Popular

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The most progressive iteration of the pride flag suggests a united queer front. The traditional bright rainbow stripes we’re all familiar with are still there, representing folks who identify as LGBTQIA (or any other letter under the sun). For added inclusivity, a triangular formation of stripes comes in from the left—pastel pink, blue, and white for the trans community; black and brown for queer folks of color. It brings to mind a crowd of people of all genders, races, and identities marching together, chanting, “Love wins!” with wide eyes and grins.

But the reality is not so much of a Netflix original movie. Queer communities are, and have always been, rife with racism, transphobia, misogyny, classism, ablelism, and plain old bullying. A new three-episode podcast from the Gay & Lesbian Review and haus of bambi explores this dark underbelly of the District’s queer community, with a specific focus on the cliques and cliches gay men face. Titled Popular, it uses popularity as a framework to explore the social hierarchies that D.C. gays create for themselves.

Host William Keiser, 25, moved to U Street NW right before the pandemic, he tells City Paper. He fell into a “clique of really mean, White gays,” where he never felt totally included. So when vaccines rolled out last year, and made traditional modes of socializing feasible once again, Keiser made a point of branching out—right into the heart of D.C.’s gay life. It was in this context—going out to gay bars, hooking up with men on dating apps, joining a queer kickball team—that Keiser became interested in “middle school bullshit.”

“I consciously chose this childish way in, and this character of somebody who cares about middle school popularity, because I think that identity politics—even though it’s been smeared by the Right—started as a new enlightenment about how we interact in the world,” Keiser says. “We’re in this new age of embodied knowledge. We’re able now, finally, to talk about how the body that we’re in influences the experiences that we have.”

On Popular, Keiser gets much more specific than mere identity categories such as race, class, and gender to talk about D.C. queers. In the first episode, he introduces listeners to a gaggle of “VIDA gays” sprawled across the grass in Logan Circle. “A dazzling array of shirtless Adonises. Insta-gays with washboard abs. They sit in neat, entirely homogeneous circles, and sport identically brutal fades. Their mouths hang open, laughing at some inaudible joke, displaying perfectly white teeth.” Keiser named the men for their membership to VIDA Fitness, the luxury gym popular with gay men. It’s like a “gayer version of Equinox,” Keiser tells listeners.

The first episode of Popular explores the role that D.C.’s geography plays in popularity. Keiser takes listeners on a tour of gay hangouts—Number Nine, Trade, Nellie’s Sports Bar, Uproar, Pitchers, Green Lantern. These spots are largely concentrated in Northwest, particularly 14th and U Streets. Keiser traces the transformation of these neighborhoods from centers of Black excellence to sites of gentrification driven by young, well-off out-of-towners—people like Keiser himself. He explores how the same forces driving gentrification and displacement also drive injustice in gay spaces, such as when Nellie’s security personnel violently dragged a Black woman down the stairs last summer.

Episode two of Popular investigates who gets left behind while the VIDA gays get crowned prom kings. Listeners hear from queer women and nonbinary people who have been harassed by cis gay men in “safe spaces,” an older, plus-size Black man who was ignored by White gays in his kickball league, and Justin Boatner, an autistic gay man who’s faced double the discrimination for those two facets of his identity (Boatner hosts his own podcast, Autism With A Voice). 

In episode three, Keiser dives into gay hookup culture and apps—Grindr, specifically. He breaks down the glossary of sex terms gay men identify themselves and each other with (power bottom; verse top, etc.), and investigates how that categorical process creates social hierarchies. Each episode of Popular is interspersed with interviews with D.C. gays such as author of 1978’s Dancer From the Dance Andrew Holleran, choreographer Tariq Darrell O’Meally, and young men Keiser met through dating apps. 

Keiser also weaves in details from his own life. In a particularly touching moment in episode three, he makes a call for normalizing consent: “I wonder if I would have to be such a so-called ‘power bottom’ if men would just ask me what I wanted,” he says. “And at my most impractical, I imagine what that would be like. If asking—not assuming, not objectifying—were just … normal.”

Popular asks more questions than it answers. Keiser is well aware of that. He’s not an experienced journalist or podcast producer—he’s a former dancer who now resides in Austin and is trying to make it as a screenwriter. But he couldn’t stop thinking about the social hierarchies he observed in D.C.’s gay community, so he pitched the idea of a podcast to the Gay & Lesbian Review. “My impression was that other people around me were thriving. It took me actually concentrating on this question and asking people to realize that nobody feels … nobody I talked to felt like they were coasting—even if they seemed like they were absolutely coasting—or like they absolutely belonged.”

Though Popular makes a point of calling out the injustice of cis, White, gay men tending to have the most power in queer spaces, it also centers that demographic in its narrative. And while it hands the microphone over to many others, some communities are still left out. D.C.’s trans community, for example, is almost entirely absent from the podcast. It’s a blind spot Keiser seems aware of. “I would love to have spent more time on questions surrounding what the trans community looks like,” he says. “There are honestly just so many things that I didn’t get to.”

For his part, Keiser has no plans to produce more episodes of Popular. He’s interested in continuing his exploration of these topics through his screenwriting instead. But his biggest hope for the podcast? 

“My biggest hope would be that somebody would listen to it, someone from a more marginalized experience would listen to it and be like, ‘Oh, this is comprehensive. This is interesting. I want to do one of these … I feel empowered to speak, I feel like my voice has value,’” Keiser says. “If you don’t like it, and you’re like, ‘Mmm, this is wrong,’ I want you to make your own.”

The Gay & Lesbian Review would be quite interested in such a project, he adds.  

Listen to Popular on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever else you get your podcasts.