand small brown boxes and sleek gray envelopes. Neat, tiny packages of boyshorts in every color with athletic waistbands arrived at my door. A vintage brown leather jacket made its way to me from the 1980s, so authentic I had to cut the shoulder pads out. The used brown leather lace-up boots I would wear for the next three years before they fell apart again and again and again arrived last, in a small box at the end of winter. They were a perfect fit.

The shopping was a ritual. Each time, it went the same way: I ripped open boxes and plastic shipping envelopes and peeled back stickers and seals and marveled at things that felt like the limbs I didn’t realize I’d lost in the war. I tried them on alone and then put them away, pristine and almost untouched, tiny reminders of who I might be — if I could ever decide who that was.

I was the girl who wore a string of oversize pearls with patterned rompers, camisoles and tunics, big floral purses, sundresses, and sweaters. But that year, I put on men’s V-necks and boyshorts and leather jackets and walked over to the bathroom mirror to see if I looked or felt different. I did.

These were the things all the gay girls I was friends with were wearing, as casually and quietly as their own skins. These were the things that separated me from them. These were the things that felt like a secret handshake they used to communicate with one another, or like badges they put on to proclaim who they were to the world. I wanted to feel at home in these things just as easily as I felt at home inside the person I’d been for two decades without ever really thinking about it.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t be gay or queer or confused in my dresses and my pearls, and it wasn’t that I’d never wear them again — because I would. Right then, I needed to be reborn someone else. I needed to be more different than I was alike to that person I’d been for two decades without ever really thinking about it.

So I bought clothes. I tried on being gay, or what felt, at the time, like one of the most surefire ways to look like who I might be. It was dizzying. It was electrifying. Each time I stared at one of the little gifts I’d sent myself, I felt like I was getting closer to finally figuring me out — until a little while later a shadow of doubt would pass over the entire room, and I would feel sick, and pack up my new person, and lie on my bed with my eyes closed questioning everything, especially myself.

Why didn’t I know? How did I wander through deserts of emotion for two decades without ever considering this was my truth? How did I never harbor a secret? How did I never feel a nagging difference within myself?

That year I wished more than anything for a secret. I wished more than anything for a hidden truth inside of me. I wished more than anything that I had always known.

Instead, I had a budding addiction to eBay auctions and a receipt for one set of seven pairs of bright Fruit of the Loom boyshorts, each one rolled up in my underwear cubby just like they were when they arrived.

“I know gay people. I’ve watched shows about gay people. Gay people know.

I was in my mother’s car when she said it, and we were driving very quickly, and I regretted ever bringing it up. I was still so confused and so scared of myself that I didn’t even use labels or categories when trying to explain it. I just told her all I knew when I woke up that morning: I finally liked someone the way people always told me one day I’d like someone.

“You’re not gay. I’m your mother, and I know you’re not gay.”

I stared out the dashboard window while she wound through suburban streets and wondered — panicked — that she was right.

I had no proof. I was not a card-carrying lesbian. I was just 20 and in love with a woman.

So many of my friends in high school and college were gay. They were people who had fought hard for their identities, who claimed them in the midst of familial rejection, social isolation, the risk of becoming invisible. My friends had harbored same-sex attractions in their hearts for years, struggling with the self-consciousness of recognizing their queerness. Coming out was a mountain to climb for each and every one of them.

I have heard countless coming out stories. Every single time they begin the same way: I’ve always known.

One of my friends fell for the only other gay boy at his high school and tried not to tell another soul. One first kissed another girl before kindergarten in the corner of a classroom. One came to college young, at 16, and wrote his parents a coming-out letter in the middle of the night while we all sat around him. One avoided dating girls, despite being the most popular boy in my high school, and opted instead to date my gay best friend.

That’s how this thing works, I realized over the years. You spend a lifetime tossing and turning and waking up in a cold sweat because of who you are. You are gay because it’s all you’ve ever known you could be. You are gay before you have words for it. You are gay the way you are blonde, or tall, or emotional, or smart. You are gay because you’ve always known.You are gay because it’s all you’ve ever known you could be. You are gay before you have words for it. You are gay the way you are blonde, or tall, or emotional, or smart. You are gay because you’ve always known.

“How do you know?” my friend Amanda asked me. We were at her apartment in Cleveland Park. I’d just told her I was gay, or more likely that I thought I was gay. I was unable to decide. I was unable to decide for months, but put the words in my mouth and suggested them to people to see if anyone believed me.

“I used to think I had liked all these boys,” I told her. I thought back on them in that moment, on the boys I’d made out with at parties or brought home to group houses. I’d avoided dating altogether in high school and college, which my family and friends rationalized away as my being too finicky, too independent, too smart. But sometimes I ran off and made out with boys in the dark shadows at parties and followed them home, and the next day I’d have a lingering feeling of anxiety that I assumed was excitement in disguise.

A lot of cultural conversations around men and women dating had assured me that tolerating a man was akin to being madly in love with him. So that was what I did — I tolerated them. I tolerated their record collections and their hoodies and their facial hair. I tolerated their boring bedroom walls and their shitty themed parties. I tolerated the sinking feeling in my stomach whenever we were alone. I tolerated the way my entire body tensed up when they came close to touching me or kissing me.

It wasn’t that it felt wrong to be with men: to flirt with them, make out with them, text them the next day. It was just that all that stuff had happened in black and white, or on mute.

After I finally let myself fall for a woman, everything around me was loud. In technicolor.

Liking her was like all those cheesy love songs on the radio playing on repeat. I was finally selfless and open wide and full of energy and light. I was blissed out and lit up. I knew instantly that how it felt to like her was right, was important, was how I could feel forever and ever — if I just redesigned who I was.

“Now I know I never liked anyone,” I said with authority. “Not like this.”

I exhaled and made a mental note of how correct those sentences felt once they were done gnashing against my teeth.

I was 18 the first time we crashed into each other; it would be another two years until the second. Before she kissed me, she asked me if I was going to be OK the next day. I didn’t know what she meant, so I nodded my head. In the morning, I jumped out of bed and frantically put my clothes on, cried a little on the metro, and opened my journal to write over and over again what became my catchphrase in the ensuing few weeks and months:

“I don’t know what it means. I don’t know what it means. I don’t know what it means.”

My best friend Josh sat me down a day later to ask me if I was gay. I opted to say no, insistently. After all, I reasoned with myself, I would know if I were gay. Instead, I packed up my stuff and went home for the summer and forced myself to stop thinking and talking about it. I put what happened between us behind me, as if it was the kind of thing that can fit in the past. As if it wasn’t anything.

I came back to campus in the fall determined to remember who I was. I had strayed, after all, from my vision. I had surrendered control over all the ways I was trying to shape my life, away from all the plans I’d made for myself, and more importantly, away from the plans my family and friends had made with me.

This was not who I was. I heard myself repeat it in my head over and over and over again. It feels stupid in hindsight to admit you thought you knew yourself at 18, but I did. I liked to make lists of different words I would use to describe myself, write passages in my journal devoted to recording the honest definition of my name to an unknown audience.

I was so many things, so many tiny identities and memories collapsed into a skeleton. But I wasn’t gay. That thought had never before crossed my mind. To stumble upon gayness instead of wrestle with it felt inauthentic, impossible. In a world where queer identities aren’t always recognized and validated, it didn’t seem like an option to fall flat on my face into one.I wasn’t gay. That thought had never before crossed my mind. To stumble upon gayness instead of wrestle with it felt inauthentic, impossible. In a world where queer identities aren’t always recognized and validated, it didn’t seem like an option to fall flat on my face into one.

In the year after I began chasing boys, this time more earnestly and more devotedly. And eventually, I forgot. The girl who’d asked me if I’d be OK the next morning came out, and I didn’t, and we got over it, water under the bridge, no big deal. My mind erased all the memories from that night, all the times I’d put my head in my hands and felt terrified by my own heart.

Two years later I was 20 and she was my best friend. When she put her hand on my back in a car in the heat of summer, it was like an open wound that just started hurting all over again.

It was so much more a discovery than a declaration.

I wrote poems until I felt like I was ready to form sentences. I closed my eyes and finally dreamt wildly like I’ve always imagined people do when they’re truly alive. I put on the jacket and the boots and the boyshorts and left the house brand new.

I was 20 and I was in love with a woman. This time, I couldn’t push past it or put it behind me. This time it was all-consuming and urgent. This time it was huge, and I would stare in the mirror in the bathroom every morning and look for someone I recognized — but I was gone. I had ceased to exist. I was a blank slate. I was empty and vast and stupid and overwhelmed.

Sometimes, I crumbled under that canvas. Other times, I filled it with light and let myself believe I’d eventually get to know myself all over again.

It was easy to put words to the feelings alone. I am in love with a woman. Over and over again. That was the easy part. That was the part nobody could take away from me.

What came next was deciding what that meant. It was the truth that would come to define the rest of my life, but I was bewildered by it. What if I was wrong? I knew it was a ridiculous question, that the only person who knew me best should be me, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that somewhere in my confusion, in having opened my eyes for what felt like the first time, I was going to make a mistake.

I kept a journal that year in a small red paperback Moleskine. On the front, I wrote “Everything will change.” Inside, I wrote a line from a song: “Live through this and you won’t look back.”

What if it isn’t always about “coming out?” What if I was never hiding? What if being gay isn’t about the pain of keeping that secret? What if it’s about the way my girlfriend smiles while she drives me down the highway, or how smooth the movements of the Earth underneath me felt when I finally wore those boots outside?

What if being gay is about recognizing that you, against all odds, aren’t broken, that where you thought there was nothing there’s a well of love, that inside of you is an awesome power to become something you never imagined for yourself?

Maybe it’s possible to wake up someone else.

Maybe it’s possible to wander through the world for two decades without ever being able to recognize yourself in your reflection.

Maybe it’s possible to be 20 and fall in love with a woman and never look back.

One of the first books I bought when I was packing virtual shopping carts full of my feelings was The New Fuck You, a poetry anthology edited by Eileen Myles.

One of my favorite lines was from a piece by Holly Hughes: I spent my entire childhood in a coma. Then I turned twenty and I kissed a woman.

I underlined it and earmarked the page and put the book on my bedside table, just to remind myself I had a story that had been written before.