Speak Out 

Online art project focuses on youth and sexual socialization.

School bullying may be allowed on religious grounds, and talk of homosexuality could be banned in classrooms if some state legislators have their way.

Those are exactly the sort of issues a group of Memphis women hope to educate against with an art project aimed at helping kids openly express their gender identity and sexual orientation.

The Southern Youth Freedom Project, sponsored by the Choices Memphis Center for Reproductive Health, is accepting submissions of art or research aimed at sexual socialization. Visual art, writing, and performance videos will be posted at youthfreedomproject.org.

"We wanted to open up dialogue around issues relating to sexual choice, sexual freedom, and reproductive choice," said Tonya Thompson, a former Memphis City Schools teacher and the creative director for the Southern Youth Freedom Project. "This is completely missing in schools. There's a lot of legislation keeping these topics out of the classroom."

The Southern Youth Freedom Project began accepting art for the website last week. As they sift through submissions, relevant works will be posted online. The project is open to artists from age 12 to 40. Although the project's name alludes to its Southern roots, it isn't limited to Southern residents.

"The South and the Bible Belt are notoriously conservative, but the project doesn't really have any boundaries. If you feel as though the South has impacted your experience with its cultural baggage, then I don't care where the art comes from," said Leanne Naramore, a Rhodes College senior and the project's executive director.

Submissions can range from poetry, paintings, sculpture, photography, and videos of short films and dance or musical performances.

"We want to collect a library of art and poetry and music and research that people can scroll through," Naramore said.

Naramore spent last summer with the Rhodes Institute of Regional Studies studying sexual and gender equality among youth in Southern religious groups.

Her findings: "There was a big need for a more open environment to express their sexuality and gender. Frequently, there are very restrictive gender roles that are expected. There's a specified script kids have to live by, and I think life should be more open than that."

Naramore discussed the problem with her former boss, Rebecca Terrell at Choices, and the two decided to launch the Southern Youth Freedom Project. Terrell put Naramore in touch with Thompson, and they began constructing the website a few months ago. Photographer Kia Lola and Underground Art owner Angela Russell are also helping organize the project.

Besides posting an online art collection, the women will pick a handful of pieces to be performed live at a symposium this summer. The date and location for the event are not yet determined.

"People can watch and listen [at the symposium], and then we can have an informal discussion with the artists," Naramore said. "We want to create a dialogue and a 'we can work together' atmosphere."

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