A two-bedroom L.A. apartment is bustling with the chaotic but choreographed action of a music video set. Streams of purple light intermingle with the translucent clouds of a fog machine. An outfit, handmade from hundreds of sparkling gems, is getting a final touch-up at a sewing table. All while Beyoncé’s recent ode to celestial excellence, “Alien Superstar,” is booming on a pair of speakers.
Behind the production is a team of one: Tyris Winter. “I felt that song so fully, so I wanted to get crystals and really adorn myself with how I was feeling inside.” As a self-proclaimed “vibe check analyst” on TikTok, Winter, 22, has garnered roughly 415,000 followers and 12 million likes with jaw-dropping visuals and a signature, do-it-yourself aesthetic.
“It’s seven seconds of reimagining who I am and what my life can be,” Winter says of TikTok. Most often, this manifests as handmade, postgender outfits in colorful shades of fern, fuchsia and terracotta.
For Winter's followers, many of whom are also queer or nonbinary young people, the videos offer a chance to imagine more expansive possibilities for their own lives. At a moment when legislation against queer and trans teens’ bodily autonomy is at a high, the videos are a salve. Each one cracks open the bedroom door and guides the audience toward a more liberated — and glitter-filled — future.
For Winter, who was raised in a high-desert suburb, this sense of confidence and self-love has been hard-won. As a child, they grew up in a strict Christian household where expressions of queerness and femininity were met with aggression from their parents, who believe homosexuality is a sin.
“I was making treasures for myself to find later on,” Winter says — seeds of creativity and freedom that began to sprout. Poetry, drawing, fashion design and painting were all ways of transporting themself from the loneliness that gnawed at them each day. Several designs from that time resemble outfits that they have since shared to acclaim on TikTok. But back then, they were making art to survive.
Winter barely spoke in classes until high school, when their art teacher noticed their talent for art during a Halloween painting show. She started to coax Winter out of their shell, encouraging them to enter art competitions. They started to win, but this only escalated the pain of hiding their identity. Switching from custom, colorful clothes at school to “masculine” outfits at home began to feel untenable. The person Winter was creating on paper was bursting at the seams to be seen.
One day, in a sudden attempt to feel whole, they cut open a pair of jeans at the knees and sewed in fabric. At home, they bunched up their pants to make sure their parents couldn't see the strips of color inside. At school, they walked down the hallways with confidence, their legs shimmering with effervescent color. It was a small but profound gesture that revealed, in sudden flashes, the liberated person who was ready to emerge.
For their followers, Winter’s videos offer a beam of hope from what can feel like a faraway land. In one, Winter walks in a bright green, handmade two-piece. Text floats above: “I grew up in a homophobic household and had to leave at 18 due to safety, but I want the queer babies in the same situation right now to know that it may be really difficult, and as corny as it sounds, there is love waiting for you, you are so much more than the hatred of others, you are beautiful, you are powerful, you are love. I love you.”
This “it gets better” narrative can sometimes feel like a frustrating and stale command. It often comes from adults who are decades away from their own emerging queer experiences — and can even seem like an abdication of adults’ responsibility to make queer, trans and nonbinary youths’ lives better now. How can young people know “it gets better” if the current world doesn’t protect them?
However, coming from Winter, the message takes on a palpable new energy. “I love your TikTok. It’s inspiring to me seeing younger Black queer folk not only surviving, but thriving. Rooting for you,” says one commenter. “I attend a conservative Christian boarding school and spend most of my year there. I can’t wait to get out and express my gender fluidity openly!” writes another. Winter’s journey offers a map to their own survival, healing and self-love.
“As much as I am upset about the upbringing that I had, I have to acknowledge that it did make me a creative person and it did give me the desire to create a world that I could see myself in,” Winter says. This ability to stand as a mediator between the two worlds of young, queer becoming — where you are and where you dream of — is what draws so many people to their page. “I can tell people that there’s another, better world waiting for them because I literally came from that world too.”
Winter, who also works as a social media manager and artist, says that their videos are ultimately a form of personal liberation and self-preservation. “For so many years, I’ve had to be the person that picks myself up. I refuse to let the world or people around me make me into someone I’m not.”
Winter believes in showcasing their joy, not just their hardships. This philosophy extends to everything from experimental films to thrifting a perfectly fitting birthday dress. Instead of spending thousands of dollars on an outfit, which most teens can’t do, Winter believes you can grab a pair of scissors, decorate your bedroom and start creating your own path to a new world.
“Another day of romanticizing myself,” says the caption on a video with almost 30,000 views. In a world that tells them otherwise, this is the most radical thing Winter can do.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.