Writer and social media whiz Gaby Dunn describes herself in her Twitter bio as “professionally bisexual”. To be honest, it’s hard to brook an argument with that. A queer creator for the better part of a decade starting with her days at Buzzfeed, Dunn has amassed an impressive body of work on all things bi — including penning a New York Times bestseller book starring an openly queer teen character. Recently I spoke with the Bad With Money podcaster not only about her own bi-ness, but also about her storied past as a reporter, her newly penned graphic novel Bury the Lede, and how to keep up with friends in the digital age.
JENNIE ROBERSON: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview; I really appreciate it, and I’m really excited to speak with you.
Gaby Dunn: Yeah, thank you for doing it! I love bi.org.
Oh, awesome! We’re big fans of you.
So let’s start with a big question off the top: How did you come to identify as bi?
GD: Well, that was the first word that I heard for what I thought I was at the time, which is interested in men and women, although now that’s been hugely expanded. But I think I might have heard the word for the first time in the musical RENT, [Laughs] which I’m sure might be a common one. But yeah. I think I heard it in the song “La Vie Boheme”.
And then I also saw the character of Maureen, as played by Idina Menzel, and I was like: “Yeah, that’s what I am, that’s what I wanna be.” I found her character [to be] very aspirational, even though I don’t know if you’re supposed to.
That was when I was, like, twelve? So I sort of knew for a long time, but I thought that it maybe was bad, or only something you could be if you were an adult. So I was like: “Let’s table this till I’m eighteen and I can make such decisions.”
Right. “You can vote, and then you can decide on your orientation.”
GD: Yeah, I guess so; I didn’t know any queer adults, so I was like: “I don’t know, I guess they all get queer when they’re older and then move away.”
How do you see yourself as an artist, and how does being bi or queer fold into that?
GD: It’s been such a gift in terms of being able to see things from multiple perspectives and being able to create characters who are multifaceted and complex. I’m so grateful to be queer and to be bisexual all the time, because I think it allows me to look at things in a more kaleidoscopic kind of lens.
And I know that that sounds disparaging of straight creators... and I am disparaging of straight creators. [Laughs] No, I just mean that... for a long time I was like, “Well, everybody is bisexual, because how could you not see the world the way I see it?” Which was very in-my-20s of me. But I just think that it has allowed me to write things that are very relatable to a huge portion of the population who often isn’t represented, and also to make more interesting stories. At least more interesting to me.
With that in mind: How has your experience been like being out as a bi or queer artist?
GD: [Pause] Mixed bag. [Laughs]
So from our very first video to my very first work that I did on the internet, I was always out. So, I mean, I failed; it would have been cool if I had known that I could monetize coming out, then I would have made a pretty penny. But unfortunately, I was just out from the jump.
But it’s been wonderful because it’s built a community, and it’s allowed me to be part of something, and I’ve met so many amazing people. It’s just made my work better and, I think, more unique and relevant.
I’m not gonna say there aren’t times when you go into meetings and aren’t just being fundamentally misunderstood. Or where you hear notes on something, and you’re just like, “I... how do you not understand what bisexuality is in the year of our Lord, 2019?”
There are things that are super jarring and I think I, for a while, thought: “Oh, everybody gets it. This is Hollywood and this is modern, and I’m not gonna run into that type of [biphobic] stuff.” But you do! Even in very liberal work environments, you run into biphobia, or even— not related to me, but notably — transphobia comes up a lot. And obviously, as the out, queer person, there have been times where someone says a transphobic thing and then are like: “Right, Gaby?” Where they want your opinion, but when you give your opinion, they don’t want it. What they actually wanted was your approval. So that’s been a hard thing to learn.
So, yeah; it’s a mixed bag. I mean, I’m super grateful for the community. It’s also this thing of queer creators raising each other up. You know, having a short film in NewFest, and being a juror for OutFest, which I’ve done both. [Or] having a book on the New York Times bestseller list with an openly queer teenage character. Just these little accomplishments. But then you get into this thing of being “gay famous”, which is like you’re super-famous to other gay people, but no one [else] gives a shit. [Laughs]
So it’s this sort of weird thing you can get, and it sucks. I’ve been told: “There’s no market for this [material.]” But then you feel so gaslit because there are 340,000 people who follow me on Instagram, so clearly, there is a market for this. So you’ll see my fans or fellow queer creators being like: “Ugh, I wish there was a movie like this.” And I’ll want to scream: “I’ve pitched that! They tell me it won’t sell!”
You feel a little bit like you live in two worlds — which is classic bi.
Yeah, we learn how to straddle pretty damn well from that.
GD: Yeah. It’s very strange. You start to feel like, “What is reality?”
Is there anything about yourself you would like people to know that maybe isn’t part of your public persona?
GD: I think I’ve learned a lot. When I first started writing for the internet, I was twenty-one, twenty-two?... I think I started out as very sure of herself [with] a sort of angry persona. And that was true at the time — and right, ‘cause it was mostly social justice-based. But I think it gave people the impression I’m not open to criticism or discussion.
So sometimes people are surprised — when they engage with me on Twitter, or when they talk to me in real life — that I’m not gonna double down if I do think I’m wrong, and that I’m open to learning and hearing new stuff. And I think sometimes I’m [approached] with a defensiveness to start. And I’m like, “No, I’m not fighting you. I’m open to your point of view or what you’re saying to a certain extent.”
So I think there was a reputation I built up for myself — at least, in the beginning — of being a person who knows everything and is right all the time. And obviously, as you get older, you’re like: “That’s not true.” But the internet is forever, so it is hard to... people will find something about you that happened years ago, but because it’s the internet, to them, it happened today. And that’s strange. [Laughs]
It’s funny that you mention that — when I spoke with Mara Wilson, I asked her the same question and she had the same response — that she’s willing to learn, and people don’t assume that about her when they come across her persona. There seems to be a common thread here.
GD: Yeah, well, it’s the internet; there’s no room for nuance.
Nope, just cat pics and anger. That’s all that’s allowed.
You just released a new graphic novel you wrote, Bury the Lede. What was it about that particular medium that appealed to you to write this story?
GD: I’d never done it before! I’d never written a comic book, and I fully did not know how. So thanks to my editor, Dafna Pleban, for explaining why my screenplay I turned in was not correct.
But I loved the idea of somebody drawing my work and seeing it come to life in this art form. As a writer, I always love collaboration. I love when a director takes my script and puts their own flair on it, because I’m not a super visual person. So when you can say, “Hey, we’re gonna take your words and then someone with an eye for this stuff is gonna do something with it”, I’m always super into that. So yeah, I like collaboration; I like something coming from me [going] to the next person who has a set of skills [and then] to the next person who has a set of skills.
And, truthfully, I wanted something that I could sell... [that] would be easy for people to digest. And comic books get turned into movies and TV shows. [Laughs]
Were you a fan of comic books before this venture? Did you have any particular bi superheroes that you loved, or just the medium itself was appealing?
GD: Yeah. I used to read — well, this is another story about a journalist — I used to read Transmetropolitan (1997-2002) in college, which is by Warren Ellis. I used to keep up with [comics[ a lot more. Like I read Saga (2012), I read Sex Criminals (2013-present), I read all the hyped new ones that were coming out. Y: the Last Man (2002-2008) and all that kind of stuff.
It’s been interesting because I read all the ones that were popular that were coming out, most of them that were getting hyped up were by dudes. [But] I read Persepolis (2000,2004), which is by Marjane Satrapi; that’s by a woman of color. But that only I knew about because of the movie. They weren’t the ones that were getting all the press and stuff.
Now I have realized it’s much more than just the big-name comics from being in this world now, which has been incredible to see. It sucks that you kind of have to seek it out, though, if you want anything that isn’t mainstream. But I’m also a piece of shit who loves the Marvel universe.
It’s okay; I’m a Cap' girl all the way — you’re in good company.
GD: Yeah, I love Spider-Man. And I’m saying all of this with my Iron Man phone case.
You've spent a lot of time as a reporter yourself (like your main character) in your earlier years, which comes across in little details in Madison Jackson’s journey. What was one of your favorite details about your previous life you enjoyed baking into the script?
GD: Well, the character of Harold Gennero is based on a real person. That was one of my favorite things to include because she was based on this real reporter who went by a male name because she had been covering the mob, and the mob wanted to kill her. [Laughs] So she went by a male name to try to have more power, and also so they wouldn’t find her. And I loved that. I think she has since come out — I think there’s photos of her now, so I don’t think it’s a secret anymore — but at the time, she would just be at her desk and be like, “Ugh, another letter from jail, the mob threatening me.” [Laughs] It was so fucking cool!
And [also including] how many women that worked at the office that were cool as fuck. Most of the reporters I looked up to, and editors, were just badass women. They were all women! And most of them... you can say I filled the book with queer women of color for some sort of point, but to be honest, the newsroom I worked in was in large part women of color, mostly Latinx women working there. Because as a journalist — and this is sort of an inside baseball thing — most journalists learn Spanish. You have to be bilingual in order to talk to different communities, and you’re going into these communities, and most of them speak Spanish.
GD: [Laughs] But I didn’t learn it like that. I just didn’t learn that much. So the little part [in the graphic novel] where Lexi and Harold are speaking Spanish to each other, and Madison says: “Oh God, I gotta learn Spanish.” The detail of how many of these characters speak Spanish and are Latinx was something from real life that I wanted to include.
Bury the Lede, as you mentioned, has multiple bi or queer characters. What kind of future do you see for bi representation in graphic novels that you haven’t seen in the past?
GD: I’m, like, bi until proven straight, basically, about every character. [Laughs] Or bi until proven gay, I guess. Bisexual until proven monosexual.
I just like having endless options for the characters. I won’t want it to be this storyline where you see certain characters together and you’re like, “Oh, those are the two that will date.” I also love to give people a little bit more depth. And this was the thing that comes up with a lot of queer people — there’s a maturity sometimes because we had to think about these things that maybe other people didn’t have to think about. So there’s characters you might see as one-dimensional, and then they have a complexity to them.
Yeah, I just hope that there’s no... sometimes I get told that putting in too many queer characters, or having all the characters be queer, or having some of the characters be queer, would be unrealistic. And I would love for that to stop being a thing people say.
TV writers: it's just not realistic to have more than one LGBT person in a friendgroup— regular morgan (@RegularMorgan) April 17, 2016
me: *hasn't seen a straight person in 3 days*
But also I think a lot more people are coming out, but people are like, “Oh, there’s more queer people now.” No! There probably was the same amount, but those people were just bullied into the closet! Just people feel more safe to come out. How many people do you think died with this secret, you know? So it just looks like there’s more.
Switching gears: You also started the podcast Bad With Money. What is one of the most surprising things you’ve recently learned about our current financial institutions?
GD: Oh my God. That everything is bad? It’s all bad. It’s not set up to succeed, basically. A lot of stuff is done just because that’s the way we’ve always done it, versus the best way to do it.
I mean, the healthcare system is incredibly broken. I would love to see all medical debt wiped out. Should not exist.
Also this season, I’ve been looking into other countries and the way they do things. We just talk so much in the U.S. like, “Well, it’s not possible.” But, then why is it possible elsewhere? Why can the Netherlands do it? And then people go, “Well, [they have] high taxes.” That’s fine. But those taxes result in a better world for everyone.
It seems like there’s a lot of individualism and capitalism here that you don’t really see in other countries. Like I just did an episode about the Netherlands, and this woman was all, “Yeah, I pay high taxes, but the streets are clean. Homeless people are taken care of. There are mental health resources.”
GD: Yeah! It’s just like: “I see where the tax dollars go.” I think we don’t see where our tax dollars go, and if we do, I guess it’s stuff that people here don’t value, which is really upsetting.
Your book with Allison Ruskin, I Hate Everyone But You (2017), brings the epistolary novel into the modern age. What do you think is crucial for keeping a long-distance friendship alive these days?
GD: It’s tough because I have a lot of friends who are long-distance because of just meeting queer people at camps or conferences, and then they live elsewhere. And also, I guess everyone just lives in Portland. [Laughs] So I have a lot of group chats, I have a lot of group threads on texting, I have a lot of FaceTime dates. I go to visit people.
I used to struggle a lot with platonic intimacy, but I realized people do want you to reach out, people do want to hear from you. So I try to keep people in my life where it’s a lot of support. Even if you don’t live near each other, if someone gets a promotion, to send them a balloon, or be really supportive even just in text, or post on social media: “I’m so proud of my friend!” There’s ways to show that you care.
Yeah, we all need a digital cheering section.
GB: That’s what it is! It’s like, why would you hang out with a community of people who aren’t just stoked for you all the time?
These group chats have really been super helpful in the past few months. And it’s hard, because I do a lot of stuff with Autostraddle, and a lot of those people are just far-flung across the U.S. and elsewhere.
You interviewed so many fascinating people you 100 Interviews project. What is it about the form that intrigues you, and whom did you interview that you feel like you could have interviewed forever?
GD: I always liked asking questions and talking to people; I’ve just done that forever. I think I like getting to the truth of how people feel, what people are actually saying, or how they view things — especially if it’s very different from the way I view things. I’m a Gemini, so I like if they have information and I can get the trivia and become an expert through them.
Gosh, there were so many people. This project was in, like, 2010. There were so many people that I talked to that were super intense. Like there was a guy who had come to New York as a refugee from Hurricane Katrina, he was also a wine sommelier. He had a lot of different things to say. You know, the things that I’ve been saying, where people are super-multifaceted. Or I remember the guy I interviewed about being very religious and abstaining from sex till marriage... he’s no longer very religious. I’ve been following up with him and stuff.
So like these people have clearly had a lot of stuff going on. I wanted to get out of my own head and get out of my own bubble, and talk to people that I wouldn’t normally interact with. I was living in New York, and especially in New York, you just see people on the street so much, and it’s so easy just to never to talk to anyone. [Laughs]
Finally: Do you have any advice for those who are newly identifying as bi or queer, or any advice you wish you could give the younger version of yourself before you came out?
GD: You’re not a bad or wrong monster. You’re not a terrible person, you’re not someone who’s gonna have to hide part of you to find love, you’re not gonna have to make yourself "good enough” for certain partners.
I dated a lot of cis men and I always felt like I wasn’t good enough because I was bisexual, so I needed to make myself “good”. And that’s not particularly their fault, it’s mostly society’s fault. But I felt like, “What’s wrong with me? If I could just not be this one thing, then I could be so happy.” But I was slowly dying in those relationships. And once I was like, “Somebody’s gonna love all of me,” that’s when I found people that could do that. But if you are twisting yourself into knots to be with someone who doesn’t want you to be the whole you, it’s not gonna work out.
*** This interview has been truncated and edited for brevity and clarity.