[COMMENTARY] LGBTQ Youth Use Art to Drive Change

The Senate is considering the Equality Act (H.R. 5, S 393), which would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, workplaces, and other public settings. To be sure, legislative projects like the Equality Act are necessary to advance civil rights for all. However, they are not sufficient to block the wave of transphobic legislation spreading across states, including Texas, South DakotaArkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

(Photo by Jason Sheil/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Top-down changes to laws and institutions provide frameworks for social change, but bottom-up transformations to social norms need to be driven by community mobilization based on lived experience. Legal scholars argue that without contestation and mobilization, social change legislation can face a socio-legal backlash that challenges its implementation. While elected officials are debating the law in Congress, queer and trans youth of color across the globe are fighting for social justice with creativity, craft, and empathy. They are using artivism.

Artivism harnesses the visceral power of functional art for social justice: it offers a window into the heart of unseen yet pervasive discrimination. Examples of notable artivism projects include Visual AIDS and Self Help Graphics & Art.

The role of activism in mobilizing queer communities in response to the global HIV and AIDS pandemic since the mid-1980s provides a prominent historical case. The first display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1987 during the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights humanized the lives of thousands dying of AIDS and communicated the deadliness of political inaction.

(Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

According to Dr. Richard Parker, the president of the Brazilian Interdisciplinary AIDS Association, a leading AIDS non-governmental organization in Brazil, “Especially for queer youth, artistic expression became a way to resist the forms of oppression that were so deeply entwined with the social determinants of the epidemic.”

One of the legacies of global AIDS social movements, artistic repertoires of contention are useful tools for queer youth of color in social justice movements, today.

Here in Oregon, as director for the Engaging the Next Latinx Allies for Change and Equity (ENLACE) Program, I’ve worked with Latinx and queer youth to create telenovela-inspired films about their experiences with social isolation. The films show how transphobia and homophobia don’t just reside in-laws, but infiltrate the minutiae of family and school life. As Nat, an 18-year-old, non-binary youth put it, “It is hard enough dealing with people outside of this house, but coming home and still not feeling safe and accepted – it’s too much.”

With their artivism, the young filmmakers aimed to change the social environment in 4-H programs. Specifically, they wanted to reframe public perspectives about queer and trans youth, overcome stigmas, generate solidarity, and put a human face on the epidemics of social isolation, suicide, and self-harm.

Nili Yosha, who trains marginalized youth to use videos to foster social change, said the filmmakers’ storytelling reached over 10,000 people and sparked a shift in local government officials’ attitudes about homeless youth.

“Youth are spoken about and for, but rarely heard from directly,” Yosha said. “In our most recent survey of [our youth filmmakers], 80% identified as LGBTQ, 77% as BIPOC and 54% as having a disability. Many fled abuse, neglect, addiction, and poverty. Most identify as having a physical or mental disability. …. These are the voices the community needs to hear from.”

In another example of artivism, the Jotería Arts movement, led by artists like Julio Salgado in California, provides a platform for youth to tackle social exclusion. Originating in the Mexican Chicano movement, Jotería derives its name from Joto (meaning “fag”), and celebrates the unique intersectionality of the immigrant and queer rights movements by reclaiming the pejorative term.

Dr. Eddy Franscico Alvarez Jr, a Jotería poet and Assistant Professor of Chicano and Chicana Studies the California State University-Fullerton, said, “Through the arts, queer Latinx youth can use their imagination and their own lives as a source of inspiration to rewrite narratives that demonize them and dream up worlds where they find community and belonging.”

Jotería invites young people to learn about and from queer Latinx artists. They make their own art and learn how others have used creative media – including writing, digital, performance, and visual art – to resist oppression and heal.

“I think healing is a critical component of the arts for queer Latinx youth,” Alvarez said.

Without this healing and public claiming of identity, legal change for LGBTQ people can go only so far.  Artivism dismantles invisibility. It unsettles the audience’s emotional realities to confront in-between-the-lines aggressions. And it mobilizes the performers to exercise rights that sometimes seem to only exist on paper.

About the Author:

Jonathan Garcia, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Global Health, Program Director, School of Biological and Population Health Sciences, College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University, and contributor to The Op-Ed Project

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