For LGBTQ Pride 2018, HuffPost is highlighting 30 cultural influencers who have shifted the narrative when it comes to queer issues and whose work has contributed to building a more inclusive and equitable future for us all.
Quil Lemons is here to stay.
The 20-year-old photographer made waves in 2017 when he released “Glitter Boy,” a photo series challenging the norms of masculinity that society places on black men. His project, originally published in I-D magazine, went viral and afforded Lemons a bigger platform to showcase his art.
Since then, the Philadelphia native has created work that shifts the narrative of what it means to be black and queer in the art world ― and the world in general.
“We don’t have to be invisible anymore,” the New School journalism student said.
Through his work, Lemons is creating space and using his voice to amplify the voices of those who often go unheard, especially for those who are queer and/or black. His message is clear: Black and queer individuals’ identities are solely up to them to define.
Lemons spoke to HuffPost about his work as a part of our #TheFutureIsQueer profile series. He discussed how he uplifts his communities and why the hood is a work of art.
How did you get into photography, and what informs your art?
I think it started when I was in high school when I really started taking it seriously for myself and I got into it as documentation of my life and the narrative I want to leave behind. It started when I was in high school because I would go to concerts and I would take pictures of me and my friends just hanging out.
I think going to the New School definitely allowed me to expand my mind in ways I’ve never expanded it, and just in taking all the courses I’ve taken, even like African American history, I know so much about my own history and I was always involved. My mom would always sign me up for camp and stuff that was geared towards that and learning that, so I grew up on Malcolm X and I think that also informs my art, so there and going to school and just learning about everything else in the black sphere but also learning about the art sphere and also learning about white culture and like all. What that is and the fluid movement is and just like combining all of that world and still coming from my lens definitely changed a lot of my work, and I just became very mindful about the images I created.
Why did you feel it was important to create this platform for black men to express themselves more freely?
I think I reached a point where I was in school and learning all of this information that I planned to give back to my community, but I had to do it in ways that made sense for me and made sense for how I see the world and how I can get people to understand things. I think in a lot of ways visually. Even when I was doing the “Glitter Boy” series, I was like, “I’ve never seen a black boy in glitter, or like I’ve never seen a space for a black boy to be feminine and just express femininity.” And it’s like definitely there. And I even talked about it to my friends that are black and straight, and they’re like, “Yeah, bro, I’m pretty. I think these things.” But they never feel like they have the space to truly live in it. And so now, I feel like, with my generation, we’re definitely combating like a lot of ideas.
What are some misconceptions other have about you as an artist or your work based on your identity?
Me and my friends, we have an informal queer art pact, and we just think it’s so funny when we do these articles or when we do interviews and [we’re called] “the queer photographer.” I’m just a photographer. And then it’s also really funny that a lot of people who critique my work just assume the “Glitter Boy” project was something that was queer. It actually isn’t about queerness at all. It’s about my black identity. And I definitely am queer, and I always will be vocal in everything that I embody, but that project is very ambiguous, and I just think it’s funny how people always made it about something being queer and it’s actually more so about being black and having the space to present yourself however you want to without those stigmas being placed upon you. It was also to combat the stigma of being a thug. I think that’s another stereotype in the black community. If you’re not this stereotypical masculine thug, then you’re either considered white because you’re educated or you’re considered queer because you’re educated, and it’s just like, what the fuck, that makes no sense.
How did you come out? Do you think society unfairly pressures people who identify as LGBTQ to come out?
Coming out was really funny, because I remember when I was like 12 and my mom was like, “Ah, wait, no, you’re too young to be figuring that out,” and I feel like, even looking back now, I was always really self-aware, and so like, I always knew. I think I probably knew from like a young age I was queer, and I remember coming out and she was like, you’re too young to make that decision. And I was just like OK, but she also always gave me the space to be me. I had a therapist that wanted me to talk about just what queerness means. I feel like it was really useful, especially being adolescent where everything is like “Degrassi,” like the end of the world.
And so then I came out again when I was 18. My mom is really dramatic, so she texted me and was like, “Are you gay?” It took me an hour to respond because she’s so dramatic, and I was like, I don’t know how this is gonna go. It’s always like this fear coming out, and we really gotta get rid of that as a society. I feel like you shouldn’t have to come out. You should be able to behave and do whatever you want to do. But I just remember that was such a fear, and then I told her. My mom never really cared what it was, she just wanted me to be happy.
What’s been your experience as a gay black man publicly shining a light on these issues you identify with?
It’s really interesting being at that intersection of queerness and blackness, because for a while I felt like those things couldn’t exist. Especially publicly. And then if it did exist, it was like I don’t even know that many black queer people from like early on. Only person I can think of: Frank Ocean. That was literally it. I think that’s why I made a series in homage to him because that’s the one person that I had to like feel like some type of solace with, and I’m just happy that now we have the internet and it’s so many people out there putting out their narratives.
My friend Raymon was telling me that this 12-year-old boy that follows him on Instagram… messaged him like, “Oh, my God, you’re gay. Oh, my God, that’s so cool. I feel more comfortable being queer,” and that’s really cool. We have the internet, and it’s become this space of shared experience, and it’s like a community. No one can feel alone because there’s so many people you have access to and there’s like pros and cons to that. I think it’s a pro for the queer community cause you don’t know who’s queer around you but now online, even if someone isn’t in a 30-mile radius, you can talk to someone across the world and be like, “Oh, I have a friend that understands me, that gets me,” and you don’t have to feel like you can’t talk about things.
How do you use your narrative to shift the culture when approaching your photography?
I just recently had the opportunity to speak to Stephen Shore, and he’s like one of the first great photographers in American history. And he was basically saying that photography is a visual language and it’s how you talk, and he was urging us to speak freely, you should speak how you talk to your friends. I agree with that, but I think when you’re talking about black issues and also queer issues, this is a language that hasn’t been heard about or hasn’t been voiced, so I need to be super mindful. I need to treat this like a research paper. I need to hit out every point.
We’ve seen images of white bodies, and we explore the white world and we explore the white feminist gaze. I think now there are creatives that are like me really shifting the culture and putting our narratives out there, which are of color and even queerness. There are so many queer photographers and queer people who are out here telling their story, but it’s the story of many. Also, shoutout to him for even giving me that idea of just photography as visual language because that’s really how I approach my craft and sometimes I do approach it as how I’m talking to you right now. But when I’m doing bigger projects, like “Glitter Boy” and like “Purple,” these are things that haven’t been said. So I treat that as I’m writing these entire 10-page papers [in college], and so I need to be super mindful.
Let’s talk about “Purple.” It features the women and girls of your family, and it ran in Vogue. How important is it for you as a young artist to infiltrate these traditionally white spaces with your work?
Someone just asked me why did I shoot “Purple” in the way I did, and did I have intentions for it to be in Vogue from the start. It’s like, no, I shot “Purple” because my family kept bugging me to shoot them, which is really funny. [Last year,] I had the opportunity to be in Vogue, and I know how much that meant to me. Now my mother is seeing herself in Vogue. My grandmother is seeing herself in Vogue. My little sister has seen herself twice in one year. It adds validity to this experience as a woman, and it also is adding validity to black women everywhere, that we can exist on Vogue in any shape and size. I kind of want to convert that whole lens of black people can exist in those spaces.
My overall goal, as an artist, is to just show that there’s so much greatness in being black. There’s so much untapped creativity in the hood that gets overlooked. I shot that, literally, where I grew up. Those lawns, that’s an abandoned lot that hasn’t been touched for 20 years, and now they want to touch it and make it into a beer garden. I also shot it because gentrification is definitely happening, and I don’t know what that place might be. I go back in a year and it might be a whole fucking Walmart. People overlook it and be like, “Oh, that’s so ghetto. They did nothing to this lot.” I just know people used to play in that lot, and it’s like, now you see it, and it’s beautiful.
I think, a lot of times, for black people, even though we aren’t given much, we really make do. It’s a lot, but people have planted flowers there. Black people have always, even when we have nothing, we can find beauty in it. I think that’s another narrative I wanted to tell.
From “Glitter Boy” to “Purple,” each of your projects serve their own purpose, but what do you set out to achieve with your work overall?
So, in a sense, it’s like the projects don’t have anything to do with each other, I think other than they are me, I created them. I just think with my overall artistic narrative I’m just showing my identity. I remember when people were talking about my work, and talking about me, I just kind of went, when you think Quil, “Black, black, black, black, black.” Then I always think, “Yeah, I’m a black creator. I work in blackness.”
I think, as an overall narrative, I want people to view me not as a photographer but as an artist. Even though my discipline right now is photography, I think that as I grow as a creator, I’m going to explore other mediums. I don’t know what that will look like right now, because I’m so young, I think just give me the space to create and then let the narrative tell itself, and I think it will form. I can’t tell you what it’s going to be because I don’t even know.
This interview has been edited for brevity.
#TheFutureIsQueer is HuffPost’s monthlong celebration of queerness, not just as an identity but as action in the world. Find all of our PrideMonth coverage here.