Ever since I first heard about the It Gets Better Project — a viral video campaign initiated by sex columnist and activist Dan Savage to reach out and extend support to GLBTQ youth in light of the recent rash of teen suicides — I have been inspired by all the different people who have contributed their words and stories. The Queer Etsy Street Team has been working to raise awareness about this horrible epidemic. For months they have donated all the profits from their team shop to The Trevor Project — a suicide prevention hotline for teenagers.
Michelley, known on Etsy as QueenofQueens, is the leader and founder of the team and has put together an inspiring collection of stories from Queer Street Team members about the various ways in which art has helped them get through the tougher parts of life. Michelley lives in Los Angeles with her beloved partner. She is currently awaiting the ability to legally marry without a cross-country trek. An overview of Michelley’s creative compulsions, including her fine art and tattooing, can be seen on her website.
My favorite T-shirt when I was in 4th grade featured an illustration by cartoonist Sandra Boynton, of two roosters. One wore the typical comb that all roosters are born with. The other rooster proudly sported a black, plastic, comb in defiance of convention. Above them both were the words DARE TO BE DIFFERENT. Whenever I wore this shirt I felt wildly empowered and when other kids called me “weird” — which occurred frequently — I thanked them for what I believed was a high compliment.
When I realized the true intentions behind the “compliments,” it eroded my courage to be myself. For a time during middle school I tried my very best to blend in. Most of my efforts were an epic failure. Though my designer jeans were Gloria Vanderbilt, they were a heinous kelly green velvet — a gift from Grandma at Christmas. (She tried.) Everyone else was sporting dark denim Jordache or Sassoon straight legs that never fit me. My wavy hair refused to be feathered Farrah Fawcett-style and I was far more interested in horses than in boys. As you can imagine, school was rarely enjoyable and home was hardly better.
I cannot imagine how I would have found the strength to stay alive in the face of such constant hostility were it not for my discovery of new wave and punk. I was absolutely rabid for Adam Ant; he seemed to be the spirit of art and liberty personified and he was completely unafraid to be completely himself. Adam and the Ants introduced me to a variety of rebellious, expressive musicians and artists. I secretly longed to be so bold. I wanted to outwardly demonstrate who I really was.
My ninth grade year was a nightmare. I was surrounded by three relentless bullies in my math class and their torment of me went unchecked all year by an ineffectual teacher. Their behavior culminated in an act of sexual harassment that mortified and humiliated me. Afterward, I couldn’t stop crying and wanted to die. After surviving their grotesque abuse I became determined to openly and unfailingly “wave my freak flag high.” I decided that if I was going to endure constant indignity, it was going to be on my terms. Over that summer I sought out the most punk clothes I could find (long before Hot Topic) and cut my hair radically short. When I walked through the cafeteria on the first day of school, a self-identified art-fag/punk, I was met with silence from my wide-eyed, stunned schoolmates. I’d never felt more self-assured.
Claiming our space as creative people and choosing to survive in a world that tries to tear us down is the most revolutionary thing we can do. The artist and designer behind Feathered Nest Studio believes that “art gives me superpowers…okay, maybe not actual superhero strength or the ability to see through walls, but art gives me a space to be myself, to say this is what I make, this is what I believe in, this is who I am. It was because of my art that I finally felt at ease and found a place in my local gay and lesbian community. The very first time I went to my local women’s community center, I met a woman who wanted to start doing art shows at the building. Until then I had felt very isolated and had been searching for a way to feel comfortable in my own skin. That initial meeting led to working on a women’s community art show, which blossomed into a community arts program for women and children that I now run.”
For many of us, art classes were true sanctuaries during adolescence. Being afforded a safe space to emote and express ourselves can offer a “test lab” of authenticity until we find our confidence as adults. The designer behind River Wolfe Jewelry found a safe haven in her senior art class in Dallas, Texas. She says, “At home, I wasn’t encouraged to talk about my feelings. There was no room for my emotional needs to be met, and as a result I really had no idea what those needs and desires were. It was in Ms. Hudson’s art class that I discovered how to express myself using pictures. The project was to make a collage of dreams. Mine turned out to be a silhouette of myself with a huge city in the foreground, I was entering a city full of lights and opportunity and the process was very seductive. I wondered, could I really make it in a city like that? I had no idea this desire was inside of me until it revealed itself in the picture.
“I took my collage art to another level in private. I made another piece consisting of images and ideas that expressed freedom, feminism, and complete rejection of traditional gender roles. I was so proud of both of these that finally I began to understand myself. I hold this memory as one of my most sacred and profound experiences. Learning to express my innermost fears and desires with pictures enabled me to become the woman I am today.”
Authenticity is a discipline that bestows the truest rewards. The awareness of this potential often presents itself subtly, as the visual artist behind Etsy shops Scarlet Tentacle and Lace and Sparrow shares with us: “I had been struggling with depression for several years and was reaching the end â€¨of my ability to maintain hope. I was taking a class that focused on the works of renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. I came into class feeling like I was at the very bottom of whatever I could handle — and then our professor put on Kiarostami’s film, A Taste of Cherry. I experienced a profound moment of hope while watching this film. It wasn’t a promise that things would magically get better, but instead, it gave me a feeling that the world is wondrous and that I was not alone. That feeling, that hope, let me keep going for a little longer, and opened me to the possibilities of art to create change and make a difference.”
e.e. cummings once said, “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” Unprecedented bullying has recently led to the tragic suicides of several young LGBT people. Embracing your essence and sharing your creativity with the world is never easy in the face of adversity, especially when facing harsh rejection from the mainstream. Despite my adolescent attempts at conformity, I grew up to be the rooster with the plastic comb: a working class, femme, lesbian, Latina artist with a punk rock provenance. My adolescence was painfully isolated in many ways, and there were many times when I nearly gave up. Every time I’m fortunate enough to connect with other artists and experience the beauty of their work, I’m glad I didn’t. I now know that I share history with scores of other defiant artists and courageous queer folk. I now know that I was never really alone.
Thanks so much to Michelley and the entire Queer Etsy Street Team for sharing their stories with us. If you or an LGBT youth you know is at risk of suicide, please contact the Trevor Project’s 24-hour hotline at 1-866-4-u-trevor. The Trevor Project is the leading national organization focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth.