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Seeing in the new year with Jazz Jennings

by Victoria A. Brownworth

CBS News: "Jazz Jennings says she's doing great." Photo: Courtesy CBS News
CBS News: "Jazz Jennings says she's doing great." Photo: Courtesy CBS News  

We try to give TV series three episodes before we decide a show is irredeemable. We're trying to give 2019 at least a month before we make the same decision, but this new year doesn't look as shiny and fresh as it did a couple of weeks ago when the ball was dropping on a rainy East Coast New Year's Eve.

Of course Nancy Pelosi throwing shade every day has given us life, as has the relentless clapback from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the conservatives who just can't quit her. And Kamala Harris has a resting bitch face that should be marketed. But we are so tired of the Trump Tantrum series, and it's on every single day, on every network, like the worst telenovela ever.

Fortunately there is Netflix and a plethora of other TV to remind us that art, drama, comedy and terrific acting are totally acceptable distractions in the darkest of times. And there is other reality TV that really is worth watching. (An aside here: Netflix opted out of filming in North Carolina on Jan. 10 because of HB 2, the anti-LGBTQ legislation in NC. The loss of revenue will cost the state millions, including $60 million for a 10-part limited series "OBX," originally slated to be filmed in NC's Outer Banks.)

That's why we're starting the new year the way we saw out the old year: Binge-watching, "Bird Box"-ing and generally searching for strong women, fey men and lots of non-binary, GNC and trans folks on the tube to keep us grounded in our LGBTQ reality. Folks like Jazz Jennings, who celebrated both her sex reassignment surgery and a decade on TV this month. ABC did a look-back on her on the Jan. 10 broadcast of "World News Now" with JuJu Chang. It was something to see her again as a six-year-old trans girl talking with Barbara Walters about being a girl, not a boy, in her first TV interview in 2007. That little girl was so poised and sure of herself.

The episode of "20/20" was defining and had to have helped millions who saw it to understand trans people better. Jazz was, according to the ABC report, the youngest self-identified trans person ever. Her parents said she told them she was a girl as soon as she could speak, and was diagnosed with gender dysphoria at age four. Her parents embraced that gender change for Jazz's 5th birthday. We wrote about that interview at the time here. It was the dawn of reporting on trans kids, and while there were fumbles in getting the reporting right (Walters was pretty good), Jazz stood out as an exceptional person even then.

As she heads into adulthood, she's had her own TV series, "I Am Jazz" on TLC since 2015. The fifth season premiered on New Year's Day. Jazz has done so much to demystify life as a young trans person in an ever-evolving era of acceptance (and not). Her decision to make her surgery public was both brave and daring, and likely gave a lot of other trans people and their families both hope and support.

Jazz spoke about her sex reassignment surgery in detail and very openly. It's hard sometimes to remember that Jazz is still just 18, yet she manages to meld this teenage excitement she has about her life with her very mature ability to explain things to a wider, adult audience.

She's an amazing young woman, and she was a good person with whom to see in the queer new year. Revisiting her past and her excitement with her present (the surgeon came out after the five-hour surgery to tell her parents, "Congratulations, it's a girl!") in the ABC segment was very moving. You can see it at ABC.go.

What to say about ABC deciding to tell the Monica Lewinsky story yet again? We watched about a half-hour of the two-hour special on Jan. 10, the 20-year anniversary of the Clinton impeachment trial, before we fled to "The Good Place" for mind bleach. ABC promo'd the special with a clip of Lewinsky telling her duplicitous bestie Linda Tripp to keep her from ever getting involved with a married man again. But moments later she's talking about how hot Bill Clinton was (and he was hot in those years; no president since JFK had exuded a sexual aura the way he did).

ABC headlined the special with this clickbait: "'The president has a girlfriend: Linda Tripp's betrayal of Monica Lewinsky and the taped phone calls. The phone calls eventually helped lead to the impeachment of Pres. Clinton."

True. But in reality, it was an extramarital affair that the GOP turned into an actual witch-hunt that damaged Lewinsky's reputation irredeemably and became the best-known aspect of Clinton's presidency. The fact remains, it never should have been made public, and that was the doing of Tripp and the Cotton Mather of his era, Kenneth Starr.

It feels so voyeuristic listening to these tapes and Lewinsky's intense infatuation. We're embarrassed for her as we listen with all the knowledge of the past 25 years. (We also had flashes of John Goodman playing the terrible Tripp on "SNL.") It's difficult to understand what Lewinsky wants out of yet another go-round at her story, a quarter-century later. It seems that a woman who has an advanced degree from the London School of Economics might take another path than revisiting her affaire de coeur from when she was 20something. Color us appalled at ABC for this unnecessary and unwanted "history." Impeachment for a blowjob, when we have yet to impeach the guy who stole an election.

There have been mixed reviews of dream hampton's labor of love for black women victims of sexual abuse, Lifetime's six-part docuseries "Surviving R. Kelly." But how much of those mixed reviews have to do with the refusal of audiences and critics to hold celebrities accountable for their actions? We admit, having survived an attack by a serial rapist several years ago in which we were nearly killed, we couldn't watch the entire six hours, it was that painful to witness. But the hours we did watch were incredibly powerful and utterly damning.

Everything we know about the #MeToo movement says we have ignored and dismissed assaults on women of color, lesbians, trans women and working-class women. "Surviving R. Kelly" reinforces that horrific reality. The majority of the women who have declared themselves to have been victims of the hip hop performer were young, black and of a far lower economic status than Kelly. This lower economic status was also true of the majority of the victims of Bill Cosby, although they were of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, and it was a biracial lesbian whose testimony finally convicted the comedian last year.

"Surviving R. Kelly" has created repercussions. Kim Foxx, Cook County State's Attorney, told ABC News that claims of some of the alleged victims would be looked into. Several families allege that Kelly is holding their underage daughters against their will.

Kelly's attorney has been adamant that his client is guilty of nothing illegal, but there have been calls to #MuteRKelly at radio stations across the country. Lady Gaga has pulled her 2013 single with Kelly "Do What U Want" from iTunes and Apple music. Gaga issued a statement that she would no longer support the playing of her work with Kelly, and said in part, "I stand behind anyone who has ever been the victim of sexual assault," and, "I stand behind these women 1000%, believe them, know they are suffering and in pain, and feel strongly that their voices should be heard and taken seriously. What I am hearing about the allegations against R. Kelly is absolutely horrifying and indefensible."

During the airing of the series, the National Sexual Assault Hotline noted a 27% increase in phone calls. Some of the women who appeared were Tarana Burke, who founded the #MeToo movement, Sparkle and Wendy Williams. Several performers were willing to appear in the docuseries, including John Legend and Chance the Rapper. In the final episode, C the R said, "I didn't value the accusers' stories because they were black women." Sadly, he may have spoken for almost everyone. Bravo to all those who helped bring this story and series to Lifetime, including dream hampton, Tamra Simmons, Jesse Daniels and Joel Karsberg.

Global warning

The quest for justice for victims of powerful predatory men is elusive for most, particularly those who fall outside the accepted status of victim, like young gay men in Hollywood. Like the victims of Bryan Singer. And with that in mind, we are still reeling from the fact that "Bohemian Rhapsody" won best picture at the Golden Globes, a film directed by Singer.

We agreed with many of the choices of winners, and especially loved the speeches from Regina King, Olivia Colman, who won for her bravura performance as the lesbian queen in "The Favourite," and the amazing Glenn Close.

We loved Darren Criss thanking his Filipina immigrant mother when he won for his amazing performance as Andrew Cunanan in "The Assassination of Gianni Versace." We agreed that Rami Malek deserved to win for his stellar performance as Freddie Mercury. But "Bohemian Rhapsody" was a homophobic mess, and Singer was fired before the film ended.

Singer was absent at the Golden Globes, but still took credit for the win on Instagram. "What an honor. Thank you, #HollywoodForeignPress," Singer wrote, sharing a photo from the film's set in which he is sitting in the director's chair. Ugh. You weren't invited to the party for a reason, dude.

When Singer was fired, it was allegedly due to complaints from Malek about unprofessionalism toward the cast. But coincidentally (or not), that same week Singer was accused in a lawsuit of having sexually assaulted a teenaged boy a decade earlier. There have been previous instances of Singer being accused of sexual assault of teen boys.

Evan Rachel Wood ("Westworld"), who has testified before Congress as a sexual assault survivor and is an out bisexual, voiced her outrage over Singer after the Golden Globes on Twitter:

"So we just..we are all still supposed to be pretending we don't know about Bryan Singer? Cause it worked out really well with #Spacey and #Weinstein."

Even more damning was U.K. film critic Kayleigh Donaldson, who tweeted, "Bryan Singer has multiple very credible accusations of rape and sexual assault against young men to his name, along with two decades of bad on-set behavior, rampant unprofessionalism and lawsuits. I am not sure why we have collectively agreed to ignore this."

Why indeed? Pretending Singer didn't direct the majority of the film (Dexter Fletcher finished the film) doesn't make it so. Continuing to give predatory men awards just tells victims they are worthless and their trauma meaningless.

Speaking of people who don't get the trauma of others, can Kevin Hart get off the stage for a while, please? The reformed homophobe was on Stephen Colbert after appearing on "GMA" and "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" all in a week's time, and it's enough already.

We loved Don Lemon's heartfelt explanation of why it mattered to him as a black gay man that Hart had made so many homophobic statements in the past. We hated Ellen's support for Hart, we weren't happy that Colbert treated it all like a joke. We were grateful to Terry Crews, who is a strong ally to both women and LGBTQ people, for saying that Hart is not the victim he's portrayed himself as being. Said Crews, "The truth is, Kevin, you're not being attacked. The truth is you have to just acknowledge the pain of other people. That's all anybody's asking for. That's it."

One comedian we don't have a problem with is Kathy Griffin, not just because she called us a "national treasure" on Twitter. Griffin is an outspoken critic of the Trump regime and a stalwart ally to LGBTQ people. What more could anyone want? Variety's New York bureau chief Ramin Sedtoodeh tweeted Jan. 10, "Wow. I just heard Kathy Griffin was at the Polo Lounge today when she saw that Les Moonves was near her. She loudly asked the waitress to move her, saying: 'I don't want to be seated next to a rapist.'"
The only real problem with public shaming as a weapon of choice is that those who most need it appear impervious to it. Former CBS head Moonves would seem to be one of those.

Another one of those is Dick Wolf, whom we've had a love/hate relationship with since the 90s when he debuted his "Law & Order" franchise. How do you have a show like "L&O: Special Victims Unit" set in New York City for 20 seasons and never have a single queer character? Yet here we are: queer characters no, queerbaiting yes.

In the first 30 seconds of the January opener, two beautiful women are kissing. Then a scene of a gay male couple in bed together. Then an accusation of rape against a man and his girlfriend. Then said girlfriend describes lesbian sex in detail to the two women detectives.

We are tired of this. We know the series is about sex crimes. We also know there are a negligible number of rapes by women. Don't make LGBTQ people the criminals when they are most often the victims, especially when you've never had a queer character in the main cast in two decades, and especially when lead detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) was prime lesbian material throughout that 20 years and your show could have broken ground by making her gay.

In the season opener of "Modern Family," Cam's sister Pam, who has been in prison and left her young monster son in the care of Cameron and Mitchell, gets out and moves in with our fave neutered male couple into their upstairs apartment. Upon her arrival Cam says she must have been so lonely in prison. Pam replies, "I dabbled in lesbianism. Didn't hate it."

Either you're laughing hysterically at that line like we did, or you're just, "Whut?" We hope it's the former.

Finally, set your DVRs or send out the invites for a nostalgia night. On Sun., Jan. 27, Fox is doing "Rent" live. The musical that brought HIV/AIDS into the consciousness of straight people (who really didn't get it) feels like a vivid part of our history, the more so because gay writer-director Jonathan Larson died the morning of the show's preview of an aortic aneurysm at only 35. He never lived to receive the Pulitzer Prize, Tony and Drama Desk Awards his musical would win.

In the live version, Vanessa Hudgens plays Maureen, Kiersey Clemons plays Joanne. With Valentina, Tinashe, Keala Settle, Jordan Fisher and more. "525,600 minutes. How do you measure, measure a year?" It's been 25 years since "Rent" first premiered. Hudgens was five, Valentina was two, Clemons, Tinashe and Fisher were all being born as the musical debuted. The legacy and music live on.

So for revivals, reality series and more drama than you can handle, you really must stay tuned.

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