THE METHOD: The Advocate’s Editor-in-Chief on Jodie Foster’s “Coming Out” Speech, Gays Who Oppose Marriage and the LGBT Movement’s Next Big Battle: Transgender Rights
When Matthew Breen, the editor-in-chief of the 45-year-old LGBT magazine, The Advocate, came out to his parents in 1995, Ellen DeGeneres was still in the closet, Clinton’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy was in full swing and “gay marriage” was laughably unforeseeable. Despite the unwelcoming climate, the handsome 21-year-old mustered up just enough courage to confess his sexuality to his parents in what he calls “a clumsy letter.”
“Then I sort of ducked and covered,” he remembers, “waiting to see what would happen.”
Despite the social pressures of growing up in conservative Salt Lake City, Utah, Breen’s progressive parents handled the news pretty well. But it wasn’t easy for them. “Their whole notion of what my life would be was suddenly upended,” he recalls, “and they were afraid I’d get beaten up or become HIV positive.”
A decade into his tenure at Here Media, the parent company of gay glossies, Out and The Advocate, where he’s held editorial posts since 2003, he’s no longer a novice in matters of coming out. In fact, Breen has edited and published so many stories on the topic one could say he’s mastered the form.
So when The Slant reached Breen at his L.A. office, we had to get his take on Jodie Foster’s surprising–and puzzling–Golden Globes’ “outing” this past awards season.
He also shared his musings on the most influential out celebrities, why subscriptions to The Advocate still come (closeted) in opaque white wrappers, and how the Supreme Court might rule on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Proposition 8.
Let’s start with your early life in Utah. How did you make it out of there to become the editor-in-chief of The Advocate?
I knew I was not going to be in Utah forever, but I grew up there and went to the University of Utah for college. Afterwards, I went to work for the Utah Film Commission and the Sundance Film Festival in low paying, but cool jobs. I left Salt Lake City in ’99 and got a job through a contact I made at Sundance working in public relations. But when I couldn’t bear PR anymore, I started writing freelance and doing film reviews for Out. But, you know, a 100-word piece a month does not pay the bills. So I started doing music reviews and other stuff for them. And eventually, I became the film reviewer for The Orange County Register‘s website, which is a very conservative paper in southern California. So that’s a little ironic. But soon a job as the associate editor for Out opened up: It took a dog’s age, but I finally got that job. In April, I will have worked between Out and The Advocate for ten years.
You look pretty young to be an editor-in-chief!
I’m now 38. At 36, I was tied for youngest-ever editor of The Advocate.
We read your provocative editor’s letter on Jodie Foster’s coming out speech at the Golden Globe Awards. In your view, her speech was shrouded in shame, animosity and self-defensiveness. A lot of your readers came to her defense, basically arguing that privacy is sacred and her orientation is not our business. We wondered what you thought of that?
My frustration is different from a reader’s frustration. So when all of these readers read my editor’s letter about Jodie Foster and said, “Leave her alone. It’s her business,” on the one hand, I totally agree. It’s her business entirely. But what I wrote about was the way in which she said she was not coming out by coming out, how tortured it was and the pall of shame about it. My frustration is partially with the people around celebrities who keep them in a tortured bubble. I hate that. It does horrible things to them and not just gay people, but also people like Michael Jackson or Tom Cruise (who knows if he’s gay or straight!). These bubbles do terrible things to people by instilling this sense of shame. So that’s what I see a lot of in my profession that readers don’t necessarily see all the time. Had she said nothing we would have said, “Oh no, a missed opportunity to come out,” but we would not have been surprised and we would not have raked her over the coals for it. But she didn’t. She had this weird rambling speech.
Some speculated that she was just nervous…or drunk.
I have no idea if she was drunk. I have no idea if she drinks at all. But I do know that they don’t serve you dinner at those things and they put a giant bottle of champagne on the table. So if you only had the tiny bits of finger food they provide and you’ve been having a couple of glasses of champagne, it’s highly possible that you could have over served yourself. Mel Gibson looked drunk! I don’t mind saying that.
Every time the camera panned to him, he seemed a little…struck…
He seemed like he’d been electrocuted.
Ha! So, which out celebrities have had the biggest impact on cultural perceptions of LGBT people?
I think Chaz Bono’s coming out as transgender has been really transformative. My first issue as editor of The Advocate had Chaz on the cover. I was excited for that. I think he’s the most prominent trans person in the country.
Also, George Michael’s coming out in the 90s was hugely important. Actually, there are a few musicians I think were very important: KD Lang, Melissa Etheridge, Elton John.
Ellen is extremely significant in that she’s in everyone’s living room every day! For the first couple years of her talk show, she didn’t really talk about gay stuff. The gay theme in her old sitcom was thought to be the thing that tanked her show, rightly or wrongly. So I can understand the reticence in keeping LGBT issues off her talk show. She’s just so charming and endearing. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but she’s inoffensive. Being so smart and funny and putting together a great talk show, has made her very influential.
The most influential?
I would be hesitant to put “the most” on anybody. But she’s extremely important. Also Neil Patrick Harris’s coming out was very important because he’s upended the idea that you can’t play straight after you’ve come out. Matt Bomer too. Bomer doesn’t talk about his sexuality so much. But it’s known that he’s gay and partnered with kids. Celebrities who are confounding expectations of masculinity and femininity have a big effect.
Speaking of coming out of the closet, does The Advocate still show up in subscribers’ mailboxes in that opaque white wrapper, which seems to suggest naughty–shameful–content?
Many, many, many of us here have always had a very complicated relationship with that opaque wrapper. It’s been optional for a long time. People complain about it, not knowing that they can opt out of it when subscribing. Maybe the print allowing you to opt out isn’t large enough. The idea has always been–and I’m not claiming to subscribe to this philosophy–but the idea was if you live in Mississippi, and your letter carrier knows everybody in town by name, and you get The Advocate, but you’re closeted, who’s to say that your letter carrier is not going to talk to your entire neighborhood about what kind of mail you receive? So it wasn’t designed to be shameful–there’s that word again–but to protect people and to make sure that people who wanted The Advocate could get it without alerting the entire world to it. But there is that sort of, “Well, what’s inside? Is it porn? Is it something else?” It’s a little strange. Nobody loves it. We think of it as a necessity in some instances.
What was your coming out experience like?
I came out to my parents when I was 21, when I was still living in Salt Lake City. It was just such a miasma of strange emotions. I felt the pressure of a secret burning away at me. I didn’t know what to do with it, but thought I should come out. Like a lot of people, I did it in spurts, like “I’ll tell these people, then these,” and once I started that, I had to tell everybody all at once. Then I sort of ducked and covered, waiting to see what would happen.
I wish I hadn’t written it down because I’m sure it was clumsy and I know my parents have kept it. I would be able to articulate it better now after years of having thought about it. For the same reason, I don’t keep a journal very frequently because I hate reading what I wrote about in the past. I’m like, “Edit! Edit! Edit! Edit! God, I wrote that so poorly,” which is probably the wrong way to approach a journal.
Anyway, I grew up in Salt Lake City in a non-Mormon family. We were transplants to Utah when I was little. I didn’t know very many gay people and felt very isolated. Being in the closet kept me from having a closer relationship with my family than I could have had at the time. They’re great people. They are so supportive, very invested in my life, interested in my work and community. But my coming out wasn’t easy for them in the beginning. I think I had a fairly typical frustrations with them: “Why aren’t you getting this faster?” I wondered. But I obviously had years to think about it and they hadn’t.
Sounds like you’re sympathetic to parents’ experience of a child’s coming out.
Yeah, they have to suddenly change their minds about who their kids are. It’s just sad that there are these presumptions about what our kids’ lives are going to or should be like. And it’s tough in a conservative community. My parents were not conservative like those surrounding us, but no one lives in a vacuum. The social norms and pressures of our surroundings had an impact on them. Even progressive folks have to still deal with the new notion of what their child’s life is going to be like. My parents were afraid for me too. They were worried that I was going to get beaten up or become HIV positive. They had all sorts of concerns that are completely reasonable when you’re not in LGBT culture yourself. But they’ve come to understand a lot more about what my life really is.
Are you in a relationship?
Yes, my boyfriend is Austrian. He’s from Vienna. He lives in Los Angeles now, and he’s here legally. But there is finite time period to that. Just looking at the various options for him to stay past the end of that visa–to get a new visa or a work visa–it’s just really complicated. Meanwhile, if he were female, and we were married, she could easily apply for a Green Card or Permanent Alien Status or find a path to citizenship. We’re not married. But even if we were, there’s no federal recognition for our relationship. I think about all these bi-national couples that have been together for a very long time, who have kids, businesses or properties together, the foreign national could literally be deported at any time. It’s just one factor among many that goes with our rights and relationships not being recognized by the federal government.
What do you think is going to happen with the DOMA and Proposition 8?
Well, you know, the Supreme Court is totally opaque. They are going to be hearing oral arguments on some of these cases at the end of March and nobody knows what questions they’ll decide to address, whether it’s California specific–the Proposition 8 case, specifically–or Edie Windsor’s case. [When Windsor’s partner passed away in 2009, it cost her $600,000 in combined federal and state income tax because DOMA prevents the Internal Revenue Service from recognizing her as a surviving spouse.] We don’t know what question they are going to take up or how narrowly or broadly they are going to rule. They could strike down DOMA, or they could just let the Prop 8 decision by Judge Vaughn Walker stand, meaning marriages would resume in California. They could decide to allow this to be a state-by-state thing or go federal.
I’m an optimist, though. I look at Chief Justice John Roberts, who is a young and will likely be on the Supreme Court for a few more decades, and I tend to think that he is aware of the fact that he will have a long legacy, and that this will be a very important case in his legacy. I think his decision to uphold the constitutionality of most of The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (known as Obamacare), which was not the decision that conservatives expected him to make, is a tiny hint on how he views his legacy. I’m not a court prognosticator. I’m not a legal scholar. I don’t know all that much about the Supreme Court to be honest, but a lot of the attention is focused on Anthony Kennedy’s swing vote. But I think Roberts is our key to this somehow. My optimism leads me to believe that he won’t be as draconian as Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas.
There are some camps within the LGBT community who think making the right to marry a central cause of the movement was short-sighted. They see marriage as a normalizing apparatus that stigmatizes relationship outside matrimony. The better fight, in their view, would have been to divorce all the privileges and benefits that accompany the right to marry from marital status, so that all those social securities and advantages are available to everyone. What’s your response to them?
You know, I think that the federal government as far as marriage goes shouldn’t determine what rights and responsibilities you want to assign to somebody else. I don’t see why you shouldn’t be able to assign those rights and responsibilities to any adult that you like. I don’t know why it has to be called marriage. I don’t know why the government is involved in marriage in the first place. I don’t know why that word “marriage” can’t be associated with the kind of relationships that we have. Civil Unions are not the same as marriage in this country so it stands to reason that people are fighting for marriage, but if marriage has this religious context to it, which it does, I don’t know why the government is in the business of marriage at all. There’s nothing wrong in my opinion–and this would be preferable–if the government were involved in the contract of unions, leaving marriage to whatever spiritual religious organization couples choose to engage in. So I am fully in favor of the government getting out of the marriage business.
How do you think same-sex marriage has effected or changed the institution of marriage in and of itself? Has it redefined the institution for the mainstream in any way?
What we’ve seen so far is that there’s a positive economic impact. Jurisdictions within cities, countries in Europe and other places who have legalized same-sex marriage, have seen a boost to their economy because more people are engaging in an activity that has a lot of upfront costs and then a lot of social economic benefits down the road. But apart from that there is zero effect. There’s neither a positive, nor negative effect. We have lots of evidence throughout Europe and in New England, and soon we’ll have proof in Washington State, that there is no affect on straight people.
Gay marriage has been a central part of the LGBT agenda for a while now. Once DOMA is repealed, what is the next big challenge for the LGBT community?
DADT, although technically repealed, is not a done deal until DOMA is outlawed because it prevents partners from receiving death benefits and spousal and child support, among many other rights that straight married couples receive automatically. And transgender people are not allowed to serve in the military. There are still 29 states where you can be fired for being gay, or having a gender identity that your employer doesn’t like. There are enormous hurdles that remain for transgender populations and enormous health disparities for people who are LGBT. Lesbians and transgender people have a whole range of issues they have to deal with in terms of access to health care and discrimination in health care.
It sounds like the struggles of transgender people are the next big challenge the LGBT community needs to grapple with.
Yeah, it’s certainly a section of our community that is still widely misunderstood, maligned and often the target of a lot of violence. We have a real war to wage on behalf of transgender people.
Can you foresee a time when LGBT people will be so integrated into the mainstream that it will render The Advocate obsolete? Or is there something different about the experience of being gay that will make The Advocate always relevant and beneficial to gay populations?
Let me answer that by saying that I think there will always be some kind of queer culture. As equal as we strive to be in a legal and a social aspect, we will always still be a minority in terms of the proportion of the population that’s LGBT. Like minorities, we have a characteristic that makes us distinct from the majority. I think LGBT people will seek each other out and continue to create distinct communities and cultures. How that is going to continue to manifest, who knows? I hope that we won’t always be writing stories about discrimination against LGBT people, but I think we will always have stories to tell about our culture.
Last year was the 45th anniversary of The Advocate. How do you think The Advocate has influenced the way LGBT issues are covered in the mainstream press?
Over the years, we’ve had a really important influence on the way the mainstream media looks at LGBT issues. We were the first LGBT publication to have a reporter in the White House Briefing Room. We were asking questions about DADT, marriage equality. Those sorts of things. When those questions are asked by our reporter, the mainstream media goes, “Yeah, we need to know about that stuff!” And they pick up the response.
We’ve gotten important celebrities’ coming out stories and political figures to comment on fairness and equality when it come to LGBT rights. Over the years, we have put politicians’ feet to the fire, which has been instrumental in forcing all of us to draw a bright line between those who think that all people are equal and those who really don’t. You cannot be an elected official these days without having your stance on LGBT issues. There is no such thing as a politician who’s completely neutral and uninformed about our concerns. It doesn’t exist any longer. And I think we’ve been instrumental in making that happen.
Today, there are same sex marriage announcements in papers across the country–you wouldn’t have seen that a few years ago. Obituaries mention partners. Gay news isn’t specific to gay publications anymore, and I think that’s partly to do with The Advocate’s longevity. We’re not the first gay publication, but we’ve been the longest running and it’s due to the dedication of the people who have run this publication over 45 years. It’s not because The Advocate was a goldmine. But it’s always been a priority for the people who’ve worked here to make the issues that are important to this community central to the publication. And by not going away, we’ve effectively made it clear that these are enduring issues and questions.