This Queer Artist Explores The Deep Trauma Of High School Sports
High school locker rooms are rarely (if ever) pleasant meeting grounds: they host heinous smells, fester countless bacteria, and amass the most unforgiving bodily sights. If you happen to be queer, these quarters sanctified by trash talk and hyper-masculine activities can leave you feeling rejected, isolated, and unsafe as you struggle to love and accept your body. And this is doubly true for anyone who happens to be closeted—gamely hiding your identity in pursuit of survival.
Photographer Ryan James Caruthers is all too familiar with this sensation of feeling estranged from other boys in high school locker rooms. And with his latest photo series, Tryouts, the queer, 22-year-old Parsons graduate (who was featured in the Parsons BFA show at the Milk Gallery) pulled off a scab holding traumatic memories of bullying and name-calling during sports competitions. In a series of self-portraits, he poignantly exposes the hardships that many young queers face when trying to integrate with peers on the field.
With a lanky, pale, and innately graceful physique, Caruthers—who has walked for Saint Laurent and has shot Lorde— doesn’t assimilate easily into the sports arenas he invades. Tryouts portrays the difficulties boys (who appear to be effeminate, delicate, or fragile) are dealt when auditioning for sports teams, specifically from his perspective as a closeted gay teen.
From the blood dripping down his face and the passive juxtaposition of his frame to the exhaustion pointedly spewing from his gazing eyes, Caruthers’ self-portraits address headfirst the troublesome intersection of homosexuality, masculinity, and athleticism.
We were able to catch Caruthers before he embarked on his next, yet unannounced project, to talk his experiences with sports as a queer man (and boy).
Competing in sports during high school while identifying as queer can be traumatic. What was your relationship with sports like during that time?
Throughout high school, I didn’t compete in any sports, as I wasn’t comfortable with my body. Being closeted [then] contributed to my estrangement from straight boys and sports, as this is what they were mostly preoccupied with. I grew up in a small suburban town where athletics were [an essential] part of adolescence. Being part of the team was crucial in fitting in. Being separated from this made me question my relationship to masculinity [and] other boys, and how I fit in socially.
The photo series tugs on a multitude of emotions—loneliness, fear, ecstasy, and even perseverance. How has queerness, which is oftentimes thought to be a rejection of manhood, affected your relationship with athletics?
I think it took me a while to feel at ease with being queer, which I’m aware is a part of a lot of young LGBTQ individuals’ lives. I think being queer wasn’t the main reasoning for my departure from sports, but it was definitely a contribution. Being a closeted gay individual in a suburban town is tough, as there aren’t many outlets to help figure out and understand who you are. I think this self-questioning led to a social separation from other boys at school. I felt a disconnect to athletics due to this.
Some of the images take place on what appear to be legitimate sports fields. How does it feel to revisit locations like these now, which, in the past, may have been places of turmoil?
I have a profound relationship with the past, and the revisiting of these locations was, in some ways, liberating. I’m attracted to the idea of recreating things that have already once occurred. Some of the spaces were the physical courts that I would have performed on had I participated in sports. Due to this, it seemed quite haunting while shooting.
“I think knowing how much male physique is cared about in high school really altered my mentality of how I was supposed to appear.”
Most young people, regardless of sexual or gender identity, struggle to embrace their body as it morphs into adulthood. As something closely tied to the body, how have sports (or even places like locker rooms) influenced your own perception of your body?
I think since I was younger I always felt that my body was different than others, as I was always exceedingly thinner than other children. I also have Pectus Excavatum, a bone deformity where the chest and sternum grow incorrectly, and instead [curve] inward. I think growing up in a society where we are preached traditional ideas of masculinity affected me as I never felt like I was part of a normal experience of boyhood.
In the locker room, I would be petrified to take my shirt off—I didn’t want to reveal my chest deformity and be physically [and] visibly different than other boys. With the addition of being a closeted gay individual, I think socially I felt out of place. I think knowing how much male physique is cared about in high school really altered my mentality of how I was supposed to appear.
Ideas of masculinity are laced throughout Tryouts. Tell me a little bit about how the pressure to be masculine shaped your gender and sexual identities.
From a young age, we are told that boys must play sports and be athletic. These ideas blossom into preconceived thoughts on masculinity. The common phrase “boys will be boys” comes up a lot, and I think it’s strange how this is still a frequent saying. When I was younger, I always felt like there was something wrong with me because I didn’t fit into the stereotype that I was constantly being pushed into. As a male, I felt disconnected from something that almost reconfirms your gender. Although I was segregated from athleticism, I still had a dire need to be a part of it.
Stay tuned to Milk for more on the effects of hyper-masculinity.
Images via. Ryan James Caruthers.