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Why Accusations From Jonathan Van Ness Detractors Matter for Queer Representation

Et tu, JVN? Say it ain’t so. 

Sarah Bricker Hunt

I wonder if the news team at Rolling Stone was as gleeful as they seemed when serving up the recent news that universally loved, nonbinary “Queer Eye” star Jonathan Van Ness might not actually be so universally loved. Chock full of anonymous sources and hearsay, the story was all too familiar — very Ellen DeGeneres. Very Lizzo.

It’s safe to assume, probably, that there’s a nugget of truth here. Maybe Van Ness has a raging temper. And are we really shocked to learn that the Fab Five isn’t hanging out on weekends? I know I never got that vibe. But I’ve always felt so uplifted by Van Ness, from their work on the “Getting Curious” podcast, which highlights underrepresented voices from all walks of life, to their vulnerability on full display while turning a somersault on stage in a leotard as a newly trained gymnast in their 30s, to all the inspiring things they’ve said on “Queer Eye” that make my trans daughter and her friends feel less alone in this world.

Hearing that Van Ness is a “monster,” according to an unnamed source, was just disappointing news, especially because of what Van Ness means to the queer community. But then I took a beat and I wondered: What does Van Ness owe me (or you, or any other stranger), really? What exactly does the transaction between performer and audience include? If I attended a community theater production, it would never occur to me to expect entertainment-on-demand from an actor once they leave the stage. We’d just awkwardly shake hands after our 45 minutes together in the round and carry on with our lives. Maybe they are a total dick to the stagehands and the sound guy hates them. I wouldn’t feel great about that, but I wouldn’t demand a refund.

“Celebrity,” though, is something altogether different. We demand a lot from celebrities like Van Ness. We basically strip celebrities of humanity and rebuild them as products at this point in our marketing-forward culture. And we revel in the dirty, juicy details of their lives. Humans just seem wired to hone in on the misery of people who are held out as elites versus our everyperson, workaday existences. 

It’s not just a modern conundrum. Gossip about public figures has been going on since the beginning of people. Some 2,500 years ago, Julius Caesar was nicknamed the “bald adulterer” — tales of his time at the court of King Nicomedes of Bithynia (300-255 B.C.E.) were rampant. And who could blame the gossipers? It was the most exciting (and queerest) of tea — Caesar was reportedly involved in a dom-sub relationship with the dashing older royal. The truth of the matter was surely found somewhere beyond the salacious, imagined stories whispered in the Roman baths, but truth was never the goal of these conversations. The same can be argued about the way we empower, manipulate and cancel-at-will members of the celebrity class in the modern era. 

In some ways, it’s even worse today. Caesar may have loomed larger than life, but he was an actual person who was physically present around the people who maligned (and/or stabbed) him. Someone like Van Ness exists for most of us in a way that is set apart from reality but is somehow still in it. They are a strange, 2-D idea of a person, almost. Maybe that disconnect is what makes it so easy for strangers on the internet to comment on the recent controversy with cruelty and very little regard for Van Ness as a fellow human being. 

For many, the Van Ness story is an opportunity, especially for right-wingers, to channel pent-up transphobic rage into low-rent digs about a “man in a dress,” but it’s lost on them that they are merely cosplaying as people who “say it like it is.” They know nothing of the lived experiences of trans people, and they don’t actually want to.

By default, their thoughts on the matter shouldn’t even matter. But try explaining that to the young trans teen who happens upon those comments while reading a story focused on dismantling one of the few positive sources of nonbinary representation they have. Those comments do matter. Whether or not the story is accurate might even matter less. 

This idea that celebrities represent ideas and movements far larger than any one person’s impact is inherent in the kind of work we as journalists are charged with creating today. Frankly, if we want eyeballs on the kind of queer community journalism we value as a publication and as individual creators, and we do, we have to approach celebrity coverage in the same cynical way other outlets do. Call it “click culture,” but there’s a simple truth in the fact that The National Enquirer has outlasted the vast majority of print publications in this country. A spoonful of tasty tea helps the medicine go down, even though we can all agree — readers and creators alike — that we really do need the medicine (and that it’s quite tasty in its own right). And maybe more than ever right now, when queer rights are up for new debate and squarely on the chopping block, and while the anti-trans climate has become literally dangerous for teenagers attending school. Scary, all-too-real news is something we (the media, included) must take note of, too.

Still, as a real person who talks to real people, including people with public images to uphold, it can feel pretty squicky to pry into the private details of someone’s life, even if they did sign up for it. Because I interview members of the queer community almost exclusively, I find myself asking the same question again and again: What does queer representation mean to you? And it’s a little unfair, if I’m being honest. Often, this person simply wants to create their art or do their job, and their LGBTQ+ bonafides have very little to do with their life’s purpose. But also, it’s 2024 and LGBTQ+ people are under attack in this country, and I know exactly how important representation is to our readers who are not out yet or who do not live in affirming environments.

Representation is hope at a time that often feels quite hopeless.

I understand why Rolling Stone would take the scoop. I truly do. I just also know, as a member of the queer press community, that due diligence has rarely been more important. Anonymous sources can be powerful and vital, and maybe Van Ness will join the heap of canceled celebrities who didn’t live up to their onscreen or internet personas, and it will be deserved. But I hope we give as much attention to Van Ness’ eventual answer to the accusations, because there’s a kid in rural Michigan who needs to hear the message that even if Van Ness is a flawed human who has disappointed the people around them, that it has no bearing on whether trans people have value. It simply makes Van Ness as complicated and as real as the rest of us. 

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