MQH Now: Interview with Pallas Gutierrez

This month, we had a chance to speak with Pallas Gutierrez, a queer writer and theatre student at Northwestern University, about queer history, media coverage, and bringing your own voice to the conversation.

Why don’t you start by telling me a little bit more about yourself.

I'm a freshman at Northwestern studying theatre and probably minoring or double majoring, I haven't decided yet, in Gender and Sexuality Studies. I'm originally from New York City. I like to write. 

Tell me more about the column that you started. What inspired you to do this? Why do you feel that queer history matters?

So my senior year, or my junior year, I wrote my second semester US History term paper on how the AIDS crisis was covered in media and compared gay-specific media to mainstream media. And how the mainstream media kind of dulled it down and made it a gay specific thing whereas gay media was like no, this is a problem for everybody and we need to talk about it. 

Through that, I found a topic I wanted to explore more. I wanted to explore more where the roots of the gay marriage movement lay because I had found that wasn't something that people were advocating for from the beginning of the gay liberation movement. It emerged more in the 1980s. So my senior year I did a 65-page independent research paper on the roots of the gay marriage movement and how the gay liberation movement became the gay marriage movement because of the AIDS crisis. 

And then, in January, when we came back for second quarter the Opinion Editor Marissa Martinez asked all of the opinion staff writers to submit recurring column ideas we'd be interested in writing. I was sitting in my room trying to think about like, what are things that I know about and could write a lot about. And I was like, oh I know a lot about gay stuff and I am a gay person. So I'll do that! I submitted the idea to her and she loved it and the managing editors loved it and now I write it every week. 

I've read some of them, it's really interesting. What has the reception been like from folks outside of the newsroom?

It's been really good. I've had a lot of my friends say that they didn't know something they were reading about. I've had people be like, oh that was really accessible for people who don't know a lot about gay history. That's the whole goal, to make gay history more accessible to people who do not have a background in it. What I've found in taking gender and sexuality classes and doing research is that a lot of it is inaccessible if you don't have a background in it already. And that shouldn't be the case. People should be able to know what is going on without having an academic background in something.

I know you mentioned that you were particularly inspired by World Pride this year and the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. Do you have anything big planned for that?

I don't really have a big article planned or anything. I think I'm definitely gonna do a Pride etiquette thing, because we'll still be in class in June. Because in my experiences going to Pride I've had a lot of fun but I've also seen a lot of straight people be like, this is a fun place for me to be drunk and half-naked in the middle of the day. That's not what it's for. it's a celebration of the fact that 50 years ago gay people had to live in the closet, everybody. It wasn't an option. So I'll definitely do that and I'll probably write some final personal piece about how writing the column has exposed me to new thoughts. It already has. I had a lot of research on—like this week I was doing research on a piece that will be up tomorrow about queerness at the Oscars. And just doing research into that. If you're a straight person and you play a gay person, you get acclaim. If you're a gay person and you plan a straight person, that doesn't happen. It's not allowed. Personally, I will be back home in New York for the middle to end of June, so I'll probably go to a lot of stuff that happening because I just love pride [laughing]. 

I appreciate the fact that you're addressing racism in the queer community through the articles. I think that's really important, especially when we're talking about Stonewall and how media has portrayed queer history. With talking about queer history, I'm always interested in what you're hoping and what you'd like to see in the future of queer media; how you'd like queer issues to be dealt with and also just media around queer folks.

 I would just like queer media in general to be more intersectional, which I'm trying to do with my column. Next month for Women's History Month I'm going to do "Six Women You Know That You Didn't Know Were Queer" but that was a big part of their identity. Did you watch the ABC miniseries "When We Rise?" 

I did, yes.

I loved that, but my biggest problem with it is that it focuses so much on Cleve and doesn't give give Ken and (trying to remember a name)... the other two main characters as much—they're all billed as main characters, but they don't get the same amount of screen time. Cleve Jones, as a white man, definitely gets more screen time than the other two. Which is cool, because he's an interesting figure. It was cool to hear about him, but I also would have liked to hear Roma and Ken, especially because Roma starts off talking about queerphobia in the women's movement and Ken has to face both racism in queer community and queerphobia in the black community in San Francisco. I could watch a whole miniseries just about that. So definitely seeing those stories fleshed out is something I would want more in queer media. Also, just more content about queer history, especially because people my age only have one or two generations of elders because so many people died in the AIDS crisis. I have not inherited any knowledge about gay history. I've had to go out and seek all of it. It's hard to find, and it shouldn't be. People should be able to know their history. 

It sounds like you're wrapping up this series. During the summer, do you have any big plans or ideas for continuing this work the next semester or doing else around queer history or queer media?

If possible, I'd like to continue it in the following years. It's hard to know because the editors change every quarter. In September the editor might be like "this is an interesting series but I want to publish this instead." Personally, I'm going to keep taking gender and sexuality classes, because I think they're super interesting. Enough people read the articles now that I might just start a blog and keep writing pieces and be like "Hey!" It's the same caliber of journalism, it's just not in a newspaper. But I definitely want to find a way to keep it going, I just haven't thought about how yet.

Fair enough! I think it's great that you're trying to balance queer history and modern queer rights stuff. How do you find your inspiration? I know you talked about doing something for Women's History Month next month. Where have you come up with some of the other ideas? 

So the first two I knew when I pitched the series, because it was the 50th anniversary of Stonewall I knew that the first thing I wanted to write about was Stonewall; why it's an important start, why it's a problematic start, why the anniversary is important. Then it felt logical to me that the second one would be about now. It's been 50 years since then; what is happening now? A lot of them have been inspired by stuff that's going on. I try to read the news as much as possible. 

The Oscars was definitely something I was thinking about, because it was happening, and the Grammys. Other than that, if I don't have a modern inspiration, I just think about what's something interesting that I know about queer history that other people don't know that is important to understand. At some point, it'll be a hard condensation, but I'll condense the research I did last year that's like hey, gay marriage wasn't always the goal of the gay rights movement, and for some people it's not helpful because that's just not the world they live in. Sure, black gay men in the South can get married, but does that help that they have the highest AIDS infection rate of any population in the United States? No. 

Jumping back to your inspiration to start all of this. Are there any queer folks you looked up to growing up or that inspired you, especially in theatre and writing?

Yeah. I don't know if it was so much, growing up, anyone specific. Both my parents work in theatre, so I just knew a lot of older queer people growing up and when I started to realize that wasn't everybody's experience, that everybody didn't just know gay people that had kids or had illustrious careers, I was like oh. That's something that people should know. People should know that—I guess it started when I was littler, as a place of like, people should know that gay people are just people and not like...aliens (laughing). Queer people are just trying to live their lives too. That was something I was exposed to a lot when I was little, but I know that a lot of people are just exposed to whatever the media portrays of queerness, which is usually not very accurate. And then I guess as I got older and I read more about more activists and more people I knew were queer, I was like, I have to say something. I have to put my voice out there and contribute to this conversation, especially as the political tides shift from a place where we can legalize marriage equality and it's celebrated to like, trans people can't be alive. And how we can live in a place where both of those things can be true at the same time. Doesn't seem like they should.

My last question for you is just, what's your favorite article you've written in this whole series. I mean, you've done a lot with this. What's your favorite [piece] you've written or you're planning to write?

I'm really excited about queer women in history, because queer women in history are so often overlooked, mostly because for a long time weren't allowed to write anything about themselves or about others. But also it's so interesting to me how male homosexuality is so much more regulated in some ways. Queen Victoria passed the "gross indecency" laws in England. Someone asked her "why not pass similar laws for women?" She said, "women don't do such things." Just a ridiculous thing to say, but also just shows how underestimated female sexuality has been throughout all of history. I'm also hoping to do an article that's bi-con of American pop culture, because I feel like something that immediately comes to mind is so many people either straight-wash or gay-wash Freddie Mercury and he wasn't either of those things. He was bisexual. 

I think that's very timely given the movie and the response to that right now. 

Yeah, I wrote about that in my Oscars article. I was like, that's very sanitized. That's not what he was like. It was also a strange movie because the living band members were like, we're gonna write a scene where we break up and I was like, but you didn't. (Laughing) Why did you do that? What was the point? I was not—I have so many feelings. But definitely there are a lot of people—it might not even be just bi-cons. It might just be people whose sexualities are misrepresented. There are so many people who have more fluid, less defined sexualities that people are just like "okay, whoever they ended up with, that's who they are." It's easier. That doesn't make any sense. 

Right. People's identities aren't always easy and they aren't yours to define.

Yeah, just because you think an identity looks like something doesn't mean that's what it is. I think something that's really interesting that I don't think I'm ever going to approach because it's a weird topic, but something that's been happening in the past two years has been like people who the internet assumes are gay having to come out as straight. Like, Shawn Mendez was like, I need people to stop saying I'm gay. I'm not and it's ruining my relationships. I think it's more about fan culture and how toxic fan culture has gotten than gay culture. 

I think it's fan culture, which is a mess, and this idea of what homosexuality looks like, what a gay man looks like, what a lesbian looks like. So if you look this way you must be X, especially with male celebrities who have stylist team and PR teams and half the time aren't even dressing how they want to dress. I think a lot of it surrounds stereotypes that aren't real, and then obviously demonizing people who do follow those stereotypes. 

For sure. It's also definitely a weird... young straight girl fetishization of gay men for reasons I have no comprehension of and never will. 

It's a complicated mess that someone should write about, but I won't be the one to do it. 

No. Somebody else needs to do it.

Do you have anything else you want to add? 

Just that, I think writing this series has put me more in touch with my own queerness, which has been great, because I don't have time to—we have a Rainbow Alliance—and I don't really have time to go to their stuff. Obviously, queer people from packs, so I have a lot of queer friends, but I'm also in a straight passing relationship. It's definitely a personal space for me to be queer, which I have really loved in addition to educating people.