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Celebrating Pride Month in 2023: the Hotjar Pride Panel
Here at Hotjar, we stand for an inclusive culture where our team members experience the psychological safety necessary to express themselves fully at work.
Guided by this principle, we have a long-standing tradition of celebrating Pride Month with initiatives proposed and curated by our internal LGBTQIA+ group.
Last updated7 Jul 2023
Reading time20 min
One of our goals is to expand our view on the current state of LGBTQIA+ rights and the challenges the commumity faces. With this goal in mind, starting in 2021 we have hosted a Pride Panel every year, inviting activists, educators, and influential voices from the LGBTQIA+ community to have an open conversation with the Hotjar team.
Past panels featured guests such as Anjeelee Kaura, human rights consultant, asexual, with a special focus on SOGIESC (sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics); Joel Simpson, managing director of Guyana’s Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination; Mateusz Sulwiński, current president of the Polish Grupa Stonewall, one of the largest LGBTQIA+ organizations in Poland; Phenix Kühnert, trans activist in Berlin; Keval Harie, Director of the Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action and advisory board member of the South African Workplace Equality Index from Cape Town; and Honey Mahogany, drag queen and politician representing San Francisco’s Democratic Party.
Our 2023 panel
This year, our team wished to dive deeper into the topic of trans rights and threats to the liberty of self-expression that the LGBTQIA+ community is facing all across the world.
In light of news such as the Uganda bill that imposes a death penalty for homosexuality, the anti-trans bills in Florida and Texas, and the anti-LGBTQIA+ laws proposed in Hungary, our international team acknowledged that no place in the world is immune to the risk of significant restrictions to LGBTQIA+ rights.
This is why, as our guests for this year’s panel, we invited
Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi (crazinisT artisT), multidisciplinary trans artist from Kumasi, Ghana
Va-Bene Elikem Fiatsi, AKA crazinisT artisT, is a transwoman with the pronoun sHit if not She. Va-Bene lives in Kumasi, Ghana, but works internationally as a multidisciplinary artivist, curator, and mentor across several countries. She is the founder and artistic director of crazinisT artisT studio and perfocraZe International Artists Residency (pIAR), which aims to radicalize the arts and promote exchange between international and local artists, activists, researchers, curators, and critical thinkers. With rituals and a gender-fluid persona, She employs her own body as a thought-provoking tool in performances, photography, video, installations, and ‘life-and-live-art’, confronting issues like disenfranchisement, injustice, violence, objectification, internalized oppression, anti-blackness, and systemic indoctrination.
Eva Bloom, queer sex educator from Toronto, Canada
Eva Bloom (they/she) is an award-winning non-binary, queer sex educator and speaker. They help people of all genders and sexual orientations bust sexual shame and cultivate joyful, authentic desire. With a Masters of Science in the social psychology of sexuality, they have spoken at institutions across North America including Cornell University and the University of Toronto. They are the founder of the digital education platform "What's My Body Doing", which has educated over 3 million people across the globe.
Bella DuBalle, drag artist and activist from Memphis, Tennessee, USA
The Bluff City Bombshell, Bella DuBalle is the Show Director and Host at Atomic Rose in Memphis, Tennessee. Her drag career spans over a decade and includes such highlights as being named one of the Seven Hottest Women in Memphis by The Memphis Flyer and reigning as Miss Gay Tennessee America 2015. She has been featured in national and global news outlets, including Politico, The New York Times, and NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross after speaking out against TN’s “anti drag” law. Bella is a licensed minister who has performed many weddings and she frequents local Drag Queen Story Times. Bella’s dynamic looks, Southern hospitality and genuine charm always provide a reason to #KeepYourEyeOnDuBalle!
Resilience, representation, and visibility in face of ongoing attacks to LGBTQIA+ lives
Below you can read the adapted transcript of our 2023 panel discussion, on the topics of resilience, representation, and visibility in face of ongoing attacks to LGBTQIA+ lives, moderated by our Director of Brand, Christian Schorm.
Christian: Va-Bene, I’d like to open this panel with you, as your art provides strong images to start this conversation.
The interesting thing about your art is that by using means such as chains, clothes, mud, your body loses some of its identification markers and surges as a symbol for all the bodies. Yet, it is powerful to remember that underneath all those props, there is a trans, femme, black, Ghanaian body, that is being put through physical pain and undergoes mental pain everyday. How’s your art being received in Ghana, a country with legislation that punishes heavily the LGBTQIA+ community?
Va-Bene: I grew up and spent the majority of my career in Ghana, a deeply religious country where spirituality is too often overshadowed by bigotry. For this reason, gender identities and sexual orientations that don’t conform to the cisgender heterosexual majority, are persecuted.
Our society is prone to very easily believe accusations, and oftentimes it is sufficient to be accused of homosexuality, being trans, etc., to become the victim of violent mob attacks.
In isolated areas, attackers lure LGBTQIA+ people in pretending to be part of that community themselves, and then ambush them.
Since 2011-2012 I’ve been active in public spaces to bring my artistic discourse into the public. My performances turn religious imagery on its head. I recuperate the image of Christ as a symbol for all the humanity who’s suffering.
pieta-afriCan resurrect was my first collaborative performance in 2015 with anthropologist Natascia Silverio. It was an interesting experience for both—for Natascia, because she was for the first time using performance as a research method; for me, because I was for the first time including a white body in my performances. This has never been easy for me, as there are so many layers of history and politics to peel off when we investigate the relationships between white and black bodies.
In this performance, we have decided to represent Christ as a black person, to show how even in Ghana, black queer bodies do not benefit from the same level of safety as a queer white person does. In Ghana, black queer bodies are the ones exposed to most violence, and they are killed by Ghanaians themselves. What we imported from the 'white saviour' is not queerness, but oppression.
As you can imagine, my art causes scandal, but also starts difficult yet necessary conversations.
Christian: Bella, you are an artist as well, and in our backstage meeting you said how some of your performances were met with enormous backlashes, and even death threats. What is keeping you in drag artistry?
Bella: I have been a drag artist for a little over 10 years, and ever since the inception of my career, I have always envisioned drag as a political art form. I have never lived under the illusion that I would be playing it safe.
By default, performances that question gender-binary norms and the way we present ourselves, cause discomfort. If you will, drag is a form of rebellion. But the political nature of my performances became much stronger in recent years, especially as bans on drag artistry, trans sex ed in schools, and general attacks on LGBTQIA+ rights were gaining momentum all across the USA.
In October 2022, here in Tennessee we first heard about the proposal to promote an anti-drag law. I immediately gathered with some of my colleagues to piece together our first call to action to object this bill.
My acts quickly converted into speeches. Some of them were recorded by the audience, and in February 2023 I received calls from friends and family who told me that my speeches were going viral on Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter. Overnight, my reach increased enormously, and among many comments of support, I also started receiving death threats. It was incredibly shaking, and I don’t know if I would have been so prepared to talk, had I been aware that my performances were being recorded in my own safe space.
But if anything, these inflammatory comments just spurred me to double down on my efforts. Education on protecting LGBTQIA+ rights is necessary now more than ever. When legislators try to pass discriminatory laws under our nose, it is imperative to speak up. Thankfully, as a result of many of us speaking up, in June 2023 our federal judge ruled this anti-drag bill as unconstitutional. This is just the beginning of us trying to overturn 650+ anti-queer bills in 46 States.
Christian: Eva, you are a queer sex educator, and very much like Bella, you are witnessing a systemic plan to exclude queer folks from educational programs in our schools. What is happening, and what impact is this having on people?
Eva: In my work as a sex educator, I have noticed that sex ed books are the most likely to encounter bans. Let’s be clear: for the longest of times, there have been several attempts to remove Sexual Education as a subject in schools altogether. A study in 2019 showed that less than 8.2% of queer folks in Canada claimed to have received inclusive sex ed in school.
Governments fund schools that still carry out explicitly exclusive Sex Ed programs. Books that offer a scientific and psychology-informed approach to sex ed are deemed as inappropriate, and banned. Concepts such as pleasure and joy are heavily overlooked in education to affectivity, and the focus is still centered heavily on procreative sex.
These gaps in our programs are producing generations of people who are uneducated about consent, pleasure, joy, love—and that live with a scarily normalized amount of sexual trauma.
Queer people don’t magically appear at the age of 18, they exist as such ever since their childhood, and deserve equal information and protection.
Our youth, especially queer youth, does not have sufficient experience of feeling safe, and doesn’t find the right spaces to open up. As a consequence, not only are we opening the gates to sexual trauma, but also to very deep psychological wounds, that have serious consequences on a person’s mental health.
For me as a queer sex educator, sitting in the middle between students who are eager to learn about loving relationships with their own body and with others, and conservative directory boards, it’s been really hard.
Christian: Va-Bene, you shared with us that you didn’t always think of doing performance art—you started as a painter. You were progressively directed towards performance art, when you started perceiving that the identity and history of people looking like you was under attack. How has that journey been for you? What legacy do you want to leave, as an artist?
Va-Bene: Before I respond to this question I quickly want to build up on what Eva just said and what Bella said during the backstage meetings, which is that anti-queer laws are too often presented as a means to "protect the children." This is a decoy!
Let’s even pretend that queer people do not, in fact, exist. Then, who are the real threats to our society? To have an answer, I invite you to search on the internet the staggering number of unplanned teen pregnancies in Ghana. These do not happen because of queer people, nor because of inclusive sex ed. “Protecting children” is a decoy that patriarchy uses to actually strip people, especially marginalized groups, of their body autonomy.
Now, back to your question: I started as a painter… and as a Christian preacher! I was leading an Evangelical church, and majoring in painting until 2010. But I quickly realized that if I wanted to get my message across, I would have to change my methods. The tridimensionality of my body transcended the limits of a canvas. If I wanted to speak to society, my art couldn’t be hidden in gallery and museums: it needed to be in the open, in squares and public places, among the people. I needed to make it clear to the Ghanaian society, who’d like to pretend that people like me don’t exist, that we do in fact exist, our vulnerable bodies exist, and we have a right to occupy a space in this world.
Putting my body out there was an act of solidarity with my community, a willingness to create art outside of the safe walls of art classes. It was also a decision to live my life outside of the performing stage.
Christian: Bella, as a performer yourself, do you resonate with Va-Bene’s experience?
I resonate with the experience I had of witnessing lack of protection for queer kids. Here in Tennessee, out of all of the United States, we rank last in terms of stability for kids who are in the foster care system. Currently, we are failing 9000 kids that are sleeping in hospital beds and hotel rooms. We have had 47 school shootings, including the most recent one at The Covenant School in Nashville. Our governor just signed a bill that states that teachers don’t even need a permit to carry a loaded weapon to school. There are 700 sex offenders registered in our state alone. So, again, how are we really protecting our youth?
And we do know that queer and trans kids are more at risk. The Trevor Project released last year stats that report that 45% of queer kids here in the USA have contemplated suicide.
This doesn’t happen because we allow people to express themselves in the way that feels more in line with their gender identity. This happens because we live in a society that allows individuals to freely share thoughts of unchecked, hateful rhetoric.
Christian: Eva, speaking of legacy, in our meeting you said that you believe sex ed has a transformative power to change our society for the better. How’s the journey as an educator been for you? What is the legacy you want to leave as an educator? What positive impact is your work already having?
Lots of the content is inspired by autobiographical experiences, as I have myself started identifying as queer when I was already in my mid-twenties.
I wanted to create a safe space for people like me, who maybe have just started the journey of self-discovery, and think it’s too late for them to question their identity. When I go deliver my talks in universities, for example, there are plenty of queer adults and young adults who want to offer to others the educational opportunities they lacked themselves.
Seeing more representation in media and educational programs has a huge and beneficial impact on our queer youth. It enables them to feel like they have a right to exist, and they have role models to follow.
This is especially true for intersex, transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming kids, whose body autonomy is severely damaged by a prescriptive gender-binary culture in different ways.
Transgender, non-binary, and other gender non-conforming who may grow up wanting to try dresses, cut their hair, to have their outer expression match their inner identity, are often left unheard, confused, and with lots of shame that they end up internalizing.
Transgender, non-binary, and other gender non-conforming kids often end up having to jump hoops to receive desired gender-affirming care and acceptance (i.e. puberty blockers, dressing in a way that feels affirming, etc.) because they don't fit with their assigned gender at birth or want to explore gender expression beyond it.
Intersex kids on the other hand, whose bodies don't fit rigid binary expectations of 'girls' or 'boys' are often given surgery that is not desired or consented to, that confines them to one of the binary genders.
I firmly believe that people are allowed to experience themselves in a varied range of emotions and relationships, and this should be a gracious, compassionate journey. The more we deny ourselves these experiences, the more we suppress our true selves, internalize shame, and end up silencing whole parts of our population and history.
Learn more about how to support intersex, transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming kids here:
Christian: Bella, on this point, you mentioned that queer people are being subjected to a genocide. Can you talk more about that?
Bella: We can start just with the frequent propaganda claiming that “queer and trans people don’t exist,” that they’re just an ideology. That’s erasing a whole group from our discourse.
Secondly, in the USA, the queer community is facing incredibly serious threats. For example, De Sanctis proposed that trans children be taken away from their families: erasing individuals’ identities from history is stage eight of genocide.
Christian: Eva, a couple of days ago we celebrated Parents’ Day and we’d love to hear from you: how can we make our queer and trans friends feel safe? How can we give meaningful support to our most loved ones, without forcing them too quickly outside of their comfort zone?
Eva: First and foremost: fund Sex Ed programs! Your kids have the right to develop a notion of consent, pleasure, and love through scientifically informed resources, regardless of their gender identity and their sexual orientation.
Secondly, don’t let queer sex ed become a niche topic that only LGBTQIA+ folks want to hear about. I’d love for more cisgender and heterosexual allies to proactively adopt an inclusive approach, and reach out to educators like me.
Christian: About celebrating our bodies: Va-Bene, I’d like to go full circle and discuss beauty with you. You have held a series of performances, called Rituals of becoming & Passing Through, that show and celebrate the beauty, but also the 'ordinary', of non-binary bodies. This is a wonderful series that displays solemnly your body in safe environments. Can you talk us through how you developed this series, and what message you wanted to convey?
Va-Bene: Sure! I always thought that the most powerful stage of 'coming out' is coming out to oneself.
I borrowed the concept of the rite of passage, from boyhood to manhood or from girlhood to womanhood, to signify that some of us have a different journey, passing for example from manhood to womanhood, or vice versa, or something in between. And as in every form of ritual, also in the ritual of 'coming out' you have to die before being born again as something else. My ritual was a form of healing, where I let go of a part of me that didn’t serve me anymore, to fully step into my true self.
This ritual also gave me the power to go out in the public, and show myself.
Having used art to find my place in the world, and in Ghanaian society specifically, my practice as a performance artist also made it evident to me that artists (especially queer artists) need community for their wellbeing. They need to be visible, to be normalized, and find the empathy they need to thrive.
This is why I started pIAR, an international artist residency program, that connects performers all across the world, and gives them access to a robust network that is both professional and human. This will be my legacy to the world and to my immediate community.
Currently, my team and I are running a fundraiser to save the residency program. All the fees I collect through this program, especially from non-Ghanaian participants, I re-invest to welcome and protect local queer people.
Christian: That is really beautiful, and such a great way to conclude the panel. We need to remember the importance of our chosen family. But as we also all have the family we are born in, we want to give our audience some suggestions on how we can ensure that families are a safe space for future generations.
Eva, what advice do you have for parents and other family figures here at Hotjar to help them be the educational figures and allies that queer kids need now?
Eva: We have to be gentle with ourselves. It’s ok not to know everything, we can’t assume we are always sufficiently equipped to support our children—also because, as it came out often in this panel, many of us lacked this education ourselves!
Luckily, there are many passionate voices and educators out there. What you can do is to educate yourself while you educate your kids. Have initiative to learn about consent, autonomy, pleasure, and questions that your kids may have on how their bodies work. Don’t wait for your kids to go to school, also because at school, you will still find parents who are strong opponents of inclusive education. That’s where you need to become an advocate and explain that inclusive education matters to you.
Christian: We can now move to the Q&A with our team. We have a first question from our team: sometimes the difficulty I have is with trying to make folks understand that this is not new, it's not a 'trend'. How do you handle these conversations? What advice do you have when it seems like you are trying to reason with someone that refuses to meet you half way?
Eva: Just mentioning that there are laws deliberately trying to erase queer and trans people from society implies that the LGBTQIA+ community exists. There are analogies with events from the past where governments have burned books, imprisoned people, as a way to silence a whole group. These groups have always been here: if they were less visible, it’s because there’s been an attempt to silence them.
Va-Bene: To get your message across, you have to speak the same language of the person in front of you. For example, if your interlocutor is someone who is profoundly religious and with a Christian background, you could use references from the Bible. David and Jonathan for example were engaged in a queer relationship. Or the story of Sodom and Gomorra is victim of a wrongful interpretation. In this story, the crime that God was punishing was not homosexuality, but rape.
Or else, you can use references from history. Using an intersectional approach, you can see how pre-colonized countries adopted ways of dressing and grooming that would be considered 'fluid' according to today’s standards. For example, before colonialism, for Ghanaian women it was considered a sign of pride to show in society with unshaved legs, a practice that clashes with European’s beauty standards.
Moreover, it is important to remember that LGBTQIA+ people were not 'invented' to fit the labels; labels were created to describe (and oftentimes discriminate) LGBTQIA+ people, who have always existed.
Bella: You have to expand your understanding past your own culture to see that truly, the LGBTQIA+ community has always been there. Indigenous people of America have always regarded the existence of two-spirit people. Ancient Judaism contemplated six different genders. Now, we are just finding the language to speak of concepts that have always been there.
Christian: We have another question from our audience: With drag, do you find there to be hypocrisy in that it was once a very normal form of entertainment and expression? There are photos of British soldiers in drag fighting in WW2, but now it has suddenly become such a 'taboo' performance. Any thoughts on this shift?
Bella: The biggest difference you have to keep in mind is the intention behind each performance. In the specific example that you bring, cisgender heterosexual men took on female clothes as a joke, because they associated femininity with weakness and something to laugh at.
When a queer person puts on clothes of the opposite sex as a sign of strength, and proudly walks in them, this is perceived as terrifying and threatening. To see someone proudly take on a part of themselves that others have been taught to hate and be ashamed of… that causes some very big feelings.
Christian: Last question from our audience: What actions do you feel are important for allies to take at this time?
Eva: Get involved. Send emails, go to protests, learn more about the idea of bystander intervention, put your body on the line and learn more about practices to effectively speak up and call out discriminatory behaviours.
Va-Bene: Allyship should not become a trend, but become embodied empathy and solidarity. Don’t single out the one trans or gay person you happen to be friend with: this is not indicative of your full commitment to allyship. Solidarity should not be selective.
Secondly, have initiative to do the educational work on your own. Don’t request the LGBTQIA+ people to do that work for you. Constantly asking LGBTQIA+ people to share the story of their abuse equals to re-traumatizing them. That doesn’t mean that you can’t ask LGBTQIA+ people to share their experience, you can, but you have to also pull your weight. If you are really willing to show support, you also have to be able to sit through that discomfort yourself.
Lastly, inform yourself about the intersectionality of the LGBTQIA+ fight for rights. Not all LGBTQIA+ people across the world have lived exactly the same experience, so depending on where you are in the world, you might want to use different approaches to make sure that the LGBTQIA+ voices are always centered and not overshadowed by allies.
Working together towards a more accepting and affirming future
To borrow from Va-Bene’s closing statement and remind ourselves that LGBTQIA+ rights are human rights: each and every one of us should be invested in educating each other and practicing solidarity.
We don’t take for granted the time that activists and educators like Va-Bene, Eva, and Bella dedicate to spreading awareness on the state of LGBTQIA+ rights, and we are immensely grateful for their participation in our 2023 Pride Panel.
The Hotjar team expressed profound gratitude for being able to walk out from the panel with concrete actions to take, as well as a renewed desire to become makers of positive change.
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