The closet, the media and the big, queer family

*I originally published this post on The Huffington Post.

Earlier this year, I traveled to Merida, the city where I was born and lived for 18 years, to attend my high school friend, Chalo’s, wedding. I ran into people I had not seen since we finished school, and we talked about our jobs, our plans, our significant others. I was so happy to catch up with them.

I also felt weird. I remembered my insecurities when we used to talk at recess, after school or at parties about, for instance, what girl we liked or who we wanted to date. At that time, I thought I mastered the art of choosing every word carefully, and even my tone of voice, to make sure they couldn’t tell I was lying. To keep it from showing. Because, of course, I was not interested in any girl, but actually attracted to a few of our male classmates. At this reunion at Chalo’s wedding, there was something missing: That imaginary shield I wore my whole time as a teenager was gone. Chatting with them without fearing that they could tell I was into boys, and not trying to maintain a certain appearance made me felt so comfortable. A liberating sort of comfort, because being in the closet is exhausting.

I told my friends and family I am gay about six or seven years ago. They responded in different ways, from lectures of how “forming relationships that won’t result in new lives destroys the love that God gives us,” to a, “Welcome to this big family of queers,” email from a lesbian aunt. Now I still hear of stories as varied as mine. Anecdotes range from the funniest to the most depressing.

In a world that still makes a lot of room for homophobia, where many young people still wear imaginary shields, coming out of the closet is still relevant. Not only in the privacy of our homes, schools and workplaces, but publicly. That is why I am moved by Ellen Page’s speech at the Human Rights Campaign conference where she said she’s gay, and reminds us of “people who go to school every day and get treated like shit, or feel like they can’t tell their parents the whole truth.” That’s why I’m glad to see in the New York Times Maria Bello’s article about being bisexual, fighting the myth that there is no such thing as bisexuality, or that bisexuals are just confused. That’s why I get excited to learn that Michael Sam, Brian Boitano, Ian Matos and Tom Daley are brushing off homophobic stereotypes in sports. Coming out still matters, and young people need to hear these stories. My 16-year-old self would have definitely wanted that.

Media shapes these closets, but closets shape the media as well. And, yes, some of those coming outs serve marketing purposes for celebrities and athletes. Yes, some are part of communication strategies with the help of experts. Yes, “we already knew” a couple of you were gay or lesbian. So what? Can’t we celebrate that someone stopped pretending, and is having a better time? That they are telling the world they have no reason to be ashamed or hide? A publicity stunt to advance someone’s career and sending out a positive message are not mutually exclusive events. Coming out of the closet, privately and publicly, is still powerful.

Being in the closet is exhausting. It’s a heavy mask, says Mexican actor José María Yazpik’s character when he comes out to his dad in La vida en el Espejo. I hope to see more Ellens, Marias, Michaels, Toms. More Rickys, Chavelas, Rachel Maddows and Kevin Kellers (for us fans of Archie Comics). I want to see more celebrities in Mexico and Latin America coming out too. We already know who a few of you are, anyway. It’s no big deal. And I promise to welcome you to this big family of queers.

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The honest art of Raghava KK

Raghava KK is an emerging, successful artist from India who began his career as a cartoonist in Bangalore and now lives in Nuevallorrrr. He has had a very interesting life, and his fascinating work is a reflection of that, exploring subjects like gender & sexuality, politics, coming out, death, pain, joy, identity… An authentic magic carpet ride, as he called it at TED 2010:

I first read about him in a post on Gay Persons of Color where they talked about a children’s iPad app he created to depict different kinds of families, including homoparental ones. This made me want to contact him, and Raghava was kind enough to answer the following questions. Enjoy!

Tell me about your work as an artist.
I have reinvented myself, and in turn my work, several times in the last decade or so. I work in many genres, spanning painting, sculpture, installation, film and performance, but my work is always linked by my challenging opinions on identity, conformity, gender, celebrity, and ceremony.

Why are you an artist?
I use art as a tool of exploration and as an aid in critical thinking.  For me, the process of making art is akin to living a philosophy.

What do you look for, what do you try to show with your work? What do you expect people will see, feel, think, do through it?
In my work, I try and expose oftentimes the simplest of truths, the things that are most obvious to me, in the most honest manner possible. My work is not pedagogical by nature. Simply by creating honest art, I hope to trigger meaningful thought, reaction, feedback, etc.

What about Pop-it? What point are you trying to make?
The iPad app was created after my move to New York. At first, I felt a strange sense of the unfamiliar in most of the children’s books that I bought for my children here. This led to a belief that a) children’s books are most often full of propaganda, and b) children’s books serve as subtle manuals on parenting. My first reaction was to counter this with “my propaganda.” However, my wife and I, after a series of back and forth discussion, decided that multiple perspectives introduced at an early stage can lead to empathy and open-mindedness.  This early stage that I’m talking about is not only in children, but also parents in the early stages of parenting. To be able to appreciate multiple perspectives and to be able to put yourself in different people’s shoes (whether you accept their views or not) is the beginning of empathy.

What kind of response has Pop-it received?
It’s interesting you asked that question. The critical/academic community has been extremely encouraging. A stringent book review website, KirkusReviews.com, gave me a Kirkus Star (for books of remarkable merit) and says about the app: “A first-rate mind expander, this app rewards repeat visits and depicts several family constellations with irresistible intimacy and good humor – all the while featuring uncommonly inventive art and software design.” Forbes.com and Mashable.com gave Pop-it fabulous coverage and the TED Conference launched the app at the TED Global Conference. However, I am very saddened by the tremendous effort that a few communities are putting in to mark the app as inappropriate for children, simply because of its tolerance of homosexuality, You can see for yourself the kind of comments that people are making here.

How do you expect Pop-it will impact those who use it?
This app is unique and I believe pushes the envelope in that it has no words and defies the traditional concepts of beauty otherwise found in children’s books. I leave it to the parents to interpret it. In this, it is similar to a series of painting that the parent and child together experience, participate in, and interpret. I know one of the pieces of critical feedback I have received has to do with the lack of a defined storyline and the lack of words. It’s a very conscious decision of mine to avoid both of these in the hope that the words come alive through the interpretation.

What effect do you think art in general has, or you wish it had, in societies?
I really believe that an artist’s journey is pure and honest, even if it is self-indulgent, and that he contributes to this world his unique perspective. I see the artist as the meeting place between science and religion, philosophy and physiology, conscious and unconscious. Therefore, each artist has to be contextualized in his own terms and it is certain that any effort made on these grounds will be invaluable in the lessons taken away. Having said this, I don’t believe that there is a general rule of thumb in the kind of impact art should have in society. It is merely a tool for true critical thinking and self-realization.

I read that your work was present even in your own wedding. Can you tell me about that?
I am very interested in ceremony and identity. My wife and I worked very hard to create an experience that was both celebratory and extremely lavish in creativity (over 100 artists contributed various aspects, including fashion, design, DJing, vegetable carving, etc.) and that at the same time spiritually connected with the past. We adapted the ceremonies to compensate for chauvinistic tendencies. Here’s a mockumentary about the wedding that is fun and crazy.

The idea of starting my own blog was originally triggered by the experience of living in New York City. Why did you move there? What has that experience been like?
There is no place like New York City. I love living here because it is a leveler city. I live the most exaggerated dreams here and at the same time, have the most domesticated, mundane, beautiful, family life in Brooklyn. Over here, I’ve collaborated with some of the greatest artists – I designed t-shirts for Paul Simon and Erykah Badu, worked with Yann Vasnier (the nose), and artists, dancers, etc., while walking my dog and pushing my double-stroller in Park Slope.

More of Raghava can be found on his website, Facebook fan page, and you can follow him on Twitter.