Unapologetically Queer: Kit Williamson on “EastSiders” and Revolutionary Representation




THIS PAST DECEMBER saw the conclusion to the series EastSiders, one of the most original and provocative televisual narratives about queer life yet screened — and one critically lauded as well, with eight Daytime Emmy Award nominations. In the show, writer, director, and actor Kit Williamson has created a powerful set of story lines following the intersecting lives of mostly young gay characters in Los Angeles, and he mobilized multiple content distribution platforms, starting with YouTube, to steadily increase the audience for his compelling narrative. That journey alone — from YouTube to Netflix — is a story worth telling. But for Williamson, for whom “representation is inherently revolutionary,” telling stories with unapologetically  queer content matters as much as mastering the channels of content distribution. Focusing primarily on the intimate relationship between Cal (played by Williamson), an aspiring photographer, and his lover Thom (Van Hansis), a would-be writer, Williamson from the very start pushes the boundaries of what most of us have seen in the on-screen representation of gay life. As might be expected, the couple grapples with sex in the age of AIDS and body shaming in gay communities, but the two also contend with exploring what commitment means in the context of a relationship that is not always monogamous. This focus on shifting conceptions of commitment in the aftermath of gay marriage is one of the many dimensions of EastSiders that makes it such compelling viewing.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Williamson about EastSiders, its conclusion, his next steps, and the power of queer storytelling.

¤

JONATHAN ALEXANDER: So you’ve just finished and “dropped” the fourth and final season of EastSiders. Are you relieved, excited, depressed? Is the work on the series done?

KIT WILLIAMSON: It’s not done. The real work for me always begins after post-production ends, because my husband and I are a two-man marketing and PR machine. And I’ve often said that I think of a web series as a PR campaign in many ways. You have to create the story of why someone should care about the story in order to get eyeballs on it. Because you don’t have a marketing budget, you don’t have a PR team, so it’s very much a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, grassroots effort. And we really lean on the fans of the show to spread the word about the show. The show has grown from YouTube to Netflix, and been subtitled in over 30 languages, because of the fan support.

It’s a tremendous accomplishment. Did you have a guide or a sense of how to make such a series, or were you making it up as you went along?

I looked at other web series. I created spreadsheets of everybody who had written about gay web series on YouTube, and I hounded them on the internet until they wrote about my show. And it’s interesting, it actually almost came easier in the beginning because web series weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now. So the novelty of there being a gay web series was enough to get you covered by every gay blog. And the novelty of being a good gay web series was enough to get you covered by a lot of mainstream press. And one of the first outlets that covered us was LA Weekly and they gave this beautiful glowing review and then gave us the LA Weekly Web Award for Best Web Drama.

The number of things that one can find just on YouTube now — it’s incredible. It’s just stunning how many people are out there putting actually fairly decent content out. Is there something out there that you are particularly appreciating right now?

I absolutely appreciate the “level up” in web content that we’re seeing, such as in shows like The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo. I personally chalk, I think, a lot of this up to advances in DSLR technology and being able to shoot a really quality film product with very little money on this kind of camera that looks like a still photography camera. The 5D Mark II is what we shot the first two seasons of our show on and then we graduated to the 5D Mark IV in season three and then Netflix changed their deliverable specs.

Oh, interesting.

Yeah, so now they’re requesting content be delivered in 4K, which was a huge leap for us. It required having a full-time onset DIT, it required changing our cameras to the C300, which cost us a lot of money because I happen to own our other two cameras and now we had to rent these cameras. But the jump in quality is undeniable. Season four looks like a TV show in a way that seasons one to three don’t.

What an incredible journey. Tell me more about it. What was that progression like for you?

I think that one of the most difficult things in communicating from a PR standpoint for me has always been the journey that the show has gone on. Our beginnings couldn’t have been more humble. We shot the first season, the first two episodes for $2,000, which is literally negative money and barely covers anything. So it was really just this kind of community effort of a bunch of people coming together and saying that they wanted to make something and just put it out there without really any sense of ambition. Just wanting to tell a story.

Then we shot the first season through a Kickstarter campaign for $26,000, which is just also literally no money. And it landed at Logo, which just drastically exceeded our expectations of what we could do with something like this. And then, starting in season two, we raised $153,000 on Kickstarter and we were able to get this global partner in Netflix, which really just blew up the show’s audience. And every season I kind of have had in my head that it was the last season. This one, the fourth, I decided to call it out explicitly and say, no, for sure this is done, at least in this format. I mean, maybe I’m not done with the characters forever. We’ve raised nearly half a million dollars through the years. Every season has relied on crowdfunding in order to either get through production or post-production. And I’m okay with that because I just want to keep telling these unapologetically queer stories because there’s something inherently not commercial about them. I think that all you can do is put your nose to the grindstone and tell stories that would matter to you as a viewer. And then to make money, obviously you’ve got to think about what’s going to matter to the largest number of people that you’re comfortable speaking to.

That’s fair. Do you worry about the lure of the commercial?

I think the landscape has changed enough that I can sort of shoehorn my queer propaganda in any kind of project that I work on. And I mean that sort of tongue-in-cheek, but also in a way, I don’t. Because I think that representation is inherently revolutionary. I can’t overstate what it would’ve been to me as a gay teen growing up in Mississippi to see myself reflected on the screen and I just devoured any sort of scraps that I could, from Danny on the Real World: New Orleans, to pirating the British version of Queer as Folk. And that’s a pretty common story of people that I’ve talked to about it.

Would you go back? Would you do another web series? Would you start there again?

I’m ready to graduate from this budget level. It’s been the biggest reward of my life, one of the most satisfying and fulfilling experiences of my life making this show with my husband over the last seven years, but at the same time, it’s exhausting. It’s like having a kid; there’s not a day in the last seven years that has gone by where I haven’t had that moment of, is everything okay? It’s a web series. That’s what it takes in order to keep growing. But honestly, I feel like at this budget level, our faces are pressed against the web series ceiling, and I don’t know that we could really accomplish anything more than what we have. Being distributed by Netflix, being nominated for eight Emmy Awards, I feel pretty good about our run, and I’m ready to graduate to something that’s perhaps in a traditional development pipeline, with more resources and support.

Totally makes sense. I do want to come back and talk a little bit about EastSiders, but give me a sense of what that next thing looks like.

At least enough budget to move out of these kind of indie rates, to be able to hire a full-time publicist, to be able to work out of a post-facility instead of our editors’ home offices, and candidly to be able to have it be my full-time job. I have worked on EastSiders like a full-time job over the last seven years, but I haven’t taken a paycheck because I wanted to put all of those resources and funds back into the show. I’ve been very blessed for the last few years to make my money writing television shows, make my living writing television shows for studios and networks that didn’t end up becoming television shows — and that’s its own kind of hell because you really have to believe that it’s going to be a television show in order to do the kind of work that you need to do to make it good. But there are so many factors outside of your control, particularly when you’re writing things with a queer focus that could result in it not being a television show. You’re really carried by the wind.

No, that totally makes sense from what I’ve heard from a variety of people, but I won’t bore you with my own TV pilot attempt. [Laughs.] Let me say this, though — you raised an interesting question about queer content. Is there a kind of queer content that’s easier to produce right now or that you feel content providers are looking for?

I think the industry has really embraced the idea of having a queer character as part of an ensemble, and I think that’s revolutionary and incredible. I think showrunner Shonda Rhimes really pioneered this sort of inclusive ensemble on television where race, gender, and sexual orientation or gender identity isn’t the only defining the characteristics of the characters. And I think that that’s incredible and would have been so impactful to me to see as a kid growing up in Mississippi. But I also think there’s something to be said for queer stories written from and for a queer point of view. And that’s something I hope to continue doing in my career.

So a couple of points, and I want to get back to you coming from Jackson, but before I do that, I’ll tell you how I watched all of EastSiders, how I binged it. A few weeks ago, I was sick and couldn’t get off the couch and thought, all right, I need something to do. People had been talking about the new Tales of the City, and I’d watched the old Tales of the City years ago. Really enjoyed it.

I love the books.

I love the books, too. So I plowed through the new Tales of the City and I thought, this is interesting. And there was some heavy hitters writing on that. I think Michael Cunningham had written part of the first episode, and it was nice to see some of those characters again. I also really liked the cross-generational relationships and friendships, which made me think of EastSiders, a show that really focuses on millennial-aged folks. So I watched all of your show and again. I had seen the first couple of seasons earlier, but this is the first time I sat down and just watched the entire thing, all four seasons back to back. And not only is it impressive, but I was particularly interested in your generation’s take on what it’s like to be queer right now and what kind of queer content people in your generation want to produce. Thoughts?

I don’t purport to speak for my generation. I can only speak for myself and say that, coming from Mississippi, it is important to me to be unapologetically queer. And to never hold my punches in terms of storytelling because I’m worried about quote unquote stereotypes. If there’s one sort of most common criticism of the show that I can point to, it’s that the show paints gay men in a bad light, quote unquote. And I think once you really unpack that, the people who are putting this forward, almost all of them gay men themselves, are actually falling into the model minority trap and the trap of respectability politics and are completely unaware of their own self-loathing. They could all stand to read The Velvet Rage. They could all stand to look in the mirror and ask themselves why they’re so afraid of being clichés.

It’s interesting because The Velvet Rage is a book that’s mentioned in both series. One of the things that’s interesting about the representation of queerness in your series is this issue of shame, and it strikes me that one of the real gifts of the series is that it shows us young men who are not ashamed, who aren’t grappling with shame.

Who aren’t grappling with shame?

Right …

Oh, I disagree.

Okay, tell me.

There is literally an exchange in season three in “Our Own Private Idaho,” when my character, Cal, makes a rather inappropriate joke involving Matthew Shepard and the AIDS crisis. And then [my co-star] Van’s character Thom’s response is, “Wow, you really hate yourself, don’t you?”

Okay.

That was to me, like, exactly addressing this question of shame because it’s in our DNA. This kind of weight of shame is pressing down on us at all times. Even my generation, I really believe that. Otherwise, why am I getting all these comments from my generation telling me to behave for straight people?

What you’re talking about is the problem of homonormativity, right? We know heteronormativity. But you’re talking about homonormativity, the pressure that we often put on ourselves or each other to present ourselves in a particular kind of light, usually sanitized and even nonsexual.

Right. That’s a line in season four in which Clifford, Jake Choi’s character, says to Thom when looking at his essay collection, “I don’t think it portrays gay men in the best of light.” The episode is called “A Relationship Like That” because Clifford says to Thom, “I don’t think people want to read about a relationship like that.” And then he goes on to say, “It doesn’t present gay men in the best light.” And Thom asks, “What light should gay men be portrayed in?”

So, is Thom the more contemporary Brian Kinney from Queer as Folk, in some ways?

I don’t think so. I think Brian Kinney in many ways represents this idea that you’re either a family man or a libertine and I think now a lot of people are asking: Why can’t you be both? Why can’t you be a sexually free person and also be in a committed relationship? And what does commitment look like for different kinds of people and different kinds of relationships? As queer people, we get to chart our own course because there is no path laid out for us by our parents that necessarily is easy for us to walk down. Even if you try to do exactly what your parents do, you’re going to face challenges that they didn’t just by virtue of being in a same-sex relationship.

Yeah, absolutely. So there is that moment at the beginning of season four in which Cal, who is a photographer, is working with three models. I think they all have sex and one of the models lying on top of Cal says, “You seem liberated.” That’s an interesting moment because I think it gets at some of the differences between Queer as Folk and what you’re doing. Coming back to the issue of shame, I think you are articulating different kinds of shame. A generation ago, the shame was just around, “God, I’m queer, that’s a bad thing.” I don’t think your characters necessarily grapple with their queerness as being a bad thing, but they do worry over how they represent their queerness to each other, to other people. And that does seem like an interesting shift to me in what kinds of shame we’re willing to talk about now. Right now, you’re willing to talk about the kind of shame that exists really within queer communities, the way we shame ourselves, not just how the other culture shames us.

The show is very much written with a queer audience in mind. I’m trying to speak to other queer people. I’m trying to hold a mirror up to a community. I’m not necessarily worried what straight people might think about my show, if they stumble upon it. Because honestly, if you stumble into my corner of the internet, you’re probably a pretty fucking rad straight person to begin with.

Is that what the character of Ian, who is initially straight but drifts into a gay relationship, represents in some ways?

Yeah. I think so, yeah. He definitely has, like, stumbled into this, like, ultra-queer world when that’s not his background at all. In this season, spoiler alert, you realize that he’s a little bit queerer than he originally presents, but his first kind of entryway into the series is just as the boyfriend to the straight female characters.

I love it. EastSiders references a lot of gay culture, from Scruff to PrEP, et cetera. And I am intrigued: Scruff was a sponsor, but was PrEP or its makers?

No, but we did work with the LA LGBT Center to develop story lines around undetectability equaling untransmitability and around safer sex messaging. And I think the show hopefully strides that exact line between being informative, responsible, and fun. You know, the characters make mistakes. I mean in season three, we had bareback sex with a drifter. It’s not as though I’m presenting a morality tale or an afterschool special. And I don’t intend to punish the characters for having bareback sex with a drifter.

As someone who grew up as a teen and young adult watching Rock Hudson die of AIDS on television, my whole sexual awakening as a young queer person was marked, I’ll even say marred, by hostile and homophobic rhetoric around AIDS and HIV.

Well, so was mine, but since I came of age in Mississippi, you kinda have to subtract 10 to 20 years from the clock. If I was born in 1985, it’s like I was born in 1965 where I’m from. And when I had my first kiss, I convinced myself at 16 that I had contracted HIV through a kiss.

Wow.

And I think that that’s a more common fear in my generation than you’d like to believe.

I hear you. I do appreciate the representation, particularly of the health-care worker in the clinic who has a very snarky but honest demeanor. He wants his patients to be honest with themselves. Their sexual health depends upon it. Their lives depend upon it. Upon not deceiving themselves about the kind of lives that they’re leading, the risks they are taking.

I think it’s just a proven fact now that HIV is transmitted primarily by people who don’t know their status, and they don’t know their status because they’re afraid of getting tested. They’re afraid of the possibility.

Tell me a little bit about season three, which is sort of the tour de force of homages to other queer- and queer-themed films — perhaps some work that has influenced you? I’m thinking of the episodes that play with themes and images from My Own Private Idaho, Thelma and Louise

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

Yes. I love the episode that plays with My Own Private Idaho, especially the scene in which you recreate the campfire scene from Van Sant’s movie …

Shot for shot.

Yeah. What were you trying to do in that season that is really full of these absolutely amazing intertextual references to other queer cinema and other queer culture?

Well, I wanted to take a look at Americana, namely the road trip. Reclaiming the idea of the great American road trip movie for a queer audience. And also kind of looking back at the history of the United States. That’s why, when we are in Wyoming, we talk about Matthew Shepard, because when I was driving through Wyoming, all I could fucking think about was Matthew Shepard, and we kind of had, in my mind, these scars on our country. These wounds that haven’t totally healed. But also, with the road trip, I wanted to capture some of the joy that you get from feeling a sense of ownership of your country. Growing up, I never really felt like a citizen of the United States. I call myself a Mississippi expatriate, living in California. And I also wanted to kind of look at these earlier films, not only pay homage to them, but also continue the conversations started in them.

What conversations do you think we need to have right now, both within gay culture and with the larger culture?

Life after Obergefell. Now that we have attained marriage equality and — knock on wood — it doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere soon. I think we have to ask ourselves what is actually important to us as a community. What’s worth fighting for in terms of our own personal liberties and in terms of the greater culture? Do we just want a seat at the table? Do we just want … Yeah, I guess, do we just want to be along for the ride or do we want to steer the ship?

Yeah. Do I want a seat at the table, or do we want to change the whole fucking menu?

Yeah. That’s a good way of putting it. Especially as storytellers, we have to ask ourselves those questions, and I don’t think that the show has any agenda other than wanting to put forth the central idea that there is no one right path, and that we should accept and celebrate our differences.

Absolutely. Interestingly, though, EastSiders ends with a marriage — the marriage of Quincy and Douglas — which is a fairly typical move in comedies, even darker, more dramatic comedies.

Yeah. But what does marriage mean? I’m married, you’re married, but our marriages may be completely different things. We may have defined commitment in completely different ways. And I think that there’s so much power and freedom in that, you know?

I think that that’s right. And so I’m now thinking of all those people who, 10-plus years ago, were arguing in favor of marriage equality and were saying, “Oh, let the gays get married because it’s not going to change the institution.” But as you just asked, what does commitment mean? I actually think that allowing gays and lesbians to marry will transform marriage, perhaps already has.

I think it has. Allowing women to get divorced has changed and transformed the definition of marriage. Obviously, one of the conservative rallying cries has been that we are changing the definition of marriage. Fucking yes we are. Fucking good. Marriage shouldn’t be a prison. It should be whatever you want it to be. To me, all it means in a universal sense is that you are committing yourself to another human being and what that means is up to those two people, or at least it should be. I think Cal and Thom’s marriage will be radically different from Quincy and Douglas’s marriage, and I think their marriage is undoubtedly radically different from anybody else’s on the planet. They’re so weird.

I think that the whole sequence between Quincy and Douglas in Palm Springs is just beautiful. It’s just touching and sweet, and it’s nice to see guys just enjoy each other in that way. That alone says we should be thinking beyond our own shame. We should be thinking about the constraints we place on each other. We should be thinking about how we can enjoy each other’s company. And that seems useful politically, not just personally.

I did kind of intentionally with those characters, from the beginning, think of them as sort of the hat trick I wanted to pull off — introducing them as the commedia clown characters and then revealing them as the lovers. I feel really that we have accomplished that in the final season by centering it around their wedding. And coming back to those questions of masculinity and how you’re seen. I think a lot of the show is kind of about that tension of how comfortable am I being myself or letting my relationship be what it naturally is evolving to be, versus what I’m afraid other people will think about it. Like Douglas and Quincy’s conflict from the very beginning dating back to season two — their first big fight as a couple was when Douglas showed up to Cal’s gallery exhibition in drag because he had a gig immediately afterward and Quincy was upset about it.

You are definitely pushing us, especially in the queer community, to think about what we are comfortable with, how we are taught to be uncomfortable with ourselves, and how we can resist that discomfort and make room to explore what we really want, and how we really want to live with and love each other. Along those lines, what are you seeing or reading or experiencing in terms of queer representation right now that is exciting you?

I’m obsessed with what’s happening in young adult fiction. L. C. Rosen has got a book called Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts), which is in many ways a gay sex manual for a teen audience. But beyond just this kind of tedginess, it’s got heart and it really is just allowing the character to just be. It’s content that speaks directly to gay teens and also content that broadens the horizons of straight readers, straight teen readers who might be encountering a queer person for their first time in reading these YA novels. Also, my best friend is Brittany Cavallaro. She’s a young adult novelist, who if she’s not on your radar, she absolutely should be. She writes the Charlotte Holmes mysteries for HarperCollins. Four books out now, the first being A Study in Charlotte. It was the Target Book of the Month when it came out and was on the New York Times best seller list. It’s a feminist retelling of Sherlock Holmes following a teenage female descendant of the famous detective being framed for the murder of her rapist at an elite boarding school in New England.

It sounds good.

It’s fucking genius.

I’ll keep an eye on it. I think what’s so interesting is the extent to which we are getting media that is showing us not just alternative “lifestyles” but also alternative community, such as the friendship groups in EastSiders. I don’t want to say the family is done, but we need to reimagine what it looks like. And I think that’s not just to accommodate people’s different desires; it’s also to accommodate people’s economic realities.

Yeah. It’s not a movement. It’s a mirror. Families were already broken. The definition of family has already changed. I’m a child of divorce, I’m a product of divorce, and it’s completely shaped my worldview and my reality and in many ways I think my parents’ divorce is part of why my marriage is currently intact, because I’m not falling into the same sorts of traps and pitfalls. I’ll fall into brand-new ones that I didn’t see coming.

And hopefully, people like you will continue creating the content that shows us that — pitfalls and possibilities. This has been a delight. Thank you so much.

Thank you.

¤

Jonathan Alexander is Chancellor’s Professor of English at UC Irvine. He is the author, co-author, or editor of 16 books, including Writing Youth: Young Adult Fiction as Literacy Sponsorship (2016) and a critical memoir, Creep: A Life, a Theory, an Apology (2017), which was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award. He can be reached through his website: https://www.the-blank-page.com/.

 

RELATED


PRESS ENTER TO SEARCH, OR ESC TO EXIT
Feed Your HeadSubscribe to LARB's FREE Newsletter
Newsletter