During my first year abroad in college, I also experienced my first long-distance relationship. I was with my then boyfriend for about 2 years before we spent a year apart. We were committed to reuniting after I finished two semesters in London while he took on a new teaching gig in Korea. At the age of 20, I did not expect to be in such a serious relationship, especially after my teenage years entangled in many one night courtships.
Feeling lost, shocked, and horny amongst the parade of flashy men in Soho's gay pubs, I contemplated what it meant to be a young gay person at a time where legal battles centered on marriage and domestic partnership were raging across the world. I found solace in the work of artists like Catherine Opie and Sunil Gupta who explored relationships in an intimate, vulnerable way. I realized I had to begin my own journey of documentation and story-telling, talking to 'domesticated' couples about what their coupledom meant to them. How did they define being partnered, even if the law didn't recognize their unions?
This inspired my meeting with Ken and Sharyar through an online advertisement I placed, who were a couple living together in a modest flat. Ken is a native Brit and Sharyar a Persian immigrant. When I entered their home with full photo gear in tow, I saw them playing chess together wearing matching green socks, each with a cuppa tea. After asking about their backgrounds, how they met, and feeling all of the room's tension empty out during our chatter, I knew immediately I wanted to compose an image showing the private interaction I had witnessed of them playing and competing.
Their portrait above is the result, and it is a combination of staging the original moment with some improvisation. I love this picture, and it is the first work of art I sold in a professional gallery show. An edition I donated ended up fetching the highest price beyond its reserve at Chicago's Renaissance Society benefit as well. It began a series of photos with other couples living in Chicago, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Auckland and elsewhere. It's a project I come back to every now and then with no specific end goal. Many of the couples are no longer together (including my self-portrait with my ex), while others are steadfastly committed.
Talking with my straight friends, it does seem true that dating for gay men is much easier: more direct initial contact, no confusion of Mars versus Venus thinking, sex happens readily, and far less expectations and pressure regarding getting married and popping out children. Although it's a breeze for gays to date and mate (at least in urban areas), sustaining long-term relationships and finding cornerstone moments for a gay couple to commemorate their togetherness can be more elusive. This is reinforced by the lack of federal rights for civil unions and marriages in many countries, and the general societal view that same-sex couples should not have the same legal benefits as a male and female partner.
San Francisco, 2008: I remember the exhilarating rush of watching Milk, Hollywood's biopic on America's first openly gay elected public official, Harvey Milk, at the historic Castro theater. In high school, I had chosen him as my subject for a writing assignment about heroes. My teacher, who had never heard of him, suggested I write about someone else instead. Seeing Milk's life on screen made me proud and happy to see attitudes were changing in this country. His film was long overdue.
Outside the theater, a vigorous anti-Prop 8 rally was in full force. I smiled seeing a straight elderly couple wearing 'No Prop H8' buttons and signing a petition. Although the highly contested Prop 8 is now resolved, other entities like DoMA (Defense of Marriage Act signed into effect by Clinton in 1996), are huge barriers for gay couples to have their unions recognized. This also affects immigration rights for bi-national couples that try to reside together in the US.
It's very easy to remain complacent, especially for individuals who have never felt oppressed or suicidal because of how society views gay people. It's easy to be complacent for us younger queer men and women who have not rallied and fought for the rights we have today. Gays are everywhere in pop culture and beloved consumers -- we're 'in.'
We know that gays' rights to marriage and adoption at a national level are just a matter of time. However, until day time comes, measures like Proposition 8 are a symbol of a time when the American national debate about the lives of gay people (as determined by others) was at its hottest and most visible. It inspired creative responses and was a reality check for the gay community about how we were accepted but still not acceptable. Even though today it feels like it has been discussed to death, Prop 8 remains a historical event that is worth remembering.