By JIM VOREL
(Decatur) Herald & Review
DECATUR, Ill. – When Decatur native and star photographer Adam Bouska decided to come out as gay to his family at the age of 20, he wasn’t positive what kind of reaction he should expect.
Would they be disappointed in who he was as a person, or for not telling them sooner? What would Mom think? But the Clinton High School graduate, by now studying technology on the West Coast, felt the time was right to drop the secrecy.
“I felt I had nothing to lose; it just felt like the right time,” Bouska said. “My mom’s reaction was extremely supportive. I wasn’t expecting it. I had built the moment up so much more in my mind that I almost psyched myself out of doing it. But I’m glad I waited for the right time to come out, when I was comfortable.”
It wasn’t long afterward that a lifelong interest in photography began to make Bouska a star in the gay community. A portrait business that had begun as a hobby quickly became a career as he built a client base in Palm Springs and made the move to Los Angeles. Now situated in Hollywood, Bouska is known for photography that has graced the covers of publications such as The New York Times, Life & Style Magazine and “The Guinness Book of World Records.” The greatest contribution in his eyes, though, is an easy choice: the NOH8 campaign.
Unaware of how it would spread, the NOH8 campaign was started by Bouska and his partner Jeff Parshley on Feb. 1, 2009, when the couple posed for defiant photos critiquing the ratification of California’s Proposition 8, the Nov. 5, 2008 law disallowing same-sex marriages in the West Coast state. Wearing brilliantly white shirts against white backgrounds, Bouska and Parshley posed with “NOH8” painted on their cheeks and their mouths covered by strips of duct tape–symbolizing both the enforced silence of prejudice and NOH8’s goal as a peaceful protest.
“We’re not out there screaming at people and disrupting their lives,” Bouska said. “It represents those who haven’t been heard. It’s visually loud, and it promotes dialogue. We do encourage people to use their voices as well to empower their beliefs.”
The small NOH8 team, which consists of Bouska, Parshley and a few other assistants, now barnstorms around the United States, attending rallies and taking official NOH8 photos for supporters. These photos then go up on the official NOH8 website, www.noh8campaign.com. With Bouska taking every official photo, a uniform level of quality and consistency is maintained. The NOH8 website estimates the current count at more than 17,000 photos with the total growing daily, and this is not counting the thousands of unofficial, submitted photos. Bouska is even working on an iPhone app that will allow people of all orientations to shoot their own NOH8-style photos and upload them instantly.
“These are not all gay people who are having their photos taken,” he stressed. “Some are gay, to show everyone ‘these are the faces of the people you’re actually discriminating against,’ but plenty are just supportive, including many of the celebrity supporters.”
Celebrity photo shoots have brought much attention to the campaign in the past three years. Photographed celebrities include faces such as Rose McGowan, Kathy Griffin, Kim Kardashian, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Deepak Chopra, Isiah Thomas and hundreds of others. Even Cindy and Meghan McCain, the wife and daughter of Republican senator and presidential candidate John McCain, posed for photos in 2009 to show their support for equal marriage rights.
“I reached out to Meghan, because she’s always supported same-sex marriage rights,” Bouska said. “Not many people knew that. She loved her photo so much she asked me to photograph her book cover. She brought her mother, Cindy, with her to that photo shoot, and while she was there, she convinced her to take a NOH8 portrait. It was crazy. It was probably the biggest PR day we’ve ever had.”
As would be expected as a resident of California, Proposition 8 is an extremely personal issue to Bouska and Parshley. The two have been in a relationship since December 2007. At the time the campaign was started, it was simply a way to speak out against Proposition 8, but as time has gone by, it has become even more important to them.
“We didn’t start this campaign because we wanted to get married, but now it’s become more personal for us in the last six months,” said Parshley, whose photo was the first NOH8 portrait. “I proposed to Adam live on stage at No Hate Day on Dec. 13. It was a shock to everybody there. He had no idea it was coming.”
This leaves Bouska and Parshley fighting for something new, their own right to marry.
“I think I should be able to make that choice with my life,” Parshley said. “We believe that anyone who can cast a vote or spend money with the aim of taking away a basic human right is participating in discrimination. This is a human issue that is universal in any country. What happens in California sets a precedent for everywhere else.”
These days, that precedent seems to be swinging in the favor of NOH8’s supporters, although the going is slow. With the Aug. 4, 2010, overturning of Proposition 8 by the Federal District Court in San Francisco, Bouska and Parshley are not free to marry just yet but are awaiting appeals that may eventually take the case of Perry v. Schwarzenegger to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We’ve been ecstatic and overwhelmed by everything that has happened, but we’re trying not to get too overexcited early,” Bouska commented shortly after the news. “But obviously, it’s a huge victory for us, and we think it will set a precedent all over the country.”
In the meantime, Bouska will continue traveling and doing photo shoots “full force.” Both he and his partner hail from humble beginnings, but they didn’t let that stop them from pursuing their own brand of social activism.
“I think Adam is a great example that it doesn’t take much, or a lot of people to get a movement started,” Parshley said. “He’s from Illinois; I’m from a small town in New Hampshire. The next big celebrity activist can come from anywhere. They just need to have the heart and passion for it.”