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An exploration of voice

After four years and 150 episodes, This Show Is So Gay builds an audience

BRATTLEBORO—Ken Schneck signed up to produce a radio show in 2008 during Brattleboro’s Independence Day parade.

Schneck, dean of students at Marlboro College and a Selectboard member, thought since no local stations were broadcasting a LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer) show, why shouldn’t he take the reins?

So Schneck began This Show Is So Gay (TSISG) on community radio station WVEW-LP, Brattleboro Community Radio, which over the years has expanded from talking about LGBTQ news, evolving to include what Schneck calls “an exploration of voice.”

“Every week I talk to people [LGBTQ people and their allies] who use their voice a different way,” said Schneck. “This is how I’m using my voice.”

He expected This Show Is So Gay to reach 50 episodes. Last week, he produced episode 150.

“I’m so fortunate,” he said.

For this milestone, Schneck whittled down three hours of interviews into four 10-minute interviews. One interview, he conducted four times because of technical issues. Another interview was lost to corrupted audio files.

“But it’s out there, and I’m happy,” said Schneck.

This Show is So Gay has welcomed guests like Sharon Stapel, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project; Michelle Bonilla, actor, writer, producer; the Rev. Emily C. Heath, local faith leader and blogger; or ANT, comic and television personality.

All discuss issues important to the LGBTQ community.

“I’m a little in shock that I get to talk to these people, and that the show is still going on,” Schneck said.

After the Brooks House fire last April destroyed WVEW’s radio station in downtown Brattleboro, TSISG moved its production briefly to WKVT-AM, also in Brattleboro.

Schneck now owns his own equipment and produces the show himself for broadcast to some 50,000 listeners on five radio stations, mostly low-powered, from Michigan to Tennessee, as well as seven web-only stations that stream the show online.

The show “is not a mean-spirited show at its core,” said Schneck, who describes his interview style as supportive rather than “gotcha.”

But Schneck said talking about the news facing the LGBTQ community — like conservatives trying to out-anti-gay one another by signing an anti-gay marriage pledge — can prove dispiriting.

But, said Schneck, the show’s guests inspire him.

“I hope I always keep a little of the how-the-heck-am-I-talking-to-these-people?” the self-styled “star-struck gay” radio host said.

TSISG has had many co-hosts over its 150 episodes. Becca Sheehan a local activist for GLBT rights, steered the So Gay ship for many years. Also helping are Jodi Clark, a theater educator and substance-abuse prevention specialist; Carrie Towle, a ballet teacher, mother, and elementary school guidance counselor; and Tanya, a reader, poet, student, and teacher.

Guest co-hosts Steve West, of WKVT’s Live and Local, and his fiance Jen Wiechers, say they admire Schneck’s work.

West believes Schneck delivers serious topics with a great sense of humor.

“He’s an important voice of activism,” said West, who co-hosted an episode of TSISG where conversation ranged from Lady Gaga to West’s cousin, who was killed for being gay.

Wiechers said that the Brattleboro area mostly embraces its differences in a positive way. But, she adds, there are still issues to work on, and she describes Schneck as a natural educator when bringing LGBTQ concerns to the front.

Schneck said he has stood on the cusp of wrapping TSISG multiple times in 3½ years.

But each time he’s decided to call it quits, “an email lands in my inbox from a youth in Ohio talking about what TSISG means for him, or a station in east Tennessee picks it up,” he said.

And so he keeps broadcasting.

Standing up

According to Schneck, he is very up front with personal information. He speaks about the experience of trying to adopt, and about his feelings on the FDA’s rule banning gay men from donating blood due to fears over HIV and AIDS.

Looking over the 150 episodes, Schneck said, he could have been content to end the show’s run at episode 100.

For that episode, he interviewed Judy Shepard, whose son, Matthew Shepard, was killed by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson east of Laramie, Wyo. in 1998. Schneck was coming out around the same time.

Schneck has welcomed his father, Barry Schneck, as a guest on three episodes. A community leader in New Jersey, Barry was on the verge of resigning from the board of his temple after the rabbi spoke against gay marriage.

“I am not shy about telling people my son is gay,” he said.

Barry feels his son “lives in his skin” better after coming out.

He wishes more people were listening to TSISG, a show that he describes as one that “expands the rainbow tent outward [...] to include people whose lifestyle is not included in their usual spheres.”

It took three years for Schneck to persuade his more reserved mother, Terri Schneck, to appear on TSISG, where she told parents that they “have to stand up for your gay children.”

Terri also spoke about how Schneck’s grandmother responded to his coming out.

“She told my mom, ‘He is who he is,’” said Schneck.

‘Why be gay when you can be so gay’

Schneck said he has received criticism for the show’s title and tagline (“Why be gay when you can be so gay?”). The criticism has come from within the LGBTQ community and outside of it.

A woman in West Dummerston won the contest Schneck held to for TSISG’s tagline:

“‘Gay’ is a word I use to identify myself,” said Schneck.

Gay is also at the core of his identity, he said. Therefore, he said, he will reclaim the word ‘gay’ from people who use it negatively.

Schneck’s doctoral thesis focused on the use of the phrase “that’s so gay” among students and how “gay” is often used to hurt or control people.

Schneck said he answers every email sent to the show — including the hate mail.

He respects that someone took the time to write even if he doesn’t agree with the communiqué’s content. Schneck said he tries to respond from that place of respect and to work toward understanding.

“I hope the show plants a seed and points [people] in another direction,” he said.

Recently, the writer of an email from the United Kingdom said he respected Schneck’s right to produce TSISG but did not, however, approve of his sexuality or how much sex is the topic of discussion on the show.

Sex is not talked about on the show, said Schneck — relationships, yes, but not sex.

But Schneck responded to the email. He assumed that his message was going to an ignorant, right-wing person. The man from the UK surprised Schneck by sending another email talking about a gay father and the father’s partner who had recently died.

Schneck said he might not understand why the man sent the email but the exchange reminded him of the importance of respect even when people don’t agree.

Political statements

Schneck views one’s coming out as a political statement with the potential for triggering change.

It’s harder for one to say something homophobic when the words apply to a neighbor, he said.

Schneck sought, and received, endorsement from the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund during his campaign for Brattleboro Selectboard last year.

According to the organization’s website, the fund works nationwide to change the voice and face of politics and achieve equality by increasing the number of openly LGBT officials serving in government.

As a candidate, he prepared himself for blowback from the straight community. He did not anticipate flak from members of the LGBTQ community, who, he said, asked him, “Why does gay have to be part of anything you’re running for?” and said, “It’s not an issue in Brattleboro.”

“That everything is great [in Brattleboro] is a big assumption,” said Schneck.

Although he considers Vermont leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of the nation in gay rights, it doesn’t mean Vermonters can become complacent.

Parents still struggle when their children come out. Not all Windham County high schools have gay/straight alliance organizations. What support networks exist for transgender youth? Schneck asked.

He poses more questions: How many people in Windham County know if their employers’ nondiscrimination policy includes sexual orientation, gender identity, or its expression? Or do people know if their health insurance company covers gender reassignment surgery?

“Let’s celebrate, but there’s so much we can be doing,” said Schneck, who is busy preparing for TSISG episode 151.

In the meantime, he continues to support local radio and hopes more people will bring their voices to the table.

“We all have something to say, and the mic is not an object of privilege, it is an object of right,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #135 (Wednesday, January 18, 2012).

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