In many ways, a new dawn is approaching—I mean, can’t you feel it in the air? There’s a culture shift occurring, and it’s asking us to reconsider the acronyms we so frankly rely on—LGBT, or LGBTQ. The handy representations of who we identify as within a community have been expanding for quite some time, but now more than ever, it feels like the concept of “taking back” terms and reconstructing the binary definitions we were taught, is stretching and bending and a greater, larger conversation is taking place beyond a row of letters we stand behind. It’s best found in our conversations with friends, on social media, pop culture, informative articles, events, pop-up parties, rallies, and so on, our mantras, our lingo, and our images of self. So, what defines you?
For Sarah Deragon, posting a photo of herself to her Facebook elicited a conversation, that spurred an idea, that created the Identity Project. Her photo was captioned: “Queer Femme.” The response was profound and suddenly there was a desire from others to have their own photos taken by Sarah, with their own captions—their own identifiers. “I thought that I’d only be able to do about 50 portraits by June, but at the end of January, I had over 200 people fill out the intake form. We had international attention from Russia, Brazil, France, Korea, and many other countries and I just knew that the photo project was filling up this huge void of queer images that the world needs,” says Sarah.
The Identity Project would mean capturing something that, like Sarah mentioned, fills a certain visual space in our culture. Consider the idea that we’re born under a sun sign, a moon sign, and a rising sign. There in us, there are three personalities bubbling with different roles and we grow to understand what little bits of those elements play into how we love and live. In many ways, the same goes for how we view our sexuality, our gender, our spirit, and our human interaction.
Let’s face it: Some people are not just simply transgender, or simply gay, or butch versus femme. That’s the old standard. Now, you can identify as a dandy trans masculine witchy queer otter, if you want. “I’m actively seeking participants who are POC, trans, bisexual, youth, elders, disabled, immigrant and otherwise identify outside of the mainstream gay and lesbian culture,” says Sarah, who adds this gem, “I got my first hate email the other day, so I know that I’m doing something very powerful.”
Haters will be haters, but the project remains stacked with momentum. Sarah’s history with photography extends back through a time where taking people’s portraits was a hobby and an excuse to sneak out of work on her lunch breaks to meet clients. Eventually, Sarah and her wife opened Portraits to the People. So, it just made sense to go from one project to the next, especially since Sarah’s previous studies included political and cultural identifying.
“I think that the project has been somewhat polarizing for people. There are folks who see the power in using labels to create social change and build visibility for the community. Then, there are others who just want to live their lives and don’t want to identify as anything. I think that most people who want to participate in the project are usually already in a role where they educate others about what it is like to be gay or trans or queer. A lot of us are comfortable talking about why it’s important to politicize your identity and what it means to be truly seen as a queer person today,” says Sarah, explaining that in places like South Africa or Russia, for example, where homosexuality is still criminalized, this project is all the more impactful.
Sarah recently launched the Identity Project’s official Indiegogo, where she hopes to raise 10K to travel to five different cities: Columbus, Ohio, Chicago, New York City, Atlanta and Portland. So far, she’s photographed around 250 people in San Francisco, her home base. “This national tour will also give me a chance to film more participant testimonials and one day I hope to turn these into a short film,” says Sarah.
Filming her participants is a shift that could really add some dimension to the Identity Project. “The photographs are powerful, but having people actually talk about their identities is incredibly fascinating as well. I did a blog post about why two participants chose the word “Baba” to identify themselves; one of them filmed a video and that received a great response.” I strongly encourage you to check out that video she’s talking about, as featured on her blog. In the clip, a queer parent who identifies as “Baba” to her child sweetly discusses the process of determining what would work best, after ultimately deciding against “Papa.” What’s most striking here in this one-minute video is the openness captured by a human being undergoing a shift in definitions, self-expression and their new role in the world.
There will always be fine print — a grey area that marks all the other things we are and have been and will be, the space forever allotted for change, a new design, a safe place where we can redefine our language. “I’ve really only been a Queer Femme for about three years or so,” explains Sarah. “I’ve gone through tons of other identities to get here. I was bisexual for a bit in my 20’s, quantifying my identity as being 50% queer and 50% straight. Then it was 60/40 before I jumped in and started identifying as a lesbian.”
If I could identify myself, it might be: Gay Hippie Witch—sometimes interchanging the word “gay” with “queer” or “lesbian” depending on the day and the mood. But, hey, I’m open. Sarah mentions that living in SF opened her up to the word “queer”—and I get that. Living in Portland, I am captured into the same prism of thought. I am more comfy with that word than I ever have been. I ask Sarah to divulge in other terms she would best describe herself as, but I’m a big fan of her one-time “Glitter Femme” days. “Since getting married and settling into my mid-thirties, I feel really solid as a Queer Femme, but I might migrate to another term later on. Other words that I feel really represent me, but don’t necessarily fit into the project are: Tenacious, Entrepreneur, Hard Worker, Sister, Aunt, Daughter, and Wife.”
Language is a cool thing, because us humans created it and we continue to evolve it in every bootylicious thing we do. Maybe for some of us, labels hinder us and we don’t think twice about what we’d define ourselves by. But, creating an identifier is just a stepping-stone to something else—it means we can change, and to know who you are in this moment we are experiencing right now is power.
To get involved, contribute, or learn more about the Identity Project, visit:
identityprojectsf.com and indiegogo.com/projects/the-identity-project–2#home.