TOBIN: Uh, why don’t we start by saying where we are right now?
KATHY: Okay. Where are you?
TOBIN: Uh, I am recording at home, in my closet. Uh, what about you?
KATHY: Um, I am also recording at home, in my bedroom. A few feet away from bed.
TOBIN: We are definitely self-isolated, we are doing our part.
KATHY: Yes. Nobody’s going outside. I am basically recording myself here, [KATHY’S DOG BARKS IN THE BACKGROUND] and, occasionally, my dog. For funsies.
TOBIN: Same. [BOTH LAUGH] I mean, can I just ask you how you’re doing?
KATHY: Um, well … [PAUSE] you know, the coronavirus has hit New York pretty hard. Uh, the city pretty hard. And I’m feeling a little worried about the people in my life that I care about, and when [PAUSE FOR BREATH] we might make our way out of this. That’s — so that’s — that’s my main — my main thing, friends and family. Yeah. How about you?
TOBIN: Hmm. Um, as a generally anxious person, [KATHY HUMS IN UNDERSTANDING] you know, I’m gonna be honest, I’m terrified most of the time. [KATHY HUMS AGAIN] And I’m trying not to live my life refreshing the news.
KATHY: Oh, god. That — that will drive you insane.
TOBIN: Yeah, exactly.
KATHY: Yeah. [LAUGHS GENTLY, WITH UNDERSTANDING]
TOBIN: Um, I dunno. In a weird way, though, I also feel like having coping methods for anxiety, even before all this happened, has helped in this situation.
TOBIN: You know, just, like, trying to just tackle the task ahead of you, or just live one day at a time.
TOBIN: Um, that, I find helpful.
KATHY: Side note, One Day at a Time, great show! You should watch it!
TOBIN: Great show! Such a good show.
KATHY: Such a good show. [LAUGHS]
TOBIN: You know what also helps, Kath?
TOBIN: Seeing your face.
KATHY: [FEIGNING EMBARASSMENT] Oh, Tobin! Stop! [TOBIN LAUGHS]
TOBIN: I mean, really. Like, when I get to, like, video chat with you, that’s a balm.
KATHY: Same with you, Tobin. Always a soothing baritone voice you’ve got.
TOBIN: Oh, thank you! [LIGHT CHUCKLE]
KATHY: Is it baritone? Do you have a baritone voice?
TOBIN: I have [PAUSE] no singing voice, is the actual answer to that. [KATHY LAUGHS LOUDLY, TOBIN LAUGHS LIGHTLY ALONG, THEN A PAUSE]
Well, you know, I think we wanted to start off the show just by acknowledging that this is a really scary time, and an uncertain time.
TOBIN: Um, and we’re certainly thinking about how Nancy can be useful to all of you, our Nancy listeners.
KATHY: Yeah! We obviously care a lot about our listeners, and — and if that means that we can be here to be a little bit of a distraction, that’s what we want to do. So, today we’ve got two amazing guests that we wanna share with all of you, and I think you’re — you’re gonna love them both.
TOBIN: Yeah. So, consider this our invitation to you to unplug from the news for a little bit and just listen to some awesome queers talk about what they love. [KATHY HUMS AFFIRMINGLY] So, with that, should we start the show, Kathy?
KATHY: [ENTHUSIASTICALLY] Let’s do it!
[NANCY THEME MUSIC PLAYS]
VOX: From WNYC Studios, this is Nancy, with your hosts Tobin Low and Kathy Tu.
[THEME MUSIC FINISHES, THEN A WHISTLE]
TOBIN: So, okay. We are all at home — or we should be … you know, trying to find ways to connect to one another while we’re self-isolated.
[AMBLING, LIGHT PERCUSSIVE MUSIC PLAYS IN THE BACKGROUND]
KATHY: Yeah. And our two guests today have thought a lot about what it means to sort of find a virtual community.
TOBIN: Rebecca Sugar is the creator of the hit Cartoon Network animated series, Steven Universe, and she — quite literally — imagined up her own community of [CHUCKLES A LITTLE] super-queer aliens.
KATHY: Love Rebecca Sugar and love Steven Universe. It’s like — it’s like this little perfect world, where queerness is a superpower.
KATHY: Um, and that’s just — it’s so cool. But we’re gonna get to that.
TOBIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’re gonna talk to Rebecca later in the episode. But first, we’re gonna talk to someone who sort of lives their life in front of an online community.
KATHY: Chella Man is a model, an actor, and activist for the deaf community and the trans community, and [BRIEF PAUSE] also just a hugely popular YouTube vlogger.
TOBIN: [EXCITEDLY] Yeah! His channel has 250,000 YouTube subscribers. And I think the thing that we both love about his videos is that they’re so, like, personal and honest. Like, he shares stories about everything from his [BREATH] relationship to his transition, to, like, everyday stuff from his life.
KATHY: Yeah, he does so much! And, like, I have — I just have to mention — he’s only 21 years old. [TOBIN LAUGHS, AND KATHY REPEATS EMPHATICALLY] Twenty. One.
TOBIN: Yeah, yeah. I have to say, we definitely, like, gave him a hard time about how he’s done so much at such a young age.
CHELLA: I get that a lot, yeah. [LAUGHS, AND SO DOES KATHY] Why? Why is that — ?
KATHY: It just feels like you've done so many things. Like, you’re doing art, you’re, like, acting. Um, uh, and the fact that you only moved to New York, like, three years ago.
CHELLA: I did, sadly.
KATHY: [LAUGHS] Well, I was going to ask, what was it like to grow up there?
CHELLA: Oh, well, it was tough. It was a small town in the middle of nowhere, basically, like, very white suburbia, um, Trump-land. [PAUSE] Right before the election, Trump actually came to my high school to speak, which I was there for as a junior in high school, um — outside protesting all day, obviously.
TOBIN: [FLABBERGASTED] Wow.
CHELLA: But it was really hard. Um, you know, the culture was — I watched all these kids that I grew up with walk past me, and not look at me outside and just walk into the building and support him.
TOBIN: What was that day like?
CHELLA: It was just a lot of emotions. Most of all, I just felt so fueled [PAUSE] from — whether that was, like, fueled by sadness, or fueled by anger. I will just go back to that day and remember why I need to do what I do.
TOBIN: One of your YouTube videos that became hugely popular for you early on was you documenting your experience on testosterone.
[CLIP FROM CHELLA’S TRANSITION VIDEOS PLAYS]
CHELLA: [IN A HIGHER-PITCHED VOICE] Hi, my name is Chella Man, and this is my voice one day on T.
CHELLA: [IN AN ALMOST EQUALLY HIGHER-PITCHED VOICE] Hi, my name is Chella Man, and this is my voice one week on T.
CHELLA: [IN A DEEP VOICE] Hi, my name is Chella Man, and this is my voice 26 months on T.
CHELLA: [IN A MUCH DEEPER VOICE] Hi, my name is Chella Man, and this is my voice one year on T.
TOBIN: How do you think about telling your story online? And, like, how did you begin that process?
CHELLA: Honestly I began that process like any other teenager, just now and then sharing snippets of getting coffee, or … et cetera. But after a while, I wanted to document my transition because I found other trans people online and because of them I was able to make certain connections within my own identity, and I wanted to be that for more people, especially deaf and queer people of color.
Social media is my way of being able to say what I want to say, cemented in time.
[CLIP FROM A PRE-T CHELLA VIDEO]
CHELLA: Today I had my first hormone consultations. They told me I could start T, like, tomorrow. [PAUSE] I couldn’t stop smiling today. It just felt so sunny, and everything was okay. I did, however, come to the realization that this probably is my last day pre-T. This is the last time my voice will ever be 100% how it has been. There’s a few more things that I wanna say with my voice: thank you to my family, for supporting me every step of the way, and really hearing this voice. Not only listening, but hearing it.
CHELLA: And, if anyone asks, I could always throw them a link.
CHELLA: Or, y’know, they could just go down my feed and see what I’ve been talking about. It’s a way that you can refer people to certain moments where you’ve overcome certain things. And that’s something that people haven’t been able to do before virtually. I just wanted to use that to my advantage.
TOBIN: Now you’re at a place where there’s so much investment from people who follow you and are fans of you, in, sort of, like, knowing about your day-to-day life, um, and knowing what you’re up to, and all of that. What is that like for you to keep up with, and how do you decide what goes online now?
CHELLA: [SIGHS] It’s definitely what’s most important to me. For example, I just shared this performance piece that I’ve had bouncing around in my head for the past, like, six months —
KATHY: [AFFIRMINGLY] Hmm.
CHELLA: — about being pregnant while on testosterone, and presenting very stereotypically masculine. And that’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for so long. But also sometimes I just wanna check in on people, and [PAUSES] just have something smaller to say, like some type of revelation that I made, maybe after therapy or something, that I’m like, “Man, if this helped me, I should — I should share this. I have a platform.”
But it’s hard. I mean, you also have to live your life, but you also have to curate it. It’s [BREATH] definitely a progressive balance that I’m still trying to figure out.
TOBIN: Which — which communities did you feel like you especially discovered through social media?
CHELLA: I would say the queer community, for sure — because, to this day, I’m still looking for a deaf community. I am continuously exploring that identity, whereas with my sexuality and gender I feel much more solidified in that. [TOBIN HUMS] I feel like the number is larger, there’s more representation for that. That’s actually one of my goals in 2020 — to make disability just as much talked about as queerness and sexuality.
KATHY: Mhm. Why is it hard to find a — a deaf community?
CHELLA: [SIGHS HEAVILY, PAUSE] Honestly, I dunno. I think it depends, uh, on the area that you’re in. The deaf community is one of the only disabled communities that actually has a culture. And I think where people live when they sign and are nonverbal are very specific areas. For example, around Gallaudet, which is one of the only deaf colleges in America, there’s a huge deaf community in, you know, Washington D.C. Here in New York there’s a few deaf schools, but, you know, it’s for much younger kids. I’m still trying to find kids my own age.
KATHY: Oh, I see.
CHELLA: Especially those that don’t identify [PAUSE] stereotypically deaf, meaning, will sign all of the time and are always nonverbal. I’m continuously looking for people who are deaf and identify on the spectrum of that deafness.
[VIDEO CLIP OF A YOUNGER CHELLA PLAYS]
YOUNGER CHELLA: On my twenty-first birthday [AN ASCENDING STRING OF BUBBLY NOTES PLAYS, AS IF BUBBLES POPPING] I interviewed my grandpa on his experience being deaf. He grew up in Hong Kong, not losing his hearing until his early twenties. It is not easy for me to communicate with my grandfather. As I struggle to hear him, he struggles to hear me. Our conversations exist by note-passing. This is our way of avoiding a verbal puzzle.
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
TOBIN: What really resonated with me is the relationship you have with your grandfather, who is also deaf. Um, you posted a video online of you basically interviewing him through notecards.
CHELLA: [LIGHTLY] Oh [CHUCKLES] yeah!
TOBIN: Like, how has your relationship with your grandfather changed over time?
CHELLA: Hmm. I definitely understand him better, especially knowing all the systems we live in: like, social, political, economical. Al of those different things. I definitely understand his perspective of the world better, and the stigma that he faces around being deaf [PAUSE] was just much different. Especially because he didn’t have, again, the social media resources, the, just, internet resources, to really unpack that, and understand his disability in a positive way. I wanna work with him to unpack that, together.
KATHY: One of the things I love about your vlogs is that they’re just — they’re so real. None of it is scripted.
[CLIP FROM A VIDEO PLAYS, IN WHICH CHELLA SAYS, “We’re back!” AND SOMEONE SINGS A FEW NOTES SPORADICALLY]
KATHY: And I’m also just so impressed with how open you are about your relationship with your partner, Mary V.
[CLIP CONTINUES, WITH MARY V. SAYING, “… and I identify as a cis girl, and I identify as queer!” THEN FADES UNDER AGAIN AS CHELLA RESPONDS]
KATHY: The thing that I like about the — the stuff you put online is that there are people whose lives are documented and they put it out, but it looks so polished, and [ALMOST QUESTIONING THE WORD CHOICE] kinda fake sometimes, because they’re doing it for the clicks, or the likes, or whatever. [CHELLA HUMS AFFIRMINGLY] But yours is so — it’s so much more genuine, like, you trying to tell people about your life, and every once in a while educating people. I think that’s what speaks to me about the things you put out there.
CHELLA: Thank you. Thank you so much.
KATHY: Um, my question now is about your relationship [LAUGHS] —
KATHY: — and putting your relationship online, too.
KATHY: Um, will you tell us a little bit about your partner?
CHELLA: Yeah! My partner’s name is Mary V., and she is by far one of the best people that I've ever met in my life. I owe so much to her and I believe I'm able to do what I do today because of her.
[CLIP FROM A VIDEO OF CHELLA AND MARY V. PLAYS]
MARY V.: Okay. We’re making a new video on what it’s like in our experience on being a deaf and hearing couple. We’ve been having a lot of conversation with ourselves about what that’s like, and navigating it — things that we challenge, and the things that are really amazing about it.
[CLIP FADES OUT]
CHELLA: She is, I don't even know how to describe her. I mean, her personality — if you speak to her, you'll just [EXHALES ABRUPTLY, AS IF STRUGGLING TO FIND THE WORDS] — you’ll just feel this instant grounded-ness with yourself. And I think she throws people off guard sometimes with how much she listens. She actually listens. Every single thing that you say, you know, she gives you the time.
TOBIN: I’m curious. Um, you know, you are very intentional with what you share online, and you talked a little bit about, you know, wanting to represent for various parts of your identity so people can see that and you can be a representative of that. Was there something about your relationship that you wanted to represent online, or be a model for online?
CHELLA: Absolutely. I mean, this goes — Mary V. and I both wanted to represent this, which I love her for, but I didn't believe anyone could love me outside of my family for a very long time. I, um — well into our relationship as well. I think that, she's evidence that — she just blatantly disproves that. And I want people to know, regardless of your disability, regardless of your sexuality, you can be loved — and not only can be loved, but are deserving of that love. And I want to showcase that.
[CLIP FROM A VIDEO OF CHELLA AND MARY V. PLAYS]
CHELLA: Why don’t you wanna get older?
MARY V.: I dunno. I’m kinda worried, but it’s okay, because it’s gonna happen. I’m kinda glad I met you at this age.
CHELLA: Me too. It’s nice when you have someone the same age who’s also lost.
CHELLA: No one outside of my family had ever really learned sign language for me before. No one had stuck with me for so long and told me that they loved me unconditionally. I'm still working on [PAUSE] fully digesting that and believing it and letting all my walls come down, which takes so much time, I think, after years of repression, but I want people to know that that's possible and that they're deserving of being loved.
KATHY: Yeah. I kind of feel like a lot of people talk about — about, like, receiving love and not being able to love yourself and that sort of thing. But it really is — it really is a real problem. That’s such hard work to — to go through.
CHELLA: Yeah. I mean, I think, honestly, loving yourself is one of the hardest things in the world to do.
CHELLA: And you need to absolutely put yourself first. When I told her that I wanted to transition, the first thing I said after it was, “Thank you for listening. But secondly, this is something that I have to go through, emotionally and physically. This is my journey and I do not at all expect you to stay there. And I want you to consider this your out.”
But, you know, she obviously stayed, which has been absolutely incredible. But, at the same time, it’s just important to know when you have to focus on loving yourself [PAUSE] and how much of that will take away from your love with someone else.
KATHY: Do you think that you'll continue to put so much of yourself online, out there for people to see?
CHELLA: Absolutely. I don't think there's any turning back now. I’m —
KATHY: What if you're like 85 years old, and, like … ? [ALL LAUGH LIGHTLY]
CHELLA: Man, if I live that long. But um, yeah, I mean it, it's so refreshing, you know, to just be so honest and transparent. Like I love it and I love the community it brings together and I don't see myself stopping.
TOBIN: As we've talked about, there's so many different aspects of your identity that you're very vocal about and that you, you know, try to represent for, you know, trans-masculine gender, queer, deaf, Jewish, Chinese, American. How do you think about navigating all of those spaces and all of those identities? Have you sort of figured out how to get your bearings?
CHELLA: I just see everything on this continuum because the way that our society works is that we want to put everything into boxes and that's just not life.
CHELLA: And so it's important to remind yourself that all boxes are built —
TOBIN AND KATHY: Hmm.
CHELLA: — and we just are who we are. So although I'm all these — I'm this long mouthful list of things, I'm also just me, and that's all there is to it. I find my representation in different places. I think especially, because people are still learning that not everything has to fit into the stereotypical box, they don't feel like they can claim certain things. There's a lot of [INHALES] gatekeeping involved because of that, but understanding that all my identities are on a continuum and that's valid — that keeps me going.
KATHY: Do you feel responsibility?
CHELLA: Absolutely. Sometimes it can be [PAUSE] very tiring.
CHELLA: But like I said, I think there's something beautiful about having the internet as an outlet right now because you can say certain things and have them be there forever. And … I’ve been using that to my advantage to make things feel less tiring.
TOBIN: What are you focusing on coming up? Do you have things you're excited about, stuff you personally want to work on?
KATHY: Yeah. I want to hear a professional goal. I want to hear a personal goal. I want to hear, um — um — a relationship goal. All the goals.
CHELLA: Hmm, personal goal … I think, relationship goals … I mean, I just want to keep Mary V. close to me and [PAUSE] make sure she knows how much I love her all the time. I recently read something online where it was saying instead of just saying “I love you,” you need to start practicing it. So I'm just reminding myself that this week, like, in little ways trying to, rather than just saying it, you know, like, showing it as well.
[FUN, SYNTH-Y MUSIC PLAYS]
KATHY: We do a thing here on Nancy called “queer canon,” where you can pick anything silly, or serious, that you think should definitely be part of our, like, collective queer canon. So, like, for example: succulents —
CHELLA: [INCREDULOUS] Succulents? Okay.
KATHY: — Tegan and Sara, Jigglypuff. Really, it could be anything.
CHELLA: So the first thing I thought about was like testosterone shots. It's like that’s — that can be queer.
KATHY: Oh, interesting. You went very practical. Yes. [LAUGHS]
CHELLA: Is that — is that not … because I was thinking succulent — object. What else is an object? Wait, I need more — I need more boundaries. I dunno what I am supposed to say. [KATHY AND TOBIN LAUGH]
[TECHNO-Y MUSIC FADES OUT, IS REPLACED BY BOUNCY MIDROLL MUSIC]
TOBIN: That was activist, model, actor, and YouTube sensation Chella Man.
KATHY: Coming up after the break — Rebecca Sugar.
REBECCA: I liked all the wrong things, and I — and I knew that. Like, when I was little, I liked this show, SWAT Kats, but I knew I wasn’t supposed to like it. I knew it was for boys.
KATHY: The creator of one of the queerest cartoons ever to exist.
[MUSIC OUT, THE SOUND OF SEAGULLS PLAYS]
TOBIN: Nancy will be back in a minute.
[NANCY WHISTLE PLAYS]
TOBIN: And we’re back!
KATHY: We are, and we are super jazzed about our next guest, who’s known for their work on the cartoon, Adventure Time, but — more importantly — is the creator of the queerest cartoon on TV, Steven Universe.
TOBIN: Mother-flipping Steven Universe.
KATHY: Tobin, you love this show! So, like, just tell us everything you know about it.
TOBIN: Ugh! Where to begin? Steven Universe is about a boy named Steven who’s being raised by three aliens, known as the Crystal Gems. Steven himself is half-gem, so in addition to just having to navigate being a kid, he also has to learn about the powers that come from being a gem. And so, one of the things I love about this show is that it uses the superpowers that these characters have as a way of exploring queer themes. Like, gems of different genders can fuse together to create a new character that’s totally nonbinary. It’s amazing. And there’s also a whole relationship on the show between two gems named Ruby and Sapphire. Totally queer! They even had a gay wedding!
[GENTLE, ATMOSPHERIC MUSIC PLAYS]
STEVEN: Ruby, do you take this gem to have and to hold on this and every other planet in the universe?
RUBY: [EXCITED AND PROLONGED] I do!
STEVEN: And Sapphire, do you —
STEVEN: [WHISPERING] You didn’t let me finish!
SAPPHIRE: I’m just very excited.
STEVEN: Then by the power vested in me by the state of Del Marva, I now pronounce you Garnet!
[THE SOUND OF RUBY AND SAPPHIRE FUSING PLAYS AS THE CLIP ENDS]
KATHY: As someone who is not, say, a huge fan of cartoons —
TOBIN: Dead inside.
KATHY: — I mean, sure, but I just, like, need things to be real, you know? Grounded in reality. I really enjoy reality.
TOBIN: Mhm. Dead inside, as I said.
KATHY: Okay, fine. [TOBIN CHUCKLES] Well, despite that, even my cold, dead heart was warmed by Steven Universe. Because truly it is a big queer bear hug of a cartoon.
TOBIN: Totally. The show was created by the one and only Rebecca Sugar, and it feels so much like a gift to the queer community, that, I gotta admit, when I first saw it, I just assumed Rebecca was this big, out-and-proud queer. But it turns out that wasn’t always the case. We’ll get to that in a minute.
KATHY: But first, we started off by asking Rebecca about when she got interested in animation, back when she was a kid.
REBECCA: I loved animation growing up, and my dad was a really big animation fan. So he had a bunch of LaserDiscs of all the Looney Tunes.
KATHY: Oh, wow.
REBECCA: When I was little I already knew that it wasn't real. I knew that it was something that artists made when I was five. And that was so exciting to me, and I wanted to be doing that, and I would be tracing Bugs Bunny and, y’know, trying to draw original characters. And I also knew that it was a medium and not a genre. Because the Canadian stuff I was watching was nothing like Looney Tunes, but it was still so interesting. Things like Log Driver’s Waltz or —
TOBIN: What is Log Driver’s Waltz?
KATHY: Yeah, what is that about?
REBECCA: Oh, it's this beautiful Canadian short. Oh, it's so good. It’s — yeah, it's a NFB short about the graceful dance of the log driver as the log is rolling, and he [LAUGHS] has to balance on it. And how all of these women dream of marrying the graceful log driver, and dancing with him. [ALL LAUGH] It’s amazing.
[A CLIP OF THE SONG PLAYS: “A LOG DRIVER’S WALTZ PLEASES GIRLS COMPLETELY”]
REBECCA: It's really beautifully drawn. [ALL LAUGH] But yeah, I felt really lucky. I always knew it was something people made. I always wanted to be one of those people.
TOBIN: Yeah. And you — in your work now, you explore a lot of themes around queerness and gender in animation. I'm wondering, when you were a kid and you are watching animated stuff, do you remember having thoughts about how gender was represented, or … ?
REBECCA: Oh yeah. I liked all the wrong things and I knew that, which was really frustrating. Like, when I was little, I liked this show SWAT Kats, but I knew I wasn't supposed to like it. I knew it wasn't for me, and I made a little diary entry like, "I'm sorry, but I love SWAT Kats.” [TOBIN AND REBECCA LAUGH]
TOBIN: Because it was quote-unquote “for boys”?
REBECCA: Because it was for boys. I knew it was for boys. And I knew I wasn't supposed to like it. But I did. Y’know, any sort of chiseled superhero show, which I thought were amazing. These amazing shows like Batman the animated series. Or, I had Mask of the Phantasm. And things like this where I was like, "I know this isn't for me, but I like this so much better." And I just had no interest in shows for girls.
KATHY: Yeah, same!
REBECCA: Maybe even active contempt. [ALL LAUGH] You know, as I've become more comfortable sort of understanding myself, all of that contempt has completely gone away. Anyone can like anything they want. Um, y’know, and I shouldn't have had to feel guilty for liking the things I did like or not liking the things I didn't like. No one should have to feel guilty about their opinions about things. But I just … somewhere I absorbed this understanding of what I was and wasn't supposed to like. It was very alienating to see that stuff.
So when I was — my goal when I was starting Steven was, “I don't want anybody to feel like that. I want everybody to feel like they are supposed to be watching it.”
TOBIN: What do you think it is about cartoons in general and animation that has historically made space for queerness? And then also I'm thinking about now, like, Steven Universe and Tuca and Bertie, like, all these shows that sort of celebrate and include, like, queer identities.
REBECCA: Hmm. [LONG PAUSE] Well, historically it has not been the friendliest world.
REBECCA: I think that, as in all artistic mediums, there have always been queer individuals. But what you can find in older things can be extremely harmful. I mean honestly, the stuff that I grew up with — uh, especially in terms of, of Disney films — I mean, the Ursulas and the Scars and the Jafars, and these queer-coded villains. I mean, I grew up saturated by queer-coded villains. And I feel like that was the overwhelming presence of — of queerness in animation that I grew up with.
It was extremely unhelpful, because you get the sense that someone who behaves this way — who behaves in a gender-expansive way — is inherently sinister. And you just keep seeing these characters scheming and plotting and then ultimately dying these hideous deaths, or they all want revenge. They're all defeated. You never see a character like that achieve happiness. I would say the closest you maybe come is Timon and Pumba, who were obviously together. But it's humor.
REBECCA: So it can appear as something sort of villainous or humorous. And I actually found — I actually feel like I got a really firsthand experience of why that happens when I was fighting for a lot of what I was trying to do with Steven. Because when I would put something in that was consonant, that was just like, “Here are two characters. They love each other. They want to be happy,” that would get flagged. But if it were a joke, or if it were “wrong,” that would be more likely to get through.
REBECCA: That would — that would just sail through.
TOBIN: Flagged by the network or flagged by … ?
REBECCA: Yeah, by the network. By international — uh, for example, like, Ruby and Sapphire, I was told they could not be a romantic couple when I first started the show, and that they could not kiss on the mouth. There were all these sort of ways in which they could not be ... I mean, “They weren't supposed to be a couple.” Which I said, "No, they're together. They're in love. They sing a whole song about how they're in love. They're obviously in love." But on, say, the reboot of Powerpuff Girls, one of the Powerpuff Girls, there's a princess who's looking for a prince and sort of accidentally kisses one of the Powerpuff Girls, and then realizes what she's doing and it's like, “Whoa!” She's horrified. That can get through. That got through before these two characters who love each other could kiss on the mouth, because that is funny. "Funny." But what I was doing was not funny. And it was really disturbing to me.
Another thing I found — this is a little hard to explain — but when I was doing this work on Steven, early on I couldn't really speak about it. But it was already in the show. We were already putting it in the show, and people were already recognizing it was in the show. But even the way the fans who were excited about it were talking about it was through this lens of the kind of queer villain stories that I had grown up with. There was this character of me going around where the people would ask, "How are you getting away with this? How are you getting this in there?”, as if I was scheming and plotting in doing this — people felt that it was very subversive, what I was doing, which — it’s not that it wasn’t — because that was the only way to get this stuff in. But I wasn't scheming and plotting, and there would be these drawings of me with my face contorted with rage, trying to get one over on the network. [KATHY AND TOBIN LAUGH]
And I'm looking at this — and this is from people who are excited about what I'm doing, who are just like, “Wow,” it’s so funny — but that's the thing. Not only they think that this is a subversive, insidious thing I'm doing inside of the show; they’ve turned me into one of these queer villains —
TOBIN: [UNDERSTANDING] Hmm.
REBECCA: — plotting, scheming, manipulative, queer villains. And on top of all of that, I'm not taking this thing seriously. I mean, this is a joke. But I'm looking at the two things that actually get this content through and thinking about all the people that have grown up seeing nothing but that, nothing but that, to the point that they can't even imagine that I'm a human that's being harmed by having to defend a cute story about these two little cute people.
TOBIN: Right? [LAUGHTER]
REBECCA: They’re just in love. They're just in love. They're just a cute couple.
TOBIN: And the purest love, too.
REBECCA: And then, through all of it, I could say nothing. I couldn't say, "Hey, this is really personal to me." I couldn't come out yet because all of these things would be something that people would have access to overseas. Because it wasn't just a problem in America. We were getting flagged by, uh, South Africa, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and I was worried about it being pulled from those places because if they — I was worried about it being pulled from those places, because if they knew what I was doing, they would pull the show, and then kids who really, really needed this wouldn't have it anymore.
KATHY: So, the show came out in 2013, but you didn’t start talking about your own queerness until around, like, 2016.
REBECCA: I think so.
KATHY: What was that like to finally open up and talk about it with people?
REBECCA: It was — it was really ... Oh, my gosh, there's so much. Well, to be honest, I just wasn't out. I've been with the same partner since I was 20. I had learned a lot of very unhelpful stuff when I was young, the main thing being it didn't matter. When I was like 13 and I said I was bisexual, kids would laugh. They'd just be like, "How do you know?" And then sort of roll their eyes, all the stuff. Just … I didn't really talk about it from then on.
Then when the show started coming out, people would just come and ask me to my face, just, like, “Are — are you gay?" To which I would have no thing to say, because I had really pushed this aside. I became one of those "who cares about labels" types, because I didn't really know that you could be bisexual and nonbinary. I felt like both of those things, and I didn't really have people I could talk to about that.
The erasure of bisexuality sort of by people in my life so casually … I really forgot that it was a possibility. I really just didn't ... By the time I was in my twenties, it felt like I could either be — I could either be with the person I was in love with, who was a man, or I could be with a woman and be out, but there just wasn't another option. It also felt like, at some point, I was going to have to confess to him that I was really a lesbian.
And at the time the show was coming out, and everyone could tell. So, like, all these children knew this about me. It was not a conversation I'd had with my partner or my family. I had just had it drilled into me that it didn't matter, it didn’t matter, and, like, who cares? "Who cares?” was said to me a lot. I'm like, "Why should I talk about this, because who cares?"
Then I started to realize — really, because of the show — that I really cared. I got a letter once from this LGBTQ center in Long Beach that was just like, "This means so much to these kids that you're making something for queer youth." I'm reading this, and I still have my reflexive "Who cares?” brain. Tears are, like, streaming out of my eyes. It was just like, "They really need this." I'm like, "I'm really affected by this. I need to figure out why."
Um, and then, eventually I told my partner, just like, "This is not something that is gone. This didn't go away.” Like, “I'm starting to realize that this is something that ... I'm writing about the women I've loved. This is a part of my art. This is a part of my life. This is part of the way that I think."
But as I was doing it, I was really afraid. There was just a huge part of me that just didn't trust myself. I just didn't feel like I could be a trustworthy person. I had just really absorbed these ideas that, uh, if this were true, then I'd be this insatiable, untrustworthy ... All these horrible stereotypes.
REBECCA: That I couldn't be in a monogamous relationship. Which is totally fine, for anyone who's not, but I am. I was afraid that he would think that one person could never be enough, or all these things. All this radiation.
Um. And then he was fine. It was fine. In the moment that it was fine, it's just like flood gates. It was a relief I didn't know I needed to feel in my life, and everything was suddenly different. Then I was like, "Before I talk about this in relation to the show, I have got to — I want to tell my family. I don't want them to read about this in an article."
I talked to my family about it. And I think in talking to my family about it, I started to realize where I had gotten a lot of these ideas, because it was confusing for them, why I would be saying this, and also be in a relationship, and also, why would I make things more difficult for myself?
And I just realized, “This really — this really — this really does matter. I really care about this. I'm sure there's a lot of people who need to hear that somebody cares about this.” At the time, I started looking — I had to look things up just to prove that bisexuality was real, because ... this was just also 2015, which was a really weird time. People were trying to erase the "B" out of the “LGBT.”
KATHY: Oh, that’s right.
REBECCA: Do you remember this?
REBECCA: So I was following this, too, as all of this was going on, and I was trying to figure out how to come out to everyone that mattered to me in my life. I was also reading all of these bizarre think-pieces about how this should just be gone. [LAUGHS]
TOBIN: Oh my god.
REBECCA: Oh, and also biphobia in the Steven fanbase was very extreme.
KATHY: [INCREDULOUS] What?
REBECCA: Yes! Because people were very excited to have these characters that were clearly queer, but then the idea of someone doing a fan comic about them with a man, they'd be like, "Never. This character could never, ever be with a man." It's a character that's directly based on me and my life!
REBECCA: I'm like, "Oh my gosh." Like, it was just — it was just so bizarre.
And the second I came out as bi, there was this flood of, "I knew it!” I'm like, "Where were you? Where were you?” [ALL LAUGH DEEPLY] “Where were you before?” Nobody — nobody — [REBECCA CRACKS UP] But I was really in it at the time. It was just such a cluster mess.
And then Comic-Con 2016, someone asked me just very, very directly, "Why is it that you're campaigning for LGBTQ themes [LAUGHS] in Steven Universe? Where is this coming from?”
[CLIP FROM THE COMIC-CON PANEL]
AUDIENCE MEMBER: It’s clear that Steven Universe has a — has strong themes that center on women empowerment and LGBT themes. [AUDIENCE CHEERS LOUDLY] I — I just wanted to ask, Rebecca, what inspired you to include these themes in the show?
[AUDIO CONTINUES AS REBECCA’S RESPONSE CONTINUES — IN THE RECORDING REBECCA CAN BE HEARD HESITATING, TRYING TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO RESPOND]
REBECCA: And so I, um — so I said it. So I said on stage.
[BACK TO THE CLIP]
REBECCA: Um, well, in large part, it’s based on my experience as a bisexual woman, um, I … [AUDIENCE CHEERS]
[CLIP FADES UNDER, BACK TO THE INTERVIEW]
REBECCA: It was — it was so weirdly hard. It's strange because I'd been told for so long the "Who cares? It doesn't matter," thing. The idea of saying that out loud ... In my brain, I was like, "It's nothing. It’s nothing. What a benign thing. It's not going to change anything. It's not going to change my relationship. Who cares? Who cares, who cares?”
Like, it was so hard to say it out loud. I think people were cheering, but I just couldn't even look at them. I was looking at the floor. And then I had to perform a song. [CHUCKLES]
KATHY: Oh my god. [TOBIN AND KATHY LAUGH]
REBECCA: As I was scrambling to learn if this was really a thing, as I was having all these doubts put in my head, I learned at that time that bisexual — I think queer, and bisexual, and fluid individuals have disproportionate mental illness. And I had never heard that before. I'd heard all these fake stereotypes about bisexual people. I'd never heard that bisexual people are anxious, nervous people. If I had known that, I would have been like, [KATHY LAUGHS DEEPLY] “Wow! This, I understand. I get this." But nobody had told me that. I'd never seen anything about a shy, nervous, bisexual nerd. Oh, there are tons of us. We are out there. [TOBIN LAUGHS] That’s absolutely a thing.
KATHY: Yeah, totally! With your journey coming out as bisexual, did you find that it was easier to come out as nonbinary?
REBECCA: Oh, man. Well, you know what? I didn't do that when I was young, so I didn't have the weight of people telling me that it was ridiculous the way I did with — with my sexual identity.
REBECCA: And when I did, a flood of people did that. I mean, they — a bunch of people said that it was ridiculous. On the internet, not, like, to my face. And I really felt like, if I were a teenager seeing this stuff, the same thing would happen. I would just stop talking about it. I would just — I would just let it be something that lived way deep inside of me, and it just wouldn't have to be a part of conversation. But, I'm an — I’m an adult, so it didn't affect me in the same way.
Also, I understood — I think it took me a long time to understand that my bisexuality was part of me as an individual. I — It had been drilled into me ... like, lot of what people had said to me is, “Oh, you know, whoever you end up with, that'll be fine," like it was going to hinge on the relationship that I was in, which is really unhelpful. You really shouldn't say that to a kid, because then they're going to be desperate to find a significant other that's going to explain who they are. It's really bad to outsource your own identity to your future romantic partner. I mean …
KATHY: That's a great way to put it.
TOBIN: Don’t do that!
REBECCA: It's an awful, awful ... I feel like I rushed into things I wasn't ready to do because I was just so desperate to understand —
REBECCA: — what I was. I wouldn't wish that on anybody. But with being non-binary, I just knew it was true. It had been true for so long. I just thought back to being that kid that liked the wrong things and I'm like, “No, I didn't like the wrong things.” I just wasn't the demo[graphic] — I wasn’t the demo for the girl stuff. I just wasn't.
REBECCA: And I knew it then and I had known it for so long and there was finally some terminology that explained it so it just felt very comfortable.
I — I had an interview recently. Somebody asked me, "How long do you think it'll be before people really undersatnd — before people get what it is to be non-binary? Like — like, how long before this becomes” —
TOBIN: — before they crack the puzzle, or something? [KATHY, TOBIN, AND REBECCA LAUGH]
REBECCA: Yes, yes! And I forget what I said, but I just thought about it after because the whole statement being made there is, like, “Who are ‘people’?” Because there are non-binary people who understand this now.
KATHY: Right, right.
REBECCA: There are lots of people who understand this now. So who are “people”? If the only people who are “people” are people who don't understand what it is to be nonbinary, then what have — what are you saying about us, you know? We can find each other and I've seen it happen. There are many people who don't understand this, but I don't think they have to be the only people that count as “people.” I think we should get to count as “people” and we understand this now.
So that's how it felt coming out as nonbinary. It was my birthday. It was like my birthday present to myself. The other thing is, I was the first woman to make a show for Cartoon Network. I've had to answer the woman question [A LITTLE EXASPERATED] over and over and over again. And I've never known what to say. I've been like, "Well, I feel different because I'm from the East Coast.” And it was tough because I'd been told so often, "It's so important for you to be a role model for these young girls who want to be animators. It's so great that you're here." And that too, I just felt like such a fraud. I felt like I couldn't say anything. I mean, with — with both things, I felt like if I tell people I don't identify as a woman, they're going to be so disappointed. If I tell people I'm bisexual, they're going to be so disappointed. And I was just living like that for years.
TOBIN: That's a lot of weight —
TOBIN: — on your shoulders.
REBECCA: It was — it was awful. It's so much better now. It's so much better now.
KATHY: Oh, good!
REBECCA: And it feels really good, as someone who's asked a lot about my experience as a woman, to finally be able to tell the truth.
TOBIN: I wanted to ask you about one of my favorite things from Steven Universe, which is this storyline where Steven and his best girl-friend Connie, they, uh, fuse into this new sorta nonbinary character named Stevonnie. And I just love it. Like, I love that character. I love the whole concept. And I was wondering, did you set out — when you came up with this idea that characters in this universe could fuse, was part of that wanting to talk about being nonbinary, or having multiple identities, or is that something that was sort of a byproduct of that idea? Like, how did that come about?
REBECCA: Yeah. Well, the original concept was to create characters out of relationships. I mean, part of it was to strategize getting a character like Garnet, and like Ruby and Sapphire, on TV, and in a way where they couldn't be separated out. I mean, you're constantly looking at this relationship, whether you knew it or not. Um, y’know, this is 2012, so we were just like, "How do we do this?" But I also wanted to ... and I mean, this is a show who, as we're pitching it, the demographic is — is 6 to 11 year-old boys. It's an action comedy. I wanted to make relationships as exciting and compelling as, you know, an action hero. The idea that a positive relationship could manifest as this character that you could identify with and get excited about, and that they could fight and it would be, like, a cool fight, and they would be — they’d be cool. I wanted to make relationships really cool and exciting and I wanted to make really negative, harmful, toxic relationships really scary and compelling. That was — that was the puzzle for me.
[DRIVING MUSIC PLAYS]
KATHY: Before we let Rebecca go, we had to ask her one last question. And of course, it was about the queer canon. What or who did Rebecca want in the queer canon?
REBECCA: I want Bugs.
REBECCA: Take away all the … [TOBIN LAUGHS] Recontextualize Bugs.
TOBIN: [STILL LAUGHING] All bugs?
REBECCA: Uh, Bugs Bunny.
TOBIN: Oh, Bugs Bunny!
REBECCA: I want Bugs.
TOBIN: I thought you meant insects!
REBECCA: All bugs. [BOTH CRACKING UP] And with such confidence! Oh, yes, take all bugs. I want Bugs Bunny.
TOBIN: Oh, yeah!
REBECCA: I want Bugs to be gender-expansive. Of all the things that I've admitted today, that feels the most like I shouldn’t — no, I shouldn't say that I want Bugs Bunny back.
TOBIN: I like it. I think — I think it's a great answer.
REBECCA: Oh, thanks. [BOTH LAUGH]
TOBIN: Rebecca, thank you so much for making time to talk to us. Really appreciate it.
KATHY: Rebecca, this was so much fun.
REBECCA: Thank you so much.
[MUSIC PLAYS OUT, THEN CREDITS MUSIC]
KATHY: All right, that’s the show. Don’t forget, if you want your very own Nancy patch, tell your friends and family and anyone else about us. All the details are at nancypodcast.org/share.
TOBIN: And credits! Our producers —
KATHY: Zakiya Gibbons, and B.A. Parker!
TOBIN: Sound designer —
KATHY: Jeremy Bloom!
TOBIN: Editor —
KATHY: Tobin, it’s you!
TOBIN: Oh! [PAUSE] Executive Producer —
KATHY: Suzie Lechtenberg.
TOBIN: I’m Tobin Low.
KATHY: I’m Kathy Tu.
TOBIN: And Nancy is a production of WNYC Studios.