‘Everyone Is Gay’ stops in Houston to promote book for parents of LGBT kids
by Megan Smith
Photo by Barbara Green
Would you believe me if I told you Justin Bieber was the catalyst behind an amazing new resource for LGBTQ youth? I know—it seems pretty far-fetched, but that’s exactly what grew out of Dannielle Owens-Reid’s Tumblr website Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber. That project was all in fun—lesbians all over the world who rocked the Biebz’s signature hair and style could submit their pictures to be posted to the site. It became really popular, really fast.
But after Owens-Reid received some negative online comments in 2010, she teamed up with friend Kristin Russo and the two openly gay ladies started a new Tumblr site—Everyone Is Gay—as a way to write “sassy” online replies to their haters. What they didn’t expect was for Everyone Is Gay to evolve into something completely different—a wildly popular advice site for LGBTQ-identified people, especially youth. The pair was flooded with questions—everything from, “Is it really worth it to come out in high school?,” to “Is it really okay to be bi?,” to “How do I divide my time between my girlfriend and my best friend so I can keep both?” So, using humor mixed with knowledge from their own life experiences, they answered.
They answered, they answered, and they answered some more. Then, in 2011, they also started touring high school and college campuses, answering questions in intimate, live settings.
One topic, they soon found, never failed to come up: parents and family. So much so that in 2013, Owens-Reid and Russo founded The Parents Project, an initiative of Everyone Is Gay that includes online videos, advice, and resources dedicated exclusively to helping parents understand their LGBTQ kids.
Now, you can add a book to that list of resources. Owens-Reid and Russo have recently released This Is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids, a question-and-answer guide for parents of LGBTQ kids who have recently come out to them, written in the pair’s signature style. In early November, they started their nationwide #FamilyIsTour to promote the book and to directly engage with LGBTQ youth and their parents. The tour makes a stop in Houston on December 11. I had the pleasure of speaking with Owens-Reid and Russo shortly after they kicked off their tour.
Megan Smith: How did you come up with the original concept of Everyone Is Gay? Have you two always been expert advice givers?
Dannielle Owens-Reid: We were born experts! [Laughs] Well, we started because I had the website Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber. When Kristin and I first actually spent any amount of time together, she asked how it was going, and I started talking to her about the negative feedback I was getting—people saying I was stereotyping, making lesbians look bad, and contributing to this conversation that is negative about lesbians. I was just so confused because that wasn’t what it was about, and Kristin was very much on my side and had a lot of things to say about it.
At the time, she was on her way to getting her master’s in gender studies, which she now has. So we talked about it and kind of joked a little bit [about the sassy replies we’d like to give people who were giving us negative feedback]. Then we started the site Everyone Is Gay and started being sassy, and it just kind of evolved on its own and we happened to be a part of it. And as far as always being expert advice givers, a lot of people say I have an old soul. And I think that’s a part of what it is—just the ability to step back and see the world for what it is and see different points of view.
What’s the story behind the name?
Kristin Russo: The whole story is we were just being silly. We thought we were starting a Tumblr that would make people giggle, and we thought “Everyone Is Gay” was funny and giggly. And that was that. I think that if we had known we were starting what would evolve into an organization for LGBTQ youth, we probably would have thought too much about what we were going to call it, and it wouldn’t be nearly as fun as it is.
When we started touring schools, [we did a lot more thinking about the Everyone Is Gay title] because people were asking us a ton then, especially in high schools—“Do you really think everyone is gay?” And we were like, “No, we don’t think everyone is gay! We were just being silly.” But we also think that a lot of the struggles that many of us go through are pretty universal. The questions and the fears we have—about our families accepting us, our friends understanding us, and other things like that—are things [that everyone] can understand at a very base level, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
When you started Everyone Is Gay, did either of you think that it would launch you into activism, much less become your full-time jobs?
Owens Reid: No idea. We wouldn’t have even been able to fathom it. When we started the site, if someone had said, “This will be your job soon,” we would have laughed in their face.
Russo: We pretty much still wake up every morning very confused. [Laughs] I was pacing around in the sunshine in Los Angeles the other day on a phone call with my television agent, and I was like, “Who am I right now?” None of it makes any sense.
You are both very funny ladies, and I love that you can answer tough questions while keeping a comical tone. Why do you think that’s the best approach?
Owens-Reid: A big part of it is because it’s very realistic. I like to use the example—which I don’t think I’ve ever used with Kristin around—that if you and your girlfriend are both at a birthday party and you’re wearing party hats, and [you start] yelling at each other about something, halfway through it you realize that your girlfriend is wearing a party hat, and you laugh about it. It’s real life. We don’t only talk about serious, clinical, somber, heavy things and keep it in that tone—there’s always laughter within it. And another part of it is that I don’t think anyone else was doing something like this.
Russo: I think what she said is exactly right. There’s no person’s life that is all laughter or all serious. So, we like to be able to provide advice, but we also like to offer some [humor that can relieve] a serious situation.
Anyone can submit a question on your website seeking advice. Do you get any submissions that would be considered purely “hate mail”?
Owens-Reid: Honestly, we never really received a bunch of hate mail. And I’m not sure why, because I feel like the title Everyone Is Gay really lends itself to people who would be sending that kind of thing. At the very beginning, we got something pretty negative, and we responded to it. And then right after we responded to it, we got kind of a flood of negative stuff, and so we just stopped and never addressed it again. And then that was kind of that.
Russo: Unless our interns are protecting us and deleting all of the hate mail. [Laughs]
You started The Parents Project in 2013 as an initiative of Everyone Is Gay. After answering the questions of LGBTQ youth for so many years, what made you want to shift and focus on the parents as well?
Russo: Young people, really. The readers and the viewers of Everyone Is Gay tend to point the way for us, generally speaking, and over the course of the three years that we were doing the work with them, we just kept hearing them say, “I don’t want to come out to my parents, because I don’t know how to explain myself to them. Can you do it?” or “Can you make a video where you explain what ‘pansexual’ means, because my parents don’t understand.” Parents and family were just such reoccurring themes [in our readers’ submissions], so Dannielle and I looked to see what was out there, and, obviously, PFLAG is a great community resource in terms of, like, sitting your butt in a chair and talking to other parents. But in terms of a literary presence, there was next to nothing, so we did what we normally do, and said, “It doesn’t exist—let’s do it!”
How were your coming-out experiences with your own families?
Owens-Reid: Well, we both included a tiny piece of our coming-out stories in the book, which was really cool. Kristin had written her coming-out story a while ago for another site, and it was really well-written, so we decided to include that. I had to write my own, which was really interesting, because I’ve talked about it before in sections, but not really as one whole story. So for both of us, it was one of those things where it was a bit of a relief, a bit of a struggle, and it took a long time before everything felt natural and calm again. And I think that’s how it goes for a lot of families.
There are, of course, the extremes where parents are stoked about it and they’re so happy and the family is good to go, and then there are families who are not okay with it and they disown their children and it’s extremely sad and so tragic. I think many people—[myself included]—have trouble understanding why anyone would disown their child. But our experiences are pretty similar to a lot youth that come out—it’s difficult, it’s a bit of a relief, and it takes time.
Russo: There are also parents who are super stoked, and like, “How do I not mess up? I want to do the right thing by my kid, but I don’t have any knowledge. No one gave me a guide book.” And we’re like, ta-da! Here’s your guide book.
You give a lot of advice to other people, but if you could go back and give yourself advice during that time, what would it be?
Owens-Reid: At the time, I wasn’t talking to anyone about any of my feelings—partially because I didn’t know what my feelings were, [so I think that slowed] my journey a bit. I had my mother pleading with me to wear dresses, asking me why I never wanted to get married, and why I never wanted a family. Those kinds of things really confused me and really hurt me, but I don’t think I understood my feelings at the time. I really wish I had been in therapy during that time so someone would have been like, “How did that make you feel?,” and then I could have thought about it and actually talked about it. But I don’t know if that’s advice. I think that’s just a thing I wish I had done.
Russo: I think I wish I could have been a bit more patient with my mom’s process and also understood it as a process we were both going through, because at the time, I felt like [I was the only one] coming out, I was gay, me me me. This is my journey and, like, why are you being a pain in the ass about it? But in reality, at that point I didn’t understand that it may have been difficult for her, and [her anger] may not have been a direct reflection of how she felt about me or her intelligence or anything like that. But ultimately, I feel like it was part of a process. I think I had to be angry, I had to be confused, and make my way the way I made my way. So I would probably just tell myself that I [would eventually] figure out a lot more out along the way, and leave it at that.
What kind of impact do you hope This Is a Book for Parents of Gay Kids will have, and how is it different than your normal online advice?
Russo: I want it to create a space for young people to have conversations with their parents. All I care about is for parents to know that they can ask their kids questions, and for kids to know that they can answer those questions for their parents or point their parents to a place where they can get answers.
Owens-Reid: I agree. I also just want it to be something that is available. We’ve had so many parents tell us that their kid came out and the first thing they did was go on Amazon and buy every single book that had anything to do with parenting gay kids. So we’re really glad to be [one of those books now]. Because a lot of those books take the tone of, “We understand your life is changing and you’ve lost one child and gained a new child,”—this dramatic, heavy, not even very realistic way of seeing things. Others are very clinical and logical. So if parents freak out and buy everything, I’m just excited and glad that we’re in that everything.
Russo: And our cover is bright orange, so they’ll read ours first, for sure. [Laughs]
How’s the tour going? What kind of feedback have you received from both parents and LGBTQ kids that you’ve met so far?
Owens-Reid: The tour is going really well—we’re having a blast. We’ve been doing a lot of driving, so most of our tour stories have to do with, like, tooting in the car. [Laughs] But our shows have been incredible. There was a mom in Salt Lake who was like, “If you only came here for me, it would have been worth it.” And we were like, “We did!” And that’s largely been the response—parents and their kids just being like, “Thank you so much for creating this and for coming to our community and talking about it.” It’s just been even more amazing than we could have imagined.
Russo: We wanted to do this tour because we knew people were craving a place to have this conversation. And sometimes I wish there were more of us, so we could constantly be going to cities and talking to people, parents, and workplaces. Because, ultimately, the world wants to be able to ask the questions they have and feel like they know more about the LGBTQ community and how to treat this community equally and fairly. And I love that we get to be a part of that.
You have a lot of avid fans that attend your tours. What’s the coolest gift you’ve ever received from a fan?
Russo: One of the coolest things I think we’ve ever received—for a very particular reason—was a care package from Hawaii. It was super cool, because it included a leather jacket for our cats to wear—so immediate bonus points there. And then there were fun things and candy and what have you, but there was also a clipping from a newspaper in Hawaii that was talking about the passage of marriage equality there, and the note that the fan included said, “When I see articles like this, it makes me think of you and the work that you’re doing, because I know that thework that you’re doing is directly impacting the climate and allowing these things to pass.” And it might sound bizarre, but I don’t know that I’d ever really contextualized it like that. I mean, I guess I knew it on some level, but now there is an actual person saying like, “You’re making people laugh and now people can get married.” I know it’s not that exact line, but it was still really special, and I still have the newspaper clipping up on my bulletin board.
Owens-Reid: Kristin and I rarely use the word “fan,” because our readers and supporters become so much of what we do. We also received a care package before our first California tour that included a mix CD, an In-N-Out gift card, all this California stuff, and a binder that we ended up using the entire time as our tour binder. That tour binder still has all of our memories from forever ago in it, and that In-N-Out gift card spawned like four of our favorite stories from that tour. It was just such a quintessential example of how our readers do one tiny thing and it becomes a part of our organization.
What: Everyone Is Gay’s #FamilyIsTour
When: December 11, 7 p.m.
Where: Zion Lutheran Church, 3606 Beauchamp St.