Apr. 24, 2013 - Issue #914: Wine Country
To be Young and Gay: Sissies and Psychopaths explores the moulds of sexual identity
by Agnieszka Matejko
On April 12, only days after Daryl Vocat and Peter Kingstone set up their collaborative show Sissies and Psychopaths, a teen girl was attacked by a group of boys at a bus stop in Calgary. What motivated this vicious beating? The police are still investigating, but the probable cause is hate: she is openly gay. This incident brings to light the urgency behind the work of these Toronto-based artists; work that address issues of growing up gay with captivating humour punctuated by poignant and shocking commentary.
Their collaboration began with a requisition by the Hamilton Print Studio. "What was gay like when I was five?" was the question. The artists responded with a series of digital images culled from popular culture, such as cartoons and television shows. Each print was built up or collaged over email, one image at a time (the artists happened to be temporarily continents apart). The resulting artwork forms an intimate conversation, one that unveils incipient sexual identity.
For instance, "Every Time We Played House, I Wanted to be the Pet Monkey" began with Vocat's selection of a photo of rubber gloves, an image that to him connotes looming danger. Kingstone then nestled a tiny monkey in this oversized palm—a role he often took when playing house. "It wasn't that they played mom and dad," Vocat laughs. " He wanted to be the pet monkey. It's not in every kid's imagination."
Above the cute monkey hovers a photo of Vocat as a small boy. The cartoon bubble reads: "being gay is not just okay ... it's a feast of fun."
"It's what you always wanted someone to say and nobody ever told you," Vocat says. Being gay meant one of two things: you were either a sissy or a psychopath. "What would have happened if someone said that there is not one way of being in the world?" he wonders.
It's not a message that either Vocat or most children often hear. Amidst the innocence and humour of popular culture lies an ominous message. Childhood play, TV shows, cartoons and games reinforce—even command—adherence to prescriptive norms. This astonishingly uncompromising message carries a profound cost. The Journal of Pediatrics (published online, April 19, 2011) states that gay youth are five times more likely to attempt suicide.
"Why we have gay people killing themselves" says Kingstone, "is that they feel that they should not be a part of society."
But social costs are not confined to gay youth. Any deviation from sanctioned sexual norms be it weight, size or body shape carry shame and suffering. As Kingstone and Vocat's show gently, humourously and powerfully illustrates, children are immersed in imagery that moulds sexual identity: that mould is uncompromisingly small.
This show makes invisible social forces come to light. In the midst of the innocence and the joy depicted in their work lie hints of a savage truth. "Why don't you fucking die," reads a cartoon above one boy playing with another in "The Nightmare is Me." That's the message youth, like the teen girl recently beaten in Calgary, learn all too well.