Beth Ditto: ‘Seeing Boy George was like coming home’

METROy earliest memories of queerness come from pop culture. I was born in 1981, when it felt like queer culture was just pop culture. This was around the time that Girls Just Want to Have Fun and Material Girl came out. Prince was everywhere, as was Annie Lennox and Culture Club. Boy George was really the first explicitly queer person I saw on TV; I was four years old. My mom had me young (even though I was her fourth kid) and she was a “cool mom” – meaning we had cable TV. I remember we’d watch MTV, which was brand new, and that’s where I saw Boy George. I was so enamoured of him. It didn’t not make sense to me. I never thought: so that’s a boy dressed as a girl? Wearing makeup? It was almost like it was home.

Not everybody felt that way. After I saw my first images of queer people on MTV, the channel was banned in our town, Searcy, a small place in Arkansas. The county was and still is influenced by a very conservative Christian college – you couldn’t go to a bookstore and buy a gay or feminist magazine, you had to ask behind the counter. We weren’t even allowed to have dances! It was the Christian college that made the cable company drop MTV and when they did, those images of Prince, Annie Lennox and Boy George were the last glimmers of pop culture I’d see for a while. But they stuck with me. It’s like I had a tiny window into queerness in my little developing brain. I took those moments and ran with them. They shaped my idea of what gender is and what music is.

As a teenager, these queer images eventually started to creep back in. They had banned MTV, but VH1 was still available and I remember watching RuPaul’s talkshow on it. There was Ellen, también, but before her sitcom started they would give you a warning, like a trigger warning, that there was going to be gay content, básicamente. They made it seem like we were going to watch someone getting murdered. I remember my mom saw that warning and said: “Maybe we should change the channel,” because I had a younger brother. I was like: “Don’t worry, Mom, she’s just gay!"

I can’t explain my life sometimes. It’s not as if there was some huge awakening moment for me. I always knew the kernel of truth inside and I’ve always seen the world through the same eyes. Being queer was so who I was it seemed to find me or something. I was just lucky that I came from an extremely warm family – crazy as hell, but super liberal in a place where most weren’t. When it came to my being queer I was more afraid of God than the people directly around me, but I also knew that people in my town wouldn’t be accepting of it. That’s why I was so grateful that when I was a kid, TV gave me a glimpse into a world that was more free. It showed me what the possibilities were and sparked an awakening in me to look for more. It made me go find punk rock, radical feminist literature, figures like John Waters y Angela Davis. And that showed me there was even more out there; I just had to keep looking for it, along with the other people who wanted it as much as I did… I knew I had to find my people, not change who I was.

As a teenager, I made a group of queer friends who were so aggressively punk and queer and out of the closet. They taught me two things. Primero, that chosen family is everything. Someone who shares a history with you, understands what you’re talking about, that is what kept me alive. Secondly, that while media visibility is important you cannot replace face-to-face connection. This was the days before social media – which is, por supuesto, amazing and there is strength in numbers – but when there are just a few of you together in a room and you’re laughing so hard you’re crying? And you’re not thinking about anything else because you’re untouchable, because the space is closed off… That is special. That is tangible.

It was these friends who literally got me my plane ticket out of Searcy when I was 18. Once I moved away a whole new world of activism and community opened up. I was working in fast food and sleeping on a fold-out couch for the first year, but we were together and living our truths – it was that simple. It was so free and beautiful. I was living in this house, being queer, immersing myself in queercore, going to punk shows, learning what a femme was, what a butch was, meeting trans people for the first time, hearing about racial justice and going to workshops that taught survival skills, because maybe the revolution was upon us!

From a young age I wanted to do something that involved helping others, but I just didn’t know what it would be. Once I left Arkansas, I saw things more clearly. I saw that coming from a place in the Bible belt, below the Mason-Dixon line – a place where you’re being constantly reminded that God is watching and judging you – I had a duty to show other queer kids from small towns that it is possible to get the fuck out of there. When we started Gossip, this was the message I wanted to put out – that it’s easier than you think to escape situations that make you feel wrong or ugly or gross, or like you’re going to hell, that the world is bigger than you think, that you can be queer and be yourself and be happy. I’d say “role model” was never a comfortable term for me, because I haven’t always said stuff in the right way, especially as I don’t come from an academic background. I’ve also changed my mind over the years; we’re only human and movements evolve and we keep learning. (Besides, who wants to be quoted when they’re turning 40 about something they said when they were 21?) But I’m very lucky I got to make music for a living, and I got to do it being openly queer, being fat and being femme.

In the 2000s, there weren’t so many queer role models as there are today. We’ve especially opened up in terms of gender – the number of people who publicly identify as trans and non-binary is growing and that’s got to expand the way we think about gender in the most amazing way. But I think we still need more. We’re still not done. We need more trans men to be visible. More trans women of colour. More trans men of colour. More butch-femme relationships and more real butch visibility. (Because when I watch The L Word I am like, who are these lipstick-wearing butches? Where do they exist?) I think we need to talk about class within queer visibility, también. Class is a funny thing – it has different meanings and consequences for each of us. I am from a poor town near Walmart’s HQ and living there, you either work as a teacher, in the medical industry or in some huge retail outlet on a zero-hours contract with no benefits. Coming from where I do taught me that it’s important to look at class, because you don’t have as many options when you’re poor and often you’re treated like shit, which I also know from when I was a fast-food worker.

Class is a queer issue because queer and trans people face employment discrimination, and a lot of the problems with class in America are to do with the cost of healthcare, which is also a real issue for queer and disabled people. Many people in the trans community need a way to get hormones – and if you have no work and no healthcare, then you’re paying out of pocket for that. How are you supposed to do it? I have an autoimmune disease and I have to pay $400 a month for healthcare; there are queer people living with disabilities or chronic illnesses who just can’t afford that kind of money. So we need to see the stories of poor queer people to truly understand that lack of privilege.

I’d say, también, that we haven’t seen enough change when it comes to visibility of the many kinds of queer bodies out there. creo, in a sense, that fat visibility and queer visibility need to go hand-in-hand. Like being queer, when you’re a fat person you have to be more creative. That comes from necessity. You come up with all of these incredible ideas for how to exist, unlike people who have the idea that they can just go and buy something that’s ready-made for them. Body positivity was a lonely place for me when I was talking about it 10, 15 hace años que. A lot has improved since then, but we still do not see enough “fat” bodies. Does it need to change more? Definitely!

One of the problems with the body-positivity movement is that magazines and advertising campaigns are sticking to a beauty standard that’s close to being as “pretty” and thin as possible. There’s an acceptable big body that doesn’t reflect the body I see on myself every day, or on my friends, and that’s not OK. There are still very few fat people visible, especially men. This movement is not inclusive if we only see individuals who fit into a narrow idea of beauty. It definitely won’t teach queer people of all sizes to love their bodies, which is important when queer bodies are so marginalised anyway.

Finalmente, I want to see what our realities look like, what we do every day. When you think about pop culture, you don’t really see it: us getting up, brushing our teeth, going to work, calling our partner, dealing with depression, sometimes being hilarious, sometimes not being hilarious. There’s not enough of it. The media are giving us breadcrumbs to reflect the change they see in the world or to react to our activism. I’m not so much talking about queer-centric TV shows where day-to-day life is the specific topic, but the rest of it. I’d like our days to be shown as we live them – where we’re not these people on the fringes, or people who go home and all we’re thinking about is how we’re queer. I just want to see queer people being human, not constantly living their fucking oppression all the time.

In some ways, the world is getting more accepting for LGBTQ+ people, but that doesn’t mean role models are any less important. “Queer” is a big umbrella, with so many different needs and aesthetics and opinions and values – so we’re always going to search for whatever speaks to us. Especially as, even if we are gay or bi or trans, life isn’t just about being gay or bi or trans. That’s why we’ve got to move past one-dimensional representations and for everyone to understand that there’s more to us than stereotypes, and more to us than just our gender or sexuality. Maybe we need a role model for another reason – because we’re bad cooks and Martha Stewart doesn’t make us feel good!

© Beth Ditto 2021. Extracted from We Can Do Better Than This: 35 Voices on the Future of LGBTQ+ Rights, edited by Amelia Abraham and published by Vintage on 3 June at £14.99. Buy a copy from guardianbookshop.com at £13.04

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