As the online world becomes increasingly entwined with our day-to-day lives, LGBTQIA+ leaders like Julio Roman (founder of Out Agency), Jason Katternhorn (founder of Sassify Zine) and Christian Parker (founder of Gay & Sober), work to ensure everyone is represented and cared for in the digital sphere. To celebrate Pride month, I sat down with each of these three personalities to discuss the unique challenges and joys of being a leader in the LGBTQIA+ community, what that looks like in the online sphere, and what it’s like to create a website that manifests pride all year long.
Tip: Help make the web a more inclusive place by learning how to create an LGBTQIA+ friendly website, donating to LGBTQIA+ causes, or hosting inclusive events.
Julio Roman, founder of Out Agency, creates environments where LGBTQIA+ people can express themselves 100% authentically, without fear of harm or prejudice. Using a peer-led, peer-driven model, his agency partners businesses and organizations with LGBTQIA+ community leaders to create safe spaces that better service the LGBTQIA+ population.
“We help organizations understand that in order to create a safe space, their team, staff members, and leadership must represent those values,” Roman says. “We inform them about their policies and procedures, their branding, the way they communicate, the words that they use, and more.”
The author of Out of Space, Roman has 20+ years of experience making “safe space in unlikely places.” Together with his business partner Raphael Cuello, the artistic mind behind Out Agency’s web design, we discussed what it means to create a safe space today, and how their website design helps facilitate growth and inclusion online:
Wix: How does Out Agency’s peer-driven model work?
Julio Roman: We bring different LGBTQIA+ community leaders who are willing to share their voice together to talk about what safe space messaging looks like to their community and what programs will serve them in terms of structure, availability and staff.
Sometimes, for an organization, this leads to changing policy or training the staff for cultural competency or safer language use.
Did your support for the LGBTQIA+ community change during the pandemic, as many people shifted online?
The pandemic put a fire under all our plans. We had to reinvent almost everything.
With all of these LGBTQIA+ centers shutting down, the community didn't have a physical place to go. We looked for alternatives to safe spaces and saw that the community was already connecting via the internet and social media.
Moving online and building a website is the new safe space. We learned that we had to centralize and adapt our in-person services, like one-on-one counseling sessions, to an online format to make them just as available—if not more easily available.
What role did your web design play in your shift online?
Raphael Cuello: Practically speaking, we use fantastic scheduling and bookings tools that allow audiences to book services and pay for it right on the website. It’s easy for them and easy for us to keep records.
Building our online presence also meant rethinking how we presented ourselves to the LGBTQIA+ community. I have a very clean aesthetic, so keeping both our desktop and mobile website pretty was really important to me. In addition, we wanted visitors to both the Julio Roman and Out Agency websites to feel welcome, seen and supported.
For the Out Agency, I wanted allies looking to learn to feel just as welcome as an LGBTQIA+ person. And I wanted LGBTQIA+ people to feel that our services were created for their needs, so we used language and visuals that would captivate them. I incorporated our own graphics, but we also used the Wix Editor library which had a fantastic array of LGBTQIA+ imagery.
In your book, Out of Space, you write that a safe space doesn’t necessarily imply a physical space. This seems more relevant now than ever—can you elaborate on this idea?
The premise of my book was challenging everyone to think outside the bounds of the physical location when it came to safe spaces and to put that ownership on ourselves. If we truly represent the values of a safe space, no matter where we go, people will understand that you represent and respect these values. That’s ultimately my message at the end of the day with anyone I work with: In order to create a safe space, you need to be one first.
Jason Katternhorne started Sassify Zine 2017. The award-winning project gives a voice to queer artists and exposes queer art culture by printing artworks from LGBTQIA+ artists in a zine format and online platform.
“Originally, Sassify was a way for me to showcase my own artwork and the work of those I admired,” explains Katternhorne. “It was around this time that I started to explore my own queerness—and as I did that, the zine explored it as well. I've learned a lot about my own queerness through the zine, and I think other people can learn, too— within and outside of the queer community.” says the artist.
Each issue of Sassify has its own theme and features 30 queer artists from around the world—both up-and-coming and established. In addition to print issues, Katternhorne uses his website and social media presence to connect new audiences to queer art and promote artists by showcasing their work and encouraging collaboration.
“I'm very visual. That's why I use artwork and illustration to convey information,” adds Katternhorne. “It’s easier for me to process something if it’s really beautiful, and I hope that's the same for other people.”
Katternhorne spoke with me about what queer art is, the pros and cons of selling art online and the importance of building a presence in the art world—on and offline—to strengthen the queer art community:
Wix: How do you define queer art?
Jason Katterhorne: Queer art is bold, defiant, and challenging to the viewer. For me, illustration is an accessible visual that can make someone challenge their own perceptions of the queer community. Others may define queer creativity through photography, collage, painting.
Whatever medium used, I hope that queer art gives everyone the tools to become better allies. The community has a strong visual story to tell. I’m exploring highlighting disabled bodies that you don’t see in mainstream illustration. I want to convey to those not used to seeing this that queer bodies are beautiful. I've worked with a lot of queer and straight artists, and I think anyone can create queer art if they’re respectful and embrace the community.
Why is it important to have a platform like Sassify Zine?
Sassify has evolved into this platform where I can give other LGBTQIA+ people the motivation to get more creative, too—and the opportunity to showcase their work. It's not easy for queer kids now, although it's a lot easier than what it was. And Oxford, where I’m based, has a good queer community, but its not necessariy creative or art focused.
There’s also a lot of disparity within the queer community itself, and older queer person might not understand a non-binary person or a transgender person, because it's a completely different sort of queer community than what it was when they were younger. So I think it's important to use art to help bridge this gap, not only between the LGBTQIA+ community and outside of it, but also within it.
When it comes to our audience, I think it's important to give access to this sort of information and to see the artwork. People often ask me what is queer? It’s something they really struggle with. I believe you have to see it to understand it.
Now I can say, “just have a look.” Sassify can be a tool to give everyone like access to this information and they can form ideas about the queer community
Much of the art world—including galleries, art book fairs and zine fairs—was put on hold during the pandemic. How did you adapt your platform to better suit a growing online audience?
Before Covid, I was publishing annually—I published my last physical copy in 2020. That led me to start focusing on how to feature art and artists using my digital assets, like my website, Zoom meetings and Instagram.
When I started my website five years ago, it was much simpler, with mostly my own work. Over the years, I’ve worked with so many artists, so put up an artist page for them too. There are 30 artists on there at the moment and I’m in the process of adding on more. It’s a database for anyone looking for queer artists.
Visually, the site has evolved too. I started with a black and white background, but over the years as I’ve explored my own queerness and built the platform, the web design started to represent the boldness of Sassify zine itself—with lots of color and patterns.
What were the added benefits of this online shift?
Tools like social media, eCommerce and email marketing have been instrumental in promoting the artists and selling zines.
For me, it’s also really important for people who can’t get out of their house, especially queer disabled people, to have access to this art and connect with the community. I’ve organized online events and given talks on Zoom. I also constantly email with artists who want advice on how to create their own zines.
My next goal is to make the zines digital, so they can be free and accessible on the website.
How can we support queer art and culture all year round?
Start by searching for queer artists on the internet. You can find so many just by typing in “queer artists” into Google or searching the hashtag “queer art” on Instagram.
You can also buy artwork, zines and art books from LGBTQIA+ creatives. If you can’t afford to purchase, share their work via Instagram story and tag their account.
When it’s relevant, I think bigger platforms and companies should give the space for more LGBTQIA+ individuals to share their stories year round. I’d love to see more interviews with queer artists who are not necessarily influencers, and those from Black and Native American queer communities.
33% of LGBTQ+ community in New York is sober or struggling with their sobriety. Christian Parker started a private Facebook group in 2009 to connect those who self identified as gay men looking for safe and fun events during Pride week. Now, Gay & Sober is a non-profit organization spanning all major cities in the U.S., in addition to London, Mexico City, Berlin, Dublin and Tokyo. The non-profit provides online support, resources, in-person gatherings and other events during the year that show these people they can find their tribe, outside of the bars and clubs.
Apart from their annual, inclusive LGBTQ+ Pride Celebration, the group hosts an annual Men’s Conference coinciding with Pride month, featuring events, activities, and workshops geared toward gay men in recovery.
In the midst of these preparations, Parker spoke to me about the work he does year-round and what it takes to keep the momentum online.
Wix: In addition to on-site groups and events, how do you support the Gay & Sober community online?
Christian Parker: In March of 2020, as soon as the lockdown started in the United States, our team mobilized. Within 48 hours, we had a nightly, community drop-in center on Zoom. Anyone and everyone who is LGBTQIA+ and in recovery—whether they're already sober, newly sober, or curious about getting sober—can participate in the hour-long session.
Our social media presence has expanded, with Gay & Sober’s Instagram following jumping about 40% in 2020. We also have our private Facebook groups where people can share when they don’t have a physical place to go and do that.
We launched our website a few years ago and the traffic has just been incredible. With it, we’ve expanded our services and reached more people. Anyone who comes to our site can also join our mailing list and stay informed.
What is the importance of building an online presence for the sober LGBTQIA+ community?
Big cities like New York, LA, and Tel Aviv have huge existing LGBTQIA+ communities. But elsewhere, support is harder to find. I recently had a man reach out to me from East Africa. He’s gay and sober, and it’s illegal to be gay in his country. He connected with us to find online resources, virtual meetings and advice.
I see our online assets as a bridge. We hope that once they find us we can eventually connect them with someone in-person, or that they can come meet us and join one of our events.
Can you sum up some of the unique joys that come along with the challenges of being an LGBTQIA+ leader?
Even though there is no paycheck involved, it’s absolutely rewarding. We have more than 100 volunteers working all year for June. Sometimes preparing for Pride month means sleepless nights and being busy all the time.
But on Pride Sunday, when I go to the top of the cruise ship party we organize, for example, and I look out at the 600 people dancing, laughing and having an amazing time, it’s beautiful. Especially when I think about all those individual people being sober—they're not drunk, they're not high, they're not in jail, they haven’t overdosed—they're really living their full life.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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