Running Into My 12-Year-Old Self Online

It’s easy to forget that most of the internet isn’t being looked at by anyone.

Chris Ritter / BuzzFeed

Last week, I took a break from the workday cascade of emails and tweets to sit down and listen to a colleague, an investigative reporter, describe how she tracks down hard-to-find people online. Showing us one database, she encouraged us to type our own names in. I did and one result from Amazon caught my eye. It led me to a “Wishlist” I have no memory of making. Immediately I could tell it was mine.

It consists of nine items and was created on May 8, 2000. I would have been ending seventh grade, which had been the worst year of my life, thus far. I would have been on my mom's PC upstairs in the hallway when I wrote the list. The tawny chaparral hills would have been shrouded in fog. Or if I wrote it at night, the world outside the window would have been thickly dark, our home being rural, and there would have been big garden spiders in each pane.

Social media wasn't really a thing yet and I never had LiveJournal or MySpace. It'd be four years before I got a cell phone. Most of my time online so far had been passive, a few red-cheeked proto-erotic Yahoo checkers chats excepted. This was in part because my mom, who distrusts technology still, had chided me against putting information about myself on the internet and I was an obedient kid. Creating this Amazon Wishlist, then, was a sort of rebellion. A first skirmish in a war of independence that would in years following be fought.

May 8 was about a month before my birthday in June. The irony: If the list were ostensibly intended for my mother, who would be the one to buy me things, she was the only person I would not tell about it. Though I'm sure I never told anyone about it. This was an era of diaries, not friends. The internet then felt so intimate, small, like a secret I privately — and slowly, dial-up warbling and moaning — learned.

This list was a statement about my identity I made to no one.

It breaks into essentially three categories. First, Sharon Creech novels. Second, Weird Al CDs. A duo of cookbooks — both Pillsbury. And last a novel called Beauty, a 1978 Beauty and the Beast adaptation.

Next to each desired item I have written exclamation-mark-laden reviews:

Sharon Creech was the first author I remember identifying as my favorite author. Her books had felt, at the time, adult, complex in a way that was novel. The worlds in her books were not simple. People hurt each other. People did things that didn't make sense.

I love both the fact that I was interested in owning the hard cover of Absolutely Normal Chaos — which implies I already owned the paperback — as if I were investing in it. As if I would keep the book on my shelf for forever, and show it off when guests came by. “Oh, what's that? Just my hardcover edition of Absolutely Normal Chaos.”

The paperback, I presume, today sits 3,000 miles away in my parents' house, on a shelf in a room that's now for guests. Not that there are ever guests.


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How We Fuck Now

BuzzFeed LGBT editor Saeed Jones joins journalists Steven Thrasher and Dave Tuller to discuss sex, gay men, and what we are (and aren’t) doing. “Marriage and wedding registries are much easier to talk about than fucking.”

John Gara for BuzzFeed

Saeed Jones: OK, let's be real: We have to start with Truvada if we're going to have a candid discussion about gay men and sex in 2014. The drug has sparked a heated debate about the past and future of the HIV/AIDS crisis as well as necessary and complicated questions about everything from bareback sex in our bedrooms and in porn to disclosure, serosorting, and relationships between HIV-positive and HIV-negative gay men.

If HIV-negative gay men take Truvada once a day, they drastically reduce their chances of acquiring HIV. (Antiretrovirals can also be taken up to 72 hours after an unsafe sexual encounter — this is known post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP — but people should be aware that the evidence for whether this kind of HIV “morning-after pill” works is much less solid.) Personally, I'm still learning and making up my mind about whether or not Truvada is an option I'd like to act upon. But it is great to know that I at least have a new option. Still, though, I was a bit taken aback when Larry Kramer told the New York Times: “There's something to me cowardly about taking Truvada instead of using a condom.” Steven, what did you think about Kramer's comments?

Steven Thrasher: I was kind of stunned by Larry Kramer's comments initially, though not entirely surprised after thinking about them a bit. In Tim Murphy's outstanding New York Magazine article, you can see how it is easy to imagine a young Larry Kramer — the author of The Normal Heart and basis for its protagonist — as very at odds with the elderly Larry Kramer who made those comments. The second (and last) time I interacted with Larry Kramer, I found him to be almost entirely against a position he was haranguing me to be for the first time I'd met him. (Of course, like any of us, Kramer has certainly earned the right to change his mind over time.)

But I've certainly seen a big generational difference in how people respond to HIV, especially in reporting the story about Michael Johnson. (Johnson, a former college wrestler, is awaiting trial on one count of “recklessly infecting another with HIV” and four counts of “attempting to recklessly infect another with HIV,” felonies in the state of Missouri.) Some young activists asked me after reading the story why I hadn't written about Truvada, or PrEP. However, the truth is that this is all very new to the public. The men I wrote about having bareback sex in St. Louis did not know about Truvada in early 2013. Most probably don't still. Safe sex to them was simply a matter of using condoms. I questioned the school in that story, Lindenwood University, about why it didn't have condoms available for free or for sale on campus. A year and a half later, Truvada is only barely starting to register as an option for people who are highly informed about HIV/AIDS in major metropolitan areas. I think this summer will be looked back upon as a turning point in using Truvada as a major tool for HIV prevention, especially considering the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recent endorsement for all sexually active gay men to take it and a study presented last week at the International AIDS Conference that showed how effective taking the drug can be. But we're not there yet. I mean, while working on the story, I met someone in St. Louis who said his doctor refused to prescribe Truvada because it was a “whore's drug.”

Sarah Karlan for BuzzFeed

David Tuller: I think the introduction of Truvada for HIV prevention has definitely been really challenging for guys of my generation, and Larry's — I'm 57, so I'm quite a bit younger than him. It's upended the basic assumptions we've lived with for 30-plus years. (Can it really be 30 years?) I had my first sexual experience with a guy when I was 21, in 1978. I didn't feel comfortable having sex at all at first, but by the time I was starting to, the epidemic was already getting underway. In those days — the early '80s — I pretty quickly became terrified to have sex at all. Could you kiss? What about blow jobs? Fucking felt too fraught to think about. What could you do? It really froze my budding sex life in place. I'd missed the wild days of the 1970s, or rather, I just caught the very end of it. And that terror stayed with me for years. And now, it's a completely different world. We were, basically, terrorized into using condoms. You were a bad community citizen if you didn't. And of course, those of us who adhered to the “condom code” did not get infected, thankfully. But the price we paid was that sex was always — always — accompanied by great fear and second-guessing. I think many men of my age cohort think, If we could use condoms faithfully, why can't you?

SJ: I'm 28 years old. When I started realizing I was attracted to men, one of the assumptions I made was that HIV/AIDS and being a gay man were inextricably linked. I did a lot of reading and learning (and mis-learning) on my own because I didn't feel comfortable asking questions about sex and, obviously, my high school sex education course didn't address LGBT sexuality, HIV/AIDS, etc. America is still “debating” whether or not we should teach middle school students about birth control; imagine how far we have to go toward teaching teens and pre-teens about LGBT-relevant sex. Kids are coming out (across the LGBT spectrum) at earlier and earlier ages, but sex education is playing catch-up.

So, though I didn't live through the AIDS plague years, that terror you mention was definitely a part of my sexual coming-of-age. I remember going to the public library in my hometown and looking for nonfiction books about gay people. The only books available were either about HIV/AIDS or “coping with” your gay child. My sophomore year of high school, I stole a copy of The New Joy of Gay Sex from a Barnes & Noble! Though I didn't fully understand the politics of why I wasn't being educated in a useful way about gay sex, I knew I wanted and needed to understand my body and how I felt about guys. I shoved that book into the front of my jeans and walked, quite awkwardly, out of the bookstore — nervous but incredibly proud. It was like, Fuck you! I'm going to figure this out one way or another. At summer camp that year, the boy I was hooking up with would page through the book with me and then we'd try things out. (We even snuck away from the camp to buy condoms and lube at Walmart.) Having someone just as audacious, horny, and determined as I was helped me feel sane. It was the only time I had sex before my twenties that I wasn't terrified that the world wasn't going to collapse in on itself immediately after my orgasm.


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They Just Wanted To Leave A Mark

I told myself the reason I hadn’t shared this story was because I hadn’t been raped in the conventional sense, that it hadn’t really affected me. But that wasn’t the whole reason.

Editor's Note: This essay was originally published on the Tumblr I Believe You / It's Not Your Fault.

Justine Zwiebel for BuzzFeed

There's a story behind this story, about why and how it gets told. There always is. The stories of our lives are an internal dialogue as much as external, about which parts we think deserve to be told and who deserves to hear it.

One part of my story is this: I switched schools a lot as a kid. I liked being the new girl. I liked being mysterious and getting to reinvent myself over and over. I'm a double Gemini, it fits with the narrative. My first year of high school, my best friend and I wanted so badly to be wanted. We weren't outgoing, we were elusive. We didn't have boyfriends, we had undifferentiated longing. I didn't really know that I was a lesbian yet, but I didn't not know. This was 2002. There were no out gay kids at my high school, and I had never met a lesbian in real life, at least that I was aware of. I was learning about my own desires and how desires sometimes mask themselves in what you think will make you happy. I had never even masturbated. I didn't know what I wanted, much less how to get it, and that made sense because even though I looked like I was 25, I was 14 through and through.

It started when these boys would grab our butts as we were walking down the hallway. The crowds were large and sometimes we didn't even see them coming until it was too late and they were behind us reaching back. They left bruises almost every time. They were popular boys, they had girlfriends. They didn't want to date us, they just wanted to leave a mark. There were two of them. Sometimes they would high-five afterwards. Then one day they started to spank me, in crowds, while winking. I was wearing these horrible white denim stretch pants with no pockets, and when I told my friend what happened she asked if she could borrow them.

We never said anything. I'm still not sure that they even knew my name. After a few weeks, they started to come up behind me when I was at my locker and body slam me until I crumpled to the ground. It happened maybe once a week. Sometimes, before they slammed they would press really hard against my back so I could feel their dicks on my ass. There were other kids in the hallway and nobody said or did anything, so I thought maybe I was just getting initiated into the school. I thought it was a test I had to pass. I thought I was passing.

Once, one of them came up to me in the pickup line and asked if my mom would give him a ride home. He sat in the backseat of our minivan with me, directing my mom to the house he lived in. It was behind a special gate in an already gated neighborhood. Justin Timberlake had a house next door.

The last time that I remember, it was a particularly hard slam. I hit my head on the locker and fell to the floor. When I looked back up at him he unzipped his pants and put his semi-hard dick on the place where there would be a bruise later. It only escalated from there.

I told a few friends, quietly, casually, and they all said they were jealous. I didn't know why I wasn't as happy as they thought I should have been at getting the wrong attention from the right people, so I told my mom I wanted to go to a different school. I didn't tell her anything else.

For years, I didn't tell anyone. I didn't tell my friends or my girlfriends or my sexual partners, even when they were sharing stories of their own abuse. Even during those moments of female bonding that always seem to happen when you get a group of women together — the Yes All Women moments that had been happening long before Twitter or hashtags.

Years passed. I came out to (some of) my family, went to a women's college, discovered feminism, volunteered at trauma centers for the sexually abused. I had several healthy and some unhealthy relationships. I tried dating men, just to be sure, and learned about myself more and more. I felt like I understood shame, then. I told myself the reason I hadn't shared this story was because it hadn't really affected me. That I hadn't been raped in the conventional sense, so I didn't want to make it seem like I was equating my story with people who had it worse. But that wasn't the whole reason.

The truth is, I didn't tell them because I didn't want anyone to think this was why I was a lesbian. I didn't want my queer friends or my straight friends or anyone I encountered to think that my experiences with men made me write them off, made me choose to be with women because it was safer. I didn't want them to think this trauma was my root. And secretly I wasn't ever totally sure that it wasn't.

But here's the thing I finally realized: It doesn't fucking matter what my root is, or if I have one, or if that's a thing that even exists. Not telling anyone that I was sexually assaulted doesn't change that it happened. It's a part of my story and my life and my sexuality in some big or small way that I will never fully understand. And that's OK.

Not telling anyone about it can't change that it happened. Keeping it hidden can only give it more power to affect you. I can't write the narrative of what other people think of me. Even with purposeful omissions from the stories I tell them. Even by carefully curating my online persona. Even by lying. I have no control over what they think, and what they think shouldn't have any control over me. But that's a lot harder to master. So I'm starting with this one small thing.

There are lots of reasons not to tell your story. But for every reason you can think of to stay quiet, there are 10 more reasons to speak up. Even if you think no one else is, we are listening. We believe you. It's not your fault.

Being a lesbian isn't easier than being sexually assaulted. And it isn't harder and it isn't separate. It doesn't matter if I was born this way or if I wasn't, if I decide to call myself a Lesbian today and next year call myself Queer and in 10 years date a man. I deserve the same rights and respect and happiness and outlet to tell my story as every other person does. And so do you.

The Rise Of Europe’s Religious Right

“For too long a time in Europe, pro-life people did not really say clearly and directly what they believe.” After years on the margins of European politics, social conservatives are learning to fight back.

bpperry / Getty Images / iStockphoto

ROME — On a hot Friday in late June, the walls of a 15th-century marble palace in a secluded corner of the Vatican were lit up with the face of Breitbart News Chairman Steve Bannon.

“We believe — strongly — that there is a global tea party movement,” declared Bannon, who took over the American conservative new media empire after the death of its founder, Andrew Breitbart, in 2012. Speaking via Skype to a conference on Catholic responses to poverty, he said, “You're seeing a global reaction to centralized government, whether that government is in Beijing or that government is in Washington, D.C., or that government is in Brussels… On the social conservative side, we're the voice of the anti-abortion movement, the voice of the traditional marriage movement.”

Events across the Atlantic do look familiar to American eyes: an uprising against long-established parties in Brussels amid economic stagnation. But these elements have been around a long time in European politics. What is new — and what feels so American — is represented by the group Bannon was addressing: Europe is getting its own version of the religious right.

“There is an unprecedented anger because the average citizen [sees] what is being done in their name without their consent,” said Benjamin Harnwell, who founded the group that organized the conference, called the Human Dignity Institute. Harnwell is a former aide to a longtime Eurosceptic member of the European Parliament, who founded the organization in 2008 to promote the “Christian voice” in European politics. It is one of many new groups that have sprouted on the continent in recent years with missions they describe as “promoting life,” “traditional family,” and “religious liberty” in response to the advance of laws to recognize same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Some are technically secular organizations, but their strength, their leaders concede, largely comes from churchgoers.

The analogy with the tea party isn't perfect for these groups, and some bristle at the comparison because they aren't uniformly conservative on other issues. Harnwell prefers “silent majority,” but said he draws inspiration from the tea party movement because they also see their battle in part as a fight with a political establishment that has long ignored them.

These groups are still learning to work together, but after years on the political margins in much of Europe, they have suddenly begun flexing political muscles that progressives — and maybe social conservatives themselves — never knew they had. They have made themselves a force to be reckoned with in Brussels by learning key lessons from American conservatives, such as how to organize online and use initiative drives. European progressives, who long thought debates over sexual rights had mostly been settled in their favor, were blindsided.

“A bomb with a long fuse has been lit,” said Sylvie Guillaume, a French MEP supportive of abortion rights and LGBT rights, who recently stepped down as vice chair of the largest center-left bloc in the European Union's parliament. “We don't know what's going to happen.”

Jobbik

One month before Bannon addressed the Human Dignity Institute, elections for the European Parliament sent a shockwave through the political establishment in Brussels. Far-right parties calling for an end to the European Union doubled their numbers to hold around 20% of seats. Parties like France's National Front and Britain's UKIP won pluralities in their countries.

Some of these parties ran on explicitly anti-LGBT platforms, particularly in Eastern Europe. (Hungary's ultranationalist Jobbik Party, for example, printed posters featuring a blond woman with a Hungarian flag standing opposite drag Eurovision champion Conchita Wurst with an EU flag, along with the caption: “You Choose!”) For the most part, though, issues dear to social conservatives were a side issue in elections driven heavily by economic frustration. Some on the far right even support LGBT rights, most notably Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom, who has tried to recruit LGBT voters for his anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant platform.

Social conservatives made themselves a force months before the election. In December, the European Parliament took up a resolution known as the Estrela Report that called on member states to provide comprehensive sex education in schools, ensure access to safe abortions, and take other steps that its supporters consider basic to safeguarding sexual health and rights. The resolution would have had no practical impact — the EU's own rules bar it from regulating such issues — and its supporters considered it consistent with previously adopted resolutions. The vote was expected to be perfectly routine.

Then, as if someone had thrown a switch, emails started pouring into MEPs' offices calling for the resolution to be rejected weeks before the final vote on Dec. 10. After an acrimonious floor debate, the center-right bloc helped defeat the Estrela Report by a small margin in favor of a conservative alternative that essentially said the EU has no business talking about these issues. The result stunned progressives, who couldn't recall another time that the parliament had rejected language supportive of reproductive rights.

In a sense, someone had indeed thrown a switch. A few months earlier, a new online petition platform called CitizenGo sent out its first action alert. CitizenGo was conceived of as a kind of MoveOn.org for conservatives. It was based in Spain, but it had aspirations to be a global platform and now has staff working in eight languages, with plans to add Chinese and Arabic. It has an organizer in the U.S., too, named Gregory Mertz, who works out of the Washington offices of the National Organization for Marriage — Mertz actually wrote some of CitizenGo's Esterla Report petitions. In the weeks leading up to the Estrela vote, several petitions appeared on CitizenGo, garnering 40,000 signatures here, 50,000 there.

These kinds of campaigns are so common in the U.S. that they are little more than background noise. But they were new in Brussels, especially in the hands of conservatives. Grassroots mobilization on sexual rights hadn't been common on either side, and progressive advocacy groups had won many important victories relying heavily on an elite lobbying strategy.

MEPs had no idea what hit them and many of them folded, said Neil Datta, of the European Parliamentary Forum for Population and Development, which promotes reproductive rights.

“If you have a big cannon, the first [time] you shoot it, everyone runs away scared,” Datta said.

CitizenGo's founder, Ignacio Arsuaga, had spent more than a decade adapting online organizing techniques from U.S. to Spanish politics before launching the group. He had been drawn into internet advocacy while studying at Fordham Law School in New York in the late 1990s. He had been “amazed” by MoveOn.org, he said in a phone interview from Spain, and he began signing petitions by groups such as the Christian Coalition, Americans United for Life, and other organizations that were “defending the rights of religious people — specifically Catholics — to express our faith in the public sphere.”

“That's real democracy — that's what I lived in the U.S.,” Arsuaga said. “Spanish citizens aren't used to participating. They're used to voting to every four years, and that's it.”

To change this, he created an organization called HazteOír (a name that means “make yourself heard”) in 2001. It ran some campaigns throughout the early 2000s, often under separately branded sites, but it was the group's mobilization against a 2010 bill to liberalize abortion laws passed by Spain's socialist government that made the group a beacon to conservatives around the world. It helped get hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets of Madrid and kept up the drumbeat through the 2011 elections when the conservative party Partido Popular won control. Its efforts appear to have paid off. In December 2013, the cabinet approved legislation that opponents say would give Spain the most restrictive abortion laws of any democracy in the world, and it seems to be on track for final approval by the parliament this summer.

Arsuaga has steadily been working to build a broader movement. His group hosted the 2012 World Congress of Families in Madrid, a global summit of social conservative leaders organized by an institute in Rockford, Ill. It bussed supporters across the border to France in 2013 when a new organization, La Manif Pour Tous (Protest for All), organized large protests against a marriage equality law reminiscent of Spain's anti-abortion protests.

The protests organized by these two groups were a turning point for conservatives throughout Europe, said Luca Volontè, a former Italian MP who now runs a social conservative foundation in Rome and sits on CitizenGo's board. They showed that a progressive victory was not inevitable. And, in their aftermath, conservatives have won victories, especially in Eastern Europe — in recent months, Croatia and Slovakia both enacted marriage equality bans in their constitutions.

“So many people in Europe are standing up, because this ideology appears and [is] felt, really, as totalitarian,” Volontè said, referring to advances for marriage equality.

La Manif Pour Tous is now following the same path as HazteOír, continuing the fight against marriage equality in France even though it became law in May 2013 and reorganizing itself as a permanent, international organization. The group launched a “Europe for Family” campaign in the lead-up to the EU elections in May, and 230 French candidates signed its pledge opposing marriage equality, trans rights, and sex education.

Twenty-three signatories won won seats in those elections, 11 of them members of the far-right National Front.


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The Down And Dirty History Of TMZ

For just $53, you can purchase a guaranteed front-of-the-bus seat on the TMZ NYC Tour. After stepping on the bus in the middle of Times Square, a TMZ-trained tour guide — handsome, blond, amiable Australian — will ask you and the rest of the bus if you’re a huge fan of the show. You’ll clap; the rest of the bus will roar in agreement. When a tanned, smiling face shows up on the television screen above your seat, you’ll be prompted to cheer for “our fearless leader, Harvey!” — and laugh when the guide promises to show you “all the places where celebrities party and bone and get diseases.” Here on the bus, you become one of TMZ’s people — the ones who’ve helped turned a gossip website into a $55 million yearly enterprise.

The TMZ tour gives the same experience of a generic Manhattan tour — the story of Times Square, which, in the guide’s words, “isn’t just home to 1,000 illegal immigrants working as Disney characters”; a quick turn through the Meatpacking District; a view of Central Park — only punctuated with landmarks of celebrity significance, introduced with TMZ’s trademark leering tone. While driving along Broadway: “Ladies, dry off your seats, James Franco’s on Broadway! And if you’re under 16 on Instagram, he’s probably tried to have sex with you!” While passing ABC studios: “Here’s the set of Good Morning America, where Chris Brown is known for his hits!”

Halfway through the three-hour tour, the bus stops in SoHo: To the left, there’s DASH, the Kardashian-branded store; to the right, you can backtrack to the loft where Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead of a heroin overdose.

These two attractions perfectly encapsulate two of the modes of coverage at which TMZ excels: the frivolous and the macabre, Celebrity Banality News and Celebrity Death News. But there’s a third TMZ mode, one that neither the tour nor the TMZ syndicated program can truly translate. It’s this mode that distinguishes TMZ from all other celebrity news sites — what gives it teeth or, more precisely, bite. It’s not the TMZ-employed paparazzi trailing B-listers at the airport, photos of hot celebrities at the beach, or mugshots of celebrity stalkers.

TMZ’s real engine — what defines its mission, what legitimizes it and sets it apart — is a unique and controversial mix of scandal mongering and investigative journalism. But it’s also that mode that some have claimed is responsible for acquiring a video of Justin Bieber telling a racist joke and, over the course of four years, not publishing it.

BuzzFeed spoke to nearly two dozen former TMZ employees, and it’s clear that Bieber’s tape was not the only near-priceless piece of dirt in the proverbial TMZ vault. (TMZ did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) According to these ex-employees, the sealed testimonies from the Michael Jackson molestation trial hide there as does footage of various celebrities — Bieber, Lohan, Travolta — behaving badly. The vault isn’t a secret at TMZ — even the lowest on the staff ladder have heard whispers of its existence. As to what goes up on the site and what stays vaulted, that’s a finer, more esoteric calculus — and one in which celebrities and their publicists have come to live in fear. As one source explained, “There’s no doubt: [Harvey] Levin absolutely changed the way celebrities function today.”

TMZ has been responsible for breaking the biggest celebrity scandals of the last 10 years: effectively ending a 30-year career (Mel Gibson), tarnishing golf’s most sacred idol (Tiger Woods), and puncturing the pristine image of celebrity royalty (Solange Knowles attacking Jay Z). But it’s not just celebs: In 2009, it caught a bank spending millions of taxpayer bailout funds on a lavish party (Northern Trust), and, via spin-off TMZSports, instigated the $2 billion sale of an NBA team by applying the same surveillance to a racist owner (Donald Sterling) once reserved for the Hollywood stars and socialites.

Before TMZ, the gossip landscape was predominantly characterized by what those in the industry call “blow job news” — tidbits and sound bites that flatter the egos and images of celebrities. But TMZ disrupts that. It trades in scandal, and revels in exposing the narrative for what it is: a story as fictional as the films and television shows in which these stars appear. It didn’t just revise the accepted notion of what “Mel Gibson” means. It immolated it.

In the first five years of its existence, TMZ became the new standard not only for scandal mongering and gossip gathering, but multiplatform brand dominance. But its quest to become the “future of entertainment news” seems to have leveled out a bit. According to Quantcast, unique traffic has increased just 11% over a two-year period (24.48 million to 27.23 million; compare to usmagazine.com, whose unique traffic has increased 156%, from 12.8 million to 32.8 million) and Famous in 12, a TMZ-branded CW series, was canceled after five episodes this summer.

In 2007, though, TMZ did indeed look like the future. And even if that status is less certain today, TMZ has been the most influential and important media organization of the last decade. It’s not in good taste. It’s brazen, proud of its gaudiness. It’s altered the way that news about celebrity is treated, spread, and consumed — and earned its place in a lineage, spanning from Confidential magazine to the National Enquirer, that turns “celebrity gossip” into serious investigative journalism impossible to ignore.

But TMZ’s remarkable success and reputation have come at a price, as the demand to acquire and “own” scoops while simultaneously catering to a demographic of untraditional (read: straight male) gossip consumers has transformed a rag-tag group of reporters invested in illuminating Hollywood hypocrisy into a cabal of ruthless, click-hungry, and aggressive TMZers with little journalistic training and a tolerance of misogyny, both within the workplace and on the site and television show.

TMZ is both better and worse than you thought it was. In the words of a former staffer, “We built a brand that turned into a monster that can run on its own.” It’s a well-oiled, money-making, gossip-generating machine. But has it compromised the mission that set it apart from the rest of the gossip industry?

To answer that question, we have to look closely at the story of TMZ — its founding narrative, its breakthrough, and, most crucially, its founder — the man for whom the bus of TMZ acolytes cheered so emphatically. Because as anyone affiliated with the site will tell you, the story of TMZ is really the story of Harvey Levin.

FameFlynet (Travolta, Lohan), Handout / Reuters (Bieber)

Harvey Levin grew up, in the words of one former associate, as a “Jew nerd from Reseda, Calif.” — in proximity to the glamour of Hollywood, but definitively excluded from it. He was short, smart, and savvy, and spent his childhood observing his father, who owned a liquor store, attempting to avoid selling booze to kids with fake IDs, while the cops indiscriminately chose when to prosecute and when to look the other way. According to this confidant, this experience would motivate and structure Levin’s career, as he worked to expose the hypocrisy of those in power, whether they be the police, celebrities, or the various apparatuses that supported and sheltered them. He received a B.A. from UC Santa Barbara and a J.D. from University of Chicago, passing the California bar in 1975.

KCBS

Levin taught law and briefly practiced it, but starting in 1982 began focusing on his media career: He had a legal radio talk show, a column in the Los Angeles Times, and law-related reporting gigs at KNBC and later KCBS, which is where he was working when the biggest celebrity scandal of the ‘90s broke: the O.J. Simpson trial. He was but one player in the larger industry that popped up around the trial and its aftermath, but he was skilled enough — and natural enough on camera — to win the role of host of the revival of The People’s Court. In 2002, he became the executive producer of Celebrity Justice, but the show only aired for three years.

In these pre-TMZ years of Levin’s life, the building blocks of the TMZ empire are all visible: the obsession with hypocrisy, the keen understanding of the law, the application to celebrity, the tireless ambition. Levin was intelligent, but more importantly, he was telegenic, with the smooth talk of the most practiced lawyer and the charisma of a television star. After Celebrity Justice was canceled, he began making regular appearances on CNN’s Showbiz Tonight, but, according to a confidant, he wanted something of his own — which is why he said yes when Jim Paratore, head of Time Warner-owned production company Telepictures, approached him with an offer.

Paratore had headed up Telepictures since 1992, putting in place a blockbuster slate of daytime syndicated programming (The Tyra Banks Show, The Rosie O’Donnell Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show) along with primetime mainstay The Bachelor. But one of Telepictures’ longest-running and most reliable shows was Extra, an entertainment news program developed in 1994 to provide synergistic promotion across the sprawling Time Warner media conglomerate. In 2005, Extra had already been on the air for more than a decade, amassing a trove of old footage of celebrities, all ready to be recycled and exploited on the cheap.

Which is exactly what Paratore would have Levin do. When Time Warner merged with AOL in 2000, the idea was to use AOL’s internet muscle to exploit Time Warner’s media holdings. But the two companies had very different corporate climates, and struggled to foster the originally imagined cross-platform synergies. According to Jim Bankoff, then president of AOL (and current CEO of Vox Media), Bankoff hit it off with Paratore at a 2005 meeting between AOL and Warner Bros. executives designed to kindle increased collaboration. Paratore regaled him with stories of thousands of hours of unused Extra footage — the perfect candidate for an AOL collaboration. Neither Bankoff nor Paratore knew what, exactly, they wanted to do with that footage, save put it on AOL and establish a brand that was something other than “AOL Celebrity.” That vague, amorphous idea was enough to pique Levin’s interest.

Levin didn’t know anything about the internet and had no interest in cultivating a web presence. (Multiple sources confirm that even today, he still uses an AOL email address, and all tweets from his Twitter account are automatically generated.) But he’d have something approximating free reign — and the ability to mold the property into something to finally match his grand vision.

Plus, following the historic summer of 2005, gossip was percolating at an alarming rate. A cottage industry of blogs, almost entirely run by women and queer men wholly outside the industry, were exploiting that interest — most visibly Perez Hilton, but also D-Listed, Lainey Gossip, Pink Is the New Blog, Just Jared — all of which were proving, to the somewhat startled old guard of gossipmongers, that the future wasn’t in syndicated television or print, but online. Constantly updated, dynamic, with a strong authorial voice; snarky, immediate, and originating outside the carefully cultivated celebrity sphere.

These bloggers were defined by their outsider status — and their very lack of access — but that outsider status (and lack of capital) also proved problematic. Hilton, for example, was sued multiple times — more than once for copyright infringement. What these bloggers lacked was infrastructure and capital to expand and bolster their operations, all while keeping the same all-important outsider ethic.

Which is precisely what an operation housed at Telepictures, with the larger launching pad of AOL (which, in 2005, still boasted an amplifying power of 22 million subscribers), could achieve. Levin and Paratore brought along some staff from Celebrity Justice and Extra, including eventual TMZ personalities Mike Walters, whose father was an assistant sheriff in Orange County, and Evan Rosenblum. Rosenblum is son of former Warner Bros. television chief Bruce Rosenblum, and is also married to the daughter of People’s Court producer Stu Billett. The official staff eventually numbered a grand total of seven.

The site had a sketch of an overarching mission, but it still lacked a name — according to a former staffer, there’d been a discussion of “Crushed Candy,” but that was too girly. The name needed to be catchy, different, and, most importantly, short, so as to better facilitate views via the burgeoning mobile market. Someone pitched the idea to use “TMZ” — Hollywood shorthand for the “Thirty Mile Zone,” or “studio zone,” which historically delineated the boundaries for union-related rates within the industry and, in branding terms, connoted a mysterious sort of insider knowledge.

The only problem? The URL was already taken by an electronics company that went by the name of Team Minus Zero. According to a staffer from that time, Levin called the owner up and offered $5,000 for the URL — but without revealing who he was or what, exactly, the URL was for. The guy jumped at the offer, but Levin, according to a source, also knew that if he showed up with the cash in his Porsche, the URL owner would immediately up the asking price. His solution: Borrow a staff member’s totally average car. Hand over $5,000 in cash. The URL — and the brand — was theirs.

On Nov. 9, 2005, TMZ wasn’t even in beta, but it got its hands on something too big to wait for the official site launch: footage of the aftermath of a car crash involving Paris Hilton, her then-boyfriend Greek shipping heir Stavros Niarchos, Rod Stewart’s daughter Kimberly, and Laguna Beach star Talan Torriero. Evidence of celebutante Hilton behaving badly was at a premium, but this was something bigger: The video showed the Bentley, driven by Niarchos, crashing into a truck, leaving the site of the crash, nearly hitting a bystander, and later, once police had pulled the car over, Hilton blowing a kiss to the officers and saying, “We love the police.”

TMZ sent an email blast to the far corners of the American media, describing the video and noting, at message’s end, “There is no evidence on tape that the police ever conducted field sobriety tests on the driver.”

It was a splashy debut, bearing the hallmarks (video footage, celebrity shaming, prodding the Los Angeles Police Department) that would make TMZ famous — even if no one knew what TMZ meant. But it was a start.

TMZ Beta

The First "Fifty Shades Of Grey" Trailer Is Finally Here

Mr. Grey will see you now.

After a tease from Beyoncé on Sunday, the first real look at the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey premiered on Today on Thursday morning.

The movie follows the relationship between innocent college graduate Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and intimidatingly sexy business magnate Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who meet when she goes to his office to interview him.

The movie follows the relationship between innocent college graduate Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and intimidatingly sexy business magnate Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), who meet when she goes to his office to interview him.

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures


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Hercules Has Gotten Way More Relatable — And Less Queer — In The Past 2,700 Years

Mainstream contemporary culture isn’t into the idea of a masculine hero being a cold-blooded murderer or having a young male lover. Weird, right?

Paramount Pictures

The new Hercules apparently wants its masculine hero to be eminently relatable. “I only want to be a husband and a father,” he says. “I am no hero,” this humble Hercules, played by Dwayne Johnson, contends. “Become the Legend,” offers the website of the new Hercules, pressing you to put an image of your face in a hole underneath the hero's lion skin. Yet this modern modesty twist — Hercules as a family man who sees himself as a normal person who happens to be exceptionally strong — is fundamentally at odds with the hero's ancient origins.

The first written reference to Herakles (his Greek name) is found in Homer's Iliad; here and for centuries after, he was a Greek hero of the very old school. Classics professor G. Karl Galinsky explains that the “Iliadic hero is not a fiercely independent individualist but almost makes a cult of proper procedure (themis) and of paying proper respect (aidōs) to whomever proper respect is due.” The very ancient Herakles was not even as modern as the Iliadic heroes. Thus in the Iliad and the Odyssey, Herakles is seen as hubristic and his behavior as shocking — he fights against the gods and is said to have killed a guest in his home, both sickening and inherently repulsive transgressions. The only way Herakles would have been “relatable” in the ancient world was as an athlete — poetry likened Herakles' deeds to athleticism, a line of thinking that suggests athletes should try to emulate Herakles. (Athlos, the word used to describe a sporting contest, was also the word used for his 12 labors.)

Herakles was, by ancient accounts, very sexually promiscuous. In one tale, he had sex with 50 sisters in one night. According to Aristotle, his virility produced 72 sons and a single daughter, but others report even more offspring. The canonical ancient stories tell of the hero murdering his wife and their (legitimate) children in a fit of madness brought on by the goddess Hera. His last mortal wife, Deianeira, inadvertently kills him because she is jealous of the slave-concubine he's brought home to live in their house. His is a story that makes little sense, perhaps, in the modern context, hence its sanitization.

During the Renaissance, the tale of his “choice between Vice and Virtue” became a popular Hercules story — he inevitably chooses Virtue. The Hercules of the Kevin Sorbo-led 1990s TV show was characterized in the opening credits as having “a strength the world had never seen — a strength surpassed only by the power of his heart.” Hercules was born at a time when there was no chasm between thought and deed as now, hence the acceptance then of his brutality. To be a hero of antiquity meant to perform superhuman feats; to be a hero of modernity means to possess a capacity for deep morality.

In Greece, Herakles became much more popular as a comic figure than a serious figure — Classics scholar Emma Stafford terms him a “a cheerfully promiscuous glutton.” Many statues remain of a drunken Hercules urinating, some of which were designed as fountains. A fragment from Hesiod suggests that Hercules had a sense of humor about himself, which was likely present in oral folktales of the hero. His “active” sexual appetites are highly masculine — Classics professor Giulia Sissa writes that “[desire] is the reaction of a mature male body to another body, whose femininity strikes and stimulates (whether or not that femininity belongs to a woman or a young man).” Although insatiable sexual desires were usually associated with women and receptive male partners, Herakles was nonetheless a paragon of manhood, down to his perfect small penis. Galinsky writes that his prodigious progeny are an affirmation of patriarchal values, in which his many sons spread the glory of his own immortal father, Zeus.

Flickr: aaron_wolpert / Via CC


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39 Pieces Of Advice For Journalists And Writers Of Color

Established writers of color offer priceless advice for those just starting out.

For people of color, the writing industry can seem an especially challenging space, particularly for those just starting out. We spoke with 20 established writers of color – cultural writers, investigative reporters, broadcast journalists, and freelancers – and asked them three questions about the advice that they'd give beginning writers:

• What piece of advice would you, as a writer of color, give to burgeoning writers/journalists of color?
• What do you know now about being a writer of color that you wish you'd known when you first started?
• Is there anything you did as a writer starting out that you now regret?

Chris Ritter / BuzzFeed

Read a lot of what interests you, and don't feel bad if what interests you isn't the cover of the New York Times every morning. Obviously you should keep up with world events, but don't think that being able to speak at length about every A1 Times story is necessarily important. Write more than you read. Do things/go places that make you feel scared. Don't be afraid to be passionate and earnest; detached irony is dead. Treat interns and HR people and everyone else in your office with the same level of respect you give to your direct colleagues and boss. Be as kind as your constitution will allow to everyone both in and outside of your office. Get into the habit of talking to people and asking them questions about their life, and don't do the thing where you zone out of conversations until it's your turn to speak — actually listening to people and the world around you is like 35 percent of being a good writer. Don't surround yourself only with other writers/journalists/media people; self-imposed insularity is the fastest way to smother your creativity. And don't stress out about ingratiating yourself with The Media Scene. A lot of the parties suck.

Cord Jefferson, writer

Be tenacious. This applies to everyone, but especially to young journalists of color: Make yourself indispensable. Dispel any rumors, however quiet, that you are just there for a “quota.” When you grow bolder: Challenge the status quo. Nearly every major newsroom is overwhelmingly white and male: Do something about it. Refer your capable friends to positions. Push that job openings be made public. Leave the door open for others like you. Don't feel like you have to do the “racism beat”; advocate for stories about race and privilege, but don't feel obligated to write them — journalism should teach both the writer and the reader. Write what's important to you. You're not the grand poobah of all things Asian/Latino/black/mixed-race. Your colleagues are journalists; they need to know how to figure it out themselves. There are communities out there for you — you just have to find them, and it takes a little work. Never hesitate to reach out to someone, over any medium, for advice or, sadly, commiseration. Don't collude, collaborate: Your voices are important, and together they are stronger and louder. Start projects that get your words out there. Surround yourself with people who get it.

—Anonymous, editor at news website


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My Mother, Parkinson’s, And Our Struggle To Understand Disease

The doctors prescribe pills that cause uncontrolled muscle movements, mania, and hallucinations. Our family clings to storytelling in order to survive.

Illustration by Ilana Denis Bauer for BuzzFeed

My father is always listening. He has baby monitors set up in every room, so that he can hear my mother when she needs help. Help to go to the bathroom, to dispense her medicine, to massage her spasming muscles, to bring her something to drink, to arrange her pillows, to turn the heating pads off and on.

I imagine my parents when my sister and I were babies: They listen, sleep-deprived, from the other bedroom. They know that eventually, we will grow up and take care of ourselves. Parkinson's also has stages of development. Each year my mother's body is more dependent on others for care.

I am home for Christmas having a beer with my father, a retired forester. My mother is sleeping. It is best not to disturb her rest. Dad asks about my new job. I tell him that I often fall asleep answering work emails from my bed. He tells me that he used to go to sleep listening for forest fires on radio headphones, so as not to wake my mother.

Now my mother calls through the baby monitor and he goes to check on her. I sit on the stone fireplace in the living room and leaf through a binder of monthly reports written by district foresters dating back to the 1950s, a collection of narratives that my father kept over the years. These days, my father keeps meticulous records on my mother, which he emails to her doctors at the end of the day. They are conducting a scientific experiment with multiple variables. Sometimes my father forwards the reports to my sister and me. They are detailed and thorough, but they are more than objective observations; they are a narrative about my mother.

People with Parkinson's stop producing dopamine, a necessary neurotransmitter that, among other things, contributes to successful physical movement. My mother takes medication, which is converted into dopamine in the brain, but like most drugs, you have to take more and more to achieve the same effectiveness over time, and the side effects can include uncontrolled muscle movements, mania, and hallucinations. Most people associate the uncontrolled muscle movements of Parkinson's patients with the disease, but this is actually a side effect of their medication. The effect is called dyskinesia. Without the medication, she might not be able to move at all.

Illustration by Ilana Denis Bauer for BuzzFeed

Two years ago, when she was 58, my mother had deep brain stimulation (DBS); the doctors drilled two holes into her skull and implanted electronic leads. Before the surgery, I was curious: How would the doctors know to stop drilling before they hit my mother's brain? My father said they would hear a popping sound when the drill got to the other side of the skull. The surgery left two knobs on top of my mother's head like antlers. The electronic leads run from her brain, down the back of her neck, under her skin to a battery pack in her chest.

Parkinson's manifests differently from person to person, but even within my mother, I have a hard time keeping up. Before Christmas, I stood in front of a display of sweaters, trying to decide if my mother would wear a small or an extra-large. The constantly changing variables of electricity and medication make her weight fluctuate.

For some time, before the DBS, my mother was on so much medication that the result was mania. She wanted to blast music, she wanted to dance, she wanted to talk, she wanted to experience everything, and her body was constantly moving. Visiting during this phase involved a lot of clean-up. Once, I left her alone in the living room for a few minutes, and when I came back, she was sitting on the floor, rocking back and forth with sheet music spread all around her. “We'll pick it up later,” she said as she moved onto another activity. The only way to get her to stop talking and moving long enough to eat was to read to her. During this phase, my father read aloud during dinner.

Now my mother can barely move. She is in bed most of the day. Even going to the bathroom can be difficult. Not just getting into the room, but the actual process.

She is painfully aware of her condition and tries to keep her mind active, but it is difficult when you cannot leave your bed. Earlier this year, my sister and I took turns reading to her over Skype. I felt guilty interacting with my mother's mind, leaving the dirty work of the body to my father.


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What Will We Do With All This Freedom?

Gay men have benefited the most from legal and cultural breakthroughs. We need to get over ourselves and care about issues that aren’t specifically about gay men.

Andrew Burton / Getty

Being who you are is not revolutionary; it's human. The fact that being out in America has ever been a struggle is a testament to our country's capacity for inhumanity. Fortunately, that's changing. Now, more so than ever before, gay people are not only tolerated, but accepted. We're not just here; we are thriving. This is especially true for gay men, even more so white gay men. What is also true is that gay men are just as capable of racism and sexism as any other group of people. Like I said, being who you are is not in and of itself revolutionary.

There is a gap between victories relevant to the lives of gay men and the rest of the LGBT community, and it is threatening to become a chasm. Ask a white gay man living in West Hollywood, a latino transgender man in Albuquerque, and a black lesbian in Dallas the same question: “Does America love you yet?”

Breakthroughs in the Supreme Court and the court of public opinion have most heavily favored white gay men. Meanwhile, queer women, transgender people, and LGBT people of color and immigrants continue to fight tooth and nail for things like equal pay, access to healthcare, or even the right to use the restroom without being berated.

What does it mean when a lesbian co-worker and I can both keep rainbow flags on our desks, all while knowing that my being a man increases the likelihood that I'm paid more for doing the same job? Or that I, as a black gay man, am still reeling from the paradox of the Voting Rights Act being essentially gutted just 24 hours before two key Supreme Court decisions on marriage equality? It means we all still aren't free.

If gay men fail to fight for more vulnerable members of the LGBT community, it will be all of our undoing. We have to care and fight for issues that aren't directly about us. That is community. That is what it means for the letters “LGBT” to be spoken of as cohesive unit.

“Where are we as an LGBT community forty-five years after the Stonewall Rebellion?” Laverne Cox asked during her acceptance speech at the LOGO Trailblazers Gala in June. “Sylvia Rivera warned us about becoming a movement that was only for white, middle class people. And forty-five years later, the most marginalized of our community are still struggling.”

Meredith Talusan addressed this as well in a recent essay at The American Prospect, in discussing Dan Savage's 2011 “It Gets Better” campaign: “For me, as for many other trans people, it didn't and doesn't get better, and to treat us as though we're seamlessly part of the same LGBT umbrella is to hide the fact that we're being included for lip service.” To put it more bluntly: The only thing more dangerous than a bigot is a coward dressed as an ally.

It is not a coincidence that just as gay men in America enter what is essentially a Golden Age, every few months the LGBT community is overtaken by a debate that pits one segment against another. It's also not a coincidence that the debate is almost always between gay men and a more marginalized part of our community. The heated arguments over the word “tranny” and the deluge of essays sparked by Sierra Mannie's Time essay are just a couple of examples. We have to learn how to speak across the distance of our identities. And doing so begins with listening, something all allies must learn to do. We've spent so much time convincing straight people we need them to be our allies that we sometimes forget to be allies to each other.

This is our reckoning. Gay men have more rights, wealth, and influence than the rest of the LGBT community. We have to decide what it means for us to lay claim to the word “community.” If the answer to the question, “Does America love you yet?” is yes, then the question must become, “What are we going to do with that love?”

Being who you are is not revolutionary, but love — the kind of love that says, “You are not like me and that is exactly why I am fighting for your right to live freely” — that is the revolution itself.