James "Duke" Mason :: not your typical Hollywood teen
Back in 1991 former Go-Go Belinda Carlisle announced that she was pregnant on the Arsenio Hall Show (remember the Arsenio Hall Show?) The following April Carlisle gave birth to James "Duke" Mason. If his name has a famous ring it is because he's named for his grandfather - the great British actor James Mason. His dad, Morgan Mason, had married Carlisle in 1986 during his tenure as a political operative in Washington. He also worked in show business in independent film development and television.
Inspired by his father's work in government, the younger Mason took an active role in politics at a very young age. He's also - at the age of 17 - an out writer contributing to the LA-based magazine Frontiers. Here's a bit from his bio from the magazine: "After working as a volunteer for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and being appointed to serve as a page in the U.S. Congress, Mason decided he should turn his energy and enthusiasm to spreading a message of pride within the LGBT community."
And while you will not catch him on a VH1 special on the antics of bratty Hollywood teens, you can find him on YouTube (Visit his YouTube page). In fact you would be more than likely find the sharp and articulate teenager opining on MSNBC than on a reality show.
EDGE's Gus Klein spoke with Mason recently about growing up in Hollywood, working as a page in Washington, his commitment to LGBT issues and coming out to his parents at the age of 14.
Sense of urgency
Gus Klein: You’ve spent some time growing up overseas, do you feel a sense of home or loyalty to any one place you live?
James "Duke" Mason: I was born in Los Angeles, and I’ve had the great experience of living in the UK, France and Austria. We’ve seen a lot of different places in the world, but America has always been my home. My love for America stems from the fact that the opportunities that I’ve had would simply not have been possible without it. My mother’s success, my father’s success, and my grandfather’s success, all thanks to the unique opportunities that America presents. Everyone has an equal shot. I think some of my international peers lack the "dare to dream big dreams" mindset that so many Americans have. It’s a privilege to be an American.
Gus Klein: What has your education been like?
James "Duke" Mason: I have always had an English-speaking education. I’ve been at the same international school now for the last 10 years, where there are students from 33 different nationalities. Meeting people my age of many different backgrounds has certainly been a beneficial experience for me. I speak French pretty well, and I did Spanish for 2 years.
Gus Klein: What experiences or exposures of life lessons have you had that lead you to begin to speak out the way you’re learning to do now in terms of LGBT rights?
James "Duke" Mason: I think there is a sense of urgency and fear about the state of the gay community. I think a lot of the problems that exist within the community are rooted in self-loathing and shame. Until recently I had thought that every gay person was as passionate, proud and informed about their community as I was. As I’ve started to grow, I’ve noticed the solidarity and unity that was seen during the days of Harvey Milk and during the days of ACT UP no longer exists.
A recent YouTube video posted by Mason about the upcoming National Equality March
Finding his voice
Gus Klein: Have you found a long-term voice, or, what might you think it would encompass?
James "Duke" Mason: I had been pretty confident that a career in Washington was what I wanted. I’d already worked as a Page in the U.S. House of Representatives and enjoyed that experience. I thought that meant going to Washington for a political career was the logical next step for me. I realized that’s really not where my heart is. I decided it was important that I follow my roots and make difference on a real, human level, rather than becoming some Washington bigwig. It is a passion for making a difference, not a passion for the establishment. While I maintain a strong interest in mainstream political activism, I think it’s important to do something about our own internal problems before expecting to deal with others.
Gus Klein: What was being a Congressional page like?
James "Duke" Mason: Being a page was probably the most amazing experience of my life so far. It was a really eye opening and an enlightening one. It’s not very often, especially as a teenager, that you get appointed by a member of Congress and sworn in, as I said as part of my oath of office, to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States".
Aside from that, the experience of meeting different kinds of people my own age, from all different backgrounds and places all over the country, was something that I found very interesting. The main thing that had a very big impact on me was seeing the amount of solidarity and brotherhood that existed among the African-American pages, something that I had never experienced myself before.
Gus Klein: What was some of the camaraderie you saw?
James "Duke" Mason: I was amazed by how most of the African-American pages, despite not knowing each other at all beforehand, came to really identify with each other and connect in a way that I don’t think they could with someone who is not Black. It was almost as though they were a family. One time in particular we were in our dorm room and a bunch of the black male pages came in to sit around a computer together and watch a show called "Boondocks", a comedy show that clearly was catered towards African-Americans. I noticed they were laughing at all these jokes and references, I really didn’t understand any of it! What I realized is that that was the whole point!
Gus Klein: Do you expect the same Government bureaucracy that exists now will be present by the time you’re 30?
James "Duke" Mason: I certainly hope not. Right now nothing productive is really getting done, in the sense that it’s still a city that’s controlled by the special interests, and decisions are made not based on what’s right, but based on what’s politically expedient, and that is not something I want to be a part of. Even with someone as different from the status quo as Barack Obama, we’re still seeing the same old rules of Washington in place.
Gus Klein: So, you have an opportunity to work in Congress, but you will bypass it in order to work with people who could potentially go to Congress? With the intent of cultivating them so that they may not turn out bureaucratic? Is that a seed of change?
James "Duke" Mason: Yes, or help create the changes I want to see in Washington on a human, grassroots level, rather than on a bureaucratic level. I think I can be far more effective working on the streets than by sitting behind a desk in front of a computer as a robot for a Congressman or Senator in their Capitol Hill office.
One of Mason’s recent YouTube videos:
Last of second-class citizens?
Gus Klein: Are we the last of the second-class citizens? Why do we continue to put up with red tape that many others have no concept of?
James "Duke" Mason: You’d think Prop. 8 would have served as a wakeup call. It’s strange, but I think a lot of young gays just move to L.A. or New York or San Francisco and forget about the fact that outside of their little bubble, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. We are part of a collective community, part of a collective movement and struggle. We can never forget that as we got about in our daily lives. There is nothing bad about embracing the gay identity and being proud of seeing the world from the perspective of a gay person.
Gus Klein: What are some values in the LGBT community you wish were seen or treated differently?
James "Duke" Mason: You’d I talk about some of them on my YouTube page. I wrote about Adam Lambert’s recent coming out as gay while at the same time calling himself "bicurious". To me, Adam saying he was "bicurious" was a huge cop-out, and another example of this new phenomenon that among young gay men who seem to think it’s cool to be more ambiguous about their sexuality. That’s not to say that all gay men have that same experience, but you see straight men, young and old, being so proud and strident about their exclusive heterosexuality and love for the opposite sex, a young gay man can be criticized and vilified as "extreme" for displaying that same kind of behavior. It’s time that we saw the same security and pride that we see among straight men.
Gus Klein: Your parents must be one of the most unique combinations of people to raise a child. It seems (metaphorically) at a dining table you have a father with political experience and business acumen at one end, a mother with a pop/rock music career at the other, then you being raised with some unique values in the middle. Can you explain that scenario for yourself?
James "Duke" Mason: Certainly on paper you might think my family is unique. One thing that is special about my relationship with my parents, is the fact that I have always been able to be who I am. They’ve always treated me as though I’m the most normal, cool, and lovable kid in the world and that has really made all the difference in my life. My parents have always tried to ensure that my feet are well grounded. It’s always a wakeup call when my Mom lets me go stay with her parents, where they live in a small town near Bakersfield. My grandfather is a Korean War veteran and spent years working as a construction worker. My grandmother worked as a seamstress. It just really reminds me of my roots, of how I need to always remember that while my parents may be able to help me get my foot in the door, it is hard work and perspiration that will get me what I want in life.
Gus Klein: Do you think you’ve had a fair chance growing up? You’re Youtube videos indicate you’ve trumped a certain sort of maturity.
James "Duke" Mason: As I got older, I sensed this big gap between the other kids and the experiences that I was having in life. I think that being an only child contributed a lot to it, seeing as I spent most of my childhood communicating with adults and as a result have always found myself more comfortable and secure talking to those who are older than I. I’ve just never really had much in common with people my own age. I’ve had a lot of time to think about things, and it always frustrates me when I hear someone say something like "you’re putting too much thought into it", or "you’re reading too much into it" ...because shouldn’t we think things through before we do something?
Gus Klein: I’m never excited about asking anyone about their coming out process, but for you, with the mom you have, I’m not inclined to think it had much conflict. Was there even a coming out process? Does that happen in your generation?
James "Duke" Mason: My parents have never really judged me for being gay, but that’s not to say that they weren’t shocked when I first told them. I knew when I was 7 that I was gay. I came out as gay 3 years ago. According to them, neither had ever really suspected. So when I did tell them, I think it was something totally unexpected that they had to come to terms with and adjust to. My mom handled it easier than my dad, which I think is pretty typical. considering that fathers sometimes think that their son’s homosexuality reflects on their own masculinity. Now, my father and my mother are both 100% supportive and cool about it, and while they sometimes roll their eyes and sigh in response to my frequent diatribes and lectures about the state of the gay community. I don’t think I could ask for more accepting parents than what I’ve got. But I don’t think that is the case for most kids in the gay community, and that’s why it’s so fundamentally important that we change the course away from all the apathy and complacency.
One of Mason’s recent YouTube videos on Prop 8 and interracial marriage: