Patrick Miranda's parents don't know he's gay. He remembers the moment he learned he shouldn't tell them.
His sister, who was in high school at the time, was showing their mother a picture of the boy she hoped would ask her to the homecoming dance. Miranda saw it and said, “He's hot.”
Miranda, now 23, said his mom and sister just stared at him, and the fear and disgust he saw in their eyes “placed a barb in my identity.” His mother, a devout Catholic, glared and told him to never say that about another guy again. From that point on, Miranda didn't mention it.
It took him years to come to terms with his own sexuality. He didn't admit it to himself until he was in high school. He moved to Omaha to attend college when he was 18, hoping he was far enough away from his family in Illinois to avoid coming out to them.
Now Miranda, along with other local LGBT youth, is sharing his story with all of Omaha as part of local artist Neil Orians' “We Are Here” art project.
Orians has created ornately designed portraits of the participants on yard signs, posters and cardboard boxes and placed them in neighborhoods across town. The portraits have QR codes that link back to a website where Orians has posted stories written by local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth.
There are 10 stories finished so far, and they cover a variety of topics. One woman, for instance, talks about her process of coming out and how she feels she'll never be done telling people about her sexuality. Others reflect on their fear of coming out and the possibility they will never be able to. The stories run the gamut of LGBT experiences. No two are the same, and not all end happily.
Billie Grant-Bridges in her story talks about how she considered herself straight up through high school. But when she started college, she said she developed a “girl crush.” She assumed she was infatuated with just this one woman, but others followed. Once she realized she wasn't straight, she started telling people, letting them into what she calls her “bubble.”
Her portrait in the project is now covered with bubbles, an homage to her story, as well as her bubbly personality. It's part of Orians' efforts to make the portraits reflect the content of the subjects' stories.
Miranda's picture is covered with crosses because of his family's religious background.
All of the portraits are colorful and topped with brightly printed geometric shapes that interact with the subject's bodies.
Although “We Are Here” is a guerrilla art project, Orians had no intention of defacing property. So he started the project by printing on boxes, which are easily moved, he said. If people are unhappy with a box's location, they can remove it, unlike a stencil or other more permanent forms of street art.
Orians is a fellow at the Union for Contemporary Art, which requires a community service project. He had been researching gay history and learned that some of the first major activists in performance art were gay. He realized he needed to start making art about what he knew: gay advocacy. During a conversation with Drew Heckman, founder of Queer Nebraska Youth Networks, Orians put the pieces together. He had always wanted to print on boxes, and this project made for a natural fit.
Orians had worked on a similar idea to this project and submitted it for consideration to an Anti-Defamation League art exhibit. The project wasn't accepted, so Orians decided to do it on his own. He published his own coming out story and self portrait in August. He then began approaching friends and asking them to participate. Some want to stay anonymous because they aren't out in their day-to-day lives and feel safer that way. Others are well-known members of the LGBT community.
Heckman was one of the first people to be featured in Orians' project. In his story, he talks about coming out as a teenager via AOL Instant Messenger and how his grandparents reacted when they eventually found out. In his story, Heckman said they were mortified and sent him anti-gay books. He didn't even know about the books until he headed to college, when his father nervously gave them to him.
Heckman said that one of the hardest parts of growing up in Omaha was not knowing anyone else who identified like him. He said it was difficult for him to envision life as a happy, gay adult.
“So when I heard about Neil's project, I thought it was great because it let young people themselves assert their voice and take up space in a way that I think they're rarely allowed to do,” Heckman said.
The purpose of the project isn't only to educate others about the struggles of LGBT youth, Orians said. It's also about empowering the subjects and giving them the ability to tell their story in a way that is safe for them. He said he's trying to build a sense of solidarity among the LGBT community.
“[I want them] to just understand that they are not alone and that we are here,” Orians said.
Orians and Heckman now are looking for funds to travel across the state and make short documentaries about LGBT youth, particularly in rural communities. And Orians would like to put together a print publication for older people to share their stories.
Orians has created a larger installation for National Coming Out Day on Friday. His portraits will be blown up onto much larger boxes and new portraits will be premiered. Orians will also be taking pictures live and posting them. There will also be an interactive panel on which attendees can draw symbols or words that express their identity.
National Coming Out Day will be celebrated with a community festival from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Friday at ConAgra Park Plaza, 10th and Farnam Streets. Check out Orians' project at we-are-queer.tumblr.com.