by Len Lear
“I love being queer! I have such great friends who are successful and living full lives. There is so much freedom. Young people don’t have to be afraid to come out anymore. There is an amazing, vibrant, successful community waiting for them. Here is what’s wonderful: there is an automatic connection with a great community of people. You could not pay me to be straight! We love what we are. Parents say, ‘I’m afraid for you.’ They should be saying, ‘I am happy for you!’ We are so accepting. We are more altruistic, more beautiful! It’s just not a hard thing to be queer. I have talked to my friends about this, and they all agree!”
Jess Bryant, who lives in Mt. Airy with her partner, Eliza Taft, has the perfect job for such a passionate advocate for gay issues. The 32-year-old firebrand, who grew up in the 3,000-population town of Brownstown, Indiana, “with no gay role models,” in April was named editor of the Philadelphia Gay News (PGN), the area’s largest, oldest and most award-winning publication targeted to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. It was founded in 1976 by Mt. Airy native Mark Segal. (Bryant replaced Denise Fuhs.)
It might seem counter-intuitive because of the anti-gay bias that still persists in many parts of the country and many institutions, but the rail-thin, wiry, androgynous Bryant insists, “It is a privilege to be living now (as a gay person). I’ve experienced violence, too, but not anything like the old days. It’s getting more and more nuanced. There used to be protesters at PGN but no more. We still get some anti-gay letters. We have been fighting in the past to be regarded as normal. Now PGN has to look at problems in our own community – racism, toxic masculinity, domestic violence, etc. We need to progress on these things, as we ask others to do.”
A free weekly paper with offices at 4th and Lombard Streets, PGN has a free circulation of about 15,000. It has local and national news, editorials, oped pieces, political coverage and extensive arts coverage, including reviews of books, movies and restaurants, all geared to gay readers. There is only one full-time news reporter and one part-time arts writer but about 20 freelancers, eight to 10 of whom are in the paper on any given week. The writers are not all gay.
“We can’t discriminate in hiring,” Bryant said.
In high school, Bryant was popular and played softball, tennis, basketball and cross-country At the age of 18, she went to New York City, where she attended Pace University but only for a year and a half because she could no longer afford the tuition not covered by scholarship. She stayed in New York for five years, only because she was able to stay barely above water because of her skill as a bicycle mechanic.
“I spent many days at a radical book store and went to lectures. People in New York taught me a lot about race and queer politics, and that life experience is just as valuable as college. Bikes saved my life there when I was so broke and had nowhere to live. I still fix bikes for friends, not for money, and I build them.”
At age 23, Bryant moved to Argentina, where she had a friend, although she did not speak Spanish. (She does speak German.)
“There is so much income disparity in Argentina, even worse than in U.S.,” Bryant said. “And it’s much worse now. When I was there the money was four pesos to the dollar. Now it’s 23 to 1. But the young people there are passionate and frustrated. It’s amazing what you will do when you have nothing to lose”
Bryant came back home at age 24 and attended Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, where she was a full-time student for three years while also managing a bike shop. After obtaining an undergraduate degree, she went on to earn a Masters in Fine Arts at Eastern Washington State University. After earning the MFA, she became a managing editor of the Gettysburg Review, a top literary magazine. At the time, she was living in Frederick, Maryland, where she met her partner. They began living in West Philly last September but moved to Mt. Airy, where her partner works, last November.
“We like it here,” she said. “It has a small town feel and is accessible to center city. I taught at Gettysburg College, a course on Queer Cultural Production. I identify as queer, not lesbian. The LGBTQ community is very invested in politics. If I make a mistake in the paper, they will notice. I drive or take public transportation to work, but it’s hard to be a reporter when you have to take public transportation.”
Bryant, whose relationship with her parents is “getting better,” does not like social media, but “because of the internet, LGBTQ youth have learned that there are other people just like them, and that’s a good thing.”
For more information about Bryant or PGN, visit EPGN.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org