I used to call the LGBTQ+ organization at my university the “alphabet club.” I dismissed them and their “silly little” Pride parades through campus and their willingness to stand on a street corner and throw condoms and lube at folx, extolling the virtues of safe sex. I wasn’t one of them. At least that’s what I told myself.
I had already spent my teenage years scared of people like them.
As young queer people we often have coming out experiences where we think we’re revealing our true selves to the ones we’re closest to while betraying ourselves by letting them say, “At least you’re not that kind of gay.”
Only now do I realize that all of this — my fear, my anger, my self-loathing, my willingness to distance myself from the larger community — was caused by the trauma of growing up in a heteronormative world that feared feminity, put less value on Black, Brown and indigenous bodies and generally felt that self-expression was acceptable.
I was so brainwashed. Now, nearly two decades later, having lived through a divorce from my husband, a global pandemic and a race reckoning, I am in a good place to look back and try to make sense of it all.
What I now know has been most damaging to me and my view of the world were the internalized homophobia and the sexism and racism and other isms that are so ingrained within us by society. Once I saw them, I couldn’t unsee them, and that’s where the real journey began (for me and many of my friends).
In the Spring of 2020, while the divorce and Covid were still swirling, my best friend Benton and I began to have serious conversations about why we ended up in New York City. Part esoteric, mostly geographic. The city made sense for both of us. He’s from North Carolina and is now a Broadway casting director who only ever had dreams of moving here. I am from Alaska and now a journalist and advertising professional who didn’t aim for NYC, but eventually all roads led me here.
On paper we’re two cis-gendered WHITE men who identified as gay, with all the requisiite trauma you might expect from being raised in small towns, around “traditional values.” On the LGBTQ+ spectrum it often feels like we’re the most basic of types of gay you might come across. A gay guy who works in entertainment, and another in publishing. We know, shocking.
In the wake of Covid lockdowns, we processed the faltering professional and social worlds around us, and realized that having a moment to pause and evaluate our position of privilege and that of the people around us might be just the thing that would help us find light in a shady time. But what could we do?
“Benton?” I asked one day. “Would you ever think about starting a podcast with me?” This, of course, was over a table of tie-dye buckets and freshly baked sourdough bread—two of the early Covid hobbies we adopted.
And the Why Here podcast was born.
Our first episode, with Dr. Virat Madia, was released on May 15th, 2020. He talked about his role as an ER physician in the Bronx in some of the darkest months of the pandemic. It was easy to ask a friend to be on the show, but the hard part was asking him to talk about his experience in a pandemic hot spot.
The conversation led us to his South Asian roots, and he eventually opened up about his queer experience as a Brown boy, raised by Indian parents in Minnesota.
We asked him if being queer had shaped how he feels he can give care to his patients. “One of the things that is so beautiful about the LGBTQ+ community is our ability to relate to each other through this identity and to find common stories and friendship, love and family,” he answered.
Dr. Madia’s episode words kept ringing in our ears. In one little sentence he had captured a big truth about the queer experience: The stories we make and share with each other, within and beyond our community, give many of us an unimaginable conduit to empathy and compassion.
It’s in moments like this that we realized our fear of the queer world around us and our ability to hide behind our white privilege kept us from the one thing that we could perhaps bring to the world around us: compassion. This has become our mission.
A little more than one week after Dr. Madia’s episode George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, the very place Dr. Madia’s parents had raised him. Why Here quickly became about far more than origin stories. In the following weeks and months we spoke to stage actress L Morgan Lee, music artists VINCINT, Rufus Wainwright, Kat Cunning and Jake Shears, RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Bob The Drag Queen, actors Rosie O’Donnell, Wilson Cruz, Charlie Carver and Colman Domingo, comedian Joel Kim Booster, U.S. Congressman Ritchie Torres, author Dan Savage and more. Many of which were queer heroes (and our childhood idols) who paved the path for us and so many others.
Each guest shared a story about their journey with authenticity and vulnerability. Each guest moved us and our audience to better understand that our differences make us stronger and our ingrained biases can be dislodged slowly but surely through listening, sharing and showing compassion. What manifests in the catalogue of episodes is as much a time capsule of the racial reckoning and pandemic as it is a call for all of us to listen more carefully to anyone and everyone who has created, lived and persevered on the margins of society.
As a younger generation stakes it claim on notions of identity and belonging, with evermore parts of the queer experience being defined, Why Here has given us an invaluable platform to bridge the world that we came from with a world that sets a place at the table for everyone.
We may be coming (slowly) out of Covid but my hope is that we continue this seemingly accidental but life-changing journey together. Each day, Benton and I try to look inward, seek knowledge and listen with open hearts. If I could go back and tell us one thing when we were those scared young men in our small towns it would be that LGBTQ+ is not simply letters, it’s us - our community, our tribe, our people. We owe that tribe so much.
About Why Here:
Why Here podcast is a LGBTQIA+ leaning weekly podcast co-hosted by New York City journalist Tristan McAllister and Broadway casting director Benton Whitley. Each week they interview a different guest and discuss their, our, everyone’s place in the world. What manifests is a narrative as much about mental health as it is about embracing your origin to find your destination. Through cultural commentary and interviews with friends and strangers the two uncover the complicated and inspiring stories that led us all here. Follow @whyherepodcast