Thirsty caught up with nationally-known columnist David Toussaint at his home in New York City for a brief interview. Mr. Toussaint’s new book, TOUSSAINT!, is the second offering from Stay Thirsty Press, which is cutting new ground by publishing literary works straight to Amazon’s Kindle platform (also accessible on iPhones and iPod touches). Mr. Toussaint has a distinguished writing career as a columnist, commentator, playwright and author. His prior book, Gay and Lesbian Weddings: Planning the Perfect Same-Sex Ceremony (Ballantine Books), was written after he wrote the breakthrough article on same-sex weddings for Bride’s magazine in 2003. His regular columns appear in EDGE, the nation’s most popular online gay magazine. Born in California, Mr. Toussaint now lives full time in Manhattan.
(credit: Beth Toussaint)
Thirsty: In 2003, you wrote the breakthrough article about same-sex weddings for Bride’s magazine and publication of that article created a huge controversy. Now, six years later, same-sex marriages are becoming the law in many states. As you look back, are you surprised by the distance this issue has traveled in such a short time?
David Toussaint: No, not surprised at all. We knew that once started, gay marriage was here to stay. You can't stop civil rights; you can only suspend it. I don't know that I would have guessed that five states would have made same-sex marriage legal this quickly, but I knew it was on its way. I never would have guessed California would have so many problems, with Prop 8. But two steps forward...it ain't going anywhere.
Thirsty: After your article was published in Bride’s and chronicled in The New York Times, were you personally affected by the controversy?
David Toussaint: Well, I was fired by Bride’s after eight years, so you do the math. After the article came out, I was surprised at the lack of controversy; no one seemed to be talking about the story. I asked their PR person, and she told me they had decided not to publicize the piece. That was their choice; but discouraging. After the New York Times piece came out, we were everywhere. But no one told me. They used to post bulletins when Bride’s got publicity (I think on an intercom), but they'd never say anything about that piece. Turns out, I knew the reporter who wrote "Outward Bound," and he later told me they'd said he could talk to anyone but me. He said he'd have to write that in the piece and suddenly I got a call, saying "hey, do you want to be in the New York Times?”
They kept everything else from me, E!, all the news channels, all the people who wanted to interview me. I eventually found out because someone got my regular email address and said they'd had no luck tracking me down at Bride’s. I only found out that Random House wanted to meet with me by accident. An editor who didn't know I wasn't supposed to "talk" was friendly with someone there, and told me one day they'd been trying to reach me for a possible book. If she'd not told me that, I probably wouldn't have gotten the book deal. I confronted my bosses, and they said I could speak to anyone, provided I informed them first. I made them give me all the tapes of the news coverage we'd gotten, none of which I'd seen. They told me they'd forgotten Random House wanted to talk to me.
It was so silly, because, as a reporter, I never would have told any news organization my own views on gay marriage; I just would have commented on the story. I had always had a great relationship with the magazine. I think the people at Bride’s were terrified that an openly gay man was writing for them, and now the world would know. Two month's later I was fired for being sick, no notice, no two-week's pay. That was it. What has changed in five years is that now it might not be such a big deal.
The lesson there is that too many people don't care about you or your career; if it inconveniences them in any way, they'll get rid of you. I was thinking about that when I wrote "Little Teachers." I was very lucky when I was younger, as I worked for people who thought I was talented and simply wanted me to succeed. When I moved to New York, I realized that a lot of people had no interest in talent; they were only interested in your last name or if you went to the same school as they did. In other words, what you could do for them. That's still how it works in life, sadly, and not only do creative people suffer, but the audience does as well, as that's the path to mediocrity.
Thirsty: Lisa McMann, the bestselling author of Fade and Wake, said that: "David Toussaint's tremendous wit and sharp social commentary are genius. Fans of David Sedaris will adore Toussaint's charm, edge, and take on life." Although your new book, TOUSSAINT!, is drawn from columns you wrote for EDGE, the most popular online gay magazine, doesn’t it really tell the story of your life and of the times in which you live?
David Toussaint: I write about whatever is on my mind, and I've been given the privilege to do that. The editors at EDGE never said what I could or could not say. I have an intense need to talk about my life, my mom, my growing up; it wasn't always very pretty, but it sits in my heart. There are about twenty books still waiting to be written. Often, I think whatever happens around us is so relevant to our private lives, that one just follows the other. The best plays and books are usually set against historical moments, so, perhaps, in little bits, I'm writing that way in columns. We look at our neighbors and mention the weather, and you just know we're both thinking about Global Warming, but neither one of us wants to say it. Public is private.
Thirsty: In your book, you write about such diverse subjects as Madonna, George W. Bush, gay billionaires, Marlo Thomas, Gay Pride, the Blackberry, AOL, being cast as a supernumerary in various operas, Facebook, Barak Obama, the Chelsea-boy era, internet dating and travel to exotic destinations. How has your life experience been affected by the cultural changes you chronicled in TOUSSAINT!?
David Toussaint: Madonna is America, so I love to write about her. And I've been a fan since she first got famous. She's the dream, and the nightmare. People love to bring her down in the same way they love to bring their friend's down, or the guy who just got a new car and a better job. Unfortunately, people want her to fail in the same way they want their friends to fail. It's a disease in this country. The United States has a very hard time with people who do whatever they want, and who don't play by "the rules," whatever they are, and who are happy. They have an even harder time accepting it when it's a woman. I'm still waiting to hear why it's wrong to have an English mansion and sing slutty lyrics.
Bush affected us all because he's just a nightmare. He's affected all of us, every single day. He and his gang colored everything for eight years. If you think, you're affected by your surroundings, whatever they are. So, yeah, it all affects me deeply. I spent my formative gay years in and around Chelsea, and I loved it. The only problem is, it eventually affected my self-esteem because I started judging my looks instead of my personality. I became a gym mirror. There was a time when I wouldn't go to the store for a bagel without making sure I had a coordinated outfit on. It is high school. And there will always be someone prettier than you are, younger than you are, and bigger than you are. I'm learning now that my laughter might be more attractive than my biceps.
If TOUSSAINT! were a novel, all those people and places are chapters and characters, good and bad. I write a lot about strong women because I was raised by one, and I had all women as role models. I learned during the Hillary-Obama primaries just how blatantly sexist we are, and how we accept it. Women are not a minority, they are over half the population. Perhaps that's why it's more acceptable. There is sexism in black communities, rich communities, etc. And women often pit themselves against each other, making matters so much worse.
Thirsty: Of all the stories in TOUSSAINT! which one most represents the real David Toussaint?
(credit: Cecilia Baader)
David Toussaint: Probably "Parallel Lines," because I wrote it early on, and I was terrified to write about a lost friendship. It's about my old best friend, and I don't think I ever got over that loss. I'm sure it's affected pretty much all my relationships with men. And "The Movie," because that covered the world and how I often look at my life; as a song. Sometimes it's happy; sometimes tragic. I tend to think of my columns in my head as I'm running around, or exercising. I don't know why I write; I just know that I have to. And in the background, there is my home, where I grew up. In that story I talk about a woman who died last summer, and that seemed to reflect my own attitude
Thirsty: Of all the people you have been: an actor, a columnist, a commentator, author of a very popular wedding planning guide, a playwright, a supernumerary in the opera Carmen and a juggler, which role do you like the best?
David Toussaint: I miss acting most of all. I have terrible stage fright, which I've never written about. I started acting when I was about seven, and it's in my blood. I also started writing about the same time, and I treasure that gift. I do believe we are born with these talents, and when we don't use them, we die a little bit. And I think they are all related. My mom is a brilliant painter, and I can't paint a stick figure. But when I was little, I'd watch her paint. She'd get an idea, make a sketch, and start putting little strokes on a canvas. It seemed like torture, as half the time she'd just stare at the canvas. That's what writing is; you know the end, the big picture, what you want to say; then you have to figure out how to get there. Acting is similar. Directing, which I would love to do more of, is similar. Everything is related.
I think if I could pick one role it would be that of an amusement park; Davidland. I could spend my life in an amusement park and never get bored. I love all the different rides, the haunted house, the bumper cars, the ferris wheel, walking on the boardwalk, eating cotton candy, that sound of carnival music and happy screaming. There's romance and handholding and a little mystery and a lot of ghosts and stories and fun. And riding the roller coaster over and over again. There's nothing more exciting to me than flying up on that first hill down. That's where I live.