Buck Angel: pornographer turned advocate

*I published this piece originally on The Huffington Post on September 23, 2014.

His Pervert tattoo on his back is often misread as Perfect. But that’s what he has achieved in a way. Perfection. He looks the way he always dreamed to. He has also created Buck Angel Entertainment, Buck Angel Dating, and has his own sculpture in London.

A lot of people don’t think he has important things to say, which he attributes to the fact that he is a porn star. And he does. That’s why I met with him for an interview on a short trip to Merida a couple of years ago and between work trips of his own to Detroit, Oklahoma City, Copenhagen, and London. And after a series of unfortunate events that resulted in this not being published earlier, here’s my chat with award-winning pornographer turned advocate Buck Angel.

If you’re in Mexico City on September 25 and 26, don’t miss Dan Hunt’s documentary on Buck’s life and work Mr. Angel at the MIC Género festival. The film is also available on Netflix.

Buck AngelEnrique Torre Molina: In Merida it’s not really hard for people to stand out. How has that been for you?

Buck Angel: This place has been magic for us. People are amazing, they’re really sweet, even though I look kind of scary in a sense. So, I do stand out, but people aren’t rude about it. They’re very okay. They don’t care. It’s very simple and easy here. There’s no pretentiousness. You lived in New York, you know what I mean. I travel all the time. I’m constantly on the road, so our house here is sort of like our safe place. We have people who work for us, who take care of our place and our dog, and we could never live like that in the U.S., with a domestic staff of three. We throw Christmas parties for our neighbors, with tamales and everything. At first they were scared of us. They thought we were drug dealers. We’ve made an effort to show our support to the community.

ETM: How did you get into the work you do now?

BA: I started working in the porn business behind the camera and everything was going great. Then I started working with a transsexual woman, which is a huge genre in the adult industry. So I thought, wow, there is no porn with a man like me. You could see any kind of porn you wanted, but a guy like me did not exist. I realized it had to be all about me, so I came up with the “man with a pussy” tag line. It was not easy. The whole adult industry hated me. I was, like, they have porn with 500 men gang bangs. How can you say I’m a freak?

ETM: Do you think that even with everything you can find in porn it is still a heteronormative or gendernormative industry?

BA: Everyone was freaking out on me. It was something new, and there had been nothing new in this industry for so long. At one point I got sick of it, I was taking everything personal, and that’s when I snapped myself out of it. I flipped it and everything started to change. Within two years of starting my business I won the AVN Transsexual Performer of the Year. Little by little I started recognition inside and outside the adult industry. When I started getting media attention from outside of that I realized maybe I was doing something bigger. Gender and sexuality is whatever you make of it. Because of that, that’s where I am today. Moving my adult work into educational work. I moved it to wanting to teach the world that you can be whoever you want to be, no matter what anybody tells you.

I get emails from people who tell me I’ve changed their lives, I’ve made them feel like they don’t have to commit suicide, they can be who they want to be. They don’t have to have surgery to become a man or a woman. That has been the most rewarding thing for me. A 13-year-old kid writing me and telling me “Thank you for making me feel that I’m not a freak.” You know how huge that is? When I was 13 I wanted to kill myself. That’s why I’ve had to twist my work into more educational, because my message is bigger than that.

ETM: So, that just happened very organically.

BA: It did. But through the organic change I realized I have to make an effort to change. I had to make that effort to say I’m an educator. I’m an advocate. I’m a filmmaker. I’m not just a pornographer. That has actually been a burden more than anything: the fact that I’m a porn star.

ETM: Is that common in the porn industry? To have people make that crossover to advocacy, activism, education?

BA: You will not see a lot of people like me making that crossover, though it is happening more today. And I have to say I attribute that a lot to my work. I really believe that my work has helped other people come along and feel more the need to become sex educators. The way they disrespected trans women in porn was also one of the reasons why I did my own work, because I didn’t want me or a guy like me to get into a porn industry that disrespects me. Trans women or girls with dicks were marketed as freaks. It was a straight man who took them, and made money off of them, paid them, and kicked them out the door. I saw that, and I didn’t want that to be my work.

ETM: The T in LGBT seems to be the last priority within that community. Does it make sense for transgender people to continue to spin off as a movement of its own?

BA: I think they should. Sexuality and gender are two different things. LGB is your sexuality. T is about your gender. I’ve always said that. When I mention that I’m a transsexual to a doctor, they immediately think I’m saying I’m a homosexual. And I have to tell you Mexico has been amazing in terms of medical care.

ETM: What is it like to have achieved the ideal version of yourself, appearance wise, if that is the case?

BA: It is. I always dreamed to look how I look: a man with muscles, able to take my shirt off. I don’t know so much about the tattoos or the bald head, which came with the testosterone as a side effect. I can say that I have achieved what I always wanted, which is the look of ultra, hyper masculinity. That’s what I was going for. Not to say that’s the case for all trans men, but it was my vision. I used to hate my body. And, actually, contrary to what people say of testosterone, testosterone mellowed me. It didn’t make me angry. I was angry before the testosterone, but now I’m much more calm, and feel more at peace with myself than ever before. My work isn’t about being trans. It’s about being who you are.

LGBT media in Mexico

*An edited version of this post was published on The Huffington Post’s Gay Voices and Latino Voices.

Brian Pacheco and me. Photo: Johnny Carmona.

A few weeks ago I called a meeting with editors and journalists from different Mexican LGBT media. I invited members of cable and online television, commercial and public radio, blogs, independent and high-profile magazines, mainstream newspapers, freelancers, an LGBT news agency which just celebrated its 10-year anniversary, and a comedy writer. Everyone except a couple attended. We gathered at the top floor of the National Council to Prevent Discrimination, which kindly let me use its space.

I had wanted to get them all together for a while, but couldn’t think of a clearer purpose other than seating at a round table, talking, and seeing where the discussion lead us. As a blogger and journalist focused on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender issues, I am concerned with the approach different media have on members and stories of my community. Mainstream media in Mexico are increasingly including LGBT content in positive ways. Some examples are AnimalPolitico.com, Chilango magazine, CNNMexico.com, E! Latin News, M Semanal magazine, and Reforma newspaper. In 2011 a gay fashion designer and his husband were number one on Quién magazine’s (focused on soft journalism) cover story about the most attractive couples in the country. On the other hand, tabloids, and productions by mass media company Televisa (including gay-oriented TV show Guau) are often responsible for homophobic expressions and bigoted characters.

I am also concerned with the state of LGBT media as a striving industry. Every day I ask myself who is actually reading, watching, and listening to us. I worry that it’s mostly ourselves paying attention to what our colleagues are doing, and giving each other feedback. And that’s awesome if we’re in the business of addressing issues that only we care about, of patting each other’s backs and lifting each other’s egos (or, seen more meanly, bitching about each other’s work). But if we’re in the business of raising awareness on sexual diversity, of fighting discrimination against LGBT people, of sharing stories, of shifting opinions, of speaking up, of being the voices of those who are shut by the closet, or if we want our work to be a business at all we need to take an incisive look at what we do and how we are executing our work as narrators of reality.

Brian Pacheco from the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) shares some of these interests, and he was coming to Mexico City. I have been collaborating with him and Monica Trasandes from GLAAD’s Spanish-Language Media Department since last year in the project LGBT en Español, so Brian’s visit was another excuse to invite my colleagues to a meeting.

After we each introduced ourselves, Brian talked about the work of GLAAD in the United States as an advocate, storyteller and anything-but-subtle watchdog. Then I posed a few questions to trigger the conversation, and here are some of the outcomes:

W Radio, which belongs to Televisa, is the only commercial station with a gay show, Triple G, which has aired for over ten years. At the meeting, co-host Francisco Iglesias pointed out the lack of professionalization of many mainstream media in terms of LGBT issues, but reminded us of the contrasting lack of professionalization of LGBT media in journalistic terms: very few of us are producing newsworthy content, and it’s not us but often nation-wide papers the first to report on LGBT happenings in the country. The main reason is that most LGBT media struggle with their budget, and therefore are short-staffed. “Many reporters for LGBT media do not get paid, and that is the first level of discrimination we are allowing.” Everyone in the room remained silent for a few seconds after journalist Alejandro Brofft pointed out that awkward truth.

Francisco mentioned another important issue: many LGBT media depend on just two or three people. What happens to those projects when they’re gone? We all agreed that transgender people are practically invisible in our profession, and that there are not a lot of women (I only know two, and they were both unable to attend). A significant portion of our audience is closeted. Incidentally, there are not many openly LGBT public figures in Mexico. Some good news: while almost all high-profile LGBT media are based in Mexico City, we are increasingly noticing smaller LGBT media outlets in other states, which are doing great work to fight discrimination in their communities.

There was a debate on whether government should fund LGBT media “because their work is sort of a public service” versus thinking of LGBT media as initiatives that must survive and become profitable through investors, advertising, and sales, just like the rest of our non-LGBT peers.

This meeting was a pilot of more to come, I anticipate. An experiment that turned out fruitful. It confirmed what many of us knew: we face many of the same challenges. Talking about them and sharing our experiences serves not so much as a support group, but as a mirror of what we can do individually and collectively to improve our work. While we are not all necessarily activists, LGBT media do have a role in making society a safer, more respectful place for LGBTs. And in order to do that we must get better at our job.

The most tangible conclusion we arrived at regarding how to work collectively was the possibility of setting up an observatory in Mexico with tasks similar to GLAAD’s, of running it with volunteers versus obtaining funds to make it a more sustainable project. I am now in the process of talking to media representatives who where invited but couldn’t come, and I have committed to gather the group from that meeting again in the upcoming weeks, and to add some key allies from non-LGBT media who might want to join us. I will keep you posted.

Talking to Fred Karger

On March 23, 2011, Fred Karger was the first to announce he was running for the Republican nomination for President of the United States. On June 29, 2012, he quit the race.

Before that he had worked at nine other campaigns, including Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. He is the president of Rights Equal Rights, has investigated the Mormon church and the National Organization for Marriage‘s campaigns against marriage equality in California and Maine.

Fred was the first openly gay presidential candidate from a major political party in his country’s history. This interesting character agreed to talk to me a few weeks ago:

Why do you want to be president of the United States?I am very concerned about the direction of our country under president Obama. He has not done all the things I had hoped he would do, which was to bring our economy back, lift the spirit of Americans, and he has failed. And I think I have the ability to excite this country, to bring back its American spirit that Ronald Reagan was very successful in – and I worked for Reagan for seven years. I think it’s time for an openly gay candidate to run and be successful. I think that will do a tremendous amount of good for our civil rights movement all over the world.

One of the most common reactions to your character, to your background, is the shock of you being American, Jewish, gay, and a Republican. What do you have to say about this to those people who view U.S. politics in such black & white terms? You know, the Republican Party has done a lot of bad things, particularly in the last 35 years in our gay civil rights arena. All the bad that has come out of politics seems to come from republicans, and that is not the Republican Party I grew up with. It has become very different. It was never a party that was for discrimination. It was never a party that talked about social issues the way the candidates do now. So, I think it’s important that we do not give up on the Republican Party. To those of us who believe in a different Republican Party of inclusion, of bringing younger people in, of opening it up to women, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people, and everyone, I think that tide is now moving back. And in this country we’ve been successful because of Republicans.

Tell me about the campaign. What sort of feedback are you getting? Can you tell me about other openly LGBTs or straight allies in the Republican Party? Are there any gay nonprofits supporting you? I got my first endorsement from an LGBT state organization, Equality Michigan, and I was very honored. It’s the first time they’ve done that. And I’ve appealed to other state organizations. They’re a little slower to move because of my Republican connection and affiliation.

That someone who is openly gay can run for the highest office in our country sends a very strong message to them that they’re okay, that they can do anything they want in life, even run for president. I’ve spoken in high schools, to teenagers, to gay-straight alliances, in colleges and universities. I’ve been to clubs, bars, drag shows. You name it. I’ve been all over this country.

What is the value of having openly LGBT politicians? What is the value of having an openly gay candidate in your country? Just by virtue of candidates running, it sends a message that we are now stepping up to the place where we’re no longer hiding. I was in the closet for most of my adult life. I’ve always been gay, but I kept that secret. And I don’t want others to have to live the way I did. So, I think that’s an important message for our community, that it’s okay now. Times are very different. It’s still difficult to many of us to come out, but more and more are every day, younger and younger. To have openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender candidates sends a powerful message all over the world to our community, to our opponents, to our allies, that we are to be taken seriously, that we are going to have an impact on the political process.