Words: Thomas Stichbury; images: Markus Bidaux; supplied
James Barr and Dan Hudson could not be more different – one rocks a neckerchief, while the other rocks out to Metallica – but that is the beauty of their 'odd couple'-style friendship and goes some way to explaining the success of their hit podcast A Gay and a NonGay.
This week, the pair marked Pride season by releasing the 250th episode of their award-winning series, featuring Dustin Lance Black no less, in which they discuss everything from his very first date with our Attitude July issue cover star Tom Daley, to conversion therapy (Liz Truss's ears will be burning).
In a wide-ranging interview with Attitude, James and Dan – who recently joined us for a new video strand in partnership with Spotify – reflect on the life-changing impact their podcast has had on listeners, who their dream interviewees would be, and their most awkward showbiz encounters.
Just don’t ask the boys about their contrasting (to say the least) views on spelling and grammar. Hopefully, they’ve since put a (ahem) full stop on the row...
The podcast market is incredibly – warning: marketing lingo ahead – noisy. Why do you think A Gay and a NonGay has managed to cut through that noise?
James: It sounds like a simple premise, oh, a gay person and a non-gay person, what’s the big deal? But when you’re not in London, and you don’t live in that gay bubble, you very quickly realise that straight people have issues with gay people and are frightened to be friends with gay people in case people think they’re gay. A lot of our listeners relate to that journey.
It’s nice to hear two people that are very different meet in the middle. We live in such a divided world, we’re not often having conversations with people that are different from ourselves; in the gay world, we’re often just speaking to ourselves. What our podcast does is, it takes our community and it also takes straight people, and it puts them on the same level. While normally a ‘non-gay’, a straight person, walks around with loads of privilege and doesn’t really realise they’re privileged, in our world, we’re readdressing that balance.
Do you think it’s quite rare then, for there to be a friendship between a gay guy and a cis straight man?
Dan: Since we’ve started doing it, we’ve had a lot of people get in touch who are gay or straight going, “You two are us, I’m gay and my best friend is straight,” or vice versa. So, obviously it does happen, but I don’t know whether they are all the exceptions that prove the rule. I suspect they probably are… but yeah, it must be rare because otherwise these people wouldn’t be like, “Oh my god, we found another!”
J: I think that’s why our podcast is doing well, because we have made those two worlds collide. Our aim is to create – and it never was this, but it is now – to create content that helps people find those types of friendships in their lives, find that middle ground with people that maybe don’t 'get' them.
D: We have a lot of listeners who are parents who are straight – some of them we’ve had on as guests – but yeah, we get messages all the time from people who are straight, and they’re only aware of us because their kid is trans, or their kid is gay or whatever.
That must feel so rewarding.
D: It’s unbelievable. I don’t get it… they’re talking to me about how they feel about what we do in the same way that I think about Metallica or whatever, do you know what I mean? If anyone feels about our podcast a tenth of what I feel about the things I love, that’s too much to comprehend really.
J: But I wonder if that’s because you’re not gay as well; you’ve, kind of, parachuted into this community that you didn’t understand necessarily and you’re like, what the hell, how have I helped people by just asking questions and being myself, I’m just a straight white guy with privileges for days. I think that’s why it doesn’t go in.
Although it doesn’t go in for me as well, for other mental health reasons, like hating myself [laughs]. It does make me think, wow, how can we get messages from someone in Kazakhstan saying they’ve opened a youth centre to help gay people because of the stories [we’ve] shared? That’s insane, and really that’s all I ever want this podcast to do. I just want to help people that are alone, feel lonely and don’t have a connection.
Has a listener shared a story that has really stayed with you?
J: There’s two that spring to mind. One was a woman who said she was a very non-gay mum with a very gay 12-year-old son, and they listen to us in the car and laugh together. I thought that was pretty powerful – and our content is not suitable for a 12-year-old [laughs]. But it was amazing that she was choosing episodes that would help them both have conversations they wouldn’t normally have. Then we had a boy text us, who was at school listening to our podcast, and a boy next to him saw that he was listening to us and said, “Oh my god, I listen to that podcast too,” and they ended up being boyfriends.
That’s so adorable. It’s been a long day, but I’m getting misty-eyed.
J: I know, it’s really sweet.
Dan – as James said – you’ve “parachuted” into our community. As a bona fide ally, has that made you ‘check’ people more if they say anything inappropriate in front of you?
D: I mean, I do, do that, but I think I’ve always done that to some extent. Equally, I don’t know how much of that I actually hear. When I’ve gone home and had conversations in the pub with people who I wouldn’t want to speak to, but they’re just there, I have found myself thinking, did I used to be like this? Completely ignorant. I don’t think I did, but it’s possible I was. With those people, you are like, OK, I have to be incredibly patient with them and explain X, Y and Z.
What have you learned from each other? James, have you suddenly become a huge Metallica fan?
J: No! How emotional do you want this article to become because it’s getting that way…
Let’s go there.
J: I’ve had a lot of therapy, so some of it is that, but I’ve certainly found – gay people think we deserve to be treated like s**t because we’ve been treated like s**t… we have all these things that fly around our childhood and stay with us, and so we continue to perpetuate that self-hate. I think hanging out with Dan and being forced to just listen to his lack of drama, or sometimes emotion for things that I would be really triggered by, is quite helpful.
[Especially] with men, I kind of learned, actually I’m not going to be treated like that, why am I wasting my time? Dan’s advice would always be, “I don’t know why you’re f**king around with this man for, get over it.” Which is horrific when you’re gay because, how dare you, I need to have a conversation about this, don’t shut me down! But eventually I was like, maybe there is something in that. I’ve definitely been gifted the art of being ‘straighter’ – is that the right word? There’s nothing wrong with being a bit more straight down the line.
D: I’ve become more understanding and compassionate. Previously, I’d be like, there’s no excuse for being late, there just isn’t – and I still sort of think that – or that there’s no excuse for saying something’s going to happen and then it doesn’t happen. But I had absolutely no awareness – like a lot of us – about mental health or whatever, so seeing what James has gone through has made me a bit nicer and more understanding about that stuff.
That’s on a personal level, but on an educational level, I’ve learned a s**t tonne about the struggles the LGBTQ+ community around the world face. Obviously, I’m not completely stupid, I’m aware that it’s potentially not safe to walk down the street in certain places. But all the stuff to do with shame and being triggered, I didn’t know about because, I guess, I’ve never had to think about it.
On that basis, even though I studied psychology at A-level – guess I wasn’t really listening – James has opened my mind to why people are the way they are sometimes, because they’re dealing with stuff.
On the flipside, what are one another’s worst habits?
D: Well, it’s got better since Zoom and whatnot, but James’s punctuality is not great. And also, we have a fundamental disagreement about spelling and whether it’s important or not. To me, there is literally nothing more important in the world than spelling things correctly.
J: We actually need to do an episode on this, but carry on...
D: James doesn’t think that’s true.
I am with you, Dan. I’m a spelling and grammar queen.
J: But you’re not, because I guarantee that you spell ‘Hey’ with like three ‘y’s, and when you write on Twitter, you lower case it or whatever. I think gay people spell differently. We’ve created our own language where we deliberately misspell things. It doesn’t matter if you [Dan] like it or not, you get annoyed by it, but that’s just my identity. How I spell is my identity and you’re coming for me all the time on it.
D: That’s not true.
J: It is because I just told you it is.
D: [There’s not] a secret gay language where gay people don’t know where to put apostrophes, for example.
You’ve both answered my next question… what was the last thing you disagreed on?
J: That probably! [Laughs]
What’s the dream for the podcast? What’s next?
J: To be the biggest gay podcast in the world, so that more people that are straight hear our conversations and learn how to be a better ally. And then also to make as much noise in that space as possible – to be a TV show and to play the O2.
Have there been talks about turning the podcast into a TV show?
J: We have. It’s always just bubbling, but never gets anywhere. I don’t know if that’s because we’re gay and it’s hard to make gay content, like, mainstream.
D: Having said that, we did have a TV doc commissioned before lockdown, but then it didn’t happen because of lockdown.
J: We’ll see. Those are the goals, but the reasons for them is – obviously, we want to be successful, but I think at its core really is, it’s something that is important for the world, and it’s not out there. And Queer Eye doesn’t get there, because Queer Eye is, kind of, like – actually, Dan opened my mind to this. He was like, “It’s just a bunch of gay people telling other people how to live as if they know better,” and there’s no back and forth on Queer Eye. What we’re creating is, we’re going, OK, well there’s some really good bits about being gay and there are some good things about being straight, I guess, a couple of, like, minor things [laughs]. Where’s the allyship? Where’s the growth from both sides? Queer Eye does have that sometimes, but that’s not what it is there to do, I don’t think.
Who is your dream guest?
J: I want someone really controversial… I’d want to take Caitlyn Jenner and be like, what the f**k are you saying about trans kids in schools… why are you attacking these people that you should be supporting? JK Rowling, I’d want to get into it with her… Donald Trump – what the f*** are you doing? Boris Johnson – I just think these people need to be held accountable, and they need what we’re giving the world, they need to understand people they don’t understand.
D: I’d want the most famous people in the world, [like] Barack Obama.
J: Yeah, but everyone interviews him.
D: But it’s almost like a signpost of how far you’ve come, isn’t it?
J: I’d rather have Michelle.
What is your most memorable showbiz moment?
D: One of the jobs I had, I worked at KISS [FM]. I cannot believe the celebrities that would come pass through the show that I’ve just casually met, absolutely everybody, from Lady Gaga to Justin Timberlake.
J: No one asked for the name drops – well, technically, Tom did ask [laughs].
D: My friend Melvin, who I worked with at KISS, he interviewed Lady Gaga at the Langham Hotel, and I went along to press record [laughs]… I Googled Lady Gaga’s favourite band [beforehand], it turned out it was Led Zeppelin, so I went to HMV and bought a Led Zeppelin shirt and was like, that will endear me to her.
Everyone at work was like, that’s never going to work, but a) it did work and b) she spent the whole interview looking at me. Melvin was interviewing her, and she was just staring at my shirt. As soon as it was over, she said, “Great shirt.” I did get my photo and it was amazing. James is obviously jealous of that.
I was talking about it a few days later with my friend and she was like, “You met Lady Gaga?” I replied, “Did you not see the post?” “Yeah, but I thought you were at Madame Tussauds!”
A Gay and a NonGay is now available on all podcast platforms
The Attitude Summer issue is out now.