In New York City, almost every retailer on Fifth Avenue has a rainbow flag draped in its window. June is Pride month and it couldn’t be more visible. But one question on many people’s minds, especially LGBTQIA+ people, is how are brands actually supporting the community? Are they making any donations, lending their time, or is it all surface level?
One brand that has long been invested in supporting LGBTQIA+ people is Gap. This year, for example, 15% of sales from its Pride collection went to the United Nations Foundation in support of UN Free & Equal, which promotes equal rights for queer people. It was also the main retail sponsor for “Journey to Freedom,” an event hosted by Rainbow Railroad, an organization that helps LGBTQIA+ people escape violence and persecution in their home countries.
Starring in Gap’s Pride 2019 campaign is the inspiring author-activist Jodie Patterson, alongside her chosen family. The campaign not only features her transgendered son, Penelope, but other loved ones she’s leaned on throughout her journey. Her book, The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation, discusses various layers of identity, including gender and race. Patterson joined me in our New York City office to talk about chosen families, the Gap campaign, and the importance of being politically vocal.
Tell me a little bit about your involvement with the LGBTQIA+ community.
You know, I never really thought about the LGBTQIA+ community. I knew generally of it, probably would be tongue-twisted by the letters. But about six years ago, seven years ago, my child who I had named Penelope, who I assumed was a girl, said to me, “Mama, I am not a girl. I am a boy.” When Penelope said that, I didn’t quite understand it. I thought maybe I’d failed to raise a feminist. I thought maybe I had dropped the ball on instilling pride in this young person to eventually grow up and be a fantastic woman. So there were many months and almost a year of sort of sitting on guilt.
But during that time, what I also did was try to find answers. I went onto the World Wide Web and I looked at language and words and organizations and people. I did a lot of private work by myself. No one else knew. Malcolm Gladwell says 10,000 hours and you’ll become an expert, right? So I said, “OK, 10,000 hours I’m going to devote to this.” At the end of the year, I understood my son to be transgender.
That’s when I realized that the community that I had set up, which was primarily fundamentally based in black culture, was not quite wide enough for what I needed. So that’s when I said, “OK, not only is my fundamental community black, it will always be, but it is also LGBTQAI+,” because that’s what my son needed. Then come to find out, that’s also what all of us need. We need wider communities.
So my involvement now is in an every day, all-day capacity, all-day way. My friends identify in all different ways. The businesses I support are LGBT friendly. The organizations that I sit on the board of, Human Rights Campaign, Gender & Family Project, they are pro-trans. They work to dismantle transphobia and they work to specifically shine light on black trans boys and girls, queer people of color. So everything I do, whether it’s social or political – I even spend my money differently. As a family, we go to camps that are for families with gender-nonconforming people in their families. Where we use to take maybe a lavish trip to the beach, we now take two trips to LGBTQAI+ trans camp. So everything. I mean, I’m an ally. I’m a mother of a trans boy. I’m a mother of a genderqueer girl. I consider myself non-binary. You know, am I of the community? Full-heartedly.
Tell me more about your family and how it reshaped you definition of family.
My family is complex and layered. Within our own house, within our own immediate family, we have African from Ghana and Egypt. We have Swiss, German, and Vietnamese. We have black American from the South and the North, and we have Canadian white. So within that, we have five languages. We have people who pray in different ways. We have people who love as they see fit. Multiple identities. Multiple genders. That means that if we were listening to the current political noise, we would not be able to sit down at the dinner table together. We would not be able to use the same bathrooms in the house together. We wouldn’t even stay together as a family. So I recognize that just our effort in being together as a family and staying together is an acknowledgement of diversity. We’ve had to acknowledge each other and accept our differences.
Gap’s Pride 2019 campaign focuses on chosen family. What is a chosen family?
A chosen family is whoever stands up for you, whomever you choose, whomever is there day in and day out lifting you up, helping you do the things that you need to do, and vice versa. It’s reciprocated, so it doesn’t go one way. Chosen family is such a great definition of family, because it is reciprocal relationships and relationships that have been decided upon by the individuals.
I have aunties and sister girls and brothers that come from different families, different parents. And we rally around, we scaffold around each other every day, so that I can be here talking with you and someone is making sure that my puppy or my children are well loved. I can reach out tonight to someone I met, his name is Tiq Milan and his wife, Kim Milan, and I can ask them questions about my bias. Tiq is trans and I can ask him to check me on my bias, right, in a loving way.
I have chosen family that helps with the logistics of life, but also helps with your blind spots. I mean, we have blind spots we don’t even… I wasn’t even seeing my son, who’s trans, before this. I didn’t see transgender people. I didn’t see queer people, really. I didn’t hear their voices. I could walk down the street and just think a few random people looked strange to me and not have a clue. My chosen family has opened my eyes to things that I was blind to before and cleared out my ears to people I was deaf to before. I think chosen family makes you better, right? Because they don’t have to be there. We’ve chosen to gather together and there’s a purpose around it. The purpose is love, the purpose is growth, the purpose is protection. For the LGBT community, chosen family is golden. You don’t always have moms who support us or churches.
What was shooting Gap’s Pride campaign like for you and your chosen family?
Working with Gap was almost like the culmination of the last eight years of my life. It’s this campaign that is global, actually. I didn’t know it. It’s in France and it’s in Italy and it’s on Fifth Avenue and on the West Coast and in Chicago. Every time I look up or someone looks up, there we are. It’s Penelope, my son, and my mother from the South. It’s Jean Malpas from the Gender & Family Project. It is Gia and Ashton, who are teens that work with the Human Rights Campaign as ambassadors. Oh, and it’s Tiq Milan and his wife, Kim Milan, and their baby, Soleil, who I’m now the godmother of. It’s folks that I’ve learned to trust. It’s people that have raised me or have helped to raise my children. People that I’ve found new information with, grown with.
Gap asked me, they said, “Listen, can we shoot you with people you love?” And I said, “Sure, I’d love that, right? I’d love to [spend] a day with people I love.” But I didn’t know how powerful it was going to be. I didn’t know they were going to let me use my own wording. I didn’t know they were going to capture all of our energy in each picture. When I look at the videos, I actually start to cry, just because there was so much… It wasn’t fabricated. It was love and these relationships brought me to a place where I am today. If you looked at me years ago, I was pretty sad, I was pretty mad. I was without a plan. I didn’t know how to raise my own son. And that’s a horrible feeling for a parent. I felt pointless and useless with this one child and that really then made me pointless and useless with all of my children. I was kind of broken.
So to see them in the Gap ad with me means that you’re seeing our success. It’s like a roadmap. If you just look at this campaign you, too, can understand how life gets better, how communities deepen, how Pride is really about what you make it. I was lucky to have Gap ask me how I wanted to see the campaign. They didn’t say, “OK, here’s the campaign. This is how we’re going to shoot it. This is the text. Sign at the contract. Sign at the bottom line.” They said to me, “How do you…” First of all, they read my book. They literally read my book top to bottom. They had pulled favorite quotes. They recreated scenarios from the book. That shows a lot of thought. So yes, Gap is a big brand, but the people who work at Gap and the people I work with are moms, women, feminists, and they geeked out on the message that my family is giving out. So I say that I have the utmost respect for the folks that I worked with at the Gap company.
Do you think brands should be more politically vocal?
I do like the fact that brands are understanding that there’s a subculture that we have to be aware of, and that undercurrent is that we are who we are from the inside. That will play out in many different ways and it has to be fluid and it has to cross-pollinate with all the ideas. You know, I’m happy to see brands reflecting youth culture, youth ideas, and political complexity. I think that we as brands have to be political. I think we as brands have to be complex and that we have to speak to the younger folks and match their conversations. In the clothing, in the designs, in the billboards, in the branding, every way. In every way, it has to match. It can’t just be empty words. It has to be campaigns that perhaps hit the… I think campaigns have to hit all the polarizing topics, right? I think we have to talk about the extreme ideas. We, at one point in life, thought that polarizing topics would divide us. But I think those polarizing topics bring us together. Those polarizing ideas actually unite us. So to see brands hitting on big, strange ideas is exactly where they should be.
What affect did this campaign have on your family and what effect do these types of campaigns have on the culture at large?
What’s really nice is that when Penelope sees the images of himself it sort of counterbalances all of this negative shit. He knows that black trans people have been murdered and that black trans lives are misunderstood. But when he sees himself, he stands up taller and he smiles.
Also, his friends find it empowering. It gives them something to rally around. So I’ve seen his friends say, “Wait a minute…” They are self-proclaimed allies now. This is a school that wasn’t before and now is. His school waves the transgender flag and has self-proclaimed LGBT allies that have gone off to high school and done the work in high school now. So I think the campaign changed the way that Penelope’s friends interact with him and enhanced the way Penelope interacts with his family. It legitimizes… I know it’s just a picture, but it helps to legitimize. It helps to give visibility.
One more thing, can I say? For me, it’s really important when we look at Penelope and my chosen family in the campaign that it reminds us of the kids that are not in the campaign. There’s so many black trans boys and girls. There’s so many queer kids of color that don’t have a campaign, that don’t have a T-shirt, that don’t have a family, or a mother, are looking desperately for a chosen family. I want the campaign to remind us of those folks.