- The Magazine
“I was always kind of polemical as a kid, which is where the lawyer part of me comes from,” says John Aravosis. “Even though I was the kid who was physically picked on, I was very argumentative. And I was always a little perturbed when something would be wrong.
“I remember, my mom kept this one letter I wrote as a child, maybe eight or ten years old. I’d gotten Uncle Milton’s ant farm, and all the ants died within a week. And I was pissed. And mind you, back then, it wasn’t like you could call the company or anything. So I wrote them a letter. I was so pissed off, and my mom must have Xeroxed the letter or something, because she still reads it at Christmas occasionally. But I threatened the hell out of his company because my ants died. I eventually got new ants.”
Aravosis’ combative style would resurface in his high school years, when he wrote a similar letter to then-Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, castigating the Communist leader for the way the Soviet Union was treating the refuseniks, a group of Jewish intellectuals and community leaders who were barred from emigrating to Israel and subjected to abuse at the hands of Soviet authorities.
“It’s funny to think of that,” recalls the civil rights advocate and founder of AMERICAblog. “Because I wasn’t involved in politics in high school or during my undergrad years. It’s just that occasionally stuff would piss me off, and I would do something that was kind of silly, in the sense that it didn’t really accomplish anything but made me feel better.”
The youngest child growing up in a large Greek immigrant family in the suburbs of Chicago, Aravosis had a happy upbringing and was fairly close to his family. He attended Greek school twice a week, something that fostered a love of languages, which would eventually lead to a decision to study abroad in France for a year while enrolled in college.
“Family gatherings were always loud and fun, and, in college, over the holidays, friends would call me, and they’d be like, ‘What’s going on?’ And there’d be the sound of kids running around in the background,” says the 56-year-old. “It was normal for us, but apparently not for my WASPy friends.”
A self-described “geek,” Aravosis always knew he was gay, or as he puts it, a “Kinsey Six,” but didn’t tell anyone for years. He attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he graduated with a degree in rhetoric. He then landed at Georgetown University, where he earned a Master’s in foreign service and a law degree. He went to work on the hill for Alaska’s Republican Senator Ted Stevens before branching out into the world of consulting. Along the way, he became interested in the Internet, seeing it as a possible avenue for creating change.
With the help of some tech-savvy friends, Aravosis was able to create a few websites, including one that detailed the twists and turns of the story of the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998. The website’s success gave Aravosis a reputation as a reliable and credible news source — something that would work to his advantage when, in 2004, he created AMERICAblog, a website focused on political developments, with a sprinkling of LGBTQ-specific news.
An ideological classical liberal, Aravosis is supportive of President-elect Joe Biden and has been a fierce detractor of President Donald Trump, viewing him as an autocrat and a threat to liberal democracy. But he also acknowledges that Trump will not exit the political scene gracefully.
“He’s not going away,” says Aravosis. “He’s killed 250,000 people, practically, at this point, and people still don’t accept that COVID-19 is real. People didn’t hold him accountable. I mean, they did this last election, but not by enough.”
As President-elect Biden prepares to take power in January, and Donald Trump exits the Oval Office, Aravosis hopes to use not only AMERICAblog, but his UnPresidented podcast and a new Substack called CyberDisobedience to push Biden to do good things while in office. He sees himself having to push back against the disinformation that will be spread by a vindictive and self-serving ex-President Trump, in keeping with the spirit of AMERICAblog’s tagline, “A Great Nation Deserves the Truth.”
Aravosis is particularly skeptical of the larger conservative media infrastructure, which often highlights and runs with misinformation originally generated on social media in an effort to placate their audience’s ideological bias and confirm their preconceived notions of what constitutes fact.
“In the ’90s, it was about getting around the censors, but now it’s about getting around the fact-checkers,” he says. “And that has a totally opposite effect. I do think the Left is better about it than the Right. MSNBC is clearly liberal, but Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes don’t lie. Fox at the same hour is outright lying. Maddow and Hayes don’t get people killed, especially in terms of the pandemic. So it’s a much, much worse case.”
Aravosis is also convinced of the righteousness of the causes and principles he champions — especially compared to the moral bankruptcy of the Trump administration. Aravosis says he and his friend Alan Klein, an early member of the HIV/AIDS activist group ACT UP, sometimes call themselves “Assholes for Justice” to refer to the work they’ve been doing over the years on behalf of LGBTQ rights.
“We call ourselves ‘Assholes for Justice,’ as far as in talking to other liberal friends about what we do,” Aravosis says, “because I was always kind of a little bit of an asshole on various issues growing up. And the term just seemed to fit because it is hard to explain to people what I do for living. It tends to be activism, and a lot of it tends to be for free.
“People on the outside often think we’re just assholes, like, ‘You’re just angry activists,’ and things like that. And that’s not what it is. It’s actually having a just goal in mind, and using the anger in your belly to make that happen. That’s how we came up with the name, because we’re kind of assholes, but there’s often a really good goal behind our actions. And we often win.”
METRO WEEKLY: When did you first get politically involved?
JOHN ARAVOSIS: When I was 25. I had graduated from law school and was in D.C. so I thought I might as well look for a job here. I was certainly following politics more because of my international relations degree. I met a friend who worked on the Hill and thought, “Why not? This could be a good experience all around.” I was still a good Illinois Republican at this point, and I basically knocked on all the Republican doors and dropped off resumes. I went to work for Ted Stevens, who was a senator from Alaska. They were looking for a foreign policy advisor with a law degree. So it was kind of serendipity that I started working for him. At the time, I was doing transportation policy and foreign policy. It wasn’t politics in the sense of elections and all that kind of stuff.
MW: What was it like working for Stevens?
ARAVOSIS: He was very nice to the women staff, but kind of a dick to the guys. He was an asshole to me. He was my second-worst boss ever. I remember once I was on an airplane flying with him to Europe because we were visiting the arms control talks. We were part of this observer group and he didn’t like something I wrote, and came and just yelled at me in front of all the staff on the Air Force plane, berating me. “You’d better change this! If I don’t like it, by the time we land, you’re fired!” And it wasn’t anything special or horrible that I did.
I remember the woman from Bob Dole’s office saying, “How can you work for this man?” He was not a nice guy in that regard. But, you know, it’s a job. And I think people of my generation just kind of took a job, and took their lumps. You’d have bad bosses and were trained to say, “Yes, sir,” even if they were abusive. It’s different now. Not 100 percent, but I think much more different for younger people today to kind of go “Fuck this,” whereas my generation kind of said, “It’s a job. I need the money.”
MW: What was your coming out experience like?
ARAVOSIS: It was in 1991. I reached out to an old friend from Montana, Paul Clark, whom I hadn’t talked to in years. I remember he was shocked I called. And we were talking about how we were doing and in the middle of it, he goes, “I’ve got AIDS.” And I was like, “What?” And he told me he was gay. I had always known I was gay, never did anything with girls, but I hadn’t told anybody at this point.
I ended up going out to visit him in Billings, Montana, which was really a shock, because, I mean, he was skinny as hell, he had lost so much weight, which I remember freaking me out when I met him at the airport. I ended up going back several times to see him because when I’d fly back and forth to Alaska, Montana was on the way. At one point, I finally came out to him, and he was like, “Yeah, I know.” He was the first person I’d ever come out to. He eventually died and I don’t remember how long it was, it may have been a matter of months, but that was my big awakening on multiple levels. He was out to his parents, his parents were totally cool with him being gay. He had a wonderful community of friends in Billings. Some of them were, for all intents and purposes married, and had been together for years, and all this stuff I never imagined gay people having or doing.
I think people need to realize that in the late ’80s and even the ’90s, we as a community kept having to fight newspapers to stop using photos of a drag queen or some guy with assless chaps at a Pride Parade whenever a serious gay rights issue came up. You just didn’t see a lot of visuals of gay people that were positive. We were either dying of AIDS or drag queens, and you’d think, “This is not what I want mom to think the entire community is.”
So as a young, closeted gay guy, the people I met in Billings through Paul were my first introduction to wonderfully normal, loving human beings who were accepted by their community, their parents, and everything else. It absolutely blew my mind and opened my eyes, both in terms of coming out and politically. I always knew I was gay, but I had always figured it was something wrong with me. I remember in college thinking I would end up having to kill myself by age 30 or 35 because I thought by that age everybody would know, I’d lose my family, I’d lose my job, I’d lose everything, and there’d be no reason to live. So this experience just turned everything on its head. That was like the beginning of realizing being gay could be okay.
MW: How did coming out change your political views?
ARAVOSIS: Once I came to terms with accepting that I was okay being gay, I began paying more attention to politics and I started getting really pissed off. Like, “What the fuck? Why are people doing this to me and other people like me?”
In 1992, I voted for Bill Clinton. By 1993, they were debating “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on the Senate floor. I remember watching Republicans, and Stevens was supportive of the Republican position, which was, you know, anti-gay. He didn’t really care about this stuff, but he wasn’t supportive, that’s for sure. And I remember just getting so ticked off, I called the Human Rights Campaign and was like, “I’m a Republican staffer on the Hill, I’m a lawyer, I’d like to help.” And they said, “Come to our pizza night. We have volunteers that stuff envelopes and we get free pizza. I did it once or twice, but was like, “Okay, I’m a lawyer with a Republican senator. I think I could do more for you guys.”
I was bitching about this to Michael Iskowitz, who was Ted Kennedy’s guru on gay rights, women’s issues, disabilities issues, all that kind of stuff, on the Labor Committee. And Michael said, “Work for me. Just come after work. You can volunteer.” So for a good year, while I was at Stevens’ office, almost every night, I would leave Stevens’ office at five or six and go to Kennedy’s office till around midnight. And it was kind of weird as far as the comparison goes. But it was amazing, because Michael has amazing connections, and was an amazing delegator. I got to work on a draft of Coretta Scott King’s op-ed in The Washington Post on ENDA. I was involved with and served as Michael’s deputy on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” because Michael was taking the lead for Kennedy, and Kennedy was taking the lead for the Left. So I was able to get involved in a way that actually mattered.
Michael is somebody who I watched pull a $5 billion childcare amendment out of his ass once. Literally just talking to people going, “Let’s do a childcare amendment. How much?” And talking to people in the room, “Five billion. Okay,” and I was like, “What?” And I mean, they had to go through the legislative process, but the fact that Michael was somebody who dreamed so big and thought we can accomplish anything, and watching him do it, really opened my mind to how much you could accomplish, especially on gay politics.
When I was at Stevens’ office, I discovered email, which blew my mind. It was a big deal at the time. We just had internal email on the Hill back then. Then I went to the World Bank in ’94 and I was on the phone with a friend of mine working at JPL Jet Propulsion Lab, NASA space probes. And he and I were going back and forth with my World Bank computer and his JPL computer, sending emails back and forth while we were on the phone just to be like, “Oh my God. I’m sending it.” “Oh, my God, I got it!” It was mind-blowing.
After the 10-month consulting gig, I started at the Children’s Defense Fund full time at the end of ’94, because I wanted to cleanse my palate and work for the Left. I befriended the tech people, and said, “Get me on the Internet, get me on the Web.” So I was one of the first people to get on the World Wide Web. And I just had this vision of how we could do amazing things with politics on the web. I knew we could organize people.
The only thing that really had been done at that point was anti-tobacco stuff in the early ’90s. But there wasn’t anything going on really in online politics. And I just had this vision of doing online politics, and that led me to the next 25 years of doing Internet politics. But that was sort of the nascence of both of them, the gay stuff with Michael and seeing that you could do massive stuff with really important people if you just set your mind to it, along with the Internet, where I felt like this was this was going to explode, and we could just do amazing things.
MW: How did you move to working solely online?
ARAVOSIS: Well, CDF basically opened the door to me seeing what the Internet could offer. So in 1997, I left to work on my own, doing consulting for the big liberal groups in town, online advocacy consulting, because at least they could hire me for a project, even though they didn’t have staff and social media didn’t even exist at the time. In 1998, the two powerful email lists were Rex Wockner’s and the Fenceberry newswire, run by these two women in the Midwest, which would summarize the news of the day and send out articles. And Rex’s had a story from Hawaii about a gay service member, Tim McVeigh, getting thrown out of the military because he was outed by America Online. And I found the guy on AOL because it mentioned his screen name, and I reached out to him and said, “I think I can help you.” And he said “Sure.” So for free, I just blew this guy’s story up as an online privacy story. Within one week, it was the top story on ABC News and World News Tonight, which was a huge deal back then. Eventually, Chris Wolf, a big lawyer here in town, joined in and took on his case. And after six months of this, Tim ended up winning. He got a huge settlement. So that was amazing.
Later that fall, Matthew Shepard was attacked and a similar kind of thing happened. I call it my “gay spider-sense.” I get this feeling on issues where I know the story is going to blow up or can blow up. So I have to jump on it. Rex shared an AP story from Wyoming, and I was like, “Holy shit,” you know, the hints at Christ imagery and all that stuff. I reached out to HRC because I wanted to do a website compiling all the information updates on the Shepard case. They declined, so I turned to an online friend of mine, who used to be known as Sean Patrick Live, the first guy on a 24/7 webcam. And he goes, “The way we’ll do it, you post the news in the middle, and every time there’s a new news story, just scroll down to post another one. He was basically describing a blog.
So I started this website on Shepard and kept posting the stories I was getting from Rex and the Fenceberry newswire and putting updates from the hospital, the university, on the website. And within a day, the thing exploded and garnered 50,000 hits. The site ended up just becoming this center for information on the story on the bulletin board. We ended up coordinating 100 or more candlelight vigils across the country. It was insane. The site played a huge role in blowing up the story. I kept having more of these stories, as time went on, where I kept feeling like we could blow things up.
MW: What other online campaigns did you engage in?
ARAVOSIS: Dr. Laura was the next big one in 2000, which involved Alan Klein in New York, William Waybourn, who was the former head of GLAAD, Robin Tyler, big lesbian activist out California, and Joel Lawson here in D.C. But basically, Dr. Laura was getting a TV show. She was this “doctor,” but not quite a doctor, super anti-gay, very anti-women in terms of abortion and everything else. And I started an email just to try to get Paramount in trouble for doing the show. The email went viral. And then I think in talking to Joel or William, we said, “Let’s do a campaign on this.” And William was the one who suggested the name “Stop Dr. Laura.”
And that thing went nuts. Salon broke the story when we went public, which helped a lot. We basically killed her TV show, which got canceled. In the meantime, we killed 174 of her advertisers. We had somebody in Paramount send me their internal staff directory, so we had the direct phone numbers and fax lines for everybody at Paramount, which was hysterical because back then again, you couldn’t get that info. We just terrorized these people.
My other big project was DearMary.com, where the idea of the website ostensibly was to send letters to Mary Cheney, who had previously served as the out LGBT liaison at Coors, and was running the vice president’s reelection campaign in 2004. I got about 20,000 individual letters, some of them very heartfelt.
At that time, George W. Bush had decided he was going to propose an anti-gay marriage amendment to the Constitution. It was an oddly radicalizing moment for a lot of us. And I don’t know why, because we knew George W. Bush was anti-gay. But it just infuriated people, led to a whole outing campaign that I and others were involved in.
And the real purpose of the DearMary.com website, with the letters posted on it, was actually to embarrass the fuck out of Dick Cheney so that he would do something to make it stop. Within six months, Lynne Cheney was on CNN and Wolf Blitzer asked her about Mary, and she was livid. Maybe a month or two later, the issue comes up again as the amendment is being debated in the Senate, and Mrs. Cheney comes out on CNN that day and says she opposes it. The site absolutely created a firestorm.
Around that time, I started AMERICAblog, one of the major liberal blogs, mostly focused on politics, but with a lot of gay news infused in it. The other story worth mentioning was the Jeff Gannon story. That was the big thing that really put my blog on the map. Basically I discovered that this sycophant who would go to the White House and ask softball questions — like the OAN lady does now at the White House — was a male prostitute who had his site with X-rated photos of him peeing and all sorts of crap, and then found his other profiles on whatever sites there were for hustlers. And again, it’s fine that you’re a gay hustler. It’s not fine that you’re a gay hustler writing anti-gay articles and working clearly hand-in-hand with George Bush when he’s trying to put an amendment to the Constitution. That story really blew up.
MW: What was your thought process as AMERICAblog was building in popularity? Did you ever foresee it getting to the point where you are today? Or did you think it was going to be a temporary thing?
ARAVOSIS: All the blogs have kind of deflated, other than Daily Kos. But I absolutely believe we can accomplish things that nobody believes we can. So I have no problem launching a campaign and saying, “Let’s piss off the president.” There’s no reticence saying, “Oh, gosh, we could never influence the president.” Michael in Kennedy’s office taught me that lesson years ago. But having said that, when I’m doing my own campaigns, even though I think I want them to influence things, I think it’s always a bit of a surprise when they work. So you still get blown away when they go viral, when they are really popular with half a million visits to a website or whatever. I don’t usually foresee those things, partially because I still today find the Internet very fickle. You don’t really know what’s going to go viral.
MW: Why do you think that most of the blogs have gone, with only a select few surviving?
ARAVOSIS: I think it’s money. And I think it’s also just the diffusion of blogging going everywhere. The blogs kind of hit their heyday in 2008. We were all super powerful. There were a lot of big liberal blogs, huge influence. Nobody was supporting us, meaning we had readers but no cash flow. I remember people were sending checks, which was nice, but a royal pain in the ass, a stack of $10 checks. Back then, you had to literally sign a check, fill out the bank form, mail them in. And it just was not a convenient way to raise money. And in any case, you didn’t get enough money. It’s not like you make fifty thousand dollars on checks every year, living in D.C. So there was no way to raise money. PayPal didn’t get started until late in that era. There was no online fundraising at all until recently, really. So you couldn’t raise money. The Democratic Party and funders would not support us for whatever reason. They just wouldn’t. I think they thought the blogs were crazy or whatever it was.
And then you had the economic crash of 2008, where three-quarters of my ad revenue disappeared. Before that point, I had my best year ever, totally self-sufficient on the blog. I made enough money to finally, at age forty-five, buy a condo. I had never owned a place because I wasn’t making money, and I finally made enough money so I could buy a place. And the next year three-quarters of my income disappeared, because the economy crashed and ad revenue just dried up.
The other thing is that at the same time everybody started blogging, newspapers started blogging. Then you had things like Reddit. Reddit became another place where you could get traffic on your site, but you could also miss traffic because people would put a headline and summary and people wouldn’t necessarily need to come to your site, and Twitter, even worse, right? Things go viral on Twitter. So sometimes it would go viral, people would click and that was good. Many times people used social media in the same way the blogs used the main media. We would write stories about their stories. Twitter would write even shorter stories about our stories. But it just made it unsustainable, just in terms of money.
MW: Do you think Twitter has done more good or more harm overall?
ARAVOSIS: I think probably more harm. You know, personally, I find Twitter fascinating. I follow a lot of people on the Left, I follow a lot of journalists. It’s just fascinating. It’s such an information resource. I had the same thing happen on the blog, too. On the blog, I posted a photo of this wonderful parchment I bought in New Orleans from like the 1600s. It was really cheap. Fifty bucks. But I didn’t know what the hell language it was and I crowdsourced it. People translated it over the period of a week. It was amazing. And literally people were jumping in and giving me their suggestions, and I would write their suggestions on a photograph of the document or whatever. And I would put their translation in there. And then people would go, “No, that’s wrong. It’s this word.” It was amazing to watch when people crowdsource for good.
I wrote a piece for The Economist twenty years ago about hate online, and how right-wing groups, Stormfront and all these guys, were organizing online. And how it was opening up the world for them because they used to be some goofy group in rural Oregon, and they suddenly found thousands of supporters, nationwide and worldwide. And then they were no longer a goofy group of ten rednecks. They were now a thousand “Proud Boys,” to coin a phrase. So you not only empower the LGBT person living at home alone in Middle America or rural America, you’re also empowering a lunatic who also thought he was alone and now he realizes he’s not. And the question is whether you can empower one without the other.
I just think social media, it’s been more bad than good, but I don’t know, because I think the Internet has been more good than bad overall. And then you also have to get into what our definition is of social media, like does it include Facebook? I like Facebook, but I also don’t have to deal with crazies on Facebook very often. For some reason, the crazies I always see are on Twitter, whereas other people get them on Facebook. With Twitter, so much of it’s fake now anyway. I looked at this years ago. All the people signing up to follow Trump, two-thirds of them are fake, just look at the accounts. You’ve got so much fake shit going on in the discussions anyway. But I also don’t know what you can do about it because I feel like it’s like uninventing nuclear weapons. I mean, they’re here to stay.
It is amazing empowering people through the Internet. But social cohesion is not easy when you empower people. Even on our side. Everybody hates everybody on the Left. And it worries me because you get all the feminist stuff, let alone the anti-trans feminist stuff, but then you get into the whole white feminists versus feminists of color fight, whereas on the outside, people in the middle don’t look at feminism and distinguish between good feminists and bad feminists.
MW: Given the amount of disinformation that has been spread, particularly on social media, are you worried that there’s a trend towards historical revisionism that’s contributing to the public’s inability to discern fact from fiction?
ARAVOSIS: I think we’re starting to see this a lot more often in politics. Apparently, it’s rather easy to “redefine” who people are or were in the last 10, 20, 30 years, because if you weren’t there, living the history, you didn’t see it. Like with Hillary, right? The number of young people I tried to argue with in 2016 that she wasn’t some anti-gay bigot because she didn’t support gay marriage until 2012 or whenever it was. I’m like, Hillary fucking met with ACT UP when Bill was running for president in 1991. You don’t meet with AIDS activists in 1991 if you want to be president or First Lady, you just don’t. But they didn’t know the history.
That’s a whole other issue that’s kind of fascinating. People don’t know their history and therefore it is easy to lie to people about history. I think the demonization of Hillary was very smart. Bernie just decided he was going to rewrite who she was, a corporate sellout, anti-gay. People thought she was a fucking communist in the 1990s. They’d say, “Hillary is going to be bad on health care.” The Right hates Hillary because of health care!
It just used to drive me nuts. But people have learned that you can redefine people based on their past, all those things people don’t know. You want to pull something that somebody said 30 or 40 years ago, but now look at the historical context.
MW: It seems we’re entering a time when we apply current-day standards and norms to historical events and, with a lack of context, it makes it easier to demonize people. Look at the gay Republicans’ argument against Joe Biden. In 1972 or 1973, he spoke to the Delaware News Journal and said he thought gay State Department employees might be a security risk.
ARAVOSIS: And I’ve got news for you. We weren’t going to admit it during the early fights against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but gay people were a security risk.
ARAVOSIS: Oh, come on. I mean, we certainly weren’t going to admit it, but I had a top security clearance when I was on the Hill and I was gay and hiding it. And I didn’t lie, but they didn’t ask me during my clearance if I was gay. In my head, I had decided that if anybody found out and tried to blackmail me, I would just come forward and tell the truth. But I literally had to go through that thought process. I thought, “If that happens, I’ll just be outed and I’ll take what happens.”
But if you are deathly afraid of something and hiding it, whether it is your debt, as in Trump’s case, crimes you’ve committed, or anything else, it is a security risk, because if anyone finds out your deathly secret or that you have anything to hide, it’s a risk. Period.
So in the Biden case, it depends what was meant by that. If they meant gay was a risk — and this was the way we interpreted it — because those people aren’t as moral or ethical as the rest of us, then that’s different. But if it’s a risk because you’re hiding something, go ask anybody who deals with security clearance: if you’re hiding something, it’s a risk. But I think the issue might have been whether people thought he meant those people are perverts and they’re immoral and therefore they’ll sell out their country or whatever. But it was also 50 years ago.
MW: Log Cabin Republicans were running around saying Biden voted for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and it was more complicated. He voted to remove the amendment with the gay military restrictions, but then voted for the full defense bill containing the restrictions after the first vote was defeated. But it gets reported as “Biden voted for ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’”
ARAVOSIS: By the way, lots of young people said that to me about Hillary. They blamed her because of Bill Clinton, and I’m like, “You don’t understand. We all fucking hated ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ but [it] was the fucking compromise! It was all we could get. It was at least getting one step away from an outright ban, even though we were pissed when Barney Frank brokered that deal. But it was the lead gay guy on the Hill who brokered the deal, not his fellow Democrats. And what was your position, Republicans? You wanted a complete ban and a witch hunt!” So there’s that hypocrisy as well.
But one thing that’s been weird with the Internet has been people coming on who don’t know their LGBT history. I’ve had people come on and when we were debating Hillary or something, and say things like, “What have you ever done for the LGBT community?” And you’re kind of going, “Oh, God, okay, other than devote 30 years of my life to it?” But you also can’t explain because then you’re being an asshole.
It’s weird, and I do throw the anti-white gay male thing in that as well, like, “What did white gay men ever do for the community?” Other than run every organization for 30 years? And we know why they ran everything. I get it. Not enough women and people of color were reached out to, even though they were involved in those issues. But the point is, a lot of good was done on LGBT political issues overall, and on AIDS overall, during that time. And gay white men had a big hand to that. And we’ve gotten to this weird point where we’re now supposed to deny that. And there is this weird thing where, as you get older, people are saying, “What have you ever done on this stuff?”
MW: Does that make you want to preserve your legacy, or a historical record so that people in the future will have some context?
ARAVOSIS: Well, there’s two issues here. One would be ego. You might want to preserve your legacy if you’re worried about your ego, like I’m not getting credit, or whatever.
But I think the larger thing is I have become much more understanding of how easy it is to either rewrite facts or history. They talk about history being written by the victors or the conquerors. History is written by the writers, by those who show up to write about it. And you don’t necessarily find out what happens, you find out what happens through the people who decided to write history, and they may not be right and they may claim one group was involved or another wasn’t or another was involved. And people sort of forget. I’m not like old-old yet, but I’m older than I was, and there is something about forgetting what people have done that troubles me. I’ve got more respect for people now.
I look at even feminist leaders getting shit, like Gloria Steinem for signing that Harper’s letter on free speech, which everybody got pissed off about. And now Gloria Steinem is a sellout? I’ve got news for you, kids. You’re here today as a woman because of Gloria fucking Steinem. There’s this lack of understanding of history, a lack of recognition and admiration for people who have accomplished amazing things. And it may just be that’s the way things go. But I’m much more sympathetic or understanding to that.
MW: Looking to a Joe Biden presidency, we know that people on the Right are going to treat it as illegitimate for the next four years. So what is actually going to get done?
ARAVOSIS: Well, what’s going to get done is going to be a problem, because Democrats don’t have the Senate. Even once you control both houses of Congress, it can still be hard to get things done. Manchin has already said he wouldn’t get rid of the filibuster anyway. So even if Democrats have a majority, it would need to be a majority greater than him. That’s a problem right there. For instance, with Obamacare, Joe Lieberman shot us in the foot in trying to lower the Medicare eligibility age. So you’ve got this problem of, even when we’re in the majority, we’re still a large coalition. But not controlling the Senate? Forget it. Hopefully, Biden, like Trump, can figure out what he can do with executive orders.
MW: But if we have a modern presidency that’s just limited to doing things by executive order because Congress is dysfunctional, how do Democrats win people back? What do you think of the argument that they should return to talking more about economics, because people care more about COVID and shutdowns and their bank account than they do these other issues right now?
ARAVOSIS: I’ve always said that. I said this about Obamacare. How many freaking times did they try to sell Obamacare by talking about all the poor people who are going to get subsidies and coverage? And I’m like, “No, no, no!” We’re just coming out of an economic crisis. Tell me — and by me, I mean Joe Voter — why it’s going to help me and my family. It’s not a welfare program! It’s going to help me and my family. That’s the message voters want to hear!
I mean, today, Obamacare is doing better in the polls, but I still have to explain to people: Free mammograms for women! That’s because of Obamacare. Your kids are on your insurance until age 26. That’s because of Obamacare! No lifetime or annual limits on coverage. Nobody even knows what those are anymore! Insurance companies can’t charge people more for policies because they’re women. Obamacare got rid of it.
We did such a shitty job of explaining that — and this is a problem you’re going to have on the economic front. When we talk about economics, we often frame things in terms of welfare. We frame it as though we’re only going to help poor people. Of course we have to help poor people. But that’s not how you sell it! That’s how you sell it to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). To sell it to the rest of the country, you’ve got to say, we’re helping you. We aren’t going to spend trillions of dollars to only help poor people because then everybody in the middle goes, “Fuck you.”
These aren’t people who are working-class. They’re not rich or even upper-middle-class, but they’re not blue-collar. They think, “Screw you. I’m not going to pay more in taxes so you can help people poorer than me.” I just think it’s a huge problem, and this is a marketing argument, it’s not a moral argument. And Republicans lie, but their lies are really good. All of Trump’s lies are very directly how liberals are going to hurt you.
MW: Rachel Bitecofer has an interesting critique of the way Democrats campaign. She says the way Republicans campaign is they make everything a stakes-based election where “If you don’t vote, bad, horrible things will happen to you.” And Democrats are like, “We want to give you this 73-page policy brief that nobody can read through….”
ARAVOSIS: Well, if we’re selling a health care program, we want to appeal to Democratic values. “We shouldn’t live in a country where 11 million people don’t have insurance.” I mean, for a Democrat or liberal, that’s an obvious argument to me. But if you’re trying to get people in the middle, don’t you want to tell them what the Republicans want? The Republicans say: “Democrats are going to take away your insurance!” Also, who likes to think of themselves as poor? So I think we talk about helping poor people, and a lot of people say, “That’s not me, that’s not my kids.”
But Republicans are absolutely talking to how it’s going to impact you. And they will talk about it until the cows come home. Every fucking day. The Republicans will talk and talk and talk about the same issue every day. Democrats? I remember once a client I had 20 years ago and an issue came up and I was like, “Okay, let’s do this.” And they said, “Well, we already put out a press release on that. We already talked about it. It’s done.” How about we do more with the issue than just a press release?
MW: Do you worry about Joe Biden’s historical tendency to go for these sorts of “Grand Bargain” agreements will result in him getting “rolled” by a Republican Senate?
ARAVOSIS: I don’t know. I’m 50-50, and what I mean by that is I liked Pete, he was my guy, but I realize that was a bit of a pipe dream. He’s young, he could use a little more experience. I liked everything he represented for America. Biden was my fallback as far as who made the most sense for being somebody who could win. So that’s where I was on that.
The one plus of Biden was I thought, absolutely, a return to normalcy — “this guy’s normal” — would really help us win. And I think it did. I worry a little as to whether Biden is going to have an Obama tendency of wanting to bring people together. Obama didn’t want to be polemical. Obama, even though the Republicans were vicious to him, he wanted to turn the other cheek. He didn’t want to keep talking about the George Bush economy and how he saved it. Whereas Trump lied for four years about saving the economy from Obama, Obama didn’t want to tell the truth about saving the economy from the Republicans. So I think Biden will have those same tendencies. Having said that, it will be our job on the Left as Democrats, as LGBT people, or whatever other issue you’re beholden to, to pressure him.
That was another thing I did, we beat the crap out of Obama on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” We were vicious, but he needed to be pushed. He wasn’t opposed, but he didn’t want to go through the first two years. And we were like, “After the first two years, we’re going to lose the House, and then we’re screwed.” So I think that will be necessary. But Obama himself always said, “Pressure me.” He didn’t like what we did, but what can you do?
So Biden will probably need some of that pressure. Having said that, is it good that we have somebody who still believes that Americans can come together, who still believes that we should not demonize each other? Yes. So to some degree, of course, if he could broach the divide, that would be great, if he could do it in a fair way. I’m not convinced Mitch McConnell will permit that.
So the question then becomes to make sure that Biden wouldn’t agree to something that was a bad deal on any issue, because it’s the best you can get — and a bad deal may be the best you can get with Mitch McConnell in the next two years. On stimulus, maybe there’s no choice because the economy is in dire straits. It’s just like the stimulus ten years ago. The economy is in dire straits. I am willing to accept an imperfect bill that does things Republicans like, tax cuts or whatever, that we hate. I’m willing to give some on that because people need help, whereas I would not want to pass a bill that “saves” Social Security by hurting Social Security.
MW: What role do you think Trump will play in the political landscape after he leaves office?
ARAVOSIS: He’s absolutely not going away. After he’s kicked out of the Oval Office on January 20, he’s going to be tweeting and he’s going to be running the opposition government from day one, whether or not he runs again in four years. I said early on, we need a Trump accountability project that does what they did to Reagan, except in reverse.
When Reagan left office, Grover Norquist set up a campaign to raise money to name something to honor Reagan in every congressional district in the country. That’s why you got so many bridges and highways and rest stops named after Reagan. We need the opposite with Trump. We need some kind of project that, literally in every county in the country or every district, reinforces just how bad the Trump years were. I don’t know whether it’s the Trump Waste Sewage Plant or what, but something, because he’s not going away. The interesting question is going to be how the media treats him. Will the media treat him like some guy ranting online, or every fucking day, at every fucking press conference, Biden’s people are going to be asked, “Well, today, Trump tweeted this. What’s your response?”
MW: I guarantee you that’s what it’s going to be like.
ARAVOSIS: And that worries me because, first of all, it’s something the media shouldn’t do, because they ought to say he’s some guy on the net. Now, mind you, he’s not just some guy on the net, because he’s going to be the putative head of the party because McConnell won’t step in. So it’s going to be a problem for Republicans, but I’ve always felt that the Lincoln Project is going to have a job to do after the inauguration. They’re going to have to keep salting the earth of Trumpism until Carthage never comes back.
And it scares me, but there’s also a sizable percentage of the population worldwide — not just Americans — that kind of likes fascism. They like a strong man telling them what to think, what to do. Sometimes a strong woman. Thatcher did win in England, but it’s often a strong man. But they want somebody who is willing to be a bully, and they don’t really care what the policies are. And they even don’t really care how many bad things the person does, whether it’s personally bad or whether it’s illegal or whatever, because they just want a strong man. And that’s something I did not fully appreciate. I think we like to think that that happens in bad countries, you know, democracies that aren’t really quite democracies yet. And we realized it can happen here.
We saw flirtations in France over the decades with the far Right, but again, we said, “Oh, that’s France. They’ve got issues.” Some people on the Left are going to say, “Oh, I always predicted that.” I don’t know that I buy that. But I think for a lot of us, we felt like these are things that happen in other countries, but not in America. And we’re seeing even in America, bad things can happen because half the population kind of likes it and the other half of the population throws their hands up and goes, “I have no idea what the fuck to do.” With the Trump thing, we did what we could, but all of us, I think, felt pretty helpless going, “What do you do to stop this guy?” That was a big epiphany for me.
MW: So now that you have, in addition to AMERICAblog, the podcast and the Substack, what is your role over the next four years?
ARAVOSIS: Well, it’s funny you say that, because you find every few years — if you’re not in a traditional industry, working on your own things, especially in something Internet-related — things just keep changing. So all of a sudden, every four to six years, like with the blogs, what worked before is no longer working. And there’s something new and you’re always kind of having to reinvent, which is good. But the bad is you’re trying to reinvent yourself to see can I make money now like I did before? You don’t really know. It’s almost like finding a new job every four to six years, in a way. So it can be very daunting.
That’s interesting, because I was sort of thinking that through. That’s why I started the Substack, in a way. I wrote an initial piece, because it wasn’t clear what was going to happen with the election. But what I was thinking was, at the very least, there’s a couple of things going on. And now even more so. First, Biden will need to be pushed on some issues, I believe. He has a tendency to go to the middle, which I laud. But sometimes, like Obama, you need to push him away from the middle. Sometimes it’s good he’s going to the middle, but he’ll need some pushing.
Second, Trump isn’t going away. Trumpism isn’t going away, even though we know he’s lost. So you’re going to have to keep beating up on these guys. Trump has got to be delegitimized and it’s going to take years. And Don Jr. is going to still be around. He may run for office. Trump himself may run in four years.
Third, now that Republicans have got the Senate, we really still have Mitch McConnell and the Republicans to deal with. So that’s the other thing: not only is the battle against Trump not over, but the battle against the evil Republicans in Congress isn’t over yet, either.
The fourth issue — and I’ve got to write a piece because I haven’t even written this as far as a holistic thing — I am concerned about the direction of the party. I think the Left overall, we don’t like each other very much. I don’t think we do. I think a lot of groups blame every other group on the Left. Whether it’s racial, whether it’s sexual orientation, gender identity, ideology, whatever. Everybody seems to fucking hate everybody else and blame everybody else on the Left. And I don’t think that’s good.
I’ve always been a progressive, but not a DSA type. I think that battle doesn’t feel very healthy right now, either. And it worries me. And I don’t think simply claiming we’re all actually socialists is the way to go. But I also accept that a lot of the DSA ideas aren’t necessarily crazy, but you’ve got to sell them a little better and a little more wisely than to just say, “Yes, this is socialism, but socialism is good.” That’s not going to fly.
I also wanted to focus a part of this on getting much more involved in the future of the Left and hopefully being a little less afraid about pushback. Because I think it’s hard when you put yourself out there as an activist, as a writer or anything. It’s hard not to care about what people say and think. It’s really hard not to care. I still think I haven’t really pulled punches in the past, but I feel like I want to be able to talk more freely. Not that those other venues don’t permit me to do it, because I run them anyway. But I kind of like the idea of going back to an email list.
Actually, I had started an email list back during the Matthew Shepard fight. I had some kind of email list I did for updates, I remember, and it got really big during Dr. Laura, I had like 20,000 or 25,000 people who subscribed, which is kind of cool, because it’s not like today where they didn’t click a box. They joined you because they said, “Oh, that’s a neat newsletter.” And I was doing weekly updates about gay and LGBT news. So I really sort of started with email, and I liked the idea of coming back to it, because honestly, Substack is a blog with emails. I mean, they’re presenting it as something new. The neat part about it is you can get donations and actually use it as a funding platform, which is kind of cool. So in a way, I felt like it was kind of going back almost to the beginning with email and almost the beginning of my story, with blogging.
So those are the four issues that are worrying me and concerning me. And I think hopefully, I’ve got a comparative advantage or something smart that I can say. We’ll see.
Read more of John Aravosis at AMERICAblog.com.
Sign up for his Substack newsletter at CyberDisobedience.com.
Tune into his podcast at Patreon.com/UnPresidentedPodcast.
Follow him on Twitter at @Aravosis.
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