Hear My Story: A GLAAD x Audible Interview Series - Part II: Gaby Dunn

By GLAAD |
September 24, 2020

GLAAD has teamed up with audio entertainment giant Audible to co-curate and produce a three-episode written interview series featuring LGBTQIA+ spoken word artists.

Our second interview features New York Times bestselling author and comedian Gaby Dunn, interviewed by Anthony Ramos, GLAAD’s Head of Talent. A proud bisexual author, Dunn co-wrote the stories ‘I Hate Everyone But You’ and the sequel ‘Please Send Help’, and her new Audible Original, ‘Apocalypse Untreated’, just released today. 

Check out GLAAD’s interview with Dunn below:

Anthony Ramos: Many LGBTQIA+ artists are turning to spoken-word audio to tell their stories. What do you think it is about this type of content that connects so distinctly across audiences?

Gaby Dunn: I think it is more accessible and people can listen in small chunks or before bed or all at once. I think it's something that - because it is newer, although not counting radio plays, I felt like there was a lot of freedom for me to do what I wanted in terms of relationships and making characters queer. Obviously, everything that I make is queer in some way. I don't think I would be able to write someone who wasn't queer in some way just 'cause of my lens and my own bisexuality and my involvement in the queer community. So that colors everything I do or everything I try to do.

(AR: And we love that about you)

Thank you! Can't stop, won't stop! So I thought it was a cool way to write teenagers because I think people don't give teenagers enough credit for knowing who they are or what they want. I think you can really hear the strength in their voices and you don't have to see their young faces. You can see them as more well-rounded characters and also you get to imagine a bit about what they look like. Which I always loved about reading books in general. And obviously we did. I pushed to be given, in terms of casting, diverse auditions. And even when it wasn't, we picked the best people. It just so happened that it ended being a mostly Black cast. And then the main love story between two teenagers was a Black woman and an Asian woman. It was played Shanelle Ali who's a comedian and also by a nonbinary comedian Jes Tom.

I felt like I was able to give the characters a little bit more imagination in terms of what people can view them as. It's a little bit more freedom than just being like, "Here's what they look like."

Which I also felt with animation. I felt like with animation, it was very cool to be able to just be like I've drawn these people and this is who they are.

AR: For many LGBTQIA+ people, and LGBTQIA+ people of color, inspiration is often drawn from the role models and idols within our community who have changed the way we are seen, heard, and represented in society. Is there someone in the community who has inspired you?

GD:
I mean, there's a lot of performers that I very much admire. I mean, watching Jen Richards and Angelica Ross in Her Story was huge. Sara Ramirez in Grey's Anatomy and also in Madam Secretary is so huge. There's a big lack in butch lesbian representation. So Sara in Madam Secretary has been a really great revelation for me.

This is all more modern stuff but I think in my writing, I'm very interested in stories that feel queer. I recently read a lot of things to me felt like either the author was not in the queer community even though they were queer or it felt like the author took a story that was just meant to be straight and just subbed in queer people rather than write them as queer. Which I love the representation but I also feel a weariness about that and I just reading them did not ring true to me, did not ring true to my friends.

I think a lot of stuff is like, "There's all these straight people and then there's this one queer person in the group of friends." And I'm like, "No, that's not really how it works. Typically."

I just felt like her story rang really true. The Bisexual by Desiree Akhavan, that to me rang really true. Almost to a painful amount. Yeah, I really love Desiree.

So those are ones that I felt were more accurate in terms of television right now.

AR: Thanks to services like Audible, access to LGBTQIA+ stories & content is now easier than ever. What kind of LGBTQIA+ story still needs to be told / heard?

GD: Well it's interesting because the main characters of the show are 16, 17, 18 - they are high school students. I was talking about the show today on Twitter and I was like, "You want teenage polyamory? Baby I got teenage polyamory for you!"

I think younger people are way more aware and way more open-minded than we give them credit for. So I think giving them that dimension was really important to me, like queer teenagers. And also, I think there are so many queer stories that aren't told. I feel like I've never seen a depiction of people who are hot in a gay way, if that makes sense? Where like maybe a straight person would be like, "I don't get it?" and it's like, "Well, it's not for you to get." I think there's a lot of, and I love that Riverdale did this, but there's a lot of like, "We are two hot girls. And we are two femmes and that's the sitch."

I know couples like that, sure. But I know more couples that are not like that. I think there's so much freedom. Like if you're already queer, then there's so much freedom in terms of getting rid of the expectations of society to begin with. And then I feel like there's so many hot people that are not hot to straight people so we never see them.

Or like, "Of course this fat girl is sad about being fat." Where it's like, "NO! My queer friends who are fat are the most confident people I know." You can make queer characters and that's great but there is a queering of society that comes along with queer characters that I don't often see. "Their worldview queered" if that makes any sense.

AR: How does the general response to I Hate Everyone But You and Please Send Help continue to impact your work? Did any responses surprise you, and if so, in what way?

GD:
The character of Jen is very similar to what I was like in school. There's always the pushback on some of the things I do like, "Well, how come the bisexual girl is the partier and the bisexual girl is promiscuous?" and blah blah blah. I mean, I've said this a few times as a bit, "Well, I'm sorry that I'm fun and you're upset about it." That was my experience.

This push of bisexuals to be represented as monogamous and this thing of the stereotype of "bisexuals want a female partner and a male partner" is so damaging. And I'm like, "Is it? Or is it also again fun?" I think that people are in a rush for respectability politics that I don't feel any connection to. Like I don't think you have to understand it or think it's good but you have to respect it. And that's not on me to make you respect it, that's on you.

So with those books, I was happy to have a bisexual girl written by a bisexual person on the bestseller list. I feel like that was really important. Also, with the second book, this does not happen with my character but the character of Ava contracts herpes and that's a spoiler. SPOILER ALERT. That to me was so important, and to Allison too who I wrote the book with. It was so important to show the type of person you wouldn't normally think has an STD and a person who is, by family and friends, is treated well upon divulging the information. And also a person who takes the power of that and erases the shame of that. And I don't want to give another spoiler but she does end up using that to better her career by letting go of the shame connected to it. And I think that was important because you don't see a lot of young adult novels with characters with STDs where it's not a lesson and they're not being punished. The idea of Ava getting herpes was Allison's idea and I was so on board.

When you look back on the canon of YA, I'm delighted by what we contributed. And in PleaseSend Help, my character, Jen, gets involved with homeless youth and homeless LGBTQIA+ youth. She becomes very active in exposing unfair treatment to them. We wanted to highlight LGBTQIA+ homelessness as an epidemic. And I think when I look back on those books, I'm like, "What did we contribute to the canon of YA?" I think we contributed some stuff that isn't always there.

AR: Can you tell us a little bit about your audio production of Bad with Money and your experience taking it from a podcast to a written book, and then back to the ear via audiobook?

GD:
started the podcast just because I didn't know anything about money. I think it is not lost on me that I had to turn it into a full-time job in order to understand these things that average people are expected to know. Like you're a firefighter, or a nurse, or you work at Starbucks, you have to learn this on your own time and do all of this stuff that I turned into a full-time job just to have the motivation and the time to do. You could sit on the phone all day trying to fix financial stuff. You could look through your bank accounts for all kinds of twists and turns, and call the bank. It really is a full time independent of whatever your job is. So for me, the ability to turn it into a full time job was great but then it's also maddening and frustrating and upsetting because you realize how unfair that is. The show has become more social justice oriented because I realized slowly, it's going into it seventh season, and I realized by season 2, I was like, "Wait a minute? This is fucked!"

And so, I just kept looking into the ways that the government has been racist, primarily racist - racist and homophobic and classist and ableist and all of that in response to money. It was illuminating that money was so tied to my queerness anyway.

I'm polyamorous. My partner right now is a trans man. How are we gonna have kids? What will their healthcare look like? It's such a goddamn nightmare for trans men to get testosterone on time. Why are these things the way they are? There's just so many specifics I was able to get into.

I started the show and I was talking to my friend Cary who has cerebral palsy and she was like, "You know, well I'm not allowed to save. If you're disabled, you are not allowed to save more than $2000 a month or you'll lose your benefits." And I was like, "What?" Like we were having drinks at Mess Hall and she just said that over beer. And I was like, "Wait, what?" And I was like, "You have to come to my show to talk about this." So we brought her on the show and like these are things that wouldn't have normally come up with friends other than me having started the show which really opened my eyes. And then when I wrote the book it was amazing because I was able to make a finance book that actually takes into account people's real lives. Which again is like, you know, is you look back on like what you contribute to the genre? And if you look like where my book is in Barnes and Noble or an independent bookstore, it's next to books that are like, "How to be a millionaire!" or "You're not working hard enough!" or "How-to-not-to-buy-a-latte.com" And my book is like, "Yo, here's how you get involved politically. Here's how you think about this in an emotional or spiritual way. Why is it so hard?" And it's also me talking about crying while going through my bank statements and how I had a manic episode and flew to Paris and got mugged. I'm not like "I'm a perfect millionaire and here's how I did it!”

It's a leftover law from the 80s and it's why a lot of disabled people don't get married. Because if they have a combined income of greater than $2000 a month, they get their benefits cut. So my friend Cary for instance is dating my friend Keely, and Cary was like, "I don't know if we can get married." And it's interesting that gay marriage was legalized but was it for everybody?

AR: And Apocalypse Untreated, your new Audible Original just released as well. What was the biggest difference between creating this audio performance and working on a written book?

GD:
t comes out September 24th. I conceived of it because I was on a camping trip with my then-girlfriend and her car was stick-shift and I don't drive stick. We were up on this mountain. She started, I think sometimes when you are in a long-term relationship you start to say dark things to each other. So I said if something happened to you, I would not be able to drive the car down. And she was like, "Yeah. Like if I broke my leg, you wouldn't be able to drive us down." And I was like, "No! We should have taken the other car." And then I was like, "Also, what if we were up here and I only had enough meds for this camping trip. What if that happened and then I couldn't get the car down and I ran out of meds. I would just go crazy up in these mountains!"

So then I was like, "Wait. That's a genius idea!" So then I went and wrote a pitch for it and Audible jumped on it and was like, "Yeah, we love this!" And so I wrote with my friend Brittani Nichols, a gay friend, a six hour audio for two movies. I've created it and mostly wrote it and Brittani did punch up everywhere. I'm sure every joke that was funny was written by Brittani. My partner laughed at two things when we were listening to it and both of them were Brittani's. And that made sense. Cool for me. No, she's very talented!

So I had to learn how to write something that was just audio. But the big thing I want? I mean, I have Bipolar-2, the main character has Bipolar-2. The big thing I wanted to convey was about mental health but it was also about ableism and disability because I think there is no better way to show the ways in which society has created ableism than by getting rid of society. So now these kids, they've been told they are deficient or broken in some way when actually when you break society down to its bare bones, it might not what everyone thought it was. Even themselves.

And so that was really cool. I did a lot of research; one of the characters has bipolar-2 so the research was my life. And then one of the characters is suicidal and I also pulled from my actual life. But then one of the girls is schizophrenic, and for that I did a lot of interviews and read a lot of books, and one thing I'm really proud of in the podcast is that she really gives a monologue I'm very happy to have written and very happy to have in there about how everyone else is more of a danger to her than they think she is a danger to them. Because of ableism. She's like, "I'm way more statistically likely to hurt myself than to hurt any of you but I also know if I sneeze wrong, you'll have me in a headlock. You are more likely to hurt me after perceiving something incorrectly than I am to hurt you because of my schizophrenia. And so I think I just wanted to be able to portray that. And that in and of itself is a queering of the way which disability is being viewed.

(AR: Mhm. 100%. I think it's an interesting time to have this conversation too, out of everything.)

Especially because I predicted a situation wherein the president predicts an apocalypse on China.

(Yes, right?)

I wrote this in 2019 and we recorded this in February. So I'm like a Cassandra of doom.

(Well, what's the next prediction? Hopefully it's something better.)

At least, I predicted an asteroid and not a pandemic.

(You were pretty close with everything else)

I was pretty close with the global response to the apocalypse situation. I will give myself that.