This year is, in many ways, a triumphant one in the turbulent and frustrating history of gaining LGBTQ rights and equality.
2017 marks 50 years since the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised male homosexuality (“in private”, and for men over 21 – lesbianism was never formally illegal.)
Indeed, many steps have been made legislatively and socially in that half-century, at least in the UK. Of course, we still encounter homophobia, transphobia and biphobia – progress is one thing, equality is another. Sadly, we still see discrimination and homophobic attacks and violence all too frequently. But there’s no doubt things have improved since gayness was, as Oscar Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosey) phrased it, “the love that dare not speak its name.”
This year has seen many creative responses to the anniversary of the law’s passing: the National Trust was behind a recreation of the notorious and short-lived 1930s gay-friendly haunt the Caravan Club; Tate Britain held its superb Queer British Art 1861 – 1967 show; artist Martin Firrell took over billboards around England and Wales in the name of queerness and in September artist Julie Rose Bower created a series of AV installations and performances in north London honouring pioneering gay music producer and engineer Joe Meek.
Ad-land also did its bit, mostly around Pride celebrations, with WCRS’s Pride in London TV ads for Channel 4, and Absolut and BBH’s Kiss With Pride poster campaign, celebrating LGBTQ “freedom of expression”. One of the most talked about and highly regarded LGBTQ campaigns of the past few years was that from Skittles and ad agency adam&eveDBB, which in a stroke of genius around the 2016 and 2017 pride celebrations gave up its famed “rainbow” in favour of black and white packaging and a monochrome Pride float. The brand’s ‘open letter to pride London’ read: “But this Pride, only one rainbow deserves to be the centre of attention – yours. And we’re not going to be the ones to steal your rainbow thunder, no siree. That’s why this weekend, we’re giving up our rainbow.”
While campaigns like this are great, they’re also, of course, designed to sell and to gain brand recognition, as well as cornering the LBGTQ market, the “pink pound”.
One side of the creative industry without such an obvious marketing agenda is that of publishing, and recent years have seen a slew of excellent LGBTQ indie mags launch with excellent design to match its thoughtful and much-needed content.
One such publication is Hello Mr. magazine, founded by former IDEO designer Ryan Fitzgibbon. Dubbed a “magazine about men who date men”, Hello Mr is now expanding beyond print into a membership model, helping creatives connect with clients, business partners, and employers.
“One thing I’ve noticed is that creative talent agencies and advertising companies are looking for queer talent, and there’s not really a great source to find them.”
Fitzgibbon told Eye on Design.
“Changing people’s behaviours and asking them to migrate to a new platform is difficult… but I’m not trying to create a new gay social network; I’m creating an option for people who are already loyal to the brand to have a safe, shared space for those conversations.”
Other excellent LGBTQ indie publications include A Nasty Boy, a new Nigerian “radical fashion publication” exploring “otherness in fashion, people and culture”; Cakeboy; Lez Spread the Word; Gayletter; and Little Joe.
As advertisers and publishers have realised, there’s a vast and very engaged audience here when it comes to LGBTQ voices.
Historically, there’s long been a connection between queerness and creativity: so many of the most brilliant voices in the art and literature worlds are those of non-hetero people. Think: Derek Jarman, Oscar Wilde, Francis Bacon, Alan Hollinghurst, Virginia Woolf, Bret Easton Ellis, Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, Joe Brainard, Douglas Coupland, Gilbert & George, Keith Haring, David Hockney, Gus Van Sant, John Waters, and Wolfgang Tillmans – just a drop in the queer art ocean.
The fashion industry, of course, owes pretty much everything to the gay community – Tom Ford, Andrew Logan, Alexander McQueen, to barely tickle the top of the iceberg; and it’s a veracious cliche that where gay culture goes, mainstream fashion follows – be that music, clothes, art, or drugs.
Even the most cursory glance at Susan Sontag’s seminal 1964 queer theory essay, Notes on Camp shows the conflation between campness and creativity:
“… the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques,”
“Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” (It’s worth a read of the whole essay – it’s short, accessible, and hugely thought provoking – as well as way ahead of its time.)
But what of today’s design community? What’s agency life like today for non-straights?
InterMedia is a networking group for LGBT people working in the media and creative industries, set up by Creative Skillset and Stonewall in 2012. According to the organisation, “many media and creative companies may be perceived as LGBT friendly but their informal image and practices can make it harder to network and be out for LGBT people”.
Part of the reason it was set up was to try and ameliorate the fact that “many LGBT people don’t have employee or freelance networks to connect with and some creative companies can be relatively small,” it says. “Both these things mean networking with LGBT colleagues and contacts can be sometimes be difficult. Creative industries can be an LGBT friendly place but in these fast moving and influential businesses it can sometimes be challenging to find like minded people to connect with”.
Mark Dormand, graphic designer and founder of Studio Squid, has been working as an openly gay designer for around nine years, since he went freelance.
He says that even before setting out on his own, it’s “hard to say” if he was treated differently because of his sexuality.
“I think I was treated a little differently for being a bit different, but as I wasn’t out at the outset I can’t really say it was about my being gay,”
“It was a very laddish culture that I wasn’t expecting or prepared for very well. I was a very awkward twentysomething nerd who didn’t like football! I had expected the industry would be far more inclusive and diverse than it was, so I didn’t feel super comfy being myself.
“I think if I’d just been out though, I don’t think there would have been much of a problem – when I finally was out and open with old colleagues and peers the relief of them just not having an issue was incredibly refreshing – a huge weight lifted, the whole hiding a chunk of yourself is a very odd thing we do to ourselves. Which thankfully less and less of us have to.”
Designer and art director Elliot Walker has had a similar experience:
“of course [being gay is] a ‘thing’ as it’s a subject people become aware of, but generally speaking it’s been either neutral or positive for me, I haven’t felt outcast or negatively affected by it within the industry.”
Wider societal and legal changes also play a part in these sort of workplace politics.
“Post the Marriage Referendum here in Ireland, there is a much more relaxed approach for sure around the gay scene and has a very strong core,” says Dublin-based product designer Danielle Morgan.
“I definitely think the younger generations coming through really don’t care who you are as long as you are a good person which is just the bomb.”
She adds that within the companies she’s worked at, she’s never been treated differently for being gay: “absolutely not, it was fair and square for sure.”
Fellow Dubliner Aoife O’Dwyer echoes Morgan’s statements: “I do think Dublin (and Ireland) overall feels much more secure in its queerness,” she says.
“Ever since Ireland was the first country to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote in 2015, I saw so many more same-sex couples feeling comfortable and open about their queerness. Hate still happens of course but as a community, I feel like we’re more sure of ourselves, our rights and our community.”
“Sexuality and gender really don’t seem to be as much of a barrier in the creative industry as they do in others, but that’s not to say that we should stop working on improving equality in the industry. There is always more work that can be done to remove obstacles and create more opportunities for those not automatically granted them. I think as an industry we are doing better than many others but I’m not so naive as to think that there aren’t any closed doors out there still.”
It’s heartening to hear such testimonies, considering that LGBTQ organisation Pride in London has published research showing that nearly seven in ten LGBT+ people continue to feel the need to lie about their sexuality or gender identity, with only half out at work.
“Fifteen years later at Ogilvy, I noticed same-sex couples listed in the management directory and this gave me the courage to come out again. I’m now vocal on equality but still come up against barriers – most often denial. The IPA’s targets don’t go far enough.”
While testimonies today seem to be positive (for the most part) for the “L” and the “G” part of our acronyms, what of the “T”? Charlie Poulson is the founder and director of design of Los Angeles-based Americano.
He is also a trans man, and says that his own experiences have made him more “hyper aware” of the work he makes for clients, and whether it “has a masculine or feminine look—then question if it even needs to lean either way at all. I’ve seen a lot of designs be unnecessarily gendered, so I try to steer clear of any styles or trends that might do this.”
For Poulson, expressing his identity has been something that’s changed with age, and with how he sees the world, politics, and media in relation to non-binary, trans, and queer people. “I’ve had the privilege of passing as a cis male in most of my jobs in my earlier years of working on site, so most of my clients had no idea that I was assigned female at birth,” he says.
“My initial thinking was that ‘if I don’t design with what’s in my pants, then there’s no need to disclose my trans identity.’ However, as time went on, political climates have changed, and I’ve matured, I’ve seen how important it is to set a positive example of a transgender professional. It’s incredibly scarce to see transgender professionals in the media not intended for entertainment, yet alone in the design field, and unheard of in any history of design classes.”
It’s an admirable example of the adage that the personal is always political, and also an example of how to make that work for the most good. “The long-time clients that I work with through my design studio have become friends as well, incredibly woke ones at that, which makes for much more powerful, informed collaborations,” says Poulson.
“Some clients have found out about my trans identity elsewhere, usually in publications or a Google search, and have gotten weird or suddenly “professionally” ghosted; quotes, because ghosting is never professional. It’s hard to pinpoint being trans as a reason that client relationships would deteriorate, so I give myself no choice but to be the absolute best that I can, that when and if a client finds out, there’s no reason, professionally, that relationship would end or fade out.”
Clearly, there’s a way to go before even the creative industries achieve true progress, and treat everybody – regardless of how they identify and who they’re attracted to – equally. “From my own experiences and observations, the creative community has nothing against the trans community but doesn’t know how to go about including us,” says Poulson.
“Spoiler alert: it’s easier to do than you think. If there’s any industry that is capable of being empathetic to differences, though, it’s the creative industry.”
So, in the spirit of his no-nonsense and rather brilliant summary, we’re going to end on some advice from LGBTQ designers about what people can do if they’re having a crap time at work, and what more the creative industries can do to be supportive and inclusive.
“If you want to change things at work, talk – be open or if you don’t feel you can be out, talk to a boss or a HR person – most companies in the UK today I think do want to support their LGBT staff, plus we work better when we’re not wasting energy hiding who we are. There’s lots of resources out there these days for helping companies learn how to act better. And call folks out on their banter if you feel safe enough to do so (if not report it).If I could go back in time I’d like to have said more – just calling people out on a few comments here and there would have made a difference.”
“My advice would be to either address the matter or to move to elsewhere which will support you, nobody should have to work in a business where their sexuality makes them feel uncomfortable.”
“People can be arseholes that’s one thing for sure, but what makes a job so special is the people you work with, so it is really important that you feel comfortable about your job environment otherwise the work you are doing is going to be sacrificed, especially in the creative community for sure.”
“Discrimination in the workplace based on sexual orientation and/or gender can be so varied – from subtle microaggressions to full on harassment and/or assault. The main thing to remember is that nobody has the right to disrespect you or create a hostile or uncomfortable work environment. I know there are also people who might be in uncomfortable work situations and are not in a position to put their job in any risk so standard routes might not be an option. In these cases seek out support outside of your employment – local advisory groups, LGBTQ groups or trade unions that can advise you on steps to take that maintain your anonymity.”