The 150-mile bike ride, which starts near Cherry Hill and will head to Ocean City, N.J., in late September, will include participation from a Philly-based team with the moniker “Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus,” named after an ongoing photo project that sheds light on the experiences and ideas of queer young people.
Rachelle Lee Smith, 31, launched the project in 2001, when she was a student at the University of the Arts.
Since that time, she has captured a broad collection of more than 70 LGBT young people. She features the subjects encased in a black film border with a white background, on which the subjects themselves pen a message that highlights their LGBT identity.
Smith’s project wasn’t inspired by her own coming-out experience, which she said went smoothly, but more by the struggles of LGBT friends.
“It wasn’t until I went to college that I met people who had had drastically different experiences than I did — who were being harassed and tormented daily,” she said. “I wanted to have a place where people can share their stories and experiences and read about other people’s as well.”
She started photographing people she knew and, as the project grew, so did the pool of subjects.
Smith has concentrated her photography career on journalistic settings and said “Speaking OUT” pushed her out of her own comfort zone.
“I put people in the studio with no environmental influence and just stripped it all down,” she said. “The only influence on the photo is the words, which the people themselves wrote on the photos.”
The messages that the subjects inscribe on the photos run the gamut — from personal stories of discrimination to simple statements about their identity to expressions of hope for the future.
At one of her first exhibitions at a college campus, Smith said she was impressed by the photos’ impact on young people grappling with coming out.
“There were young people looking at this and realizing for the first time that there were other people experiencing similar things. And they got through it,” she said, noting that while the effort can have an “It Gets Better”-like impact for LGBT youth, she is also eager for it to educate non-LGBT audiences.
“I want people to see this who say they don’t know any gay people, that they have no gay people in their town, that their own kid could never be gay,” she said. “The stories and experiences that people share aren’t just that of the LGBTQ community but rather of the whole human experience. When people can relate their stories to someone of a different perspective, that’s when change can happen.”
Smith has exhibited “Speaking OUT” throughout the country, including at the headquarters of the Human Rights Campaign, and is continuing to photograph subjects with the eventual aim of compiling the photos into a book.
This summer, she’ll be focusing on prepping for the ride.
Smith completed the Broad Street Run last month, her first distance run, and said she was intending to sign up for the MS ride in honor of a friend who was diagnosed with the disease.
While brainstorming new ways to get the message out about “Speaking OUT,” a friend suggested she brand her City to Shore team in support of the project.
“We want to be a really powerful force riding through the streets, helping to raise funds to fight MS and also raising awareness for LGBT youth,” she said.
Nine riders are currently on the team, and Smith said they’re looking for more recruits as well as sponsors, who can donate up until the day before the ride. Each rider must raise a minimum of $300 to participate.
For more information, visit www.rachelleleesmith.com. To donate to the City to Shore team, visit main.nationalmssociety.org
and search for “Speaking OUT: Queer Youth in Focus.”
Jen Colletta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.