Photographer, artist, screenwriter, activist … iO Tillett Wright does it all. We spoke over the phone about her photography project, “Self Evident Truths,” which features people of all shapes, sizes, colors and identities who identify as “gray,” or anything but 100% straight. She dares her audience to see the humanity in the faces of those who still suffer discrimination; she challenges the conventional system of labeling people as ‘gay’ or ‘straight,’ and her Ted talk, “Fifty Shades of Gay,” has since spread like wildfire.
What inspired you to start “Self Evident Truths?”
I grew up in a place where discrimination kind of didn’t exist, so when Prop 8 happened, I started to pay more attention to what was going on in the country. I went down to North Carolina on a road trip down the Appalachian trail, and experiencing the kinds of reactions that people had to me and the way that I look was really jarring. I just felt like I had to do something about it. My idea was if people could meet the people that they were discriminating against, it would make it harder to do that. So I just started photographing everyone that I could get to.
How does your video and your project get into the hands of the people who need to see it most?
My hope is that it would be a tool for people to help explain their perspective. If your mom or dad has disowned you because you’re gay, chances are sending them my Ted talk is not going to turn them around; but if you have some family members who are kind of on the fence, those are the people that we stand a chance of talking to.
So it’s kind of a grassroots movement.
For sure. The other thing is a lot of times is that just because you identify as gay or queer or trans doesn’t mean that you are any less restrictive of other gay people or straight people than anybody else is. My Ted talk is just as much for gay people as it is for straight people because the LGBT community, we’re f***ing called the LGBTQIA community. We have fifty thousand monikers and names and nicknames for every different shade of gay, but we’re also really heavy on the labels and everybody needs to just ease up on it.
Do you think there’s sense in trying to ultimately eliminate labels altogether?
I think that labels are something that we should apply to ourselves. When people start to slap labels on other people, that’s where you run into problems. If you want to identify as butch, by all means. If you want to identify as trans or as whatever your label is, then great, I will absolutely adopt that. I just don’t like it when people slap labels on me.
What kind of response do you have, then, if people kind of come at you with a label?
It depends. My tactic, usually, when I’m not in a bad mood, is to approach it with conversation. There’s always that angry dyke stereotype that I try to avoid because it’s everyone’s like “Oh, God, you’re that lesbian who wants to discuss sexuality.” I don’t think that any of us should have to discuss our sexuality, we should be allowed to do whatever the f*** we want to do as long as we’re not hurting anyone. I don’t want to have to be like, “I am a lesbian, now and forever.” Human beings don’t fit into those simple categories in any other facet of life; why would you in sexuality?
Do you think our country is anywhere near where it needs to be when it comes to recognizing different gender identities?
If you just look at how fast things have gone since we have been quote unquote allowed to exist, it’s incredible. We’ve gone so fast, the President of the United States, who, by the way, is half black—like, let’s not forget other progress that we’re making in this country—talks about equality for all men and women, gay straight or otherwise, in his inaugural address, that is incredibly profound. That means that we have stamped our feet and shouted loud enough that straight up the White House is listening. That’s amazing.
How does it feel to be playing a role in this movement?
Oh, I don’t even think about it that way. I’m so happy that I can be a mouthpiece for something that is important. I’m so sad that this cause even exists and that it’s something that it has to be fought for, but I’m so honored that I was given the type of platform to say something and it has done as well as it has. That’s insane to me, and it makes me so, so so happy.