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  • Human beings start putting each other into boxes

  • the second that they see each other --

  • Is that person dangerous? Are they attractive?

  • Are they a potential mate? Are they a potential networking opportunity?

  • We do this little interrogation when we meet people

  • to make a mental resume for them.

  • What's your name? Where are you from?

  • How old are you? What do you do?

  • Then we get more personal with it.

  • Have you ever had any diseases?

  • Have you ever been divorced?

  • Does your breath smell bad while you're answering my interrogation right now?

  • What are you into? Who are you into?

  • What gender do you like to sleep with?

  • I get it.

  • We are neurologically hardwired

  • to seek out people like ourselves.

  • We start forming cliques as soon as we're old enough

  • to know what acceptance feels like.

  • We bond together based on anything that we can --

  • music preference, race, gender, the block that we grew up on.

  • We seek out environments that reinforce our personal choices.

  • Sometimes, though, just the question "what do you do?"

  • can feel like somebody's opening a tiny little box

  • and asking you to squeeze yourself inside of it.

  • Because the categories, I've found, are too limiting.

  • The boxes are too narrow.

  • And this can get really dangerous.

  • So here's a disclaimer about me, though,

  • before we get too deep into this.

  • I grew up in a very sheltered environment.

  • I was raised in downtown Manhattan in the early 1980s,

  • two blocks from the epicenter of punk music.

  • I was shielded from the pains of bigotry

  • and the social restrictions of a religiously-based upbringing.

  • Where I come from, if you weren't a drag queen or a radical thinker

  • or a performance artist of some kind,

  • you were the weirdo.

  • (Laughter)

  • It was an unorthodox upbringing,

  • but as a kid on the streets of New York,

  • you learn how to trust your own instincts,

  • you learn how to go with your own ideas.

  • So when I was six, I decided that I wanted to be a boy.

  • I went to school one day and the kids wouldn't let me play basketball with them.

  • They said they wouldn't let girls play.

  • So I went home, and I shaved my head,

  • and I came back the next day and I said, "I'm a boy."

  • I mean, who knows, right?

  • When you're six, maybe you can do that.

  • I didn't want anyone to know that I was a girl, and they didn't.

  • I kept up the charade for eight years.

  • So this is me when I was 11.

  • I was playing a kid named Walter

  • in a movie called "Julian Po."

  • I was a little street tough that followed Christian Slater around and badgered him.

  • See, I was also a child actor,

  • which doubled up the layers of the performance of my identity,

  • because no one knew that I was actually a girl really playing a boy.

  • In fact, no one in my life knew that I was a girl --

  • not my teachers at school, not my friends,

  • not the directors that I worked with.

  • Kids would often come up to me in class

  • and grab me by the throat to check for an Adam's apple

  • or grab my crotch to check what I was working with.

  • When I would go to the bathroom, I would turn my shoes around in the stalls

  • so that it looked like I was peeing standing up.

  • At sleepovers I would have panic attacks

  • trying to break it to girls that they didn't want to kiss me

  • without outing myself.

  • It's worth mentioning though

  • that I didn't hate my body or my genitalia.

  • I didn't feel like I was in the wrong body.

  • I felt like I was performing this elaborate act.

  • I wouldn't have qualified as transgender.

  • If my family, though, had been the kind of people to believe in therapy,

  • they probably would have diagnosed me

  • as something like gender dysmorphic

  • and put me on hormones to stave off puberty.

  • But in my particular case,

  • I just woke up one day when I was 14,

  • and I decided that I wanted to be a girl again.

  • Puberty had hit, and I had no idea what being a girl meant,

  • and I was ready to figure out who I actually was.

  • When a kid behaves like I did,

  • they don't exactly have to come out, right?

  • No one is exactly shocked.

  • (Laughter)

  • But I wasn't asked to define myself by my parents.

  • When I was 15, and I called my father

  • to tell him that I had fallen in love,

  • it was the last thing on either of our minds

  • to discuss what the consequences were

  • of the fact that my first love was a girl.

  • Three years later, when I fell in love with a man,

  • neither of my parents batted an eyelash either.

  • See, it's one of the great blessings of my very unorthodox childhood

  • that I wasn't ever asked to define myself

  • as any one thing at any point.

  • I was just allowed to be me, growing and changing in every moment.

  • So four, almost five years ago,

  • Proposition 8, the great marriage equality debate,

  • was raising a lot of dust around this country.

  • And at the time, getting married wasn't really something

  • I spent a lot of time thinking about.

  • But I was struck by the fact that America,

  • a country with such a tarnished civil rights record,

  • could be repeating its mistakes so blatantly.

  • And I remember watching the discussion on television

  • and thinking how interesting it was

  • that the separation of church and state

  • was essentially drawing geographical boundaries throughout this country,

  • between places where people believed in it

  • and places where people didn't.

  • And then, that this discussion was drawing geographical boundaries around me.

  • If this was a war with two disparate sides,

  • I, by default, fell on team gay,

  • because I certainly wasn't 100 percent straight.

  • At the time I was just beginning to emerge

  • from this eight-year personal identity crisis zigzag

  • that saw me go from being a boy

  • to being this awkward girl that looked like a boy in girl's clothes

  • to the opposite extreme of this super skimpy,

  • over-compensating, boy-chasing girly-girl

  • to finally just a hesitant exploration of what I actually was,

  • a tomboyish girl

  • who liked both boys and girls depending on the person.

  • I had spent a year photographing this new generation of girls, much like myself,

  • who fell kind of between-the-lines --

  • girls who skateboarded but did it in lacy underwear,

  • girls who had boys' haircuts but wore girly nail polish,

  • girls who had eyeshadow to match their scraped knees,

  • girls who liked girls and boys who all liked boys and girls

  • who all hated being boxed in to anything.

  • I loved these people, and I admired their freedom,

  • but I watched as the world outside of our utopian bubble

  • exploded into these raging debates

  • where pundits started likening our love to bestiality on national television.

  • And this powerful awareness rolled in over me

  • that I was a minority, and in my own home country,

  • based on one facet of my character.

  • I was legally and indisputably a second-class citizen.

  • I was not an activist.

  • I wave no flags in my own life.

  • But I was plagued by this question:

  • How could anyone vote to strip the rights

  • of the vast variety of people that I knew

  • based on one element of their character?

  • How could they say that we as a group

  • were not deserving of equal rights as somebody else?

  • Were we even a group? What group?

  • And had these people ever even consciously met a victim of their discrimination?

  • Did they know who they were voting against and what the impact was?

  • And then it occurred to me,

  • perhaps if they could look into the eyes

  • of the people that they were casting into second-class citizenship

  • it might make it harder for them to do.

  • It might give them pause.

  • Obviously I couldn't get 20 million people to the same dinner party,

  • so I figured out a way where I could introduce them to each other photographically

  • without any artifice, without any lighting,

  • or without any manipulation of any kind on my part.

  • Because in a photograph you can examine a lion's whiskers

  • without the fear of him ripping your face off.

  • For me, photography is not just about exposing film,

  • it's about exposing the viewer

  • to something new, a place they haven't gone before,

  • but most importantly, to people that they might be afraid of.

  • Life magazine introduced generations of people

  • to distant, far-off cultures they never knew existed through pictures.

  • So I decided to make a series of very simple portraits,

  • mugshots if you will.

  • And I basically decided to photograph anyone in this country

  • that was not 100 percent straight,

  • which, if you don't know, is a limitless number of people.

  • (Laughter)

  • So this was a very large undertaking,

  • and to do it we needed some help.

  • So I ran out in the freezing cold,

  • and I photographed every single person that I knew that I could get to

  • in February of about two years ago.

  • And I took those photographs, and I went to the HRC and I asked them for some help.

  • And they funded two weeks of shooting in New York.

  • And then we made this.

  • (Music)

  • Video: I'm iO Tillett Wright, and I'm an artist born and raised in New York City.

  • (Music)

  • Self Evident Truths is a photographic record of LGBTQ America today.

  • My aim is to take a simple portrait

  • of anyone who's anything other than 100 percent straight

  • or feels like they fall in the LGBTQ spectrum in any way.

  • My goal is to show the humanity that exists in every one of us

  • through the simplicity of a face.

  • (Music)

  • "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal."

  • It's written in the Declaration of Independence.

  • We are failing as a nation

  • to uphold the morals upon which we were founded.

  • There is no equality in the United States.

  • ["What does equality mean to you?"]

  • ["Marriage"] ["Freedom"] ["Civil rights"]

  • ["Treat every person as you'd treat yourself"]

  • It's when you don't have to think about it, simple as that.

  • The fight for equal rights is not just about gay marriage.

  • Today in 29 states, more than half of this country,

  • you can legally be fired just for your sexuality.

  • ["Who is responsible for equality?"]

  • I've heard hundreds of people give the same answer:

  • "We are all responsible for equality."

  • So far we've shot 300 faces in New York City.

  • And we wouldn't have been able to do any of it

  • without the generous support of the Human Rights Campaign.

  • I want to take the project across the country.

  • I want to visit 25 American cities, and I want to shoot 4,000 or 5,000 people.

  • This is my contribution to the civil rights fight of my generation.

  • I challenge you to look into the faces of these people

  • and tell them that they deserve less than any other human being.

  • (Music)

  • ["Self evident truths"]

  • ["4,000 faces across America"]

  • (Music)

  • (Applause)

  • iO Tillett Wright: Absolutely nothing could have prepared us for what happened after that.

  • Almost 85,000 people watched that video,

  • and then they started emailing us from all over the country,

  • asking us to come to their towns and help them to show their faces.

  • And a lot more people wanted to show their faces than I had anticipated.

  • So I changed my immediate goal to 10,000 faces.

  • That video was made in the spring of 2011,

  • and as of today I have traveled to almost 20 cities

  • and photographed almost 2,000 people.

  • I know that this is a talk,

  • but I'd like to have a minute of just quiet

  • and have you just look at these faces

  • because there is nothing that I can say that will add to them.

  • Because if a picture is worth a thousand words,

  • then a picture of a face needs a whole new vocabulary.

  • So after traveling and talking to people

  • in places like Oklahoma or small-town Texas,

  • we found evidence that the initial premise was dead on.

  • Visibility really is key.

  • Familiarity really is the gateway drug to empathy.

  • Once an issue pops up in your own backyard or amongst your own family,

  • you're far more likely to explore sympathy for it

  • or explore a new perspective on it.

  • Of course, in my travels I met people