Twenty Years after the Defense of Marriage Act: A Conversation with Dana Piccoli

In which we discuss DOMA, representation, fandom, Pretty Little Liars, being a gay teenager, and the indescribable good that friends bring into our lives.

I think everyone has that one show or that one character that helps them understand themselves on a level beyond articulation.

For me, that show was Glee, and that character was (and still is) Santana Lopez.

People who followed me on Twitter between the years 2009 and 2013 know that my account was a Glee fan account, but more specifically, a Santana Lopez fan account. (Several of my friends in middle school told me that they blocked me because I would tweet the word “Santana” approximately five times a minute during any given episode.) I had every single season on DVD and all of the albums and a custom T-Shirt featuring a Santana quote (which I still wear to sleep all the time) and two separate photoshopped pictures of me being in Glee and literally anything else Glee-related that you could imagine. I loved Glee, but even more than that, I loved Santana.

My parents and siblings described it as an obsession and still taunt me about it to this day. But I think it was more than that, really. It was a coping mechanism for dealing with the stresses of middle school and high school in general. But it was also a way of seeing myself for the first time – as a young, scared, queer woman of color, on TV and in the public eye in ways that I couldn’t even fathom as possible when I first came to the realization at age eleven that I was indeed gay.

The first time I told my high school therapist I was gay, I said, “I’m like Santana,” because we both watched the show, and she knew exactly what I meant without me having to say the words (“I’m gay”) that took me nearly seven years to say aloud. And she made it easier for me to accept myself by using Glee as a live-action allegory of my own life.

I was outed to several of my friends around the same time that FOX aired the episode where Santana was outed to her whole school and her parents. I went on my first ever date with a girl when Santana and Brittany went on theirs. I went to college the same year that the characters of Glee were attempting to navigate the “real world” for the first time. I met and started dating my girlfriend in the same year that Brittany and Santana got married.

And just a few weeks ago, my girlfriend was sick and we sat on the couch watching the episode where Santana realizes she’s gay and sings “Landslide,” and – even years later – I was moved by how much this dumb little show changed my life, particularly in terms of understanding and accepting my sexuality, and learning that I can indeed love another person, and that it does (as the cliche states) get better.

I, of course, had to go through too many terrible shows and movies featuring lesbian characters to be able to find one that spoke to me. Dana Piccoli, who came out many years before I did, had to go through even more, and even experienced many times where there were no characters like her as representation.

I’ve been a fan and a Twitter follower of Piccoli for years. She’s an actress, a singer-songwriter, a writer for outlets like AfterEllen (the publication that helped me understand what it meant to be a lesbian in the 21st century), Alloy Entertainment, and The Mary Sue, and the host of the Let’s Process podcast. And she has consumed more gay media than my young gay brain could ever fathom.

via Google+

Piccoli is a purveyor of queer media and pop culture, and took the time to chat with me about how the experiences she’s lived, the media she’s consumed, and the things she has written about all relate to political climates of the past, the present, and the future.

Fandoms get a lot of shit. Fans get a lot of shit. But, as Piccoli discusses below, the power of fanbases and fandoms, just like the power of people in unity, is revolutionary. Really, what the people want is representation.

Morgan Vickers: This year is twenty years after DOMA – the Defense of Marriage Act – and also it’s a year, I’ve noticed, in which a lot of response has come to media in which there are queer characters. [This year] tropes are coming up that aren’t new, but are kind of coming to an apex, so I thought it’d be an interesting time to talk about these intersections.

Dana Piccoli: Yeah, sure!

MV: Cool! So, to start it off, to provide a little context, can you start by talking about at what age or in what year you came out?

DP: Yeah, sure! So I came out when I was seventeen, and so coming out in the 90’s was kind of an interesting experience. I came out pre-Ellen [Degeneres], but yet there was a lot of activism happening. There was a lot of change starting to rumble beneath the surface.

I went to an all-girls school and, surprisingly, it was probably way easier to come out there than it would’ve been if, say, I had gone to a co-ed public school or something. So I was surprisingly embraced by nearly everyone, and so I think I had a pretty unusual and blessed experience coming out then.

MV: So in that pre-Ellen time period, was there any media or anything that you could look to [for representation]?

DP: Not really. So I’ll tell you a kind of fun story:

When I came out, my friends were very supportive, but we all recognized that there wasn’t much [media] out there for me to look to. So what we would do is we would go to like Blockbuster and my friends and I – and keep in mind, they were straight women, straight teenagers – would go through all of Blockbuster trying to find any queer movie at all, anything that had any sort of queerness in it, and then we would rent that, and then we would rent the movie for them. And then we would all watch the gay movie together and we would watch the other movie together. But they were there to support me in that so that I wouldn’t have to be alone in the consumption of media. But there wasn’t a lot out there.

I mean, at the time, it was so hard to find queer movies. And most of them came from foreign releases. God, I remember making those poor girls watch Sister My Sister, which is not a queer film I recommend to anyone. (Laughs)

MV: (laughs)

DP: But, that’s really where I looked to. It was movies, really, not television. There was really nothing out there for someone like me. So [it was really], independent movies, foreign films, books.

I consumed a lot of magazine media. So things like On Our Backs, and what’s now Curve – I think it was called Deneuve. Advocate. Out Magazine. That’s where I got really most of my information about queer media, was through magazines.

MV: Well it sounds like you had really good friends!

DP: I did! They were pretty amazing, [especially] when I think about seventeen year-old girls who were not gay in the least bit totally supporting my gayness by subjecting themselves to these terrible movies. 

MV: That’s awesome.

I actually was born in 1996 when DOMA was passed, so I grew up believing that if I were to ever get married, it would be a long time away, but that mentality quickly changed as I got into my teenage years, with the rapidly shifting politics of the time.

DP: Uh huh.

MV: And, since this act passed around the time that you came out, what did it mean for you, being young and queer?

DP: Man… I guess I never allowed myself to really think about getting married because I just didn’t think it was a thing that was going to happen. Like I said, there was a lot of rumbling and activism going on when I was that age, but it felt so far away. We basically just wanted the right to exist without being harassed, you know. We just wanted to have some sort of life.

I got married about three years ago, and both my wife and I never dreamed about that day because it just seemed like something that we could never have.

And so, when DOMA was overturned [in 2013], it was… I mean, in the couple of years that it started getting closer [to being overturned], all of a sudden you had to flip around all of these thoughts about what your future would be like, and allow this new thing to come into your world. It was a big turnaround. It allowed me to realize that I could have a life like everybody else.

So, we did get married. And it’s very true, you know: being married is like this very normal – I don’t want to say ‘boring,’ because I don’t find it boring – normal thing. And to think that for so long, I never thought I would have this normal, basic right that I do.

So, twenty years ago, I never thought that would have happened.

MV: Shifting gears a little bit: you write a lot about queer characters on TV and in film, and queer people in pop culture. Have these subjects always interested you, and why have you chosen to make a profession out of writing about these topics? 

DP: You know, I think I’ve always been interested in… Oh, I was an actor! That’s what I went to school for. I was always interested in that sort of thing – in television and film and plays and all sorts of things like that. And I think I was always drawn to media that represented me, probably more so than a lot of my friends. You know, I would find an independent theater and I would go to the gay movie that had just come out. That’s always been really important to me.

I think I’m just a big consumer of television-film media anyway. I mean, I’ll pretty much go see anything that has a gay character in it, anyway. (Laughs) I’ll go see it! I’ll check it out! I also knew from a young age that it was important to support those things because if you don’t they go away.

So, I guess the more I supported things like that, the more I was interested in it. It happened at the same time that more people were coming out and more gay characters and queer characters were actually being portrayed in television and film and media. So, my interest grew as the opportunity grew.

So then, a couple years ago, I got really into Pretty Little Liars, and I really, really fell in love with the series, and I started writing songs about Pretty Little Liars and putting them on YouTube. And that’s where it all kind of started for me. I got discovered by a couple different sites. I actually write for two of the sites that posted the video of me however many years ago.

So my love of pop culture in that way actually took the form of songwriting. And then it expanded into actually writing articles and more of a critical analysis of queer characters in popular culture and film and television.

MV: In the past 20 years, we have seen some of the best and worst representation and treatment of gay and lesbian characters, and a lot of that has culminated recently with the “Bury Your Gays” trope and the backlash to that trope. 

DP: Right.

MV: In response to that, now that we’re seeing a lot of people publicly oppose these things on the Internet, how much do you think the fan or the individual’s voice matter in terms of changing things as small as a character arc to as large as a policy like DOMA?

DP: Oh, I think it’s incredibly important. As I’m standing here watching all of the things that have happened especially in the past couple of months, I think fandom has a much larger voice than I think anyone really anticipated or expected. And I think that it’s a really incredible thing, because if you’re going to utilize fandom to promote your show, and utilize fandom to push things forward for you, you also have to understand that fandom is going to have a lot to say. So I think it’s important that fandom continues to have these important things to say.

I think that, as creators, [fandoms] are really going to make people think about how they portray queer characters, and the sort of storylines that they explore. If anything positive has come out of this, I think that’s what it is: it’s saying you have to open your mind or your heart to other options. [Removing a lesbian character from a show] can’t just be caused by pregnancy or death. That’s been going on since Friends. Before friends!

I think before the lesbian couple on Friends, lesbian characters were pretty much the villain. They were the villain or like the sad obsessed friend. And then Friends brought out these two lesbian characters and they got married and had a baby, and that – I think – was an important moment in pop culture where we started shifting to seeing lesbian and queer characters as something other than the villain. I always go back to Friends because I think it was a really important stepping-stone.

I think that people have gotten lazy, frankly. I think that people have gotten lazy and it’s easier to just go with tropes because they’re around, it’s not that hard to think outside of that box. But I think that what has sort of happened with the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope, is we will push people to think outside of those boxes. And that is very important.

And then, how that relates to DOMA: I mean, we’ve been pushing for years for rights. And I think that the more and more we pushed as queer people, the more our friends who were not queer started picking up the mantle, too. I really think that’s the way DOMA was overturned: our straight allies joined forces with us and made our voice much more difficult to ignore. I never underestimate or under appreciate what that has meant to me. Some of my straight friends were the ones at City Hall or the ones at the Governor’s Mansion. They were ones who worked tirelessly to have the ban on same-sex marriage overturned. So, I think that this generation of younger people – people in the 20’s and 30’s – started working together as a community of allies and queer people, and that’s why DOMA was overturned.

Published by morganpvickers

still figuring it all out.

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