In Japan, if you have tattoos you’re in the mafia. When I saw my grandmother in Japan I had to cover mine up because she’d reject me as part of the family. I also couldn’t tell my grandmother I was gay. Having tattoos and being gay and going to art school? She’d be like, “What are you doing with your life?”
I’m half Japanese and half white. When I’m in America I feel more Japanese, but when I go to Japan I feel really white. It’s strange because I don’t really have a home. My mom has lived in America for 30 years but says she views her time here as an extended vacation. I asked her if she wants to move back to Japan, but she said she’s too old at this point. She’s basically cut off ties with my dad, so I told her she should do what she wants.
I was born and raised in Minnesota, but I didn’t really speak English until I was five. Now English is my primary language. I think in English. I dream in English. My Japanese is slowly fading.
My father doesn’t speak Japanese and my mom’s English is pretty bad. Growing up, I’d talk to my mother in Japanese and my father in English. We were rarely able to communicate as a group.
I’m really tight with my mom, and she’s awesome. Now I don’t really talk to my dad. His personality and my personality don’t get along well. I haven’t talked to my dad about being gay because we don’t talk, but I think he knows.
My mom knows and she understands and is awesome. In emails she told me, “I accept who you are, blah blah blah.” But a month ago she asked me, “Are you having gender troubles? Do you want to convert genders? Is it because of your father? Do you want to be a man?” And I told her, “It’s okay, I like being a girl, relax.” I had to calm her down a little bit.
I don’t think I officially ever came out. It was more of a gradual process. Straight kids don’t have to announce their sexuality, so I don’t think I should have to either. My junior year of high school I went to Oxbow, an arts program in California that has students from all over the country. I guess it was that classic coming-of-age experience for me. It was the first time I was independent and I had to figure out how to live. After that I started being more open about being gay.
Since I moved to New York I started being part of the queer community more. My roommate Mars and I started going to concerts, shows, fundraisers and political things a couple nights a week — whatever was happening. Minnesota has a queer community, but it’s not as visible and accessible as in New York.
I definitely chose my college based on location and the whole experience of living in New York, including the queer scene. I applied to the Cooper Union when I was a senior in high school and was rejected, so instead I went to the School of Visual Arts, but I figured I’d apply a second time to Cooper Union as a transfer student. I didn’t expect to get in, but I did. I was really surprised.
I’m going to be studying fine arts and visual arts in general. I don’t really know what I want to do career-wise, but I’ll figure it out along the way. When I grow up I want to be relevant.
As told to Diana Scholl.
Photo by Laurel Golio, taken in Brooklyn, NY, 2012
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When I was little I wanted to be a boy, and I would call myself Sam. I’d go to Sunday school and people would be like, “Is that a little boy or a little girl?” My mom would be like, “Why does it matter?”
My older sister Genny told me, “Mom and Dad didn’t think you’d be a lesbian. They thought you were going to be transgender.”
As I got older I realized I was comfortable being a female. While researching the gay community, I realized what I was feeling was the butchness of being a lesbian. I like short hair and hate dresses. It’s more of a masculine appearance than a masculine action. If I’m anything, I’m a soft butch. It’s more common here for lesbians to be more feminine. I don’t know if it’s societal or what.
I never try to do anything just to be weird or individual, but people have come up to me and told me I’m brave for dying my hair. I’m like, “Soldiers are brave. Firefighters are brave. I just dye my hair funny colors.” But so many people are scared to do strange things with their appearances.
I started dyeing my hair when I went to high school at the Alabama School of Fine Arts (AFSA). I felt so pent up at middle school. It was all a football culture, and everyone was wearing Abercrombie. It was like the University of Alabama but it didn’t have the small, artsy community to be part of.
I had wanted to be out in middle school, but I was scared because when my girlfriend Brittany first came out teachers had to walk her to class. Brittany and I dated for, like, a month, but I wanted to keep it a secret. I started hearing rumors about us, got ticked about it and broke up with her.
But my high school was such an open place it was easy to be out. You were seen as uncool if you were discriminatory to gay people or if you were really religious. Anything seen as cool in Alabama is seen as weird at ASFA. It was awesome.
When I started high school, I was 14 and shouting that I was a lesbian from the rooftop. I became the big lesbian on campus and the big activist. I helped found the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and started my school’s participation in National Day of Silence.
I realized I was gay when I was in fourth grade. I had seen a music video for the band t.A.T.u. I looked them up on the Internet. It was the first time I had seen the word “lesbian.” Then I went to a Girl Scout sleepover at the Birmingham Museum of Art, and I had t.A.T.u. written on my hand because I thought writing on my knuckles was really cool. This girl said she really liked them. Then I started staring at her all night. I realized, “I don’t just want to be friends with her. I think I have a crush on her. I think I’m gay.” People say that t.A.T.u. are fake lesbians, but hey, they helped a lot of people!
I came out to my parents and my sister when I was 13, and they have been incredibly supportive. My mom is very active in the community, and she went to Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) meetings. My dad wants to be more of an activist than me. He goes off on anyone who says anything anti-gay. My parents are liberal for Alabama. They met on a Democratic political campaign.
I’m part of the Alabama Safe Schools Coalition, so when I came to the University of Alabama everyone kind of expected me to take a leadership role. And I’m like, “I just got here. Chill.” But I found gay people very quickly. I marched in the homecoming parade with the gay group, Spectrum. We were holding hands so we wouldn’t get separated, and someone wrote a letter to the school paper saying, “I’m a fan of free speech but I don’t want to see guys kissing and holding hands.” And no one was kissing! You can’t kiss and walk at the same time.
But the environment here is surprisingly alright. I haven’t walked around holding a girl’s hand yet, but I’ve had my “Legalize Gay” shirt on. I know there are homophobes because I hear about them, but I think it’s a generally accepting campus.
I’m excited to be here and take courses that will help me have a career in zoo education. My mom forced me to volunteer somewhere in high school since I spent all summer watching TV. My friend volunteered at the zoo, then quit, and I ended up volunteering there for five years. I love pretty much any animal. Except sharks.
When I was in high school, usually when I was with a large group of people my age, we were there to talk about diversity. It was nice that at the zoo, instead of talking about how different we are and how much we loved each other, we were there to talk about the animals.
So many people in my senior class of high school had this drive to get out of Alabama. But I feel like if all the liberal-minded people leave, it’s a haven for bigotry. But I don’t know if I’ll stay in-state after I graduate from college. I want to work in zoo education, and when it comes down to what I want to do, the Montgomery or Birmingham zoos are my only options. Surprisingly, my dream zoo is in San Francisco.
As told to Diana Scholl.
Photo by Laurel Golio, taken in Tuscaloosa, AL, 2010
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If you haven’t been to the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art to check out the Window Gallery, man, do we have GOOD news for you! Leslie-Lohman has extended our stay and the eight We Are the Youth portraits and accompanying quotes will now be on view until June 22, 2012!
So hop on the subway, board the Metro North, jump on your bike, take a stroll (the weather is getting nicer, no excuses for taking cabs, New Yorkers), and go check out the Window Gallery! If you do make it over to Wooster Street, be sure to check out The Piers exhibit, on view inside Leslie-Lohman until July 7, 2012.
*Above photo by Stanley Stellar
Thanks to everyone who came and supported We Are the Youth on Friday at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (special thanks to DJ Dani DeLuna for spinning dope tunes and to Sarah and Mars for manning the raffle station, helping set up and break down and being generally rad!). It was great to see both familiar and new faces at the reception and we couldn’t have been happier with the way the night turned out. We Are the Youth work will be on view until May 12, 2012, so if you missed the reception, you can still check out the work. In addition, The Piers exhibit (THE PIERS: Art and Sex along the New York Waterfront), is on view until July 7, 2012, and as Diana so eloquently mentioned at the reception, where the Piers exhibit looks to the queer past, We Are the Youth looks to the queer present and future, and it’s an honor for us to be showing next to such an amazing body of work.
Again, thanks to the staff at Leslie-Lohman for all their support, it’s been a pleasure being part of the Window Gallery Project and we’re excited about future collaborations.
Check out more photos from the opening reception here.
We Are the Youth is heading to the South! Starting in Atlanta, Diana and I will be driving all around Georgia, over to Alabama and across to Mississippi, all in 7 crazy days! We’ll be posting trip updates here and on Facebook and Twitter so stay tuned for sensational photographs of fried chicken, biscuits with honey, collard greens and, oh yeah, news on Southern queer youth.
Thanks again for all the support!
We Are the Youth is wearing purple today. After the recent rash of suicides among gay youth, the LGBTQ community and allies are coming together today to show solidarity with each other and to remember the lives lost.
According to event organizers, “Purple represents Spirit on the LGBTQ flag and that’s exactly what we’d like all of you to have with you: spirit. Please know that times will get better and that you will meet people who will love you and respect you for who you are, no matter your sexuality.”
This isn’t the end. This is the beginning. When you’re walking down the street others will see you and remember that they’re not alone.
As an endorser of the Make It Better Project, We Are the Youth believes that we all must join together to change the culture so queer teens aren’t afraid. To continue to tell queer youth they are not alone, please share your story with us. Email email@example.com to tell your story.