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Alison Bechdel. Eileen Myles. Kenny Fries. Saeed Jones. Four icons reflect on their journeys in this special Pride episode of Design Matters.

Design Matters: Celebrating Pride

Design Matters: Celebrating Pride

ARTISTS / POETS / WRITERS

28.6.21

Pride / Alison Bechdel / Eileen Myles / Kenny Fries / Saeed Jones / identity / poetry / gender

Transcript


Debbie Millman:

Longtime listeners of Design Matters will know that over the years I have interviewed a lot of gay men and women. I’ve always been interested in hearing how someone has negotiated their sexual identity in a world that is not always open to it.


Longtime listeners will also know that while I am gay, I didn’t come out until I was 50. Ten years later, I’m married to a woman, and more comfortable in my own skin than I ever have been. But it has been a journey.


Since it’s the end of Pride month, I feel like celebrating by sharing some excerpts from interviews with some of the LGBTQIA guests  I’ve had on Design Matters in recent years.


First up, the amazing MacArthur genius Alison Bechdel. Alison Bechdel is the author of groundbreaking graphic novels like Fun Home and Are You My Mother? I spoke with her in 2016 …


//


Debbie Millman:

I understand that one of your all-time favorite Mad magazine cartoons began with a first grader’s “what I did last summer” report about visiting a farm and seeing pigs. Why is this your favorite?


Alison Bechdel:

That’s such a perfect first question, because it ties in with the work and life being the same thing. So, this little boy writes his “what I did this summer” report about going to a farm and seeing pigs, and it evolves over the years. For every school paper, he rewrites a version of this until he’s an animal husbandry student and he’s writing scientific papers about pigs. There’s these same little throughlines that keep showing up.


Alison Bechdel:

What excited me about it was this idea that there’s just one thing you’re passionate about, and you can just keep doing it for the rest of your life.


Debbie Millman:

Over and over.


Alison Bechdel:

Over and over, on a slightly higher level each time, hopefully.


Debbie Millman:

Hopefully. You were born in Lock Haven, PA. Your father was a high school English teacher, and also operated a funeral home. Your mother was an actress, and also a teacher. I believe you were about 4 years old when you saw your first butch lesbian. What happened?


Alison Bechdel:

I was out with my dad on some funeral home–related errand in a larger city. We grew up in a very small town, so I think we might’ve been in Philadelphia. And he took me to lunch in a little luncheonette, and a woman came into the place who just blew the top of my head off, this big woman wearing men’s clothes. But I just remembered seeing this person who I recognized as a version of myself, and my father recognized her, too. He turned and saw her, and he said to me, “Is that what you want to look like?”


Debbie Millman:

Well, he was so adamant about you wearing barrettes in your hair and dresses at that time.


Alison Bechdel:

Yeah, and of course that was exactly what I wanted to look like, and I didn’t know that it was possible, or that anyone else did it. But simultaneously, I was getting the message that that was not OK.


Debbie Millman:

In your intro to The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, which is a compilation of all of the comics over the 25 years of writing and drawing this amazing universe, you write about finding and reading your kindergarten report card, and this is what your teacher wrote about you: “Speaks hesitantly and seldom uses good grammar, but seems to prefer silence most of the time. Quiet. Restrained. Introversion. Obsession with detail. Contempt for leadership. Inability to handle criticism. Bad judgment. Performs well where speaking is unnecessary. Draws detail in realist way.”


Debbie Millman:

How much of this is still accurate?


Alison Bechdel:

Pretty much everything. Spot on.


Debbie Millman:

While working on your book Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, you ran across a cardboard-bound compilation you made of your best stories and drawings when you were 12, and you titled it An Odd, Strange and Curious Collection of Alison Bechdel’s Works. You felt that the parallels were alarming, from the background details in the drawings to the use of marginal comments on the selected pieces. Were they really that similar, or was it just this sort of startled realization that you’d had this desire to draw and communicate in this way since you were really little, like from the time you were 3?


Alison Bechdel:

What was interesting to me about seeing that childhood compilation was not so much the drawings themselves as the act of compiling, as the act of self-archiving, culling my stuff into some kind of structure that made sense to me, and you know, prizing it, investing it with meaning for my own purposes, which I continue to do. It’s like an active memoir, just making sure my stuff is presented in a way that makes sense to me.


Debbie Millman:

Dykes to Watch Out For first cropped up in the margin of a letter you were writing to a friend, and you titled the drawing, “Marianne, Dissatisfied With the Breakfast Brew,” and you’ve stated that for some reason, you were moved to further label it, “Dykes to Watch Out For: Plate Number 27,” as if it were just one in a series of illustrations of what you referred to as mildly demonic lesbians.


Debbie Millman:

I believe this was your first published cartoon, and it ran in the 1983 lesbian pride issue of a feminist newspaper. So how did it get to the newspaper? How did that happen?


Alison Bechdel:

I had worked at that newspaper. I was a volunteer at this feminist monthly called Women News, and I showed up just because I wanted to meet people and do something interesting, and a newspaper sounded fun, and then I got involved in the production end of the paper, and we were a collective. So, we just all put this paper out together. No one got paid.


Alison Bechdel:

And I was doing these cartoons for fun, and showing them to my friends, and someone said, “You know, you should show these to the collective and see if they want to put them in the paper,” and they did. So, I started doing one a month for this newspaper.


Debbie Millman:

In The Indelible Alison Bechdel, one of your books, you write, “The concept of a series, although initially a joke, begged for continuation. I found myself drawing more and more plats in my sketchbooks over the next several months. The captions grew increasingly complex, and the drawings more finished and deliberate. Eventually, I had a small sheaf of dykes to watch out for, that I would whip out and display to acquaintances at the slightest provocation.”


Debbie Millman:

It was at this time you begin doing a cartoon for every issue of the newspaper, and then began sending them out.


Alison Bechdel:

There was this gay and lesbian subculture happening in the ’80s that I was so excited by, this whole like sort of parallel world where gay people were making their own art, and newspapers, and had their own bookstores and bars, and I loved that world, and I wanted to document it. I wanted to like, not just be part of it, but to show it. So I started doing that with these comics. Like, I just wanted to see images of people like me, which I didn’t see anywhere in the culture at that point.


//


Debbie Millman:

… That was Alison Bechdel, from an interview I did with her in 2016. In 2016 I also interviewed the great Eileen Myles, who’s been a prominent figure in American poetry for decades now. Here are some excerpts from that interview …


//


Debbie Millman:

You moved to New York City in 1974 to be a poet, and you said that all of your life people have asked you what you do, and you say that you’re a poet, and they just kind of look at you like you said you’re a stripper. Still?


Eileen Myles:

No, they look at you like you said you were a mime. It would be cool if they looked at you, if they thought you were a stripper. I mean, they were just like, “What does that person do?” I mean, even early today, I had a conversation with somebody, and there was somebody taking pictures, and he was like, “Well, what do you do all day?” I just thought, That’s so strange. Well, what do you do all day? You know?


Eileen Myles:

Part of what’s interesting about being a poet is that nobody knows. You know? That it’s sort of like, what people don’t get is it’s almost like you’re a professional human.


Debbie Millman:

In what way? What do you mean?


Eileen Myles:

You know, in the same way that there are epic poems, right? And there would be a hero, but really the hero of the epic poem was the poet. The one who wrote the story, you know? Who gave mind to the saga, kind of. And I think that you’re still that person. Except that the saga is kind of a day, is kind of a Postmodern day, and you’re sort of in it, kind of telling the story of it, you know? And it doesn’t have to be a linear story, but you’re just kinda saying what’s—I’m make a mime gesture—you’re kind of saying what’s here.


Debbie Millman:

You are.


Eileen Myles:

Yeah. And I think that’s a very ordinary, but a very necessary and sort of completely surreal and phenomenal job. And yet I think that is the job of the poet.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve written about how you walked into the Veselka Café in October of 1975 and met the late New York poet Paul Violi, who invited you to a workshop at St. Mark’s Church. And you went and wrote this about the experience: “Suddenly, the rest of my history came out of that accidental moment. I met Allen Ginsberg, and I thought I must be in the right place. Every situation spawns another one, and those were the ones that I had, the lives I had.” What do you think your life would have been like if you hadn’t met Paul?


Eileen Myles:

I mean, I so much wrote my novel Inferno to say what it was like to be a female coming into New York as a poet in the ’70s. You know? Because every dude had some book you should read. I mean, to quote the art critic Peter Schjeldahl, he said, I think he was talking about art in the ’80s, and he said there was no top of the heap, there was just a lot of little heaps on the top. And that’s how the poetry world sort of always was. And was then. So it was just a question of what other pile I could have wound up in.


Eileen Myles:

But Paul was my guide into all the, quote, “other” schools of poetry at the time. We didn’t consider it other, it was like Black Mountain, it was Beat, it was New York school, it was everything that was sort of not in the mainstream American canon of literature. So that was the right place, and hopefully I would have found it some other way, but Paul was the guide.


Debbie Millman:

You have said that you felt funny about being in the New York school, and you prefer, I believe you said, the Folk poet school.


Eileen Myles:

Right. I mean, I think I’m just sort of wanting to be a little more, even more vernacular; I mean, even the New York school is kinda precious, and “we’re about art,” and I want that to be less true.


Debbie Millman:

In an interview in The Paris Review, you stated, “I’ve made myself homeless. I’ve cut myself off from anything I knew prior to living in New York. I did this to myself, so I know exactly how it happened.” Do you think this was a necessary component to you becoming the writer you are now?


Eileen Myles:

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think that we’re always translating, right? And again, I think any of us who come from another class, on any level, can’t stay home and do or make—you have to take what you have someplace else. I mean, I’ve even, in the poetry world I’ve done that, with basically importing male Avant-Garde styles into kind of a queer or a lesbian world. So that I feel like I’ve operated a lot like a translator of styles and realities, or even bringing a lesbian reality into the poetry world.


Eileen Myles:

I think between me and Jill Soloway, we’ve brought more lesbian content into the mainstream than there’s been in a while.


Debbie Millman:

Jill Soloway, of course, the creator of the television show Transparent.


Eileen Myles:

Right.


Debbie Millman:

In 2009, you wrote a book of essays titled The Importance of Being Iceland. And you wrote that after you became sober, you began performing instead of reading your poems, and even tried talking for a while, and improvising, after being moved by performers like Spalding Gray. And talking led you to running for political office. And in 1992, you conducted an openly female write-in candidacy for president against George Bush. What made you do this?


Eileen Myles:

I’ve lately been thinking about the fact that I think I was a little unhappy. I think my girlfriend at the time decided to go to grad school. And I was disappointed.


Debbie Millman:

So you needed something to do? Let’s run for president.


Eileen Myles:

So I felt like I needed a new project. I was like, “Really? So it’s not enough to be like artists and lovers together in the East Village, you’ve got to get an MFA?” You know? And I was like, “So what is it that I need to do, exactly?” You know? And I think that all these things kinda added up to this interesting possibility. I had seen Pat Paulsen running for president, funny candidates forever. Jello Biafra running for office. Mostly men, actually, if I think about it. And it did seem like I had been really interested in figuring out how to be political in my work. Like, authentically political in a way that felt like my work, still, but somehow that I could feel comfortable with being this dispenser of knowledge or information or presence or whatever. So with all that, and the timing of George Bush and the new language of political correctness, and I was doing improvisational performance work, and I thought, My God, a campaign would be exactly that.


Debbie Millman:

You mentioned the words “politically correct,” and I know that the whole sort of appropriation of that term in culture has pissed you off. Tell me why.


Eileen Myles:

Well, it’s really funny, because it’s specifically lesbian language. That’s what it was. It was just like, in a lesbian community, “politically correct” meant the most … that would be the person who would stand up at the reading and say, “Would that person with the perfume on their body, or other animal products, please …” I mean, there was just like the most, you know, it was just like I was not a MichFest person, and I sort of wish I went. Part of the legend of it was there was a lot of that kind of energy. And so that was our language. And it was so ludicrous and shocking to see our Republican president suddenly using this lesbian language against us.


Debbie Millman:

Almost exactly a year ago, you and your former girlfriend Jill Soloway authored the Thanksgiving Paris Manifesto, “Topple the Patriarchy.” And from what I understand, you and Jill were feeling revolutionary after she saw Hamilton, and you had both visited the White House. And you’ve said that writing the manifesto together was an act of passion. Can you share some of the themes of what you wrote, and why you wrote it?


Eileen Myles:

I think we were enjoying the extreme act of creating new requirements for what art-making and … of all sorts. Like, inviting men to stop making art for 50 or 100 years. Inviting men to stop making pornography for 100 years. It was just to go out there and create a whole new space in which female work would flourish and expand, and men would think twice about going forward into that space. I don’t know, it’s like anything I say sounds like I’m taking it back, and I don’t mean it at all. But I do mean a manifesto. The nature of a manifesto is hyperbolic. Because what you’re trying to do is kind of like level the playing field and even create the playing field. So I think in different ways, both of us were wanting to have pleasure, be extreme, because I think, as in Civil Rights, and this is Civil Rights, the problem is an unequal starting place. I mean, that’s what the theory of justice is about, you know?


Eileen Myles:

And so there’s never been justice for women. There’s never been a place where men actually aren’t making work. So why don’t we start there?


//


Debbie Millman:

… Eileen Myles. In 2017 Kenny Fries came on Design Matters. Kenny is a disabled gay Jewish man who has written deeply insightful books about the devastating effects of discrimination against the imperfect …


//


Debbie Millman:  
What makes a life worth living? Do looks, ability and talent make your life more valuable than someone else’s? Kenny Fries has made it his life’s work to understand just that, and he should know better than anyone. As a disabled Jewish gay man, he has spent years thinking about things as an outsider. He’s transformed his personal journeys into deeply insightful books shedding light on the devastating effects of discrimination against the imperfect. Today I’m going to talk to Kenny Fries about his desire to understand the undesirable and the connections between his personal and our political situation.


Debbie Millman:  
The word disabled itself feels like it has real pejorative connotations. It’s not an objective word. It’s a word that is embedded with judgment. How do we as a culture try to shift that perception?


Kenny Fries:  
Yeah, we’re stuck with that word, aren’t we, and the history of the word? Which is why I think, in a lot of ways, when groups try to reclaim words in the disability community, it used to be crip and cripple. I don’t know. I think we’re stuck in this dialectic of disability and what I call non‑disability—most people call able‑bodied, but I don’t use that term. 


Debbie Millman:  
Non‑disabled?


Kenny Fries:  
Yeah, I use non‑disabled. As long as we’re in that dialectic, I think we’re in trouble and we can’t get out of it because it’s not a fixed category. At any moment, we will all be disabled. Whether it’s from a virus, or a slip in the bathtub, or old age, we will become disabled in some way. It’s something that everybody has in common.


When Body, Remember came out, I was asked on a radio show, “Why would somebody who’s not gay, disabled or Jewish want to read your work?” I said to them, “Well, my book is about the relationship between the body and memory. We all have bodies and we all remember.”


We’re stuck in this dialectic between disability and non‑disability, and it’s defined by the word that comes at the end of what we’re supposedly able to do, but that’s really not accurate because—it goes back to Darwin again—the whole “survival of the fittest,” which is the term that Darwin did not use.

It was coined by somebody else, and he didn’t use it until the third edition of On the Origin of Species. We get it wrong because we cut off the last part of the sentence: “It’s the survival of the fittest in a particular environment.” I can be more “able” than somebody else in certain situations.


The big example of that is the scene in The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory, where I’m climbing the mountain with my then-boyfriend Ian, who’s six-foot whatever, but he is having a lot of trouble, whereas my feet and my specially designed shoes fit right into what should be handholds, but I can use them as toeholds, and so it was easy for me, or easier.


You never know. When I’m in a group of people, it depends on what the disabilities are. Sometimes I’m more able to move chairs than they are, but when I’m in a group of people that are non‑disabled, they could move chairs more easily than I can. It really depends on the context. It’s really the context that defines what disability is.


Debbie Millman:  
You tackle the subjective identity around several themes. You talk about being Jewish, being gay, being disabled, but what about being a writer?


Kenny Fries:   
[Laughs] That one again. I would love to just be considered a writer, to be honest with you. I would love somebody to just talk to me about how I put the words together or how the narrative works, but because of the subject matter, I’m always … it’s about the content, which is fine. There’s a lot of content there.


The joke I’ve been saying, I tell people, is that when I was younger I think I was looked at more as a gay writer, and now I’m looked at as more as a disabled writer, but, no, I haven’t changed. It’s just whatever the …


Debbie Millman:  
The circumstances around …


Kenny Fries:  
… and the zeitgeist, yeah.


Debbie Millman:  
In one of your poems, a poem titled “Body Language,” you turn the idea of body and memory into a metaphor, and ask, “What is a scar if not the memory of a once-open wound?” That really moved me. I was wondering if you would read that poem today, here on Design Matters.


Kenny Fries:  
Sure.


Body Language: “What is a scar if not the memory of a once-open wound? You press your finger between my toes, slide the soap up the side of my leg, until you reach the scar with the two holes, where the pins were inserted 20 years ago.


“Leaning back, I remember how I pulled the pin from the leg, how in a waist‑high cast, I dragged myself from my room to show my parents what I had done. Your hand on my scar brings me back to the tub and I want to ask you, ‘What do you feel when you touch me there?’ I want you to ask me, ‘What are you feeling now?’ But we do not speak.


“You drop the soap in the water and I continue washing, alone. Do you know my father would bathe my feet, as you do, as if it was the most natural thing? But up to now, I have allowed only two pair of hands to touch me there, to be the salve for what still feels like an open wound. The skin has healed but the scars grow deeper. When you touch them what do they tell you about my life?”


Debbie Millman:  
Thank you. Absolutely beautiful.


//


Debbie Millman:

… Kenny Fries. Last but not least: Saeed Jones, poet, memoirist, cultural critic and TV talk show host. I spoke to him in 2019, just after he released his memoir How We Fight for Our Lives.


//


Debbie Millman:

Saeed, is it true that you often fantasize about having sex with Paul Newman’s ghost?


Saeed Jones:

Absolutely. We’re doing it right now. That’s why it’s very convenient being in a very complicated relationship with a ghost, because you just never know what’s going on. No one can see.


Debbie Millman:

When did this start?


Saeed Jones:
You know, I think I remember probably in college starting to see some of Paul Newman’s films or films featuring him, and I think that’s around the time I saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.


Debbie Millman:

Oh, baby.


Saeed Jones:
My goodness. What I find really, truly … I mean, he was very handsome, certainly, but also, I think, as far as we know, he was a good man. He stood up for some really important causes that matter now. You know? I think he would be a part of the cultural conversation now in a very contemporary way. He was very kind, had a wonderful reputation. He loved his wife. He loved his dogs. It’s a real delight that as we see all of these men in Hollywood now, in 2019, it’s just like, God, you too? You’re a jerk? You’re a monster? You’re a … you know? And to see this guy who’s like, “Oh, no. I’m super dead. Nope. Still pretty good.”


Debbie Millman:

You were raised by your single mom in Lewisville, Texas—not Louisville, but Lewisville.


Saeed Jones:
It really confused me when I went to school—


Debbie Millman:

I know.


Saeed Jones:
… in Kentucky. I was like, “Oh, no.”


Debbie Millman:

She had a job with Delta as you were growing up. She was also a Buddhist, and her mother, your grandmother, was rather religious, but she was not a Buddhist. What was that like for you to be between those two sort of fierce points of view?


Saeed Jones:

You know, unfortunately I think this is true for a lot of people of faith, religion in our families, it is such a source of division often. Some of my earliest memories as a little kid, probably a toddler, actually, are my family arguing with my mom about faith—you know, “You’re going to go to hell.” By the time I was a little older, early teens, the conversation had kind of become the silence, where people weren’t … they just weren’t talking anymore. People weren’t close. No one would explain why. It just was the way things were. You know? I remember at one point as a kid my mom ended up in the hospital, and it was really serious, and her family didn’t immediately come to take care of her. In retrospect now, as an adult, oh my gosh. That says a lot. You know?


So by the time I was a teenager, then it became, “Well, we’re not going to have this argument with Carol anymore. She’s an adult. She’s really set in her ways, but here’s Saeed. He’s a teenager. He’s acting worldly. He’s starting to talk back. He’s effeminate.” I think, in an interesting way, the worldliness, the sarcasm, the “You’re just being too much of a teenager,” allowed them to not have to say head on, “We think you’re going to be gay, and we want to stop that.” Instead, it was kind of framed as like, “You’re going to go to hell, like your mom.” I was like, “What does that mean?” Yeah. It was really awful, and it led to a lot of hurt, more silence, because I think it just got so painful that I also distanced myself from those family members. We have since made up, and we have a better relationship, but we will never be as close as we could have been, had this conflict not been a part of our lives.


Debbie Millman:

You realized you were gay at quite a young age. You’ve written about how as a kid you realized that being Black can get you killed, and so can being gay—and combined, being a gay, Black boy is a death wish. So, you felt you needed to hide who you were.


Saeed Jones:

Yeah. You’re right. I mean, from my earliest, most vague, kind of blurry fantasies, it was always boys and men. You know? I just didn’t really fantasize about women’s bodies. I thought it was rude, actually. I remember—


Debbie Millman:

So polite.


Saeed Jones:

Yeah. When I was hosting AM to DM, the morning show for Buzzfeed, which I did for a couple of years, I got to interview Tyra Banks. I told her that I was like, “I remember when you were on the Sports Illustrated cover, because that was history-making. My guy friends at school were like …” I remember I checked myself, but I remember thinking, “It would be rude to see any more of Tyra.” That’s when I was like, “Oh.” Yeah. I didn’t have question about attraction. It was always like, how is this going to work, in terms of a life?


Will I ever have love? Will I ever get married? Because at the time, this is 2000 to 2004, for example, that’s when I was in high school. Marriage equality certainly wasn’t even on the docket. Would I ever be a father? If I do have a family, if I do find this man, will I be able to introduce him to my family? Will I be able to bring them home for Thanksgiving? I don’t know. It felt like America’s already perilous. You have people like Matthew Shepard or James Byrd Jr. being killed just for who they are anyway, but also even if I’m not killed, am I just signing up for misery by being myself? That just seemed like a, and it is, an unfair choice. That’s not a choice.


Debbie Millman:

I know that you were really impacted by the deaths of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. I read that you stated that, just as some cultures have 100 words for snow, there should be 100 words in our language for all the ways a Black boy can lie awake at night. How did you cope? Were you always in a state of fear?


Saeed Jones:

Not necessarily. I don’t know if I would have said that if you asked me at the time, like, “Saeed, are you scared?” I would be like, “What are you talking about?” I was a very creative kid. I was reading very, very passionately, particularly when I was in middle school. We didn’t have the internet, dial-up. Then dial-up comes right at the beginning of high school. Of course, it was so slow, and you couldn’t actually use your landline phone and be on the computer. It took a while before that was even a part. So, I was just reading a lot of books.


I started writing. I had a really rich creative life. I think, though I didn’t realize I was coping, I think my reading and what became my writing life as a kid manifested in this rich interiority I had. I have such an overactive imagination. That’s just why now I’m married to Paul Newman’s ghost. I just had elaborate fantasies and everything and a world to myself. So, I think that kept me from feeling dead inside and kept me from feeling that the way America was outlining the borders of my identity in barbed wire, that they were never going to get to who I really, really am.


Saeed Jones:

For a long time growing up, just admitting that it was hard to be yourself just felt like a risk not worth taking.


Debbie Millman:

Oh. Absolutely. I grew up in such a state of both cultural and personal homophobia. I didn’t come out until I was 50, so I totally understand. You said that “gay” wasn’t a word that you could imagine actually hearing from your mom, that if you pictured her moving her lips, AIDS came out instead. You finally came out to her in 2005, when you were 19 years old. You were on the phone. You were walking to class. You described the experience this way. You said, “I had come out to my mother as a gay man, but within minutes I realized I had not come out to her as myself.” Can you elaborate? What did you mean by that?


Saeed Jones:

Well, as a queer person, I just feel that the coming out narrative is so simplistic. It’s so limited, because what does it mean? What kind of gay? It is certainly a vital bit of information, but it is far more important to the straight person than it is to the person saying it. To them it’s a, whoa, this is a huge bit of information. I know so much more about you now than I did before. Maybe that’s true, but we know we’re coming out constantly. You’re at the doctor. You start a new job. You’re kind of reading the room. Someone assumes you and your partner are girlfriends or best friends. It is literally queer. It is fluid. It is an ongoing kind of dynamic. Of course, because I believe in intersectionality, it’s just part of who we are, and no one says, “I’m Black.” We don’t have this commandment binary, “you’re not and then you are” dynamic for any other part of identity, really, I think. Even gender we have a little more space, because it’s even like there’s space to say, “I’m a girly-girl,” as opposed to whatever.


Yeah. I came out to my mom. I said, “I’m gay.” She asked me some … “Do you use protection?” I was like, “Yes.” “Have you had experiences?” “Yes.” “OK. You used protection?” “Yes.” I did appreciate that, because there was no judgment. She didn’t say, “Why are you having …?” It was just I think two of the more essential questions an adult should ask their child about sex: “Are you having it? Are you well-versed or getting healthcare for it? Yeah. OK. But are you in love? Are you dating good men? Who are these men? Do you like them? Do they take you to dinner?” Like, those questions about the richness of experience that are actually far more important. Right? “Are you happy?” I wasn’t. You know?


We didn’t get to talk about all that, both because I don’t know if I felt comfortable or I felt that I had the vocabulary to articulate it, but also I think my mom and many other people of her generation, I don’t think they try or want to be homophobic or transphobic, but if they haven’t done the reading—and at the time my mother just had not—if they haven’t done the work, it’s just like a bridge that just ends with a sudden drop off, and they’re just kind of like, “I don’t know. I guess I wish you well, but I’m going to wave from here, while you’re in your little boat, going off without me.” They think they’re helpless, as opposed to they are abandoning it, because that’s what it means to say, “I’m not going to figure this out.”


Debbie Millman:

What would you have told her if she had asked you those questions?


Saeed Jones:

Yeah. I would have said, “I’m a mess, and men are trash, and I’m really attracted to them. What were some things you learned about dating in your 20s?” Even if it’s just, “Men are weird, right?” And her being like, “Yeah. They are. Welcome.”


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… Saeed Jones, and before that Kenny Fries, Eileen Myles and Alison Bechdel. You can listen to the full interviews, and sign up for our newsletter, on our website Designmattersmedia.com. This is the 17th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember: We can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking to you again soon.

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman