The defeat of the No on Prop 8 campaign provoked a shocked outpouring of grief within the Californian LGBT community that was channelled into a swell of new protest foundations. Conceived by celebrity photographer Adam Bouska and his partner Jeff Parshley, the NOH8 Campaign was one.
A photographic silent protest, the images featured members of the LGBT community and their sympathiser’s duct-taped at the mouth. The ‘NOH8’ slogan painted on one cheek, symbolising the silencing of their voices by Proposition 8’s blatant discrimination of human rights. Beginning at a grassroots level with portraits of everyday Californian’s, the protest quickly built momentum with the participation of politicians, military figures, artists and high profile celebrities. Now, over two years since the campaign’s inception, Bouska and Parshley are taking their message of NOH8 internationally for the very first time. Speaking with them last month at their first international shoot, I discussed the recent developments in New York, the state of gay affairs in modern day America, and why they felt this was the right time to come to London.
“The NOH8 campaign was created in direct response to the passing of Prop 8. It was our way of speaking out,” says Bouska, “but it has grown to encompass all forms of discrimination. We believe all humans should be treated equally, no matter what country or continent you are from.” This is definitely a passionate response from West Hollywood’s photographer of the year, and an opinion Parshley corresponds vehemently: “We want to show people that this is not a California issue. It’s not a US issue. It’s a Human Rights issue, and there are humans all over the world affected.”
After the passing of Proposition 8 with just 52% of the Californian vote, the state’s constitution was amended to clarify marriage as between one man and one woman only. Bouska and Parshley knew that they had to speak out. “We created a photo that speaks volumes without having to say anything at all” says Parshley. “It acts as a tool to create a dialogue, and to educate people. The NOH8 represents the protest. Prop 8 was called Prop H8 because it was literally writing discrimination into the California state constitution. Almost half of California was against it, but because 52% voted yes, it passed. The tape is to symbolise the silencing of our voices when the rights of a minority group go up for vote.”
The specific purpose of the campaign is to promote marriage, gender and human equality through education, advocacy, social and other media, and visual protest. “If we all come together” adds Bouska, “we can address the issue as a driving force and achieve equality for everyone.” Come together is just what the Californian people did, the protest beginning with portraits of everyday citizens from every walk of life. Soon the NOH8 cause was to attract huge celebrity interest and involvement, from portraits of Kim Kardashian and Kathy Griffin, to most recently troubled film star Lindsay Lohan, the kind of support that is invaluable to a campaign of this nature.
Parshley agrees, “It is vital. Each celebrity who has taken part has their own following of supporters and fans; they look up to the celebrity. When someone speaks out for equality, someone who has influence, they help educate and build support. They also show the public that they are not afraid to stand up for what they believe in. It helps encourage other people to stand up and speak out in support of equality.”
No one’s support could have been more influential, or unexpected, than that of Cindy McCain, wife of defeated Republican Presidential candidate John McCain. “We were taken back when she asked us if we would welcome her support by posing for a photo. However, Cindy did great things for us. She showed the country that marriage equality is not a party politics issue,” says Bouska. Her husband John’s staunch opposition to gay marriage was one of the key points of his Presidential campaign. “Because of Cindy’s involvement, we have been seeing more support from the Republican Party. The day her photo was released we had our biggest press day ever. What that did for us is present the NOH8 campaign to hundreds of thousands of new people. She raised a huge amount of awareness through that one photo.”
And has anyone ever turned down the opportunity to take part?
“It’s hard when dealing with celebrities and their teams to really know where the answer comes from,” says Parshley. “Suze Orman did say no herself, and Betty White’s team said she wouldn’t be able to participate. It’s unfortunate because they both have huge LGBT followings. I’m sure these women support equality; it is just unfortunate that we can’t get them to take a stand with us.”
As New York becomes the largest state in America to legalise same-sex marriage to date, you would not be foolish to have thought California equal in it’s potential as one of the most liberal states of the US. Bouska agrees, “I think that, because we all thought the same way you are thinking, Prop 8 would never pass. We were overly confident, and that was part of the problem. The Yes on Prop 8 campaign was extremely well funded and organised.” With such an outpouring of shock and disgust over the proposed amendment to the constitution, the organisations that were working for equality couldn’t help but be slightly disorganised. “There was a bit of head butting about how to go about things. If we all work as one big force, we will get more done!” The state senate’s passing of marriage equality in New York, a city of such huge international stature, is surely the biggest achievement for the cause thus far, and one that shall have shockwaves across the entire nation.
“We watched the live stream of the Senate hearing in the NOH8 Campaign headquarters. It was a great day!” says Parshley. “Now we need to work with the amazing organisations that worked tirelessly on this, and carry the momentum on to other states”
Though as Bouska reminds us, “they have full marriage rights, but we still need their voices!”
Besides the obvious legal advantages of marriage equality that come down to basic human rights, including those of the next of kin, the emotional resonance of the campaign is about acceptance.
Whilst being accepted from the start, Parshley was not exposed to homosexuality growing up. “I believe in smaller towns, gay people don’t feel like they can speak out and tell their friends and family about their sexuality. When I was growing up in New Hampshire, there was no talk about ‘Gay Issues’ or ‘Gay People’. There were no TV shows featuring gay characters to teach me what ‘Gay’ was.” Bouska had a similar experience. “Growing up in small town Illinois, I wasn’t exposed to gay culture. There were not many ‘out’ people at my high school, if any. I knew what my feelings were, I just wasn’t educated enough at the time to know those feelings were homosexual.”
As liberal and open minded, as the population may have become, the idea of portraying a same-sex lifestyle to be as normal as a heterosexual one is still built on such instability. The concept of protecting the sanctity of straight marriage is one fervently encouraged. Why should people still be so afraid of exposing their children to the normality of gay relationships, at an age when learning of all other aspects of sexuality? Can the idea of nurturing or promoting homosexuality really be one that holds any ground in the twenty first century? “I know some people still believe it” says Parshley, “Oddly enough though, those people are straight. I’m not sure I ever met a gay person that told me they chose to be gay.”
“ I think now with social media and the Internet, there is plenty of information that young people can access” says Bouska. “The organisations promoting marriage to be between one man and one woman use the topic of teaching kids about gay sex in schools as a way of scaring people into voting against equality.”
“ I think people fear what they do not know. I cannot say where these feelings develop from, but one thing I do know?” adds Parshley, “Discrimination, ignorance, is learned.”
With modern day heterosexual cultures and institutionalised homophobia, suicide amongst the LGBT community is comparatively higher than that of the general population. Add the use of the gay community as a political wedge issue in efforts such a Proposition 8; one of the greatest benefits of full-blown same-sex marriage would be actively embracing equality across the board of sexuality. Bouska believes “We can show the younger generation that they are free to live their lives with pride; they no longer have to hide who they are. From what I see, the younger generations are already more open to homosexuality. The more they know they have support and that there are people just like them, the more comfortable they will be with it.”
Two years down the line, what better moment to launch the NOH8 campaign internationally, starting with a photo shoot that took place in London’s gay Mecca, Soho, a day after this year’s Pride celebration. “We felt that because London, and the UK, has been progressive in their equality laws that it would be a great starting point internationally,” says Bouska. “We asked our supporters where they would like to see us take the campaign and we got a large response from London. We planned to be here during the Pride celebrations so that we can help bring a sense of activism back to the festivities.”
Whilst the introduction of Civil Partnerships has been a colossal step forward for the state of gay affairs in the UK, many can see it as a further segregation of the LGBT community. “From what I know about Civil Partnerships, it appears to be the same as marriage. Why not just call it marriage?” says Parshley. “Why should the LGBT community be any less equal to all heterosexual couples in the UK?”
“In addition to the one thousand plus benefits that a marriage licence provides as opposed to civil unions,” adds Bouska, “no one group is more superior to another. We are all humans here, and no one should have to settle for anything less than their neighbour or friend.”