Being a gay artist in the digital arts industries
There've been many important issues brought up surrounding the digital arts industry over the past several years. Layoffs at major studios, the debate over subsidies, gender inequalities, and the plight of the migrant VFX artist have all been challenges to the state of the digital arts community. However, little attention has been given to the experience of the many gay and lesbian digital artists around the world. How is it going for them? What are their specific challenges? What's it like being LGBT in the digital arts world? The answers to these questions are even more relevant given the recent landmark US Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage and Caitlyn Jenner's recent acceptance speech at the ESPYS. These answers provide us with an important piece of the larger digital arts picture, a way of monitoring how we're doing as an industry. To this end, I set out to find some representatives of the LGBT digital arts community and to ask them about job discrimination, harassment, work inequalities, etc. What I expected was to find a laundry list of abuses, discriminatory practices and pessimistic outlooks. However, what I actually found were three talented artists with little to no negative job experiences and a fairly optimistic outlook on the state of the industry. The following are the results of my discussion with these artists, all working from different parts of the world and within different industries—animation studios to academic institutions. These interviews are only a small step in better understanding the LGBT experience in digital arts. Some of their challenges (like relocation or lack of company benefits), affect all types of digital artists while others are specific to gay and lesbians. These specific issues may surprise some artists who aren't familiar with the professional implications of having a same-sex partner.
An Illinois native born in Chicago, AJ Christensen is currently a 3D artist working at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. AJ's job is unique in that he works on a scientific visualization team using the University's supercomputer center. While many scientific visualization departments attempt to represent 3D models strictly for scientific research, AJ's is a little more Hollywood, creating cinematic quality images for science documentaries and IMAX films.
As a gay artist, AJ said he hadn't witnessed any overt discrimination at his current position or when he took a brief sabbatical to work for a VFX studio in London. "My experience has been that the artists I interact with on a day to day basis are really fairly progressive as a demographic. There's a lot that happens behind the scenes that you don't necessarily know what people are thinking, but if you're looking for someone to say 'yes, I've been told to get out because I'm gay,' that's not something I've ever experienced. But in terms of systemic problems that might affect gay people, there's certainly a lot more of that." One specific type of issue affecting gay and lesbian artists concerns how to identify yourself when you're not "out" or when you're unsure of another person's reaction. AJ explains how this experience can be awkward at first: "There were several times when I would get into a conversation with someone and they would say 'Oh, did you move here to London with your girlfriend?' [At that point] you obviously have to choose whether you're going to be effusive or whether you're going to be brutally honest or whether you're going to lie. Luckily, AJ's experience at the London studio was positive: "Typically, in London I never felt uncomfortable just saying, 'Oh, I came over here with my boyfriend.' Usually, I found that no one cared. Coming from the mid-west in the United States, I feel like I probably have a bit more of a cautious sensibility. Just being closer to the Bible Belt and all that. I found it really interesting going out to London. It seemed like it wasn't even like people found it novel, they really just moved right past it."
AJ's rendering of the surface of the planet Venus[/caption] AJ's short stint as a transplanted artist also came with some more practical difficulties. In addition to finding housing, one common challenge for artists with families is help with finding spousal employment. Even when it's available, gay and lesbian domestic partners may find it's impossible to access if they're not a legally recognized union. "It's just sort of expected that your spouse will go and find their own work. There was a way that you could get a spousal work visa in London. It was difficult to get, but [the Studio] was willing to work with you. Obviously that's something that would be very difficult if you weren't married to your same-sex partner." Covering a partner on your company's insurance plan or listing them as a beneficiary on life insurance, retirement, etc is usually dependent on whether the insurance or company offers a partner option. According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, there has been a steady increase since 2000 (up from 12 to 34 percent) in the number of larger US companies that extend their benefits to "domestic partners." This percentage increases significantly within Fortune 500 companies, according to the Human Rights Campaign. However, for smaller to medium-sized studios, this may not be the case. Since London's health insurance is socialized, AJ didn't have a problem finding health coverage for his partner. But some studio benefits were affected. "I feel like sort of the main benefit that we were offered as employees was a retirement package. To the best of my knowledge that didn't come with any kind of partner options."
Kelsey Couzzo is a digital artist with a degree in Media Arts and Animation from the Art Institute of Colorado in 2011. Today she works for the online custom apparel provider, CustomInk designing t-shirts. Kelsey loves her company almost as much as she loves designing t-shirts. A large part of her affection for CustomInk comes from its open and accepting culture, something she was dead set on finding when applying for jobs right out of college. She explains: "When I started in the career field, I did so after making the decision not to hide my identity or who I am. I've been with my partner for eight years. We're married now, and in every single interview I mentioned her because I didn't want to work for a company where I would have to worry about that." Kelsey's honest approach to finding the right culture fit seems a good strategy. Being forthright about one's sexual orientation has the potential to quickly weed out any employers who might have a prejudice. The truth is no employer is going to come out and admit to a prejudice of any kind. Instead, they're likely to pass you over for another "official" reason. "I applied for almost 300 jobs when I first got out of college," she explains, "all of which I was qualified for. To be honest, it's entirely possible that discrimination was a part of the reason that I wasn't hired in some situations. It can be very subtle and difficult to identify." However, for Kelsey there's something much bigger at stake here than just losing one particular job. There's the building of community and respect. "Just because you're afraid or you may get rejected, it's still important to come out and be who you are because you can't find a community or make a community that's truly accepting unless you're honest with yourself and honest with each other. We can't expect our employers to respect us if we're not willing to respect ourselves and each other enough to ask for it."
One of the main challenges Kelsey sees for LGBT digital artists today is in gaining a fair chance at a job based on one's work rather than one's social connections or affiliations. "I think it's become more difficult to put your work forward ahead of you as we've entered the social media age. "If anybody who's part of the LGBT community is in a relationship with somebody else, a potential employer or contractor can just see on their Facebook page that they're a part of the community. It makes it very easy for employers to discriminate without making it evident that they're doing so." The solution starts with having adequate legal protection for LGBT employees, according to Kelsey. "Most states actually don't have any restrictions for firing an employee if you find out that they're gay. In a lot of states, if there is not a law that specifically says sexual orientation is protected, it's not. Even if it is protected, it's remarkably difficult to prove that that was the reason someone was fired."
Promoting respect in the workplace
Kelsey's job interview philosophy seems to be it's best to be honest up front rather than risk getting a job that you might ultimately hate later on. Of course, the worst situation would be if you needed work desperately and felt like coming out to your employer might cost you the job. At that point, you may have to choose between your convictions (and suspicions) and your current material needs. Although Kelsey never noticed a negative reaction to her lifestyle announcements during any interviews, she did witness a very positive one at CustomInk: "I found out afterward that my interviewer was also gay and had been in a relationship with her partner for 10 years. Ironically, I think that was when I realized that CustomInk was exactly the place I wanted to be...Every single group here is recognized.
"We are a hugely diverse company, which is great to be a part of. We have discrimination policies in place, but realistically everyone treats each other with such a level of respect inherently anyway that I've never encountered a situation where it's been necessary to refer to the discrimination policies." At the center of CustomInk's culture is its core values: The Golden Rule, Ownership and Innovation, which helps promote respect. Helping maintain a culture of openness and acceptance is CustomInk's HR department. "Our staffing team is largely responsible for that culture because they do such a great job with interviews. Our interview process is very selective, and they find people that are open and accepting of others and treat others with respect," Kelsey explains. Another way to help promote a more open, accepting culture is to have clearly stated and enforced company policies against discrimination. Kelsey explains, "Having a non-discrimination policy that very clearly includes sexual orientation that is a) visible within the company literature and b) is enforced when a circumstance does arise...is probably the most important factor. Even in a company culture where the situation doesn't come up, having it on the books sets the expectations for new hires, for new employees to know this is the kind of culture you're coming into." Kelsey also recommends to companies residing within at-will employment states to have these policies presented alongside any of the company's non-discriminatory policies. The purpose is to avoid the chance of terminations being interpreted as motivated by sexual orientation bias. "If those two [policies] are not viewed together, then the possibility of employees interpreting at-will employment as meaning 'Ok, if you come out, we can let you go' is much more likely."
International work limits
One often overlooked challenge that many LGTB digital artists face is being able to work overseas in countries with anti-gay laws. Kelsey has had direct experience with this problem. "I applied for a job at Virginia Commonwealth University as a teacher's assistant. Then I found out the position was located in Qatar, which at the time still had Sharia Law in practice. I could have been jailed for my sexual orientation had I moved to Qatar to pursue this opportunity. Therefore, I'm unwilling to move to any place where my sexual orientation is illegal." In some countries prohibition of same-sex unions aren't as overtly outlawed, but yet social attitudes can create very threatening environments for LGBT people. For example, a rise in social conservatism in Russian over the last several years has changed social attitudes towards LGBT members. The country has come under international scrutiny for passing federal laws that have limited the rights of gays and, according to Human Rights Watch, has contributed to a rise in violence towards LGBT culture in general. These types of social and political oppositions exist around the world, and countries like Russia and Qatar can limit where an LGBT artist can find work.
A native Canadian, Benson Shum now lives in Burbank, CA working as an animator for Walt Disney Animation Studios. Benson began his career in 2D, earning a diploma from Capilano University and then later another in 3D at Sheridan College. Over his 15+ years in the industry, Benson has been a part of some important animated features like Frozen, Big Hero 6, Wreck-It Ralph and Hotel Transylvania. Benson has never had any negative experiences or reactions when Disney co-workers found out he was gay. He doesn't necessarily talk about his personal life at work, but he doesn't avoid the topic if someone asks. "Whenever the company talks about benefits, they'll mention 'spouses' and 'same-sex partners'. When we have these meetings, they're very inclusive." Benson explains that the company's professional development meetings often include discussions about acceptance and inclusiveness of employee differences. "I've never felt like an outcast at all," he states. Although he's never experienced it at work, Benson says hearing others use the word 'gay' in a disparaging way (i.e. "That's so gay.") is hurtful to many gay and lesbians both in and outside of work. "For me, hearing that hurts because you don't know if they intentionally meant it [towards gay people] or they just meant it as a brush off to describe something. But they're not attacking you specifically...Personally, I don't think it's right to use that word as a derogatory term. "I either kind of brush it off if I hear it, but if they're a friend of mine, I'll say, 'You know that's not cool. You shouldn't say that'."
Like Kelsey's call for being honest with potential employers, Benson also believes in the power of authenticity, with being honest and "out" at work. However, this doesn't necessarily imply bringing all your personal life to work. "I don't really talk about my personal life except with friends or unless it comes up," Benson explains. Instead, what Benson suggests is being fearless and honest about who you are. Of course, this can be easier said than done depending on where you work, which is why companies bare a huge chunk of the burden for creating an accepting and comfortable workplace. "When you're yourself, I think it's better for your work as well. Being yourself is hard if you're not comfortable with coming out, which is totally understandable. But when you are true to yourself, you're more open, and become a different person." You can check out some of Benson's personal projects on his Instagram page.
Is our industry more accepting?
One point AJ, Kelsey and Benson all agreed on was that the digital arts industry in general did a somewhat better job at accepting LGBT artists. If this is true, then why is this? It's an intriguing question and one that seems of the upmost importance if we are to better understand our industry. From the interviews, three main ideas were suggested as contributing factors: representation, diversity, geography and artistic sensibility. Kelsey points out that one reason the digital arts industry does a "slightly better job" at accepting LGBT members is simply because they're an over represented minority. "I think because so many members of the LGBT community in general are drawn to the arts, we are represented fairly strongly in this field," she states. AJ also believes the reason is geographical and cultural as well. That many studios and academic institutions are usually located within more populated, urban, diverse and progressives areas, which contributes to a more accepting mindset. "You're generally dealing with people who are scientific or who are artistic in the visual effects industry. Science is sort of an academic field and academia is typically a fairly liberal area. Art is obviously also a fairly liberal area, so the industry is sort of self-selecting for more open-minded people. Therefore, the company headquarters ends up in the more progressive neighborhoods in the big cities." Such companies also benefit from a diverse workforce, which according to Kelsey is one of the most important contributing factors to a company's success. "CustomInk is a very diverse company, culturally, ethnically, when it comes to sexual orientation, age, everything. It's great because together we make each other stronger. Everyone has difference experiences, backgrounds and perspectives." It makes sense that if diversity makes companies stronger, then they're more likely to prosper, spreading their culture even further—a type of corporate evolution naturally selecting for acceptance as an essential trait for survival. Representation, diversity and geography are all possible socio-economic causes for why the digital arts industry may be more open and accepting of LGBT members. However, Benson offers an interesting psychological reason: "I feel like people in this industry are a lot more accepting...because we're all artists, we're all nerds, we're all eccentric. We're all a little bit different." Benson's point is that these type of personal qualities that reside in many artists and "nerds" could potentially create a strong sense of empathy for others who are seen as outside the cultural norm. In fact, Benson sees artists and LGBT members as having other similar life experiences and culturally-imposed identities. "I believe in general," he explains, "society places stereotypes on artists as being more free and open. Artists don't make money. They have to starve to make their art. In a way, we're outcasts. Being gay can make you feel like you're not like everyone else. Sometimes being an artist in general can be looked down upon. In a similar way, being gay can feel that same way." It would seem that, from this brief "alternative" look into the digital arts industry, we have a lot to be proud of in terms of how we treat those who are different from us. This certainly shouldn't gloss over some of the other, more wide spread economic problems that continue to plague us, but for the moment we should sincerely celebrate the fact that our industry seems to be evolving culturally in a very positive, accepting direction.