LGBTQ&A: Emily Kesselman – Graphic Designer, Lesbian Activist

An occasional series where we pose some questions to local LGBTQ folks (and Allies) to learn more about their personal experiences with LGBTQ culture.

I “met” Emily via Twitter – she was occasionally RTing things I had posted so we struck up an occasional chat. When I put out a call for help with our upcoming “Change the Conversation” Day of Blogging – she generously stepped in to offer her graphic design services. And I discovered the all wonderful “Pittsburgh connection!” Read more to learn about the cool activism of Emily! photoEmily

Name: Emily Kesselman

Affiliation: Officially, I’m a graphic/web designer and cartoonist under the name Feathered Hat Studios. On the gay side of things, I occiassionally blog at a website I built called “Legalize Lesbian Marriage”. It’s a satirical activist website. I tweet as @LegalizeLez as an extension of the site. I’ve also been a contributing writer for Ex Gay Watch for the past few years.

Tell us about the very first LGBTQ person you met and what that meant for you: Hm… This is difficult to say! My earliest awareness of gay people probably occurred in elementary school, but I knew no one who was gay personally. I suppose the first time occurred in freshman year of high school, when people who are one or two years older than me were already “out.” What did this mean to me? That I wasn’t alone – though at that age, I was still “questioning.”

How do you stay informed on LGBTQ issues? I read blogs like,, Joe My God, Ex Gay Watch… And I also keep an eye on Religion Dispatches, as they often cover LGBTQ issues from various theological perspectives. Right Wing Watch is good when I want to see just what crazy things right wing loonies are saying about me today. (I don’t mean “me” personally, but rather the entire gay community.. of which I’m a part.)

What is the most important issue facing the LGBTQ community today?  This is tricky to answer. It would be easy to point to one thing or another – marriage equality is an important cultural step, but it doesn’t affect everybody who is gay. And hate crimes and employment non-discrimination legislation in theory affect every single gay person, but I don’t think this is at the root. 

I think at the root, the most important issue facing us is showing people that we exist. In order for us to obtain any kind of equality or civil rights, we need to first prove we exist – a burden I don’t believe has been faced by previous minority groups. I’ve encountered many opponents who have said that gay people don’t exist, only heterosexuals with homosexual “addictions” or “afflictions.” One woman at the heart of a prominent anti-equality organization wrote that she refuses to “accept the category of gayness.” The “ex-gay” movement that was strong in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s was once a formidable opponent to our goals of civil equality, because as long as gays don’t exist then we don’t need equal rights. This movement is in serious decline in our part of the world, thanks to advancements in scientific study of sexual orientation and genetics, and also to survivors of the ex-gay movement speaking out – EX-ex-gays who have come out as gay and tell everybody about their experiences. Even today, big political players NOM (National Organization for Marriage) and Focus on the Family use the testimonies of “ex-gays” to “prove” that members of the queer community can be “delivered” from their “sinful addictions.” The only way to counter this is with visibility, as Harvey Milk said decades ago – come out, and let people know you. Dissolve any mystery. Be who you are, no matter how “flaming” or “vanilla.” 

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Transpersons face their own burden of “proof” since their identities are shaped by self-awareness so deeply personal that outside some kind of telepathic ability, nobody has the ability to see “proof” a person feels to be one gender or sex vs. another. I can’t speak for them because I am not trans* myself but in my opinion their increased visibility will help ease this burden.

If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing in Pittsburgh’s LGBTQ community, what would it be? That it would be closer to Philly! I was born in Pittsburgh and in childhood visited close family-friends there yearly, but that was before I realized I was gay, so.. I don’t have much experience at all within it. But I know of a couple queer people living out there who’ve felt very welcomed by it.

 Past or present, favorite LGBTQ character in television, film or literature? I have to choose only one?! Not fair… I’m going to choose two. The first one is an intepretation – Scout from the book “To Kill a Mockingbird:” A tomboy who felt like an outcast and whose closest friend was another outcast – a character based on a gay man, Truman Capote. Was Scout gay? It is not declared; she was a child. The character was based upon the author herself, Harper Lee. She never married but I have no reason to believe she is queer, so I do not make assumptions. But when I read “Mockingbird” as a 13-year-old, in 8th grade, the parallels to my own childhood were remarkable. 

The second one is Tara Maclay from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’m not a fan of the show per se (though I do think it’s a good one), but I like her character’s arc with Willow Rosenberg, another LGBTQ character I like (though not as much as Tara). Back then on TV you had to be so subtle with presentations of homosexuality in characters that creative means were taken to express them. And because of high censorship, it wasn’t as easy as showing people go at it in bed or sticking their tongues down each others’ throats. Their relationship grew slowly but deliberately, and you had to be able to read subtext placed there by Joss Whedon. By the time they had their first kiss on screen, it was already established they were involved. Usually on screen kisses are used as a device to visually demonstrate romantic involvement, but here everything had to be presented so subtley that by the time they kissed in front of an audience, it was just a natural extension of the fact that they were already involved. Tara’s death is one of the most saddening moments I’ve ever witnessed on a TV show.

What is one simple thing a reader can do to support the LGBTQ community? If they are gay, or trans? Come out. Just come out. Act as if everyone already knows. Refer to your significant others as your boyfriend or girlfriend (or any other term), without expecting shock and awe (even if you happen to encounter it). Be who you are. If they are straight? Same thing – come an ally. If a straight colleague says “that looks so gay” or tells a joke denigrating queer people, make it known you don’t find it funny. Express that you don’t find it acceptable and ask them not to express such things in front of you. You don’t have to change their minds or preach – but giving them one less “ally” in their bigotry will perhaps shift their thinking in the future, as more and more people do the same.

Thanks for responding, Emily!

Logo designed by feathered hat studios
Logo designed by feathered hat studios

You can follow Emily on Twitter @LegalizeLez and visit her website for more details on her advocacy.

And be sure to watch for the “Change the Conversation” logo she created for our campaign. Like doctors & lawyers – graphic designers are always asked to give their talent freely for “good causes” and yet they have to earn a living, too. So please support your local graphic designers who often donate their services and talent and time.



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