By Malissa Rogers
A photograph of a man and woman in Burma, a sovereign state in Southeast Asia, hung on the wall. The picture told a story of oppression; their vote doesn’t count in their country and fear is reflected in their eyes. Hopes for Democracy remain unchanged; their voices are silenced.
These photographs and paintings are showcased in September’s art show, “Fight for Your Rights,” at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center in Sacramento, California. Vihil Vigil, art programs director at the Center, has dedicated this Second Saturday art show to registering voters and showcasing the importance of voting in the 2012 election.
“Even if we don’t speak the same language, we can represent it visually. People can see it and have an opportunity to absorb it,” Vigil said.
Vigil, along with many others, believes that this year’s election is one of the most important times in history to cast a vote. Marriage equality, healthcare and the future of America is in the hands of the voters.
However, Vigil hasn’t always felt this passionate about voting. She had an anarchist way of thinking and never wanted to be involved with politics. When she graduated from high school and joined the Navy, she believed that her voice could never make a difference. Until one day, when she had an epiphany.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell really hit home and I realized that we don’t have equal rights and we won’t have equal rights if we don’t voice our opinion,” Vigil said. “It comes down to, for me that I want to be able to have my fundamental rights, which is in our Constitution.”
Now, Vigil has made it her top priority to communicate this importance through paintings and photographs and has enlisted the creative help of artists, Jill Layton and Marlene Johansen and photographer, Leah Briggs to illustrate a person’s ability or inability to vote.
The pictures of Burma were photographed by Briggs, while she was backpacking through the country, working as a photojournalist. During the time that she visited, she had no idea that the trip would change her life.
Earlier that year, Burma had a democratic election and the country had voted in a democratic leader. After the leaders had been elected, they were brought out and shot to death in front of everyone who had just voted them into power. Although many of the people allowed Briggs to photograph them, the people of Burma refused to discuss the massacre, for fear of their own lives and those of their family members.
“We have the ability to go out there and cast our votes without necessarily feeling that they’re going to be pulled out into the street because that’s who we want to elect.” Vigil said. “We need to all voice our opinions because we are not under the oppression that the people of Burma are.”
Johansen is originally from California and lives with her bi-national partner, Marina, in Sacramento. Her paintings are a reflection of the shame and destruction that the Defense of Marriage Act has caused. Johansen and her partner were forced to move to Oslo, Norway when Marina’s visitor visa had expired. After nine years of lawyer fees, embassy meetings and living abroad, Marina finally received her green card.
However, the green card is only valid for ten years, so the couple will be forced to move from the United States again, unless DOMA is repealed.
“We bury that prospect away, so we can focus on enjoying the life we are currently building together here in Sacramento,” Johansen said. “But it’s always with me, like a dark ghost, and nothing stays buried once an artist enters the studio.”
Layton never believed in voting, but after being asked to participate in the art show, her opinion has changed.
“I never wanted to vote because I figured I’m only one person and one person doesn’t matter,” Layton said. “And then I participated in this show and realized just how wrong I am. What if everyone felt the same way I did and no one voted? It matters now to me and I’m definitely voting.”
The art show included speakers: Ben Hudson, the executive director of the gender health center; Erica Ambrin, singer and songwriter; and Jovi Radtke, a poet and local activist in Sacramento.
Radtke recited a poem she had written for the event, “If all of the 99 percent showed up to cast their vote; then it wouldn’t matter what the one percent wrote checks to support.”
“We are the capitol of one of the most progressive states, so there’s a higher bar for us here in Sacramento: for us to vote,” Hudson said. “This is a moment in Sacramento right now; I know it and believe it.”
As the night concluded, Ambrin performed a song written for the event. Her vocals carried out into the street and as she played her acoustic guitar, the feeling of triumph resonated with the crowd as she sung, “Lift your voice, free your mind, yes free your spirit, lift your voice and let ‘em hear it.”
Admission to the Gay and Lesbian Center in Midtown Sacramento is free and all visitors are encouraged to register to vote before the deadline of October 22, 2012.
“I understand why a lot of us don’t vote; I was that person,” Vigil said. “But, I want to get my voice heard everywhere; locally, nationally, internationally, and globally because after all, we are all just one species.”