“You’re bad at art,” they said, though not quite in those words. I was about eleven and experimenting with ocean scenes and cheap oil paints at our dining room table. I was proud of my use of glitter nail polish on the whitecaps and the way the scene turned out, but their attention was on my younger sister who perfectly copied a character my dad invented. They laughed at my painting, giving me a patronizing pat on the head. I listened when they told me not to waste my time on art. It killed me — it killed my confidence in my ability to express myself creatively and authentically. I stopped painting for years. I finally picked up the brush again because I was overflowing with emotion, but my work was clouded with shame and apprehension. I was anxious about how others would react when they saw it, and I buried its importance to me so I wouldn’t be hurt. Art was something to be ashamed of but not something I could successfully push away.
I listened when my parents and pastors told me what it meant to be a woman, how unnatural it was to be attracted to people who shared my sex, and how dangerous it was to question my identity as anything different than what God designed. “Homosexuals and trans people are abominations against God and nature! To further God’s will, you have to get married and have children!” The speaker nearly shouted from the stage in a hot room to a bunch of teenagers at summer camp. I buried my queerness deep within myself. I internalized the weight of being irreparably broken for not fitting into their mold of what my body meant I was.
You’re broken and no one would love you if they knew the truth. If they knew how you felt. Your art sucks and you shouldn’t bother doing anything creative. If you draw what you want, everyone will laugh at you. If you paint, if you express yourself honestly, if you show emotion, you’ll prove to them that you’re weak. These lies repeated themselves over and over for years. I repressed, I ignored, I buried how much I loved how girls’ lips looked, I hid my doodles in the margins of my diaries. I gave up, resigning myself to the dreary future my parents planned for me — a future where I didn’t paint, draw, or create anything besides children. A future that placed me with a man my parents picked out as his woman and helper: required to fulfill all his needs, even at the expense of myself — never to question his authority or my identity outside of a man’s shadow. A future that destroyed me at the thought.
It wasn’t until after I left the toxicity of my home that I realized no one had the right to tell me who I was and who I could be. I was the only one who needed to give myself permission to be. I started drawing again, initially out of boredom and a burst of creative energy, but as I improved it became an act of defiance. The colors painted on a canvas expressed the emotions I buried; the women I drew and painted came out to tell me that being queer was okay. Letting bottled up emotions out on the paper in strokes of red awoke realizations about myself that extended beyond my physical ability to put paint to canvas.
Art is how I made sense of myself. Art bypassed my unconscious blocks and accessed the emotions so repressed I couldn’t find them otherwise. Art is how I experimented, expressed, and explored my identity. Art allowed me to feel the truth of myself without judgment. Suddenly everything I thought was broken about me — my lack of feeling like a woman despite having all the “parts”, my attraction to people across the gender spectrum, all of the little things that I thought were wrong and didn’t fit suddenly started to make sense. Through this act of art as self expression, through art as defiance against being told how I can be and what I can do with my life, I became not just accepting, but almost proud of myself. I was the one defining me and what that meant for the first time. Art was the key to uncovering myself. From the eleven year old shamed into never painting again, to the twenty-five year old who’s out and making art they never thought they were capable of.
Make the things you want to see in the world is what I tell myself now. I depict stories that need to be written featuring people who happen to be LGBT without that being their only attribute, I use art as a way to shape the narrative of what it looks like to have queer characters, and shine light on the dark places we’d rather not acknowledge. I create as an act of defiance against social structures that discriminate, and a world of media that sees queer people as flukes who only exist to serve as a punchline.
It’s not surprising then, that my parents, like many people with power, are so afraid of encouraging creative expression. Art is a revolutionary act; outspoken queer artists are a fore to be reckoned with. For me, art is an act of resistance, of reframing narratives, and of self discovery.