Every year Pride season serves as a celebration of how far LGBT+ rights have come, but also a reminder that the fight to eliminate homophobia and transphobia continues onwards.
LGBT+ anti-violence charity Galop recently reported that one in three members of the LGBT+ have experienced online abuse, and the rate of these incidents have increased over the past year.
It’s timely, then, that Smirnoff have teamed up with a collection of illustrators for their perfectly sassy #ChooseLove campaign, who will take a stand against the LGBT+ haters on social media with their own style of humour and artwork.
The aim is to extract the offensive messages out of the digital world, and respond to them in a thought provoking and positive way. We like it.
Gay Times caught up with one of the talented souls involved, Ricardo Bessa, to talk about his own experiences as a gay artist, the inspiration behind his work, and whether he’s ever faced homophobic prejudice himself.
What are the main inspirations behind your art?
A lot of it comes from really nerdy things. Animation, video games, mythology, comics and fantasy books really influenced me growing up. My mother used to own a book shop and I basically used it as a library. My parents valued education and reading a lot, bless them.
In addition to that, there’s a lot to be said about an upbringing in a small Portuguese city with old stone buildings, bright long summers, lots of trees and not a whole lot to do. I really think that shaped the colours and light I use. And recently, I’ve been looking at more queer art. Whatever fantasy gay wizard art I keep coming up with these days is probably due to… all of the above.
What have been the greatest challenges you’ve faced responding to homophobic social media posts with pieces of artwork?
I actually had a long think before taking on this project. It’s very easy to see homophobia as a silly little thing of the past when you live in a bubble like London, but that’s still not the case for most people out there. I didn’t want to take on a project that would downplay a serious issue and gloss over it, and I wouldn’t have done so if I had felt Smirnoff wouldn’t be respectful of that.
So it’s been a balancing act between staying positive without making light of homophobia. I want to make sure that, however I respond to these, whether it be sassy or more introspective, I keep in mind how toxic this position are.
I’m very privileged to have a voice, and to feel supported enough to put myself out there like this. Many others don’t – I certainly didn’t a few years ago – and I want to be respectful of that, and I also need to keep in mind that my experience is not the same as a lot of other people in my community. So figuring out genuine, meaningful responses has been the most challenging bit.
What has been your most memorable Pride experience?
Probably last year’s parade. The Orlando Pulse attack had happened just a couple of weeks before. I’d been to Pride a few times, but I’d never seen the parade in full. I decided I wanted to be there from the start this time. There were so many messages of love and solidarity from so many different groups, and it was surprisingly emotional to feel so connected to everyone around me. It was a bit overwhelming but I was really happy to be there.
Have you ever been a victim of homophobic abuse online?
I’ve been really lucky with my online experience – I don’t think I have. For a long time I cultivated an audience without really addressing my sexuality, which wasn’t difficult because I was just drawing colourful fantasy and fun beasts and that was great. But it’s always been important to me to create strong and fair depictions of characters that fantasy art often objectifies or ignores (like women or people who aren’t white, and eventually queer people), and I think that played a role in attracting people who are on the same page as me.
By the time I was comfortable enough with my little corner of the internet (and with myself) to explore queer themes in my work, I found myself surrounded by a bubble of great people and wonderful peers, many of them queer themselves, and it’s very easy to just do what I do in that context. But I know many of my peers who had a different path, or whose work expanded beyond these bubble, who haven’t been so lucky.
Where do you think people’s homophobia stems from?
People are complicated. I don’t think there’s one thing you can point to, but rather a complex web of psychological and cultural reasons. Heteronormative social expectations, in which traditional gender roles play a huge part; anything that deviates from this can be seen as odd or even threatening. We live in a patriarchal society, so misogyny plays a part at many levels.
Fundamentally, people are afraid of what’s different, and when that difference involves sexuality (a topic we’re often taught to avoid and feel awkward about) and questions so much that’s taken for granted, things can get really tricky.
What can we as a society do more of to challenge homophobia?
Actually challenge it. Call it out, don’t let it slide as “just a joke” or something to ignore because “they’re just nuts”. People see some laws protecting us, some ground gained when it comes to equal rights, and think “job done”. The job is very much not done. Especially if you identify as a woman or non-binary, or if you’re transgender or a person of colour, you’re at risk of all kinds of discrimination and violence. Laws help and are essential, but education at an institutional level is how we actually change minds: this means anything from training and workshops (specially for people like teachers and police) to good representation in the media.
Acceptance is slow and gradual and it comes from the realisation that we are not “the other”, which can only happen when we, as people, are normalised. When we show we’re your relatives, your neighbours, your favourite characters, your representatives, your waiters, teachers, drivers and doctors. And this particularly important now, as we’ve watched far-right values gaining more and more ground for the past few years. They’re not our biggest fans.
A lot of your work is based in sci-fi/fantasy – what do you think it is about that genre that always seems to appeal to LGBT+ people?
Probably escapism? Many queer people are made to feel terrible about themselves growing up (sometimes by their own family or friends). I suppose for many, escaping is how you deal with it. Escaping into a book or a video game in which a rag tag group of friends overcome the greatest challenges and come out on top. Stories of found families who came from nothing but find great power through unity and somehow defeat some dark lord.
There are so many fantasy tropes that LGBT people can see themselves in, and so many of these stories preach the kind of friendship and acceptance that queer children can only dream of. I think that’s probably why.
Smirnoff’s #ChooseLove will culminate in a free exhibition at Kachette in London on 6-7 July from 10am-8pm, which will feature select works from throughout the campaign.
The exhibition will be party of the Pride in London Festival, which is a series of events happening throughout the capital to raise awareness of LGBT+ issues.