Design Matters: Celebrating Pride

Catherine Opie, Adam J. Kurtz, Robyn Kanner, Michael Stipe, and the Indigo Girls reflect on their journeys in this special Pride episode of Design Matters.


Saleem Reshamwala:

Hi. I’m Saleem Reshamwala host of a podcast called Far Flung from TED. In each episode, I’ll take you to a new place across the globe to get lost in a new vibe and tap into surprising ideas. From tiny suspension bridges in the mountains of Nepal to journalists who’ve taken the city buses to deliver the news in Caracas. Let’s tap into what the world is thinking on Far Flung. Stay tuned after this episode to hear the trailer.

Adam J. Kurtz:

People of a certain generation, they hear that their kid is gay and they think, my son’s going to die of AIDS.

Amy Ray:

And then they saw us as being damaged and they were afraid that they were the ones that did it.

Speaker 4:

From the TED Audio Collective, this is Design Matters with Debbie Millman. For 18 years, Debbie Millman has been talking with designers and other creative people about what they do, how they got to be who they are and what they’re thinking about and working on. This week, in celebration of gay pride month, we’re going to hear excerpts from some intimate conversations about sexual identity.

Emily Saliers:

The agony that I went through was my own self-loathing, my own self homophobia, which I still have to battle.

Catherine Opie:

I thought that I wouldn’t be accepted in society.

Robyn Kanner:

The first question a stranger’s going to ask me is, so you’re trans, do you have a dick?

Debbie Millman:

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Debbie Millman:

As many listeners may know, I did not come out until I was in my fifties. And as many of you also know, I am now a happily married woman to a woman; a happy ending to a long and sometimes challenging story. I’m not alone. Anyone who is not a cisgendered, straight person has a story to tell about coming to terms with their gender and or their sexuality. This is a podcast about creativity and creative people, but I’m also endlessly fascinated by the role that a person’s sexual or gender identity has played in their development and growth as a person. Sometimes it’s a generational or a cultural story. Sometimes it’s deeply personal, but it’s always interesting.

Debbie Millman:

So in celebration of gay pride month, we’ve gone back into our recent archives, just from the last year, to pull out some of the moments when my guests shared a bit of their stories of coming out and coming to terms with their sexual and, or gender identities and just who they are; who they are in the world in this life. Last year I spoke with Robyn Kanner. She is a graphic designer who gets a lot of credit for developing the visual identity of the Biden Harris campaign in 2020. One of the central events in Robyn’s life was when her father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Debbie Millman:

Six years old was a very important year in your life. You not only found out about your dad’s illness, you’ve also written that this is the time that you began to realize that you were trans, and this is what you stated. You know how kids describe what they want to be when they grow up like a firefighter. When I was six years old, I said, I wanted to be a woman when I grew up. Robyn, did you, did you share that with anyone? Was that what you told people when they asked you and how did you feel about this realization?

Robyn Kanner:

No, I definitely did not tell anybody. I didn’t know much at six, seven years old, but I knew that wasn’t going to fly. What that really did was it gave me a secret. And I think in some ways, secrets are a good thing, but in some ways, they’re a really bad thing. And when I think about that, I think about how I lacked agency primarily and how that lack of agency really pushed me into becoming a pretty intense introvert when I was young. And I really believe that the past has to be the past. There’s no changing the past. It just is. And when I think about gender and my relations to it, I just think about how thankful I am that my gender is mine.

Robyn Kanner:

And in a time where I think that identities can sometimes become culture and they can become really big, and they can be shared and owned by other people in some ways. And I definitely fell into that trap in my twenties. But the work that I’ve done over the last few years was really just taking ownership over my own identity in a way that hasn’t been mine since it was a secret when I was six. And as much as that can be isolating, it’s also nice to be able to control who I am a little bit more.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah, it’s interesting how our culture somehow allows the sharing of opinions, thoughts, ideas about one’s body, about one’s relationship to their body. I was just reading the introduction to Julia Turshen’s new cookbook, and it struck me how much she felt that comments about her body were just accepted as she was growing up, and how much that impacted her and how she felt about her body, which was able bodied and healthy. And yet she felt that she was always less than because of how much she weighed and just the idea that it’s acceptable for somebody to have an opinion on how much somebody weighs, let alone their gender. It’s just to me unimaginable to think what the world would be like if we didn’t do that.

Robyn Kanner:

Yeah. I think in some ways, once you start to share stories about your identity and this can be gender, it can be anything, it almost gives them agency to own a little piece of you. And I think when I was really young, I was completely unaware of how much of a misstep that is to let people have that. For a few reasons. One, you just get put into this box. Everything about me for a few years was really tied into a neat and tidy box of being a specific type of trans woman. And I almost felt like it was for other people because the conversations were so wrapped around their feelings on it.

Robyn Kanner:

And it was hard for me to be [cross 00:07:32] and just say, I don’t care. What you think of me doesn’t shift who I am. And if that is the truth, then like why do I even need to share this piece of me with strangers? And that thinking caused a lot of rifts in my life, but it also freed me from this really tight glass box that I didn’t feel like I wanted to be in. It’s a little vague, but it’s-

Debbie Millman:

No, I completely understand. When I first came out, because I came out so much later in life, suddenly I had to be talking about my sexuality, which was something that I never talked about before then. It was always super private to me. And so suddenly with this announcement or this sharing of my sexual orientation, somehow it then became okay to ask about things that I never talked about when I was presenting as straight. So I was really baffled and somewhat irritated and really intolerant of that in a lot of ways. It was nobody’s business, but suddenly, somehow it felt like it was to other people.

Robyn Kanner:

Yeah, irritated is the right word to use. And what I learned really over the last few years is it doesn’t matter what I do. I look around now and I go like, okay, I helped win an election in the middle of writing a book. I just started a agency. I have done all these things. And sure enough, the first question a stranger is going to ask me is, so you’re trans, do you have a dick? And then I just have to be like, I help win an election. Like how could you care? But that’s still the first thing that’s on their mind. And if I let them have that conversation, then my identity’s not mine anymore. It’s just a performance for you. And that’s just something I’m entirely unwilling to sacrifice.

Debbie Millman:

Robyn Kanner from a conversation I had with her in March of 2021. Catherine Opie’s intimate photographic portraits of queer communities in Los Angeles and San Francisco captured the attention of the art world in the early 1990s. She also works in landscapes, both natural and urban. Her work has been featured in hundreds of major museums, gallery exhibitions and public collections all over the world. I spoke to her in the late summer of 2021. And here are a few excerpts from our conversation, starting with her father’s collection of Republican political memorabilia.

Debbie Millman:

I understand he gave you an embroidered commemorative ribbon made after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Is that true?

Catherine Opie:

Yes, that is true. I have that upstairs here in the studio in this special little box that is actually a family business box; [Opie craft 00:10:20]. And it’s kind of his treasure chest that he sent to me before he passed away, so that I would have these different little moments including. He always carried an Ohio buckeye in his pocket for luck. So it’s just this little treasure chest of things that included the Lincoln ribbon because Lincoln happened to be assassinated, unfortunately, on what is my birthday; April 14th.

Debbie Millman:

Oh, wow. Now, was your father a Republican?

Catherine Opie:

My father was a Republican up until Obama ran. And when Obama ran, my father switched to being a Democratic voter for the reasons that the Republican party was no longer the Republican party that he believed in. And he did not like the conservatism. And he believed that women had a right to choose and he believed having a lesbian daughter, that I had rights and so forth. And so the Republican party that he grew up with was no longer an affiliation that he wanted to have.

Debbie Millman:

He must have been extraordinarily proud to know that your work was hanging in the Obama White House.

Catherine Opie:

Yeah, no, he was. He was very proud of me. One of my biggest nervous moments was both him and my stepmother coming to the 1995 Whitney Biennial Opening because it was the first time I was ever in a major museum show. And obviously my queerness was very much on display there, but he just rode along with it in a very good way surprisingly so.

Debbie Millman:

I understand that you went about making friends when you moved to San Diego or outside of San Diego by taking photos. And I believe this is also when you had your first crush. Is that correct?

Catherine Opie:

I did. I had my first crush on a very beautiful woman who was a profoundly amazing actor by the name of [Ceree Monet Flack 00:12:19] and she lives in England at this point. But she was my first major crush where I was still trying to figure out certain things, but just couldn’t not be around Ceree. And I grew roses and I would bring her a rose every day. And so it was pretty crush worthy actually. Although Ceree didn’t realize that I had a crush on her. I met up with her later in England and said, you know, I was completely in love with you in high school. And she was like, you were? I thought you were just my best friend. And I was like, oh, well.

Debbie Millman:

You knew from a young age that you were gay, but have said that the lack of role models around you made coming out a difficult process. And you and I are the same exact age, both born in 1961. And so I didn’t come out till much, much later in life. And so I fully understand that sort of difficulty. What was the most difficult aspect for you?

Catherine Opie:

I think that until I moved to San Francisco, again, I didn’t have it surrounding me. I was called names in high school. I was called a [dike 00:13:32]. I was harassed in that way. Being homosexual scared me. I thought that I wouldn’t be accepted in society. I carried that fear and internal homophobia within me. And it didn’t happen like legitimately until I moved to San Francisco. And I was sitting on a curb with my best friend, Dean; at that moment in time, [Dean Mowser 00:14:00], who I had met at a residence club that I was working for my room and board while I went to San Francisco Art Institute. And Dean thought I had a crush on him. And so Dean said, Cathy, there’s something I have to tell you. I’m gay. And I was like, oh, well, I am too. And that was the first time that it was actually spoken. And then there was no hesitation after speaking it.

Debbie Millman:

What’s so interesting to me in terms of looking at your body of work is despite the difficulty that you might have experienced and the inner homophobia, you did seem right from the very beginning in your body of work to… Embrace isn’t even the right word, but celebrate your sexuality and your gayness.

Catherine Opie:

Yeah, no, I think that I did, but it wasn’t right away actually. It took some time. There was the side person, Cathy Opie, right? Who then everybody who is a friend calls me Cathy, like Cathy Opie published in On Our Backs magazine, not Catherine Opie. So I took on these different personas, I suppose, to again, create different compartments of my life. And then that’s, in some ways like having multiple closets in one’s house. And I think that really beyond being Cathy Opie on On Our Backs and celebrating that through queer culture, it wasn’t until becoming a part of act up in queer nation that I decided to make my work publicly about my queerness. But I would have to say that a good portion of my work was trying to be a very serious street photographer in San Francisco.

Catherine Opie:

And then my queerness within my work at Cal arts was actually the dissemination and observation of master plan communities in Southern California, which I grew up in from moving from Sandusky to Rancho Bernardo Poway, California, and watched that turn into master plan community. So I think the queerness was always also involved in relationship to how do we fit in this world? And if there’s this separation in relationship to idea of community, then how do I portray my community? And I think it was a quandary for quite some time.

Debbie Millman:

You left San Francisco to pursue your MFA at the California Institute of the arts in Valencia. You said that that transition sucked.

Catherine Opie:

Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

In what way did it suck?

Catherine Opie:

Well, I was leaving a community that was profoundly also becoming decimated from AIDS and I all of a sudden moved back into a very hot Southern California environment in the middle of a master plan community that I had exited when I was basically 19 years old from living at home, in Poway. And to be all of a sudden going from the bay area of this incredible city, and it’s the first time I had ever lived in a city, back to the suburbs where it was really hot and I couldn’t wear my leather jacket year round like I could in San Francisco and being newly possessed of my queerness, my being a dike, it wasn’t even queerness. I don’t even think we used the word queer in 1985, but my being a dike, and what that meant for me. Yeah. And even though I had Catherine Lord and Millie Wilson and amazing people around me at Cal arts who celebrated that and definitely added on to my ability to understand theory and feminism and had Douglas Crimp come through the school, enormous amount of people at that time period, it still wasn’t San Francisco.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah. As a way to cope, you started photographing a planned community that was being built across the road from your apartment, which ultimately became part of your thesis portfolio. And this work included photographs of “matching model homes, plots of land and billboards advertising a United States where the children are apple cheeked and toe headed, and the parents are as straight as Ken and Barbie”. What provoked this particular direction of your work?

Catherine Opie:

Well, at first I didn’t have a car because I was moving from San Francisco and my car had been totaled and I just decided to walk with my camera. And so I was also trained as more or less a street photographer in San Francisco. So in Southern California, there’s very little street. And so you just start wandering and I’m a big proponent of wandering. I talk about wandering quite a bit and I recognized what was being built was actually what I watched being built in my teen years and decided that it was something that I could try to talk about.

Debbie Millman:

In the meantime, you began to contribute photographs to lesbian magazines you mentioned On Our Backs, whose name was a response to the anti pornography, feminist journal Off Our Backs.

Catherine Opie:

Yes.

Debbie Millman:

How did you first discover the magazine?

Catherine Opie:

Well, living in San Francisco, you’re basically embedded in, at that point, Valencia street in San Francisco was the lesbian area. The Castro was for the boys. Valencia street was for the women. We had Artemis cafe, we had Osento bathhouse. We had Amelia’s, which was the seven day a week lesbian bar. So you had all of this happening all at once. And I’ll tell you, the women who would go to Amelia’s were also the women who were being photographed by wonderful photographers like Jill Posner and Susie Bright and all of the sex positive in terms of starting On Our Backs was right there at that time. And so I just decided like, well, I want a picture on On Our Backs. I’m a photographer. I’m a lesbian. Why shouldn’t I try to actually do that as well?

Debbie Millman:

Those magazines introduced me to my own private realization that I was gay at the time, although it was another 25 years before I publicly came out. But other magazines that I have in my collection that I thought you’d enjoy, I’m sure you know this one [crosstalk 00:20:59]. Yeah. And then caught looking, which was just an extraordinary publication. At the time you also joined a woman’s S and M society called The Outcast, and it was co-founded by the activist in academic Gail Rubin, but you’ve said that S and M was never sexual for you and have described it as the scariest, most violent, secret impulses that could be followed and validated and made almost cozy in an atmosphere where you could always say no. And you go on to say that you needed to push yourself to get over the enormous amount of fear you had around your body. Where do you think that fear came from? What was that fear about?

Catherine Opie:

Well, it’s personal and it’s not on the record in terms of personal, but there was some childhood trauma on my part. And I think that there was an enormous amount of healing that this community brought to me in relationship to trauma, and you’ve never read this in an interview. So I’m saying it right now for the first time, and it’s been very hard in a certain way to be quiet about this during the hashtag Me Too movement, but there’s reasons. And the reasons are, when you make self-portraits that I made people easily equate that to, oh, well, that’s why she made that, she was traumatized as a child.

Catherine Opie:

And I try to, very hard again, though, that kind of compartments that I put things in, in this society, we’re very easily to connote things and to take things and blow them out of proportion in a way that’s not authentic to one’s own experience. So my authenticity to my own experience and to my childhood was definitely worked out on an emotional level very much so through the leather community. But at the same time, the publicness of that is not necessarily something that I feel I need to have completely spelled out in the world.

Debbie Millman:

Catherine Opie. Check out the monograph of her work with an introduction by Hilton Als, which is published by Phaidon. Adam J. Kurtz has been on Design Matters a few times. He’s a designer, an artist, an entrepreneur. He also writes witty and charming self-help books. His latest is called, You Are Here For Now: A Guide To Finding Your Way. The last time he was on in October of 2021, we touched on a few gay related topics. Here are some excerpts from that conversation. Well, our interview today is about five years since the first, and a lot has changed for you.

Adam J. Kurtz:

Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

You got married to Mitchell Kuga in 2017. You moved from New York City to Hawaii, pretty recently. How different does everything feel for you, especially being back in New York right now?

Adam J. Kurtz:

Being back in New York is so wonderful, but also very affirming because I love going to my familiar places and eating good pizza, but I’m looking around and I’m thinking, you know what? I am very satisfied with my choice to leave. And Mitchell is born and raised in Honolulu. And during the pandemic, it became clear to him that he wanted to be closer to his parents and he wanted to be closer to his home. I had to think about it for a while, because I’ve really pegged my identity to being a Jewish, New Yorker. I wanted that. That was my dream.

Debbie Millman:

I hear you. I hear you.

Adam J. Kurtz:

But when you are in love, it changes everything. And I had this moment of, I love this person. It is the number one thing that matters to me more than anything, I’m going to do it. And I have fallen in love with it. I love our little home. I love decorating our home and buying kitchy nonsense to put all over it. I’m having a lot of fun.

Debbie Millman:

Adam, you went to community college for a year when you were 16 years old.

Adam J. Kurtz:

Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

Why did you graduate high school so young?

Adam J. Kurtz:

I left Yeshiva when I came out and there was no longer a place there for me. It was also the last place I wanted to be. I was sneaking out of my Yeshiva to take GED prep courses. That’s true. And then I took the GED and I just got on with life.

Debbie Millman:

What is your relationship with your parents now that you’re out?

Adam J. Kurtz:

It was tough at first. I think that is not an uncommon story, but they have come around in a way that I’m very grateful for. They’ve met up with me and my husband before, we’re actually going to see them this weekend now that I’m on the east coast again and I can’t wait. And I think that it is a thing where time heals wounds, and also our parents worry for us. I think people of a certain generation, they hear that their kid is gay and they think, my son’s going to die of AIDS. That’s the first thing they think. And for them to see me be happy, be my whole self, to find love, to build a career really rooted in my identity where being gay has not only not hurt me, but probably helped has, I think led them pass that fear to just see me as I am today.

Debbie Millman:

Well, it comes back to the question about brands affiliating themselves with any kind of social movement, whether it be mental health week or pride or black lives matter. I still find it really frustrating every June when everybody’s suddenly rainbow washing, where were they 10 years ago? Now that doesn’t mean they couldn’t have changed their stance and are now more welcoming and more inclusive, but unless you’ve done the work within the organization to address these changes person by person, having a rainbow as part of your logo isn’t really going to impress me.

Adam J. Kurtz:

Yeah. I feel like there are so many people who get that wrong. So many brands I should say, they get it wrong. And so when a brand gets it right, it feels incredible. And I would love to shout out the brand ASOP, the skincare brand for pride. They took three of their stores in New York. I didn’t work with them, I’m not affiliated with them, New York, LA and Toronto cleared out all the products and turned them into free bookstores that stocked books by LGBTQ authors. And you could just go and get a book. You didn’t have to buy anything. There wasn’t anything to buy, just beautiful, well designed bookstores. And that was so, so cool.

Debbie Millman:

I think that’s a wonderful example. When anybody is thinking about latching on to some type of movement, my question to them would be, why are we doing this? Are we doing this for the people that we are trying to affiliate with? Or are we trying to sell more product? And if it’s to sell more product, I really recommend that you back away.

Adam J. Kurtz:

Yeah. Can I share a negative example?

Debbie Millman:

Yeah, absolutely.

Adam J. Kurtz:

There was an example in 2020 in the explosion of black lives matter protests where the artist Shantell Martin shared an email she received from an agency representing a major brand and essentially reducing her to a black woman and asking her to throw up a mural on their store in support of black lives. And it was in such poor taste and Shantell is so brave that she shared it, knowing that she could potentially lose a lot of future work, knowing that she was burning a bridge with an agency and a company. But she shared it, and she brought awareness to the fact that this happens. It happens often and that it’s fucking disgusting.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah. I did read about it, the New York Times covered it and I was really glad that she did it. I hope she hasn’t gotten less work because of it. I would hope she’d get more.

Adam J. Kurtz:

I will say, I know Shantell personally, and for everything she does in the public sphere, she’s doing so much behind the scenes. She’s really, I believe, looking out for a lot of people and has been a wonderful mentor to me, offered great advice, and she’s queer, so.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah, absolutely. She’s been on the show. We love her.

Adam J. Kurtz:

Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

Well, it’s so interesting because one of the questions that you pose in the book, and when I ask myself over and over, if you could strip away all of your distractions and obligations, who would you be left with? So who were you left with when you were cognizant of having gotten everything that you wanted?

Adam J. Kurtz:

In that moment, I think I was left with my truest, most honest self, which is a depressive, nerdy, gay Jew. And I was like, wait a minute. That’s who I am. I can’t hide it. And also I think it’s a superpower. And at that moment, I started to really lean into being earnest. I finally stripped away the last drags of wanting to be cool. And I realized that I could lower some barriers because they weren’t as high as I thought they were. And once I embraced that fully, it really helped shift the direction of my work, where I became more vulnerable, more honest, made work that I think is more functional, more useful. And this book would not have happened if not for that shift in thinking three years ago.

Debbie Millman:

Isn’t that interesting how the very things that we feel contain us, that once we’re able to push through them, are things that help us become who we are? I had so much shame about so much of who I was and when I finally just acknowledged it, the shame disappeared. Is that how you feel?

Adam J. Kurtz:

I do feel that way. And I’m so glad that you feel that way, because after the last time I was on the podcast, I remember sitting in your office and having a more personal conversation and realizing that we actually had quite a lot in common and I had no idea. And when I knew that I felt so empowered because here was someone who I viewed as successful and highly intelligent and powerful and she and I had these points of commonality. And so maybe I was okay too. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to say, but when you were more publicly coming out, when you started dating Roxanne and sharing that love in public on the internet, it was so exciting to me because I was with everyone else on the sidelines, just cheering at the ultimate power couple being so lovey dovey in love and just feeling like love is real, and love is real at any time for anyone and you can always choose that.

Adam J. Kurtz:

What an inspiration. Something that I think about often is the way that we can be role models, whether we realize it or not, and you don’t need to be famous or successful or powerful to be a role model. And as a young queer person, I can remember seeing two men hold hands on the street and a small part of my brain knowing that I was probably gay and knowing, oh, that’s okay, there’s a future for me. And so I would compel everyone listening to this, regardless of who you are or what particular identity you might represent in your industry or community or space, be yourself. Be yourself as loud as you want to because we don’t know who’s paying attention. And we don’t know who we’re helping.

Debbie Millman:

Adam J. Kurtz. His latest book is, You Are Here For Now: A Guide To Finding Your Way. Michael Stipe was the lead singer of REM for many years and he is still writing and singing and doing all sorts of artwork. He came on the show to talk about his photography, but we got into everything, including his concern about coming out publicly back in the 1980s.

Michael Stipe:

My band mates and everyone around me knew my sexuality all along. We lived together, they couldn’t ignore or disregard who was coming up into my room and leaving the next morning. Yeah. I turned 20 years old in 1980 and you know what, I think that LGBTQIA+, if I can use today’s terms and apply that to the late ‘70s, that liberation, that moment should have happened in the late ‘70s following civil rights and following the women’s liberation movement. That was a movement that was in our country, certainly not just diminished, but squashed completely by the advent of AIDS, and of course the Reagan administration. And Reagan and Bush Senior, taking over for the whole of the 1980s and into the early ‘90s, it took a revolution and shifted it by a good 20 years, which is, I think why, when it finally did happen, it happened so quickly that a lot of people’s heads are still spinning, trying to figure out where they are, who they are within it. Not only within the straight community, but also within, as we call it the LMNOPs. All of us.

Michael Stipe:

Trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in. This is something I really love about the 21st century from the moment I did start speaking about my sexuality publicly. And for me, it was more a matter of privacy than anything else, but I just felt like I’d given so much of myself as a public figure and as a pop star to the public. I wanted to keep something to myself, and of course I chose the wrong thing to keep. I now recognize how powerful it is to have people like ourselves in the public eye, and that that’s profoundly important to people who are struggling with their own situations. But anyway.

Debbie Millman:

But I also think, you had already been bullied and I think once you’re bullied, once you feel damaged by who you are, it’s very hard to keep putting it out there because of the pain that you’ve already experienced and the pain you’re afraid you’re going to still feel.

Michael Stipe:

Well, the people I surrounded myself with as a 20 year old were people that understood who I was and they had no problem with that. And in fact, I think it was encouraged that I’d be exactly who I am, because the result of that is that we were not your typical pop band at all. We were never really a rock band although we used some of those sounds, but my being a part of it just radically shifted the focus of the band completely. And I think those guys acknowledged and recognized, when I say those guys, Peter, Mike, and Bill, of course my former band mates, but then also the people around us. It was clear that we were very, very different. And part of that I think really had to do with my sexuality and my identity and how that placed me in a very different sphere than most of what normal pop culture would offer you.

Debbie Millman:

Michael Stipe. His latest book of photography is an untitled book of portraits and Still Lives, published by Damiani. Like Michael Stipe, the Indigo Girls were also part of the music scene in Athens, Georgia in the early 1980s. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers met in elementary school and became best friends and music collaborators in high school. They’re both gay, and no, they’ve never been a couple. But like a lot of gay people, they’ve both struggled with self acceptance. Amy got into it by talking about why she dropped out of Vanderbilt university.

Amy Ray:

I had a girlfriend, I had fallen in love my senior year in high school. She was at UGA. We were constantly having trouble. She didn’t really want to be gay. I was thoroughly gay, but I was very self… I hated myself. I was so self-loathing and I was so depressed. And I hated myself. I wanted to be anyone but who I was. But I’m also constantly tempted by all these fun things, like working at the record store and playing music and playing racquetball. And so I was a weird combination of things and my head was spinning and I couldn’t make it work. And I was like, I just got to leave this place, because there’s too many… My favorite things were like, honestly my religion classes were amazing.

Amy Ray:

My English classes were amazing. I had a therapist that I discovered who helped me out of a really dark time, and I love, love, loved working at that record store so much. All that stuff was not enough to keep me even keeled. And I was like, I got to go home to Atlanta and just be around my family, be in a scene where at least I feel like somewhat tethered to something to save me. So I did it, and Emily was, I’m not sure what her battle was, but then I found she was coming back to Emory too and I was like, yes, we can continue doing our music. So it was a good thing in that way.

Debbie Millman:

What was the source of your depression at the time? I know that with your parents being so super conservative, you’ve written about, and I’m only going to use this word because this is the word that I read and found in my research that you said that your parents were destroyed by having three gay kids in one family. You had come out, your two sisters were also gay and, was that…

Amy Ray:

Yeah. I hate to, it’s so hard now because my dad’s passed away. My mom is so amazing and they were both, even before my dad died eight years ago, he had come around to the place where you couldn’t love gay people anymore than they do. So it’s amazing what happened, but they were destroyed in this way where we were so close and raised to be very community minded and generous. And there were so many good values instilled in us. Yet this one thing was so in opposition to their faith and everything they believed in and they just couldn’t picture it. And their friends rejected them in the church. It was a very long road for them to get by. So I felt like not only do I mean they were destroyed and not happy for us, they were scared for what would happen to us.

Amy Ray:

They were scared that they had done something wrong when they raised us, because they were taught that this, what we are, was a perversion. So there was so much fear that it became anger. They were always a little bit left of the middle in other ways, pro-choice and my dad was a feminist and all that stuff. This is the one thing that just… so it just was a life shift for them that they couldn’t picture. Right? And then they saw us as being damaged and they were afraid that they were the ones that did it. And I think they had to come around to realize that it’s not damaged. It’s just another existence that’s beautiful as everything else.

Amy Ray:

But that kind of society thing, and then when you have self-loathing yourself, it’s a recipe for a lot of terrible times and ways that just reiterate how you already feel. Now it’s totally different time, because they’re so great now that it’s like, I don’t want them to ever feel bad about what we went through because they work so hard to come out on the other side of it. So it’s one of those things, it’s a necessary conversation, but it’s like, wow. You can make it through this, and I’m lucky that they did really, for me.

Debbie Millman:

Emily, what was it like with your family when you first came out?

Emily Saliers:

Well, my sisters knew before, I think my parents knew. There was very little language for it. I can remember in high school, knowing I was different, but having no way to articulate what that difference was and trying to follow the path of dating guys and all that stuff. But my sisters knew because I had, I don’t know, a camp counselor girlfriend on the side or something is very typical, and they were so lovely, my sisters, and so supportive. And I had a lot of fear about telling my parents, even though in my gut, I didn’t think they were going to kick me out of the house or ostracize me in any way. That was all internal.

Emily Saliers:

But I was spending a lot of time out of the house and I lived with them at that time and I felt out of respect, I should tell them why I was out and what I was doing and what I was feeling. And so I just took them to lunch separately. And it was a different time. I think if anything, they were just afraid of the life that I would have to go through, what societal pain there would be. But beyond that, it was nothing. When I was five years old, my mom made us a lot of clothes and she made us Easter dresses, and I asked for Easter pants and she made me Easter pants. So I think the writing was on the wall in a way.

Debbie Millman:

I asked for pants too, when I was about five or six years old, my brother was having a birthday party and I wanted to wear pants. And this was the ‘60s, and it was just very different, totally different time. And my mother was adamant that she was not going to let me wear pants. And I ended up falling just completely unrelated to the argument about pants. And I scratched at my face and she felt so bad she ended up letting me wear pants.

Emily Saliers:

Yeah, even that is dramatic. I think my mom just said, okay, I’ll make you Easter pants. But I was so unscathed my whole process, not only my family and my friends, but like the church, we went to church at Emory. So its acumenical setting was academic. We had members of different faith communities come in and give the sermon or homily or whatever it called in that faith. And we were taught to come home and ask questions about the text, the scriptures and all that stuff. So I didn’t have to go through so much of the agony that other people did when they were kicked out of their church or their homes, but the agony that I went through was my own self-loathing, my own self homophobia, which I still have to battle today, so much better.

Debbie Millman:

Me too.

Emily Saliers:

But it’s undeniably still there.

Debbie Millman:

Emily Saliers and Amy Ray, the Indigo Girls from a conversation we had earlier this year. You can find all these interviews in their entirety and hundreds of other interviews on our website, designmattersmedia.com or wherever you love to listen to podcasts. This is the 18th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters. Can you believe it? And I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.

Speaker 4:

Design matters is produced for the Ted Audio Collective by Curtis Fox productions. Interviews are usually recorded at the school of visual arts masters in branding program in New York city, the first and longest running branding program in the world. The editor in chief of Design Matters Media is Emily Wyland.

Saleem Reshamwala:

What is happening in my mouth? My tongue is fizzing. It feels like pop rocks and lemonade. And now it’s salty. And now it feels like I’m eating meat. Now I’m tasting cheese. I have no idea what’s going on in my mouth. I’m Saleem Reshamwala and coming in June are 10 new episodes of Far-Flung. Over the past few years, not many of us have been able to really travel and explore. One of the things that starts to happen is you can lose touch with that weird, but wonderful feeling of being changed by new people and cultures. On Far-Flung, we recapture some of that vibe. This season, we collaborate with local producers in 10 more locations around the world to understand ideas that flow from those places. You’ll journey to very tiny suspension bridges, 400 feet up in the air, uniting people living in the mountains of Nepal.

Speaker 11:

It’s one thing to see it in papers, read about it, see videos, but it’s completely different thing to be there. It just goes on and on and on and on. And it becomes smaller and smaller and almost disappears in the horizon on the other side.

Saleem Reshamwala:

You’ll hear tapes of Somali music that were hidden away, buried underground for years in an attempt to make sure that they are never forgotten. Meet journalists who’ve taken to city buses to deliver the news behind a cardboard cut out of a television set. [foreign language 00:46:05]. And learn about how Iceland is struggling to strike a balance between keeping its language alive while still staying actively engaged with our constantly changing global culture.

Speaker 12:

Sometimes it just comes out of [inaudible 00:46:20] because I’m thinking in one language and speaking in another. It gets confusing sometimes.

Saleem Reshamwala:

Come with us and see what the world is dreaming up as we all try to get that feeling of traveling and getting hit by a new idea at the same time. That’s all part of a new season of Far-Flung with me, Saleem Reshamwala, coming June 9th on Apple podcasts and June 16th everywhere.