I became an activist because of the injustice I see every day in the world we live in and my disbelief that our government is not ready to create favorable policies for people like myself (members of the LGBTQ community) to exist. Many people like me choose to fight injustice not because were selected to or trained to be the change agents in our generation; rather, we sometimes wonder how we come to fill these shoes. Mostly, it’s a result of a combination of life experiences, the exposure to new views, or an awakening to the reality of the injustice happening around us.
The term—which combines the words ‘activist’ and ‘artist’ — refers to any form of creative expression that seeks to “fight and struggle against injustice and oppression—by any medium necessary.”
I have come to define myself as someone who believes in the power of creative expression for social change. Artivism developed in recent years as antiwar and anti-globalization protests emerged and proliferated. In many cases, artivists attempt to push political agendas through their art, but a focus on raising social and environmental awareness is also common. In addition to using traditional mediums like film and music to raise awareness or push for change, an artivist can also be involved in culture jamming, subvertising, street art, spoken word, and protesting. Artivism’s roots stem from a 1997 gathering between Chicano artists from East Los Angeles and the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico.
Activism challenges the status quo and asks for a different way of thinking. It is a form of nonviolent activism. Artivism is a form of expression that, like art, conveys artists’ discontent for this world and their search for a new form of being. This is my way of seeing the world: if the world does not fit you, you should create a world where you do fit.
Non-violent movements were a type of activism used by the civil rights movement and Mahatma Gandhi’s fight for the liberation of India. Artivism is a strong and non-violent form of protest. This is very evident in today’s world, with increased visibility and higher acceptance of LGBTQ people in the media, examples being Ru Paul and Todrick Hall, both of whom are widely accepted for their drag and dance. Most people have told me that they will continue to love a favorite artist even if that artist comes out as gay. People tend to forget about an artist’s sexuality when they focus instead on the art. This has created a huge cultural shift.
Why Artivism is Very important.
Many people would not read a book to learn about LGBT+ people’s lives, but would watch a play or attend a show in which the performing artist does not align with their political belief systems. A typical example from my life was the performance of my play at Studio 54 in New York City. In March 2019 I performed a one-man show based on my book, BED 26.
BED 26 is based on an immigrant’s story, of a gay man seeking refuge in America. It’s very political, given that in this country the media and people largely disagree about immigration issues. I have been a vocal advocate for the rights of immigrants. Feedback after the play was so real; people do not know about the realities of asylum seekers. Folks who came to the play who were both for and against immigration said that they were unaware of the reality of asylum seekers, that indeed words alone cannot convey the story of an asylum seeker as strongly as a play can.
Artivism: the New Social Change Movement
Artivism could be the best way forward in creating change. The ways in which we consume information have changed, from traditional news media to new forms such as podcasts, social media and other means of information sourcing and gathering.
Recently I was on a panel with Chella Man, popular for sharing his experiences as a transgender, deaf, gender queer, Jewish person of color on YouTube. He is slated to play mute superhero Jericho in the second season of DC Universe's Titans. He said on the panel that the internet has given him the ability to create his own reality and document the process of making his reality. I found this profoundly amazing, that art as a form of expression can also be a form of liberation for many disadvantaged people in our society.
Three ways to become an artivist from my experience in writing and performing BED 26 at Studio 54
There is a saying, “find your passion and follow it.” I believe this is a good mantra for helping some people become successful – but not necessarily all. Some people so fully embrace this aphorism that they stop themselves from exploring other paths to success and personal fulfillment. The question, then, is: how do I find my passion? Many people who ask this question do not have an answer to it themselves.
While it is very good to follow your passion, it is probably also a good idea to follow your curiosity. Don't only follow your passion – also follow your curiosity. When you find you are curious about something, my advice is to try it. If your exploration was not as successful as you had expected it to be you would not feel bad that you wasted time following your passion or the perception that your passion project was not successful.
Explore! Even if you are passionate about something, it’s worthwhile to try other things as well. I’ve never acted, but I took on the challenge of a one-man show. It was a very fun and exciting project and it also gave me a sense of fulfillment. I conveyed the message I wanted to convey – and, in the process, discovered that acting is not for me. While the performance was great, it took a lot of emotional energy, and I cannot afford to invest in another performance in the near future.
If you are going to achieve your passion, you must exercise a lot of discipline. The same goes for when you are exploring an idea. No successful person achieved their goals without discipline in one or several areas of their lives. I want to advise anybody reading this that making an impact in life is not for the faint of heart. Choosing to become an artivist is not running away from protests; you are going to discipline those inner voices that will try to convince you that you are not good enough to do the work you have set out to do.
For you to be disciplined with a project, you have to set a finish date for it and map out how you will get it done before then. Regardless of the pressure you may face to quit, you have to remind yourself of the importance of the message you are trying to get across and be patient with the process it takes to achieve it.
I did a one-man show in only 12 weeks from start to finish. It took a lot of discipline, time management and self-starting abilities to achieve this, together with the support of friends, family and well-meaning people. You have to stay away from negative people, and it takes a lot of discipline to refine your raw material into a fine product.
What do you want the audience to learn from your message? This is what you should center your art around. For me, I wanted to get my audience to understand the pain, mental struggles and other hurdles an asylum seeker must overcome to be granted protection. I achieved this by keeping the message at the heart of the performance. To make sure my message got through, we rehearsed with different audiences before performing.
I did the performance in the first place because of my message. If I did not have a message I felt I needed to communicate, I would not have made the effort to seek a channel to reach people. Let the message be your guide.
You can change the world for good, but it doesn’t have to be by protesting on the street alone. Feel free to call yourself an activist if you are striving to create change by any way you choose. I’m writing this piece to encourage you to create change in anything you do, be it education, art or protests of any kind.
Many people have asked me if my play will return to the stage, and the pressure for me to do another play is mounting. Sometimes you have to make a hard decision -- and one of the decisions I’ve made is to concentrate on the work I can give my best to, which is thinking creatively and speaking out.