Born This Way: Q&A with Paul Vitagliano

On October 11th, National Coming Out Day, CLAGS will host a
Book Launch for Paul Vitagliano’s soon-to-be-released book,
Born This Way: Real Stories of Growing Up Gay. Based on the
popular blog of the same name, Born This Way is a celebration
of gay coming-of-age, featuring childhood photographs
accompanied by the personal stories of those who grew up
LGBTQ. The book features contributors from around the world,
dating from the 1940s to today. The event will include an interview
with author Paul Vitagliano and readings from some
of the book’s many contributors, including Michael Musto
(Columnist, The Village Voice), Bill Coleman (Owner, Peace
Bisquit), and Noah Michelson (Editor, Gay Voices, The Huffington
Post). Visit www.clags.org for more information on this
event. Benjamin Gillespie, CLAGS Events Coordinator has interviewed
Paul Vitagliano/DJ Paul V.
Benjamin Gillespie (BG) Tell me why you started the Born This
Way project. Why or how were you inspired to create a photo essay
project? How do you think it grew to be as immensely popular as it
did?
Paul Vitagliano (PV) It all started with a childhood photo my
friend Dennis posted to MySpace in 2008. I realized that we all have
these amazing photos and stories about growing up gay. (By the way,
that photo of Dennis is on the book’s cover!) But few of us ever talk
about our childhood, even with close friends. The Born This Way blog
is a forum where people can feel welcome—and, in some cases, safe
enough—to share incredibly personal stories with the world. It immediately
resonated with people, and the blog has now had over 4
million visitors since I launched it in 2011.
BG What pushed you to turn the project into a book?
PV When six gay kids committed suicide within the span of one
month, I got so sad and enraged it motivated me to do something.
I launched Born This Way online, and the overwhelming reader response
helped me develop it into a book.
BG You use a chronological style in the book, working from the late
1940s up to 1990. Can you tell us a little bit more about the choice
of representing different generations of coming out stories? How did
you choose which contributors would be included in the book?
PV Growing up gay in the 1950s was very different from growing up
gay in the ‘70s or the ‘90s. And I want people to see that. It’s also interesting
to see some of the similarities. Even in the 1950s, the support
of a loving parent or a good teacher could do wonders for a child.
So for the book, I chose contributors of all generations, backgrounds,
genders, and religions. There are so many great stories and photos
that it was difficult to decide who’d make the cut.
BG Why do you think it is important for both LGBT adults and
LGBT youth to have forums for discussion like the one you created?
What is the importance of sharing queer stories and narratives
publically, do you think?
PV Forums like Born This Way show young gay kids that they’re
not alone. LGBTQ narratives also educate the straight community,
especially parents. Everyone has gay family members and friends.
But much of straight society has no concept of the hatred, violence,
and discrimination that gay children face.
BG The photos in the book are so hilariously campy, but also
quite touching. Is it true that it was the photos that inspired the
Born This Way project?
PV When the blog started, some people were under the impression
that they had to find the campiest, most stereotypical photo
to be considered for posting, which is not true at all. It’s important
to let go of our guilt about all the layers of masculine and feminine
within the LGBTQ community. We come in every size, shape,
and form, just like straight people do, and all these variations are
equally real and valid.
BG Many of the contributors urge young people to come out of
the closet as soon as they can, stating that their own lives became
much better after they had come out. Are you also of this opinion?
PV Yes, 100%. But it’s easy to say that without knowing if a person’s
circumstances make it hard, if not dangerous, to fearlessly
state they are gay. I advocate coming out as soon as you can, but
only once you’re ready, secure, and safe enough to do so.
BG To follow up on my previous question, all of the stories in the
book share a generally positive outcome in the lives of the contributors
after they came out. What about all those stories that are
not so positive? What do you see this project doing for the youth of
today that are fighting homophobia, bullying, and shame or guilt
related to their sexuality, either before or after coming out?
PV I wanted the larger message to be: I faced the same adversity
you do today, and I ended up as a happy, loved, and proud
gay adult. I omitted particularly painful memories simply because
I wanted this book to illuminate the positive and be appropriate
reading material for kids as well as adults.
BG What was your coming out story? Did you include it in the
book? Why or why not?
PV I was taunted, teased, and sometimes beat up. Once I graduated
and left my hometown, I blossomed and never looked back,
which I think is a very common occurrence. I tell part of my story in
the book’s introduction, but I wanted the project to be more about
all the contributors and less about me.
BG How do you see your project relating to the “It Gets Better”
project, started by Dan Savage? What about Lady Gaga’s gay anthem,
“Born this Way?”
PV I see my project as part of a larger zeitgeist: The world is
finally tipping in support of full equality for the LGBTQ community!
Lady Gaga is an incredible artist and I have huge respect for her.
Her message is aligned with my project’s goal, and that of the
larger gay community. Gay people have talked about being “born
this way” for decades, but only recently have we been able to celebrate
it! Gaga sings about it with powerful conviction; I ask the
people she’s singing about to tell their own story.