In another world, Tobin Low, 30, might’ve ended up a full-time cellist. His now-best friend, Kathy Tu, 31, might have been a human rights lawyer. Instead, in 2013, one radio boot camp in Cape Cod brought them together and altered their paths forever. After winning the WNYC Podcast Accelerator contest, which gives up-and-comers the opportunity to pitch their podcast idea and win the chance to produce a pilot, in 2015, the duo has worked tirelessly to bring Nancy—a podcast of “provocative stories and frank conversations about the LGBTQ experience today—because everyone’s a little bit gay"—to life.
It finally debuted in April and today, Nancy is one of the hottest LGBTQ podcasts on iTunes. The show tackles myriad themes and topics, including the enigma of queer Trump voters, Tu’s relationship with identity labels like "butch” and of course, porn.
Produced at New York City’s WNYC Studios, the first 13 episodes of Nancy, roughly a half-hour each, have since been endorsed by Tegan and Sara, Gillian Jacobs, Margaret Cho and Jessica Williams. In May, Rufus Wainwright stopped by for an episode that tackled the famous Golden Girls scene in which Sophia Petrillo and Blanche Devereaux debate using the word queer versus gay. “These days I wish I lived in a pod, cast in some sleek material with a couple of holes in it with a little TV airing endless reruns of The Golden Girls, Wainwright tells Playboy. "Thanks [to Nancy] for giving me that dream. It was effortless and fun.”
Altogether, Nancy fuses hilarious interviews with celebrities likes serious, intimate confessions about love, sex and identity. “It literally is the biological baby we will never have,” says Low.
For Playboy’s Pride series, we sent journalist Muira McCammon to interview the two queer broadcasters. She found them burrowed in WNYC Studios’ lower Manhattan office and quickly got them chatting about what it’s like to deliver stories and debates about queer identities and self-discovery in the time of President Donald Trump.
You started Nancy to highlight queer voices and experiences. You now have a five-star rating on iTunes and have been endorsed by several influential celebrities. Has public response differed from what you imagined?
TOBIN LOW: As far as feedback, I didn’t expect to get messages that were like, “I’m a 50-something-year-old heterosexual, cisgender man and I love your show. I developed empathy and that’s why I listen.”
In a perfect world, that’s what you hope for, but you never know if you’ll get that. We always hoped it would have wide appeal, but to be candid, the response we’ve always hoped for is to hear from queer people. Specifically, to hear them say, “It feels like this was made for me.” So when we started getting tweets and Facebook messages that said some version of that, it felt like we’d accomplished some sort of our core mission.
KATHY TU: I’d agree. I mean, I wasn’t expecting horrible feedback, but I was putting my head in the sand and trying not to wonder about what kind of feedback we’d get. It’s been overwhelmingly positive.
When you pitched your show to WNYC Studios, you called it Gaydio. It then became Nancy. What prompted the name change?
LOW: I’ll answer the first part, which is that the legal department said Gaydio was taken.
TU: I’d like to think that we would have changed it no matter what. Early in development we were talking with folks about the stories we wanted to do. We made it clear that as much as we could, we wanted to expand the content to all LGBT folks. Somebody pointed out that having “gay” in the title was kind of exclusive because not everyone in the community identifies as gay. When we started to think about a name that would give us the flexibility to be inclusive, “Nancy” came up as a fun way to nod at history and still be an absurd, broad term everyone can claim and celebrate in their own way.
When gay Republicans are talked about, there is an immediate dismissal along the lines of ‘How can they even exist?’
Kathy, for the first episode, you recorded a tense conversation with your conservative Taiwanese mother about your sexuality. Tobin, your parents both make an appearance early on in the season. How have your parents responded to the show since it hit the air?
LOW: I think before the show came out my mom was pitching me a lot of ideas. That has not changed. I still get regular emails with whatever gay or queer person she’s most recently met. I don’t mean to make it sound that they’re all bad. Some of them are very good. In terms of their reaction, one thing I’ve thought a lot about is our episode on HIV; specifically, gay men living with HIV. My dad was a doctor through the AIDS crisis. He lost his best friend to AIDS. There are things we talk about in the show that I have not talked about with my parents in terms of overlapping experiences, and this opened up that conversation a bit.
TU: My mom has heard the first episode, and I’m pretty sure she hasn’t heard the rest. Her only feedback for me was that she doesn’t like how her voice sounds on the radio. She didn’t react negatively. I was cool with that non-reaction.
We live in politically turbulent times. How has the election changed the work that you want do with this podcast?
TU: For me, I tried to keep moving forward and not let the election affect my artwork, because I was pretty depressed for about a week after. It does make me feel our work is more important than it was before, but I try not to let it affect what I was going to do anyway.
LOW: This was always going to be a show that celebrated queer people and the LGBT community. Certainly after the election there was a feeling of not knowing what would happen. We regrouped. We had a moment where we were like, “I think people will want to hear something that celebrates this community. It feels like a needed thing.” That hasn’t changed.
You talked to queer Trump supporters and Log Cabin Republicans in your fourth episode, “The Elephant in the Room.” How did you feel doing those interviews?
LOW: Generally, when gay Republicans or gay conservatives are talked about, there is an immediate dismissal along the lines of “How can they even exist?” We wanted to avoid that and engage in actual conversations, get to know them and then draw a balance. There are certain things that have been said that you need to call out.
I’m talking specifically about the varying opinions of gay conservatives on rights for transgender people and how, in a lot of ways, there’s a lot of convenient forgetting of the LGBT movement. When we did the interviews, it was a tough balance of giving them space to talk but also making sure that we were being diligent about calling them out where there were inconsistencies or lapses of logic.
TU: I’m glad that Tobin took the lead on that one, because I just get frustrated.
How have your feelings on gender and sexuality evolved during the course of the show? Have you had any new revelations about yourselves?
TU: In the process of working on this show, along with cutting my hair and generally being more comfortable with myself, I’ve gone down the road of realizing that it’s okay to not be a super-feminine person, a super-feminine female, and I credit the show for giving me the space to work that out on my own. I think my self-esteem has risen since the show has started. Before, I didn’t have to think about these things at all.
LOW: For me, having had some of the conversations we’ve had, I’ve been thinking more about how the conversations around gender and sexuality—those two separate conversations get conflated. I’ve been thinking about how people’s relationship to their gender gets tied up in their relationship to their sexuality. Those two are different journeys. The show has helped me think a lot more about separating those two conversations.
You’ve featured Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series on your podcast. In 2007, J.K. Rowling revealed that Dumbledore is gay, though few ever suspected it based on the books. So, is Dumbledore actually gay?
TU: I honestly don’t have strong feelings about this, one way or the other. I have stronger feelings about Harry Potter not graduating from Hogwarts. Like, that is not okay.
LOW: A lot of people missed the point of that story because there is something worth debating there. What we were trying to get at is what does it mean to actually tell a queer story and what does it mean to engage in the specifics of what gay people experience and whether or not J.K. Rowling actually did that as much as she claims to?
TU: The gist of it is whether or not she engaged in queerbaiting. Did she? I feel like she might’ve. Again, I’m more outraged by Harry Potter not graduating.
If you were in a room with J.K. Rowling, what would you ask her?
TU: Does she think that being gay is tragic? I don’t know. That’s sort of how it comes across. Albus had a tragic love life when he was younger and apparently was so torn up by it it was never mentioned again. I guess I’m curious how she views queer people.
LOW: My question would purely be “Why didn’t every single problem get fixed with time travel?” You literally have a device that allows you to change history. Everyone could’ve been saved a lot of heartache.
TU: I remember there being rules though about how it could be used though, right?
Because this is Playboy, and because you’re queer, we can easily move a conversation from wizards to porn, so let’s do that. You did a whole episode devoted to watching porn wherein you explored the life of Brandon Lee, one of the most popular Asian porn stars in history. What was it like to watch porn for work?
TU: I’m just going to say that I didn’t have to do the porn-watching. I enjoyed hearing about it when Tobin announced to the office, “I am now watching porn for work.”
LOW: I have to issue a correction here, which is that none of the porn-watching happened in the office. I had to do a lot of researching. I would be at my desk purely trying to find biographical information about this character, Brandon Lee, and every once in awhile would click on a link that I thought was just text and would recoil and be like, “Okay.”
Working on it was fun and silly, and I got to talk about something I wanted to talk about: the relationship between queer people and porn. So that part was kind of joyful. The hardest part was knowing my mom was going to hear it at some point. And getting a text from her that said, “I listened to it. It was hard for a mother to listen to, but I understand that this was probably important to some people.”
You’ve had some wonderful people on “Nancy” so far, like Rufus Wainwright, Lena Waithe, and Saeed Jones. But, if you could get anyone to come on the show, who would it be?
TU: Kate McKinnon and Betty White.
LOW: My stock answer is always B.D. Wong.
Who of your podcasting peers would you follow around all day if you could?
LOW: I would like to follow Anna Sale to learn her process of prepping an interview and maybe taping the interview. Right now, I’m fascinated by people who have that down. Also, Heben and Tracy from Around Round. I think they’re great interviewers, and they’re great at being themselves on tape.
TU: I would follow around Josh and Chuck from the podcast Stuff You Should Know because I would like to know if they’re really good friends. Sometimes I don’t think they are.
What are your plans for LGBT Pride Month?
TU: We’re going to Disneyland!
LOW: I feel like my life right now is in triage mode to get the show done. I think I’m going to make it through to the last episode and then figure out what my plans are from there. Oh yeah, so we’ll be going to Disneyland in California together. It just worked out that Kathy is going home to L.A., and my family is in California.
Are dating apps good, bad or horrible? Should we delete them?
TU: No, we definitely shouldn’t delete the internet. I was in trouble on the internet before my parents knew what a computer was.
LOW: I met my partner on OkCupid. And now I say that to people and they go “Aw,” like it’s old-fashioned. Frequently, I offer my services to give people an OkCupid profile makeover.
TU: He’s very good. He helped me get me my last girlfriend, who is now my ex. That was two and a half years ago.
LOW: But, I got you there.
TU: And we will again.
LOW: And if “Nancy” ends, this will be what I go to as my next career.