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DC-area art therapists explore ‘Resilience Through Art’ in online exhibit

by Dylan Klempner

This article was first published in The DC Line here.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to drive demand for mental health services, a DC-based group of art therapists is participating in an online exhibit that highlights the potential for cultivating resilience through art making. 

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 35.9% of adults in the District reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder in a survey conducted from Sept. 29 to Oct. 11, 2021. This figure is somewhat higher than the 31.6% of adults nationwide who reported these symptoms.

As the need for mental health support has grown, therapists themselves have also reported symptoms of burnout. Some concerned about increased demand on already-strained mental health professionals are labeling this “another pandemic mental health crisis” and are calling for changes in the nation’s mental health system, including added support for therapists.  

Amid these trends, art therapists in the greater Washington, DC, area are using an online art exhibit to build community and share personal examples of art’s therapeutic potential. 

Works by 25 art therapists are part of “Resilience Through Art in 2020 – 2021,” an online exhibit available on the website of the Potomac Art Therapy Association (PATA), a professional organization serving the Washington area. The group is a chapter of the national American Art Therapy Association (AATA) based in Alexandria, Virginia. 

An untitled work by Tyler Strusowski, president of the Potomac Art Therapy Association’s board, is part of the exhibit of works by 25 art therapists. (Photo courtesy of Tyler Strusowski)

Tyler Strusowski, president of PATA’s board, is one of the art therapists whose work is in the show. 

Prior to the pandemic, he had been working as an art therapist and artist-in-residence at the McClendon Center, which provides mental health services in DC and operates an art studio for its clients.

Tyler Strusowski

A month into the spring 2020 lockdowns, the DC-based art therapist remembers craving the art making he was missing. “When I was working at the McClendon Center, art was in my life, every day,” said Strusowski. “When we went into lockdown, it wasn’t.” 

Inspired by the tulips and poppies blooming in his Northeast DC neighborhood, Strusowski bought a large canvas and began collecting collage materials. 

While working on his piece at home, Strusowski learned that a client he had become close to had died. As he dealt with his feelings about her death, art making served a therapeutic role, he said. “I was mourning her through that process.” 

Art therapy defined

Research has confirmed the effectiveness of art therapy, a mental health profession that specifically integrates psychotherapy theories and practices with the intentional selection of art materials, according to Jordan Potash, associate professor in the Art Therapy Program at George Washington University. 

“With an art therapist, a substantial amount of time is going to be spent actually creating artwork,” said Potash.  

Making art during an art therapy session can help clients relax, a welcome contrast to how they might respond in a different context, said Tally Tripp, associate professor and founding director of the George Washington University Art Therapy Clinic in Alexandria, Virginia. 

“It doesn’t have quite the same stress involved in the purely verbal therapeutic relationship,” she said. 

Tripp said that some clients, especially those who have dealt with trauma, may have difficulty accessing words and emotions. Art making offers tools she can use as their therapist.

“We can work with clay or experiment with different kinds of media, and that’s going to promote a healing that is really strengths based,” Tripp said.

Tracy Councill, program director and co-founder of the DC-based nonprofit Tracy’s Kids, created prayer flags for the exhibit. (Photo courtesy of Tracy Councill)

Art therapy can help people cultivate resilience because it is an “active and engaged practice” that provides a sense of control, said Tracy Councill, program director and co-founder of the DC-based nonprofit Tracy’s Kids

“It puts you in a position of control. And that can be very meaningful to people in therapy,” she said. 

Like other mental health professionals, art therapists must undergo academic and clinical training before obtaining credentials to practice, said Potash. 

The Art Therapy Credentials Board, a group based in Greensboro, North Carolina, offers testing that leads to a national credential for art therapists. Practitioners may also need to pursue additional licensure in their home state. More than a dozen states, including Maryland and Delaware, have passed laws granting licensure specifically for art therapists, and DC recently followed suit.

“Licensure laws, in general, are there to protect the public,” said Potash, who serves as chair of PATA’s licensure committee. “Only somebody who has the unique education and qualifications of an art therapist will be able to call themselves an art therapist.” 

The Professional Art Therapist Licensure Amendment Act was signed into law in DC by Mayor Muriel Bowser in April 2020. The law, passed by the DC Council at PATA’s behest, lists qualifications and standards to practice as a professional art therapist in the District. 

Art therapy and resilience 

Councill said many art therapists use their personal art practices to process their own experiences. “In my work, there is a lot of sadness and loss, right, because I work with a lot of kids with serious illnesses.”

Tracy Councill

Though she rarely makes art directly about losing a patient or someone close to her, Councill has a “need to be creatively engaged. I need to have an arena in which I feel that sense of agency and that ability to respond and be resilient.”  

That’s the line of thinking that led Kelly Jacobs, PATA’s vice president of communications, to come up with the idea for the online art show. 

She said that as the shutdowns took hold, she tried to think of creative ways in which members could connect and share their artistic experiences without requiring a Zoom call. Together, she and her colleagues settled on the idea for the show’s title, which focuses on the idea of resilience. 

Jacobs said she heard from art therapists in the early days of the pandemic about the stress they were under, the challenges they faced, and the adaptations they made. 

“It was hard, but there was so much creativity that was happening. And that all seemed to just kind of relate to this idea of resilience,” said Jacobs. “Adapting, being creative, growing from the experience.”

For the artwork she submitted to the PATA art show, Tripp used a technique known as slow stitching, which emphasizes the use of needle and thread for art making rather than for their more practical purposes, such as mending. Tripp said the practice is good for stress reduction. “It was just a way to be focused and relaxed.”

Tally Tripp submitted her stitching project for the online exhibit. (Photo by Mark Morrow)

A half-century of art therapy in DC 

The history of art therapy locally goes back at least a half-century. In 1971, Bernard Levy and Elinor Ulman co-founded George Washington University’s Art Therapy Program, one of the nation’s first. 

The DC area has also been home to leading art therapy programs including Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, a partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Defense that began in 2004. 

Tracy’s Kids, a medical art therapy program for children dealing with cancer, had its start at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. The nonprofit now also supports seven other art therapy clinics at pediatric cancer hospitals, including Children’s National Hospital. 

Art therapy and the political sphere 

Art therapy has long enjoyed bipartisan backing from politicians and their families. 

Just a few months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Hillary Rodham Clinton – then a newly elected New York senator – read a Congressional Record statement supporting art therapy as a mental health field. 

Marcelle Leahy, wife of Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, is a Tracy’s Kids board member, while Karen Pence, former Tracy’s Kids board member and former second lady, has played, perhaps, the most visible role in raising awareness about the field. 

Shortly after the inauguration of President Donald Trump in 2017, Pence announced that art therapy would be her signature cause. 

But many art therapists challenged the AATA’s willingness to embrace the second lady as an ally. In protest, more than 1,700 joined a Facebook group known as Art Therapists for Human Rights. 

“We demand that AATA respond to Karen Pence’s stated commitment to our field by asking her to publicly take action for the rights of … all people who are in danger as a result of the policies of the current administration,” reads a statement on the group’s page describing its mission during the Trump administration. 

Pence’s interest in art therapy prompted a lot of conversations among art therapists about government policies and other factors that impact their clients, Potash said. 

“Systemic racism takes a toll on clients and limits their ability to access services in ways that they can’t overcome on their own,” said Potash. In the years since Pence’s endorsement, he added, AATA has reviewed its policies and practices and looked “at how to make changes in the interest of equity and inclusion.” 

Art therapy and social justice

Potash uses art therapy to facilitate intergroup dialogue. Art therapists, he said, can play a meaningful role in supporting social justice and community development.

Art can help people visualize systemic injustices, said Potash. “But just showing them might not be enough.”

Art therapists, he explained, can help untrained audiences who may not have the skills to see meaning in a work of art — a role particularly valuable when it comes to getting a deeper understanding of artwork about injustices. 

“Art therapists can help to lead meaningful opportunities for viewers to really get a sense of what it is the artists are trying to convey,” he said. 

As a result of art therapists’ training in psychotherapy and group dynamics, they can also help people use art to communicate about their differences and come up with new policies and programs.

“Art therapists can also — using our skills in groups and whatnot — create art making opportunities where people come together to create art and to try to reimagine ways in which the world could be.” 

Participants at a workshop held as part of George Washington University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service were asked to create images of a personal experience that defined their social. cultural or political outlook. (Photo courtesy of Jordan Potash and Alberta Gyimah-Boadi)

Prior to the pandemic, Potash and a colleague, art therapist Alberta Gyimah-Boadi, led a series of intergroup dialogue workshops that incorporated art making at GW during its Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, as well as at public libraries in the District and in Virginia, they said. 

“We ask people to come and create art [based] on an experience from their life that has led them to their current political views,” said Potash. “The goal of this is to refocus people not so much on political debate, but that people’s perspectives come from somewhere.” 

Gyimah-Boadi said she and Potash were inspired by King’s teachings that encourage people to work together to fix a flawed system. The two of them asked participants to use art making to focus on one another’s stories rather than on their individual views.  

“People may see the issue differently,” said Gyimah-Boadi. “But at the bottom of it, there’s still an issue.” 

For PATA’s virtual show, several art therapists submitted artwork focused on social justice. 

Councill contributed three pieces titled “Prayer Flag Portraits” that depict the faces of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, whose deaths prompted massive Black Lives Matter protests around the world during the spring and summer of 2020. 

Councill, who attended some of the protests, said that the prayer flags are a form of personal expression. “They’re still hanging on the front of my house.” 

She also brought the art to work at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center, the site of one of the Tracy’s Kids art therapy clinics. Many of the children being treated there are African American, she said. 

“I wanted to make it very, very clear to the kids and families that I work with, that I want to do everything I could to be present to them,” Councill said.

“The kids also made their own prayer flags about things that they were worried about during that time,” she said. Some made art about the protests, violence and the pandemic. 

For Strusowski, art making works therapeutically for him in multiple ways. “It becomes my way of processing things that happen and developing insights as to what my feelings actually are,” he said.

He described insights that arose during the spring of 2020 while he worked on his piece for the online exhibit. Through the art making process, Strusowski said he came to realize that despite being close to a client who died, his understanding of her life was limited. 

“I didn’t live their life. And I didn’t have the things that happened to her, happen to me,” Strusowski said. “And that’s kind of where I started to come to peace with the fact that I would never see her again.” 

The Butch Boudoir Project is a Platform for Butch People to Be Unapologetically Themselves

By Clare Mulroy 

This article was first published March 29, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.

Though Gabby Horner has been “out” for over 20 years, she didn’t truly find herself until about five years ago. In the time since she’s been more comfortable identifying as butch, she’s made waves with the Butch Boudoir Project, a movement to empower butch and masculine people across gender identities.

The Butch Boudoir Project began two years ago as a photoshoot with photographer Graciela Valdes to expand the traditionally feminine concept of boudoir photos modeled by Horner herself. The revelation came when she was looking for inspiration on Pinterest and found virtually nothing.

“I can’t find butch women doing anything other than completely fully dressed, or they look like MMA fighters,” says Horner. She adds, “If I couldn’t really find anything on Google, it’s not enough.”

It was then that Horner and Valdes realized this was much bigger than just one photoshoot. The “impressive” reaction made her realize that butch visibility needed a bigger platform. Her next endeavor was an Instagram account for the project.

“The only thing I had access to was myself, [so] the only thing I could do was continue to showcase myself,” she explains. “So I started pushing myself and my boundaries to take more photos of my daily life.”

But from the moment the project became more than just one photography session, Horner knew it had to be bigger than just herself. She gathered a group of friends, known affectionately as the #ButchCrew, for another photoshoot set in a barber shop. In between haircuts and a candidly-shot game of pool, Horner says the “butch siblinghood” was powerful.

“That’s insanely underrepresented. I think it tears down toxic masculinity that is sadly common that a lot of butch people feel intimidated by other butch people,” says Horner. She adds, “Those types of toxic concepts are totally shattered if you can get a group of us together, hanging out, being friends.”

Now with over 3,000 followers on Instagram, the Butch Boudoir Project has become a hub for virtual discussions and questions. The questions have ranged from a humorous “Are you single?” to inquiries about how to best support butch people in your life.

“I thought about butch visibility, I thought about being able to see people like me,” she explains. “But I did not think about people who are attracted to butch people having questions and needing to see that representation as well.”

By nature, this is a particularly personal project for Horner, who is a graphic designer by trade and the co-founder and vice chair of Ignite Community Services.

Horner identified as a “tomboy” at a young age but struggled with how her discomfort with femininity fit in with her gender identity.

“I thought you couldn’t be a girl and also want those things,” Horner says. “I firmly identify with being a woman, and that’s not a question for me, but I don’t identify with being feminine.”

That changed when she found other people who celebrate masculinity within their womanhood and individuals who prefer gender-neutral terms. Now, at 35, Horner says it’s an indescribable feeling when someone tells her she’s handsome.

Next year, she is looking forward to creating a calendar featuring the growing #ButchCrew. The Butch Boudoir Project will likely expand to more in-person conversations when the coronavirus pandemic ends. However, the virtual community they have online is something she never wants to abandon.

“Those conversations are also a big deal, they’re important,” says Horner.

Ahead of the Curve is the Story of Franco Stevens, Curve Magazine, and Lesbian Visibility

By Clare Mulroy

This article was first published March 17, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here

Jen Rainin had no directing experience before taking on Ahead of the Curve, but she knew it was a story she had to tell.

Her wife, Frances “Franco” Stevens, the founder of Curve Magazine, told stories over the years — taking out a dozen credit cards and betting on horses to come up with money for the magazine. She won three times and used her winnings to launch Curve Magazine (formerly Deneuve) in 1991.

Armed with these stories and a garage full of archives from Stevens’ life, Rainin spent the next three years making the documentary, which is set for its worldwide premiere on Apple TV and Amazon Prime on June 1.

“As I was researching for it, I realized how little our history as queer women has been documented,” she explains. “I realized I actually think I owe it to the community to tell this story first as a nonfiction film.”

Rainin says the best part of creating Ahead of the Curve was learning about her wife through the eyes of those who knew her decades before the two met.

“She has such trust in me. She knew that I was going to tell a balanced and fair and honest story,” Rainin says. “She’s a badass, but she’s a flawed human, like everybody, and she wanted people to see that.”

The filming and post-production process had its own plot twists, however. During filming, Stevens received an email from the current owner of Curve Magazine saying that the magazine might not be able to survive another year. Stevens sold the magazine in 2010 after a disabling injury.

The coronavirus pandemic also modified the film’s festival circuit. The crew was set for a grand debut at The Castro Theatre in San Francisco for Frameline44, but when in- person events closed, co-director and producer Rivkah Beth Medow suggested changing the event to a drive-in screening. The event was held on the day originally slated for Dyke March, and the audience rolled up decked out in pride and protest gear.

“We’re focused on making sure that our historical stories and our present-day stories are told and shouted from the rooftops,” Rainin says.

PBS Spotlights Local Black Artists in New Documentary, Kindred Spirits

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published February 4, 2021 in The DC Line here.

When documentary filmmaker Cintia Cabib was showcasing two films at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.’s 2014 conference on local history, she spotted an intriguing painting of the corner of Rhode Island Avenue and 3rd Street NW while perusing a small brochure. The modernist, geometric red hues of homes lining the LeDroit Park street and a gleaming, leafless tree bisecting the frame compelled Cabib to explore the work of the artist, Hilda Wilkinson Brown.

Years of research culminated in a new documentary produced and directed by Cabib called Kindred Spirits: Artists Hilda Wilkinson Brown and Lilian Thomas Burwell. The short film is being broadcast locally by PBS stations WHUT and MPT on Feb. 4 and by WETA’s World Channel on Feb. 10. PBS stations around the country have scheduled airings of the film for Black History Month programming.

The film rediscovers Brown, a mid-20th-century artist who painted DC’s neighborhoods and scenery; was a professor at Miner Teachers College in DC at a time when schools were segregated; and influenced her niece, Lilian Thomas Burwell, to become an artist as well.

Hilda Wilkinson Brown’s “Third and Rhode Island,” oil on canvas, is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum as a gift of Lilian Thomas Burwell. (Image courtesy of Lilian Thomas Burwell)

In the film, Burwell, now 93 years old, recalls the life and artistry of her aunt and talks about growing up in DC — struggling against segregation and discrimination as she pursued her own abstract expressionist art career.

Cabib said her goal with this film was to bring both women’s art into public view. Brown has pieces in collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Her piece Third and Rhode Island, which initially caught Cabib’s eye, is part of a traveling exhibit by the Smithsonian. Burwell is opening a new exhibit of her abstract pieces in the Berry Campbell Gallery in New York City in April.

Cabib believes both women deserve more credit, especially during Black History Month.

“I hope [the film] makes people think about other Black artists,” Cabib said. “Who else has been unrecognized? Who else is out there?”

The influence that Brown and Burwell had in nurturing Black artists still resonates in DC’s artistic space. As an educator, Brown encouraged many Black women to pursue careers despite discriminatory and segregationist barriers. Burwell also taught art for years, building on the legacy of her aunt. Alongside its exploration of these women’s histories, Cabib’s film also details the stories of the historic Black institutions and neighborhoods that shaped their artwork.

The documentary shows that Brown’s work was celebrated in the Barnett Aden Gallery, the nation’s first Black, privately owned gallery. It opened in LeDroit Park as an integrated art space and after World War II became primarily an exhibitor for Black artists who were rejected from white-owned galleries. Cabib said she wanted to feature the history of the LeDroit Park neighborhood, which was bursting with Black creatives like Brown, scientists, civil rights activists and more.

Documentary filmmaker Cintia Cabib interviews Lilian Thomas Burwell at her home in Highland Beach, Maryland. (Photo by John Z. Wetmore courtesy of Cintia Cabib)

Brown’s artwork was featured during her lifetime in The Crisis, the official NAACP publication founded by W.E.B. Du Bois, and The Brownies’ Book, the first magazine for Black children.

“It’s important to recognize the opportunities Black people made for themselves and each other after they’d been denied,” Cabib said.

The documentary was an official selection of the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival and has been shown locally at events like the DC Black Film Festival and Alexandria Film Festival

Cabib was able to host one in-person screening of Kindred Spirits at the Avalon Theatre in March 2020, just before DC declared a public health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The film was shown to high school students, and Cabib said she was encouraged by the attendees’ questions and engagements with the film and history. At subsequent virtual screenings, Cabib said Lilian was able to join discussions and share more of her story with audiences. 

Cabib’s story came full circle in November when she showcased her film virtually at the 2020 DC History Conference, bringing Brown’s and Burwell’s stories into focus — not just in a brochure, but on screen.

Breaking Gender Norms: Mainstream Invisibility of Black LGBTQ Fashion

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published January 28, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.

When Harry Styles graced Vogue’s pages in a floor-length, faded blue gown in early November, social media and pop culture discourse erupted. Most fans were elated and praised Styles for his consistent disregard for gendered, masculinized fashion. In the interview, Styles says, “There’s so much joy to be had in playing with clothes. I’ve never thought too much about what it means.”

On the other side were people like Candace Owens, a politically conservative author, who ridiculed the end of “manly men” in a tweet that targeted Styles’ cover. Owens later went on to say during an Instagram livestream that she loved the dress, but that Harry didn’t look feminine, but just “stupid.”

Does breaking gender fashion norms contribute to a liberation of gender identities? When we ask questions like these, we seem to be focusing on white, cis-gendered celebrities, bestowing them praise and recognition for their one-night-only red carpet designs that bend fashion rules. It’s just enough to capture attention, but not enough to make anyone uncomfortable.

During the 2019 Golden Globes, actor Timothee Chalamet wore a glittering harness and received much love for embracing a feminine silhouette. At the same event, Julia Roberts wore pants (with a golden train skirt) and was met with equal attention for going after a masculine-type style.

Someone who consistently raises eyebrows for gender-breaking fashion is actor Billy Porter. He’s graced red carpets in dresses, skirts, feathers, sequins, and glitter. His outfits mix fabrics, colors, and shapes, and people always commend his style. However, the same praise for breaking norms isn’t always applied. No Twitter trends are amplified or debates started over his fashion, like what happened with Harry Styles.

Do we only give praise to straight celebrities who break from the binary of fashion when it’s unexpected? What about those who make it their mission to disregard gender when it comes to fashion?

We expect queer people to dress exuberantly, flamboyantly, outrageously, because the identities of LGBTQ people are also often viewed as “other.” When straight people adopt the fashion standards LGBTQ people created, they receive praise while Black, queer people are overlooked. They are not seen as the revolutionary icons that they truly are.

Paris Is Burning, the amazing documentary that glimpses briefly into the lives of many Black drag queens and queer men in the 1970s New York ballroom scene, showcases that gender bending fashion is not the product or brainchild of influential white celebrities but of less fortunate yet imaginatively creative and resourceful young Black people competing for recognition and self-identification.

One notable figure in Black queer history and in fashion was Dorian Corey who stars in Paris Is Burning.

When talking about fashion in the film, Corey says, “Black people have a hard time getting anywhere, and those that do are usually straight. In a ballroom, you can be anything you want. You’re not really an executive, but you’re looking like an executive. You’re showing the straight world that, ‘I can be an executive if I had the opportunity because I can look like one,’ and that is like a fulfillment.”

Over decades, Black women have been the ones altering fashion trends. Starting in the 1930s, Josephine Baker embraced feminine glamour while also trending towards clothes that emphasized her boyish facial features. In the 1940s, blues icon Gladys Bentley, who openly shared her queer identity, dressed often in pantsuits and top hats for performances, though she rarely received the red carpet credit for breaking the rules that white celebrities constantly get today. Androgynous style is still empowered by Black stars like Janet Jackson and Rihanna.

When Rihanna began her own fashion lingerie company, Fenty, she became the first Black woman in charge of a major luxury fashion house. In an interview with the New York Times, she catalogued her simplistic view of fashion: “It’s sweatpants with pearls, or a masculine denim jacket with a corset. I feel like we live in a world where people are embracing every bit of who they are.”

That idea, of embracing yourself, despite racial discrimination or gender boundaries, is why so many Black LGBTQ people use fashion to rebuke gender binary ideologies in culture. It’s not about being reviewed on a red carpet look but about finding an authentic self.

Black gay designer Willi Smith is constantly overlooked for his Philadelphia-based fashion that introduced the concept of streetwear in the late 70s. His styles embraced varied body types, average fabrics, and mixed patterns to encourage the everyday lay person to break gender binaries in fashion.

Today, a Los Angeles brand named No Sesso, which translates from Italian to “No Sex,” embraces agender fashion styles. Designed by Pierre Davis, who is a Black trans woman, these styles upcycle fabric that can fit any body, as long as it makes them happy.

Black LGBTQ designers have been and continue to be critical in expanding the fashion industry into one that allows white men like Harry Styles to wear dresses and receive praise. It’s encouraging that celebrities across race or gender identities are expanding their closets and bending gender norms, but the constant recognition of their images rather than the hard work and legacies of LGBTQ individuals, primarily Black people, jeopardizes any actuality of allowing fashion to be truly non-binary or racially conscious.

Love Wins: Travel Style Company Unveils Black LGBTQ Beach Towel

By Clare Mulroy

This article was first published January 9, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.

Kinyatta Gray, founder of FlightsInStilettos, has a vision for the future of travel — accessories that look and feel representative of her customers.

Her latest endeavor is the first ever LGBTQ beach towel that features a Black lesbian couple. Gray released the latest design, the “Love Wins” beach towel, as part of her 2021 Glam Girl Beach Towels collection. The “Love Wins” towel features a Black queer couple holding hands on the beach.

“You don’t see a lot of these images on beach towels at all, and then to drill down even deeper, you definitely don’t see a lot of images of people of color,” says Gray. “Go even deeper, [images of] Black lesbians…it does not exist.”

The design is inspired by Gray and her wife, who got married in 2017. Gray’s motivation was to create a towel that featured images of a lesbian couple, opposed to the typical pride colors or designs. The microfiber beach towel is also in response to the lack of images of people of color in travel accessories.

Since the release of the “Love Wins” towel, Gray says she is impressed by the outpouring of support from the community. Women who have similar hair or tattoos see themselves in the images represented in the new beach towels. The entire 2021 Glam Girl Collection features women of different races and body types sporting unique beach outfits.

“I’m very confident that it may really be one of the first beach towels that has that kind of image on it,” she says. “It’s almost shocking, and it’s surprising. [Customers] are like, ‘Gosh, someone is thinking about us.’” According to Gray, she even submitted the towel to the Guiness Book of World Records to confirm the “Love Wins” towel as the first ever Black LGBTQ beach towel.

Not only does Gray incorporate representation in the images of women, she also tries to weave it throughout her entire business. FlightsInStiletto originally started as a travel blog but quickly turned into a brand once Gray realized that she didn’t see a lot of accessories that represented her or reflected her personal style.

She began designing products in mid 2018. Now in 2020, FlightsInStilettos has appeared in New York Fashion Week and has a growing presence online. Between customizable luggage sets and the “Traveling Tiaras” children’s travel accessories with images of young jet-setting girls of color, Gray’s mission is to incorporate representation of her customer base and her own travel style.

Ultimately, Gray believes there is an opportunity for the entire fashion and travel industry to step up and increase representation.

“I think there are a lot of organizations that are really stepping up to the forefront. [We need] to see advertising, and clothing and all kinds of travel destinations that really speak to you and let you know, ‘Hey, you are welcome,’” says Gray. “It’s something that we’re seeing more and more, but we can always do better.”

OML’s New Series Dating ‘In’ Place Explores Romance in the Age of Covid

By Clare Mulroy

This article was first published November 20, 2020 in Tagg Magazine here.

While many film and TV productions are halting due to the coronavirus pandemic, OML’s Dating ‘In’ Place incorporates the pandemic into the central storyline. The 10-episode comedy series, which debuted on Revry on November 1, follows two women exploring long-distance dating as the coronavirus pandemic turns their worlds upside down.

Dating ‘In’ Place was created by actress and producer Shantell “Yaz” Abeydeera and Marina Rice Bader. The cast and crew filmed and produced the entire series remotely, with meetings and rehearsal done over Zoom and filming done individually on HD smartphone cameras.

According to Abeydeera, the process was challenging as both an actor and producer. Post-production file transfers sometimes had to be done standing in the street with masks on, passing drives back and forth.

“As the actor, we had to do everything: setting up the lighting, the audio, all that kind of stuff,” Abeydeera says. “Some of the shots took almost two hours to set up and then the other actor would call in…and you would act for seven minutes.”

Still, the payoff was big. Abeydeera had never even been in the same room as her co-star, Emily Goss, when the two played characters falling in love. Despite the physical distance and virtual acting, Abeydeera says that she loves the energy the cast created and the chemistry they were able to find.

The content creator says she is grateful for the chance to get to tell queer stories during such an unprecedented time. The reason for making it a comedy and love story was simple — to show how connection was possible amid seemingly impossible circumstances.

“At the beginning of the pandemic I felt like everyone was really scared and everyone was spending an exorbitant amount of time online,” Abeydeera says. “What I saw was that people really needed a distraction…something else that they can hold onto that felt positive within the negative.”

Writing the series amid a pandemic also gave Abeydeera a chance to reflect on her own life. She knows living with her wife in Los Angeles means that they have the privilege of walking down the street holding hands without fear of harassment. Others don’t have the same opportunity.

“I understand that there are people all over the world that go to digital platforms to find content like this, to find answers,” she says. “And also so that they don’t feel alone.”

Queer representation is “everything” she says, but being able to tell those stories on a platform like Revry, which is ad supported by companies that support the LGBTQ community is equally important.

Abeydeera also serves as director of content and partnerships at OML, which provides free, accessible LGBTQ content to 186 different countries worldwide. According to OML’s website, its mission is to aggregate quality LGBTQ content in one place for the community to find and enjoy.

“This is specifically what I want to be doing,” she says. “I want to be making queer content and I want to be serving my community and making the stuff that I didn’t get to see when I was younger.”