Jeffery Self is all over the place — in the good way.
At 30, the YouTube icon has been a part of the Jeffery & Cole Casserole (2009-2010) on Logo, was Liz Lemon's gay cousin on an unforgettable episode of 30 Rock (2010) and both co-wrote and co-starred in the film You're Killing Me (2015). He's also about to appear in Season 2 of the TBS series Search Party.
Of late, he's been using his writing talents to publish books, including novelty titles and the two queer YA entries Drag Teen (Scholastic, 2016) and A Very, Very Bad Thing (Scholastic, 2017). The latter tackles gay conversion programs, and also, like Dear Evan Hansen, explores the lies, well-intentioned and otherwise, a gay kid may tell when backed into a corner.
Check out my interview with Jeffery, and check out his book here.
Boy Culture: Why were you motivated to write a young adult-geared book, and did you know in advance it would be sold to a major publisher? Scholastic wouldn't have touched this in the past — it feels like progress that it's coming from an esteemed and family-oriented publisher.
Jeffery Self: I pitched them a book a few years ago with a heterosexual protagonist and they had another book too similar. But Scholastic came back and said they liked the idea of working with me and that they wanted more stories about being gay that weren't simply coming out stories. This THRILLED me. Kids come out younger and younger and that's so wonderful, but it's important that there are books that reflect the “okay I'm gay now what?” that so many of us experience once we accept our sexuality. Just because someone accepts a gender (or multiple genders) that they're attracted to doesn't mean they can accept themself for everything else life throws at you.
Gay culture can sometimes be an intimidating world to navigate where one can feel they don't fit into the one group they hoped they would. Scholastic clearly understands the responsibility of giving kids these stories that are about living life as a person who happens to be gay. Working with them has been a dream and it's fascinating to see how much more progressive they are than any television network or major movie studio. A lot of that has to do with the truly brilliant David Levithan, who edited my two books for them and who is one of my favorite novelists of all time. If you haven't read his Two Boys Kissing, you simply MUST.
I feel very strongly that the fight isn't over.
BC: Do you run into gay people who think gay teens are so weird these days not to just be totally mentally sound and happy and content because gay people won and it's no longer an issue to be gay? What do you say to that outlook?
JS: I feel very strongly that the fight isn't over. Obviously, the political climate we are living in is terrifying in a multitude of ways, and one of them is the future of our rights. It's easy to take how far we've come for granted, but I think younger and younger queer people are stepping up to the plate to fight just as generations did before. It's a different fight, but it's still a fight. That's one of the themes that I really wanted to lean into with this book.
BC: There was some controversy over Will & Grace's recent take on gay conversion camps — did you see it? What did you think?
JS: I am loving the Will & Grace reboot. I grew up on the show, and it was instrumental in my coming of age. Getting to watch those four geniuses do a new episode every week is like getting to step back into 1999 with a home-cooked meal from my mom on a TV tray and laughing together and feeling like all my fears for the future might just be okay. I enjoyed the gay conversion episode and while, sure, it didn't examine the entire depth of such a shameful and downright evil practice, I thought it handled the topic well within 22 minutes of a sitcom.
For me, the best way of dealing with those things, besides Prozac, has been to find the absurdity in it all.
BC: I have a 19-year-old gay friend who is always always exclaiming “kms” over every minor drama in his life to denote “kill myself,” which is odd because he attempted suicide when very young. He seems content now, so I don't discourage it; it seems his way of making fun of something and defeating it. How important is humor in maintaining your mental well-being, and is it a mechanism you yourself use?
JS: Humor is a MAJOR way of maintaining my own mental health. I'm bipolar, and some days are extremely difficult to get through. I have a history of suicidal thoughts and attempts. And for me, the best way of dealing with those things, besides Prozac, has been to find the absurdity in it all. Carrie Fisher's brilliant work as a writer and mental health activist has always been my guiding light on that topic. “Take your broken heart and turn it into art,” she said. And I don't think I've ever clicked with something more.
BC: It felt like we had made tons of progress under Obama, and that it vanished a year ago. Do you think that kind of abrupt shift, politically, socially, wreaks havoc on LGBT youth?
JS: Of course. I cannot imagine what it's like to be a queer kid in this disgusting era. Especially when one witnessed how cool America COULD be for a full eight years before and now watching how terrifying it can become in the blink of an eye. That's why books, movies, TV shows, plays, music, anything about queer culture is important. Some kid is sitting in Alabama at this very moment, terrified for their future and their personal truth and the only way to comfort them is display relatable queer characters in as many mediums as possible. It's a shame Hollywood is just now waking up to this.
BC: Why do you think there's so much tension between older gay men and gay millennials? How to defeat it/what are our commonalities?
JS: I've always been very close with my gay elders. Partially because I'm interested in that divide and selfishly because they have WAY better stories. I think young vs. old isn't just linked to homosexuality. There will always be divides between generations, but I think it's about celebrating the past, the present and the future.
I think it's about celebrating the past, the present and the future.
BC: Does social media help the gay cause at the expense of gay individuals, or vice versa, or what role does it play, positive and negative, when it comes to gay kids growing up happy and self-aware and confident?
JS: Social media is bizarre. And some days I hate it, some days I like it and it's been a long time since I loved it. However, I do think that the visibility of so many queer people online does serve as a beacon of light in what can sometimes be a sea of darkness, especially for young people trapped in small towns with families who don't understand them. I think gay blogs and magazines and such need to pay attention to the people making change a bit more and a little less time on lists like Top 10 Hottest Bartenders in Brooklyn.
BC: Is there anything you wish you'd never put on social media?
JS: Jesus Christ!! Of course. I have a checkered past with my web presence. I tend to overshare quite a bit. I guess the biggest experience was when I made the completely unhinged decision to live out my first heartbreak via blogs and tweets and posts and pretty much every other social media practice I could think of. I burned bridges, made myself out to be a lunatic, and hurt some people in the process. Including myself.
BC: What's your advice for others who think the world is ending because of a romantic bump in the road or something else that should be survivable but seems catastrophic?
JS: My first bit of advice would be turn off your fucking phone and take a nap. It's sooooo intoxicating to get the validation of others online. Whether in moments of joy or sadness. Neither one is healthy. And I'm currently trying to learn how to balance that because I'm sorta stuck with putting my life out there because it's how I promote what I'm doing. I'm not famous, I'm not on a beloved TV show or movie franchise, and if I want to keep creating projects and living my life as a writer/actor/whatever-the-hell-it-is-I'm-doing-to-make-money-at-that-particular-moment, then I have to maintain this presence in search of likes and retweets, regardless of how healthy or unhealthy it might be for me... just so I can sell some books and pay for my health insurance. I'm just trying to learn how to find the balance within that.
BC: Could you ever be with someone as a partner who shunned attention and the spotlight?
JS: I think so. My first relationship leaned on the validation of social media far too much. Way too many couple photos and cutesy tweets about my boyfriend. That became the relationship, the likes and favorites meant we must be okay even though we weren't. Years later, my fiancé is an actor and has to be in the public eye quite a bit, but he has a very very healthy relationship with the BS of the spotlight. He doesn't really do the social media stuff unless he's contractually obligated so he's got a better vibe with it all than I do. Ultimately, though, it's part of our jobs and the way we promote our careers, but we don't let it control us or dictate the narrative of our lives, which is something I've allowed to happen far too often in the past in both relationships and solo.
My first relationship leaned on the validation of social media far too much ... That became the relationship, the likes and favorites meant we must be okay even though we weren't.
BC: Finally, who would you most like to read your book?
JS: Anyone out there who feels alone as an outsider from what is expected of them. People who don't think their voice is loud enough to be heard in this cacophony of opinions that is 2017. Anyone who feels hopeless. And anyone who wonders if it's possible to find light in darkness... because it is.