photo of The Naked Civil Servant book cover, about Quentin Crisp

On Positive Gay Role Models: An Interview with David-Elijah Nahmod

Nearsighted is pleased to bring you an interview with film critic and writer, David-Elijah Nahmod.

Belo Cipriani: Who was the first gay person you looked up to and why?

David-Elijah Nahmod: Quentin Crisp. Born in England in 1908, Crisp coined the phrase “coming out of the closet” in 1931. His exact words were,”I wish to live in the world and not in a closet,” and he proceeded to be open about his identity as an effeminate gay man. For decades he was the lone out gay man in all of the UK. He endured numerous beatings, false arrests for prostitution while waiting for the bus, and denial of many public accommodations, but he stood his ground. That took amazing courage. He recounted these experiences in his 1966 memoir The Naked Civil Servant, which was filmed ten years later with John Hurt as Crisp. That film, and Crisp’s personal appearances in New York to promote it, were awe-inspiring to me when I was 20 and 21 years old. Years later, I produced a film called Red Ribbons in which Mr. Crisp, then living in New York, consented to star in. I can’t even begin to impress upon you how honored I was to get to know him and work with him. A few years ago, Irish author Nigel Kelly wrote a biography of Mr. Crisp titled Quentin Crisp: The Profession of Being. I was stunned when Kelly asked me to contribute a chapter, which I did.

Belo Cipriani: Do you have any other gay role models?

David-Elijah Nahmod: Other gay role models would be the 19th century author Oscar Wilde, and authors Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, who were a lesbian couple in the early part of the 20th Century. All of them lived honest and authentic lives before it was socially acceptable to do so. This took the same kind of courage we saw in Mr. Crisp. Also Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in U.S. history. He literally sacrificed his life. He knew that someone would try to kill him, and someone did. The drag queens and others who rioted against police brutality at the Stonewall Bar in New York in 1969, and the transgenders who did the same at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco three years earlier were also ground-breakers, worthy of our respect and deserving of our thanks.

Belo Cipriani: What do you think makes a role model?

David-Elijah Nahmod: Honesty and sincerity. Be authentic in everything you do, and do it with good intentions.

Belo Cipriani: Who are positive gay role models now?

David-Elijah Nahmod: Unfortunately, many of our activists don’t cut the muster. They’re more interested in celebrity than in social change, and they lack compassion for others. I’ve seen a lot of gay bloggers express hate and mean-spiritedness towards other LGBT people in recent years, and this is very saddening to me.

But we do have gay actors like Neil Patrick Harris, Jonathan Groff, Zachary Pinto, Matt Bomer, Jim Parsons, and personalities like Rosie O’Donnell, Chaz Bono, and Ellen DeGeneres who live their lives openly as who they are, and they do a lot of good. I find that TV shows like Glee, Modern Family and Days of Our Lives, with their wonderfully gay positive storylines and characters, offer our kids ongoing role models to look up to, which my generation never had. I also take inspiration from straight allies like Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Madonna, Whoopi Goldberg and Dolly Parton. Their support for LGBT people has always been unconditional and absolute. Dolly especially, who was raised as a conservative Christian in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, yet embraces everyone. I love Dolly’s quote: “I don’t have an affinity for anyone in particular, I just believe in the Lord and love everyone.” And now, with the emergence of Lady Gaga, bisexual kids have someone to look up to. That’s great! If I can go back to the 1980s and 90s, then the stand Elizabeth Taylor took for people with AIDS was extraordinary and unforgettable, something that must never be forgotten.

Belo Cipriani: What is the difference between gay role models from the past and the ones we have today?

David-Elijah Nahmod: Role models from the distant past didn’t have equality laws to fall back on. There was no LGBT community center or a city like San Francisco/West Hollywood, etc, for them to go to. They were on their own, and faced loss of jobs, evictions from their homes and police brutality for being who they were. Their courage in opening doors and laying the groundwork for what we’re seeing today cannot be overestimated. On the other hand, though she wasn’t going to be arrested for it, it took a lot of courage for Ellen to say the words “I’m gay” on TV in 1997. She reached 39 million people all at once with those two words. And for Chaz Bono to go on Dancing With the Stars so soon after his transition, yeah, that was pretty gutsy, and he, too, reached millions.  I also find inspiration from you and from Thom Bierdz, another gay author. Both of you have written books about healing and forgiveness, issues I struggle with daily, as I’ve been subjected to hate from the gay and anti-gay alike. I plan on rereading both of your books shortly as a kind of healing therapy for myself.

Belo Cipriani: Anyone who you consider a positive role model who often gets over looked?

David-Elijah Nahmod: You. You have a huge following outside of the gay community, but the gay community should be embracing you. I imagine that you offer a lot of hope to disabled LGBT people. Also Joel Crothers, an actor who was on soap operas from the mid-1960s until his death from AIDS in 1985. I had watched two of the shows he was on. He never hid the truth about who he was, and co-starred in the original production of the groundbreaking gay play Torch Song Trilogy without concern of whether or not this would affect his conservative soap opera fan base. He’s another example of someone who broke new ground.

Belo Cipriani: Do you think there is a lack of positive role models in the gay community?

David-Elijah Nahmod: Today we have many positive role models in popular culture, so the current generation have many they can look up to.

Belo Cipriani: Are there any organizations that you feel are doing a good job in fostering future gay role models?

David-Elijah Nahmod: I think the national gay organizations are a big disappointment. They’re unresponsive to the community’s needs and seem more interested in throwing cocktail parties than in getting anything done. They’ve become part of the problem. But if you go into the local communities, smaller localized organizations are doing amazing things: like Project Open Hand in San Francisco or God’s Love We Deliver in New York City, both of whom deliver hundreds, if not more, of cooked meals to the homes of people with AIDS at no charge every day. The SF LGBT Community Center is also a terrific place, offering the welcome mat to seniors, transgenders and kids, and they offer specific programs like job training and other kinds of counseling to help them help themselves. The Center has a weekly meal night for homeless LGBT youth. I know one of those kids. With the Center’s help, he went from being broke and homeless to having a well paying job at Ebay and his own apartment. He also serves as San Francisco’s Youth Commissioner at City Hall. It was the programs at the LGBT Center that helped him achieve this. He now works towards doing the same for others.

Thank you for having me, Belo. You do great work

David-Elijah Nahmod is a film critic and reporter in San Francisco. His articles appear regularly in The Bay Area Reporter and SF Weekly. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter.

Belo Cipriani View more

Belo Cipriani is the award-winning author of Blind: A Memoir and Midday Dreams. He is a disability advocate, a spokesman for Guide Dogs for the Blind, and is currently the national spokesman for 100 Percent Wine -- a premium winery that donates 100 percent of proceeds to nonprofits that help people with disabilities find work.