Virtual Reality Connects with LGBTQ+
By Trenton Morgan
Virtual reality is the new frontier in which experiences await to be discovered. Between the many realms of XR, a person can go on journeys of world expeditions and self-discovery. This is where VR has crossed with the LGBTQ+ community. Many VR projects aim to illuminate, connect and inspire those who experience them.Across the globe, opinions of the LGBTQ+ community vary. The Global Divide on Homosexuality by Pew Research Center talks about how North America, the European Union and much of Latin America have a more positive view on homosexuality. It also talks about how predominantly Muslim nations, Africa, parts of Asia and parts of Russia are mostly unaccepting of homosexuality. Since LGBTQ+ individuals are a part of communities worldwide, Google decided to show their love with their #PrideForEveryone movement in 2016.
The movement involved recording pride parades in five cities around the world with 360-degree cameras. Google then sent Google Cardboard to LGBTQ+ communities in multiple countries to give those in discriminatory places a chance to experience pride parades and feel support for who they are. The immersive experience achieved its goal and encouraged individuals to document their pride stories in 360-degree video to share with others.
One organization that was part of Google’s impact was the Sergio Urrego Foundation in Colombia. Alba Reyes, Sergio Urrego Foundation founder and general director, began her own impact after her son took his own life as a result of bullying because of his sexuality. The organization works for respect and acceptance in academic environments to prevent discrimination and stop suicide however possible.
“Every time we do a workshop with Google Cardboard, it turns out to be a tool to identify cases where children or young guys are suffering from discrimination or they are struggling with their sexual orientation or gender identity; as they, sometimes, don’t know how to tell their family or they don’t feel fully accepted for who they are,” said the Sergio Urrego Foundation. “We think that the message supported with the images of ‘you are not alone’ and ‘we are many and we are fighting for your rights’ goes straight right into the matter when these children are feeling constrained. So, the visual message impacts on them a way that often we find guys crying after they watch the video, and as soon as we see this, we activate a route to talk to them.”
The organization used Google Cardboard to spread the virtual experience throughout Colombia that first summer. The emotional value can be seen in the video below on the students’ faces as they pull away the headsets. As many of the students have never seen a Pride parade, the experience allowed them to feel empowered and supported by a global community. The capability of virtual reality as a fully emotionally immersive experience cannot be denied. It is this connection to emotion where many more possibilities exist.
“It has an utterly deep meaning for us, cause many of these children and young guys and girls have never found places where they can be who they are or celebrate the beauty and diversity they are made of,” said the Sergio Urrego Foundation. “We think that the most touching moment is every time these guys come over to Alba and they hug her with such love that it has us all in tears. They, many times, find the love they lack in Alba and call her mother. So, to be able to bring these human festivities where respect, inclusion, love and joy are the standards that people unite with around, it’s really amazing. What we tell them is we are there for them anytime they need it, because we are all worth it equally.”
Since the first summer, the foundation has continued to implement the project as a workshop in schools, universities, companies, organizations and more, said the Sergio Urrego Foundation. Reyes, other foundation members and Google members recently attended Cuba’s pride to record another virtual reality experience. Reyes stars in the video, and it has a more Latin feeling so those in Colombia can feel even more immersed and supported. Along with this, the foundation has plans to set up a suicide prevention hotline for children and youth. Although ambitious, they look forward to mitigating the suicide index in their country and are beginning to fundraise for their goals.
By connecting experiences, immersion and emotion, it is possible to create a new perspective and a new understanding of those around us. When it comes to equal rights and understanding the LGBTQ+ community, it sometimes comes down to hard conversations and opposing viewpoints. That is what Illya Szilak and Cyril Tsiboulski, creators of Queerskins: a love story, currently wish to explore.
“I think it’s safe to say that based on what we managed to do for Tribeca once we got a little money, we are ready to push the boundaries of storytelling in VR,” said Szilak. “We decided to combine multiple types of technology that people hadn’t really combined before (360 video, volumetric video, 3-D scanning, photogrammetry, CGI animation) so there was a big learning curve, but for us it was necessary to create the kind of magical realist aesthetic we were looking for. For us, it is really important that we recognize material, political and social realities. When you take off the headset, you are still going to be black, or gay or a woman, or not. We want to tell stories that don’t ask you to disavow your own history or pretend to be somebody or something you are not. We want participants to be in conversation with the experience.”
Queerskins: a love story is a virtual reality and cinema mix where the user follows the story of grieving parents exploring the unknown identity of Sebastian, their gay son who dies of AIDS. The user is in the back seat of a car on a country road and can interact with artifacts from Sebastian’s life while observing the conversations and memories unfolding in front of them. The film has earned recognition at multiple film festivals, such as the Tribeca Film Festival and the Seattle International Film Festival, and is now viewable through June 30 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Gallery in Toronto.
Queerskins: a love story is based off Queerskins: a novel, an online interactive narrative, said Szilak. The narrative contains 40,000 words of diary text, two hours of audio from five characters, crowd sourced photos and Flip video by filmmaker Jarrah Gurrie. Writing a VR script directly from the online narrative was impossible because VR is a spatial medium that must harness that immersive feeling. After consulting and small grants, the project started. Szilak was included in the first Oculus Launchpad Lab and has wanted to tell stories in VR since then. Through a little debt and working with Tsiboulski, Scatter, Skywalker Sound and many other generous people, the project premiered.“The most rewarding part has been working with Cyril and working with so many talented people devoted to this project and talking with participants about their experiences,” said Szilak. “AIDS hasn’t left, it has just shifted demographically to young black gay and bisexual men in this country. Sebastian isn’t a real person–he is a collection of people that I have known and treated as an M.D. as well as the queer parts of myself. Cyril is an out gay man. He really liked the complexity of Sebastian’s character—how he is both a person of faith and a sexual being and a really decent person, which is not a common presentation of gay men in the media.”
With new XR technology emerging, the lines between witnessing, immersion and experiencing become faded. Allowing users to step into the shoes of a situation can evoke greater sympathy and empathy and bring forward thoughtful conversation. Between virtual pride parades and the VR film emotions of a separated family, the reality is that XR is connecting people.
For more information on LGBTQ+ support, visit the LGBT National Help center website or call 1-888-843-4564.