Receiving its second consecutive Emmy nomination this year in the category of Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program, Viceland’s Gaycation is among those series that seem to be redefining what reality television can be.
Hosted by Oscar-nominated actress Ellen Page and Ian Daniel, the series sees the creative partners traveling around the globe to place a spotlight on LGBT communities in different areas, and the level of adversity these people face. In light of the current political stateside and ongoing acts of violence and hatred against various minority communities, the pair believe the series and the perspectives it grants are more necessary and relevant than ever—and the Television Academy clearly agrees.
Below, Page and Daniel discuss the process of meeting both violent extremists and courageous survivors—including those of the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando—to expose the roots of intolerance and give voice to the voiceless.
How did Gaycation come to be?
Ellen Page: In a logistical sense, it came to be because [Vice Media creative director] Spike [Jonze] is a good friend of mine. He mentioned that they were starting a network and asked if we had any ideas.
There have been many moments in my life, continuing through a society that oppresses LGBT people—whether travelling, or needless to say, in my day to day life, or growing up in a place like Nova Scotia—so it just seemed like an interesting way to use the format of the “travel show,” investigating this reality that people live through and comparing it to the situation in America.
Has traveling around the world and seeing the reality of daily life for people in these different countries been a transformative experience?
Ian Daniel: Yeah. The intention of the show is to look, universally and globally, at how people are discriminated against and oppressed—to understand why that happens and our collective role in that, our collective responsibility. I don’t think we can really separate ourselves from each other.
Ellen and I have been reflecting a lot on what’s going on in the country right now, and when you look at what’s happening globally, there are signs there as well. If you look at our “Ukraine” episode, the neo-Nazi, right wing movement is in action against LGBT people. They’re attacking LGBTQ pride marches, they do these things called Gay Safaris, where they set up LGBTQ people, lure them in and brutally assault them. That’s been going on for years there, and I think you can see the comparisons to what’s happening in our country right now.
I think the bottom line is that we have to learn from what’s going on in other countries. We have to learn from what people are doing to and live fully in really dire, hard circumstances, and then compare that to our own experience.
Page: I think of America and Canada’s role in it, as well, in terms of being in denial of our own history, and I say that in terms of all marginalized people—of course, queer people, in terms of the show we make. We don’t have enough representation of how queer and trans people are treated in this part of the world, as well as the rest. The election was going on while we were making “Ukraine”, so it was on our mind a lot, in terms of the conversations that were happening there.
What are the roots of your creative partnership on this series?
Daniel: We met nine years ago in an Ecovillage in Oregon. We were studying Common Culture Design and holistic, self-sufficient living. Ellen brought the idea for this show to my attention and felt that I’d be a good match for it, in terms of my work. I thought it was an amazing opportunity to learn more, personally—to spread awareness, and just to listen to people, and help other people listen.
On the show, you can clearly see the connection Ellen and I have, in terms of not only our friendship, but an amazing creative partnership where we truly do learn from each other, and listen to each other. That’s such a part of the energy of the show, that we’re both there to listen as much as possible. There’s so much to learn, and we know it’s our responsibility to share it with other people.
On the road, our friendship has only grown—we’ve gone through so many things together. When we think of all the stories we’ve heard and the amazing people that have risked their lives to share their stories, that’s only going to further our bond, and our bond to people in the LGBTQ community.
What logistics are involved in producing this series, in terms of translation and what have you?
Page: We typically have two cameras, two producers and our showrunner and executive producer, Niharika [Desai], who’s amazing on the ground, as well as local producers, and sound, of course. It’s pretty minimal. We have a translator who’s just off camera and translates the conversation, and we edit it to make it seem more seamless than it is when you’re actually doing it.
Daniel: We have a decent-sized team, and we strip it down where needed. We really are trying to be as intimate and as responsible as possible with our guests, so sometimes it’s just very few people in the room. If we’re speaking to a murderer or a neo-Nazi, we do have people there that help protect us. We do have that kind of security, on some level, and our team strips down for those kinds of things, so we’re kind of ever shifting.
What has it been like to sit face to face with people who are either dangerous, or—at the very least—are participating in the oppression of the LGBT community? You’re so calm in taking that on.
Page: I think often, when you are able to have the conversation in that place, much more can be revealed, if that makes sense, that can be oddly more penetrating to the viewer—when you do see someone that calm express things that are so hard for us to imagine, and then attempt to dig through the layers, as much as you can, sitting with someone for an hour or two, to try and get a greater understanding of where that foundation is from.
Looking at what’s just happened—not only the past few days, but in the history of the United States and Canada—I grew up in a place that has a horrible history, in terms of race…I think that enables the conversation to reach people more.
I think we’re able to stay calm because the reality is, we are privileged in that situation—we’re surrounded by our team, there’s cameras, we have security, and I think you’re reflecting more on individuals’ day-to-day life. They don’t have that protection, in a place like Ukraine—just walking down the street as a visibly queer person, you’re taking a serious risk.
Daniel: We use that privilege, again, to listen, and I think that what we’re seeing now is that we have to be listening to each other. I think it’s very important for our show to see that side of where the discrimination actually comes from. If you can really hear more of the root cause, maybe there are ways that we can get beyond it, or destroy it, actually.
Page: And actually stop treating it as such a niche thing, because it’s not. I think that’s becoming really apparent right now, in terms of it becoming mainstream-appropriate. Or you have a president that’s attempting to do that. Our failing in Ukraine is sadly proving to be true, on some level, in terms of what potentially was going to happen here.
How did your Emmy-nominated “Orlando” episode come about? It seems like you were able to respond immediately to that tragedy and get the team over there.
Daniel: Ellen and I responded very viscerally to the massacre, obviously, and it felt like we had been talking about these issues on our show for some time now. To be clear, we didn’t fly out the next day—there was real conversation between Ellen and I, and then with the team about what was responsible, what was needed. Is the conversation necessary from our point of view? We have this container to talk about LGBTQ issues—is this the right time to do it, or is this going to cause more trauma?
After a lot of conversation, we felt like the LGBTQ experience and the Latinx experience was for the most part being erased from media exposure. A few people were talking about it, some politicians were talking about it, but in general, those two communities were not really being discussed, so that was a motivating factor for us.
Our motivation to go there was to say that we actually really do need to hear these stories from this lens, because those are the people that it’s affected the most. That’s why we went. We went four, five days after.
Page: We were hesitant about, what does it mean to be another media force there? Of course, when you get there, and you see all that in person for the first time, you realize how difficult that must be for people who are attempting immediately after to do what they can to stabilize themselves, having to deal with such horrific trauma.
I think we’re reflecting on why we make the show, which is to offer more visibility. We’re privileged to have this platform and want to share the stories of those who don’t usually get to share their story. The fact that a massacre like this could happen, and the lack of conversation about LGBT-plus people was so hard, and not even surprising, I guess, sadly.
You hope there’s going to be some shift, and we did feel like we could go, but being very gentle—not pushing for stories, but put the word out there and see who wanted to potentially be a part of this.
Daniel: The truth is, it seems like that episode is so relevant because if you’re looking at rhetoric and hateful language, and actions that are being put into place by our government, and you look at the numbers of LGBT violence and deaths that are on the rise in our country—and that’s excluding the numbers from Orlando—I think we just have to keep that in mind.
People in the LGBTQ community, the Latinx community, people of color community are facing hatred and violence and death at a high rate, and it’s only growing because that’s what’s being presented, and that’s what’s in the media. I think that we have to not always dwell on the hateful ideology, but that episode really reflects on the universal. Why are we allowing this to happen? And why are we not talking more about this devastating affect that it has on the LGBTQ community? I feel like we’re not talking about it enough right now, even.
Page: No, we’re not. Especially when hate crimes have skyrocketed. You have some of the worst bullying in schools towards LGBT people ever. You have all these things, like trans laws being passed, and whispers of Ted Cruise and their religious liberty bullshit, quite frankly. It’s beyond alarming, particularly for trans women of color who deal with so much trauma every single day.
What was it like to be able to sit down with the survivors of this tragedy and share their emotional experience?
Daniel: We reflect on that a lot, especially now that we’ve had a bit of time away from it. First and foremost, we feel much gratitude that we’ve been able to have this experience, to be able to sit in front of so many courageous people. Their perseverance truly has inspired my life and Ellen’s life, the work we do, and the intention behind our mission, and the the way we live our lives.
To be honest, when you acknowledged that, I think because things are so raw still, it made me sad. It almost makes me want to cry, because it hit me in a place. It’s a collective sadness that there is a lot of trauma in the LGBTQ community—in so many communities. Ellen and I are part of that community, and we care.
Of course, we’re sitting in front of trauma, and beautiful stories, and all those things. So there’s a mix, but at the core of it, there is the reality is that it’s very hard for many, many people. We are sitting in front of those stories and reflecting on our own lives, and the lives of our friends and family, and it affects you, as it should. It should affect us all.
That doesn’t mean dwelling in the darkness because of course we see the duality and the light, but it is a sadness that is sometimes difficult to overcome.
Page: Especially in the last few days, when we we’re doing press, or when you watch the news, it’s like, No, there’s not two sides here. Why is there a debate and a conversation as to your right to discriminate based on religious liberty?
Getting asked about, “Well, don’t you feel compassion for the people who grow up in these spaces?”, and it’s like, sure. But right now, I’m much more concerned with the lives that are being destroyed everyday, wanting them to have a sense of equality, and have a life, or dreams at all.
How is that possibly threatening to those who’ve been in control forever? It’s nauseating at this point, and it’s been nauseating for people of color, indigenous people, forever—let’s just be clear. But I think that’s been a lot of the experience.
It’s becoming much harder for me to stay calm in certain interviews. Ian really helps me stay calm, because I’m just ready to freak out.
It feels sad and ironic, watching neo-Nazis discuss “gay propaganda” in your “Ukraine” episode, with the amount of propaganda that has gone into keeping the LGBT community down.
Page: I grew up with so much heteronormative, sexist propaganda—the first stories you’re hearing when you’re a little kid, whether it’s Sleeping Beauty or what have you. We’re constantly inundated with that, and the fact that two people holding hands, walking down the street, or wearing a t-shirt with a rainbow on it is considered gay propaganda…It’s infuriating.