Yesterday’s featured TED Talk was from TEDxWomen, TEDx’s annual global conversation about the state of women in the world today. In her talk, "Fifty shades of gay," photographer iO Tillett Wright explains how she watched discussions of same-sex marriage divide the US into parts: for and against. This divisiveness bothered her:
“I was shocked by the fact that America, a country with such a tarnished civil rights record, could be repeating its mistakes so blatantly,” she says in her talk. “And this powerful awareness rolled in over me that I was a minority, and in my own home country, based on one facet of my character. I was legally and indisputably, a second class citizen .. I was plagued by the question: how could anyone vote to strip the rights of the vast variety of the people that I knew? … Had these people consciously met a victim of their discrimination? Did they know who they were voting against?”
So she set off on a quest for tolerance via photography, saying, “For me, photography is not just about exposing film, it’s about exposing the viewer. To something new. A place they haven’t gone before. But, most importantly, to people they might be afraid of.”
In a project called Self-Evident Truths, she photographed about 2,000 people who consider themselves somewhere on the LGBTQ spectrum, asking them to tell their story, to reveal the person behind the portrait. Above, 8 participants of Self-Evident Truths, and the stories behind the photos — in iO Tillett’s words.
Top: Alyss – Little Rock, Arkansas. iO: “Alyss, who identifies herself as pansexual, is the descendant of a long line of Pentecostal ministers, from a tiny little town in Arkansas. When she put on her MySpace that she thought she was bisexual, her mother grabbed her by the forehead and started praying over her in tongues. Alyss was told that she was no longer her parents’ daughter, and wasn’t welcome in their house anymore, and eventually, because she couldn’t stand being away from her family, she went back into the closet. Alyss was one of the most vibrant characters we met on our Southern tour.”
Second row, left to right:
Brian – New Orleans, Louisiana. iO: “When Brian showed up to the shoot, it was this big discussion about which one of the assistants was going to have to go and see if he actually knew what he was being photographed for, because he looked like such a straight manly man. But on his release form he put down “100% GAY”, and we all had to eat our stereotypes. Brian fell in love in high school, and lived with his partner for 20 years in Texas, until they broke up, about a year before this photo was taken. He had taken everything he owned and moved to New Orleans to start a new life, and was working at Mardi Gras zone. When he talked about his former lover his eyes would well up, and he referred to him as his “true love”. Brian taught me so much about how stereotypes of gay men as effeminate are a bunch of naive hogwash.”
Carrie – Athens, Georgia. iO: “Carrie waited in a long line of people to be photographed in Athens, with long brown hair and glasses. We took a few photos and then she stopped me and asked if she should take her wig off. As soon as I saw her head, and what she was inclined to hide, I told her I thought she looked so powerful and beautiful without her wig. Instantly she straightened, planted her feet and came into her own skin. It was such a testament to the act of standing proud of who you are, be it about sexuality, or otherwise, and I’m really happy to have been able to see that in her.”
Third row, left to right:
Chip – Atlanta, Georgia. iO: “Chip is a scientist and a skater. Again, when he started filling out his form, I almost wanted to double check that he knew what he was there for. It turns out he had gotten in touch with us weeks before, hoping we’d come and shoot in Atlanta. Chip was the only skateboarder who had ever come to be photographed, which kicked off a really interesting discussion about homophobia within the macho world of skateboarding, and how we could all help to reduce it.”
Reverend Jill – Knoxville, Tennessee. iO: “Reverend Jill came to the Knoxville shoot with her long-time partner. They pulled me aside and told me how important it was that people know you can have a strong relationship with God, and still be gay. I thought that took tremendous courage, not only to be openly gay in a state like Tennessee, but to take on the religious battle as well. I had a lot of respect for them.”
Fourth row, left to right:
Jamison – Dallas, Texas. iO: “Jamison truly just smacked me in the face with my own stereotypes about people. Before meeting him, and many like him, I had some preconceived, narrow view of what gay people looked like, (especially men) — even if it was a broad view by most standards. Jamison, a big, statuesque trucker from Texas taught me that I don’t know s*** from Christmas — other than straight people come in every shape and size possible. Jamison was a marker of growth for me.”
Jodi – Wichita Falls, Texas. iO: “Jodi’s family disowned her when they found out she was gay. She struck me as such a normal, average American girl — she works as an Abercrombie model at the mall, and was in her third year of college — but when a friend outed her, her religious parents kicked her out of the house, took her photos off the wall, quit paying her tuition, and started telling people her brother was an only child. Jodi suffers from arthritis, but her parents had her removed from their insurance despite that. It was such a powerful revelation for me, to understand the power that religion has within people — that it could drive them to legally divorce their own child.”
Venus – New York. iO: “Venus is one of my favorite characters in the “grey” movement. She doesn’t confine herself within any labeled sexuality, but she is loud and proud of everything that she is. Venus is a well known DJ and party promoter, and she’s made a name for herself within the hip hop world, which she is helping evolve into a more accepting place.”
See more of iO Tillett’s photographs and commentary at the TED Blog.