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An Open Letter To Young Queer Artists    

An Open Letter To Young Queer Artists

BY JACOB SEFERIAN

Artwork by Lauren Platzker

Dear Queer Class of 2020,

First of all, sorry. If it was hard to make a living as an artist before, it’ll be exponentially harder for you now. And I don’t mean to pile on, but I want to tell you what I wish someone had told me.

As you climb the ladder, don’t conflate commodifying your identity with embracing it. 

If it happens, it won’t be entirely your fault—it’s a natural response to a market which, by design, thrives on performance and treats experience as something finite one can sell. Fitting yourself into a box, perimeters designated by corporate interest, is appealing because 1) rent is due and 2) it feels good to be recognized, especially by shiny magazines and cultural gatekeepers. But it’s a slippery slope, and before you know it you may find yourself at Condé Nast, pitching different mutations of “Gaycation” to 30-something execs who run up a tab at By CHLOE. 

When I was where you are, I was rightfully obsessed with making a living. I had just graduated college and was tired of waiting tables and felt a liveable wage doing what I love (and was reasonably good at) was my divine right. My limited interaction with mainstream media, one obsessed with parsing out differences, sexual and/or cultural, in the most banal, straight-forward way imaginable—if you’ve been on Twitter lately, you’ll see how the media writ large has failed to grasp “representation” beyond giving a select few non-normative people keycards—taught me that gay (especially if you’re cis and white) was in. And I didn’t know it at the time, but I began to use my identity as a selling point. 

I wrote with broad-as-fuck strokes, watering down mountains of experience to surface level essays that often started with “Queer” and ended with “Why It Matters.” It was work centered on explaining rather than portraying. Stuck in the realm of defining, I lost nuance and betrayed the complexity of my identity. Figuring that by kicking in the doors of institutions that routinely reject our kind, I was doing something—but it wasn’t much, and ultimately I was losing sight of the community I was supposedly advocating for. It wasn’t my lens, it was theirs. 

It worked, sort of. I sold stories. I got salaried. But I woke up one day and realized I hadn’t written anything for myself in over two years. I wish someone had told me there was another way, that protecting my integrity would actually ensure a more sustainable and fulfilling living. That softening my edges in corporate spaces was helping no one, least of all other queers.

So, as you embark on your careers, likely fresh from environments where you constantly hear the word queer followed by “theory”, I urge you to resist the temptation of turning your identity into a brand. Identity is not a performance and it cannot be isolated to a set of experiences. Focus on what you want to say, not what you think a hetero mainstream wants to hear. You’re an artist, right? Not a tour guide. 

Make art for each other. I promise it’ll be better. 

Jacob