This article contains homophobic slurs and references to suicide.
¡Hola Papi! was an accident. “It had to be an accident,” says John Paul Brammer, “or I would have taken it too seriously and bunged it up.” When Brammer launched the advice column in 2017 for Into, Grindr’s editorial venture, he wasn’t planning on a phenomenon. He’d been around the block, working for years in the fickle world of digital publishing. (At one desperate point, he got paid to draft artful descriptions of penises for a porn site.) “I’d taken jobs where I’m like, ‘This isn’t gonna be here in two years, so I’m gonna save up everything,’” he told me, when we spoke on the phone in late April. “Who can afford to work in media anymore?
And yet, ¡Hola Papi! stuck. Devout fans of the column followed Brammer as he moved from Into to Out to them, sending him thousands of letters. “I read every single one, even the ones that strike me as fake,” he says. “I’m nosy and a gossip, so it’s all fine by me. I’m getting what I want.” But in the hardcover ¡Hola Papi!, hitting shelves on June 8, the only person asking questions is Brammer himself. Each chapter opens with a brief question — how do I let go of my childhood trauma? how do I let go of a relationship that never even was? — that Brammer proceeds to answer with a compelling snippet of memoir.
Fans of Brammer’s column and his Twitter presence (fuck it up, Paddington!) will be happy to know that the silly-and-serious tone of his online monologue glows in the essays of ¡Hola Papi! The colourful abundance of its cover hints at the good humour inside, but readers will also get to know Brammer at his lowest. He writes about being suicidal at a young age, and again at a more recent one. He covers sexual assaults, online harassment, casual racism. He was startled when an early reader called it “breezy.” And yet, that’s how the book felt to me, going down like a strawberry milkshake despite its dark moments. ¡Hola Papi! contains multitudes. It resists any one uncomplicated emotional response.
Readers’ reactions, of course, are out of Brammer’s hands — and he’s still making peace with that. “Anything could happen when someone reads this book,” Brammer says. “It’s almost like I drank too much wine and said too much, and the next morning was like, oh my God.” He’s trying to push past this emotional hangover, he says. He wants to “maintain excitability,” to feel gratitude even as the motion of the debut-year rollercoaster makes him queasy. “There are things happening to me now that I consider mundane,” he says. “Five years ago, they would’ve given me a heart attack out of happiness.” He’d like to remember how lucky he is. He wants more heart attacks.
After all, when Brammer was a kid, it seemed obvious that he wouldn’t amount to much. The opening chapter of ¡Hola Papi! recounts the aeons he spent being tortured by a middle-school bully he calls Patty. This was a popular kid, the star of the school’s drama club, and the abuse he heaped on Brammer was more social than physical. After Brammer wore a Tarheels shirt to school in an effort to get the attention of Patty, the other kids realized immediately accused him of being gay. They tortured him, relentlessly, for months. “Most days,” he writes, “I was called ‘faggot’ more than my actual name.”
One of the book’s most wrenching scenes comes the morning after a school play in which Brammer delivered a single line and Patty starred in every scene. Their drama teacher congratulates the kids on their performances, then asks them each to sign a slip of paper: something to remember them by, she says, when they’re famous. Brammer dutifully signs his slip. When the drama teacher approaches Patty, she up-ends her shoe-box full of slips of paper, literally showering Brammer’s tormentor in accolades.
“Those slips of paper were a prophecy,” writes Brammer. “[Patty] was going to be famous. He was going to be a rich and successful comedian, or an actor, or something, and [our teacher] would frame one of his autographs and put it up in her room and tell people about it years later. And what about me? What would happen to me?”
I had to ask Brammer where Patty wound up. The answer? “No idea,” he says. What? This golden child didn’t go on to win an Oscar? Brammer laughs: “I know that didn’t happen.” Patty, apparently, vanished without even a social media trace. Brammer couldn’t learn where he is or who he became, even if he wanted to. “I understand Patty now as a character in my own story, part of the narrative I built for myself,” he tells me. Maybe Patty was fighting his own demons; maybe he succumbed to them. “My own recollection may not have the whole picture.”
Though Patty’s lost to the sands of time, another bully came, unexpectedly, back into Brammer’s life. During a visit to his small Oklahoman hometown, he was surprised to see a notification pop up on Scruff. Hey, the first message read. I think you know me. We went to middle school together. You might not like me. I was a little mean to you haha. He sent a picture. Brammer immediately recognized him as the dude who’d slapped him across the face with a hot dog while hollering, Faggots like wieners, right? “Someone had made [him] hate himself,” Brammer writes. “He saw himself in me. And so, he hated me.” Brammer forgives the guy, but politely — adamantly — declines his invitation to hook up.
In the hands of a lesser writer, the encounter would be a farcical gotcha. In Brammer’s, it’s a moving blowing-open of the hurt-people-hurt-people cliché. “The person who inflicted so much pain on me was sitting with the same pain I was,” Brammer tells me. “He wanted to take it out on someone else.” He resists the impulse to make a hero of himself or a villain of his bully. Who’s to say he wouldn’t have wielded the hot dog against a weaker kid? “If I was offered the opportunity to switch places with [my bully],” he says, “that’s a pretty tempting deal.”
Brammer’s capacity for empathy is tremendous. He knows well the unhappy compromises that queer people all make to survive. Once, in a Walmart parking lot, he faces the impossible dilemma of having to come out — to his boyfriend. We talk about this on the phone: the inherent absurdity of coming out to someone with whom you’re making gay love. “I was writing about the failure of language to capture something like that,” he says. “That dynamic was a wilderness, and it felt impossible to organize it into a garden. Something that would be more recognizable to our eyes.” He’s careful not to make any definitive statements about this person’s sexuality. For him, a label matters less than the sheer effort it takes for two people to navigate a wilderness of their own.
This was one great pleasure of talking to Brammer: the way he peppers his ordinary Thursday-afternoon speech with little flecks of vivid poetic imagery. “We can be lighthouses for other people,” he says, for instance, discussing how to make the world safer for people in the closet, “in just being ourselves, and being present in ourselves in a public way.” If there had been just one person telling him that it was okay to be attracted to men, whether in real life or on television, he would have felt safer, he says, and more at home in himself.
This brings us to the subject of what queer community looks like today — specifically, online community, where a beacon of light can turn, abruptly, into a jagged shore. “It’s hard to say I’ve ever been happy and content on Twitter,” Brammer says, even though that’s where he’s amassed his loyal following. One evening, he happened to see a tweet that said, “Stop putting this f*g on my timeline,” accompanied by a screenshot of his face. “Seeing my own face in enemy territory was a jarring experience,” Brammer writes. “How could my own image betray me in such a way?” Though the tweet, he says, wasn’t “that bad,” it felt that bad. He took a fistful of sleeping pills “that ended up doing little more than conking me out for fifteen hours and making my bones feel like crumbly white chalk when I finally woke up,” and then broke down weeping the next day, watching the final performance of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway.
I found myself deeply moved by Brammer’s frankness and vulnerability. In many a queer memoir, suicidality is presented as a bygone relic of closeted youth. Brammer resists this approach. “I held a certain wisdom when I was younger,” he tells me. “I’m very proud of how I navigated the world as my younger self. I was stupid in some ways, but a genius in ways that I can’t be anymore.” Adults rarely seem to write about their present-day suicidal ideation and attempts, perhaps because they fear scaring their readers. It will be valuable, I think, for people to read Brammer’s words, and to understand they’re not alone in their feelings, and that they, like him, can find the supports they need to live another day.
And yet, I had to ask Brammer: why continue to use Twitter at all? I’ve largely left the site, chiefly because I read all 500-some pages of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” last year, and it freaked me out. But I’ve also experienced harassment myself, and seen others harassed literally into suicide. “At the moment, I’m pulling back from Twitter more than I ever have,” says Brammer. “Knowing that something I’ve made will be a focus of attention, positive or negative, I need to reel it back.” It’s attention, he says, that makes Twitter so potent, and so tough to quit. “I truly believe human attention is the most valuable thing on the face of the earth,” he says. “When you’re getting attention, even if it feels scary, wrong, or hurtful, you’re mindful that the experience of getting no attention is pretty harrowing as well.”
What’s especially difficult, he says, is when criticism comes not from right-wing homophobes, but fellow queer people. “When it comes from people you see as similar to you, you think: they must see something real,” he says. “It’s very painful. It’s very scary.” He expresses nervousness a few times about how people might react to his book: What if they think he’s trying to label that guy from the Walmart parking lot as gay? What if they use the story of his amicable relationship with his high-school girlfriend to tell him that he’s not gay? “What if people comb through the whole book looking for bad snippets?” he says. “I’ll probably have to log off.”
Anyone looking for a digital dose of Brammer’s warm, witty writing can find him on Substack, where he’s begun to publish the ¡Hola Papi! column as a newsletter. After writing the column for Grindr, Out, and Condé Nast, he will now have full editorial control. It’s a smart choice. There’s a charming hint of Ye Olde Internet in Brammer’s move to a newsletter, a throwback to when sites like The Toast and The Awl controlled their own content and made space for weird, queer voices. It even recalls Ye Older Internet, when people found community via listservs and pen pal programs. The vibe of ¡Hola Papi!, these days, is more cozy than corporate. Readers followed him from outlet to outlet, he says, visiting new sites solely for ¡Hola Papi! Why bother using a middleman anymore?
There is a portrait of Brammer in the back of his book in which he cradles an enormous white rabbit the way Shakira cradles an infant on the cover of Fijación Oral. I have to ask about it. The bunny, he tells me, is named Baba. “Baba’s a star,” he says. “He lives in New York City. He’s a glamorous, well-cared-for rabbit.” As a kid, Brammer didn’t dream of New York City or glamor, but he did dream of rabbits. In middle school, between bouts of bullying, he traced patterns in the clay walls of his school, joining dots and stains into people, places, things. His favorite, he writes, was “a rabbit in the loosest sense,” with “a melting face.” It was a friend to him. Back then, he had to settle for imagined independence; now, he has it, tangible, real, soft in his arms.