Christian Holstad. Blue Boys Don’t Need Drugs with Voulkos. 2003. Cut-and-pasted printed paper on paper, 11 × 13 3/4" (27.9 × 34.9 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Judith Rothschild Foundation Contemporary Drawings Collection Gift. ©️ 2024 Christian Holstad

When was the last time you thought about your teenage self?

For a lot of us, our teenage years were an uncomfortable time. Sure, there were some good moments, but there were also a lot of confusing thoughts and big emotions that we couldn't figure out. For Pride 2024, we invite you to enter the world of Open Art Space (OAS), MoMA’s weekly drop-in program for LGBTQ+ high school students and their allies. From teens and educators at OAS to our inaugural Adobe Creative Resident and a member of MoMA’s Prime Time programs for older adults, you’ll hear from different community members about the ways they discovered and embraced their identity as queer people. They discuss what it was like growing up queer, the role of art in their lives, and the places and spaces that played a vital role in making them feel safe.

To hear more about how art is helping queer teens, click on the SoundCloud audio below, or listen to this episode wherever you get podcasts.

Wu Tsang. WILDNESS. 2012

Wu Tsang. WILDNESS. 2012

See below for a transcript of the SoundCloud audio.

Brys Peralta: Art helps me…

Dee: Express myself.

Jordany Genao: Better understand my inner workings.

Robin: Art helps me release my inner creativity.

Brys Peralta: Project outward what I need to the people around me.

DonChristian Jones: Art helps me get out of bed every morning and it allows me to keep dreaming.

John Roane: Art helps me survive.

Amara Thomas: Hello, my name is Amara Thomas. I’m an artist. But for my day job, I am an educator here at The Museum of Modern Art, where I organize monthly programs for New York City teens, a few of whom you just heard from.

Welcome to our fabulous Pride Podcast. Today, we’re celebrating queer youth, talking about the experiences of growing up queer, and how art is helping teens find and celebrate their true selves.

But first I want you to think back to your teenage years. What was being a teen like for you?

Brys Peralta: I come from a household that when I was in high school, I really didn’t enjoy being in.

Amara Thomas: The voice you just heard belongs to Brys Peralta.

Brys Peralta: I’m 20 years old. I’m currently a college student studying abroad in Germany right now. I’m a dancer, artist. I love to rollerblade.

Amara Thomas: I first met Brys when they were in high school. They used to come to MoMA all the time and participate in all of our programs. In many ways, they were a MoMA Teens ambassador, finding any possible way to be a part of our community.

Brys Peralta: In high school, I was effectively in the closet. I’m a trans man, but also bisexual. So I was still queer in a visible way, but didn’t really talk about it. My family’s from Jamaica and my grandma is very not accepting. I went to a very white high school as well. Basically, I lived in an environment with very few queer people and very few Black queer people especially. It feels very lonely.

Amara Thomas: Brys isn’t alone in their experience.

Jordany Genao: Sometimes your family is not your biggest supporter, they’re your first bully.

My name is Jordany Genao. I use they/them pronouns. I am a teaching artist and a interdisciplinary artist as well.

I’m from the Y2K generation, I was a teen in the early 2000s. But I grew up in pretty homophobic environments. There was a lot of machismo in a lot of Latino cultures, so I was dealing with that at home and also in school, on the streets.

DonChristian Jones: There’s always a queer gym teacher, or um [laughs] or woodshop.

Amara Thomas: Yes.

DonChristian Jones: Theater.

Amara Thomas: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah.

DonChristian Jones: That I think a lot of us gravitate to and like they might take us under their wing.

Amara Thomas: That’s DonChristian Jones.

DonChristian Jones: I am an artist, friend, sibling, performer, musician, and friend again. I’m also the inaugural Adobe Artist in Residence here at MoMA.

2004 through 2008 was my high school years, which feels a long time ago now. But also it’s recent enough that there were queer people walking around and being queer loudly. But I still don’t recall having access to that. And I think a lot of what I was doing was repressing a lot of my own questioning, trying to embody something that the world was expecting of me. I didn’t know what was allowed yet.

Amara Thomas: I was curious to know how our queer elders navigated coming into their queerness as teens, exploring their sexuality during their adolescence, during a time when no one talked about queerness, during a time when coming out wasn’t really a thing. So I spoke to John Roane.

John Roane: My name is John Wesley Roane and I’m a native New Yorker, born in the Bronx.

I grew up in the 1950s, and I could see at a young age that there was this disparity—the racial divide. The gay thing was never a problem in living at home. Now, starting to go out and meeting people, then that was a different thing because then you had to figure out who was what they were or what you thought they were. Because you don’t come out say, “I’m gay, I want,” whatever. In those days they were just trying to find people who were, and who were comfortable with it, because some people you thought maybe, but then you don’t wanna take any chances cause you get hurt, physically hurt and certainly emotionally hurt from doing that.

Amara Thomas: I asked John how he came into his identity as a gay man at a time when very few people were out publicly.

John Roane: I’ve never thought that I was the only person. I had a good friend in junior high school, and he showed me the ropes. You just kinda start meeting people and then you get a little crowd of people of a like mind and that’s nice cause you figure there’s comfort, that there’s other people like you.

We had a park so you can meet all sorts of people in the park. But then when you meet people, where can you be close?

Amara Thomas: Where can you be close? This question really stuck with me.

Jordany Genao: There was not enough care, I would say, in these spaces that I was in.

Amara Thomas: That’s Jordany Genao again.

Jordant Genao: They didn’t know how to talk to teens that were experiencing this stuff, or they just didn’t know what was going on with me. I would have a cut on my hand, and I wouldn’t tell anyone, I would just hide it. A lot of queer people deal with that, with hiding.

Amara Thomas: Even though Jordany and John grew up several decades apart, there’s one thing they have in common.

Jordany Genao: I would say  that growing up into my queerness and becoming visibly queer was not fun, because on school, on the streets, at home there was almost no safe space for me.

But I think teens have a lot of hope about their futures. And the way things are set up and the way that adults react to them and the things that they say can sometimes be demeaning or limiting of their ideas for what they want to accomplish in their lives and their future. Even though I was going through a lot when I was younger, I was always hopeful and excited about my future.

Amara Thomas:   Sometimes we get so caught up in the responsibilities of adulthood that we forget about our teenage selves. And while that time wasn’t all bad, there were still a lot of challenges and awkwardness. Everywhere you go someone is telling you what to do and how to act at a time when you’re still just trying to figure out who you are. So if you don’t feel safe at home or at school, where can you go?

For Jordany, they found refuge in art.

Jordany Genao: I became interested in making art when I went to an alternative high school here in the city. Shout out to City-As-School. There were other queer teens there, because I felt very comfortable being around the other students. And that was one of my first introductions to being in an educational environment that was focused on art. I was staying longer than other kids, I wasn’t taking breaks, I was just sitting there painting, drawing all the time.

I think art was healing because I could find a time and place that I feel comfortable in and let myself go and not be stressed and worried about what other people are thinking. I’m trying to think back to what I was worried about as a teenager—I was worried about people looking at me, I was worried about people talking about me just because of how I look, or what I’m doing, or what I’m saying, or how I’m talking, or how I’m moving, how I move my body, how I move my hair, how I move my neck when I talk. All these things matter so much that it’s important to have spaces where teens can do whatever the hell they want, look however they want, say whatever they want. To have spaces where students can feel really like they have the care and the capacity for finding community that people are like them and they can feel affirmed in that.

Amara Thomas: Today, Jordany has a studio practice and still feels inspired by the artmaking experiences they had as a teen. A central part of their work is crafting safe spaces where teens can use art to explore their identity. And one of those places where they do that is at MoMA in our Open Art Space program.

Jordany Genao: I would describe Open Art Space as a casual drop-in space where you learn about an art technique and an artist and maybe we’ll show you a piece of art that’s related to it.

You sign in, you make sure that we get your name and your consent to be part of the space. Me, as a teaching artist, I would be introducing you to the topics of the day and what we’re going to be doing. You would spend some time learning, you would spend some time chatting, and you would spend some time eating snacks.

But for the most part, what you do is up to you. You’re really just being offered the space and opportunity to socialize and create art at the same time and hopefully make friends and find something that you like.

Amara Thomas: Brys, the college student we heard from earlier, is an alum of Open Art Space.

Brys Peralta: I think one of my first Open Art Spaces was with Brian Anderson. He’s a professional skateboarder who is also gay. And I don’t even remember what we did in particular, but it was, really nice to just come to that space and hear from someone who’s a professional in their career, and living as a queer person also, and sharing how they’ve dealt with any challenges or discrimination they’ve faced. But also like how they’re still enjoying their identity.

Being able to hear from queer artists as a queer teen was very special. Because as great as New York may seem, it really depends on where you’re coming from and like, what people you’re surrounded by. There’s still a lot of discrimination, there’s still a lot of hatred that isn’t visible to everybody. But there are places that make it clear that you’re welcome here no matter how you identify.

Amara Thomas: During their first months at MoMA, I invited DonChristian Jones to take part in one of our weekly Open Art Space sessions.

DonChristian Jones: It just felt really cared for, nurtured. I could see the excitement in all of the youth that were there. It was very clear that the approach was one of questioning together. There was no implementation of what we’re gonna learn today, or this is what we’re talking about. It’s, what are we talking about? What do we want to do today? And the collectivity of questioning is really special and rare.

It brought me back to HMI, Harvey Milk.

Harvey Milk is a queer transfer high school on Astor Place downtown in Soho. In the afternoons it opens up and becomes Hetrick Martin Institute, which is a queer youth social service where they offer testing, job readiness, workshops, housing, everything.

I was sent to Harvey Milk as a partner to do a mural there with the youth in the afterschool program. But I immediately fell in love with the student body. There were two or three kiki lounges a week, which is where they would gather in the cafeteria to just vogue down. Like, I’m talking flipping off of tables and chairs in a high school cafeteria. Coming from shelters in full effect, makeup, hair. And just the ingenuity, the level of athleticism, creativity, resourcefulness, resilience, was so palpable, and I had never experienced it. I was just like, wow, I wish I had something like this when I was a teen.

Amara Thomas: If you had had access to a place like Harvey Milk or a Kiki Lounge…

DonChristian Jones: Mm-hmm.

Amara Thomas: How do you feel that would’ve changed or shaped who you are now?

DonChristian Jones: I think I just would’ve had a head start.

Amara Thomas: Mmm.

DonChristian Jones: And I think by now I would be a ballroom legend.

Amara Thomas: [Laughs] Love that.

Amara Thomas: Brys found community in the types of Kiki lounges and Ballroom spaces DonChristian experienced at HMI.

Brys Peralta: I’m in the Kiki house of Gabbana and the mainstream house of Donyale Luna in ballroom. It’s been made so overwhelmingly clear how much ballroom has helped me live in my own identity and really enjoy it.

Amara Thomas: Ballroom refers to an underground subculture built by queer Black and brown folx in cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. In a typical Ball, you’ll experience a variety of performances, including dances, lip-syncs, modeling, and “walks” where people compete for a panel of judges and often some prize money.

Brys Peralta: Summer 2022, after the Queens Pride performance and parade, I had started going to vogue classes. I knew this was a very fun way to move and I really admired how much pride for yourself and confidence was built into the philosophy of the movement. But it wasn’t until this past summer that I started going to kiki lounges and actually putting into practice all of the learning that I was doing and actually being myself.

It’s just changed my whole outlook on how queerness and how all the notes and collages and all the mediums of reflection that I do can really come to life in movement. And how voguing celebrates individualism, but also incorporates audiences. It gives people that are watching that same gut feeling that, even if you’re not the one dancing, you feel the movement within you. It’s changed so much of how I see art, how I see dance, how I see putting on a show and what it means to be in community with other people.

Amara Thomas: For queer people, safe spaces aren’t a given. We have to actively work to keep and create them.

Brys Peralta: Ballroom is such an amazing thing because it’s so empowering and what a lot of institutions are trying to do, especially now, is make it a very commercial thing, and that would just lose the whole authenticity of what ballroom is. But, we need to recognize that power and take that passion and love and celebration and keep cultivating that safe space.

When I started college, I also stopped having access to the ballroom scene. Vermont is not a place where that exists, I would say. I’m the only one at my school of 2,500 students that knows about ballroom. It feels very lonely, but I want to bring that feeling into my school, to show other students, other faculty, other people in other places that there is space for you, no matter how you identify. And there is a reason to celebrate. I want to bring that celebration out into the world through dance, through collage, through drawing, through all of the mediums possible, because it’s something that affects all of the senses.

Jordany Genao: Queer people have a very involved history with creating chosen families and creating love structures outside of what’s been teached and is seen as normal. I think having spaces where you can create community should be more normal.

As a teaching artist, I try to offer this revolutionary or radical queer space to other people, to other teens. I also kind of like thinking of myself as a queer elder for the students, so I also try to have a personal relationship to the teens that come in through Open Art Space. I try to have that camaraderie and that attention and care towards them. I think that comes from my background and not having that.

Amara Thomas: While it’s important for young queer people to have safe spaces, that need doesn’t end after high school or college.

John Roane: When I was young, SAGE stood for Seniors Active in the Gay Environment. Now it’s a social program, but it’s aimed at gay men and women of a senior age. It provides you, first of all, a meeting place to meet like-minded people. It gives you services. They have food, usually, they have a lunch or maybe a dinner. They have activities. They have counseling. They have advocates to help with housing.

SAGE offers these classes or courses online that you can just sit home and watch it and be a part of it, and the MoMA has done that with us too. That’s when I first met MoMA from being in the Bronx SAGE. We had a teaching artist come up there and we did work there. They took some of our pieces that we selected and they brought it down here, they framed it, mounted it, and it was really nice.

Amara Thomas: I asked John what these opportunities for community and connection have provided him with.

John Roane: It’s a wonderful kind of clubhouse to go to ‘cause as we get older, you’re by yourself now so your friends become your family. I’m by myself now ‘cause my last partner died in 2020. But when I get invites from MoMA to do the programs, there’s a chance to see some friends, to meet people. I met one particular guy, Neil. We’ve become good friends. I say we’re like the Biden and Obama of MoMA. ‘Cause he’s a white guy and he looks like Biden a little bit.

My last partner, who died, he was an artist himself, so he had a studio in the house that we lived in. Paints, things like that, everything is there and I’m always around it, and I do things. I cut out things. I have a friend now who’s a collage artist. It keeps me focused. It keeps my imagination going.

Amara Thomas: For queer folks, friendship is revolutionary. Often, we are reimagining our lives in creative ways because society was not built to support us. And in that process of radical reimagining, we’re able to see the endless possibilities of friendship.

DonChristian Jones: It’s my everything. I’ve been lucky enough to have always been surrounded by a tribe of really special, loyal, hilarious friends. I feel safe in this camaraderie.

Amara Thomas: That’s the artist DonChristian Jones again.

DonChristian Jones: My whole childhood, I didn’t feel like I had that much access to queerness. But I had a core group of friends that made it exciting and safe. The openness of space that they created, that we created together, allowed for us to really become who we were supposed to be, who we are supposed to be.

So much of life is these pressures that we have no control over, but there is immense things we do have control over. And that’s things like feeding one another, showing up, or picking up the phone and being a listening ear to someone you love, being able to call someone and have a listening ear when you need, picking up someone from the airport, helping someone move outta their house. Those things are in our power. We can make time for those things. I see the very real, tangible effects of lives changing when we work so closely and interpersonally and intergenerationally and interculturally.

Amara Thomas: It’s up to us to protect and create spaces where people can feel community, they can feel safe, they can feel connection and feel comfortable.

John Roane: I think it’s important to have safe spaces for all people, but especially for LGBT people, cause many of us do not have families that could possibly support us.

Jordany Genao: That’s why we find ourselves in these niche creative outlets, because sometimes we’re silenced or sometimes we’re not safe in certain spaces, so it comes out in words, it comes out in song, it comes out however. And we have to create images of what we want to see as well.

DonChristian Jones: I mean, you just think about all of us that had to grow up really fast, that are told to be more professional, to talk a certain way, to dress a certain way. The systems of disenfranchisement as they pertain to Black, Indigenous, brown, queer persons, will do all it can to eliminate all the joy in you—quickly.

But I see all of the potential in our youth. That’s why we have to protect them. I really want them to feel as empowered and loved as possible.

Amara Thomas: Just imagine what the future could look like if we made the space for all teens to feel seen and cared for. To simply just be who they are.

Amara Thomas: What affirmation or words of advice do you have for queer teens today?

John Roane: There’s so many horrible things being said about us, you’ve gotta try to keep that outta your mind and not have that affect how you carry yourself, whatever your particular dreams are. There are people who will help you achieve what you want to do, but you have to go out of your comfort zone.

Robin: You are loved, you are appreciated, and you matter. And no matter, like, what your life story is, no matter how tough it is or depressing, just know that someone genuinely cares about your wellbeing and know you are loved.

Dee: If you ever feel like you shouldn’t come out the closet, or you think there’s something wrong with you, there is nothing wrong with you.

Jordany Genao: Affirming the beauty of your identity, of your queerness, of how it is that you want to brand yourself these are things that you should hold onto.

Brys Peralta: Whatever you feel or whatever you think, don’t push it away. Put it on paper. it has worth, it has value. And you’ll be able to look back on it and have a clearer view of what you want for yourself in the future.

DonChristian Jones: Don’t stop stretching and really live in your body as much as you can. Take care of your knees. Start collecting some wigs, maybe a pair of heels. Dance more and sing more.

Amara Thomas: Thanks so much for listening! MoMA Audio is supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies. The Adobe Foundation is proud to support equity, learning, and creativity at MoMA. And Teen Programs are made possible by the Carroll and Milton Petrie Education Program Endowment, the Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Education and Research Endowment, and by Volkswagen of America. Additional funding is provided by the Annual Education Fund.

This episode was hosted by me, Amara Thomas. It was produced and edited by Arlette Hernandez, with mixing and sound design by Brandi Howell.

And a very, very, very special thanks goes to David Rios, Ébun Nazon-Powers, and all the MoMA teens who have attended our programs and helped us create the safe spaces they need. We love you guys!