By: Joe R. Castel
The Phoenix premiere of my documentary The Life and Times of Jose Sarria was screened at Mesa Community College on October 14. The 90-minute award-winning feature covers the true story about the first openly gay man who ran for public office in the United States in 1961. Not only was Jose Sarria the first openly gay man to run for office, he also was Latino and a San Francisco drag performer who entertained from the 1950s up until the early 1990s. My film has played in more than a dozen film festivals across the country and has won several awards. It’s been screened at college campuses throughout California and it’s a film that’s been appreciated by straight and queer audiences alike because of its timeless theme of the underdog hero overcoming insurmountable obstacles to make a positive difference in society.
The October screening in Phoenix, however, was the first presentation of my film where an armed guard wearing a bullet proof vest stood vigilant over the audience with half the lights on, because the organizer of the screening, Arizona State University (ASU) Professor David Boyles, had been targeted and attacked by members of the Turning Point USA organization, just three days prior to the screening.
Turning Point USA, a nonprofit, advocates for conservative politics on high school, college and university campuses by pushing disinformation and conspiracy theories such as Joe Biden’s win in 2020, Covid-19 vaccines and other extremist and rightwing issues.
Boyles, an English instructor and the co-founder of Drag Story Hour Arizona, was leaving his LGBTQ+ youth in pop culture and politics class on ASU campus when he was harassed by two Turning Point USA members. One held an iPhone, as he filmed Boyles, while the other man, peppered Boyles with derogatory questions and insults.
The video footage was posted by Turning Point members themselves onto their own website. It’s a tactic familiar to Turning Point USA, known for its despicable aggressive harassments. In the video, Boyles, does not engage with Turning Point’s repeated questions, such as “How long have you been attracted to minors?” and accuses Boyles of wanting to “push sodomy on to young people”.
After continuous harassment, Boyles tries to block the cameraman from taking any more footage and the video ends. The ASU camera, however, captures, what you do not see in the Turning Point’s video. The ASU camera from high above shows the other Turning Point member, who’s the size of a football player, violently pushing Professor Boyles onto the pavement where his face scrapes the cement pavement. In a photo posted by Boyles, it shows his face bloodied from the fall.
On Boyles Instagram page, the professor wrote: “My physical injuries are relatively minor and I’m doing OK. But I’m also feeling angry, violated, embarrassed, and despairing at the fact that we have come to normalize this kind of harassment and violence against anyone who tries to support LGBTQ+ youth (ironically the topic of the class I had just finished teaching) or just LGBTQ+ people and other marginalized groups in general.”
Boyles is listed on Turning Point’s “professor watchlist”, which targets college professors for their work or views. Last year, the Proud Boys showed up at the Phoenix Brick Coffee House where Boyle’s Drag Queen Story Hour was being held. A bomb threat was also made.
ASU confirmed that it is investigating whether the assault on Boyles was motivated by “bias or prejudice”. After the incident, ASU president Michael Crow and the university condemned the attack on Boyles. “Cowards that they are, and so confident in the legality and appropriateness of their actions, the Turning Point USA ‘reporter’ and ‘cameraman’ then ran away from the scene before police arrived,” Crow wrote. “This is the kind of outrageous conduct that you would expect to see from bullies in a high-school cafeteria.
There’s always been hate rhetoric spewing from politicians in this country towards the LGBTQ community, but the Trump and DeSantis administrations have kicked it up a notch by demonizing gay and trans people and turning back the clock on our civil rights with anti-LGBTQ state bills, like “Don’t Say Gay” in Florida and dozens of state anti-drag bills, and of course the most hateful rhetoric is towards the trans community.
I had a feeling that when all this anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and legislature began, I too, would be on the receiving end of this intolerance because my film is about a Latino drag queen who challenged the status quo. But when the hatred actually arrives, it’s still shocking all the same.
Immediately after the attack, I inquired with my producer, if Professor Boyles, Mesa Community College or Arizona Humanities, the co-sponsors of the event, would cancel the screening for fear of retaliation from Turning Point or other right-wing haters. They all bravely decided to go forward with the event. The ball was in my court. I thought, “What would Jose do?” The pioneer activist had told me that his life was threatened once when he was scheduled to speak at a Pride rally. Despite objections from friends, Jose refused to be intimidated and gave his speech at the rally. His unflinching bravery led him to help change anti-gay ordinances in California and his political run for City Supervisor in 1961, proved there was a voting bloc in San Francisco. He refused to stand down to the police, city, and state officials when it came to LGBT rights.
I and Professor Boyles also refused to stand down, but because of the hateful actions caused by Turning Point USA, staff at Mesa Community College felt it necessary to protect Professor Boyles, the audience, and strangely enough, myself from any possible violence. It was sadly surreal to have an armed guard standing vigil over the 50 some people in attendance, and I was truly concerned for their safety and well-being. They too were courageous for attending.
After the film was screened, we held a Q&A with the audience. Professor Boyles graciously emceed the discussion. Jose would have been very proud of the professor for standing up for his beliefs, so I gifted Professor Boyles one of the few pieces of jewelry that I had inherited from Jose. It was one small Tahitian pearl earring. In many cultures, pearls symbolize “inner wisdom. It’s an introspective gem, encouraging us to really discover our true selves and our true purpose here on earth.” Clearly, Jose Sarria and Professor Boyles found their callings in this lifetime.