Co-host Merk Nguyen comes out as queer in this revealing episode of Adult ISH that has her and Nyge Turner wondering what makes a secret “a secret” anyway? Producer Georgia Wright (aka one of Merk’s queer mentors) imparts “elder” queer wisdom. Then, writer Ashley C. Ford sheds light on embracing your sexuality, the freedom that comes with telling your truth and her new book “Somebody’s Daughter.” Be sure to follow us on all the socials @yrAdultISH!
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Merk: They’ve been there. In my social media bios for a few months now. Truths about myself that I hid in plain sight all my life but didn’t come to openly accept until 24 years later. Not the part about me being a podcast host. Nor my voiceover aspirations or purrrrr-found love of cats. Nope. The part about me being Catholic. And then the big one: me being queer.
“Huh… What? Like gay? But how? All you talk about is Samuel. A straight guy you’ve been dating for the past 4 years. Are you two breaking up?” No, far from it. This is the person I plan to be with for the rest of my life in part because he wholeheartedly accepts me as I am. But like I said, this is something that took me 24 years to admit to myself, the rest of my family and friends.
In 2020, when we were surrounded by so much loss and the harsh truths of the world, I started looking inward at my own internal truths. I wanted to accept myself, boldly, even though it was scary. And the truth was, there’d be times when I’d see another lady and think about her. In a way you’d think about a crush and could actually see yourself with them like that. My sexuality is something I haven’t explicitly wanted to confront because of ... Discomfort. Fear. Shame. Rejection. Another truth was, I wanted to deepen my relationship with God and get Confirmed in the Catholic church — a big step in agreeing that you’re committing to the faith that usually happens when you’re about high school age. Something I’ve wanted to do for the past 10 years but kept on making excuses as to why I shouldn’t.
It’s no secret that the Catholic Church and the queer community have been publicly at odds for years now. When you’re both Catholic and queer, you can't help but to have preconceived notions that you’re gonna be rejected by SOMEbody if you flaunt either identity. That’s why I wasn’t confident in laying claim to either. I didn’t want people thinking I was confused and not sure about myself. And sometimes, even my own self-doubt made it hard to admit that I wanted to share these truths.
But once I finally gave myself permission to just be as I am, I went forward with confirmation classes. And around the same time, I told people in my life about my queer identity. Now, I’m telling you: because it makes me so happy to be who I am, free of shame. Of course, there are still days where I wonder what’s the best way to live out this life of mine, but I’m reminded by my communities and God to follow the path that leads to love. So really, these parts of me aren’t a secret. I guess they never were. ‘Cause after all, I was just hiding that ish in plain sight.
Nyge: And that’s very on brand with today’s episode titled “Hiding ISH In Plain Sight.” Thanks for sharing your truth with us, Merk. ‘Cause you know how we are on this show. We try to focus on exposing the hard hitting facts about ourselves here on Adult ISH produced by YR Media! I’m Nyge Turner.
Merk: And I’m Merk Nguyen. And Nyge, I am always so grateful to be supported by you. Feeling your warmth and your love, because, yeah, it could be hard when you're admitting certain truths to yourself. And I'm getting some wavey fingers from Nyge because the good vibes have been received by the way. Today, we just wanted to challenge why it is we keep certain things on the DL and the freedom that can come with expressing it, especially as it relates to sexuality.
Nyge: Yep, so later, we’re going to talk to writer Ashley C. Ford about writing, truth telling and embracing yourself … but first, Merk, who has helped you on your journey of coming out?
Merk: I’ve had quite a few people. Two big names, Jenny and my friend Peter Simon, shout outs, and a third person is someone who we work with a lot. Y’all have heard her before this season, our producer Georgia Wright, her and I are gonna talk peer to peer! Or should I say queer to queer!
Nyge: … And I’ll still be here to hear! Gonna sit back and just learn on this one. Hey Georgia!
Georgia: Hello, did Merk make you say that Nyge?
Nyge: Yeah. (laughs)
Nyge: It flowed though. It flowed.
Georgia: It flowed. It flowed.
Merk: Okay, so Georgia, you are one of my first elder queers, one of my first queer mentors. And I remember when we hired you, one of the notes I wrote down was, “I think she could help me come out.”
Georgia: It is wild to be called a queer elder at the the tender young age of 26, but I honestly am very, very touched and happy to be talking with you about this. We've had many conversations off air and it's nice to be able to let the listeners in a little bit on our journeys.
Merk: On our journeys. Yeah. So what was your coming out experience like?
Georgia: It's happened over and over again, you know? It's not really just one experience. The first time I came out, I was probably 18ish and it was me coming out to myself and realizing, oh, this is, you know, what I'm experiencing, what I'm feeling, you know, the types of relationships and sort of quote unquote, what I called girl crushes and retrospectively were like, oh, just they were just crushes. You know, that was something that took a long time for me to kind of understand within my own brain. But then there was the coming out to my friends and then the coming out to my parents. And there's still people in my life who I haven't come out to. And so it's interesting because coming out, it's not really — people talk about it like it's sort of a one and done milestone and obviously...
Merk: ...It continues. Or not.
Georgia: Yeah. And like for some people, they do come out to a bunch of people at once or like go on social media or whatever, but that's not how it was for me. It really was a process. And like I'm going to be coming out in ways big and small my whole life, but maybe that's not right. Like maybe people should just not assume that I'm straight and then I wouldn't have to come out because there wouldn't be that assumption to begin with, you know?
Merk: Yeah. I remember the first time I ever dealt with challenging “what does coming out even mean” is when I watched the movie, "Love Simon." And there was a scene where all these straight people are coming out to their parents. And it made me realize, "Oh, yeah, why do we make this thing such a big deal anyway?" And that was before I had admitted to myself, like, okay, you know, I am queer and I'm here. Also telling Samuel too. Like I didn't even come out as, "Hey, I'm queer." I said, Hey, I'm not straight." That's how I came out, because I didn't know what kind of term would encapsulate how it was I was feeling and who it was I was attracted to. So when I first told him that, he asked me some questions and then he went, "That's really big." And I said, "Well, to me, it doesn't seem like it's a big deal because this doesn't change anything for me and you." And he goes, "Well, I mean, it might not be a big deal to you, but it is to me, you know?" And I said, "Okay, yeah." And knowing that him and I are on this path to marriage, when I thought about him proposing to me, the only thing that was holding me back from saying yes to any kind of engagement is like, is he going to accept this about me? And so there was a three-day period where we still talked, but it was just, you know, him thinking and he said, "You know, I think I have my answer and stuff." And it was always, "I always want to be with you. I just — what if you want to explore this part of yourself and being with me is like limiting you from that?" And I told him, "Well, I believe this can be true about me and I don't need to leave you to know that."
Georgia: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I think this segues well into a question that I had for you, Merk, which is how does your Catholicism and your queerness intersect? Like kind of beyond specifically, you know, your relationship with Samuel, I'm curious, like, if there are ways that you're thinking about one or the other overlaps and, you know, if there are ways that your Catholicism helped you come out or your queerness helped you understand your Catholicism?
Merk: Yeah, I think with both of them, there's so many ways to be that. Like, for example, when you hear Catholic, like, yes, we have our same doctrines and teachings, but like there are some people who, you know, they identify as Catholic and they don't go to Mass all the time, but they they still believe in like saints and angels and all this stuff. They're still Catholic. There are people who are like hella devoted, like my mom who go to church multiple times a week. Just because she goes to church more than someone else doesn't make her any more Catholic than someone else. In the same way that for queerness, it's like, okay, there's different ways to be attracted to people, you know? There's not just like one way to be queer.
Merk: Understanding that and me kind of doing my own work of taking away those kinds of stereotypes or those textbook definitions of what this is helped me see, okay, each of these things, while each community has people they can really unite with, it's a really individual journey. It's not monolithic in my book.
Georgia: No, and I think that's one of my favorite things about the queer community, is that there's a real sense of like individuality and that's really interesting that you talk about that in relationship to your faith as well, of like we're all manifesting the different values we hold and identities we hold in different ways. And no two people are the same. And so I think that I love in that, you know, LGBTQ+ community and the queer community, we have that understanding that everybody is different. Every person has a unique relationship to their sexuality, their gender, but also other parts of themselves, their identity, their, you know, their souls. And it is weird, you know, the more you think about it, the weirder it is that we put so much stock into labels. And so I think it is interesting that you're choosing to use the word queer for yourself, because it is sort of that like catchall umbrella term of like anybody who is gay or straight or bisexual or lesbian or whatever, transgender, could all have access to that term. And I think that's a really nice, inclusive element about the community where we're all kind of united, but we're all able to retain our individuality.
Merk: Giving you a virtual hug right now. You too, Nyge, come on in here.
Georgia: Get on in here, big ol' hug.
Merk: Well, thank you for imparting your wisdom with all of us, Georgia. This is not the end of my mentor/mentee-ship to you because there will be lots of questions coming your way. But thank you.
Georgia: Of course, it's always such a delight to talk to you about this.
Nyge: When we’re back, we’ll be joined by writer Ashley C. Ford.
Nyge: Our guest for today is writer and educator Ashley C. Ford. She’s written for places like Allure, Slate, and Marie Claire, bringing her rich storytelling to her work every time. She has hosted the video interview series PROFILE by BuzzFeed News. And her voice might sound familiar if you religiously listened to HBO’s companion podcast Lovecraft Country Radio like we did, ‘cause she co-hosts the show!
Merk: Yesss, and not only that, she has been featured on Forbes Magazine's 30 Under 30 in Media list. She recently finished writing her first memoir called “Somebody’s Daughter,” and fun fact — is a huge fan of the Hulk. So joining us from Indianapolis is Hulk lover slash writer extraordinaire, Ashley C. Ford! Hello!
Ashley: Hello. Wow. Maybe the best intro I've ever gotten. I wish more people included my love of the Hulk. I feel like that gives people a more accurate view of me than almost anything else in my bio.
Merk: So now we got to know ... out of all The Avengers, how did the Hulk manage to steal your heart?
Ashley: There is something about intellect and rage there, you know, and the great power when those two things come together, but also the immense responsibility when those two things come together, how people think of intellect and strength, you know, as being different things, like this is the smart one and this is the strong one. And it's like, what if they're both strengths?
Nyge: They kind of merged into the same one, too, in Endgame, so...
Ashley: Yes, they do.
Nyge: So if there's anyone who knows anything about how to explore ish being hidden in plain sight, it is Mark Ruffalo and yourself. I mean, you pen truth to people's experience, like you've done interviews with Stacey Abrams and Merk's queen, Janelle Monae.
Merk: Shout out.
Nyge: And you do it in a way that honestly includes yourself, but doesn't take away from the subject, like when you interviewed Serena Williams and you were like, “God, I hope she doesn't notice my Pac Man socks.” Why do you like including those types of details in your work?
Ashley: For two reasons. One is that I think it's kind of ridiculous when you're writing an interview or doing an interview to pretend that you are not there. You know, you talk about this Serena interview specifically, which is one that I think about a lot, because, you know, my perception of Serena Williams is informed by years and years and years of being aware of Serena Williams. Like sometimes feels like most of my life when I was a kid, she was a kid, except she was, you know, hitting the Grand Slams around the world. And I was this little Black girl in Indiana who was not even on a tennis team. I was the tennis manager, you know? And yeah, like getting to do these things, getting to have these conversations with these people. Like, there's absolutely nothing like it. And everybody who will read it knows that there's nothing like it. And if I acknowledge that, I think they feel a lot less like I'm willing to bullshit them. I think they trust me a little bit more.
Merk: You know, another honest piece that you wrote was an essay for The Guardian that I came across last year. And it honestly changed me because I came across it at a time when I was no longer wanting to hide parts of myself, namely my queerness. I wanted to share this with not just the world, because the world's a big place, but my loved ones, and particularly my partner Samuel, who is a straight cis man who I very much want to marry. And it's when you talked about being queer and being with Kelly, who's your now husband, and specifically saying, my queer identity is not defined by who I date. That changed my own assumptions about what queerness meant. And you helped me see that I don't have to prove my sexual identity to anyone and I can exist as I am. So first of all, thank you for that.
Ashley: Thank you for saying that.
Merk: Of course, honestly, like, I'm honored to be talking to one of my queer icon role models. And I also do want to know from you, were you always this confident in embracing your own queerness? Because I just feel like I'm at the beginning and I have so many questions.
Ashley: Absolutely not. No. You know, I have never to this day, I have not had, like, a girlfriend, like a steady girlfriend of any kind. And at this point, you know, hopefully I never will because, you know, the monogamy thing works for me personally, and Kelly is my person, but I do think, first of all, it took me a really long time to realize that I didn't have to make a choice, that, you know, it wasn't like, you know, oh, I like people of so many different genders, like I should pick one and go with it, right? Like, I thought that that was the choice that I had, because let's be honest, society and the world don't really let us know that we have more choices than that, at least not initially. And we have to find out for ourselves. From the time I was in about seventh grade, I always had queer, gay or lesbian friends, and then by the time I was in college, since then, I've always had transgender friends and I've always been a person who, you know, wanted to know about them. I'm fascinated by people. So I just want to sit with a person and talk and know so many things about them.
Merk: I feel that.
Ashley: Yes, you get it.
Ashley: And I was finding that like in these conversations I was having with other queer people that I was recognizing some of my experiences in that and not in the way of like this reminds me of something similar. But like, “You just described something that happens to me like it happened.” Now, it happens to me now.
Merk: It contextualizes your experiences that you don't have the words for.
Ashley: Yes. Yes. And from there, I was able to, you know, reflect and think with myself and then claim this part of my identity. And even when I was in a relationship with a cis man, a cis white man at that. I still was like, this doesn't change how I feel about people. Like if Kelly lost his mind and decided that he didn't want to be with me anymore and he left me tomorrow, I know that I'm not going out there looking for another white man to replace him. You know or whatever. I know that, like, when I get to a place where I'm able to date again, when I'm able to be vulnerable with somebody again, open myself up to somebody again, that the kind of person I would be willing to do that with, I don't see genitalia. I don't see a certain kind of gender presentation. It doesn't matter to me. And that is something that is developed for sure as I have gotten older, that I've been more willing to just say this is who I am. And if you don't understand it, that's not the same as it not being real, like you not understanding what I'm feeling or what I'm going through, or you having trouble with your own assumptions or your own biases. Turns out not actually my problem. It's just not.
Merk: You know, despite me coming forward with this truth, I do still feel like there are days where I struggle with self-acceptance.
Ashley: Of course.
Merk: Like a part of me knows, like I can exist as I am. And I'm confident. And I'm like, "Yeah, if you don't get it, all right." But then other days I'm like, "Man, I'm still trying to figure myself out. There's just so much here to unlearn." I'm asking myself why and lots of those questions you're bringing up. I'm like, "Oh, I don't have the answers to these yet."
Ashley: It's good that you don't have the answers to those. Let me tell you why.
Ashley: Because you're exactly where you're supposed to be right now, how you feel, the days when it's really hard and it hurts. You know what that is? That's you being a human being. That's you being connected to your humanity. That's you not pretending to have answers that you don't have like some people do. Nobody has all the answers. Nobody's out here calm. Nobody's so secure in these things every single day that it just doesn't pop into their head, you know, like and they don't feel the confusion or the anger or the rage or the pain. That doesn't happen for anybody, anybody. And if that's your goal, you've given yourself an impossible, inhumane goal. Because no human being is going to feel good about it every single day. That's not our condition. But what we can learn to do is how to take really good care of ourselves on the days when we don't feel good about it. That's it. That's all you could do. And that doesn't necessarily mean take a bubble bath, though it can.
Ashley: It might mean on the days when I feel disconnected in some way or distance or confused about the disconnection I feel, you know, with my queer self or with my identity or how I express it. Like, what if on those days when I'm just tired, what if I decided that's a good day to call a person who's really good at reassuring me about this? That's a good day to ask my partner, who I talk to about this all the time, "Do you have five minutes to sit with me so I can tell you how I feel right now?" And it's not good. I'm just going to tell you right now. I just need five minutes to say it and I just need you to listen. And then I just want you to hold me for two minutes. You're having a hard day, but when you get it together and when you honor your hard day, you say today was hard. Everybody else around you will feel like she's a safe place for me to talk about the fact that I'm having a hard day and now I have that safe place. So maybe I can do that more and maybe I can find that in myself even more. Like you don't get it, like even when it's hard, just by being honest about who you are, you're doing work, that's probably why it's so exhausting.
Merk: Wow. “That's why I'm tired all the time.” You just told the truth there.
Ashley: I mean it's exhausting to tell the truth because people don't always react well to the truth. People like certainty. They like what they come up with in their head, what they think they're certain of. And people will say, I like the truth or I want to hear the truth. But you can't always tell people the truth and maintain their sense of certainty. So they get upset. And it's exhausting to deal with upset people.
Nyge: I think our families and upbringings can uplift us in the same ways they can sometimes, on the other end of the coin, discourage us from openly knowing or expressing our truths. Especially coming from communities of color where certain truths aren’t revealed until later or not at all as a form of protection. In your memoir, you write a lot about family secrets - a big one was learning why your dad was in prison for 30 years. How did those secrets shape the overall story that you tell?
Ashley: You know, my family can be very image conscious. And I think that happens with a lot of people who are working class to middle class is that the thing becomes, you know, we may not have this or we may not have that or we may not have all the money in the world, but that doesn't mean we should be sloppy. That doesn't mean we shouldn't present ourselves. That doesn't mean we shouldn't put up a good...
Ashley: Yes. Facade. Thank you, Merk. I come from a family that really, really believes in that, like really deeply believes that it kind of doesn't matter what you do and say to people behind closed doors, like you just present this face to the world. And that's not to say that my family doesn't love and care about me or that they've always been like mean or cruel to me or anything. It's just how far they're willing to go is sometimes a little further than I am willing to go and definitely than I am willing to let someone go with me. But the cool thing about working on this book for me is that it has helped me define certain words and certain ideas for myself. Like I now have a really clear separation of definitions for secrecy and privacy, and that those are very different things to me now. I realize that secrecy in my definition is about shame and it's about hiding things from people because you don't want them to know because you are afraid of how they will see you, judge you or treat you if they know this thing about you. And my father being in prison and the reason he was in prison was treated as a big secret, a very big secret. It wasn't just like it's a private thing. It was if you tell people about this, they will feel this way about you. They will judge you this way. They will treat you poorly, so it's it's a matter of survival almost to hide it. Now, privacy to me is about what is yours, because it is sacred to you and it is just simply not for everyone else to have access to. So I would consider, you know, when my husband and I sit on the couch and talk for hours and start to tell each other things that, you know, some embarrassing story from middle school and and how that has affected us throughout the course of our life or how our perception of that moment has changed, how our perception of ourselves have changed. And we share all these like details and small things. Those moments are sacred to me. I would never sit and live tweet a conversation I was having with him in that moment. Those are private things because they are sacred to me. They are sacred to me. That intimacy is sacred. Now, if he called me a bitch a lot and I didn't tell people about that because I didn't want them to know and I would be afraid of how that would make them view me or how that would make them view him. That's a secret. So I don't do secrets anymore. Now I know what it's like to grow up in a place where secrets are prioritized, in a life where secrets are prioritized. And I know that that does not bring joy to anyone involved. That's one of the things that I really have gotten out of writing this book is being able to have those clear, separate definitions of secrecy and privacy, and that really helps me decide what to say and what not to say because I can just step back and ask myself, do you not want to say this because you're ashamed or do you not want to say this because it's just yours?
Merk: It's really good framing. And also there's just so much agency behind knowing something is private to you because you make that choice. You control the narrative.
Merk: And shame doesn't do that. Shame doesn't allow for that.
Ashley: It doesn't. Shame is only corrosive.
Merk: When did you decide that it was time to distinguish those secrets and actually bring them to light?
Ashley: I think when I was in college and I was getting regular therapy and I was in a — you know what I'm saying like shout out to therapy. And so there was a confluence of things happening right then. I was in the second half of a really bad relationship. I was in this class where I had to write essentially about me and about my life. And I was seeing a counselor who was trying to get me to understand that I could not be responsible for other people's actions, especially when there was no intent there. Like, I can not be responsible for my mother's anger. I cannot be responsible for my father's crimes. Like how can those things shame me? Why should I have to hold those things as shameful secrets when the shame is not mine? It is not mine. I saw how nervous and anxious I was to fully be myself with anybody. And I kind of had to ask myself, "Am I going to live like this forever, am I going to just like have all these secrets and shames and all of these things forever?" Because to be perfectly honest, every once in a while I work up enough nerve to tell somebody who I really trust and who I really believe loves me. And that person never rejects me. That person never seems to think I'm the most disgusting thing in the world the way I see myself. They don't seem to turn me away. And at some point I have to stop creating this reality in my head where my insecurities, my worst insecurities are all true. And I have to accept the evidence of my real life, which proves to me every day that I can feel as unlovable as anybody else. I can feel as unlovable, as unlovable as anything else. But can it be true that I am unlovable when all these people love me, when my husband loves me, when my family loves me, when my siblings just call to tell me they love me, when I have friends who seek me out and reach out for me and who love me, can it really be true that I'm unlovable? I guess not. I guess not, so once I figured out that telling the truth helped get rid of the shame, I started walking in that direction and I didn't want to turn around. It was just too good. Everything I come across along the way, it's not that it's perfect and it's not that it always feels good. But I always know that, like, I'm headed toward something worthy of my time. At the very least, it is a worthy pursuit, to be honest and to be kind.
Merk: Ashley C. Ford everybody! Thank you so much for being here.
Ashley: Thank you so much for having me.
Nyge: Y’all can stay up to date with Ashley on Twitter at @iSmashFizzle or on IG @smashfizzle. And be sure to check out her memoir “Somebody’s Daughter,” as well as her audiobook! Get them online or in stores, wherever you get your books.
Nyge: So today’s top takeaway number one, we’re all hiding truths about ourselves in plain sight. You come out whenever you want to or if you're ready or let other people discover for themselves. And if you don't want to, that's okay, too. It's a personal choice.
Merk: Totally. And secondly, facing some truths isn’t gonna be easy. It's going to require unlearning narratives that you've understood to be true for years. But just know that we're all constantly learning and evolving who it is we all are.
Nyge: That is the truth. And now we wanna thank you for listening to Adult ISH, produced by YR Media, a national network of young artists and journalists creating content for this generation.
Merk: A big special thank you goes out to our awesome intern Kalen Luciano, who’s been helping us out on social and with our transcripts that you can see on adultishpodcast.com. Thanks also go out to my queer mentor and our producer Georgia Wright who we love times a billion, Executive Producer Rebecca Martin who is constantly so supportive of our ideas and who we are, and the talented young folx at YR who contributed art for this episode.
Nyge: There’s a lot of ish we want to share with you all and not keep hidden from you on our socials @YRadultISH. Give us a follow if you haven’t already.
Merk: We’re also proud to be members of Radiotopia by PRX. An independent listener-supported collective of some of the most honest shows in all of podcasting. Find them at radiotopia.fm.
Nyge: And now for our final out of context clip because next week’s episode is gonna be our season finale!
[phone ring, computer typing at an office]
Merk: Mmmm … now that sounds like a good time. I’m gonna pencil that one in.
Nyge: Yeah, you pencil that one in. Why don’t you just use your phone?
Merk: Uhh, ‘cause I’m still detoxing.
Nyge: (laughs) Alright, later.