What are the ‘You Are Loved’ billboards springing up in US cities telling LGBTQ youth?

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A 'You Are Loved' billboard in Greeneville, North Carolina
A ‘You Are Loved’ billboard in Greeneville, North Carolina (Photo: @transpainter/Instagram)

A new billboard has just gone up in Helena, Montana. It features the progress rainbow flag (originally designed by Daniel Quasar) in the background, superimposed with flowers and the simple message, ‘You are loved.’

It’s the work of Wisconsin-based, trans, non-binary artist Rae Senarighi. He told KTVH that it’s there to send a message to LGBTQ youth.

“I want them to know that they’re loved even though they’re going through these awful attacks, that there are people who love them who are fighting for them. This is really just my plea to like hang in there, hang in there as a young child, or a young person.”

The billboard in Helena, Montana (Photo: @transpainter/Instagram)

The Helena billboard can be found at the corner of Montana Avenue and Orange Avenue. Funding has been collected from supporters to keep it in place until the end of the year.

It’s actually not the first time Senarighi’s design has graced such a billboard. The image was first put on display in his hometown of Madison for Pride month.

Rae Senarighi and the first billboard in Madison, Wisconsin
Rae Senarighi and the first billboard in Madison, Wisconsin (Photo: @transpainter/Instagram)

“The first billboard was created for a group called FairWisconsin here in Madison, WI, where I currently reside with my wife and two small children,” Senarighi told GayCities.

“I reached out to them after feeling angry and helpless from the onslaught of anti-trans legislation this year. I had been creating artwork to share on social media but it felt like shouting into the void and I needed to do something tangible.

“FairWisconsin and GSafe are two small organizations fighting anti-trans legislation here in Wisconsin, so I reached out to them to offer my artwork as a way to help them raise funds and continue fighting for the rights of trans youth throughout the state.”

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The billboard was up in Madison for June, July and August 2021. It was so well received, Senarighi decided to see if anyone else wanted to help fund a billboard in their area.

Rae Senarighi with some of his trans portraits
Rae Senarighi with some of his portraiture work (Photo: Supplied)

“Shortly after we got the billboard up here in Madison, I began working with the Equality Federation to help set up a system where folks can make a donation (of any amount) to them and I will be notified and get them the artwork for a billboard in their area. I wanted to share this message as far and wide as possible, so it’s been a grass-roots effort and it’s been amazing to see this message continue to spread.”

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The same image has since graced billboards—both digital and physical—in Greenville, North Carolina; Minneapolis, Minnesota; St Paul, Minnesota: and now Helena, Montana.

“I know there are folks trying to get the billboard up in at least six other cities as of right now. I’d love to see this spread throughout the nation, and I feel like it’s particularly needed in red and purple states where LGBTQ folks have a greater chance of being or feeling isolated,” says Senarighi.

“This model depends on local folks raising the funds and securing where the billboard(s) goes up and working with the billboard vendor to secure the space. Then they contact me when they know the dimensions and I send them the artwork to use.”

That’s what Quinn Leighton did in Helena, after drumming up financial support from local businesses.

Madison, Wisconsin
Madison, Wisconsin (Photo: @transpainter/Instagram)

“Within an hour we had three months paid for and as soon as the billboard went up and we shared it, I shared it on my personal Social media and then the Montana Book Company shared it out and donations just started to come flooding in and I think that folks were just really, really heartened to see such a positive message,” Leighton told KTVH.

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Senarighi says his art is a response to lawmakers trying to pass anti-LGBTQ legislation. In an article for Our Lives Wisconsin last month, he said, “The message of ‘you are loved’ came in direct response to these attacks by lawmakers who would try to criminalize and further ostracize trans children. I thought about what I wanted to say to those trans kids. If I could give them each a hug and tell them one thing, it would be this simple message.

“Now, countless others are carrying this message out even further into the world, with bumper stickers, yard signs and billboards across the nation. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that art is not powerful.”

Trans artist Rae Senarighi at work on a portrait
Rae Senarighi at work on a portrait (Photo: Supplied)

Senarighi specializes in painting trans and gender non-conforming individuals. He only took up portrait painting in recent years following a health scare with cancer at the age of 35. It changed his outlook on life.

“Enduring a near-death experience often fundamentally shifts one’s perspective. I’m not alone in this. Facing imminent death made me realize the things that were important in my life. Namely, to prioritize my relationships, to tell people that I love them, to express and center gratitude in my daily routine, and to carve out space in my life for my own art.

“I promised myself that I would spend at least 10 minutes per day making the art I wanted to make. I could spend the whole rest of the day making art that makes money. But for a minimum of 10 minutes per day, I would go into my studio and make art for me.”

Now 42, Senarighi has since enjoyed exhibiting his large-scale trans portraits in 20 locations in 12 different states, while his ‘You are loved’ message is spreading around the country.

Senarighi says he’s been blown away by the response.

“I feel overwhelmed with emotion. To know that ordinary folks are putting their own money into this and helping it grow is just humbling and feels amazing. I knew this message would resonate, but it has been surprising in the most wonderful way to see this grassroots effort to spread this message and keep it going. I’m honored. And left feeling more hopeful and inspired.”