Authenticity is what audiences are looking for in a brand. It’s the strongest way to build trust. Rather than being guarded and flat, successful brands are the ones who know how to show their personality and share their values through their content.
Being real and authentic with your voice is the key to connection, relevance, and inclusion. At the very least, being honest and respectful can show how much you value your audience.
In honor of Pride Month, we want to take a look at the genuine LGBTQ+ voices out there today and how authenticity drives human-to-human connection — something we need more than ever after the last few years of total disruption.
Jonathan Van Ness
One of the most obviously authentic voices out there today is Jonathan Van Ness. You may have seen him on Queer Eye or on his Netflix show Getting Curious and its companion podcast, and if you have, you understand: Jonathan is always Jonathan. There is no public face and private face. He is incredibly himself at every turn and uses his various platforms to reach those who need support.
Just take a look at his About page.
“Imperfection is beautiful. To anyone who has ever felt broken beyond repair, this is for you. If you’ve ever been excluded, or told you were not enough, know that you are enough, and beautifully complete.” — Jonathan Van Ness, Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love
In Jonathan’s case the effect of being so real and transparent is that he reaches a huge audience of people interested in his experience. He leads by example, and there are millions of people who look up to him for guidance, support, and connection.
Janelle Monáe is one of the most talented and innovative creators in the world, and though she began as a singer/songwriter, she leverages multiple formats to connect with her audience. From her albums (like The Electric Lady and Dirty Computer), videos (check out the inclusive women’s anthem “Pynk”), and live performances to her roles in TV and film, Monáe is unapologetic about being exactly who she wants to be and a source of support and acceptance for so many people who need a figure they can trust and take courage from.
“We know that we exist in so many different ways. The fact that we have those stories on-screen, and I was a part of both those movies [Hidden Figures and Moonlight], made me feel more emboldened and encouraged to dig deeper inside to be more vulnerable and more honest in the way that I approach my storytelling. Dirty Computer digs deep into the viruses and bugs of Janelle Monáe. And ultimately, it’s an album that encourages you to embrace the things that make you unique, even if it makes others uncomfortable.” — Janelle Monáe, Okayplayer interview
Just like an audience is looking for a way to connect with a brand who prizes the same values they think are important, so too do people who feel marginalized. As Deria Matthews says about Monáe, “Dirty Computer becomes an archival invitation into a rogue community opposed to a coming out party for a conventional mass audience… It is colored with pride and a deep understanding of history.”
Identity is a central part of everyone’s existence, but it’s way harder to figure out if you don’t easily fall into one of the accepted genders. This was Elliot Page’s struggle, and at the time, it seemed like he would have to sort it all out completely on his own. With no safe place to express himself, Page internalized the struggle, just like so many other people who think they’re alone.
“In my early to mid-twenties, I didn’t know how to tell people how unwell I was. I would berate myself for it. I was living the life and my dreams were coming true, and all that was happening. And yet, for example, when I was shooting Inception, I could pretty much not leave whatever hotel I’d be staying in.”
Finding a way to talk about this to anyone was difficult, and the pain and anxiety just kept building. “I struggled with food,” Page says. “Intense depression, anxiety, severe panic attacks. I couldn’t function. There were days when I’d only have one meeting, and I’d leave my house to go to the meeting and have to turn around.”
But Page did find solutions and support groups and embarked on his transition. Now Elliot is seizing an incredible opportunity to pay things forward by being completely open and transparent about his journey. It should be no surprise that audiences responded.
“I didn’t expect it to be so big,” Page says. “In terms of the actual quality of the response, it was what I expected: love and support from many people and hatred and cruelty and vitriol from so many others. I came out as gay in 2014, and it’s different. Transphobia is just so, so, so extreme. The hatred and the cruelty is so much more incessant.”
Today the trans community is growing and has more ways to connect with and support each other. People like Elliot Page are providing models and stories that have been missing from society, real stories told with authentic voices that connect real people.
Carmen Maria Machado
One of the great LGBTQ+ literary voices today is Carmen Maria Machado. Reviewer Parul Sehgal of The New York Times describes her work as remixed fables: “Her fiction is both matter-of-factly and gorgeously queer. She writes about loving and living with women and men with such heat and specificity that it feels revelatory.”
Stories are a big part of content creation. We tell them to connect ideas or actions in a way that audiences will remember, if not feel, for a long time after reading a blog or listening to a podcast. The moment we think a story lacks reality or truth, we usually turn away.
It’s through her genuine voice that Machado speaks to a whole community of people who don’t feel represented.
“Every art form, every artistic community, has its institutions and barriers,” Machado says. “What I like in the genre world is that there’s a lot of excellent publications that are actively working with diverse voices and trying to include more diversity… If you feel like your voice is not welcomed or you feel like you’re really struggling, it can get really exhausting. You just have to keep working. But I don’t blame folks who feel discouraged. I think everybody — not just marginalized folk — everyone, especially people with privilege, should be amplifying marginalized voices and opportunities.”
Responsible for one of the best LGBTQ+ anthems of all time with “Born This Way,” Lady Gaga has always been super genuine about who she is and her commitment to support all people. In 2011, she and her mother founded the Born This Way Foundation which has helped thousands of disenfranchised kids and teens, especially around bullying and harassment.
Lady Gaga also uses her platform to keep LGBTQ+ rights in everyone’s mind as she did during her 2017 Super Bowl Halftime show: “The only statements that I’ll be making during the halftime show are the ones that I’ve been consistently making throughout my career. I believe in a passion for inclusion. I believe in the spirit of equality, and that the spirit of this country is one of love and compassion and kindness. My performance will uphold those philosophies.”
So what does this mean to the people she reaches? Here are Brian O’Flynn’s thoughts from an article in The Guardian.
“Millions of young gay people in turn used her example to construct their own identities in small, alienating towns and villages around the world. Every person needs references to inform their social performance, to do a sort of drag in their daily lives. Gaga offered queer people those references that our heteronormative hometowns couldn’t, reaching back into the past and passing them forward to those of us who could not access them alone. She taught a new generation of young queer people how to drag up an identity out of a barrenness around them, by looking to history and pop culture. This is what gay people have always done — but many of my generation didn’t know how. Mine was a generation whose would-be mentors had been decimated by the HIV epidemic, causing a wealth of generational community knowledge to be lost forever; a generation where cohesion in the real-world gay community was breaking down and gay spaces were closing.” — Brian O’Flynn
Dan Savage & Terry Miller
According to The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention hot line for LGBTQ+ youth and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education network, gay teens are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight teens, and 9 out of 10 LGBTQ+ teens have experienced some form of harassment in their schools.
This was the backdrop in 2011 when Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller founded the It Gets Better Project, an incredibly inclusive series of YouTube videos from a variety of celebrities and public figures aimed at inclusion. The first videos were Savage and Miller telling their own stories about being bullied and growing up feeling isolated. But those stories were only half of the It Gets Better goal. The other half was to show how each speaker’s life improved as they made more friends and connections. For Savage and Miller, this was the most authentic way to connect by sharing some hard and honest truths.
"When I talked to my mom about this years later — after high school — she just said, 'It was so hard; we didn't know what to say to you,'" Terry Miller recalls. "I think if I had come out to my mom or dad at that point, they probably would have worked a little harder to protect me, but I was so ashamed of it too — the hassle I was getting at school, that I just wanted to not live it anymore."
They knew they weren’t the only ones who’d experienced these things, and so many people have overcome these challenges. The couple just didn’t see any reason anymore to gate-keep that knowledge. That’s how It Gets Better was born.
“Things didn't just get better for me,” Dan Savage says. “All of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender adults I knew were leading rich and rewarding lives. We weren't the same people, and we didn't have or want the same things — gay or straight, not everyone wants kids or marriage; people pursue happiness in different ways — but we all had so much to be thankful for and so much to look forward to. Our lives weren't perfect; there was pain, heartbreak, and struggle. But our lives were better. Our lives were joyful.”
Maybe you’ve seen her in Chewing Gum or I May Destroy You — and you will see her in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever — but if you haven’t, Michaela Coel is one of the most powerful LGBTQ+ figures right now. Her voice is unforgettable, whether it’s in an interview, something she shows in an acting role, or her most powerful channel, being a writer and having the power to create inclusive stories.
As revealed in an article at The Guardian, Coel asks the big questions, like, “Is it important that voices used to interruption get the experience of writing something without interference at least once?”
That comes from a very genuine and human place, because Coel clearly wants to speak and her audience wants to hear her. But it’s hard to be totally real all the time when the LGBTQ+ community has been so persecuted and alienated.
“Yes, that’s saying, at some point, Michaela, you’re going to realize that you need to be afraid, because you’ve got a position that you need to keep,” Coel admits. “That fear goes beyond people of color and women, it even relates to people who have come from old money. Because those people are like, ‘We must make sure we keep our power,’ and your whole identity becomes wrapped around it. It’s all about holding on. There’s so much fear of letting go, when it’s the most freeing thing you could do.”
That transparent statement right there is what resonates with LGBTQ+ communities, and that’s why Coel advocates that we all should use our genuine voice and engage. “Call somebody and tell them. That’s it. The exercise is speaking; it’s not about whether you’re talking to 10 or 10,000 people, it’s about getting it out from your vocal cords, out, away from you, into the air.”
When Dan Levy initially started playing the character David on Schitt’s Creek (plus writing and directing), he wasn’t interested in churning out a sit-com. Instead, Levy realized he had the opportunity to do something no one else had done. “We had the power to tell a story where David’s persona wasn’t up for debate,” Levy says. “In that sense, we had an obligation to show what life would be like if we were all treated the same.”
The impact from this approach was vast, especially for viewers who had little to no interaction with LGBTQ+ people.
“It wasn't this kind of big lesson that they had to learn,” Levy says. “It was just watching people live their lives… And I think to tell very casual stories about a family that doesn't ask any questions about who their children love kind of subliminally sets an example for other people because at no point is it in contrast to anyone else. It's just saying this is how it should be, and if you watch the show and like the show, then maybe it'll force you to ask some questions in your own life.”
The return on Levy’s authenticity is best illustrated by this letter from a Facebook group, Serendipitydodah For Moms who have LGBTQ+ kids: “More than 1,800 of us are signing this letter because we wanted to say thank you for the LGBTQ characters, relationships, and storylines that you’ve included in Schitt’s Creek. Your commitment to represent love and tolerance in your show is so important to families like ours... You have created new ways for queer viewers to see themselves.”
As one of the stars of Orange Is the New Black, Laverne Cox is an impressive actress who still talks authentically about her ongoing experiences in this world. For example, in November 2020, Cox and a male friend were accosted in L.A., and normally when these things happen in real life, we’re not thinking about sharing the experience right away.
But that’s not what Cox did. She posted on Instagram right after it happened. “I listened to my gut,” Cox says. “I think people assume that if someone is famous, then these things can’t happen to them. I shared it because violence against trans people is pervasive — that last year was the deadliest year on record for trans people. And I thought if people knew that this happened to someone they’re familiar with, maybe it would hit them differently. I shared it because I wanted to talk about trauma. And I want to talk about shame.”
She hasn’t stopped being real in her interviews, and as a trans role model, there’s no telling how many LGBTQ+ people Laverne Cox has helped when no one else was there.
But she’s hopeful that things are going to keep getting better. “We are in a place now where more and more trans people want to come forward and say ‘This is who I am,’” Cox says. “And more trans people are willing to tell their stories. More of us are living visibly and pursuing our dreams visibly, so people can say, ‘Oh yeah, I know someone who is trans.’ When people have points of reference that are humanizing, that demystifies difference.”
Happy Pride Month
As we celebrate Pride Month this year, keep in mind how powerful an authentic voice can be. When people think they’re all alone, that genuine voice proves they’re not. When people think no one will understand them or accept them, that voice will include them and support them.
The philosophy is similar in content marketing. An authentic brand voice enables trust and connection. It also reveals a brand’s humanity, which is what the humans in their audience are looking for.
For both content marketing and LGBTQ+ voices, the stakes are much different, but the goals are the same: Use your voice to be real, to be vulnerable, to be transparent, and above all, to be a good human.