Stella Maxwell
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Op-ed: How 11 Years at The Advocate Silenced My Self-Hate

Op-ed: How 11 Years at The Advocate Silenced My Self-Hate

When I was hired as an assistant at The Advocate’s Los Angeles offices in the fall of 2004, my father, living back in Connecticut, was thrilled. Even after I meekly explained what The Advocate was (“It’s um, a gay [cough], news magazine), for three years he operated under the assumption, whether because of a bad cell connection or willed ignorance, that I was employed as a West Coast correspondent for Connecticut’s largest alternative (and not specifically gay) weekly, the Hartford Advocate. For five years, I never corrected him.

When the time came to set him straight, after much change had come to the world, I made it crystal-clear what I did for a living. ‘No, Dad, I don’t work for the Hartford Advocate. Small alternative weeklies don’t keep big offices in L.A. I work for The Advocate, and we write about GAY news.”

He was embarrassed by his clumsy assumption, but not ashamed of where I worked; after doing some research, he was entirely proud that I worked for such a venerable publication, one that was chronicling the civil rights movement of our time.

It’s funny what happened in those five or so years, in the country, and within me. While I rarely hesitated in telling friends what I did for a living, I initially was much less forthcoming with those I didn't know well, especially older people or known conservatives I felt harbored homophobia (I’ve always had a knack for deciphering that; call it anti-gaydar). And when social media starting taking off around a decade ago, I hesitated sharing too many Advocate stories on my feeds. By that time, everyone from my hometown pretty much knew I was gay (hell, they probably knew back in the ‘90s), but I didn’t want to be known as really gay.

That queasy self-loathing was challenged every day I spent at The Advocate. Before I was hired, I was consumed with the 2004 election, marching in rallies against George W. Bush. My ardor though, was restricted to the Iraq invasion, not on how the president was trying to take away my dignity with his proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. It wasn’t until I worked under impassioned editors and writers that I grasped how damaging the amendment would have been — and not just for me, but those teenage gays trying to forge their identity in what felt like an increasingly homophobic world. With our stories and covers and internal discussions, I began to see Bush's gaybaiting as reprehensible and unacceptable.

At the time, Massachusetts was the only state in the nation with marriage equality. In the mid-2000s, I vacillated between wanting a marriage for myself (or at least a boyfriend) and being nauseated by the idea. Two men and two women marrying was not something that was even conceivable to me as a ‘90s teen. Even though a marriage case dragged on in Hawaii for the better part of the decade, I was mostly unaware. It certainly wasn’t a topic discussed in school or at our dinner table. Other than the desexed gay character on Melrose Place and the androgynous Rickie on the canceled-too-soon My So-Called Life, the media of my adolescence was devoid of nearly anything gay, save for images of those dying of AIDS complications. Even after I started working at The Advocate, my concept of same-sex marriage was shaped by Susan and Carol’s wedding on Friends; they seemed jokey, gimmicky, and attention-seeking.

Until California briefly legalized marriage equality in 2008, I didn’t know any married same-sex couples. Then my best friends got hitched and I was in the ceremony. It was lovely and everyone was overjoyed. Even still, I remember thinking how strange it would be if I married a man. Would my mother or father walk me down the aisle? Would my uncles grimace when I danced with my husband? Would I use the word "husband" when I spoke of my spouse? Even saying "husband" to a customer service representative seemed like an exhausting political act.

It's taken me longer than most to slough off the chains of adolescence, with its constant worries of what others think. Gradually, and in no small part due to my job, I've began to care very little if people are uncomfortable with my "gayness." If Sandy at AT&T is thrown off when I say "my boyfriend," well, get with it, Sandy. If that Mormon family don't like me holding hands with my fella at Disneyland, then they can cover their kids' eyes; I'm not changing myself to mollify their sensibilities.

In Harvey Milk's day, coming out was the way to push back against inequality; now it's living authentically. It's not easy though, and many times it's downright frightening. I've lost count of how many stories I've written or edited — just in the past two or three years — about same-sex couples being bashed for walking arm-in-arm or transgender people assaulted for not "passing" well enough.

This job has opened my eyes to the daily intolerance foisted upon all the letters of our community — bisexuals silenced and ridiculed; transgender people demonized and mocked. After years of saying "tranny," one day I realized how diminishing it must feel for my transgender friends and writers to be labeled such. I've never used the word since. Just like anyone, it was exposure — or in my case, immersion — that opened my eyes.

When I'm feeling generous, I believe my 2004 self was not much different than a typical American who currently opposes LGBT rights. Even for me, a gay man, marriage equality once felt aggressive and off-putting. It took me a few years at The Advocate to get to the place where it truly feels like something I deserve. Most Americans will get to where I am on marriage, I believe, as well as on LGBT employment and housing discrimination, transgender rights, sound, humane immigration policy, and the myriad other issues affecting our lives. But like our loyal readers at The Advocate, I'm increasingly impatient for that day.

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NEAL BROVERMAN is the Executive Editor of The Advocate. Reach him on Twitter @nbroverman.

Tags: Commentary, Media

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