Not every journalist or academic — let alone a 44-year-old Black, gay man who is both — can obtain the eyes and ears of so many people in so many sectors in the way that Dr. Steven W. Thrasher has. He has seemingly always made it to the place he’s needed to be at the time that’s best: Thrasher was working in television and film in the 90s and 2000s – including on The Laramie Project (2002), documenting the murder of Matthew Shepard and aftermath – as the LGBTQ+ movement entered a pivotal phase.
His journalism career took off in the late 2000s as he began documenting the fight for and against marriage equality in and out of New York. Then, Thrasher was on the ground as movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter began. In recent years, with the pandemic and other extreme socio-political shifts, his columns in the Guardian and Scientific American offered clarity and levity.
His first book — The Viral Underclass, released on August 2 — identifies and decodes the fact that “there are vast inequalities in who is able to survive viruses,” just as monkeypox rises in profile across the world.
The Northwestern professor and veteran wordsmith talks to Juwan Holmes about the lessons readers can get from his book, the guidance journalists can take away from his navigation through the field, and what everyone needs to know to break the everlasting transgressions of the self-protecting status quo.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
First, can you tell our readers who may not be familiar with you a bit about who you are?
I’m Steven Thrasher and I’m a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where I hold the Daniel H. Renburg Chair, which focuses on social justice in reporting and LGBTQ issues. I’m also a faculty member in the Institute of Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing, which is a medical research institution at Northwestern that focuses on research around health and wellbeing for LGBTQ people.
I’m a journalist by trade, and I’ve written for most publications in New York at some point or another. In the early 2000s, I worked in film, and I worked on a film about Matthew Shepard [The Laramie Project]. So even from that, even though I was working with playwrights and filmmakers, I was documenting gay activism around hate crimes and things of that nature for about 20 years.
When I started as a professional journalist around 2008, I covered a lot of the marriage equality movement, from the passage of Proposition 8 in California, which was an anti gay marriage bill, to marriage equality moving through various state governments, and eventually through the federal government, successfully. I also reported on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and out LGBTQ military service members.
You’ve gotten to be in a unique place in journalism throughout your career as a Black, openly queer writer in an industry that doesn’t generally support that. Your work has been at some of the revered, legendary publications like the Village Voice and the Guardian, and also some of the newer institutions like Buzzfeed and Gawker. What are some of the things you’ve taken away from your experiences, and what would you tell others in journalism or trying to get in it?
I would say that careers are idiosyncratic and it’s hard to predict how any one [publication] will work out for you. I’ve certainly learned, working at a lot of different places, that the institution is only as important as it overlaps with the goals in your life. I explain to my students that when I think about writing for a publication, I have often used a Venn diagram. I make a Venn diagram and think about the values of the institution. Then I make a circle with my values and see what overlaps between those two.
The Village Voice was a long-time alt-weekly that had a lot of room for writing about race and sexuality. So, that overlap was quite large for me. With the Times, it can often be quite narrow, because it is going to have a really huge reach — but they also have certain institutional values. So, I tried to make sure the story that I’m writing at that time fits comfortably in the overlap. You don’t want to take a story and try to shoehorn it somewhere when it should be somewhere else.
If I’m writing a story, as I did for Gawker, about gay men who are openly non-monogamous, and I have these great interviews with very colorful language that fit really well at Gawker – I wouldn’t necessarily want to write that in the Times. It’s not to say that people can’t and people haven’t [done that], but I knew I wanted to use really colorful language, curse words, and all these colloquialisms.
One thing that I think is good for journalists to know starting out is that the institution is much less important than the relationships of the people that you work with there. I’ve worked with some of the same editors at multiple institutions across the 13 years or so that I’ve been writing professionally.
At the end of the day, it’s your name on bylines that are on the internet, potentially for the rest of your life. You want to be able to trust that the work is going to come out reflecting who you are and what your values are, and the best path to that is to build relationships with editors who you know will shepherd that work for you.
You have had an opportunity to do a lot of reporting on movements for equality: You were on the ground in Ferguson after Michael Brown’s death, you wrote about marriage equality before and since it was achieved, and also about how HIV affects LGBTQ people. You might not feel like this is your place, but where do you think some of these movements stand?
When I was in Zuccotti Park at the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, you were seeing this deep desire to have shared physical space with other people, to speak up against injustice economically, with a broad coalition of people. I started seeing the way that the space itself was occupied and used by activists, which was similar to other human needs you see in the world. I went to a church for many years in Manhattan that I remember being distinct, because people just liked to spend time there. It’s weird in New York City to have a space that people can come to where you don’t have to buy anything to be in it, especially now, and I saw real joy in that and Occupy Wall Street.
Then when I first went to Ferguson after Michael Brown was killed, I saw this similar organization of space again: You had a place where people can come to, food is going to be given to anyone for free, water is going to be given to anyone for free, a clothes closet, a food pantry, ways to express yourself in art … it looked so similar.
I more recently went to where George Floyd was killed in 2020 and it’s a very similar setup: free food, free resources, artistic expression. I think it’s great seeing that people want to occupy and share space together.
It’s been really sad to see how Black Lives Matter itself was co-opted as a branding technique. I have very mixed feelings and I’m not sure what to make of the fact that a lot of that came from making it a hashtag and Twitter. There’s something good to be said that people can organize with the concept, and I found it very inspiring as a journalist — as a citizen of the Earth, as a citizen of the United States — to see people invoking this phrase Black Lives Matter around the world, sometimes in very different contexts around racialized violence in different parts of the globe.
But within this country, it became really co-opted. Anything that can be branded can also be corporatized. It also became something that was sold for social capital and for actual monetary capital by some of the leaders. You have this position now where you’re reading endless stories that are quite well reported, like the ones in the Cut and New York Magazine, about the finances of Black Lives Matter.
It’s really despiriting to see how, in a capitalist society, it becomes very easy to peel people off and make them part of the status quo or defenders of the status quo, and to kind of co-opt a lot of goodwill for politics, and even money. But I think the movement for Black lives did a lot of great things and is ongoing, and it’s not reducible to a phrase.
From a journalism and academic standpoint, one thing I’ve thought about from graduate school are ideas like critical race theory, intersectionality, and decolonialism. What we saw happen was a cross-class, cross-geography, shared Black language and Black experience in real time.
There was the circulation of language and class that we don’t see in other places. Graduate students are talking about critical race theory and suddenly disaffected 15-year-old teenagers in Ferguson, law professors, formerly incarcerated people, and church ministers are talking about it. I think one of the reasons that those terms [such as] critical race theory — and Black slang, like ‘woke’ — are now being completely maligned by the right, is because we had the circulation of ideas and language being shared across lines of class and geography and, to a certain degree, even across across lines of race.
But as a journalist and a scholar, I thought it was great. It made me reflect on those years and how in educational settings or professional settings, you are often encouraged to be segregated, economically, as a Black person. In some ways, of course, the attempts to suppress made people more interested and created more conflict. So I don’t think that’s over in any way, and we’re in a very different position than 20 years ago.
My parents were activists — my father was also a school teacher and a journalist, he wrote a column for the local paper — and I often think about how lonely a lot of that work was. They were organizing in Southern California against South African apartheid and at the time they had no internet. My father would go table events about South African apartheid and people would scream at him that he was a communist.
They used something called a round robin letter where you wrote what you were doing in your group to oppose apartheid and then you would mail it to another city, and they would write what they were doing, and they would mail it to another city. In a couple of months you’d read what everyone was doing. But there was no internet, and if you wrote something in opposition in your local paper, someone on the other side of the country would almost never see it.
I think that there are more possibilities now for people in the movements. That comes with a counter political force that works against it, but there is a lot of possibility and the ways that Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the gay rights movement have stirred people’s consciousness. Consciousness is going to aid the ongoing political struggles, even if there’s opposition to them.
You’ve seen a lot of this firsthand and now you have the opportunity as a professor to shape the minds of journalists. What’s your approach to each interaction with classes of younger journalists, including myself?
I try not to think that learning is dominant or one-way. I’m not here just to teach students: I hope that I can share the things I’ve learned in my life with them so they’ll learn something from them. I firmly believe in Paulo Freire’s “rights” and Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that learning is co-constitutive and that we’re creating it together.
Especially at Medill the past couple of years, I learned so much from my students. And I’ve learned so much from you from reading you on the internet! That’s another benefit of the internet — that I get to see what younger journalists are doing. James Greig in London just interviewed me for a piece he worked on, and I get to read from other young journalists in the world. But it’s together in our dialogue that we’re learning together, so that’s part of my approach.
I have this rare opportunity as the Daniel H. Renburg chair to be openly out and help students learn something different than they might have thought Journalism School would be, that they’re all going to learn how to be “objective,” “neutral” reporters.
I try to teach them that reporting is only one part of journalism: There’s opinion writing, cartoon drawing, feature writing, podcasting … I went to film school for undergrad and I think that podcasting as a form is almost more like making documentary films than it is like writing AP style or a breaking news story.
There’s a lot of room for different kinds of forms, and different modes of expression within journalism. I want students to know that there’s — and I hope I’m not lying when I say this – a place for them in the business. As we know, people who are outspoken or do a certain kind of work have it harder finding a place in the business. But in theory, if I can have any influence in this professorship and my place in my career, I would like for young people to know that there’s a place for them. I want them to see that you don’t have to pretend to be this neutral, objective person.
I believe in relational journalism so, as I was saying before, I think that the best work that we do is formed in good relationships with our editors. I don’t believe in extractive relationships with sources: I’ve known many of my sources for many years, and I’d like to think that the reason why we’re talking with each other — and I’m sharing part of that with the world and readers — is because we have a relationship formed in an interest in similar values about things. That’s not always true, of course, you interview oppositional people.
More often than not, the kind of work that I practice is tied into long, ongoing structural things, and sometimes it’s stories that go on for a lot of people’s lives. For me, I can’t do that sort of parachuting and leaving. Being able to do that depth of work over time is about forming relationships with the people that I talked to, and earning their trust and then growing to trust me, and deciding if they want to share a part of their story with me or not.
I also try to think, “I don’t know exactly what’s gonna happen.” When I taught my virus class two years ago it was all about COVID. Of course, it’ll be a big part of it again, but there was no monkeypox in the United States two years ago, and I’m sure that will completely frame this next class. I try to be somewhat humble and think I have a long view of viruses, and I’ve done this, but my students may have a completely different experience of monkeypox than I do.
I don’t know if it’s going to be in the dorms, or it could be a thing that they’re navigating in very different ways than I do as a 44-year-old gay man. I’m bringing in broader life experience and context and giving them ways to think about it but I try to be open that they’re going to be teaching me and they’re going to be teaching each other, and the process of all of that is hopefully going to help us learn and grow and be able to share what we learn.
Your first book, The Viral Underclass, was published on August 2. Tell us the basics of what the ‘viral underclass’ is, the coronavirus pandemic and some of the media’s framing of it, and what the book says about it all.
The viral underclass is a phrase that was first coined by a man named Sean Strub [activist and POZ Magazine founder] who used it that way to talk about when laws passed for criminalizing people for HIV transmission that put people living with HIV in a particular class status. Often in the United States, laws affect different people differently – but it’s rarely explicitly written into the law that an immutable characteristic is the thing that they are surveilling you for. With HIV, it’s very explicit.
Monkeypox is a very different kind of virus than HIV, coronavirus, influenza, or hepatitis. Yet, we keep seeing the same people affected by them: Black people, queer people, people who are disabled, elderly, without homes, or who are suffering from addiction. I use it as an analytic tool to think about why these things are happening to the same people and, as a journalist, why I started seeing different pandemics with the same maps.
I also use it to think about how when something happens in other places in the world, becoming sick or becoming infected lowers people’s class status in the United States. Anytime you’re sick in the U.S., you are likely to become poor or more poor, which is not the case in countries with socialized medicine.
In the second chapter of the book, I deal with the concept of a “patient zero,” which comes out of journalism, this idea that there’s one person who makes everyone sick. The popularization of this came from the book And the Band Played On by the gay journalist Randy Shilts — and it was based on a mistake. He wrote about the numeric patient zero, who’s the first person to “bring this virus to North America.” The person who he was talking to was writing about 40 different people who are living with this virus. One of them was outside of the state of California and they assigned them the letter O, for “Outside California,” [and] it was completely a mistake. There was no sort of zero numeric nature to this but the idea took on.
I was just on a TV show yesterday where one of the other guests used [the term], this idea that everyone is healthy, and then this ‘patient zero’ comes in and makes everyone sick. It’s very ableist, and it’s a really good way of using blame to push responsibility onto one actor rather than to look at what are the underlying conditions of this. I find it, as a journalist, very much distorts the experience of what viruses do.
I think journalism has gone through a reckoning that is not over, in any way, but it’s gone through some reckoning around race; more recently around trans and gender issues. But ableism is highly rapid and I routinely DM people about certain words they’re using and find out that their publications either don’t deal with it or they never even thought of it. As health is an ongoing major issue of journalism, we need to be aware of language around disability and ableism.
The latest matter of concern is the re-emergence of monkeypox. Do you believe we in the media — and as a society — have the ability to approach this differently?
To my surprise, the coverage on monkeypox has been pretty good. Three months ago when it was coming up in my public health conversations, we were starting to yell “United States, you need to get ready for this.” The quality of the journalism itself was quite good, although the volume of that wasn’t enough.
As there’s more volume, there’ll be more problems, but I think the messaging around it stating clearly what’s happened and talking about infection happening between men who have sex with men in a very calm way, consciously trying not to stigmatize has been pretty good. Some writers are asking me offline, “How do I phrase this? How do I think about it?” I think there’s a lot of thoughtfulness at the level of the reporter. I’m afraid that we’re making the same mistake of, “We need to be detached from it, we have to maintain our neutrality,” when this is a fucking crisis for gay men and queer people and every gay man I know is like clamoring to get this vaccine.
The problem right now is the political, economic issues, just getting the vaccines at the federal level and I think a lot of local health departments. People are willing to get this vaccine, and I think that journalism executives and editorial boards need to come out and put political pressure through the work they’re commissioning to make this all happen much faster than they are.
All that said, what do you think objectivity is, and how does that view impact your work?
I love Ramona Martinez’s definition: “Objectivity is the ideology of the status quo.” When journalists carp about neutrality or objectivity, they’re saying, “I have no skin in the game. Everything is fine and nothing affects me personally. Things are as good as they can possibly be.” Which, of course, is bullshit. Everyone is affected by reality, but often those who benefit from the status quo pretend they’re not benefiting from it. That’s objectivity.
With the Viral Underclass, it’s been a strange experience for me as a journalist because usually I write something and people read it (or don’t read it) pretty quickly, and then I move on to the next thing. With the book, people are only now starting to read this thing I’ve worked on for years, and some of the biggest feedback I’ve gotten from them is how personal it is.
I’ll say, “This person is my friend or my colleague,” and I do that for a few reasons: One, I want the reader to feel like they are going on a journey with me, and viruses as a subject are very intimate, so I like to reveal the intimacies that are happening in my work. But, I’m also trying to deconstruct this notion of neutrality and objectivity, because if I’m saying that I know someone, the reader deserves to know that.
I could be quoting anybody, and the fact that I’m quoting someone I know does not mean that they are not the right person to talk to, [especially] when I’m talking to people who are highly qualified to talk about it with — but I think the reader deserves to know that I have a relationship with them.
Journalists who are talking to unnamed sources, lobbyists, spokespeople, Senators, or offices … They all have relationships with these people, they’re just pretending like they don’t, and then the reader doesn’t have the opportunity to think about that. That’s one thing I try to let my students know: You can be honest about what’s happening and that makes the work better.
In your career, is there one thing you regret? Is there any one thing that you’re super proud of?
I’m very proud of the relationship that I’ve built with Michael Johnson, who’s a part of my book — the young man who was being prosecuted for HIV. It’s now been eight years since we have talked to each other and I wouldn’t describe us as friends, but we are friendly. I’m very proud of how we have negotiated this experience together and it made me extremely happy to see him holding my book out of jail. To know that he still, after all this time, trusts me to help tell the story.
My biggest regret would be the amount of time that I felt bad about myself, that I was doing something wrong when things went wrong. I hope that young journalists don’t take that. If you’re going to be someone who rocks the boat and speaks your mind and stands by your values, there will be consequences to those — and they’re not always the most beneficial economic consequences — but you should never feel bad about that or feel like you did something wrong. You didn’t do anything wrong if the field makes you feel like there’s not a place for you. There should be a place for you — don’t waste time feeling poorly about it.
This piece was edited by Holly Rosewood.
Correction: This piece initially referenced McGill once, when it should have referenced Medill.