The Advocate’s new editor-in-chief Zach Stafford opened Saturday afternoon’s session ‘“Does Queer Media Have a Future?” promising an adventure. “There have been lots of changes to this session … So I’m going to explain what’s happening, and we’re going to go on a ride, are y’all ready?”
Taking the place of co-panelist Phillip Picardi – of Out and formerly of Condé Nast’s Them – who fell ill, was Alok Vaid-Menon, a gender nonconforming performance artist/activist/poet, also in town for SXSW (including tonight’s CYBERBABES showcase). Stafford assured the crowd, “It is a conversation between us about queer media still. You’re still going to get juicy stuff; you may get even more juicy stuff.” Vaid-Menon agreed, “Way more juicy.”
Vaid-Menon wasted no time getting to the tea spilling, asking Stafford “#whathappened” with his departure from INTO and the magazine’s eventual closing in January. Originally, Stafford was drawn to Grindr because of its potential to distribute content globally, citing that an average of 4 million people log onto the app for an hour every day. Referencing the app’s notorious hookup-heavy usage, Stafford admitted the “bar was really low” when he first came onto the Grindr team to launch INTO. But the platform also made strides in journalism, which he helped lead, including some of the earliest reporting on the migrant caravan and queer migrants’ facing violence.
That all changed when the company assumed new ownership and with it, “really big ambitions.” “They weren’t a big fan of the journalism anymore,” Stafford explained. “When the journalism thing became something that wasn’t a focal point for the company, as the chief content officer, I decided I should go on and make sure that queer journalism continues.”
For Vaid-Menon, Stafford’s points spoke to the status of media more generally and how it’s centered around virality and clicks. They noted how anti-trans legislation in a small town won’t elicit that many clicks, but it’s such stories that arguably need the most coverage. With so much anti-queer and anti-trans violence, Vaid-Menon wondered how media can reconcile the demand for clicks while still ensuring due justice happens with investigative journalism. Stafford insisted putting statistics into stories helps virality, but both Stafford and Vaid-Menon agreed: People rarely talk about queer violence unless it goes viral. Vaid-Menon added that stories on trans people are always “generalized, never particular” and almost always about the murder of trans people.
The pair also agreed: One of the biggest barriers holding queer media back right now is its desire to please straight people, both within the newsroom and its readers. For Stafford, queer media’s desire to placate straight people is not unlike queer people’s desire for acceptance by straight people either. “We’ll deal with a lot of trauma and a lot of bullshit just to be given a seat at the table, even if they’re only going to feed us a slice of bread.” The editor says he pushes his staff to find the queer points of view within all stories, regardless of whether or not the story is explicitly about queer people, because our stories are always there albeit often overlooked.Stafford, the first black EIC of The Advocate, and Vaid-Menon, who identifies as Indian-American, both emphasized how queer media has long since been catered to – and operated by – by white, cis gay men. For Stafford, his ideal solution to creating diversity within media is “not tough, it’s actually quite easy”: not tokenizing the stories of QTPOC and “pay people, give people jobs, put them in positions of power and let them do their jobs.” Moreover, Stafford believes it’s up to white editors as well to recognize that change needs to happen. Vaid-Menon responded, “It’s not politically correct to tell stories of black, queer people; it’s just correct.” Not all representation of QTPOC is good, argued Vaid-Menon, going back to their earlier point on anti-queer and anti-trans violence. Vaid-Menon would like to see trans representation in the media move away from what they call a “tragedy/triumph binary,” where trans people are only talked about when a trans person is murdered or overcomes obstacles rather than day-to-day existence. “What I really want to see – what I’ve loved about bloggers and social media influencers who are trans – is they’re actually saying, ‘I’m eating Cheetos … I’m walking down the street and look at me being trans.’”
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