Alan Cumming and Chris Sweeney on queer icons, Ryan Gosling nightmares and OnlyFans

Alan Cumming is stepping into the world of Homo Sapiens.

The Tony Award-winning actor and LGBTQ+ legend joins the beloved podcast for a special ‘queer icons’ season, where he and co-host Chris Sweeney welcome a lineup of influential names including Stephen Fry, Cynthia Nixon, Sadiq Khan and Patti Smith to bring inclusive conversations to a wide audience. The experience also helped Alan get over his aversion to podcasts.

“We’ve all been so bombarded with podcasts lately, they’re everywhere you turn. Podcasts are the new kale,” jokes Alan. “But the one podcast that I’d connected to was this one. Chris and I bonded over this idea of wanting to talk to LGBTQ+ icons, so it all just made sense. I had such a blast doing it, and it brought my over my podcast phobia. I mean, just because anyone can have a podcast, doesn’t mean everyone should have one.”

As well as bringing a host of famous queer and queer-friendly faces to the conversation, the show delves into the history of the LGBTQ+ community, something that was important for both Alan and Chris to explore.

“We’re not used to the notion of celebrating our past and our elders and our achievements, because so many of our stories are about secrets,” says Alan, with Chris agreeing, “It’s so true that our history is ingrained in secrecy, and some of the older generation really like that, but the younger generation is totally opposed to that, and I think that’s fascinating.”

To celebrate the launch of Homo Sapiens season four, we spoke to the hosts about how they’re getting through lockdown, why we need LGBTQ+ education in schools, and the “awful” story about Ryan Gosling that gives Alan nightmares.

Hey guys! How has it been working together on this season?

Chris: I wasn’t aware this was going to be a therapy session [Laughs] No, it’s been an absolute joy. As you know, I’m sure, Alan is great fun.

Alan: One of the three most fun people in show business, according to Time magazine. The other two are Cher and Stanley Tucci.

Chris: That’s a trio I can get behind.

Alan: Well, I’ve been behind both of them, actually, yes.

Chris: It’s absolutely bang on. Alan is brilliant fun, we had a laugh, and the one thing we say about Homo Sapiens is that it’s supposed to be a platform for other people to speak, it’s a fun place for queer conversation to happen. So that’s what we did, and I think that’s why it’s so special, because there aren’t many places you can hear queer people just talking.

What was the thought process behind having a ‘queer icons’ series?

Alan: Well I’d started making a list because I was doing a similar thing in my bar, I did one on film with the lovely Cynthia Nixon, who came back and basically did an extended version of what we’d already done – just not in my bar. Club Cumming is a queer space and there’s so many iconic people who have been to it, and also the actual space itself used to be called Eastern Bloc, before that it was called Wonder Bar, before that it was a poetry bar, and at one point it was made into a church so they could drink on Sundays. I’m really interested in all that history, so much has happened in very recent history in terms of the LGBTQ experience, so I’m very interested in talking to people who have left a mark and done great things. There’s some really great things going on like the Making Gay History podcast, and the AIDS Memorial, there’s loads on Instagram – people are getting really good at commemorating people. So I thought it would be a lovely thing to do. Also, our list of icons is pretty eclectic and idiosyncratic, it’s very much the people we think are iconic. And that’s the great thing about being an icon, anyone can be an icon, it just depends on who’s doing the worshipping. We both wanted to celebrate people whose stories you maybe didn’t know.

Chris: The other thing that’s gone around in my mind is this idea that queer people are on the margins, but if you look at so many areas of life, the frontrunners are queer people, so I thought that was a nice mesh. Homo Sapiens is a place for people to talk to each other and all of that, but it’s also a completely inclusive thing. Anyone should be able to tune in and listen. We never wanted to separate ourselves, because what’s the point? So I thought icons was interesting, and we had fun with all the different ways you can define an icon. My mum knows who Stephen Fry is, but someone like Murray Hill who isn’t as widely known is also absolutely an icon on the drag king scene, and what a fascinating conversation that was.

It’s really great that you’re exploring our history and not just what’s going on right now. How important do you think it is that queer people, especially younger queer people, understand the history of what’s come before them?

Chris: I think it’s really important, but also it’s still not really taught, so it’s hard to get that stuff out there.

Alan: It’s a big shift in the way we perceive ourselves. I think we’re not used to the notion of celebrating our past and our elders and our achievements, because so many of our stories are about secrets, and I think that’s ingrained in our culture as queer people that you kind of have to be quiet, and don’t make a fuss – even though we do make a fuss, we can switch into that ‘let’s not make a fuss and let’s blend in’ mode, because it’s been a survival technique that we’ve picked up over the years. So it’s not a protest movement, it’s about a celebration. It’s almost like archeology for queer people in a way, and that’s something we need to keep doing.

Chris: It’s so funny you say that, because there’s a bit of a disconnect between the older and younger generations of queer people, for example we interviewed [Tales of the City author] Armistead Maupin this series, and I told him, ‘One of the things someone we interviewed in a previous series, Nicky Haslam, said was that the whole point of being gay was that it was meant to be a secret and that’s when it was fun and now it’s not’ – and he’s being deliberately contentious, but it’s so true that our history is ingrained in secrecy, and some of the older generation really like that, but the younger generation is totally opposed to that, and I think that’s fascinating.

It’s great that this new generation has so many out-and-proud LGBTQ+ people to look up to now. Alan, as someone who’s campaigned for equality throughout their career, how does it feel to see how far we’ve come?

Alan: Obviously I think it’s great, but it’s easy to become complacent. There’s still a fucking lot to do, we don’t have equality by far. Yeah, I think it’s really important to celebrate, but part of this whole thing about educating and looking back at history is about seeing how quickly things can change and also how quickly they can change back, and to also remember there’s still a long way to go. Especially living in America, with this COVID-19 situation, you can see how they’re slipping in all these environmental things and trying to stop trans people from getting healthcare, there’s hatred out there. But also I think people have to be taught not to hate, and the biggest way for that to happen is for society to show that it’s not acceptable through laws. I always think you can’t blame people for being homophobic if the government is being homophobic by not making laws to protect people. So I think the progress is great, it’s exciting, and I’ve loved all the things I’ve been able to do and the way my life has allowed me to become the person I am and say the things I want to say with this platform, because I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do this when I first started out. But I still think we’ve got to be vigilant.

Teaching people to be accepting from a young age is key to making progress, but whenever there are campaigns to get LGBTQ+ education in schools a lot of conservative people say they’re too young to learn about it, as we saw with protests around the No Outsiders lessons in Birmingham last year. What do you say to those people who think there’s an age limit on learning what it means to be LGBTQ+?

Alan: Well if that’s the case, then there should be an age limit on learning about straightness. It’s fascinating to me. We were talking recently about Greg Owen [creator of I Want PrEP Now], he helped bring down the rate of new HIV diagnoses by 40% in London one year, just a single person with a little website for getting PrEP, and he made this amazing speech outside the court when they were trying to get the NHS to accept PrEP, basically saying that people are okay with seeing gay people on TV, but when they actually have to come face-to-face with the fact that men get their penises out and stick it up other mens’ arses – and sometimes many mens’ arses at once – then everybody can’t deal with it. It’s okay if we’re gay, and we’re represented in a sexy but sexless way, but when it actually comes down to it people still have an issue. Again, it’s down to education and exposure, because a lot of people just cannot handle it. We need to de-taboo it, even if some people still enjoy the taboo of it.

Chris: I think the sex part of being gay is something that people seem to be obsessed with, but actually what should be taught – like Andrew Moffat of Parkfield School in Birmingham is doing – is that there are no outsiders. You don’t have to talk to any kid about sex for them to understand that there are a broad spectrum of people who will like a broad spectrum of things. That’s what you need to get people on board with, and that can be about sexuality, race, religion, whatever.

Alan: What I think is interesting now is the use of the word queer, it used to be a derogatory thing – and still is sometimes – but it’s now a grouping for us and it means it’s not really about who you have sex with or the contents of your underpants, it’s about a sensibility and a spirit and an understanding of being an outsider. And therefore people who don’t have sex can be queer as well. The lines are a lot more blurred now with gender and sexuality and how you want to be defined. I think it’s really interesting and it makes it more inclusive. I think my mum’s a bit queer, she’s a little Scottish lady, although she probably wouldn’t even understand what that means. I was speaking to my security guy recently, he says hilarious things like, ‘Oh my god, I’d eat the walnuts out of her shit’, and he was with my mum once and she’d shared some gossip with me and I asked where she read it, and she went, ‘I read it in a gay mag!’ [Laughs] So do you know what I mean, about it being more inclusive by it not being so defined by what you do with your genitals?

Totally. I think that’s one of the nice things about Homo Sapiens is that it’s open to everyone, not just an LGBTQ+ audience. Do you hope the podcast can be an educational tool for people looking into this world?

Alan: Yeah, and I don’t think we toned ourselves down, in fact we didn’t at all, we really went for it on occasion. Apparently the person who was transcribing one of the interviews resigned because she was so horrified.

Chris: As they tapped out their 19th paragraph on the intimate details of anal sex, they thought, ‘Maybe this isn’t the gig for me’. [Laughs] But no, I suppose it’s meant to be a conversation, right? And when you’re having a conversation you don’t think, ‘This is a gay conversation, that’s a straight conversation’, you just have a conversation and you are entertained, and actually that’s what the podcast is, it’s conversation, it’s just people going down avenues that queer people often go down. I’ll give you a silly example: it’s very common that people will go, ‘When I was at school people would come up to me and tell me I walked weirdly and that I should be walking like a man’, and someone else will go, ‘Oh yeah, that happened to me’. They’re universal, but also very specific.

I think once we have legal equality, that’s one of the best ways you can change people’s minds, for them to get to know people from the community and have those relaxed, informal conversations where it becomes a normal thing.

Chris: Yeah, and Sadiq Khan spoke about this as well, saying how Ramadan is such an unseen thing for so many people and therefore it’s deemed ‘other’, and that has similar challenges to sexuality. But if people were taught from a young age to get on board with difference…

Alan: …that different doesn’t mean something to be afraid of.

Chris: Exactly, and I get really funny when I hear little kids saying, ‘That’s weird’, when they point at things. Obviously it’s fine, and I know I would’ve done the same when I was a kid, but we should be embracing things that are weird, leaning in and saying, ‘How can we understand that?’ Rather than saying, ‘That’s wrong’.

Alan: Remember when saying ‘that’s so gay’ was a thing? I remember speaking to my niece a long time ago and she said it in conversation, and then she went, ‘Oh, but you are gay’. And I saw her face in that moment as she realised it was an offensive thing to say. We had a little chat about it after. But it’s really fascinating to see the cogs spinning.

When you’re making a podcast like this one, how much of your own experiences are you willing to share? Do you draw a line somewhere, or are you both totally open books?

Alan: It’s pretty open book. There are a couple of times where I thought, ‘Oh I better not’, but that’s more so to protect someone else’s identity. Mostly it’s pretty graphic, as I seem to remember.

Chris: One thing that comes up a lot in the podcast is connection. The more honest you are, the more you’re going to get somewhere in the conversation and the more people listening are going to go, ‘Thanks, me too’. Because that’s what happens. We get so many emails from people saying, ‘Thank god you spoke about that because…’ you know?

Alan: We’re so used to monitoring what we say in public, especially in Britain, and I’m very lucky that the person I am in the public eye is actually the same person I am in real life, and that’s so rare for well-known people because there’s this facade of their public personality, and I think it’s really important to say, ‘What’s the problem? Why can’t you just be yourself?’ People will still respect you for the job you do, actually they’ll probably respect you more. I feel like in Britain when you’re well-known you grow up in this culture of being very careful what you say because the tabloids are gonna run with it. Like yesterday, I went to look at my Guardian interview, and the second thing that came up was, ‘Alan Cumming thinks religious practices are ridiculous’. People take quotes from a big interview, and then it goes into all these different articles and there are different interpretations of it. That’s partly the sensational nature of the press, especially in Britain. But actually, quite a long time ago I just thought, ‘Fuck it, I want to be the person I am’, and I think people really connect if you’re being authentic because they can tell. If that means oversharing, then I think it’s really important to do it.

Were there any topics you knew you wanted to address when you went into this season?

Alan: Bum sex.

Chris: Yeah, bum sex.

Alan: No, it was really about the people, and like Chris said, when queer people get together you do share those common experiences so there are discussions about coming out and talking to your parents, those sort of things that are seminal moments, and it’s interesting because straight people don’t have to say, ‘Hey, mum and dad, I like putting my penis here’. All that stuff I think is really interesting, because when you don’t understand that it’s interesting to hear about this whole thing that’s happening across the world you’re just not a part of, like Ramadan. I don’t think we had an agenda, we just blabbed on, but a lot of the episodes do have similar structures.

Chris: I’m not a journalist, so I wouldn’t say I’ve ever interviewed people, and a podcast is more of a conversation anyway. It’s good to do your research on everybody, because that means you can get through things faster, but it is genuinely a conversation and when it’s icons, immediately you want to talk to someone like Cynthia Nixon and say, ‘You were in Sex and the City and that was huge, but now you have such a different profile, what the fuck is that like?’ It’s fascinating.

It’s a strange time to be releasing new content when there’s a global pandemic going on, but at the same time, do you think this is making everyone realise how important entertainment like film, TV, books and podcasts are at uniting us and helping us get through difficult times?

Alan: I think it’s been really interesting for our culture, I was reading The Guardian the other day and obviously they can’t review live performances or even movies really, but actually there’s all these recommendations about things to stream. And even though Netflix and all these services are great, there’s this thing called The Criterion Collection that I joined for classic films and foreign films, and obviously there’s not as much of a market for it, but it’s great that those things are there. So last night I watched My Man Godfrey, this really old 1936 film, on the recommendation of The Guardian. And what’s really nice is that this thing has made people think, ‘Let’s not just do the current thing, let’s look back and see what gems we’ve overlooked’, and that really pleases me. It’s a welcome byproduct of this thing.

Chris: I think we’ve got less opportunities to have shared experiences now, so entertainment is becoming more of a focus for that. Everyone’s watching Normal People on the BBC now, it’s so good and definitely worth a longer conversation, but it’s very subtle storytelling, nothing like the thrillers that have dominated the past 10 years. I thought it was the sort of thing only I would enjoy but I went on Twitter and everybody is talking about it, and I think we’re sharing things more as a result because we’re not going to the pub and chatting to our friends and all of that.

Alan: The other day I did recordings for that animated show coming about Prince George, it’s called The Prince and it’s got all these British stars in it, and I play the valet, but what was interesting was that I had to record some of it on Zoom because we can’t go to a studio, and what was funny is we had this little chat afterwards where we were saying, ‘Have you seen Ozark?’ and we chatted about that, and then he said, ‘Have you seen Unorthodox?’ and I said I’d just finished it. And it’s this commonality you get, this bond you get about the things you’ve watched or the recommendations you have. 

Having a sense of community has always been important for LGBTQ+ people, but lockdown means most of us are separated from that and can’t see our chosen families. Are either of you missing being in queer spaces or being around other queer people?

Chris: Well, my skin’s definitely faring better from not being out until 3am. But no, I’m here with my husband and my dog, so I haven’t felt that, but I have very much seen and felt that it’s happening for a lot of other people, especially people who are isolating with family who don’t know about their sexuality or who hate their sexuality, and that’s really sad to hear. So we’ve been doing these Instagram Live chats on Sunday nights and we’ve been trying to pick a charity to profile each week to highlight some of this stuff so people can feel more connected, because they don’t have these spaces to have queer conversations.

Alan: I’m the same, I’m here with my husband and my two dogs, we’re in our country house and honestly it’s the perfect place to have a lockdown because it’s a place I associate with sanctuary and solace and rejuvination. It would be awful to be trapped in an environment you don’t like. But this too shall pass. I think also what’s going to be interesting, you know when you haven’t done something for such a long time, the notion of it becomes quite scary even if you’re looking forward to it, and so the idea of being in a bar is a little overwhelming to me right now. Sometimes I come here for a week and speak to no one, and then when you go back to the East Village in Manhattan and it’s really overwhelming. So it’s going to be intense when everything goes back to normal. And also I think it’s gonna be a total shag-fest as well. There’s all these awful memes going around about what parts of people’s bodies will look like once the lockdown is over.

Chris: I’ve not seen those, I must be following all the wrong accounts.

Finally, do either of you have any good advice for young queer people who are struggling with being on lockdown with unaccepting family?

Alan: Well, I think a lot of the time when people have those issues, it’s because the family don’t understand or they have no experience with it, and over a sustained period of time with anyone you get to know them better, and even though there’s this schism, it can only be for the best that you get to know and understand each other. It may be that you decide, ‘I don’t have to be in touch with these people again’, or it could be a case of family going, ‘Well this is a thing we don’t like, but we love you and it’s been great having you around’. Either way, it’s a chance to figure out how you want to live your life in the future.

Chris: Just because they’re your family, that doesn’t mean you have to hang out with them. But in the present, if you are struggling, there are tonnes of people who can help like the LGBT Foundation, who have got a telephone number you can call for support, they will help. There are resources, we don’t want people to feel alone.

Alan: At least we’ve got the interweb.

Chris: And OnlyFans.

Alan: And Myspace!

Chris: Thank god for Myspace during this pandemic.

Alan: Do you have OnlyFans? Do you subscribe to some people?

Chris: No, but I’m out of work Alan, so I might have to start my own account.

Alan: I always think about those things, like right now we’re doing this thing with Club Cumming where people can have a virtual cocktail or a cup of coffee with a celebrity, they give up 15 minutes of their time and the money goes to staff and performers at the bar. I’ve always had to do those things where the prize is a dinner with Alan Cumming or a night of drinks with Alan at Club Cumming, you know all these things you have to do for charity. But I always thought, imagine if you said, ‘Do you know what? You can blow me as well’. Like, how much more money do you think you’d get for that? It’d be no big deal, ‘You can jack me off for another ten thousand dollars’. I always think if you’re being a whore anyway, there’s this notion that you’re buying me so the transactional part is already done, you can do whatever you want. I am at your bidding, I’ve got to talk to you about whatever you want, I’ve got to eat where you want to eat, so I sometimes think, ‘Might as well go the whole hog’.

Chris: And hope to god that people bid.

Alan: Oh god, I was once in Cannes, and I was hosting the big gala at the Hôtel du Cap for amFAR, it was when Harvey Weinstein was organising it all and was bossing everyone around – it was awful – and he said that Mary J. Blige and Patti Smith were going to do a duet but he hadn’t asked either of them, Mary was shouting at him like, ‘Fuck you’, it was great. Anyway, at one point he came on and said, ‘You can make out with Ryan Gosling, male or female he will make out with you’, and nobody bidded. I mean it started, I think, at €30,000 which I thought was a bit steep, but I was at the side of the stage just horrified for this poor boy. He sang a song with his keyboard and then he stood there and nobody bidded, they just said ‘forget it’ and moved on. It was just awful. I had nightmares about it where it was me in that situation.

Homo Sapiens season four is available on Apple Podcasts now.

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