By Mary Emily O’Hara
The gates of “Gay Hell” have been opened in honor of Pride. And, in a weird way, you have a recent Trump administration policy to thank for that.
Recently, the State Department issued a policy banning U.S. embassies from flying rainbow flags to celebrate LGBTQ Pride month – a stark departure from the Obama administration’s policy of lighting up the entire White House in rainbow colors. Diplomats protested the ban in their own ways, with many embassies hanging rainbow flags from fences or windows instead, but nothing has informed the larger public of the bizarre policy quite like the story of Gay Hell, Michigan — formerly known simply as Hell, an unincorporated township that sells its mayorship at an hourly, or daily rate.
But one day wasn’t enough for comedian Elijah Daniel, who rented the town for the privilege of temporarily changing its name. A caveat: The name-change was only ever mostly verbal, and the change is only on paper via the literal paper Daniel stuck to the town’s welcome sign. Yet when MTV News called to confirm the terms of the transition, a spokewoman for the town said, “It’s always Gay Hell here, we’re a very happy town.” (If you’re interested, Hell is very much on the market at a sale price of roughly $1 million.)
Daniel isn’t a stranger to Hell’s city limits, either; in 2017, he became mayor for the day — and immediately banned heterosexual people from the town’s borders. All of this is in keeping with Daniel’s persona, and a series of viral pranks all positioned squarely between politics and absurdity that have made a name for the multi-hyphenate YouTube and Vine star, rapper, writer, and LGBTQ+ advocate.
Daniel’s political pranks began in 2013 with a White House petition to make Miley Cyrus’s “Party In the USA” the new national anthem. Then in 2016, he wrote a gay erotica novel about then-candidate Donald Trump; Trump Temptations became an Amazon bestseller (before eventually being removed on copyright claims). Over the course of just two days in 2017, he rewrote the entire Bible, centering Rihanna as the creator of the earth and — of course — making Trump the devil. The resulting Holy Bible…But Gayer quickly shot to the top of Amazon’s Christian e-books list.
Currently, Daniel’s frenetic energy is being channelled into two new projects: the EDM pop duo Adam&Steve he created with his partner Sam, and a cannabis line called Gay Kush that is launching next week to raise money for homeless LGBTQ+ youth in the Los Angeles area. But nothing has quite captured America’s attention like Gay Hell; even California congresswoman Katie Hill offered to attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony. We sat down with Daniel to find out more about how — and why — Gay Hell came to be.
MTV News: You’ve got a history with Hell. Tell us about the first time you visited.
Elijah Daniel: This all came about one night in 2016 because I Googled to see if there were any towns for sale. [Editor’s note: Hell, Michigan has officially been up for sale since Friday February 13th, 2015.] In 2017 I was trying to figure out what political office I could hold, just as a prank, and I landed on mayor of a small town. Hell, Michigan was one of the smallest. I took a list of some of the smallest towns in America and left a ridiculous amount of voicemails, just kind of asking if I could be the mayor for a day. Obviously I got zero responses, except for Hell. They called me back like two days later, and said, “You can totally be the mayor!” They do this souvenir thing where they let people be mayor for a day. I asked if I could ban straight people, and they said, “Sure, yeah, whatever you wanna do.” Then I got impeached at the end of the day.
MTV News: So how does one buy an entire town, anyway?
Daniel: The owner, John, and I had been trying to plan something for Pride month. I’m out of my mind, so I wanted to just cover the entire town in rainbows and have a month-long pride festival, but that didn’t really work. So we toned it down a little bit and decided to rename it Gay Hell. Of course this is temporary. There’s no way I would spend a million dollars just to buy a town.
I’ve also told, like, a different story to all these reporters about how much money I spent. There’s reports that I spent millions of dollars to buy the town — none of it’s true. I’ve just taken over for the month. It’s kind of scary that people think I actually have enough money to buy a town. I would very much like to buy the town, though. If I’m being fully honest, I did not expect this to snowball to this big of a scale. This is so ridiculous. I put up a paper sign that says “gay” on the town sign. And it’s international news.
MTV News: Let’s talk about the State Department’s ban on rainbow flags on U.S. embassy flagpoles. What does this rule say to you about the Trump administration?
Daniel: It just further proves that he’s not as supportive as he’s been claiming to be, if at all — the bare minimum that he was claiming to be in the first place. But [Gay Hell] was something I’d already been planning, and I thought of it as the perfect way to get my audience involved. I generally have a younger audience, they’re between the ages of 16-24. The majority of my stunts have some sort of political background to them. I’m trying to meme the kids into being politically active. I don’t really call myself a political comedian, because my jokes aren’t really about politics. But I am politically involved, or at least I try to be. And it just comes with the territory. … Sometimes you’ve gotta be disrespectful to get a message across!
MTV News: You tweeted Tuesday that President Trump blocked you on Twitter. Did that happen after news spread of the Gay Hell purchase, or was that from back when you wrote Trump Temptations?
Daniel: You wanna know the crazy thing about that? [Trump blocked me] in 2012, before he was even thinking about running for president and he was just being loud on Twitter. When I was just starting to get a following, I made it so I always had the top response to his tweets, and they were always a joke about him. He blocked me from that. I’ve had beef with this guy since 2012.
MTV News: What’s the plan for Gay Hell? Will there be a Rajneeshi-style takeover in which thousands of young queers move to the town and build a giant rainbow village?
Daniel: It’s only five acres, so that wouldn’t really work. Hell is a historical — or “hysterical” as they call it — staple in Michigan, I wouldn’t really change anything. What I would do is something for Pride month, like just change the name to Gay Hell every year. We were discussing some kind of LGBTQ+-themed Pride music festival, because they have the grounds for it and the camping and stuff like that. The whole town is just so punny and fun, it’s fun to just walk around. It’s cute.
MTV News: How have the town’s residents responded so far to your rule that only pride flags are allowed to fly?
Daniel: That was definitely me fucking with a reporter. It would not be a legal thing to do, and I don’t know why a reputable news source would not look into that before reporting it. It was in one of my tweets, and she asked if it was true and I was just like, “Mmm, yeah.” The town itself is like five square miles and there are homes all around it, and obviously some of them have flags up.
MTV News: Can we talk about the concept of Gay Hell? Is it a fun place, or one of punishment?
Daniel: I grew up nondenominational Christian in Detroit, and then we moved up to Amish town and became farmers. We lived there when I was 18. My family in general was never homophobic. My dad was a pastor but they were the kind of Christians that were like, “We love everyone.” In the rural town though, it was a huge, huge issue. Our neighbors pulled their kids out of school because there was a gay couple allowed at the school. And this was right around the time that I was realizing I was gay, and I was like, “What the fuck? People are crazy… But are they right?”
From like 15-18, I was very in my head, very depressed, very trapped. I remember thinking, “I don’t want to be gay. Why am I gay? I want to be straight.” And then through the Internet I found out that there are gay people everywhere and I was like, “Fuck this.” I became so loud. I wanted to send the message that I grew up my whole life being told that being gay you’re gonna go to hell, and now I own the place. That’s the philosophy behind it.
MTV News: So far you’ve performed under your rap moniker Lil Phag, launched a gay cannabis company, and created a homosexual town. If anyone has a gay agenda, it’s you. What’s next on it?
Daniel: My plan is to make everything gay. The gay agenda for me right now includes Gay Kush, which launches next week. The proceeds are all going towards an organization for homeless LGBTQ+ youth in LA. And Adam&Steve, which has a new song coming out on the 27th. We have collaborations coming up with JVZEL, with XYLØ, with Kiiara, and we’re working with a lot of other pop artists soon. I’ve also talked a lot with the Church of Satan, and we have talked about collaborating. They made a lot of sex puns about Gay Hell, which I appreciate.
This interview has been edited for length.