An Interview with Kevin Naff

The journalist talks Pride, a horrific U.S. Supreme Court, and his abiding faith in Gen Z.

An Interview with Kevin Naff

June may be Pride Month, but award-winning journalist Kevin Naff reports on LGBTQ+ issues year-round. In his role as longtime editor of the Washington Blade, he’s been covering the gay community both in Washington, DC, and across the globe for more than 20 years. As he lays out in his new book, How We Won the War for LGBTQ Equality: And How Our Enemies Could Take It All Away, that community should be both rightfully proud of the freedoms it’s achieved and vigilant about never being dragged back into the closet.

A lot of us never imagined our reproductive freedom could be taken away, but here we are. Do you see hard-won LGBTQ+ rights as being equally at risk?

Yes. Sounding the alarm on how vulnerable LGBTQ-rights gains are motivated me to write the book. The LGBTQ movement has achieved incredible gains at light speed, but now we’re seeing our enemies roll them back. I fear the Obergefell marriage ruling is in grave danger of being overturned, which would create a patchwork of state laws governing our marriages, similar to what’s happening with abortion today. But the far right won’t stop at Obergefell; they will target the Lawrence decision that did away with sodomy laws and established the right of Americans to privacy in sex. Everyone, gay and straight, should be alarmed by that possibility.

Although Pride Month is important, can you envision a day when it will no longer be necessary?

Celebrating Pride will always be important for our community. Too many people sacrificed and died to get us here, so it’s imperative that we remember them and celebrate them while always working to advance and solidify our gains. Pride is not about partying; it’s about taking the time to remember our history, celebrate our hard-fought freedoms, and recommit to fighting the battles ahead.

You’ve helmed the Washington Blade for a long time. How has DC’s attitude toward the LGBTQ+ community evolved over the years?

The change in local attitudes toward the community has been dramatic and inspiring to observe. What began in 1975 as a small street party at Lambda Rising bookstore has evolved into one of the most vibrant and well-attended Pride celebrations in the world. There was a time not so long ago when expressing support for the LGBTQ community was unpopular and risky, but now the mayor and full city council are supportive. We still have our challenges — youth homelessness, healthcare inequities, violence against trans people of color — but the city has evolved quickly to embrace its LGBTQ residents.

The American Red Cross just — just — lifted its ban on blood donations from gay and bisexual men. What does the fact that it’s taken this long say to you?

Remarkably, the very first issue of the Blade in October 1969 carried a short story about a blood drive organized by the Mattachine Society encouraging the gay community to donate blood to the Red Cross. The blood-donation ban is a reflection of the ignorance and hate inspired by the AIDS epidemic. It’s a shame it took so long for science and medical facts to prevail over unsubstantiated fear and prejudice. As a blood donor in my teens who has been barred from donating since the ‘80s, I welcome this long overdue change in policy.

What gives you hope — or, conversely, fills you with despair — about the future of LGBTQ+ rights?

What gives me hope is Gen Z. They are voting and they are politically engaged in ways that previous generations were not. I have been on a book tour this spring and stopped at several large universities and spoken with many young people. They are united in their trauma over mass shootings in schools and have grown up since kindergarten engaged in active-shooter training. They will not accept “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of the killings and are determined to fight for change. They are also strongly supportive on equality issues and grew up thinking nothing of marriage equality or having a Black president or vice president. They give me hope.

Unfortunately, we’re in for a long fight. Donald Trump’s three disastrous Supreme Court picks promise to reorder American society in chilling ways. It will take decades for the court to change again and to undo the damage and for the court to regain its credibility.

Along with your book, what other titles should readers pick up to better understand the issues faced (and joys experienced) by the LGBTQ+ community?

There are so many. The Velvet Rage by psychologist Alan Downs is an eye-opening, empowering read. More recently, Secret City by James Kirchick offers a compelling history of Washington’s underground gay life. In the realm of fiction, everyone should read James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.

Holly Smith is editor-in-chief of the Independent.

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