Daniel Franzese Explores the Intersection of Queer Identity and Christianity
In October’s issue of Fresh Perspectives, Blackburn’s founder, Stephen Cheung, sits down with acclaimed actor-comedian-activist Daniel Franzese. Franzese is widely known for playing the lovable gay teen who made pink shirts iconic on Wednesdays and his passionate high school talent show rendition of Christina Aguilera’s ‘Beautiful’. Franzese is also co-hosting a podcast that focuses on the realities of being a gay Christian and shares with us the profound ways in which he has learned to embrace both identities through laughter and self-actualization.
Wow, you’ve been up to a lot since playing Damian in ‘Mean Girls’. You’ve gone on to appear in more movies and guest-starred in numerous hit TV shows, while still being heavily involved in LGBTQ activism and events. When did you realize that activism was a calling for you?
My whole life, I was always brought up with the charitable spirit. My family’s like that. And through church, Boy Scouts, and leadership class in high school, all of which shaped me probably more than almost anything I’ve ever done. Learning how to promote things and lift people up and celebrate—all of that was just in my spirit. And once I enlightened and opened myself to that, the things that needed me came to me right away, found me, and asked for my help.
Was there ever a moment you thought ‘I’m actually seeing the difference I’m making‘?
Oh my God. Most importantly, my friend, who contracted HIV and became deeply depressed, neglected his medication and isolated himself in his apartment. He had a dog, and he would only walk the dog right in front of the building and then go right back up. I reached out to Elizabeth Taylor’s grandson and asked, “Hey, can someone from Elizabeth Taylor’s [AIDS Foundation] help my friend? There’s got to be a way to get meds delivered to him.” And he connected me to Joel Goldman, who’s the new managing director. And when I say that things fall into place, I mean he was able to help my friend who’s now healthy and undetectable, which is the most important thing.
Did that experience change you?
They say you “get woke.” I woke up and saw how one person could change things, how we could move mountains, how we could find help—that we could fix things. And I learned about Ms. Taylor’s legacy, which is so inspiring.
Well, it’s no secret that being gay is hard enough without being Christian too. In fact, culturally, it feels like oil and water sometimes. What was it like in the earlier years when you were trying to reconcile both identities when you knew they both existed?
This is an interesting question because people always say to me, “How could you have gone through conversion therapy and still believe in God?” But God didn’t put me through conversion therapy. God was always a part of my life. I never lost that. I wouldn’t have survived conversion therapy without God. I don’t think it’s fair that people lie to queer people and tell them that they can’t have God in their life. I just think it’s a lie.
Franzese began seeing a conversion therapist in 1999 for six months, struggling with his sexuality, and surviving a form of “therapy” largely outlawed and considered “barbaric.”
What advice would you give to people who are seriously considering conversion therapy because they feel they need to change?
Oh my God, I hope nobody’s considering it. It’s not something that can be done. It’s like putting your left shoe on your right foot and your right shoe on your left foot. It’s just not a good fit. You have to be yourself. You know what you are and what you’re feeling. Explore it. Changing your sexuality is not going to happen.
For queer people, part of the reluctance in believing that God can be a part of their lives must have something to do with the confusion from the “word for word” interpretation of certain doctrine among many churches…
Yeah, but a lot of Christianity is politicized. Organized religion is too organized. I think it’s a vibration. It is an elevation. It is a relationship you have with a higher power. It is a level of enlightenment. A good way to describe it is, if you’ve ever had a new car, suddenly you start seeing that car all over the road. You never noticed it before. It was always there. But now you’re enlightened to it. So, suddenly it pops up everywhere. And when you walk around the earth enlightened to God, it’s in the roses. It’s in moments of luck and moments of beauty.
Should churches change their tune?
I just think that for the very people who claim to represent God, to tell a group of people—my people, queer people—that they’re not allowed to enjoy the light of God and the beauty of God as they walk around on the earth—it’s like, “How dare you?” My generation lost a whole generation of people, so I don’t have a lot of elders that could be like, “Boy, fix your crown.” So, I’m going to make sure that when I become the older generation, that I’m very loud to people that are coming up and letting them know that God loves them. Fix their crown; they have a place.
Was it difficult first reading the passages, which, at face value appears to denounce “homosexuality” as an identity?
I don’t know why it never bothered me really, because even when they brought it up or they read it, I’m like, “You’re reading that part.” It was always so obvious to me the rest of Leviticus is ignored. But there’s a website called churchclarity.org, and that’ll let you know if your church is affirming, questionable, or not affirming.
In your podcast, ‘Yass, Jesus!’ you’ve managed to weave comedy into traditional biblical teachings and do so with a sex-positive spin. How has that been received by both liberal and conservative queer Christians?
If somebody doesn’t like it, they see it and go, “That’s not for me,” and they don’t listen. We are silly about [the Bible], we are serious about it, we’re passionate about it, we’re flippant about it. We are just exactly who we are as people, and we look at people of all creeds, sexualities, gender expressions, and all different faiths. We believe in the teachings of Christ, but we are not so simple-minded to think we have the only answer in the whole world because I don’t think anybody does.
And how have Christian teachings helped you be more authentic as a gay man? How has being gay made you a better Christian?
I think being gay has made me a better Christian because it made me sex-positive—it made me understand all kinds of people and love different people. And I think being a Christian has made me a better gay because I think the gay community could use a little more compassion. The whole core of the religion is to do unto others what you want done to you. It’s the golden rule. If you just treat people nicely and you lead with love, I think that is religion. Just lead with love because I think the best thing an LGBTQ person could be is an example of love. They can’t say shit about us if we’re walking around the earth just being loved.
Speaking of love, has Christianity made dating difficult?
I’ve had someone flick my cross on my chest and be like, “What’s this?” before. Or I’ve had people who are completely anti-Christian. All I can be is like, “With me, it’s not like that, you know? I get on my knees for many reasons. Not just for prayer.” I do comedy, I curse, I smoke weed, I have sex, I don’t support the death penalty, but I do support sex work. I think everyone has the right to live their life however they want to live it.
Right, and with many things happening in the world and in our communities, what do you believe is your purpose?
To survive. Then to do it as comfortably as possible, hurting as few people as possible. It’s about attempting to use the gifts that God gave you to leave something behind to make up for the people that you accidentally hurt.
It can take decades to come to a place of self-actualizing and pursuing a purpose, and it’s so interesting that a teen comedy could light that fire with a character like Damian.
I have to give credit to a really sweet note when I was in a meeting with Tina Fey and Mark Waters. We discussed that Damian was in that sweet spot right between being pretty sure he’s gay and his first kiss. And I think that that was such a beautiful little place to play. He was just coming out, he knew he was gay, but he was like, “I’m not gonna deal with it yet because I don’t have to.” It was sweet and still had an element of realness that people could understand what being a gay teen is like.
It felt like it had a positive impact on a lot of people at the right time.
I got a letter from a girl in Dallas who was saying that her mom always gave shade to her best friend, who was a gay boy in middle school. The mom said, “You know you shouldn’t hang out with him,” and this and that. When the movie came out, she and her mom loved Damian so much, the mom kept thinking the best friend was a “little Damian.” He was allowed to come over for dinner and sleep over and be a part of the family. The mom loves the kid now. I opened that woman’s heart, or at least her dinner table, for this boy. And to me, that felt so much bigger than anything I ever thought that a movie could do.