The following interview is part of LGBTQ Nation‘s six-part Queer State of the Union, in which we speak with some of the nation’s queer leaders to find out what they see as the challenges — and solutions — for the queer community and our struggle for equal rights.
During the recent Speaker voting chaos, the world had an unprecedented view of the House Chamber through uncensored camera footage. Self-described citizen journalist V Spehar says being in the room where it happens reveals the true colors of elected officials and how their personal and political agendas may impact our country’s future.
Spehar, 40, spent the early part of their career in the hospitality industry in New York City, Tampa, and eventually as an event planner with one of Washington D.C.’s most prominent caterers.
“People speak so honestly in front of you when they don’t think you’re ‘that’ kind of smart — when they think you’re just a waiter, a bartender, or whatever,” Spehar told LGBTQ Nation. “And so I got to see these people, not just for the policies that they wrote, but for the people that they are, and understanding that who they ate dinner with changed how the world was going to be.”
Motivated by a rapidly shifting global landscape, it would take an insurrection and worldwide pandemic for Spehar to consider sharing their observations in a public forum. Rather than looking for a seat at the table, they went under it.
Spehar launched Under the Desk News on TikTok in April 2020 and rapidly amassed 2.8 million followers. The one-minute segments (literally delivered from under a desk) have attracted a bipartisan audience. In 2022, Spehar launched V Interesting, a GLAAD-nominated long-form podcast with original reporting that tackles various topics from Gen Z voter engagement to gender-affirming surgery.
“I got to see these people, not just for the policies that they wrote, but for the people that they are, and understanding that who they ate dinner with changed how the world was going to be.”V Spehar
Originally from Shelton, Connecticut, Spehar now lives in Rochester, New York, with their wife Natalie, a cellist and creative educator. With an increasing amount of time in the public eye, they consider themselves a homebody and appreciate Rochester’s vibrant artistic community from the world-renowned Eastman School of Music, where the couple attends the annual voice competition and local film screenings. Spehar’s on-air persona is an intentional extension of how they move through the world. “I show up in the world the same way: for my friends, my show, my wife,” they said. “Maybe that’s why it works.”
“I didn’t want to be another talking authority figure,” Spehar said. “Being under your desk creates a universe where you can feel safe in this very calm, gentle place, where a queer-identifying 25-year-old TikToker will find something I said as interesting as a 50-year-old white straight man who voted for Trump in 2016. The news is geared towards curious people sick of the partisanship.”
But America’s future hardly feels calm.
Despite greater representation with newly elected LGBTQ+ House members, governors, and other officials at the state and local level and the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, questions loom about the future implications of Roe v Wade’s reversal, escalating “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, and the anti-queer propaganda allowed to flourish on social media platforms like Twitter.
Such polarization coincides with increased violence. According to ACLED, a data collection and crisis mapping project, more than 200 anti-LGBTQ+ incidents (such as anti-queer demonstrations and offline propaganda) were reported last year — an increase of 12 times compared to 2020. Politically motivated violence is also on the rise, fueled partly by Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill signed into law in March 2022 and dozens of proposed anti-trans bills.
Still, the mid-term elections saw a historic number of LGBTQ+ candidates on the ballot and more than 340 wins. While that figure still doesn’t reach equitable representation, the dial seems to be moving in the right direction despite an increasingly vocal far Right contingency. And much of that noise continues to come from social media, particularly Twitter.
Since Elon Musk’s $44 billion purchase of the social media platform last October, anti-LGBTQ+ hate speech has escalated. According to the New York Times, slurs against gay men alone have risen from 2,506 to 3,964 times per day, in addition to a spike in accounts associated with QAnon.
But what about the queer community, particularly those in small towns and rural areas, who often turn to social media for support and access to information and resources? Twitter’s credibility isn’t the only platform on the chopping block. President Biden recently passed expanded legislation to ban TikTok from all government devices while a national security review is underway.
Despite the online rhetoric, some progress is being made, including the codification of same-sex marriage. On December 12, 2022, in front of nearly 5,500 attendees on the White House lawn, President Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act, requiring the federal and state governments to recognize same-sex and interracial marriages performed by other states. While the occasion was a high point in Biden’s administration, it wasn’t the constitutional home run that the queer community eventually hopes to hit out of the park.
“Our work isn’t done and won’t rest until the Equality Act is passed into law,” said then-House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), referencing a House-passed bill that would enshrine sexual orientation and gender identity into federal civil rights legislation.
As the nation’s relationship with healthcare access continues to spiral, the need for the Equality Act couldn’t come at a more critical time. According to a recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 40 percent of adults in the U.S. have medical- or dental-related debt. For the LGBTQ+ community — particularly transgender folks — the numbers are even more alarming.
LGBTQ Nation spoke with Spehar about queer politics, the remainder of Biden’s first presidential term, and our collective capacity to truly become the United States of America.
LGBTQ NATION: How do we make sense of the polarization of queer America?
V SPEHAR: People like gay people. Even the far right likes gay people. We like people for their personality, if we learn something from them, or if they make us laugh. So it’s no surprise to me that more queer people are running for office and winning. And that’s all on purpose, right? It’s almost like we’ve curated a personality that’s acceptable to mainstream America for our own safety and speaks to the diversity of queer experiences.
When I first heard Black women talk about code-switching, I thought, “Oh, that’s a version of what I do to protect myself” — changing yourself to survive. When you’re socialized in a certain way, and you value being accepted or protecting yourself from criticism, sometimes these are the things that we do.
But politics used to be about passing budgets and laws, and now it is about owning one side or the other. It is more defense than offense. And the offense isn’t putting forward good legislation that helps people; it’s just making someone else lose.
LGBTQ NATION: As the President prepares to address the nation, what are some of the most vexing problems facing the queer equality movement?
VS: Fear has been very effective in getting people to vote. Some people agree with the anti-drag queen story-hour bills or have been told that it’s unfair for trans athletes to compete. And no matter the science, we can never change their minds. And that is because their protective instinct has been triggered. It’s not because they’re dealing in truth. They’re dealing in fear. If you tell somebody who’s deeply religious (as some of the far right has), “This is going to hurt people. These people are dangerous. If we can pass this legislation, we can stop children from being hurt,” nothing is going to stop somebody from believing that because their protective instinct has been triggered.
But having a protective instinct does not mean thinking rationally. Politicians are using people’s protective instincts to push very hateful things because it makes it look like they’re winning, but they’re helping someone else lose. We need to watch out for not trying to prove that drag queens aren’t a danger to children because they’re obviously not. We need to prove that your protective instinct is being triggered by somebody trying to manipulate you.
You’re not going to get somebody to stop believing their sole mission is to be a protector, but you can get them to understand who actually needs protection.
LGBTQ NATION: A few notable queer celebrities, including Elton John and Jameela Jamil, have bailed on Twitter, citing Musk’s takeover. How is the future of social media tied to the future of our country? And is it time to say ta-ta to Twitter?
VS: I think we have to get out of it. Musk is unhinged. But that’s his platform. It’s his toy. Don’t play with it. Who gave him the funding to buy Twitter? The circumstances and lack of antitrust and mergers — all that kind of stuff that was removed so that the shareholders of Twitter could profit. And now look where we are.
Musk is one of the richest men in the world but is very cash poor and had to borrow a lot of money to get this thing. There was a lot of money from many places, which buys a lot of silence. But it’s not just a billionaire buying Twitter. There’s a billionaire owner of The Los Angeles Times, Patrick Soon-Shiong. Many of the local news channels are owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group. [Whose executive chairman, David D. Smith, is a longtime Trump cohort.]
We also have the legacy media and mainstream journalists who have built their platform on Twitter. And they don’t want to give it up. So we’ve got a double-edged sword here where an unhinged megalomaniac has purchased this thing and it’s no longer useful. We should absolutely be critical of what led to him even being able to buy it. But I think we have to accept that it is over and work towards building what the next thing is.
LGBTQ NATION: The Equality Act is still in the distance. Do you see a path forward for constitutional LGBTQ+ protections?
VS: I am grateful that the Respect for Marriage Act passed. It falls short of where I would feel fully comfortable and safe. I am ready for LGBTQ+ existence to no longer be a ballot measure. I’m ready for us not to be a talking point when it comes to political rhetoric and campaigning.
It would be as if we were still trying to discuss women being allowed to vote. No, they won the right to vote. We all agree that women have the right to vote; that’s settled law. Why isn’t it the same for LGBTQ+ equality?
I want to see the Equality Act signed and actually create a constitutional amendment, which people think we have now, but we don’t have that hard a language for it. Where there’s softness, people try to punch a hole right through it. And that would solve a lot of things for both women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights.
With queer representation growing in Congress, that certainly makes a big difference. We’re not just talking about some random hypothetical person that may or may not live in your district. You’re saying it to the face of queer legislators. When the states of Massachusetts, Colorado, and Oregon want to talk about gay rights, they have to say it to their governors’ faces. The more we can put a face to it, the less you can write us off.
LGBTQ NATION: A recent report from the Williams Institute found that of the approximately 276,000 transgender folks enrolled in Medicaid, more than 40 percent live in states with vague coverage parameters or, even worse, actively ban coverage of gender-affirming care for beneficiaries. Trans youth and their parents also face an uphill battle.
The Williams Institute, in a separate brief, indicated that more than 58,000 trans youth are at risk of losing access to care because of state bans and policies. Lack of healthcare, political attacks packed with abusive language, and social pressures collectively impact the trans community’s well-being. How can we better educate the opposition about gender-affirming care and dispel the fear factor distorting the scientific evidence that proves the value of such treatment?
VS: I have a friend who got boobs at 18 when we graduated high school, and she just had them removed because she didn’t want them anymore. Cis women also get gender-affirming care — whether breast augmentation, a nose job, or a facelift — people get all kinds of things done to feel their best and like their most authentic selves. And sometimes you get something you don’t want it. But that’s rare. The fact that more women cis women who get breast implants will have them removed and regret them later doesn’t mean that nobody should get breast implants if they want them, right?
It’s the same thing with trans care. There are going to be people who are unhappy with themselves, and they aren’t going to achieve happiness through top surgery, testosterone, or whatever things other people do to achieve gender, acceptance, and joy. Listening to this year’s discourse, I’ve learned that people don’t understand puberty blockers are sometimes the difference for a young person living to decide if they want to go further. Because the alternative is they die by suicide. That is the actual alternative. And if we want to protect children, we have to protect all children.
“You’re not going to get somebody to stop believing their sole mission is to be a protector, but you can get them to understand who actually needs protection.”V Spehar
I am a person who struggled with my gender identity until I had top surgery. The amount of time I spent looking at myself, wishing things would be different, and not attending events because I didn’t like how my body looked — that is exhausting. And then I got top surgery just last year. And I woke up, and I felt finished, I felt done. I felt like myself. It changed everything for me. And I wish that people knew others who had gone through the experience so that they could tell them that. I feel happy. And it really didn’t affect anybody else’s life.
Having been a kid who struggled with just trying to feel comfortable in my body, if I could have delayed puberty and not had double-D boobs in eighth grade, that would have been great. That would have saved me a lot of problems for a lot of reasons. So I think it’s letting people know that it’s not a big deal. It’s something that a lot of people do. And most gender-affirming surgery is done on cis bodies. And that’s for men and women who were born male or female. And it’s okay. It’s not hurting anyone. So the perspective I hope people take is to stop making it such a big deal.
LGBTQ NATION: What’s your message to those who might feel overwhelmed by our country’s divide or want to tune out the news cycle?
VS: Like many gay people, I didn’t think I would be as old as I am. When I was young, I didn’t know any gay people who were adults. And now I’m 40 and didn’t plan for much after 23. So once I lived, I just thought — you never know. And I’ve had so many cool things happen: I got married and have this career. And I wake up every day and say, “Oh my God, how cool is it that I just breathe without thinking?” So having that perspective helps me when something is really sad and feels extremely hopeless.If you remember that things have been bad before, they do get better. You can get through it. And when I need to take breaks, I do. We’ve been in worse economic situations.
And we can continue to move towards less hate and more happiness, but there will always be hard stuff.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Featured image: Photo provided by V Spehar. Additional photo by Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images. Illustration by Kyle Neal for LGBTQ Nation.