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Portraits of Gayface by a San Francisco Artist

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Jul 15 2020

Lauren Tabak is a creative wizard. Not only does she occasionally help out with producing video for IDEO U's latest courses, she's also a woman with a million side projects—from writing, singing, and playing music to managing her dog Louis' Instagram presence. Her creative powers seem to known no bounds. But there's one project of hers that stood out to me as particularly magical, and that's Gayface: Lauren's portrait series of LGBTQIA humans and their unique, beautiful stories celebrating their identities.

As a queer woman, I'm used to seeing negative stories of LGBTQIA people in media. From the tired tropes like the "gay best friend" or the repeated killing off of queer lead characters (see more from The Advocate's list of the 17 LGBT Tropes Hollywood Needs to Retire) to the heartbreaking real-life violence against trans and other gender non-conforming people that seems to be a weekly occurrence if you watch the news. (HRC keeps a running list of these deaths each year, with Black transgender women making up the majority.) That's why Lauren's Gayface project is so important—it shows us, the LGBTQIA community, as we want to be seen. It shows us alive and thriving, messy, imperfect, and beautiful. It shows us as we are.

I spoke with Lauren about her creative process, the importance of queer visibility today, and what's next for Gayface in a post-pandemic world.

In one sentence, who are you?

I'm a creative interested in filmmaking, photography, music, and food, mostly, but my better half is a four-legged dude with a major 'tude named Louis.

Lauren Tabak, self portrait

What do you do? How did you learn it?

I have a lot of interests and no formal training so the result is that I do a lot of different things and nothing particularly well, but I've been fortunate enough to meet a few collaborators over the years who have really pushed me to get better.

In addition to the Gayface photography series, I have an indie-pop music project called Elle Empty with a musician named Anu Kirk—we have a music video that I directed/shot/edited doing the festival circuit now. I'm working on a new rootsy/Americana project with another musician/producer named Chuck Prophet which I'm planning on using as the soundtrack for a lesbian Western I've been writing. And I've also made a lot of short music documentaries over the years with folks like The Rolling Stones, Kendrick Lamar, and Nas (a new one I directed for Amazon on 70's disco icon Sylvester premiered June 18th).

I get a lot of joy out of experimenting with colorful ingredients and assembling a well-plated dish. I grew up in a restaurant and was told ad-nauseum that we “eat with our eyes,” so I learned early that presentation is important. My Instagram stories are mostly food.

Amaris, 40, she/her

"Honey, I've never been able to hide this gayface. I've been mixing patterns and clashing colors since 1985. In terms of fashion, I like to be loud even if I'm feeling quiet. I'm a bit of an extroverted introvert, so the beauty of clothes is being able to turn up the volume without opening my mouth. There are also a lot fewer dykes in my peer group still living in the city. The queer-exodus has made me want to be as visible as possible, not just for my own ego but because I think having a multi-generational queer tribe is important. My wife and I are excited to play our role as 'elders' in the community. I hope that when the gaybies see us around town they think: OK. You can get older, find your unicorn, rock your own style, and make a little coin in this city without compromising your identity."

Tell me about how Gayface started. What sparked the idea? What made you want to follow through with it?

I was dating someone in the fashion industry who was always scouting—so we would spend a lot of time checking people out, breaking down their looks, or talking about different photographers’ work. It was inspiring—I was given this new lens with which to look at people and, you know, access to a lot of talent.

Aside from that, I had been wanting to do a project around queerness and visibility for a while (I actually wrote my college thesis on the topic like 20 years ago). One day the word gayface just popped in my head and I was like, “Oh, that’s it. That’s how I’m going to bring this all together.”

Also, I had just broken my arm skateboarding the night before I was supposed to leave for a surf trip, so I had planned-time-off and was kinda stuck at home and needed a creative project I could do with my non-dominant hand (I shot everything on a tripod for the first three months). A real winning trifecta! Anyway, when I mentioned the idea to my ex the feedback I got was, “It’s 2019. Is passing even relevant anymore?” Which is a fair question. My feeling was that the way LGBTQIA people are presenting themselves in 2019 in the Bay Area would be less about passing (i.e. attempting to look straight) and more about flagging (i.e. covertly signaling one’s homosexuality).

Gayface became a sort of ethnographic study, I suppose. An ethnographic study with day drinking. I typically had sparkling rosé on hand because it looked nice with the pink backdrop but also because the majority of the people I shot were not models, so you know, it wasn’t just decorative.

Kyle, 24, he/him

"There was a lot of self-doubt surrounding how 'coming out' would negatively affect my relationships with friends and family. It took years to amass the courage to tell those closest to me that I live a bisexual lifestyle. I recall the sense of fear from being exiled from my people—but instead, I was surrounded by the most endearing support system. So everything I do, I do out of love and I do it for them."

What is "gayface," actually?

Here’s one of the many Urban Dictionary definitions of “Gayface”: “Gayface” is the look that gay men have that enables other gay men to quickly identify them as “family” no matter what they're doing, wearing, or saying. Gayface is identifiable in photos. Gayface cannot be hidden by attempts to “butch it up.”

To me, it’s the idea that a person reads as “queer” to anyone, irrespective of how they are presenting—meaning grooming, or styling, or whatever.

Tell me how the Gayface process works. How do you source and work with your subjects?

I started with my friend Luke and then it was sort of word-of-mouth from there. Some folks I knew, some folks I didn’t. Friends of friends and strangers reached out over Instagram. And truthfully, I’m a bit shy and awkward, so the rosé was really for us both! 😂 I’ve had people tell me that my vulnerability invites openness and I’ve had people tell me that I’m terribly intimidating, so I think it just comes down to people wanting to share. In other words, I think the project attracted people who wanted to tell their story, even if they weren’t comfortable in front of the camera.

Miles, 29, he/him

"I tried so hard to conform my entire life. Growing up in a conservative town, passing was a privilege and a necessity. I started my transition when I was four or five, so like most other boys very early in life I absorbed what masculinity and manhood 'should' be. You can’t play dress up. You can’t wear nail polish. All of your weaknesses were to be hidden. And my transness was most decidedly a weakness. I hid the fact that I was trans so well most people ignored it—I did too, but that left me isolated from any kind of community, and made talking about a large portion of my life impossible, or embarrassing. Because of that internalized shame, it’s taken me a long time to be comfortable publicly identifying, even within an LGBTQIA space. Now that I have though, I’ve realized what a pleasure it is to be seen for your whole self. And I’ve realized that I don’t actually want to look or be cis. I don’t want to be some cheap facsimile when I could be myself. And I’ll wear nail polish if I want to."

What have you learned in the process of the project?

Oh man. A lot. I learned some technical stuff regarding how to shoot in my living room with a pair of ancient mismatched speed lights. I learned some things about myself through my interactions with the subjects. I learned how not to hang a frame on plaster walls. I learned that there are people in this country who identify as “homosexual” but are offended by the word “queer.” I learned a lot about the business of art from a delightful human named Katie Cooper who runs The Laundry where I had my last show. And with respect to my hypothesis as to whether or not LGBTQIA people today in the Bay Area are concerned with trying not to be read as straight, well, the jury is still out. My observation is that there are very few people for whom “visibility” isn’t a daily consideration, but I can’t make any specific correlations at this time.

Sergio, he/him

"Growing up in a very conservative religious community I struggled with so much insecurity about looking or acting gay. After coming out I then struggled to find or fit the stereotypes & heteronormative gender roles that were just as prevalent in the LGTBQ+ community as well. I’m an avid lover of mythos and stories, especially of the sci/fi & fantasy variety. I have always been drawn to powerful characters that I felt awoke my own power or fanned my flame of individuality. These stories and characters inspire the looks I put together and the jewelry I create and that confidence they give me is the face I do my best to put forward every day."

What do you hope other people take away from the project?

I’ve seen some of these photos on Tinder. I hope that works out for them. That would really be the sign of a job well done, don’t you think?

In all seriousness though, I’ve gotten messages from random people thanking me for this work—for showing them someone that they can identify with, which is mind-blowing to me because I feel like I’m not exactly re-inventing the wheel here. But I guess relative to the amount of imagery in pop culture, queerness is still unrepresented and fairly homogenous, so there’s still a hunger for this kind of storytelling. For viewers outside of the LGBTQIA community, I hope this project invokes empathy—that's why including the subject's statements is so important.

Andrea, 37, she/her

"It’s taken me all the 37 years of my life to learn to silence preconceived notions around my identity. I embrace the power I hold, I am the legacy of my family’s courage, and the 'borders' I am transcending for future generations are: toxic machismo, classism, homophobia, and racism. Growing up between two cultures meant that code switching was a means of survival and that has translated into how I navigate hetero/queer, genders/nonbinary, architect/artist, trauma/healing. After two decades of living all over California, absorbing and immersing myself in the queer circles, Latinx communities, and creative networks I finally find myself in San Francisco. My journey has taught me to unapologetically claim all the complicated layers of my existence. I have become uncompromising, and authentically me because I found my throne, it was in the mirror all along."

What have been your 3 favorite possessions during quarantine?

My computer, my camera, and my piano have really been great quarantine mates. And Louis, too. Terrible conversationalist, but he’s generally good company.

What’s your number one bucket list item once shelter-in-place is lifted?

Well, I had to cancel a solo show in Los Angeles that I was planning to use to springboard a cross-country photographic road trip, so I’m looking forward to re-scheduling that and shooting Gayface portraits in other cities. I'd love to create a snapshot of "the state of gay" in 2020 around the central question of "Does visibility matter?"

How do you see the world post-COVID-19?

There was a moment where I thought people would come out traumatized, but it seems like a good portion of the United States already has amnesia. That said, I think one of the lasting effects will be economic—how we work, where we work, what types of industry are sustainable, and what we value and prioritize.

Who have you been creative crushin’ on lately?

I’m always late to the game, but maybe these will be new to some people. At the moment, and in no particular order, I can’t seem to get enough of:

  1. Frazey Ford, who did an album in 2014 called Indian Ocean with Al Green’s Hi Rhythm Section
  2. La Doña, a very clever wordsmith whose new EP is called Algo Nuevo
  3. Ally Ferguson, the designer behind unisexy fashion label Seeker
  4. Yesika Salgado, a poet, who just like, has a window into my heart
  5. A photographer named Danielle Levitt, whose work I only came to know via her portraits of Dan Levy for GQ
  6. A photographer named Mikael Owunna, who did this stunning portrait series called Infinite Essence and who I later learned also did a portrait series called Limit(less) documenting the LGBTQ+ African immigrant experience
  7. A choreographer/filmmaker named Celia Rowlson-Hall, who made this silent narrative choreographed film called "Ma" that kinda reminded me of "Holy Mountain" and checks all of my aesthetic boxes… I could go on and on.
  • Ali Cottong

    Marketing, IDEO San Francisco
    Ali is a content strategist with roots in telling stories for deep tech. She originally earned her nerd cred as a former world-class Quidditch player and has competed in the Quidditch World Cup twice. Ali currently lives in Oakland and has traded in her broomstick for a bike.
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