Last summer Ryan Wilks began a very large art project.
He decided to paint enormous portraits of 12 members of the local lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer, intersex and asexual — LGBTQIA — community.
His initial concept was to make the exhibition as “in your face” as possible in retaliation for the negativity surrounding the legalization of gay marriage, a development he thought he’d never see.
Wilks, 28, of Kansas City, identifies as gay. And, OK, let’s not buffer this, what he actually said was that he saw people “pissing all over” the legalization of gay marriage, and he was really mad about it.
But once he got to work on the portraits he couldn’t stay mad. In fact, the intention behind his project shifted dramatically.
Part of Wilks’ concept included interviewing the subjects he’d carefully chosen to represent as many points on what he calls the “queer spectrum” as possible. He’s preaching the lesson he learned: People get keyed up about what they don’t understand, which can lead to hostility or worse.
Talk to one another — even though he is part of the community it hadn’t clicked with him that the experiences he’d uncover through conversation would be simply human experiences.
Now, at the heart of the project, is compassion for the subjects and a desire to bridge the gap between his community and the rest of society.
On a recent Sunday afternoon at Crow’s Coffee, shortly before this Friday’s opening of his exhibition, “Gender Treason,” at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, he reflected on a year’s worth of lessons learned.
“Essentially, there’s really nothing extraordinary about any of us,” Wilks said. “We’re all pretty much bound by the same human condition. There’s not an experience that was shared with me throughout this whole project from 12 different people that I can’t identify with as a human being.
“Even if it’s changing gender — I’ve never changed gender — but hearing them talk about the process of finding out who they were, being comfortable with who they were and pursuing who they were is an experience I can relate to. If you take away all the gender and all the sexuality part of it, really we’re all just trying to figure out how to be comfortable in our own skin.”
The community kicks in
Wilks started calling the project “Gender Treason,” a phrase coined by Andrew Chambers, one of his subjects.
Often those outside of the heteronormative sphere are treated by “regular” people as if they’re committing an act of treason against the church, their culture or their own genders by not falling in line with traditional concepts of male and female, Wilks explained.
Chambers, a burly, bearded 47-year-old, sips a coffee next to Alan Dunham, his equally burly and bearded partner of 28 years.
“ ‘Gender treason’ is an awesome headline, but I don’t think it’s all-encompassing,” Chambers said. “I don’t feel like I’m treasonous to my gender because I just follow my own drum. I always say I’m just the fat guy with the beard and makeup. I just see me, I don’t see another character.”
Dunham added, “There are always going to be some people that are yaysayers and others that are naysayers. Those naysayers are going to be the ones who feel the ‘gender treason’; they’re the ones who want to throw a label on you.”
Wilks grew up in and around the Kansas City suburbs and knew almost exclusively naysayers. He said he spent a lot of time working through self-loathing and negative perceptions of his mannerisms.
It wasn’t until he spent a couple of years living in San Francisco that he felt he belonged to a community of like-minded people, he said. He moved back to Kansas City in 2014 and searched for a similar circle. He was surprised when he found one.
For about six years he honed his skills as an artist — “just trying to make things pretty” — but his work had never stood for anything. Only in the past couple of years have his skills been solid enough, and his world-view clear enough, that he felt he might offer some insight.
Last summer, Wilks quickly saw that he’d underestimated the cost of “Gender Treason”: Canvas and oil paints are not inexpensive media to work in, and paintings and interviews would take a lot of time.
His job as a server at the Corner Restaurant on Broadway wouldn’t cover the cost of materials or afford him the needed hours. He reworked his projected budget, hired a curator and hatched a plan.
Within a month he’d raised $10,000 on Kickstarter and later received a $1,000 ArtsKC Inspiration Grant.
“The whole community started sharing it on social media and started donating,” he said.
The first person who agreed to sit for a portrait was Brian Bolton, who identifies as gay. The two met three years ago at Mud Pie Vegan Bakery and Coffee, where Bolton works. He loves the project for the visibility it is giving the community, and he loves the title.
But the only “treasonous” experience Bolton has had has been internal.
“I have felt untrue to myself,” Bolton said. “Maybe I wasn’t able to accept a lot of things about myself without thinking about it and talking things out. I am slowly accepting what it means to be part of the queer community.”
Bolton calls participating in the project therapeutic.
“I didn’t realize I was different or how much I stood out until someone tried to change me,” he said. “I have a really vivid memory of going to school and being in speech therapy and they tried to change the way I speak and make my voice deeper. But that’s not who I am, and it’s lying to myself and other people when I try to pass off.”
Bolton’s and Chambers’ comments echoed how others have come to think of the show’s title; never mind about committing treason against something external to them: They’d each spent a lot of time committing treason against themselves.
An array of experiences
In his effort to be all-inclusive, Wilks scoured the community for black, Latino and white participants who identified in a variety of ways.
He had known registered nurse Gary Hicks Jr. for two years. Hicks, a 27-year-old gay black man, said he has had his share of challenges both because of his orientation and his race. He said he was first called “gay” when he was a kid, before he even knew what it meant.
“I just remember that it was a bad thing and worthy of being picked on for,” Hicks said.
By the time he entered high school he felt he’d have to move away to decipher the feelings he was having, so he asked to live with his cousin’s family in Okinawa, Japan.
His cousin saw Hicks’ struggle and insisted he come out to his mother.
“She thought I was simply confused and suggested it was a phase,” he said. “I assured her it was not. She said she loved me regardless but hoped it was a phase because she did not want my life as a young black man to be complicated further by being gay.”
Contrast Hicks’ experience with that of another participant in the project, Terri Wilson. Wilson was born male but has spent most of her life easily passing as a woman. She has lived at Hope Care Center for 15 years, ever since a massive stroke rendered her paralyzed from the waist down when she was 34 years old.
Wilks unveiled Wilson’s painting for her at the facility. Most of the center’s staff and many of the residents were on hand for the event, which they treated as a party, complete with balloons, snacks and a sparkling cider toast.
Wilson, who was wheeled in wearing a tiara and colorful dress, looked on expectantly as Wilks pulled the sheet away from the portrait.
She said she had never been like other boys and had experimented with dressing as a girl for years. It wasn’t until her last year as a Navy cook on the USS Roosevelt that she decided to present as a woman any time she wasn’t in uniform.
Wilson separated from the Navy and stayed in Virginia Beach to go to beauty school and perform as a drag queen under the name “Miss Echo.” At her peak, she was the headliner for three different shows, a successful stylist by day, and owner of a beach house.
“I told my mom and dad I was doing something different and when I’m finished I’ll show you,” Wilson said of her early days in drag.
Her father couldn’t wait and drove to Virginia to see what she was up to. Like Hicks’ mother, Wilson’s parents were accepting and loving.
The youngest of Wilks’ subjects is 17. Grant Karpin mostly identifies as androgynous but came out to his mother as gay when he was 13, though she recalled that fourth grade might be more accurate.
Mimi Karpin said that even when Grant was a toddler she knew he was different and probably gay. The family kept the lines of communication open.
“He would not conform to the typical dress or common gender guidelines,” Mimi said. “We’re so proud that he stayed 100 percent true to himself even if it meant being bullied or subjected to comments. He identifies as Grant: androgyny without apology.”
Chambers, who has known Grant for three years, said he’s fascinated by the new generation that Grant represents.
“I know a lot of gay people who were shamed or treated poorly, or made to feel they were less than. To meet this pure queer kid who’s so well-adjusted …”
He turned to Grant to complete his thought. “You’re proud of yourself and you’re free to fall in love with a boy and get married now. This is a weird cosmos that we’ve not seen.”
Seeking a safe place
But there are still issues that divide, even within the community. Chambers noted that the recent emphasis on “correct” pronouns — using “they” to describe a single person rather than “he” or “she” — will further isolate them from the general public.
“That’s where the fear comes in,” Chambers said. “People are afraid to address you. They’d rather dismiss you than address you.”
Grant said insisting on certain pronouns puts up walls between people.
“If you’re calling yourself gender fluid you should be able to take a pronoun and not be offended,” Grant said. “You’re rewinding the whole process of moving forward.”
Ultimately, Wilks’ aim in portraying universal experiences in the community is to create safety and acceptance among the broader population, not a goal he can hope to achieve singlehandedly.
After the Orlando, Fla., shooting at a gay nightclub, Wilks attended a vigil at Barney Allis Plaza. He said Kansas City Mayor Sly James, with help from local LGBTQIA organizations, successfully created a safe place to grieve.
“It is obvious with the evidence released that the shooter, Omar Mateen, was struggling inwardly with his sexuality,” Wilks said. “I think the internalized homophobia that Mateen experienced, which was fostered by the political climate surrounding LBGTQIA issues, made him sick. LGBTQIA clubs are one of very few safe spaces queer people have to congregate, and his actions are treasonous to the community he was too afraid to embrace for himself.”
Contact Anne at firstname.lastname@example.org or @annekniggendorf.
A portion of the proceeds from “Gender Treason” will benefit three organizations striving to close divides and work toward safety and acceptance for the LGBTQIA community: LikeMe Lighthouse, Kansas City Passages and the Kansas City Anti-violence Project.