Artist and gay-rights activist Ryan Wilks told Polarr about his newest project, which includes long form interviews with and portraits of members of Kansas City's LGBTQIA community. The interviews focus on his subjects as people living more or less ordinary livesrather than necessarily portraying them as victims of oppression.
Emily Von Hoffman: Can you tell me how the idea for "Gender Treason" came about?
Ryan Wilks: When gay marriage was legalized, I saw this boom on Facebook and other social media platforms of people who were just very very happy, they were thrilled; but then I also noticed a lot of negativity from people who were angry that straight people and queer people now have equality. A lot of those people were in close proximity to my home in Kansas City, Missouri, so I realized there is still a lot of ignorance in my hometown and in the Midwest, in general. I live in the Bible Belt, so it's pretty dominated by conservative theology. I started realizing that I have a voice, I had been wanting to use my voice for so long to address this ignorance that I've seen my entire life, and I just realized that I have every capability in my bones and in my fingertips to make an impactful commentary on the queer population surrounding me in Kansas City, Missouri.
I recently spoke with my FTM Trans friend, who had just gotten his breasts removed a few days prior. I met him around the same time as the Supreme Court decision and started asking him questions, and I realized that if I hadn't talked to him and if I hadn't gotten this story, I never would have had the insight that he was able to give me. I never would have been able to get there on my own. And so then I realized that basically that's applicable to the entire queer spectrum, even as gay man there's so much I don't know about my own culture. So as much as this is a learning opportunity for everyone living in Kansas City, gay or straight, it's definitely a learning opportunity for me.
EVH: It's interesting to me that you felt, pretty acutely, that the negative social media responses were anchored near you geographically. After Transparent won a Golden Globe, all the people on my feeds were like "Welp, we're there. The revolution happened already," which of course isn't quite accurate, but it feels like the sentiment didn't extend to people around you.
RW: I think it has reached the Midwest in the cities. St. Louis is pretty progressive, Kansas City, Missouri is pretty progressive, but it's the hundreds of miles between the cities in the Bible Belt that are still playing catch-up, and are still transitioning into this new era of acceptance. That's my experience.
EVH: Did you grow up in Kansas City, or outside?
RW: I grew up in Overland Park, Kansas, which is a suburb of Kansas City, and then I spent the second half of my youth in the suburbs of Chicago. And just by being gay in the Midwest, I experienced a lot of bullying as a child, and as a teenager, and as a young adult. So it has always been affecting me.
EVH: Were your family members accepting?
RW: My brother is also gay, and when he came out my family really grasped the totality of it, and they were able to accept it in its entirety. They weren't accepting of it at first at all, I did have to struggle a little bit with getting my parents to understand what it meant and why I was the way I was. And there isn't really any explanation for that, except that I just was.
EVH: It strikes me that a person has to be very self-aware to be able to articulate being anything at any time. That sounds hard.
RW: Yeah, it was a little difficult. It doesn't hinder me now, because generally I'm surrounded by people on a daily basis who love me, and it's no longer an issue. But I look around and I see that it is still a huge issue for many other people. There are a lot of resources in Kansas City; Passages is one of them, it's an organization that helps homeless queer youth. It's not an uncommon thing in the Midwest to come out as a teenager and be kicked out of your home, which can lead to underaged prostitution, drug abuse and all that kind of stuff. So I recognize that while it may not be an issue for me anymore, it still is very much an issue for a lot of people in the Midwest.
EVH: On your Kickstarter page, you say that you'll be conducting longer interviews with people you meet, and also painting portraits. Can you talk about what you plan to cover in those interviews, and what went into the decision to include that portion, since most of your past work is exclusively visual?
RW: Yes, so I've already conducted a couple of interviews, one of which was with a transgender woman living in Kansas City. She's a lawyer and she shared about her transition and what it was like before, what it's like now and basically where she hopes to be in the future. With all the subjects, the resounding message in what they're willing to talk about ends up being a very normalized perspective of the human experience. Queer people have been showcased as abnormal, they've been showcased as eccentric and eclectic, but they have never really been framed as normal. So the interview kind of allows the queer person being interviewed to just share their experience, and what I've found already in this project is that their experience is not drastically different than what we expect from heteronormativity.
I mean, we get into relationships, we go get drinks with friends, we order pizza and watch Netflix. And so I'm not really asking questions about their coming out stories, or even necessarily with the transgender subjects, about what their transition was like. I'm really just allowing them to just share what their story is, and if their story has to do with oppression then so be it. I have one subject who opened up about when his relationship ended about 10 months ago, how he realized he didn't know who he was outside of that relationship, so he spent the last 10 months confronting that reality.
And he also was open about some of his body image issues, about how gay male relationships with food are similar to those that women have. Even within our own community we feel guilt and shame around eating, like, a cheeseburger. It's interesting to realize that our sexuality and gender don't really segment us that much. Our human experience is not vastly different than anybody else's, we're all just people.
EVH: Some feminists are suspicious of men who describe themselves as feminists, because they're unsure of what motivates the interest in their struggle. I'm interested in whether there's any similar tension between segments of the queer community, and whether that might affect your work.
RW: Well I identify more with women emotionally than I do with men, because I am an effeminate gay man, so I don't personally feel any opposition even within the community from women or men. But I also realize that in this project there are going to be entire gamuts of the queer population that feel they were not represented, but the queer culture is so rich and expansive.
I'm limited to the 12 paintings and 12 transcribed interviews in the project, but I'm trying really hard to get a balanced perspective. So I have transgender women of color; I have an interviewee who's sharing what it's like being a gay Black man in the Midwest, which is an entirely different reality from mine. So I'm trying to get a very broad representation of the queer populace in Kansas City. But I just have to realize it's impossible to showcase all of it.
EVH: You've lived in Chicago and San Francisco, and traveled throughout the U.S. to study art. Those places are very different, both from each other and from where you grew up. How did that affect your development as an artist?
RW: They are very different. I moved to the city of Chicago when I was 22, and lived in a warehouse with eight other artists, including screen printers, aerial acrobatics photographers, leather workers, actors and singers. I got to really absorb all these different art forms and it really helped shape my ability to express what I needed to express, because I got to know all of these people who were expressing themselves for a living. And that really changed my life, I had never lived in a big city before that, so I was experiencing a lot of culture shock when I moved there. And it didn't affect my visual art so much, but it affected my writing, which became much more observant of people. Seeing everybody's struggles just worn on their faces, because everyone in Chicago during the wintertime is cold and miserable and lonely; there's a loneliness to that city in the winter and everybody is kind of experiencing this loneliness together. It really changed my writing and it changed my outlook on life.
Then when I moved to San Francisco, I surrounded myself with a lot of graphic artists, and that did change my visual art. I actually had a job doing graphic design, and living there was the first time that I was completely myself. It was the first time that I felt comfortable being an effeminate gay man, and wearing earrings if I wanted to, and wearing short shorts if I wanted to. Nobody cared, not one person cared, I was not made fun of for being who I was one time in the three years that I lived there. It really helped my work, because if you're not living your authentic self there is no possible way that you're able to do authentic work I think. It wasn't until I moved back from San Francisco to Kansas City that I began producing my first series of really authentic works in 2013.
EVH: What was it like to move back?
RW: The decision to move back to Kansas City from San Francisco was made because there was this really persistent knowledge deep within myself that I was not doing what I was put here to do. When I say that it sounds predestined; and it is, I think I had a spiritual calling to come back to Kansas City and to create artwork. I made the conscious decision when I realized that I wasn't doing what I wanted to do, there was an artist inside of me that had been trying to get out since high school.
I was completely blinded with fear from the age of 17 when I first picked up a paintbrush, until 24, that I wouldn't be successful as an artist, that it wasn't a viable career choice, that I couldn't, I didn't have it in me to create works that mattered or could change hearts. I was just consumed with this fear of failing and so I just couldn't take living in that space anymore. It's one of the reasons I had been moving around the country so much in my early 20s, because I was trying to outrun that fear. When it became so heavy that I couldn't live my life, and I couldn't be happy, I came back to Kansas City to begin my art career.
EVH: People who use their art to some activist ends sometimes have specific events that mobilized themparticular moments in which they became a Black man, a homosexual or a woman, for example, after someone treats them in a way that teaches them something about how they fit in the world. Your work has a strong focus on gender, and I wonder if you can recall a moment in which you became.
RW: Yeah, I have always believed that the purpose of art is to influence people, and I knew that I had it in me. It wasn't necessarily activism that I was trying to pursue, it just kinda turned out that way. In 2014 in February, House Bill 2453 passed the Kansas House of Representatives; it was a religious freedom bill that would allow businesses to refuse service to queer people, or really anybody if it was against their religious beliefs.
It was kind of a preemptive strike by the House because they knew that gay marriage was going to be legalized across the board in a matter of months, and it was. And so there was this urge, an idea that 'if we can get this passed, we can continue to discriminate against these people.' And since it was the first time that I'd been living in the Midwest in almost 5 years, I just could not tolerate that in the place that I was living.
So my best friend Jen Harris and I launched a protest called "The End Inequality Protest" in Kansas; we made a Facebook page, we got 10,000 people online involved immediately, we had international media attention and we made a difference, we made our voices heard. And it was that moment on Feb. 25, 2014, that I realized that my art needed to have an activist quality to it. But I think the success of it wasn't attributed to my ability to really organize anything, I think it was the fact that a lot of people really opposed this bill and they needed an outlet to express their opposition, and we were the first protest that was orchestrated and publicly put on Facebook when it happened.
EVH: Did you experience any negative consequences from that in your personal life?
RW: I did. Without divulging too much or saying any names, I definitely received numerous calls asking me, and in some cases telling me, that I needed to cancel this protest. And it took a lot of support from the core set of people who do surround me and love me to continue, because I was intimidated, I was intimidated and bullied by influential and powerful people. And so that was a really scary time, but I went on with it because I knew that I needed to.
To me, that is the defining moment when I became Ryan Wilkspainter, writer, activist and, I don't know, it's just changed everything. My real name isn't actually Ryan Wilks, and it was that protest that publicly changed my name forever. Wilks is my middle name, and my last name never really fit, so I decided that I would just go by my middle name.
EVH: Can you elaborate on the "Treason" part of the project's title?
RW: I ended up creating a working definition for gender treason, for people who might have felt that the title of the project was a little aggressive. It's "the bravest act of defying the culturally-imposed stereotypes surrounding sexuality, sexual orientation, and gender identity in order to honor one's own definition of self."
It's really a commentary on how religious conservative America views us. I've heard the word "abomination" used about me and my people my entire life; that word has been thrown around infinitely towards the queer people of America and the world. And so to go against all these social heteronormative rules is, in their eyes, an act of treason, it's an abomination.
EVH: Did that realization affect your spirituality at all?
RW: I think a lot of queer people who identify as spiritual have had to alter their definition of what that means, to sit with what best suits them. In my personal experience, I left the church when I was 17. I went to youth group and a Pastor took me on stage in front of the entire congregation and told me that I needed to change my sinful ways, and he was referring to my homosexuality, and that Jesus could change me right then and there. I just walked out. And I have not set foot into a church since then.
But I have not stopped developing a relationship with what Christians would call God, or what spiritual people would call the universe. I'm a deeply spiritual person, we all are, and I think a lot of queer people feel forced to separate spirituality from themselves, in order to be who they are. And I see that a lot in queer youth, they are lacking an element of spirituality in my opinion, which helps people grow. So, I don't know, it did affect my spirituality, but because I was able to maintain an idea of a higher power, it's really helped me to grow spiritually and emotionally, I think more than if I had stayed in the church.
EVH: You've written that you are particularly interested in exploring radical change or metamorphosis in your art. I think a lot of people would assume, if you talk about gender and metamorphosis, that you're referring to a person transitioning.
RW: Yes. But I think metamorphosis happens in every person; I think there's little deaths throughout our lives, events that literally kill who we were. In this past year I experienced one of those deaths. First let me say this, I don't think a lot of young gay men know how to have a healthy relationship, romantically, I think that it's in large part due to the fact that we never had an example, especially my generation. We've not had any examples on TV, in news, in books, on really any platform other than our very tight knit subculture. And so I think it's really hard for young gay men and young gay women to have healthy relationships, and I had an incredibly unhealthy relationship this past year, and when it ended, so did some of my behavior and my willingness to be in an unhealthy relationship.
And that death, I mourned, I very seriously mourned that death of myself, and that's when I became interested in exploring metamorphosis through art. Because, I don't know, I think everybody has those, it doesn't have to be just a relationship, it could be a literal death of a loved one, or moving across the country, or moving a couple blocks away from where you've lived for a long time.
There are events that will force you to grow in your life but you have a choice to grow with it or you can not. And I chose to grow and basically totally transition into a different person, a better version of myself. And so it really fascinates me to hear about other people's transitions, not just with gender, but for instance one of the subjects whom I mentioned who also ended his relationship and didn't know who he was anymore. It's incredible to realize that everybody has these moments, often at multiple points in their life, where they just completely have to restart.
Interview conducted and produced by Emily von Hoffmann and Polarr. The article originally appeared in Pixel Magazine Blog, the online blog of photo editor Polarr