“Just like saying ‘That’s so gay’ or calling someone ‘queer’ — when used in a derogatory manner — the word ‘sissy’ is often used to demean someone by linking them to femininity. In our culture, the definition of ‘feminine’ is ‘has sex with men’: Straight women and gay men are considered feminine. The definition of ‘masculinity’ is ‘has sex with women’: Straight men and lesbians are considered masculine.”—
This week’s subject, J. Nathan Bazzel, has had it with stereotypes and the shame that comes with them. His long journey brought him to a point where he has proudly embraced his identity as a receptive male in a society that often shames people into silence. He’s looking to change all that.
PGN: You came out at 15. What was it like coming out in the late ’80s?
JNB: I went to Neshaminy High School in Bucks County, which was known as a “jock” school. They were very proud of their football team and still use the name “Redskins,” unapologetically I might add. I knew gay people growing up but it still didn’t make it any easier. I was involved with the theater-arts programs and the chorus. One of my friends in the choir had gone downtown — he was a pretty diverse kind of guy, straight as far as I know — and he’d come back with a stack of PGNs. He brought them to the choir room and was passing them out; really he was doing it as a joke, but I slipped one into my bag. When I got home, I ran up to my room and started going through it. I found a youth group, which was meeting at the corner of Walnut and Camac. I went there — nervous — but I met a bunch of kids just like me. They were from all over: some from Montgomery County schools, some from Philadelphia schools, about eight-10 of us. We met down in the basement, I want to say it was on Saturday afternoons, and Franny Price was one of the coordinators. Franny is one of the first people I met and she very quickly became a mentor to me. Back at school I was really trying to understand myself and who I was discovering.
PGN: What was the scariest moment?
JNB: I grew up in a very arts-filled family: My mother worked in costumes, but she was also very conservative in many ways. I started having issues at school as other kids started to assume or guess that I was gay. I remember one event in school where two wrestlers had cornered me in the locker room. The way locker rooms are configured, the gym teachers can’t see anything. They started really pushing me around so I grabbed one kid by the back of the head and slammed it into the locker and started yelling. The gym teacher came in and I knew that I was going to have a problem. I told my mother and the first words out of her mouth were, “Well, you never had a positive male role model.” Absolutely not true: My father was a blue-collar guy who worked incredibly hard for U.S. Steel as an electrician to support his family. He has two Bronze Stars from military service in Vietnam, but that’s what she said. When I finally came out in school, there were some very supportive teachers like Ted Kloos, the choir director. His first words were, “My God, I knew there was a reason you were so talented!” He immediately put a positive spin on it. But gym class became problematic; it’s where you’re most vulnerable. You’re semi-naked in the locker room, you don’t want to go into the shower because you don’t want something to happen, either physically or emotionally. It’s very awkward, but there was a female gym teacher and she was magnificent. She convinced the school to put me into what was called “adaptive gym” to help me feel safe. At the same time, I became a bit of an activist. There was a history teacher who’d been there since my mother and one day for some reason she started talking about “the homosexuals” and describing various explicit acts to warn us against these “terrible people” who would do these “nasty things.” She actually described fisting to make her point! I walked out and went to the principal’s office. I told them that I was gay and it wasn’t acceptable. To my surprise, my mother backed me up, but the whole thing was uncomfortable.
PGN: What did you do after high school?
JNB: I went to Bucks County Community College, but school just never fit me. I did get involved with the LGBT group there called The Open Door, and I was still dating my high-school boyfriend, who was actually 11 years older than me. Interestingly, my parents were fine with that. But I always knew that I wanted to get into the city; I felt that it would give me a sense of protection. So I moved here and got an apprenticeship at the Walnut Street Theatre. I’d studied history in college and found myself working with 76 Carriage Company doing tours. One day, dressed in one of the colonial outfits that my mother had made for me, I was discovered by Ralph Archbold, who played Ben Franklin for many years; most people have seen him in the Visit Philly commercials, etc. He asked if I would be interested in portraying Thomas Jefferson and I ended up doing it for 15-16 years. I worked for the State Department, I worked for the White House, for members of Congress, became Ralph’s business partner for many years and got to travel all across the country and around the world. It was a lot of fun.
PGN: That’s amazing.
JNB: It was, but there was an incident that happened just before I started working as Jefferson that led to a lot of what I do now. I was violently raped in my home. In the support given to women who are victims of rape, they repeat the message, “It’s not your fault.” Not disputing that there are those who tell women that they are responsible for one reason or another, but the larger message is to reassure them that they are not the cause. There are wonderful organizations like Women Organized Against Rape who reinforce that. But with men, society seems to have the attitude that we can’t be raped, that we should be able to fight off an attack, that we can only get an erection if we’re truly interested. Not the case. After I was raped, I laid in my bed for 24 hours in my own blood. I had just started dating my then-boyfriend and, like most male rape victims, we try to normalize our lives as quickly as possible. My first action was to suggest, “Let’s move in together!” so that I could get out of my apartment. Like many rape victims, I had difficulty sexually with my partner; before the rape I’d been a bottom and that’s how we were accustomed to engaging. I felt I couldn’t just switch on him but during sex I’d totally disengage. Gone. I’d just stare at the wall and it’s what ended our seven-year relationship. It was tough.
PGN: I understand that there was an incident at OutFest that helped turn things around and led to your current activism.
JNB: Yes. First, I believe that rape is the most violent crime that can happen to a person. If you’re murdered, you’re deceased; the pain stops. But a rape victim will relive the pain again and again in various ways for the rest of our lives. After the breakup, I decided that I needed to become a top sexually. “I’m going to be the penetrative partner!” and no joke, I ended up with the worst sex life imaginable for 20 years: a good part of it spent alone and virtually celibate. In May, I was with someone who turned the tables on me in a way that I was amenable to. I went home and had a meltdown and realized, This all is connected to that damned rape! It’s all connected! And I realized that being a receptive partner was who I really was and that it was OK. For most of my life, I tried to be something I wasn’t because society told me “it’s more masculine” to be a “top” and that all receptive partners are “swishy,” “weak,” “effeminate,” “submissive.” I started reading up on bottom-shaming. Just as society treats women as weaker and less than men, receptive male partners are treated even less than that. Even the term we use to describe it places us at the “bottom” of the list. Most of the anti-LGBT rants that you see towards men are really rants against the male receptor. Even “Fuck you!” — if you think about it — is saying that getting fucked is an undesirable thing. So I decided to say, “You know what? I need to be me, this is who I am and I’m OK with it.” I started reaching back out to the leather community, which I’d dabbled with back when I was with my first boyfriend. So, back to OutFest … I’ve been working with various police organizations — I’m the secretary to Commissioner Ross’ LGBT liaison committee — so I was outside of Knock standing with some of the officers and one of the religious groups was out there with their megaphones spewing their antigay message. I have a dear friend who is a trans woman and an activist — she’s a fellow Scot and I adore her — but she suddenly said, “I know how to stop this!” She took a piece of paper and made a sign that said, “Street preachers suck cock!” and stood in front of them. As other LGBT people hurled out “insults” to them like “Cock sucker!” and “You probably take it up the ass!” I walked over and said, “What the hell are you doing?” She started to say, “I’m just trying to … ” “Shame them,” I finished. “You’re trying to shame them by using a male receptive act as an insult.” It started to infuriate me, and I went home and put on my leather boots and harness, leather jacket, gloves and hat. I made a sign that said, “Stop Bottom Shaming” and went back. I stood right beside her and held my sign high in my best Norma Rae/Sally Field imitation and something amazing happened. People stopped. They got the message and within two minutes people started coming over and giving me hugs and kisses, high-fiving me, shaking my hand. People were smiling and giving me thumbs-up.
PGN: That’s wonderful.
JNB: And then something happened that really moved me. There was a young kid about 18 who came up and asked if he could talk to me. I said sure and he asked, “How did you know you’re a bottom?” I told him that for me, it was just where I felt most comfortable. He told me that he had a new boyfriend and they were starting to fool around and that it was really painful. So I sat down with him and talked and he was telling me that they’d been watching porn to try to learn what to do. Ugh! I don’t know if you’re aware, Suzi, but one of the fastest-growing areas of gay porn are sites that glorify sketchy sex and frat-house videos where they promote unprotected sex and encourage male rape culture in a startling way. Often it’s shot like reality TV in a frat house where they’re drinking and smoking and they’ll grab a guy with the implication that if you fuck him long enough, over his protests, he’ll start to love it. I explained to him that those videos aren’t real, they might look like hidden-camera reality but that they’re very staged and there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes to make it look like it does. I explained that he needed to understand how muscles work and how your body structure and anatomy are positioned. I asked him if he’d ever seen the commercial for the Squatty Potty. “I think so?” And I told him that it was actually quite helpful because they show, in a fun way with rainbows and unicorns, how that area functions and how to open those muscles. As we spoke, I realized what a need there was for young people to learn about real sex, gay sex.
PGN: Yes, it’s not something that most schools are going to address.
JNB: Exactly. We barely teach heterosexual sex, but we never teach gay or lesbian sex; we simply don’t. I was talking to some of the guys in The Bike Stop and they were saying that, back in the day, there were clubs where you could learn about whatever interests you might have. The older members of the community would answer questions about anything. But AIDS wiped out a good portion of that generation and pushed society to become much more conservative about talking about sex. That needs to end. We’re still seeing unacceptable numbers of HIV infection and staggering new numbers of syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia. I can’t say who yet, but I’m partnering up with a health organization to work on a project; we should be making an announcement very soon. People can look for the Facebook group, which will be called “The Bottom Line Philadelphia” to find out more information. I’m really excited about it.
PGN: Cool. Time for a random question: What’s your go-to karaoke song?
JNB: [Laughs] “On the Street Where You Live” from “My Fair Lady.”
PGN: Most unusual possession?
JNB: Trying to think of one that won’t get me arrested! Oh, I have the whiskers from my late cat. It’s sentimental; she used to tickle me with them.
PGN: You played Thomas Jefferson. Who should play you?
JNB: Matt Damon! I want to see him in knee-high boots and a harness.
PGN: [Laughs] Did your affinity for leather come from being around all the horse gear when driving a carriage?
JNB: Ha! No, my harness, which I still have, was given to me by my first boyfriend when I was 18. It’s funny, I’m just coming out again as a leather man. The night of the Pulse fundraiser, I dug my harness out, put it on underneath a shirt and went into The Bike Stop and ran into Rudy Flesher, who as Mr. Leather has been an inspiration to me. I took off my shirt to reveal the harness, and without looking down or taking his eyes away from my eyes, he just smiled and said, “Welcome.”