On a cold March evening in 2006, David, Bobby and Mike visited the forests of Fishkill, N.Y., wearing ripped Levis and tight suspenders over polo shirts, and struck a pose for photographer Michael Sharkey. Sharkey describes it the "most defiant" portrait he has ever taken, and he's been photographing LGBT teenagers for eight years.
"They weren't consciously, meekly saying, 'What about us?' They were saying, 'Eff you — we're not going to hide anymore,' " says Sharkey, whose portraits appear in the photo display "Queer Kids," opening Oct. 30 at Stonewall National Museum and Archives. "They know the damage that the closet has done to gay people around the world, and they refuse to live their lives that way."
The subjects of Sharkey's photos are dignified and unsmiling, glamorous and confident, openly homosexual with a dash of grit. As a teenager in conservative Golden, Colo., in the early 1990s, Sharkey says he was none of these things, hiding boyfriends from his parents until he turned 20, and taking punches from high-school bullies.
"I was a bit of a punk growing up. I also had a lot of anger about being forced to hide my sexuality," Sharkey recalls, speaking from his Brooklyn apartment. "It's hard enough to be a teenager, but it's doubly hard to be a gay teenager. So I think there's a little bit of me in all these portraits. I identify with the kids so dearly. These are teenagers of the 21st century, and there's a kind of strength, a self-awareness, a self-possession and self-understanding that I admire."
The 30 large-format portraits that will occupy the Stonewall Museum are a small sample of Sharkey's ongoing, globetrotting series, in which he has documented out teenagers and young adults in small American towns and large European cities. He began "Queer Kids" as a "creative outlet" for his other job, shooting celebrity portraits (Elton John, Donna Summer, the Jonas Brothers, Gwen Stefani, Jane Lynch) for GQ, Newsweek and other national magazines.
To track down his subjects, he first contacted New York chapters of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network with copies of his portfolio. If the subjects were underage, which was often, he convinced their parents to consent to the photoshoots. Sharkey, struck by the teenagers' confidence, says he was capturing a "revolution" among LGBT youth.
"They were — still are — desperate to be seen and to be heard, and I knew this was the beginning of a new era in sexual-identity politics," Sharkey says. "I realized this could be a great document of history. The kids are the real celebrities, the real stars. When all these famous people I've shot are no longer famous, the kids will be the ones that will remain in people's memories."
Sharkey asked his subjects to choose their own clothing and setting. Found among the portraits is a prom photo of Andy, 18, and Tanner, 16, from Orinda, Calif., each wearing a tuxedo and corsage. Lesbian couple Nancy and Marie, both from Brussels, Belgium, are photographed embracing each other in a park against a background of tall hedgerows. Eleet, a 20-year-old transgender female, is seen in tall, pink leggings strutting down a Brooklyn sidewalk. Brandon, an 18-year-old, wearing sunglasses and a golden heart medallion, poses in his grandmother's Miami home. And Patrick, 22, a gay basketball player, is shown in his college locker room in Carlisle, Penn.
"I like 'queer' a lot more," reads a quote from Patrick on a panel of wall text next to his portrait. "I feel like it's a more confrontational identity that's necessary when you are in such a marginalized position. 'Gay' is really 'nice' and 'friendly' … You don't want to step on anyone's toes. 'Queer' is in your face and tough and calling people out and not being afraid to speak your mind, and that's more me. I like 'queer.' I'm queer."
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When: Thursday, Oct. 30, through Jan. 4 (opening reception: 6-8 p.m. Oct. 30)
Where: Stonewall Museum – Wilton Manors Gallery, 2157 Wilton Drive
Contact: 954-763-8565 or Stonewall-Museum.org
Stonewall Museum – Wilton Manors Gallery — 2157 Wilton Drive