This is what LGBTQ+ joy looks like
Story and photographs by Nic Coury for CNN
Published 12:00 PM ET, Fri June 25, 2021
Celebrating LGBTQ+ pride can feel daunting when there is so much work for equity and equality left to do.
But for many people across the gender and sexuality spectrum, feeling authentic in their true self is absolute joy.
Maddie Furey, a high school student from Salinas, California, describes it using a scene from the animated film “Ratatouille.”
“You know that scene where Remy eats the strawberry and cheese together, he gets that giant pop of color behind him and hears the jazz music as fireworks go off? That’s what it feels like when I am comfortable in my identity,” she said. “It feels like this explosion of harmony. Everything clicks and just feels correct.”
This portrait series celebrates identity and how some people in the LGBTQ+ community find their joy. Sometimes that joy is strengthened with a partner, and sometimes it is found in helping others. Simple things can make a huge difference, such as a gender-affirming haircut for a 5-year-old transgender boy. Or maybe it's creating a gender-neutral clothing line because a person couldn’t find clothes that felt comfortable to how they felt inside.
I’m 37, and I only started to feel comfortable as a queer person in the last five years, after feeling compelled to come out after the Pulse nightclub massacre. In high school, I was confused about my identity, and the only LGBTQ+ people I knew were Elton John, Matthew Shepard and my cousin Amy. A few years into college, my attraction to all humans, regardless of gender or sexuality, came into focus but was still a bit blurred because of the lack of support in my social circles.
I found visibility in a lot of queer-friendly music, namely Tegan and Sara — an escape where I felt seen and understood. It was very comforting. In more modern, virtual spaces, a lot of LGBTQ+ people, myself included, have found community in places like TikTok, Instagram and other social media. Comedian Cameron Esposito’s podcast “Queery” opens up dialogue with an inclusive array of well-known LGBTQ+ guests, where they discuss identity in a safe, affirming way.
“To be yourself while trying to live is a lot,” Esposito told me. “The experience of feeling like you’re the only one, (but then) finding community, is the act of finding queer joy. It feels like freedom.”
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been interviewing people in the LGBTQ+ community and asking them what brings them joy and how they define their identity. Like some sexual identities, gender can fluctuate and be fluid. Some people use they/them pronouns, which are common for transgender and nonbinary people, and sometimes they use both he and they or she and they. While this can be confusing for a person who uses binary pronouns, asking someone their pronouns — like asking someone how to pronounce or spell their name — is a good practice.
Kinnison Gallagher (she/her) and Kenna (she/her)
“We had the space to better come into our queerness when we met each other,” said Gallagher, who’s seen here on the left. “Once we met and fell in love, I never had a hesitation.”
The two live in Santa Cruz, California. Kenna is a high school art teacher and Gallagher works on a high school office staff.
They identify as queer. Gallagher said that to her, queer joy is “the feeling of being fully seen by somebody.”
Kenna said “it’s about feeling safe in spaces that we frequent.”
Nixie Smith-McKrill (he/him)
“Around 4, he only wanted to wear boy's clothes, so I asked, ‘Do you want to be called a boy?’ and the answer was yes and he wanted to use he/him pronouns,” said Nixie’s mother, Kim Smith. “His world view is that people thought he was a girl when he was born, but they were wrong and that just happens sometimes. …
“Nixie wanted a haircut but was nervous about getting it because he hadn’t gotten it cut (short) before. After he got it cut around Thanksgiving 2020, he was so excited and loved it. Nixie then asked me to tell the preschool teachers to call him a boy and use he/him pronouns.”
Steven Goings (they/he)
“For me, queer joy looks like a celebration of uninhibited self-expression free from expectations around sexuality and gender performance,” said Goings, a diversity trainer at California State University-Monterey Bay who identifies as bigender. “It embraces human relationships, gender and sexuality in all of its complexity and diversity. Being comfortable in my own identity means deeply knowing that my sexuality and gender expression is a blessing to all who are willing to receive.”
Meredith May (she/her) and Jenn Jackson (she/her)
“I’m not really hung up on my gender identity,” said May, left. “I feel so ordinary with Jenn. We are best friends and family. We’re just people who love each other. We move through the world as a couple first, but not solely as a gay couple. We’re just comfortable together.”
May said their joy “comes from the rituals we’ve created together — morning coffee, hiking with our dog, listening to jazz while cooking dinner. With each other, nothing ever gets old.”
The two live in Carmel Valley, California. May is an author, and Jackson is retired law enforcement.
Lauren Macadaeg (they/them)
“Being queer/nonbinary for me is discovering my own uniqueness and finding community, which I have through roller derby,” said Macadaeg, a graphic designer from Capitola, California. “What I love about the skating community is, at any skill level, there is a sense of family and acceptance that I haven’t experienced anywhere else.
“Before derby, I knew I was on the spectrum of queer and pansexual, but I didn’t have the language or support until I met my derby mates who genuinely wanted to see me become my best self. My derby league was the first place I asked people to use they/them pronouns for me.
“I’m still figuring stuff out about myself, my gender and sexuality, and that’s OK. My teammates have always been my biggest cheerleaders on the track and in the skatepark.”
Renee Periat (they/them)
Periat, a lesbian from San Luis Obispo, California, is the owner of the Androgynous Fox clothing company.
“After growing up feeling alone in my struggle with gender, I wanted to provide the representation I felt was missing from my childhood,” Periat said. “Creating a clothing line that provides options and a safe space for nonbinary individuals has been enormously fulfilling. I can now say I’m living my best life as a gender-neutral human and have found my passion of helping others feel comfortable being themselves without hesitation, apology or fear.”
Jacob Agamao (any pronouns)
“The greatest joy in my queer life is building community,” said Agamao, who is the LGBTQ+ services coordinator at The Epicenter, a drop-in resource center for youth in Monterey County, California. “Every event that mobilizes a sense of belonging for the most disenfranchised and marginalized people in our community makes every effort worth it.”
Agamao identifies as queer nonbinary, asexual and aromantic.
Karen Cusson (she/her)
“In 2019, at the age of 69, I experienced an epiphany in my life that made me realize I could finally become who I really was — after knowing since age 8 that I was not a boy — and shed the masks I was forced to wear once and for all,” said Cusson, who is a pastor and the executive director at Victory Mission, a small, independent homeless shelter in Salinas, California.
“The joy and peace in life I have finally experienced as a result of beginning my transition in October 2020 has been incredibly profound. The last two years have, in many ways, been both terrifying and incredibly fulfilling as my true self has finally been able to emerge and thrive.”
Paul Richmond (he/him) and Dennis Niekro (he/him)
”When you grow up feeling so different and find someone else you really connect with, you feel normal and can be yourself,” said Richmond, left. “I grew up being so guarded for my own protection that it was challenging at first to be vulnerable with someone else. What makes our relationship so joyful is that we allow ourselves to safely take those walls down.”
Niekro defined his joy as “just being able to live our lives like anyone else and be with each other in a very natural way.”
The two live in Marina, California. Richmond is an artist, and Niekro is a nurse practitioner.
Sam Gomez (they/them)
“Queer joy looks like a door that leads to a community where my truest and most authentic self is valued, embraced and validated,” said Gomez, who is deputy director of The Epicenter, a drop-in resource center for youth in Monterey County, California.
Gomez identifies as queer nonbinary. “Queer joy is beyond binaries, beyond expectations and beyond roles that restrict my very existence,” Gomez said. “Queer joy is the freedom and resilience that comes from living my truth, unapologetically so.”
Phil Hammack (he/him)
“What is especially queer is the openness and playfulness around sexuality, and remaking your identity or taking on another identity as a way to express parts of yourself that were dormant,” said Hammack, a psychology professor and director of the Sexual and Gender Diversity Laboratory at the University of California-Santa Cruz.
“At the core, pup play is getting in touch with your more animalistic side, either sexual or nonsexual, but that’s just one piece of it. Pup identity is really about taking on an alter persona, similar to the drag community. Traditionally, the dom and sub roles are the handler and the pups. ...
“The pup scene really attracted a lot of younger, gay men into the kink community who were just coming into discovering their kinks, and it provides a really safe space for them to explore because it’s a much softer form of dom/sub play. The relationship between a dog owner and their puppy is one of love and nurturing. It’s much more social and community-oriented, like forming dog packs, which constitutes a chosen family in the queer community. It really has provided a structure for a lot of queer folks.”
Devin Johnson (any pronouns) and Maddie Furey (she/her)
Johnson and Furey are both high school students from Salinas, California.
“Being a gay woman, it’s hard to talk to our straight friends about certain aspects of your life, such as struggles of romance,” said Furey, seen here at right. “But with Devin, I know I can talk about any of that without judgment.
“Being able to talk with someone who is in the (LGBTQ+) community too has definitely shaped my identity and my comfort in it.”
Johnson identifies as genderqueer, asexual and aromantic and says that joy means truly feeling safe for the first time. “I remember in middle school, a friend came out as bisexual and she started learning a lot about the LGBTQ+ community. I never liked anyone or had any crushes, and she told me I might be asexual. For the first time, I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I now know who I am,’ and it was something I could finally identify with. Nothing else really made sense until then.”
Nic Coury (they/them) is a photojournalist based in Monterey, California.