Reading The Rainbow is an original regular feature at Musings From Neville’s Navel. I’m a queer bookworm who loves to geek out about books and LGBTQ+ topics, so why not talk about both subjects at once?! Basically, I review books with queer characters and/or themes, discuss the pros and cons of each, and tell you which stories are worth your time!
Author: Rachelle Lee Smith
Length: 128 pages
Published by: PM Press
Date of publication: 2014
A photographic essay that explores a wide spectrum of experiences told from the perspective of a diverse group of young people, ages 14–24, identifying as queer, Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus presents portraits without judgment or stereotype by eliminating environmental influence with a stark white backdrop. This backdrop acts as a blank canvas, where each subject’s personal thoughts are handwritten onto the final photographic print.
With more than 65 portraits photographed over a period of 10 years, the book provides rare insight into the passions, confusions, prejudices, joys, and sorrows felt by queer youth and gives a voice to an underserved group of people that are seldom heard and often silenced. The collaboration of image and first-person narrative serves to provide an outlet, show support, create dialogue, and help those who struggle.
Previous Reading The Rainbow posts may be found here.
I am a very visual person, so as soon as I pulled Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus off the shelf in my hometown library, I was intrigued. This photo essay is a book version of a photography exhibit about LGBTQ+ youth!
The book begins with a description of the photographic process – the type of camera used, how Smith found her subjects, et cetera. This was fun to read about since one of my hobbies is photography!
The rest of the book is devoted to her photography. The design is definitely eye-catching, and I thought the photographer did an excellent job of conveying the personality of each subject. (Of course, they did some of that on their own too!) It was fun to flip through this book, gazing at the pictures and doing only minimal reading.
(I love books like this. I love great big books with lots and lots of words, too, but sometimes it’s fun to read something in less than half an hour.)
I really appreciated the diversity of the participants. Speaking OUT represents a variety of sexual orientations, gender identities, races, and more. One of the subjects was in a wheelchair, and multiple subjects talked about their mental health struggles. I was really glad to see that because mental illness is a huge issue in our community, and often exacerbated by the stresses of being LGBTQ+.
Also, I LOVED seeing so much racial diversity, because the way we’re portrayed in books and movies and especially TV isn’t representative of who we really are: There are more queer people of color than queer white people, but you wouldn’t know this from looking at mainstream media.
Some of the participants wrote quotes or song lyrics on their portraits, while others wrote original stuff. Some were serious, and others were funny. (“Forget the saying, ‘What came first – the chicken or the egg?’ What I want to know is, if you’re a vegetarian, can you still eat animal crackers? Puzzling, isn’t it?”)
I didn’t necessarily agree with all of the viewpoints put forth by the participants, but then I suppose the goal of this book was to show the young LGBTQ+ community, warts and all. I mean, one of the gay guys wrote some pretty misogynistic stuff, and I was just like… why?
My favorite quotes from this book come from the same girl: “The boys used to pay us to kiss each other. A couple of years later, they beat us up for the same thing” and “People aren’t afraid of being caught staring at you when they feel superior.” YOU GO, GIRL. TELL IT LIKE IT IS.
Because this project was years in the making, several of the participants had their own Then/Now sections, where they reflected on who they used to be, what they would write on a portrait of themselves today, et cetera. Some said they hated what they’d written; others said that while they wouldn’t write the same thing now, what they wrote back then was an accurate reflection of who they used to be.
Aaaaand that nearly wraps up my review, but not quite. There were two things I disliked about this book, and now is the time to discuss them both.
First of all, a handful of participants had illegible handwriting. At times, this made Speaking OUT very frustrating to read. I do think that having each subject write on their own portrait gave the book a nice, personal touch, but… if I’d been in charge of the project, I would’ve A) reminded everyone to write legibly and B) probably made people redo their contribution if it was illegible.
Secondly, there were blurbs for the book INSIDE THE BOOK.
I would’ve liked to see quotes from participants about what it was like to work on this project with Rachelle Lee Smith, or maybe quotes about the exhibit from someone who visited it, but those weren’t to be found.
I can’t understand why there was praise for the book inside of the book – that stuff is meant to go on the outside. (Also, it’s not like it was even needed: If I’m already reading this book, then I don’t need someone to tell me why I should read it.) After a while, it grew irritating, and felt like the author was trying too hard to promote her book.
I would recommend this book to…
- Photography enthusiasts
- Anyone looking for a quick read
- PEOPLE WHO NEED A BREAK FROM LGBTQ+ STORIES AND WANT SOME HONEST-TO-GOD LGBTQ+ NONFICTION
All in all, reading Speaking OUT was a good way to spend half an hour or so. Obviously, I had a few issues with it, and its length meant that it wasn’t SUPER memorable, but I still think this book is important: Queer youth who were unable to visit this exhibit, who are growing up in tiny homophobic towns, who don’t know any other LGBTQ+ people IRL or online, need this book. It would be something good to read whenever I’m having another Internalized Homophobia Crisis, and I’m feeling sad and alone.
…on a happier note, this makes me want to grab my camera and take pictures of all of my friends! YAY FOR CREATIVITY AND INSPIRATION AND PHOTOGRAPHY. Unfortunately, this activity isn’t feasible at the moment, because most of my LGBTQ+ friends are scattered across the United States… and the world. OH WELL. SOMEDAY. SOMEDAY, IT’LL HAPPEN. I’LL TAKE PICTURES OF ALL YOUR CUTE LIL FACES.