Growing up in Colorado in the 1980s, being out of the closet was, for M. Sharkey, “just not a possibility.” “I couldn’t even imagine not being in the closet. I couldn’t imagine being open about my sexuality,” he said.
Times have changed, and as LGBTQ Americans have won greater freedoms and protections under the law, a new generation of kids has increasingly begun to experience something novel: A childhood in which sexuality and gender identity is more freely expressed and discussed.
When Sharkey began photographing queer youths in 2006, he thought he might spend two to three years on the project. Eight years later, hes still at it, having photographed more than 100 kids across the country and the world.
“I wish someone had given me the opportunity to have a voice as a young person, and I think these kids are really excited to have that opportunity. They want to be seen; they want to be heard; they don’t want to hide,” he said.
Sharkey asks his subjects, which he’s found online and through LGBTQ organizations, to choose places for their portraits that “have some significance to them.” Sometimes that place is home, other times it’s at their favorite spot to hang out with friends or to be alone. He also interviews them about their love lives, their experience growing up queer, and their hopes for the future.
Almost all of Sharkey’s subjects are younger than 18, which means their parents have to give written permission for them to participate in the project. Occasionally, Sharkey meets the parents personally. Sometimes, they contact Sharkey directly to recommend their child for the project. “I’ve gotten emails and phone calls from parents who say, ‘I have a queer son or daughter that I think would be great for this project.’ Ninety percent of the time the parents are very supportive,” he said.
Across the country, Sharkey said, there are “subtle differences” in how kids experience queer life. Still, he said, “we live in a very connected world with the Internet. I think kids from all over America can see the same positive role models. Everyone has access to the same information, so it does allow for a more unified culture.”
In 2013, Sharkey was invited to spend a few weeks in Brussels, and started photographing queer kids there as well. He found a “totally different youth culture” where queer youths were “not as open about their sexuality at such a young age as Americans are.” “Western Europe is an incredibly modern and connected culture, but the young people—the 14-, 15-, 16-year-old kids—still don’t have a community the way that American kids have,” he said.
In the beginning, Sharkey said, his subjects would frequently identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Increasingly, though, they prefer simply to identify as queer. “Today, I think there’s much more reluctance to identify as any one specific thing. I think they understand the term ‘queer’ as something that is more inclusive and representative of a continuum,” he said.
That’s not the only change Sharkey has noticed in the past eight years. “People talk about the gay ’90s and for sure that was a thing. But it was more for adults, it wasn’t really about kids. The past decade has really been about the kids,” he said. “It’s amazing to see how many kids have come out, not just in terms of sexual identity, but in terms of gender identity. It feels like a kind of revolution,” he said.