James Howard. Former movie star turned gay rights activist after his own coming out experience had inspired so many people that he decided to commit the rest of his life to helping others like him.
It had been easy for him to rise to that level, of course. He was in some of the biggest blockbusters of his generation, and his fanbase was so incredibly loyal and devoted that anyone who ever said a bad word against him was essentially eaten alive. He was always amusing in his interviews, and kind to his fans, and very down-to-earth with anybody he ever worked with. As far as the public knew he’d never actually been in a relationship, at least not since before he was famous, but his fans liked to say that he was gay anyway. And when he actually dropped the bombshell that he was, their love and devotion for him only increased.
Because LGBTQ people really are not in the minority anymore. Not in pop culture anyway. If anyone claimed to have a problem with queers, they were eaten alive almost more quickly than those who had a problem with James Howard, the beloved former movie star who is now a confirmed homosexual.
That was until Catherine Schmid arrived on the scene. Not that anyone quite remembered where she’d come from or when they started recognizing her name in the news. Because she was nobody great. She was nobody famous, or influential, or could name-drop anyone important. The only thing really memorable about her was that she was speaking out against gay people.
And that is something that the media will simply no longer tolerate. Of anyone. Especially of this no-name 22-year-old from California.
The first time she went viral, it was when she found her way in front of a TV camera at a pride parade in Los Angeles announcing that events such as these were nothing more than a protest with mob mentality, and accomplishing something by sheer force is not really changing the minds of those who disagree with you.
She was arrested on the grounds that she was terrorizing a minority group, and though she went quietly, she was asked by the same TV reporter if she saw that it was wrong to bring her propaganda to a parade that was simply celebrating a way of life.
“If I thought it was wrong I wouldn’t have done it,” she said. “How many of you at home know this is wrong but are claiming to support it anyway?”
Eventually she began popping up in enough interviews that the gay rights activists began to notice. And this led to James Howard being asked about it one day at an assembly.
“What do I think of Catherine Schmid?” he repeated. “Honestly, I feel sorry for someone who must have been brought up in such a sheltered and bigoted home that she is stuck in the ways of the past. But we don’t need to worry about the message that she’s spreading, because someone like that won’t be able to last very long.”
In Catherine’s next interview she was asked what she thought about him calling her out like that, and she replied, “Funny, because that’s what people used to say about his kinds of people and their message.”
That was when their rivalry truly began. James’ fans were so outraged that they tried to eat her alive, just as they did with everyone naysayer that came before her, and they had the help of the LGTBQ community.
But somehow, she didn’t die. She got stronger. She began to get a fanbase. There were people supporting her everywhere she turned, and she began getting access to more interviews and more exposure online. It began to be a big deal if you could get her to attend an assembly, and it began to become a bragging right if you could say Catherine Schmid had spoken in your city. James’ following couldn’t understand where the people who liked her were coming from. How could such a hateful person get so much attention and support in this day and age?
She was finally confronted about this at a panel that was being broadcasted around the world.
“Do you really think you can win this fight?” she was asked. “People like you are what’s really wrong with the world today. Our community is one of the kindest, more innocent, most peaceful and understanding groups of people that humanity has ever known, but no, just because we’re different you tell us we’re monsters, we’re disgusting, we’re not even human, we don’t–”
“Hold on,” she said. “Monsters? Disgusting? I have never said a word against anybody in your community. I don’t even use slurs, because you are still people, and I absolutely respect that. I hate your way of living, and I hate that you continue to spread it and drag others down with you, but I still love and support each and every single one of you as people.”
“Then why do attack James Howard so often?” someone from the crowd shouted.
“James Howard,” she said crisply, “Has said that he still loves and supports each and every single person as a person as well. And he seems to be fond of dragging my name through the mud every time he can, but believe me, I have no hard feelings towards him either. In fact I’d be honored to discuss this with him in person one day.”
James simply rolled his eyes when he was asked about this in his next interview. “That’s what they do,” he said. “Try to act like the bigger person. Well, Catherine, I’ve got no hard feelings towards you either. I just don’t understand what we ever did to have to endure a rival like you.”
“And what do you think of James Howard calling you his rival?” Catherine was asked the following week.
She smiled demurely. “I think it’s the nicest thing he’s ever said about me.”
For two years Catherine and James continued to spread their messages and gain more followers every day, and though no one could really see a clear winner emerging any time soon, it was fascinating to everyone, on both sides, to see how often they went head to head despite never actually meeting each other.
Until one month, when at a convention featuring the biggest influencers in the media, some coordinator somewhere decided it would be a brilliant idea to have James and Catherine on the same panel to have the debate their fans had dreamed of. Because then maybe, finally, there would be a declared victor.
Both of them shook hands politely when the panel started, and they took their opposite seats with no drama, doubtless to the crowd’s disappointment. And then the questions started.
“How do you think you two got to practically be the heads of your respective sides?” the first audience member asked.
“Oh, I definitely don’t think I’m the head of my side,” James laughed. “There’s so many other incredible activists out there that it would be super arrogant of me to even presume that title.”
“Well, I know I’m the head of mine,” Catherine said. “But that’s only because you guys helped me get there. I was your call, and you answered. You could have left me alone to spread my message, but you didn’t, because you agreed with it.”
“They don’t all agree with it,” James told her.
“Well, clearly, or you wouldn’t be here.”
The crowd laughed, and then came the next audience question. “Catherine, how can you be so against love? That’s all we as a community are–loving who we love. It’s not like we choose it or do anything about it, so why do you insist that we only love who we’re supposed to?”
“Oh my gosh, do you know how many times she’s been asked that question?” James asked. “Her answer is always the same, and it’s that you can’t romantically love anyone who is the same gender as you.”
“Well, someone’s been watching my interviews,” Catherine smiled.
“I don’t have to, I’m always told everything you say,” James replied. “But that statement is ridiculous, because if you, right now, Catherine Schmid, loved a guy, and then one day he came out as trans, would you stop loving him because now she’s a girl?”
“I’m pretty sure you’ve heard my answer to that, too,” Catherine said. “No, because he is still a guy, no matter what he now identifies as. But I turn that question back on you, who respects the changing of a person’s gender. If you liked a guy and then he came out as trans, would you stop loving him because to love him would be too heterosexual of you?”
“No,” James replied. “I’d still love the person I fell in love with. Which is why it’s helpful to be open to all genders.” He turned to the crowd and winked, and the crowd laughed again.
“James, how do you think Catherine can still have a following when her message is so blatantly wrong?”
“Well,” James said slowly, turning to look at Catherine and then immediately turning back. “I don’t know. I don’t really want to offend anyone who is watching right now, but I think that a lot of people in the world are just…wrong, and you can’t really do anything for those people if they won’t listen to what’s right.”
“And what if you’re wrong?” Catherine asked. “And you just won’t listen to what’s right?”
“I’m not wrong,” James said.
“But how do you know?”
James shrugged. “Maybe I don’t. Maybe no one does. Maybe we just have to do what we think is right.”
Catherine nodded. “I respect that.”
James turned to her. “You do?”
The crowd was deadly silent.
“Of course,” Catherine said. “We’re only human, and we really can’t possibly know, every time, what’s right and what isn’t. We just have to trust, and in my case, we listen to God…”
The crowd collectively groaned, and James groaned as well. “Catherine, we were really bonding for a moment there, but if you bring God into this, I’m really going to lose all respect for you.”
“I’m sorry, but for someone who doesn’t want to be seen as arrogant, it is pretty bigheaded to think that you get to determine what the rules are in the universe, or that you can behave however you want to behave as long as it isn’t harming anybody.”
“Of course you should! I believe one’s purpose in life is to be happy, and as long as you aren’t harming anybody, you should be able to do that in whatever way necessary.”
“And I say that by doing that and breaking the natural laws, you are harming God, and that is somebody!”
“Catherine, there’s no proof that God even exists, and if He does, I think He’d be on my side here! You know, with the whole love thy neighbor thing?”
“Yes!” Catherine cried. “Love is love is love, as you like to say, and I fully support you loving another male with your entire heart and soul and mind, but to turn that into romantic love? That is both unnatural and unnecessary. The point of marriage is to bring new life into the world, not to just sign a piece of paper for your own pleasure!”
“The point of marriage is to commit your life to someone you never want to be without!”
“Then why is the divorce rate so high?”
“Catherine, let’s not turn this into a political debate about divorce. It’s both legal and natural, and you can’t change that.”
“So is homosexuality in most places, and here’s me succeeding in changing that.”
“Okay!” The moderator finally said, stepping in. “We’re definitely in it for the long haul, people, but unfortunately I’m being told that it’s time to take a commercial break, so we’ll be right back.” He smiled at the camera, and then looked at the crowd. “These two are gonna go backstage for a quick water break, but don’t go anywhere!” He then practically shoved Catherine and James off the stage and glared at them. “Both of your agents are trusting me not to let things get out of hand, so please try not to strangle each other or kill your brands. Please.”
Catherine smirked and headed off towards the restroom. James just sighed and turned away, only to see his assistant rushing towards him.
“Look what I found!” she crowed.
“Audrey, you can’t just go around stealing women’s purses,” James said, rolling his eyes.
“It’s Catherine’s purse. So I was thinking we could find some dirt on her, and…”
“No,” James said, shaking his head. “In a long list of very bad ideas you’ve had, this kind of tops it. Supposing you actually found something, how would you even be able to leak it without saying how you found it?”
“No one cares about that, all you’d have to do is mention it onstage to see if she gets flustered, and then she’ll be questioned and it won’t matter how you knew.” Audrey reached in and pulled out a wallet. “I’m just gonna look real quick.”
“Audrey, if you have to blackmail someone into losing, then…” James started, but was cut off by Audrey gasping and pulling a photo out of the wallet.
“Woah,” she said. “I didn’t expect to actually find anything.” She held the picture up, and James just stared in horror and wrinkled his forehead in confusion.
“I thought you’d never met?” Audrey asked.
“Put it back,” James said quickly. “Now, Audrey!”
And she did, just as Catherine reappeared and the two were ushered into the wings, ready to go onstage again.
But just before they were about to step out, the power went out. James and Catherine could see the emergency lights in the backstage area slowly flicker to life, and they could hear some of the audience members scream.
“Please stay where you are,” came a voice over the loudspeaker. “The power will be restored shortly.”
James turned to Catherine, who had pulled her phone out and glanced at it before slipping it in her pocket again.
“Have we met before?” he suddenly asked.
Catherine ran her fingers through her hair and stared straight ahead. “You know the reason this panel is such a huge deal is because we’ve never met, right?”
“I don’t play dirty,” James said. “Ever. So that’s why I’m going to tell you that my assistant may have, without my consent, rooted through your wallet and found…your picture of us.”
Catherine instantly froze and stopped fiddling with her hair. “Oh,” she said. “Really.”
“I apologize for my assistant,” James said. “And obviously I’m not…going to say anything about it, but I…”
“But now you’re curious about it,” Catherine said. “Do you know where it was taken?”
James swallowed. “At my final movie premiere before I came out.”
She gave a brief nod. “The day I met you was the greatest day of my life.”
“I had no idea you were a fan.”
She snorted. “Why, because you think I grew up in a sheltered bigoted home?” she asked. “Well, you’re correct, and my family was very conservative, and Catholic, and overprotective, though I don’t think the word ‘bigotry’ can be applied to us. But I’ve been out of that environment for several years now, and even when I was in it, I still managed to be a fan of you. For probably the same reason as a lot of people. Because I related to your stories of depression and social anxiety and panic attacks. Because I also struggled with knowing what I wanted to do in life, and I also had to go through the awkward conversations of being a college dropout. You’ve shared a lot about your past over the years, James, and there is very little public information about you that I don’t know and remember and treasure. You were my hero, my idol, my North Star, and you shared a lot of my same interests and opinions, and I felt so connected to you that by the time I won that meetup lottery to have a picture with you on the red carpet, I was at a point where I felt like there was nothing I wouldn’t do for you if it was in my power.”
She paused for breath and then gave a wry smile. “And I am aware of how obsessed that sounds, and again, I am aware that that’s not a unique feeling and most of your fans feel the same,” she said. “The difference between me and them is that when you came out it was like you were a genie granting their wish, but you were stabbing me in the back. I cried…a lot during those several weeks. And I expected all my love for you to turn into hatred, because there are lots of other celebritites that I’ve stopping being a fan of once I found out they were gay. But not you…not you. I cared for you so much that even betraying me couldn’t change that.” She winced and glanced at him. “Sorry.”
“Sorry for what?”
“For belittling your beliefs.”
“It’s fine, I mean you’ve only been trying to undermine my cause for the past two and a half years.”
She tried to laugh, but it came out almost like a sob. “Yeah. But that’s because of you too, you know. I don’t know why that was my reaction. Maybe it was kind of a supervillain impulse, like, if I can’t have you then I’ll destroy you type of thing, but that was never my intention. If anything, I think you were just inspiring me to go out and pour my energy into a cause I’m passionate about. Because that’s what you were doing, and I never was so passionate about destroying homosexuality until I knew you were a part of it.” She paused again. “It sounds worse than it is.”
“But what was your aim in doing it? If you think I’m going to change my mind, or my beliefs, or stop doing what I’m doing, then that’s not gonna happen.”
“No, yeah, I was always aware of that. And then when we started being…rivals, I knew that the person who saved my life was going to hate me more than anyone else, but, again, this is something I’m passionate about. And I think…I mean I get why your kind feels the need to express itself. You feel broken, or like you’re missing something, or that you’ve been cast out or abandoned by the universe, and you feel the need to take control of something just to feel like you are in control, and it kills me to see the entirety of your community in that much pain, but…you can’t go against the natural law, James, you just can’t.”
“Yeah, I got that.” She attempted another laugh as she ran her fingers through her hair, and was more successful this time.
“But,” he said slowly. “I am glad to know that you’re…not a hate crime. Because you do actually love people like us. You just don’t want them to fall, which is what you think they’re doing.”
She looked at him in surprise. “Wow, I…didn’t think you’d actually see it that way.”
“Well,” he said. “I admit that I have said some strong things against straight people, and that’s heterophobic of me. Kind of.”
She giggled. “You do make it sound like everyone needs to be a part of your community.”
“I know, but I don’t actually think that. I just think they should be able to if they want to.”
She nodded. “I disagree.”
“Why though? Why can’t you just let them make their own decisions, and you make yours?”
“First of all because they, like you, get so caught up in their cause that they make us straight people afraid to voice our opinions. And because heterophobia is just as much a problem as homophobia. And also because it’s just blatantly wrong. You know it’s one of the four sins that cry out to Heaven for vengeance?”
“What are the other three?”
She swatted his arm. “James, I know you don’t believe in all that religious stuff, but be glad I’m not Preachy McPreacher and just let me make allusions to my religion once in a while.”
“Okay, but you think you’re right and I don’t, and I think the same thing, so why can’t we all just practice our own beliefs and see whose correct when we die?”
It was very dark backstage, but the tears that filled Catherine’s eyes were still visible. “Because if you’re wrong then you’re damned for eternity, and I won’t be able to endure eternity if I know that.”
“But what if you’re wrong?”
“Then I agree that your idea of coexistence would be nice if it could actually work,” Catherine said. “If everyone could be comfortable with everyone’s different beliefs, and not rub our own practices in everyone’s face.”
“But you Catholics have your own processions and pilgrimages and stuff. What’s the difference between that and a Pride parade?”
Catherine looked up at him and rubbed her damp eyes with the heel of her hand. “You know I got arrested at a Pride parade once?”
“Yeah, because you were considered a threat.”
“Nope,” she said. “The guy who arrested me actually agreed with me. He said he was taking me away to save me from getting mobbed and beaten up.”
“And so what, you’re saying at a pilgrimage a gay rights activist would be safe from being jumped?”
The power came back on in that moment, and James sighed. “I feel like the rest of this debate is kinda redundant now,” he said.
“Yeah, I mean I think we’ve gone as far as we can go with each other just in the last five minutes.”
He nodded. “I think the problem is we’re both too smart,” he said. “There have been points raised to me in the past that I couldn’t answer convincingly, and I know the same is true of you.”
She nodded. “I don’t claim to know everything,” she said. “Or to understand everything. And I’ve always been unbelievably proud of your resolve to do the right thing. It just breaks my heart that you can’t see what the right thing is.”
He smirked. “And I’m happy to have inspired and encouraged you to try to do something meaningful with your life,” he said. “Though I do find it kind of ironic that you are a rival of my own creation.”
“I don’t hate the gay community,” she said. “And I certainly still look up to you.”
“I know,” he said. “Though I will continue ti undermine you every time I can.”
“You can try,” she smiled, and held her hand out to him. “Maybe one of us will be proven wrong in our lifetimes. That would be nice.”
He ignored her hand and instead hugged her. “Well if it’s me, I promise to be a gracious loser,” he said.
“I know you will,” she said. “And I’ll try to be a gracious winner.”
“Wow. You’re already failing, you know.”
They heard the moderator again announcing their return, and looked at each other.
“Ready to get through the rest of this?” James asked.
She smiled. “Anything you can get through, I can get through too.”