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Power Gays: William To, using photos to explore the gay marriage debate

Power Gays: William To, using photos to explore the gay marriage debate

Gay Star News. Image created by Gay Star News

I met photographer William To at antipodean favorite cafe Long White Cloud in London’s Hackney Road.

I ordered a long black, To opted for a chai latte (he’s lactose intolerant).

Originally from Brisbane in the northern Australian state of Queensland, To speaks slowly and with an endearing twang – every sentence sounding like an implied question, for example: ‘It’s pretty good coffee, eh?’

To was in the final throws of preparing for his first solo exhibition. Titled ‘Foreseen Paths’ his work has been inspired by the debates surrounding marriage equality.

Marriage equality is a fairly emotive subject – why did you feel it was important for your work to be part of this dialogue?

As gay men we can feel forced to inhabit different worlds in different spaces – struggling to meet the expectations of gay culture while still appearing ‘normal’ in predominately heterosexual spaces like work.

Gay rights, in particular the idea that equality is best achieved by having the same sets of rules for all, somewhat paradoxically reinforces the need to be normal. Historically rights were perceived as belonging to the white middle class. In order to extend rights to other groups they had to show that they were not radically different but rather the same. They had to conform to be treated as equals.

Growing up ethnic Chinese-Vietnamese, even in a western nation like Australia has had a big impact on my perceptions of the world and hence my art.

By adopting western culture I gained greater acceptance of my peers. Yet in doing so something unique and fundamental to my identity was sacrificed on the alter on conformity.

In what way did you have to conform as a child?

Like other immigrant children, I felt I inhabited dual realities or worlds. There was the world of modern Australia which I experienced primarily in public spaces like school, and then there was the world of my family – steeped in Chinese tradition and to a large extent superstition.

Like all good travelers I learnt to adapt to survive in these often conflicting realities. I lived dual lives played out against the background of dual worlds, constantly striving to meet or match the expectations of the cultural norms of each space. Sadly this left little room for me to fashion my sense of self.

How does that experience inform the images you’re presenting in ‘Foreseen Paths’?

I feel the gay marriage debate has been framed within an assumption that we may gain the right to marry only if are prepared to sacrifice our own modes of relationship.

I wanted to confront this.

By juxtaposing images of different gay sub cultures with sterile and formal portraits, I’m seeking to expose and contrast the incompatibility of these two different worlds.

The portraits are reflecting the traditional Victorian definition of marriage and morality – the ideals of sobriety, chastity, and conformity. Those ideals and that morality is still very pervasive in modern Britain.

So you’re not in favor of marriage equality?

I’m not suggesting that it isn’t possible to survive in both worlds. What I’m trying to do is to question the utility of doing so.

Many critics of gay marriage are afraid allowing us to marry will irrevocably alter or ‘undermine’ the institution. In this aspect my work is a kind of call to arms for those of us who embrace marriage, not to submit to its terms but rather to mould marriage into a institution which we can rightly describe as gay marriage.

Doing this I believe will give us true equality, as it will not only allow us to live under the same rules as others but to interpret these rules in a way which is our own.

What sort of reaction are you hoping this work will evoke?

I’m not really looking for a reaction – I really just want to open people’s thoughts more about marriage equality, get into the subtext.

How would you describe your work?

It’s a bit hard to describe! I guess it’s a mixture of fantasy and reality, a dark and alluring vision.

What’s next for William To?

My next series is going to be looking at Grindr profiles and how apps like Grindr effect gay identity.

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