TNG Interview: Brent Sullivan’s Living the “Fag Life”
Monday 1 November 2010. 1900 hours. Brent Sullivan, creator of the stage show “Fag Life: A Conversation with Fred Phelps” (a treatise on LGBT life peppered with real quotes from Mr. Phelps himself) agreed to speak with me. I thank him with questions inadvertently designed to poke his serious, political wonk side. And poke I did. Turns out the dude is not only very funny, but is also extremely informed about gay rights issues, fired up about the political atmosphere, and very smart.
Catch Fag Life Saturday at the Artisphere in Arlington. In town for one night only!
The New Gay: You say “this show is a straight-friendly approach to being gay.” What is a straight-unfriendly approach to being gay?
Brent Sullivan: I think that speaks to there being a lot of gay entertainment that I feel sometimes excludes the straight community, focused towards purely gay men, or like gay men and fag hags. I feel like the show is actually just a show for people. It’s not for gay men specifically, although gay men and fag hags make up a big proportion of people who come. I think my perfect audience member for the show is obviously gay friendly, isn’t going to shout at me for being a fag, but isn’t going to watch Glee or wouldn’t go out of their way to see a Lady Gaga show. I had a good friend of mine who saw the show who say he would want their gay friend’s conservative father to see the show.
TNG: You also say “Gay—but not gay.” Is that like being queer? What does that mean?
BS: I guess the way that I envision that is like “post-gay” where I’m a gay man but it’s not really a huge part of my life; outside of the fact that it is literally constantly berated in public. Most heterosexuals don’t really think of their sexuality. It’s just part of who they are. I feel like I’m there as well. Post-gay there’s just no need to come out on stage. I don’t know why we have to do that….straight people don’t have to do that.
I still have a knee jerk reaction to queer like “Are you calling me a queer?!” or simply using the uber PC all encompassing terminology.
TNG: Sometimes I feel like, as homosexuals, we pigeonhole ourselves in homocentric navel gazing narratives. Is this part of the critique element of your show?
BS: Definitely. On the one hand homosexuality – our only difference – is defined by sex, elsewise we are just people. I think it’s fair for gay pride to be very sexual: everyone wants to make fun of pride parades because they are a celebration of sexuality, but so is Mardi Gras. There are a lot of things we do with sexuality: the stereotype of gays, and especially gay men as sexually promiscuous. I think that is one of the biggest things that stands between us and gay marriage. But I think gay men especially kind of like this stereotype where we are hot sexual commodities. The gay community really embraces that. But we also embrace a label, a stereo type that is really oppressing us. Society sexualizes minorities: black guys equal big dicks. Asians equal little dicks. We label ourselves. We have these rigid stereotypes and I try to critique that.
TNG: You were down at the Velvet Lounge not too long ago, how did you enjoy doing that show? Are there regional differences between crowds in DC and NY?
BS: Stand-up is very dependent on where you are. Like NY Upper East side vs the East Village. I’ve performed Fag Life many times in New York and also in Missouri, Georgia, and Connecticut. Missouri and Georgia were great. Connecticut was very stiff. It could be chalked up to the dynamics of the crowd or maybe I was having an off night. But of course I had my stereotypes, and it was completely the opposite.
TNG: Do you find D.C. a particularly gay city? Are we “gay, but not gay” or more just plain gay?
I don’t know DC quite well enough. I did a DC comedy festival which was a lot of fun. I did a show a couple of months ago as well (at the Velvet Lounge). In my travels, I’ve noticed that a place like Town is a monstrous and particularly unique gay bar. I don’t even know how often I go to NY and see that many people all together. I mean it was really a packed place. But I’m like the jackass that talks politics wherever I go. I’m like the worst guy. But in DC I kept bringing stuff up and people were like…what?
TNG: What was it like to do the research needed to come out with these outrageous Fred Phelps quotes?
BS: I love Fred. I think he is so funny. It didn’t phase me at all. I’m obviously not a closeted homophobe. Sarah Palin’s homophobia is so much more offensive to me than anything Fred Phelps says. I use this outlandish Fred Phelps quotes, and it’s like, of course that’s not true. Sarah Palin is folksy and kind of cute “well they choose their life styles” kind of drawl and because she is folksy and cute people believe it.
I just didn’t take Fred seriously. So when I started listening to his sermons, I knew he uses certain terms but I had to sift through these sermons to get them. Couldn’t get fag Santa. That’s something he says, Santa Clause is a fag because Santa is an idol, therefore a false idol, we worship him during Christmas, therefore Santa is a fag. That’s the logic. The logic itself is consistent, but crazy. It was fun to hear what he has to say. The interesting thing is, I listened to 30-40 of his sermons: he’s likeable. He talks to his family very gently, refers to his family as beloved, jokes about his hate-mail. I don’t mean to say that he’s a good guy, but it’s kind of funny.
TNG: The election is tomorrow [at the time of interview] and on NPR today I heard the phrase “bloodbath” tossed around for the prospect of Democratic candidates. What kind of feel do you have for the immediate progression of gay rights in America?
BS: It’s awful. Tomorrow is going to be awful. I’m literally planning on taking Xanax to get through the day because I’m going to be so anxious and angry. I cannot say enough things about Republicans and their stance on gay rights. Megan McCain, she went on FOX news and she told Bill O’Reilly that there’s really no difference between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to gay rights. Actually, it’s really profound how much Republicans have objected to gay rights, historically. Even in the last year, Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) said gay men and sexually active women shouldn’t be able to teach children. And this is something that Reagan rejected before he was elected. Reagan, the father of the modern conservative movement said this is outrageous. We’re rehashing the same themes that we were 30 years ago and Republicans aren’t even coming close to slowing down.
Richard Feingold is going to lose in Wisconsin. He’s one of the most outspoken advocated of gay rights. He voted against DOMA, he’s been a supporter of ENDA, he supports the repeal of DADT.
But I meet gay guys in NYC and they’re like “who fucking cares”. They’re like “what have the Democrats done for us?” But the difference between the two parties, the differences are profound on how they deal with gay rights. There are two state republican parties in the USA (Montana and Texas) who want to re-criminalize sodomy. (Which was federally decriminalized in 2003). I mean that’s crazy, that’s the very basis of acknowledge gay people are human beings who shouldn’t be persecuted based on what they do in their bedrooms.
TNG: How do you feel about the Log Cabins possibly being responsible for the repeal of DADT as a result of the suit they brought in California?
BS: The Log Cabin Republicans repeal of DADT: it’s infuriating, I mean yes if the Supreme Court repeals DADT that’s fine. But GOProud couldn’t even get Ann Coulter to speak about gay rights at their events. If you are going to get someone to speak at your event, get someone who will speak to your rights, don’t get Ann Coulter who literally despises your existence. I’d be excited if the DADT case went all the way to SC and we won, but it would be sad if the Log Cabin Republicans get all the credit because they have really hurt the movement. This is one of the fastest moving movements ever, we have very quickly (despite lots of setbacks) moved forward. It sounds kind of contrived when Obama says it, but change doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t legalize gay marriage in two years.
TNG: You graduated from University of Michigan and grew up in Ann Arbor. I don’t know if you are aware of it, but D.C. is not only the gayest city on the East Coast, it is actually an A-squared satellite. Why has D.C. become such an AA Mecca? We need more lesbian mommies, so I support this just fyi.
BS: Michigan is sort of a cult, because it’s so big. It’s a massive public university with the arrogance of an ivy league. Fifty percent of the people that apply get in, so it’s not impossible to get in, and there’s a football team. So everyone wears Michigan shirts everywhere they go…for the rest of their lives. I think Michigan gear is the number one selling sports gear on the planet.
TNG: AA is like the fourth most liberal city on the planet…but how do your friends and family react to this show?
BS: My family is very open, my parents and my brother. The only thing is my mom was worried that Fred was going to protest me or something. Which is the point; I really want him to protest me. He got wind of the show, and he posted me on his webpage. So I was totally geeked about that. That was huge, I loved that. The reality is Fred has, really within the last 30 years, has no record of being violent. I don’t worry about that. It would be free publicity and it would be so much fun. It’s just been phone fun to do it.
TNG: I’m sure you know the Phelps family are all trained lawyers who fund their hatred by suing people who attack them.
BS: They are brilliant in front of the Supreme Court too. You know Fred Phelps used to be a prominent civil rights attorney. He used to be famous for being the only white lawyer in Kansas willing to take on a case that struck down a Jim Crow law. He’s a very interesting guy. He still talks about that in his sermons. But he’s gone crazy enough where’s he turned on everyone. He thinks the African American community has sided with the gays.
TNG: What do you want your audiences to say between themselves at the end of the show:
BS: I think it’s a really fun show. I want people to enjoy the clips. Ive tried to neuter the intensity of his quotes so people can sit down and enjoy themselves. At first I sat down and wrote angry response, say I never would have envisioned thinking of Fred Phelps in that way. I want it to literally change how they think of Fred Phelps. I want them to enter thinking hes a monster, I want them to leave thinking he’s a cartoon.
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