University of the Arts Prof. Barbara Proud has spent the last three years compiling photos, video and interviews with longtime same-sex couples from around the country, using her work to put a human face to the oft-abstract struggle for equal rights for LGBT Americans.
“First Comes Love” will see its first large exhibition starting in mid-June, with more than 20 prints displayed at Jamestown Community College’s Weeks Gallery in New York, and Proud is currently in search of a publisher for a book version of the project.
Proud, a Wilmington, Del., resident who has taught at UArts for 12 years, said “First Comes Love” was a true product of the times.
Just weeks after she celebrated her 20th anniversary with her partner in October 2008, California voters approved Prop. 8 to ban same-sex marriage, setting off a flurry of LGBT activism. All of this occurred around the same time the economy was tanking, the effects of which she felt in her own freelance photography business, B. Proud Photography, spurring her to look for new photography ventures.
Although “First Comes Love” profiles longtime same-sex couples, Proud said the project is not meant to be a plea for marriage equality.
“I want to tell the humanistic side of the story that never gets told but I don’t want to be on a political soapbox,” she said. “I didn’t want this to be political in nature, with me jamming ideas down people’s throats. And I don’t need to preach to the choir: Everyone in the LGBT community knows why we need marriage equality. But I want to tell the individual stories of these couples that don’t get to be told.”
Proud began by photographing friends and used her social networks to identify new subjects, who hail from the region and beyond, such as Bishop Gene Robinson, the first out Episcopal bishop, and his partner.
To date, she has captured more than 40 couples, many of whom have been together for decades. Around the time she began the project, Proud started learning to shoot video, so “First Comes Love” also includes portions of on-screen interviews with the couples.
Each couple has its own unique story — such as one man who is a partial paraplegic confined to a wheelchair, a couple in which both men have been living with AIDS for more than two decades and others who have traversed the ups and downs of international adoption.
Despite the distinctions, however, Proud said she has been able to glean shared themes in the relationships.
“I asked all of them in the interview what it takes to stay together for so long, and they all say love, honesty, commitment and every couple has said communication,” she said. “Not one single person has said anything about sex. These relationships aren’t about sexuality. It’s about all of the other things that have to go into making a relationship strong and keeping it strong.”
That message was proclaimed before a wide audience last year, as the images were projected on a large screen during the signing ceremony for Delaware’s civil-union law.
“It was very meaningful,” Proud said about her project being incorporated into the event. “It was a joyous evening and it was great to see so many people watching these images go by and commenting about how beautiful the couples are. So many people said ‘thank you,’ and that’s something I’ve heard from all of the couples too. People appreciate that their stories are being told.”
Once the Weeks Gallery show wraps up, Proud, who last month received the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching from UArts, said she’s eager to continue sharing those stories — and is always looking for new couples to participate — with both LGBT and especially mainstream audiences in order to further understanding of the validity and value of same-sex couples.
“I want to see it travel around the country and be exhibited in places where a lot of people are going to see it — community centers, airports, public places where it will be seen not just by LGBT people but by people who wouldn’t actually go and seek something like this out,” she said. “And I ultimately am looking forward to putting together the book so that our community can have this as part of our history.”
For more information about “First Comes Love,” visit www.firstcomeslove.org.