In a world that still attempts to snuff out the voices of those most marginalized, telling our stories as LGBTQ people is not just important, it’s a necessity. Whether they be based in fiction, reality, or a mix of both, they need to see the light of day. Rasheed Newson understands this, bringing to life some of TV’s most riveting shows and now doing so in the literary world with his debut novel My Government Means to Kill Me.
In his new book, Newson tells the story of young Trey, a Black, gay kid from a wealthy Black Indianapolis family, who leaves his wealth and family behind for the bright lights of New York City in the 1980s. There, he quickly finds himself on a journey of self-discovery and in the middle of gay rights activism that surges during the HIV/AIDs crisis. Through activism, exploring his sexuality, and dealing with old trauma, Trey finds his voice in a world that means to silence it.
INTO spoke with Newson about his debut novel, why he made sure to keep the book sex-positive, how activism comes in different forms, and how he plans to bring his debut novel to the screen.
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What is the origin story behind My Government Means to Kill Me?
Well, this character (Trey) has sort of been on my mind for years. I’d written another book that didn’t sell and he was in the family and I’d already, from that book, sent him off to New York when he was 17 in 1985. I just thought, “Well, what would it be like if I just followed him?”. I loved that character so much, I related to that character so much, and it turned out, I’d already been doing research for years, as you can imagine. That period of history in activism in the fight against AIDS was pretty well known to me and so it was a natural fit.
Trey is Black, queer, and from an upper middle class family in Indiana. Were any of your personal experiences pulled from your life and placed into Trey’s story?
Oh yea. Being Black and gay is certainly a journey and there are certain parts about it that I think we’ve all sort of gone through. Also being somebody who was femme, it wasn’t a huge revelation when I came out. People were not surprised and I always think that’s an interesting thing. Typically, we get that story where people come out and it’s a great shock.
But many of us, where our homosexuality is self evident, we don’t have to make an announcement at Thanksgiving. And that’s a different way to go through the world because you are living under the bigotry of other people from a very young age before you have declared yourself. They’ve already decided this boy is a sissy. And you’re getting that energy as you grow up.
In your book, Trey goes through a metamorphosis. Through his bike messenger role, his body changes and people, men in particular, take notice. What was it like writing this transformation in the book?
Well, in my personal experience, I think that’s always a wonderful, beautiful thing when it happens. You grow up being told that because you’re gay it’s going to be a lonely life. There’s a lot that’s not going to go your way and things, like love, may be out of reach. Then you go somewhere else and suddenly people love what you’ve got. For me, it was Washington, D.C. in college.
I think for a lot of gay people, especially feminine gay people, there’s such a repulsion to you when you’re a kid. But it’s hard to imagine there are people who will eat that up. There are people who are going to want that, but you have to grow up and find them.
Suddenly you’re attractive and there’s a sexual power to you. I wanted to give that to Trey because I think it’s an important moment in life. Personally, I was literally standing in Dupont Circle where I was like, “Oh, you all find this cute?”. It’s great.
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Trey goes through a sexual exploration when he moves to New York City and he finds so much power within that. Yet, his exploration is juxtaposed with the HIV/AIDs crisis happening in the background. What inspired you to write his journey like this?
I wanted the book to be sex positive and I wanted to explore a really interesting part of most people’s sexual life that I don’t see in books that often, which is that part where sex is still so new. You’re learning something every time you have it and that’s part of the excitement. You find a partner who does something to you and you say, “Oh my goodness. What was that?” And you take it with you to the next partner. It literally is an exploration at that point.
I also wanted to underline the point that even during dire times, whether it’s the AIDS epidemic or its COVID, people still find and need joy. They find and need a release and sex has been a very effective way of doing that since the beginning of humanity. I know that sometimes with these stories it’s easier to have a character who’s a bit more pious, but I think the reality is a lot of people were still having sex during the height of the AIDS crisis and not always protected sex.
I wanted a character who reflected those choices. Honestly, it doesn’t make him a bad person. It just makes him someone who’s quite human. In my own life growing up, I volunteered at a foster care facility for children who were HIV-positive. At that age, I thought nothing of working with those children during the day, partying at night, and not always being safe when I had sex with a partner. I was 19 and so was my character in the book. So, I felt I had to be honest about that.
We learn a lot about ourselves and we connect with other people through sex and that’s all valid. I just wanted to sort of put that front and center.
Of course you’ve written many TV shows already. Will you turn My Government Means to Kill Me into a film or a TV show?
I do. I haven’t decided which way I’d like to do it. There are benefits to both. I’ve worked in TV for years, so that seems very comfortable. Film has its own allure. I think it will make it to the screen and I want it to live on there. Having experience in television, I feel like I wouldn’t be one of those authors who suffocated the project by trying to make it exactly like the book. Whenever we move it to the screen, it has to take on its own life. I think it could be great if it could be even more expansive than the book. The book is completely from Trey’s POV. If you did it for the screen, you could open it up.
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Speaking of Trey, who do you want to play him in a live-action feature?
I’ve been thinking about this. This is a dangerous thing because I’m on a show now, Bel-Air, where if you ask me who we wanted to play, well, there are names we could have come up with and Jabari Banks (who plays Will on Bel-Air) wouldn’t have been on that list because he wasn’t well known. But he is the perfect answer to that. So, I’m going to be demure here and say, I really would love to explore. Maybe it’s someone we know or maybe there’s a stage actor out there that we haven’t met yet who is born to do it. It’s a great role, and I think we’ll find a very talented, vibrant actor to fill it.
What research did you conduct to ensure that your book felt historically contextual, but also from Trey’s POV?
Well, I was very lucky because when you look at that time period, everybody involved kept incredible records. ACT UP has a trove of records. You can get the minutes from almost any meeting they had in New York and it’s very helpful. Then people like Bayard Rustin, Larry Kramer, and Dorothy Cotton all gave extensive interviews about their experiences in their lives. I would listen to these interviews, as I was doing my daily chores. I felt like the trick was not to try to mimic any of them, but to sort of take in their essence, their spirit, and try to put that back into the work.
And I told myself to give myself some wiggle room. Trey is seeing them in a way that maybe no one else saw them. He has some special insight into how they operate. So if I ever encountered their friends in the world and they said to me, “Well, that’s not the person I knew”. I’d at least be able to say, “Well, I understand that, but Trey met them at this very special time and he had this very specific POV”.
Some people said it gave them pause to see Rustin in a bathroom. It gave me pause too, but I thought about it and I said, “Well, what would be the problem? I mean, everybody knows he was a homosexual man”. And I just thought, “Well, why can’t we reckon with the idea that you knew he was a gay man? Don’t you think he had sexual desires throughout his life? And wouldn’t it be fair for him to go and satisfy them?”.
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Your book focuses heavily on gay rights activism within the 80s. What do you hope readers take from that?
I hope people realize that there’s a wide spectrum (of activism) and all they need to do is find their place in it. Some of us do things that are very direct. You provide a meal to someone who needs a meal. Some of us do things that are a little bit more confrontational. We take to the streets and we march. And some of us work behind the scenes on laws and movements that have national implications. We need all of those things. We need everybody to get involved.
One of the things I try to demonstrate in the book is that for years we spend a lot of time infighting trying to decide which of these approaches is best. I think we need them all. I also think that we harp on young people, in particular, because they don’t seem to have a plan and they don’t know what they’re doing, but they’re doing it in a way no one’s ever done before. And I just want to remind everybody that’s exactly the role of young people. Some of the greatest movements of our time have been run by young people who did not have a 10-year plan. They’re just sort of responding to the needs as they see them. That’s valid and I think that’s necessary.
When I was younger, I was like “Let’s go to the protests”. I am a middle aged man with two small children. I cannot be arrested right now. But I have some means. I can write a check. I didn’t have any money then. I have it now. Maybe I know people in higher places. I can pick up the phone and make some calls in a way that I couldn’t.
So not only do people need to find their place in the spectrum of advocacy, but be open to the fact that that place will change as your life changes. I’ve been inspired by older people in their 70s and 80s who say essentially, “Well, I’m done raising my kids. What does it matter if I get taken to jail?” And they’re out there on the street. They’re out there saying, “Well, I’m free now to come back to this”. I hope I get to be such an old person one day.
What is your ultimate wish for all of your readers?
I hope that all readers walk away with a greater awareness of how the game of politics forces us into these odd positions where we have to dance for our rights. I hope people begin to question some of the political games that have to be played. I’m really encouraged by young people today because they don’t seem to hesitate to throw off some of the respectability politics that, I feel, hindered the rest of us. So, I hope my readers walk away from the book feeling liberated and feeling like they don’t have to play by the older rules anymore. ♦
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