Making the iconic Levi's Use Your Voice tagline our own, now more necessary than ever, we give the floor to six outstanding LGBTQ+ creatives who have much to say. Six voices from different fields and realities, which converge on the pages of our summer issue and are now also here to speak openly, share opinions and experiences and reach meeting points that contribute to making the world a better place. From singer and performer Samantha Hudson to actress Lola Rodríguez, DJ and producer Isabella, multidisciplinary artist Megane Mercury, producer and singer Conan Osíris, who now takes the floor, and film director Eduardo Casanova.
“The world lacks education, not information,” states Conan Osíris, pseudonym of Portuguese producer, songwriter and singer Tiago Miranda. He represented his country at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2019, although his career in music spans over 10 years. But beyond his rich musical offering, defined by hybridity and symbolism that transcended from his time on stage, is his creative and aesthetic freedom. Staying away from the conventions historically associated with what's masculine, the artist challenges gender barriers by creating bridges and placing value on mental health. “It was tough, but I knew that my mind was my sanctuary,” he comments on his childhood, in which he was a victim of discrimination and harassment. Being sceptical about the future and stressing the importance of intersectionality, he sends a message of togetherness to the world. “Please, know you are loved.”
You have just released your last single, Vinte Vinte, with Branko and Ana Moura, one of the best Portuguese fado ambassadors. The song is a tribute to all those who lived in the darkness of 2020, as explained in the music video. What would you highlight from this fateful year?
This was hard in every sphere. I took the year to produce and write new stuff and in the summer I almost died. I was snorkelling alone with no fins and got caught in the tide and barely made it to shore. Then, in December, I had a severe digestive situation that made me lose ten kilograms and drastically changed my whole body and mind. And now we released the music video for Vinte Vinte thinking it would be a revival, and Ana suffers a great loss the day after the video comes out. It’s all very unfair, but still, we fight, we must.
In addition to the health crisis and the obvious economic effects of the pandemic, social progress has also been put at risk. Being confined in extremely hostile environments is a threat that many people have faced, don't you think?
Absolutely yes. In Portugal, domestic violence reports spiked, violence against Asian people also rose and came to light. Confinement in non-rich neighbourhoods also has corrosive value, because people still have to take overcrowded trains and buses to work every day, while being denied their leisure time. Old people are forced to be even more alone, and honestly, most are victims of psychological violence in some form or another. Half of that violence and tactlessness comes from the news, no doubt.
It was demonstrated by a report issued to the UN General Assembly, which placed special emphasis on the difficult situation faced by LGBTQ + people. “The number of calls a person contacts for contemplating suicide has quadrupled,” the study reveals. And sometimes it seems we don't think much about these issues unless we suffer them in the first person. Is society aware of the challenges the community has to face?
If there is anything to learn from this situation, it’s the importance of mental health. Let me be honest with you: neither Portugal nor Spain gives a fuck about mental health. We were raised on slipper and belt beatings, we told our boys not to cry, we told our men not to feel or open up. We were locked out of the world by our dictators. And now, here we are, collectively unprepared to solve our trauma and its effects. We are at a curious time where a grandson and a grandpa can speak but can’t have a conversation. There is no common ground. The gaps are becoming huge. And that obviously hurts all communities, especially ours. Even more specifically it hurts racialised and trans people, who lose their homes and family quicker than anyone else.
Your music, which is difficult to categorise as a result of the mix of styles and influences, generated great expectations in Portugal but there is something that captures our attention before listening to your songs is your image. The aesthetic is built on creative freedom instead of on genres and labels. Have you always felt free to express yourself?
Obviously not, even now, we are not free. An aesthetic always requires common symbols to be presented and understood. Freedom of expression is still a utopia. Total freedom would only be achieved if you could feel the electrical impulses of my brain inside yours. We just do our best to present that energy to each other.
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I guess it is not the same to show yourself as you are when you are already a star than to be living in a humble neighbourhood of Lisbon where nobody knows you. How do you remember your childhood?
My internal life was always very rich. I played, drew and wrote a lot, regardless of all the chaos that happened around me, familiar and social. My mother gave me all the simple tools to develop my brain from an early age: paper, pencils, music, love, stories and a puzzle to learn the alphabet. So, I learned to write before going to school, and that shaped the plasticity of my brain. Then all the bullying and the physical, mental and sexual abuse came. It was tough, but I knew that my mind was my sanctuary. Video games also played a huge role in maintaining my sanity.
Did you feel different from other kids?
Of course, even if I didn’t, their violence reminded me of that. Every day was a survival test. At the time it felt natural. Only looking at it from a distance I can see how much I endured.
Placing self-determination first entails receiving a great deal of criticism in social media, and not always positive – it’s often in the form of insults and harassment from people who are too concerned with generating hate.
Have these comments ever limited your freedom?
Not at all because I felt that all my life. Comparing online comments to a group of people forcefully undressing you, making you expose your genitals to the whole school, feels like comparing a glass of water to the sea.
If we talk about your unique aesthetic, it is impossible to not mention your participation in the Eurovision Song Contest. You were the Portuguese representative in 2019, after a selection process among several participants in which you didn't leave anyone indifferent with your styling and performance. A white feathered suit followed by claws and a golden mask. Why do you think people voted for you?
Half of the people voted because they wanted to see the underdog win. The other half voted cause they wanted to see how far a ‘joke’ could go.
“Progress is constantly being done and undone. Some things go forward and some go backwards.”
Transgressive artists tend to be relegated to the background, being held in alternative atmospheres or highly specialised markets, but when they jump into the mainstream, they are not always welcomed. Did you ever feel like you were doing something innovative with your music?
The thing is that I always mix symbols. That is my whole goal, to make bridges rather than burn them. To inform is not to educate. Educating is taking the information and teaching it accordingly to whoever needs to be educated. The world lacks education, not information. That’s all I try to do, when and if I can.
The same applies to the LGBTQ+ community whose members, as we mentioned earlier, continue to be victims of discrimination today. From big companies, rejecting transgender applicants implicitly, to the media, perpetuating very harmful stereotypes. What is your impression of the situation the LGBTQ+ community is living currently?
There is still plenty of work to do. Precisely in subliminal communication. The masses are being instructed and pressed by the internet to review narratives but the subliminal is still wrong. When I say subliminal, I mean implicit victim-blaming, biases, racism, phobias and prejudice. Not what is said but what is implied, either by text, image or lack of context. Without these revisions, we will see no improvement in mass social behaviour towards smaller communities.
And in Portugal? Has much progress has been made in terms of rights and freedoms in recent years?
Progress is constantly being done and undone. Some things go forward and some go backwards. So it feels like we’re singing The Bare Necessities like Mowgli all the time.
Both the specialised critics and the general public have highlighted many aspects in your work – from your music, in which you mix fado with other sounds like electronic music, to your image, devoid of fears and limitations. Do you feel people have tried to turn you into an ambassador for the LGBTQ+ community?
I never felt that. I feel like people see a ‘label-less-ness’ in me that liberates them in multiple ways, and that is an absolute honour.
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You have been compared to António Variações, singer and composer from the early eighties, who was a gay icon. Is this a compliment or does it create a presumption because certain expectations have to be met?
It's an absolute compliment if it's done to uplift both. If it's done to downgrade me, then suck my ass.
“People see the freak show part but for me my music is normal,” you said when you participated in the Eurovision Song Contest. There is no consensus on what ‘normal’ means; its meaning is so subjective. What does ‘normal’ mean to you?
The thing is, I have been carrying that ‘normal’ label for a long time because that’s exactly what I believe in: normalising things, as long as they’re not toxic or chaotic. The normalisation of everything. Why would it be weird? Why would a green suit and a mask be weird when Nazism exists? Why would dancing be weird when domestic terrorism exists? Why would two guys on some stairs be shocking when half of the world has no access to essential healthcare? Most of the time, this is what goes on in my head when people pretend to be shocked at completely normal stuff.
Mass media has defined your work as “provocative.” Some even said that the fact that you shattered the stereotypical image of men who repress their instincts – wrapping yourself in glitter while dancing – was revolutionary. Do you think much about what you do, or do you just let yourself be carried away connecting with your inner self?
I think it would be provocative if I came up with a solution for plastic in the oceans: I make art. I’m not belittling myself, I just think we should focus a little bit more on science for now. And everything that surrounds science, including why trustworthy and common-good science is suffering unprecedented attacks. Art and emotion are cool and all, but to make art we have to be alive and sane.
Dancer João Reis Moreira accompanies you in all your performances, emphasising the importance that the movement of the body has in your work. Dance is one of the best ways to explore ourselves. Do we repress our desires too often?
We definitely repress ourselves in every way possible. Some repressions are positive. I have no right to attack you just because I don’t vibe with you. But most repression is traumatic. In Portugal, we spent almost 50 years not being able to grow our hair, women couldn’t wear trousers, men were forced to go to war, you couldn’t own a lighter without a proper license, you would go to jail because your neighbour decided to make up some story about you, no questions asked. This was 50 years ago. Almost all trees in my neighbourhood are older than that. Let’s remember that.
“We are at a curious time where a grandson and a grandpa can speak but can’t have a conversation. There is no common ground. The gaps are becoming huge. And that obviously hurts all communities, especially ours. Even more specifically it hurts racialised and trans people, who lose their homes and family quicker than anyone else.”
Why do the opinions of third parties condition the lives of people so much?
It is a sign of fear. We care so much about what others say because back then it could cost you your life. We are still haunted by that.
You have mentioned that it was whilst you were working in a sex shop in Lisbon that you connected with human emotions the most, as many clients spent hours sharing their feelings and experiences with you. What did you learn from all those conversations?
I learnt so much. From older people’s secret sex lives to young people trying to find their inner desires. From sexually and emotionally repressed wealthy people, to women that could be my grandmas – sad stories, unsettling stories, brave stories. It was very fulfilling. And I miss it very much. Especially now that we are losing all physical contact.
Is there any story that you especially remember? Any conversation that opened your eyes?
I remember some stories very vividly, especially from trans people. Professionally, I cannot disclose too much about it but it gave me a very clear perspective on body perception, dysmorphia, and also empowerment. Owning your body. Our body being part of the temple that we are, alongside our mind. It was very important.
Social networks have become the epicentres of social activity. New technologies were, actually, the great protagonists of the single you presented at Eurovision, Telemóveis. The advantages and disadvantages depend on how these technologies are used. Do you think the balance is positive or negative?
Telemóveis is exactly about that. About being in love with letters and images that pop up on an object made of metal and glass. About crying and your tears falling on the same object. Are you your body or are you your phone? We are our phones, are we not? More than ever? I don’t think it’s a matter of positive or negative anymore. But I do think it’s becoming more and more distanced from our physical bodies. We, individually, are getting physically and psychologically weaker, no doubt.
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In this song, you merge these elements with personal experiences, a deep meaning, and references to death and nostalgia. These are things we see daily since love, rejection, acceptance and an endless number of emotions coexist on these platforms. Have you received hate on social media?
(Laughs) Of course! That’s the first thing anyone with a platform receives. We are getting better prepared or at least more desensitised to hate, due to its omnipresence. This has its implications. It’s corrosive, mentally speaking, because you’re mixing hate with social media, something that has been proved to be highly addictive. Test yourself: how many times can you catch yourself watching a video while reading comments, trying to find something that either supports your opinion or goes against it? And that rattles you more than the video itself.
Social media has also helped people all over the world to connect. You recently shared the result of the study of your origins online. The result claimed that you had ancestry from North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula and Central and Eastern Europe. Are we now closer than ever before?
Not really, we are getting more and more divided. We need to find something that binds us together quickly or we will be destroyed.
Are you optimistic when you think about the future?
It's hard to be optimistic right now, but I try. Albeit, I always try to live in the present. Not being able to be in the present, in small things like swallowing, breathing, hearing or seeing, brings a lot of mental fatigue. I couldn't eat for two weeks and it made me rewire my brain. The simple taste of butter can make me cry now. It humbled me. So, in that sense, I am optimistic. As long as we can eat and breathe as humans, I will be happy.
When you think about the future of the LGBTQ+ community, how do you imagine it?
If we can be intersectional with our fights, we have a great future. That’s how I imagine it.
Will we ever live in a label-free society?
Either we will label air itself, the water from every river, the hair from every wig or all labels will fall. It will be one or the other.
What can you tell us about your next projects?
I'm trying to solve all my health issues so I can finish my album!
And what message would you like to send to all those who are afraid to express themselves as they are but wish to be free once and for all?
Please, know you are valid. Know that you don’t need to replicate anything being said by any other human or non-human being. Know you don’t have to be understood, just free, that you don’t have to feel like you’re less brave or less powerful for being quiet, shy or socially quirky. Know other people’s truth can never erase your experience. And, finally: know you are loved, even if you are not loved right now, you still are and will be. All the cells of your body are rooting for you. All the oxygen that kisses your lungs and your blood, all the water that you are, comes from love and will be loved after being a part of you.