Understanding the design of my sexuality.
Preface: This was written and read at a Fresh2Design meetup called LGBTQ Voices, part of a Diversity Series where designers share their experiences through storytelling and design.
M y coming out story is a long one… like 15 years long. There was, however, a consistent theme throughout all those years. I was always “designing” my sexuality. I was practicing Design Thinking methodologies before I knew about Design Thinking.
REAL QUICK — For those who don’t know there are 5 steps in the design thinking process:
- Empathize — Learn about your audience, who is your user, what matters to this person.
- Define — Create a point of view based on that user’s needs and insights.
- Ideate — Brain storm and come up with as many creative solutions as possible.
- Prototype — Build a representation of one or more of your ideas to show others.
- Test — Show your idea to the original users to get feedback. What worked, what didn't?
We often think of design in relations to products, apps, and physical objects. Rarely do we think of designing people, and VERY rarely do we think of designing ourselves. This could be because, as designers, it is our responsibility to take ourselves out of the equation and think about the users’ needs instead of our own… So, growing up, thinking about my sexuality, I was thinking about myself as the product and the users were the people around me. I was thinking about how I could make others around me happy with my product.
“Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design.”
— Charles Eames
I was always a maker, designer, and artist. Sometimes creating in the forms of drawing, painting and sculpting. Other times in the form of words, excuses, and stories. I was designing a lexicon of ideas and thoughts of my sexuality based on what I thought my users wanted to hear.
These excuses and stories were created because of what I thought were the user’s needs. I wanted my product to please the user, I wanted it to fit in, but, first and foremost I wanted to protect it. I wanted my product to give people an answer, to give people reasons of why. I also wanted to not be thinking about my sexuality every waking moment.
“Where do new ideas come from? The answer is simple: differences. Creativity comes from unlikely juxtapositions.” — Nicholas Negroponte
I grew up with a liberal and free mother, and a conservative Christian father. I went to a very conservative Christian school, sang in church choir, and attended youth group.
These places made me quickly recognize that I was different. I was different from the kids around me. I was different from the kids at church. I was different from my brother. I was not sure how, but I knew, deep inside, I was different.
In 4th grade I very clearly remember asking my mom why I couldn’t like both boys and girls… She told me “You can, just don’t tell your dad.” This was confusing but also liberating. I knew my mother would be okay with whoever I liked in the end, something she reinforced throughout my life. I asked if I could like both, because I thought I had to like both, I didn't understand that I could like only men.
As I am sure most of you know, once you get into middle school the differences really began to stand out, whether you want them to or not. Of course the name calling started, and the questions.
“Why do you dress like that?”
“Why do you talk like that?”
“Are you gay?”
“Are you a faggot?”
“You’re a faggot.”
I began to design excuses, stories, and terminology when these questions came up.
“I’m an Artist.”
“I’m straight. I just like to make art, and hate sports.”
“I am just friendly, and I don’t know why friendliness gets construed for being gay.”
I had come up with an arsenal of excuses to help me meet the needs of surviving middle school.
Myself being the product and feeling the need to protect it, I had to give my users (people around me) answers.
“Design is a solution to a problem. Art is a question to a problem” — John Maeda
After middle school I was lucky enough to get into a magnet art school.
At this point I did not see myself as a designer, I was an artist. I was tormented and scared. I was making art to pose questions that I did not have the answers to. What I thought as designing a solution was only creating more unknowns. But, creating these unknowns was also cathartic, and felt good. I wasn’t looking for answers. I didn't want to have the answers. I wanted to explore, research, test, fail and try again.
You would think that with going to a magnet arts school the questions and bullying would stop. But they don’t. People want answers. Being bullied does not always present itself in the context that most people imagine. Looking back, there were people who were questioning my sexuality every day. They did not see this as bullying, but more as curiosity. When people don’t understand something, they get curious or scared and want to know more. What felt as bullying very well could have been genuine curiosity.
The users wanted to understand and wanted answers. It was clear they were not going to take “No” for an answer. Out of need, I designed new ones:
- “I like who I like.” I would say. Sometimes that would work, sometimes it didn’t.
- “So you're bi?” — “Sure,” I would say, conforming to get them off my back.
- “Are you gay?” — “No, Im asexual.”
After high school, I went to Rhode Island School Design to study design. The bullying stopped, but the questions did not. We were a bunch of art school weirdos. We thought we had the answers to everything, and if we didn't, we wanted to figure them out. Needless to say, the questions got tougher and the answer got more complex.
- “I love who I love.”
- “I date women and men.”
- “I have a girlfriend, but am not opposed to dating men.”
I was designing my sexuality and my answers to meet the needs of others. Depending on who I was around, I was straight, I wanted to be bi, I was possibly gay but still saw the possibility of loving women, I wanted to be fluid.
“Any Product that needs a manual to work, is broken”
— Elon Musk.
From years of needing to protect myself from my “users”, I had created a large manual or manifesto of my sexuality. If you asked me then, it was something along the lines of:
John-sexual is: a man who loves men, but is not opposed to the idea of marrying a woman (if she was the right woman), who has been with both men and women, but would most likely end up marrying a man because this seemed ideal, but was not gay, nor did he like the term gay, but did not like the term bi, loved everyone and did not want to exclude the possibility of love in any form, and who in general would not like to be asked about my sexuality.
This term or definition of my sexuality worked for awhile. People didn’t care, they accepted it and accepted whoever I had by my side.
Yet, something was wrong. This definition grew tired. This was too complicated. This was not real. This was 20 different features rolled into one product, that was not a working, well designed product. It satisfied some people, but did not please others.
I even found push back within the LGBTQ community. I was asked to define myself again and again as one of those letters. I never understood why a group that wanted to be inclusive, made so many different groups, causing there to be exclusivity.
People saw this definition as a cop out, others saw it as unfair. The product was broken. I felt broken.
There were two catalysts that caused me to iterate on myself. They both happened when I was 26.
First, I wanted to come out my father, the only person who did not know I identified in any shape, way, or form as gay. I was finally financially independent, so if worst came to worst, I could make it on my own.
Second was years of therapy and talking it out. Essentially, researching, empathizing, and gaining insight and understanding of myself.
I began to ask myself questions:
- What were my needs?
- What was actually going to make me happy?
- Was giving everyone else a definition or answer what needed to be designed?
- What was the one core problem?
- What was the MVP (minimum viable product)?
- Who is the User?
After much research, empathizing, iteration, and prototyping, answers began rising to the surface.
“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. “
— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
I had been thinking about the “problem” wrong the whole time. The problem was not what I was going to tell my users. The problem was that I didn’t understand the product.
I realized that the product is my sexuality, and the User is me. In this rare instance, I should not have been designing for others. I should have been designing for myself!
If we reduce this product to its simplest and purest terms, I love men. This product has grown stronger through the years. For a long time I had to be selfish and only allow it to have one user, myself. But now I am lucky that I get to have one other “User” of my product, my partner. Never in my life has a product felt more well designed, natural, and fitting than when I am with him.
Good design does not happen overnight. It takes testing, failing, getting up, trying again, starting from scratch, plenty of iteration, and time — in my case, 26 years. As the core product user, I couldn't be happier with the final results.
Thanks for taking the time to read! If you enjoyed this post, make that little heart green 💚, follow, and share so others can enjoy too. Find me on IG and other social media as @JohnHBerry3.