We've still got a long way to go, but the strides society has made in carving out spaces and platforms for people of diverse backgrounds are paying off: Last year, LGBTQ+ representation on broadcast television hit a record high, with 8.8% of 857 series regulars openly identifying as LGBTQ+, and more queer people ran for office in November 2018 than ever before. Every day, queer people are celebrating who they are, empowering themselves, and shaping how they'd like to be seen and heard.
James Robinson, Blair Imani, and West Dakota have all cultivated lives that center on representing important aspects of their identities. Robinson, a half-Filipino photographer from Australia, makes a point of showing other queer people from diverse backgrounds in his work. Imani, a Black, queer Muslim, does the same by bringing her culture’s history to life through her work as an author and activist. And for West Dakota, performing in drag across New York City is a means of exploring every facet of her identity as a queer Asian person.
In partnership with H&M, whose second-annual Pride capsule collection supports the U.N. Free & Equal campaign, we commissioned Robinson, Imani, and West Dakota to take self-portraits that capture their truest selves, exactly as they’d like to be seen — and reflect on what representation means to them. These portraits are raw, brave, and unapologetically authentic — exactly like the individuals in front of the camera.
As a half-Filipino queer kid attending an all-boys Catholic school in Australia, Robinson never saw anyone like himself growing up — that is, until he watched a British TV show that follows the lives of a group of teenagers.
"I started to see versions of myself in [those] characters," Robinson says of his experience watching the program at 13 years old. "Back then, seeing a character like that being so openly queer and all his friends accepting him for the way he was, was definitely the first time that I had seen a version of myself on screen."
Robinson, now a photographer and aspiring filmmaker, remembers how feeling represented resonated so deeply with him that it became a main consideration in his own art. And you can tell: His Instagram is filled with neon-light-flooded photos of a diverse gang of muses, from his grandma and his friends to strangers in bodegas. He uses his own craft to create the representation he wants to see in the world. At the same time, however, Robinson says he recognizes that inclusivity, diversity, and representation can sometimes feel manufactured.
"It can feel very forced in TV shows or films or even music where they're trying to squeeze in a queer narrative, when the people creating the content don't actually have those experiences and don't actually understand the complexities of being queer or what it feels like to experience microaggressions," he says. "Good representation is representation that has been created by people who have been through the same experiences that I have."
That’s one of the reasons Robinson feels so much power behind the camera. He says he likes the feelings of influence and creativity that surge through his system when he discovers new lighting or angles that tell a story. So when it came time for him to get on the other side of the lens, for the purposes of our shoot, he says it felt a bit raw and "empowering."
"I think there's a lot of power in being in control of the way you're represented," he says. "My job is to interpret other people, and when I take someone else's photograph, it's always about me trying to find a way to represent them in a way that feels authentic. Whereas when I have a camera on myself, I understand myself better than anyone else in the world."
When Blair Imani was growing up, she lived down the street from a civil rights activist. He taught her about the leaders of the civil rights movement and helped her discover that "it is possible to make a change."
"I tried to emulate [other activists]," Imani says of the first time she felt represented as a young girl, seeing herself reflected in different political activists, academics, historians, and authors. "So by trying to [model myself after a particular activist], I figured out who I was in my own life."
Now a writer, mental health advocate, and historian living at the intersections of Black, queer, and Muslim identities, Imani is an ambassador of Muslims for Progressive Values, one of the oldest progressive Muslim organizations to support the LGBTQ+ community, and the author of Modern HERstory: Stories of Women and Nonbinary People Rewriting History.
"I think representation is the key to our own personal historic events," Imani says, adding that seeing yourself in someone else can help you believe that you’re not alone — and eventually lead to you becoming more comfortable being your authentic self. "Representation is when you change from a person into an idea for people, an idea that represents [other people] being able to be themselves."
Imani recalls one of the first times she felt power in her own representation helping other people. After posting a photo to her 42,000-odd followers on Instagram, one of her followers told her: "I’m so glad I came across your page. This Ramadan I'm feeling really guilty, like I can't be gay and Muslim. But coming across the picture of you with a Pride flag in the hijab put any bullshit I was feeling in [check]."
Fifteen days later, he came out to Imani and told her he was going to his first Pride. Imani says it "feels amazing" to hear that, about a month ago, he came out to his family.
"[What is] so wild about being somebody who's influential, is you're just deadass living your own life," Imani says. "And people are going to extrapolate that into what applies to them. It's really beautiful."
While creating her self-portrait, Imani says she was excited to be able to strip away the idea of who she is and show people how she actually sees herself.
"I [have] just become this queer Muslim woman," Imani says. "But I'm also a historian and so many different things. So when you just take that into your hands...it's really powerful."
When Dakota was growing up, they never felt like they fit in. Their family, despite being very large, "felt very small."
"It was me, my mom, my dad, and my sister," she says, dressed as West Dakota. "My dad is from the Philippines and he is one of 10, but his entire family is in the Philippines, and I didn't grow up with them. My mom is adopted, and she had her mother and her brother, [but] we also lived far away from them."
She says she had a happy childhood but didn’t ever feel completely at home — until she went to a party in New York meant for queer Asian people like herself.
"I just remember going to [this party], seeing all these people, and feeling for the first time that I had this really big family. It felt like the big family gathering I was always longing for and missed out on growing up," she says.
After that, West Dakota started playing with drag, making her public debut in October 2016 when another Brooklyn drag queen pulled her onstage. It didn’t exactly go as planned.
"I was like, 'I think I want to do this song.' And [she] goes, 'Umm, no, don't do that…'" West Dakota laughed, explaining that she ended up performing to an entirely different track. She was nervous, her hair fell off, and she wasn’t completely comfortable onstage. But despite it all, performing in drag felt right, and she still remembers it being "a lot of fun."
Being truly herself presents an interesting dichotomy for West Dakota, who says her personality in drag is wildly different from her self-described "shy and quiet" nature when the wigs and makeup come off.
"I feel like there is sort of a divide between West and myself," Dakota says. "I'm a very introverted person, so it takes a lot of energy for me to go out and perform, and West Dakota has helped me so much. [She's helped me] really be myself and not be afraid to be different."
And now that she's won not only acceptance but acclaim as a drag queen, West Dakota says she's turning her attention outward, acting as a figure "who stands up for what [her audience] believes in."
"Representation means being able to be authentically yourself," she says. "[And] having people around who love you for who you are."