“Making art is the place I felt most connected to myself and to the mystery of creation. I felt powerful, like a superhero—like no one could touch me or hurt me in any way.”—Jayden
Jayden was a participant in Queer Teen Identity Formation and the Arts, a qualitative research study I conducted as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2009. Eight individuals living in different geographical locations who engaged in the arts as teens and identified as trans, queer, pansexual, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning participated in the study. During the interviews, they talked about their experience identifying as queer and trans teens, what that entailed, and how engaging in the arts affected their lives at that time. The participants responded in writing to an email questionnaire and chose pseudonyms, used here, to keep their names confidential for the study.
I consider “the arts” to mean all forms of art, including visual arts, dance, theatre, music, poetry, and film. My definition of engaging in the arts is inclusive of all informal and formal learning experiences as well as art-making that is self-taught. I am talking about art-making that allows for authenticity, meaning that personal voices, experiences, ideas, pain, and inspirations are part of the process.
Two central themes emerged through the stories and experiences that Jayden and Drake, two of the participants, shared through their interviews. First, their experiences illustrated how art-making can be a medium for self-affirmation and personal transformation. Secondly, art-making helped make it possible for both participants to reconstruct their queer and trans identities and consider new possibilities in their lives.
Jayden and Drake’s stories make it clear that creativity and art-making can be a medium for personal transformation by connecting us to our authentic selves. Who am I? Who am I becoming? What do I think and feel? What is my pain and what are my desires?
Jayden, born in 1973, grew up in a city of over half a million people on the West Coast of the U.S. Jayden prefers not to identify by anything other than his name, except within the context of speaking with people about his personal experiences and oppression. Then, he says, “I choose at times to identify myself as a black gay male living in America.”
Growing up, Jayden faced homophobia from people in communities that could have been important sources of support, including schools, religious communities, and adults in his family’s social circle:
I grew up in the Baptist church and while my pastor didn’t speak out directly against homosexuals, I had many friends who attended other churches and I got the word from them that I would be going to hell if I acted on my feelings—most certainly…
Jayden was harassed and bullied at school by other youth from a very young age:
I was constantly afraid that someone was going to jump me and beat me up. I felt constant shame & embarrassment about the way I talked and I was always conscious of my mannerisms although I never really tried to be anything different than what I was…
I hated myself. I had constant thoughts of suicide…I constantly felt dirty, abominable, foul and just utterly disgusting. All these things coupled with the component of racism did not make for the happiest times in school…
I was mad at God for making me so different from everyone else I knew and mad at the world for treating me so horribly…I felt abandoned by God & not protected at all (Boothroyd, 2009, pp. 7-11).
Over time, Jayden became heavily engaged in the arts, specifically break-dancing, playing the saxophone, writing poetry, painting, and composing music:
Before high school I kicked around town with a small crew of break-dancers…I played saxophone in high school band although not very well. Eventually I started teaching myself to play piano and write songs in high school and formed both a small choir, which I arranged and wrote for, and a dance troupe for which I was head choreographer.
I’m a self-taught singer, dancer, painter, poet, & composer—mentored by the music, words, & cover artwork in my parents’ record collection. My first influences were R&B, Soul, & Gospel records. I also got into New Wave, Rock, & Classical music thru friends in school & listening to FM radio. High femme & high glam artists like Diana Ross & Natalie Cole were early influences, & the gender-fluidity/ambiguity of Prince, Boy George, & other gender-bending artists of the New Romantic Era (Duran Duran, Adam Ant etc.) were also major influences on me & how I came to express myself in life & eventually in my own art…
When Jayden was singing, dancing, painting, writing—i.e. making art—he felt connected to himself and his sense of personal power. These experiences were liberating, unlike other areas of his life where he learned to feel shame and to hate himself.
Making art is the place I felt most connected to myself and to the mystery of creation. I felt powerful, like a superhero—like no one could touch me or hurt me in any way.
I made art because I had to…
Creativity and art has given me a voice and a sense of power, and allowed me to connect to other people in such a way that I feel less alone (Boothroyd, 2009, pp. 14-15).
Jayden said, “I never truly felt like there was a real place for me in those heterosexually dominated worlds.” Jayden thought about suicide and was constantly afraid of physical violence. In many ways, the outside world was telling him that his authentic self shouldn’t exist—that he shouldn’t exist.
Yet, when making art, Jayden felt “like a superhero,” and it became clear that not only could his authentic self exist, but that his existence and voice could be powerful. Creativity and art-making became a medium for Jayden to alleviate internal pain, suffering, and self-hate caused by oppression, and to transform his perception of self and identity.
Drake, born in 1986, grew up in a small Republican suburb outside of a big city on the East Coast of the U.S. Drake first came out as bisexual and now identifies as genderqueer and “soon-to-be F-T-M” (female to male trans man), who is attracted to masculinity. Drake also identifies as “white (nondescript European…with vague nods to Germany and England), lower-middle class, agnostic/humanist, and Episcopalian (I identify with the church I was raised in and still sometimes attend even though I’m agnostic).”
Drake experienced homophobic and transphobic messages from church and school similar to those Jayden encountered. Early on in his youth, he began to question traditional definitions of gender as he grappled with his identity:
I was always confused about what gender meant, since even as a kid I had the sense I wasn’t a girl (though everybody told me I was). That always made me hesitate to identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual since those terms depended on the gender binary that I always felt I didn’t quite fit into.
Though my church itself was quite liberal (female pastor, engaged in the gay marriage debate of the Episcopalian/Anglican church), the church members who taught Sunday school to the kids were pretty hard-line conservatives. I was explicitly taught for a number of years as a young teenager that gay people were going to hell if they engaged in gay acts, that God hated homosexuality, etc. Since I wasn’t out, I stayed quiet, but that was the beginning of my split with organized religion (Boothroyd, 2009, p. 8).
Drake said the arts:
gave me an outlet to be genuine to myself in ways nothing else could. Since I couldn’t be explicit about my sexual or gender identity, both due to fear of recrimination and because I was still struggling with those identities myself, I could explore my feelings through the veil of art…
All of this wound together in an attempt to express ideas I had no frame of reference for and felt larger than myself…
Journaling, poetry, and collage kept me exploring my identity and working through my problems. It was the only truly safe space I felt I had, free from judgment…
I often lost track of time and fell out of the awareness of everyday existence into the flow of whatever I was doing. I felt the freedom to be whoever I wanted to be and say whatever I wanted to say, which kept my sense of self alive (Boothroyd, 2009, pp. 15-16).
For Drake, art-making was freedom. It was the place where he could be genuine and communicate with himself—unlike other areas of his life. Here, Drake could explore his gender identity and sexuality. It was the only place where he felt safe and free from judgment to work through related feelings and problems. When he was journaling, writing poetry, acting in a play, or making music or collages, his gender identity and sexuality could be fluid. This was life-saving for Drake: “One particularly difficult summer, practicing violin and voice and writing and making collages quite literally kept me alive” (Boothroyd, 2009, p. 16).
This assertion brings me to the second theme that emerged: Jayden and Drake’s stories make it clear that creative thinking and art-making can be a medium to imagine and redefine what is possible in our own lives and in our relationships to the world around us.
When Jayden said he “felt powerful like a superhero,” he was able to imagine and embody a very different perception of himself. He went on to say, “Creativity and art has given me a voice and a sense of power.” Jayden found his voice because he was able to have a voice and be powerful in this creative space, unlike in other areas of his life. Furthermore, being part of a dance troupe allowed him “to connect to other people” so that he felt “less alone.” Creativity and art then became a medium to connect and transform his relationship to other people; he became part of a community where he could build positive relationships, and this was affirming for his sense of self. Jayden reimagined his notion of who he was and who he could be, and through this process he transformed his relationship to the world around him.
Through the arts, Drake felt liberated to be himself. “I felt the freedom to be whoever I wanted to be,” he said, and to “say whatever I wanted to say, which kept my sense of self alive.”
Therefore, Drake became possible…and this was life-giving; he could experience feeling fully alive. Drake went on to say:
Music built my self-esteem because I had a talent for it, and because it provided me with a constructive way to be a member of a social community. It gave me a role to execute within a social and artistic community at a time in my life when I was often confused about my social roles, which gave me a rare sense of productive belonging (Boothroyd, 2009, p. 15).
Drake clearly excelled and felt confident about himself through music, and it provided him with an affirming purpose. Like Jayden and his dance troupe, Drake felt like he belonged in his musical community, an unusual experience for him in areas of his life outside the arts.
“Theatre likewise put me in a default social setting where I was (quite literally) given a role to play,” Drake said. “The fluidity of identity in this context was really liberating for me, and others” (Boothroyd, 2009, p. 15). Theatre was a setting where Drake could experience playing different characters and identities. Theatre was liberating and a place for self-discovery. Drake went on to say:
Theatre not only allowed me to explore alternate roles and identities for myself, but it introduced me to other peers who were outside the mainstream and questioning traditional social roles. The community was more accepting, and as such a broader range of emotional, sexual, and social behavior was permitted. In a world almost completely devoid of alternative role models, school and community theater became vital sources of alternate values and models of living (Boothroyd, 2009, p. 16).
Drake could explore his identity while becoming part of a community, where mainstream social roles and boundaries could be questioned, challenged, and reimagined. Drake could be genuine while feeling free and being part of a community that was affirming. Drake’s gender identity could be fluid here and move beyond the heteronormative binary construct of gender.
The creative arts were a medium for both Jayden and Drake to connect with others and transform their relationships to themselves and the world around them. Drake being Drake and Jayden being Jayden was possible in the arts world.
Liberatory Creative Practice
For Jayden and Drake, art-making served as a form of healing from trauma caused by oppression. Art-making was liberatory. Through their creative practice in different media and forms, both teens were able to redefine who they were and see what was possible for themselves. They could stay alive and exist as asserted in their authentic selves. They could be free and feel powerful. They could “connect to other people” and not always feel so isolated.
Creative thinking became a life and survival skill, and authentic art-making became a powerful medium to transform real-life problems. The practice of imagining a world that didn’t yet exist for them was critical to creating change in real life.
Through creative practice, Jayden’s and Drake’s wisdom, ideas, and experiences were important. They were not passive learners through art-making; they were active learners and leaders, self-authoring, self-determining, and there was room for multiple voices—not just one voice or idea or “right way” of experiencing and living in this world.
Jayden and Drake’s stories demonstrate the powerful impact the arts can have in young people’s lives. Their stories have influenced the way I teach and think about education. I have come to believe that creative thinking is a life skill, and that authentic art-making is a necessary component to anti-oppressive/liberatory education. The arts are a powerful medium for thinking—and living—beyond limited ways of envisioning ourselves and our collective human potential.
*Jayden primarily sang, danced, choreographed, composed music, and wrote poetry during his youth. He didn’t have any visual artwork remaining from his teen years for this piece.
A slightly different version of this essay was published in a 2017 anthology by Nanna Lüth (Ed.) vorausgesetzt. Kunst/Pädagogik und ihre Bedingungen. Berlin, Germany: Revolver-Verlag.
Anzaldúa, G.E. (2002). (Un)natural bridges, (un)safe spaces. In: Anzaldúa & A. Keating (Eds.), This bridge we call home: Radical visions for transformation (p.5). New York, NY: Routledge.
Boothroyd, S. (2009). Queer teen identity formation and the arts (pp. 7-16).Unpublished manuscript, Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Boothroyd, S. (2013). Learning as a creative act of freedom: A tribute to professor Eleanor Duckworth. In W. Shorr, S. Hoidn, C. Lowry, & E. Cavicchi (Eds.), Always wondering…a mélange of Eleanor Duckworth and critical exploration (Vol. 1, pp. 80-85). Cambridge, MA: Critical Exploration Press.
Boothroyd, S. (2017). Queer and trans youth and the transformative power of the arts. In N. Lüth (Ed.), vorausgesetzt. Kunst/pädagogik und ihre bedingungen (pp. 58-69). Berlin, Germany: Revolver-Verlag.
Duckwork, E. (2006). “The having of wonderful ideas” and other essays on teaching and learning. New York, NY: Teachers College.
Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Continuum.
Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.