iO Tillett Wright: Artist. Activist. Social Scientist?

iO Tillett Wright did a Ted Talk and suddenly she’s everywhere. Which is not a bad thing. The reason for her talk (done at a Tedx Women event in 2012) was her fascinating new photography diary “Self Evident Truths”, which documents, through pictures, people who are “anything other than 100% straight”. The title comes from a phrase in the U.S. Constitution…. “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal”. The problem, according to Wright, is all men are not created equal. For someone like her, she is legally a 2nd class citizen. (But don’t ask her to define her sexuality, it’s a grey area). She also points out the absurd statistic that in 29 states, it is legal to fire someone for being gay. But for her, the issue is where does one draw the line? A person who has only had one or two heterosexual experiences or someone who has only had one or two homosexual experiences? Are they both considered gay? iO set out to explore that. She started in her home town of New York City and with support from the Human Rights Campaign spent two weeks taking photographs, planning on getting up to 4000 people. But how did iO get here?

Born and raised on Manhattan’s lower east side, iO grew up in the centre of the punk scene in New York in the late 1980s Back then, if one wasn’t an artist, punk, or drag queen, they were the weird ones. iO spent eight years living as a boy – from the ages of 6-14 – but yet did not consider herself transgender; she was comfortable in her body. As a child actor, she played male roles in film, including Walter in Julian Po starring Christian Slater. At the age of 14, she decided to “be a girl” again. It was no surprise to her, or her family, when she fell in love with members of both sexes.

When I spoke with iO and asked whether she is helping changing people’s minds, she stated the project is not for the folks who are virulently anti-gay. They can’t be changed. As she says in her talk, “familiarity is the key to empathy”. In other words, certain segments of the population may be against gay people because they have never met – or never think they have met – a LGBTQ person.

You may question the premise of her entire project. However, she mentions that when participants fill out her questionnaire, in which they asked to identify how gay or straight they are, most respondents fell within either the 70-75% range or the 3-5% area. What this shows is that there is a definite “grey area” of sexuality. Much like gender, it is clearly not binary, and affects people from every culture, race, ethnicity, social class, religion, political ideology, etc. It reminds me a lot of the “Kinsey Scale”. In the 1940s and 50s, zoologist, entomologist, and sexologist Alfred Kinsey wrote “Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male” (published 1948) and “Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female” (1953). He also created the scale which now bears his name. It is from 0-6, with zero being exclusively heterosexual and six being exclusively homosexual. Most participants fell within the 2-5 range. (Kinsey himself identified as 1 or 2). His life and work is explored in the great film “Kinsey” starring Liam Neeson and Laura Linney.

Back to iO. Since her project started in 2010, she has photographed over 6000 people in 20 different U.S. cities. What effect it will have on the movement, or on changing people’s minds is debatable. But to iO, that is not necessarily a problem. For her, it’s not a matter of if the gay rights movement will win, but when. Seven states now have legalized gay marriage, and several others have civil unions. Given the parallels between the gay rights movement of today, and the civil rights movement of 1950’s and 60s, I asked her how a good of a job she felt Obama has done for the advancement of gay rights. She says that while some criticize him for not doing more in his first term, she praises him for not only being the first black president, but for also talking about gay and lesbian men and women during his recent 2nd term inauguration speech. Her views are not without merit: three more states have same sex marriage bills on the table which are likely to pass. Many republicans recently signed an Amicus brief indicating their support. (Signees include Steve Schmidt, former Chief adviser for the 2008 McCain presidential campaign, Charles Bass, former congressman from New Hampshire, Karl Rove, and Beth Myers, senior adviser to Romney’s 2012 campaign). The document itself was put forward by Ken Mehlman, former chairman of the RNC who is gay, and is meant as a legal challenge to Proposition 8.

iO Tillett Wright may not change the opinions of the hardened opponents. Nor does she care too. Those who are warped by religion are unreachable, according to her. But for those who aren’t as familiar with the gay community, or never put much thought into it, for them there is hope. Clearly the numbers are on her side and a truly equal society may come to pass in the not-too-distant future.

To see iO’s original Self Evident Truths video:

For her Tedx Talk:

To learn more about the project you can visit

iO’s website:

My interview with iO:
twitter: @iolovesyou


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