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Interview: Boys Editor Zach Stafford Looks At Local LGBT Culture Beyond Boystown

By Tony Peregrin in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 12, 2013 8:15PM

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White and fit describes the stereotypical boy-next-door in Boystown, according to Zach Stafford, co-editor of Boys, a new LGBTQ anthology that unzips this broad-shouldered, thin-waisted, colorless cliché to reveal the diverse lives of gay, queer, and trans* men from around the world—including a number of Chicago writers such as Huffington Post Chicago editor Joseph Erbentraut (a former Chicagoist contributor) and Thought Catalog's Patrick Gill.

The collection, co-edited by Nico Lang (a producer for Thought Catalog) reimagines what it means to be a "boy" with an honesty and rigor that brings to mind Lena Dunham’s polarizing HBO series Girls, although that comparison makes Stafford, a columnist at the RedEye, visibly wince for reasons he outlines in this interview.

Released as an e-book at the end of October, Boys debuted at number one on’s LGBT best seller list, according to Stafford, and still regularly holds a place in the top 20. (The print edition of the anthology is scheduled to be released next month.)

In an interview with Chicagoist, Stafford, 23, explains why gay men still have “a lot of growing up to do” and reveals why marriage equality in Illinois scares the hell out of him.

Zach Stafford. (Photographer: Grant Legan.)
Chicagoist: A goal of the Boys anthology is to showcase the stories of gay men who don't fit the Boystown stereotype. What is that stereotype—and is it specific to Chicago or does it translate to other gay meccas as well?

Zach Stafford: I think a huge stereotype we see all over the media and within any representation of gay men is white, middle-class and of certain body types—usually fit. If you walked into Boystown right now, that’s what you’d see a plethora of—same goes with the other meccas. But gay boys and men are much more than that, and deserve to be represented as much more than that. As a man of color, I only saw images on TV or in the media of gay men’s lives that were and are nothing like mine. These men didn’t look like me or act like me or, to be honest, were attracted to me. So, this book does take on that stereotype or image and pushes readers to see the many different lives one can have and be gay or queer or what have you.

Chicagoist: Is the title and content of Boys inspired by the HBO series Girls?

Zach Stafford: Oh, Lena Dunham. She is such an interesting person. I really appreciate her work and what it has done for twenty-somethings who are creative, especially writers. And Boys was inspired in many ways by Girls, but that inspiration came from what we, as editors, saw as lacking in her show. Girls has famously erased people of color and other folks who are very present in a modern-day Brooklyn, and she has received lots of critique over her version of Brooklyn.

In a way, her show did exactly what I hate about gay culture and representations of gay people—forced them into a box that was white etcetera—and said ‘This is what it means to be a xyz.’ I hate that sort of homogenizing of a group or people. Of course, Lena argues that she was just trying to show her life, which I get to some extent. But I think it’s one’s responsibility, when you have the platform Lena has, to really bring on lives and stories that aren’t necessarily just about your experiences. I think that is what Boys tries to do.

Chicagoist: You’ve stated the gay community has “a lot of growing to do” and that “we’re not fully realized yet.” Expand on that observation.

Zach Stafford: In the context of this statement I was being asked about gay men in Boystown, which I still stand by. Like, listen I totally get the scene. Hell, I am out a lot too. But so many people out and about don’t think about anything beyond the one “radical” Facebook status they posted about marriage [equality] or that one charity event they went to that raised money for a LGBT group. And instead they are just out in Boystown, day-in and day-out, drinking, partying, having a kiki. That is all dandy, but I want to see much more out of a group of people that have so much talent, creativity, and passion.

Sometimes I feel like Boystown can act like this black hole and many don’t realize their lost till it’s too late. I know I went through that once. That’s why I said “not fully realized” because we aren’t. And once we are, damn, watch out world. But before we get there we need to start dealing with some real shit that is happening in our community. Like homelessness, racism, classism, HIV/AIDS. I am so afraid that now that marriage passed in Illinois so many people are just going to think "Hey! We are here! I am a full citizen!" And people are just going to go on about their days and think the world is perfect and all the problems are gone. That is probably the scariest thing to me right now.

"I am so afraid that now that marriage passed in Illinois so many people are just going to think "Hey! We are here! I am a full citizen!" And people are just going to go on about their days and think the world is perfect and all the problems are gone. That is probably the scariest thing to me right now."
Chicagoist: The essay you wrote for Boys addresses the challenges of coming out while also being bulimic. Gay pop culture is littered with references to eating disorders as being somehow glamorous, right? Talk a little about your experiences and the reactions you’ve been getting to your essay.

Zach Stafford: Oh, god! It is presented in such a glamorous way! I remember when I was younger and watching Will & Grace and seeing Jack McFarland talking about how there were purging stations in the men’s room at the Gay TV Network he worked at. And I remember thinking: ‘Oh! So I’m supposed to do that too, right?’ I was already dealing with an eating disorder at the time, but to see it portrayed in this humorous and celebrated way on major network television has always stuck with me.

Since the book came out I have been out at gay bars and had men, and women, approach me—some even started crying —speaking at length of their battles with eating disorders. It is extremely sad that eating disorders are like epidemics in our community, but ones that garner people so much positive attention. I could probably get on Facebook right now and see a photo of someone at the gym taking a picture of their cardio workout, and the machine shows hundreds of calories burned over an hour time. That picture will probably have like 30 likes and have statements littered over it like, “Great job, man!” or “Cardio days are my favorite!” And that is so depressing to me. Working out should be about you and your body and making yourself feel great. Not working towards an ideal that has all your Facebook friends digitally-clapping for you. That is just not healthy in my eyes. But in the eyes of so many gay men this is what it means to be gay.

Chicagoist: What’s your favorite essay in the anthology?

Zach Stafford: This is like asking a parent who their favorite child is, Tony! I love all of them equally! (Laughs). But seriously, I think one essay I connected to most is called Confessions of a Snow Queen written by an activist in New York City named Alok Vaid-Menon. His essay is this poetic piece that jumps from Texas to California to India, and wrangles—in one of the most visceral ways I’ve seen —with topics like finding love while being a brown person who dates white men, living in a world that has said you're less than because you’re brown, trying to resist dating white men because you fear you may be perpetuating the very thing you are fighting [namely] beauty/white privilege, and so much more.

Boys is available now as an e-book and will be available in print next month. All proceeds are being donated to the Lambda Literary Foundation to support LGBTQ writers and literature. A book tour is in the works and an event celebrating Boys is scheduled for December 13th (details to be announced soon).