Photography exhibition celebrates queer families

Julie Rae Powers' circle of friends is a mess. No, really. That's what they call themselves – “The House of Mess.”

“We lovingly and mockingly call ourselves ‘The House of Mess' because we're all just struggling to get through life,” Powers said in an interview at a Grandview coffee shop. “We feel a common loyalty and solidarity. There's an unwavering love that I feel from them.”

The group provided the inspiration for Powers' exhibition of photography that opens Saturday at Sean Christopher Gallery in the Short North. “Out of Hiding” is an homage to queer families, chosen groups of friends so close that their relationships become familial, in some cases usurping, substituting for, or at least supplementing a queer person's biological family.

“I have a queer family. Growing up, I didn't see a lot of queer representation, and so as a kid I didn't know that I could be queer. So my coming out was a little bit later than most. Since my coming out, they've helped me do sort of a second growing up, gotten me into a little bit of trouble, and taught me a lot,” Powers said. “And you see this when you're out, that queer people always come in groups — these queer families, chosen families. And I thought, ‘How can I pay homage to this thing that I love?'”

Powers sought out, by word of mouth and through social media, other groups of queer-identifying folk, looking to capture a glimpse of their unique dynamic for the exhibition.

“I just wanted to show what queer joy looks like in queer family,” Powers said. “Sometimes when you see a queer story, it can be tragic or complex. [But I wondered], where's the fun stuff? Where's the joy? Where's the love? Because I see a lot of it in the queer community and in my own queer family.”

Powers did interviews with each family before shooting. Because the groups varied in size from two to 16, these interviews ranged in scope and length, but certain themes recurred, affirming Powers' decision to call attention to and honor these chosen families.

“There were four basic prompts. I told them, ‘You're welcome to reveal as much or little as you want, to answer at your discretion,'” Powers said. “A lot of things were talked about, but I consistently heard a sense of solidarity among queer people, a relativity in shared experience.”

“You meet a person you click with, then you find they're friends with someone you know from a club. It seems like someone always knows someone who knows someone. Then one of you pulls the drawstring and everyone comes together,” Powers continued.

It is not Powers' intent to compare these families to blood relatives, not to suggest one is superior to the other, but merely to acknowledge their importance to people who identify as queer.

“I'm not estranged from my family, but there are some tension points, for sure. I think we're all doing our best,” Powers said. “I would never demean my own biological family in pursuit of my queer family. My parents are kind to me and raised me very well. I don't judge them for not being able to understand my experience in a way my chosen family can.

“In my queer journey of coming out I felt quite alone. I didn't know a lot of queer people growing up and didn't see a lot of queer people. So as I found my group I started to see that we aren't alone in our experience and not alone in our trials and tribulations or persecution. That's the broader look [in the exhibition] — that we don't stand alone. We're all here for each other.”