Jeff Parshley Does It All In The Name Of Equality – And He Won’t Stop

Jeff Parshley is a man of many talents.

He co-founded the NOH8 Campaign; he created his own brand, NOW Nail Polish, which recently collaborated with TikTok-er Johnny Kritsberg; and he is an outspoken activist for the LGBTQ+ community.

So, naturally, the first question I ask is a big one: “Who are you, Jeff?”

Anyone else would stutter, but Parshley doesn’t hesitate. He launches directly into who he is. And apparently, it all started by accident.

And perhaps it did begin as an accident. Perhaps he did fall into becoming a founder, an entrepreneur, an activist, all by accident.

But clearly, Jeff Parshley knows who he is at his core. And it’s this knowledge, this comfort with himself, this belief in himself, that has led him to take on so many roles at once – and thrive.

So, how was it an accident? Well, it’s kind of a funny story, actually, and Parshley has given me the honor of telling it.

jeff parshley smiling at camera. he's holding his bowtie between two fingers with mint green now nail polish on

Parshley was born in a small town in New Hampshire, where there wasn’t much LGBTQ+ representation.

And while it’s hard for me to believe, Parshley says he didn’t know who he was at the time. He struggled with his identity before he eventually landed in West Hollywood.

There, Parshley became enmeshed in the LGBTQ+ community, joining rallies and protests for equality. The protests became more consistent, more passionate, as Proposition 8 – a proposition against gay marriage in California – was placed on the ballot in 2008.

“Even when it was up for a vote, we were thinking, ‘oh, there’s no way.’” Marriage equality was already legal; the idea of reversing such a fundamental right for the LGBTQ+ community seemed impossible.

But within 24 hours, the community had experienced a slew of bittersweet emotions: Barack Obama was elected president, and Proposition 8 had passed.

“[Co-founder Adam Bouska] and I started taking part in the rallies and the protests. … We got home one night and we were just thinking to ourselves, ‘how can we speak out beyond that?’ Because we felt like the protests were so powerful,” Parshley explains, discussing the collective positive reactions: people clearing restaurants, traffic stopping, tenants supporting the rallies from their apartment windows. “Everybody supporting the protests, it made us want to do more.”

Parshley recalls the numerous signs he saw reading, “I’m a victim of H8.”

“Proposition 8 was kind of labeled ‘Proposition H8’ here, because it was writing discrimination into the law. We started seeing profile photos pop up that said, ‘I’m a victim of H8,’ and [Bouska and I] related to that message and understood it.’”

However, you had to click on the profile pictures in order to identify the person holding the sign. Bouska and Parshley wanted to take it a step further – “we [wanted to] send that same message, but show our faces; put our faces to it and show who we were, show who the victim was, and show how we felt.” So, at one in the morning following a Proposition 8 protest, they pulled out a camera and snapped what are now iconic pictures of each other.

jeff parshley original noh8 campaign photo adam bouska original noh8 campaign photo

“We thought, ‘you know what? We should get other people to take these photos.’ …. We had a group of nine to start the collage, our closest friends. And we just said, ‘hey, listen, this is the photo that we took the other night, and would you want to take one in support of the message?’”

The answer was, of course, a resounding yes. But it didn’t end at the nine friends. “They took one, and then their friends took one, and then their friends took one, and then it just started snowballing into more than we ever thought.’”

The snowball led to a discussion: “We realized, ‘okay, now there’s something here. People are getting involved. They’re using it as a tool to create dialogue. What can we do here?’” Looking over the more than 1,000 photos inspired by the initial two they had taken that first night, Parshley and Bouska founded the NOH8 Campaign.

“We call ourselves accidental activists … We just wanted to speak out to our friends and our family and that’s the way we did it. … It’s just crazy that NOH8 has become what it has.”

Yes, there are celebrities involved in the NOH8 campaign, but “the foundation of this campaign is everyday people,” says Parshley. And while celebrities like Miley Cyrus may have significant influence in comparison to the “everyday” person, Parshley hopes to remind followers that, “we all have influence. … If we can all use that in a way to create change, then let’s do it.”

And the tape? “I felt like I was silenced. I felt like my rights were taken away. I felt like my voice didn’t matter. My right was up to a majority vote.”

Parshley, who has been very animated since we said hello, slows down. “Even if all of the people in the LGBTQ+ community supported ‘No on Prop 8,’ if nobody else does, the majority wins.“

Parshley looks directly at me, making sure I understand the importance of this to him; to an entire blindsided community. “One-hundred percent of the LGBTQ+ community can support [‘No on Prop 8’]. But if the majority doesn’t, it doesn’t matter.”

And tragically, he’s absolutely right.

When your identity is under attack and your rights are being stripped, you fight back. That’s all you can do.

So, it makes sense when Parshley calls himself an “accidental activist” again. It wasn’t a title he strived for or worked at – he simply wanted to make a statement, and that statement turned into a global campaign.

a family having taken a photo to support the noh8 campaign

“For the last 14 years, [the NOH8 Campaign has] been championing equality in all aspects of what we do. We encourage equality across the board for everything. And it’s not just about marriage equality, because people showed us that it’s more than that,” Parshley says, reflecting on the millions that have supported the campaign. “They showed us that the campaign means so much more than what we ever even thought it meant.”

COVID sidelined the events-based organization for two years, but they’re getting back into the swing of things easily. “We just did a 10-city tour across to Atlanta and then back [to California],” Parshley says; I know this because, when I held the interview with Kritsberg regarding their collaboration (more on that later), Parshley was on that tour.

“We’ve always said that if people still come, we’ll keep going,” Parshley explains.

“And people still come. So it’s not something that we think has an ending because … now, it’s still, if not more, needed.” He references the anti-trans and Don’t Say Gay bills. “In Florida … we can’t even learn about our own education or history,” Parshley expresses, shaking his head. “There’s a lot of awareness still to be raised.”

It’s for this reason Parshley wants to emphasize the broader goals of the NOH8 Campaign: “We’ve had to explain … ‘this campaign is not solely a campaign for marriage equality, this is a campaign for no hate, this is a campaign for equality, this is a campaign for anti-discrimination and anti-bullying, this is a campaign to bring people together.”

a couple with tape and noh8 on their faces in support of the noh8 campaign

Parshley admits that he never saw this exponential growth coming, but that he knew it was going to be bigger than Proposition 8.

When marriage equality was signed into federal law during the Obama administration in 2012, Parshley and the NOH8 team saw it as an opportunity to expand internationally.

“It’s crazy to think that with all of the different languages and the different cultures, just how many people still can relate to the message of hate. Or how many people could relate to the message of standing up against it. In all of those countries, we had people come.”

The reaction and participation during the first international rounds “showed us that we cannot stop this, because people want to get involved. We have a tool that’s creating dialogue, and we want them to use it.”

Two years after COVID placed a stop on travel, Parshley is excited to launch, in some ways, the campaign’s rebirth. “A lot of people know the meaning of the photo,” he says. NOH8 has begun offering photo shoots, ways for supporters to join the movement and show that they are “proof of a safe space.” By participating, others see your photo, which can “help people that might need somebody to talk to gravitate toward you,” Parshley says.

And just like that, silence comes into the picture. But this silence, the one we’re talking about, isn’t ignorance or cowardice: it’s solidarity. The full circle from that first photo 14 years ago is beautiful.

It’s here that I mention that QUILL is my own form of activism; a response to a former workplace that silenced my bisexuality.

I use this to segue to NOW, the nail polish brand Parshley founded.

now nail polish in a rainbow splatter pattern

I ask if it was connected to NOH8, and Parshley laughs. “The story is actually quite similar to how the NOH8 Campaign started.” AKA: kind of an accident.

Parshley had followed men on Instagram who were wearing nail polish, and he had always found it to be “cool.” But when he sat next to a woman-presenting person on a plane with short fingernails, who just so happened to be wearing teal polish, it clicked in Parshley’s mind. And in 2019, Parshley started wearing nail polish. It wasn’t to make a political statement – “I thought it looked cool. Literally, I just thought it looked cool.”

People flocked to him, complimenting his nails everywhere he went. And the same thing happened: “I saw somebody with nails that looked like mine, I painted mine, somebody saw my nails that looked like theirs… I just went, ‘man, this is happening all over again.’”

Parshley tried every type – “glitter, no glitter, flat, matte, I was trying everything. I was so new to it.”

jeff parshley wearing fur jacket and mint green now nail polish

But it was one day in Walgreens that he noticed he was crouching “so I was a little smaller. I could feel myself hiding.” He made his polish choice quickly after checking that the coast was clear. But it ignited something in him.

“At one point, I just thought, ‘you know what? There needs to be a brand that can advertise to everybody.” Keep in mind, this was before the Harry-Styles, Lil-Yachty, MGK world, where cisgender men are founding nail polish lines and creating a mainstream alternative look for men. Nail polish was still very much considered a women’s product. But Parshley, who had fallen in love with OPI’s quality, was determined to change that.

With the NOH8 Campaign growing in numbers, he DM’d OPI on Instagram.

“I said, ‘hey, OPI, I’m Jeff. I created the NOH8 Campaign, and I started wearing nail polish recently. I just feel like more guys and more men are going to be wearing this in the future. … If you’re interested in a collaboration, I’d love to work with you.” He pitched a small unisex line, just a few colors, with advertisements featuring both men’s and women’s hands.

OPI read it – Instagram lets you know if the recipient has “Seen” your message – and didn’t respond.

Rather than be discouraged, Parshley saw an opportunity. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m just going to create my own.’” And, having already started the NOH8 Campaign, he was no stranger to building a brand from the ground up. He found the top three polish manufacturers in Southern California, decided on the bottle design – “it was important to me that they weren’t like grandma’s nail polish, what you typically see in your grandma’s medicine cabinet,” he laughs – and tried to think up a name.

“I went, ‘there’s got to be a better way to say ‘unisex’ than writing ‘unisex.’” He wrote “Not Only Women” on a piece of paper – he didn’t want it to be geared toward just men or just women, he explains – and realized the acronym was “NOW.” And just like that, the brand name was set in stone.

woman in red dress holding red now nail polish by jeff parshley

I mention the logo and how it represents all genders. Parshley emphasizes how important it was that the logo didn’t lean toward men or women, that it encompassed all identities. “I’m not saying this is a line for men. This is not a line for only men, it’s a line for everybody. … I say it as in nail polish, but it’s really everything.” He throws heels, lipstick, and handbags out as other examples.

“It blows me away that these companies will continue to only market to women,” he says, mentioning that even OPI’s male models’ hands look feminine.

It’s a deceptive, if not almost dishonest, way of marketing a product to all genders… without saying it’s for all genders, creating a division between consumers within the beauty world. (Sound familiar, devoted QUILL readers?)

So, Parshley says, NOW isn’t a gendered line. “It’s great that there’s [men’s] lines. … [But] it’s important for me as a brand to promote equality,” he explains, “because that’s what I stand for. And to do it in a way that is truly equal – not just saying, ‘oh, we need to be equal, so here’s the man’s line,’ but ‘we need to be equal, so here’s a line for everybody.’”

Parshley says he sees many products this way, which is what inspired him to reach out to eyeliner guru and tutorial creator Kritsberg (@okjohnnyboy on social media, where he has more than one million followers combined).

“I worked with Johnny to expand into eyeliner because he’s a man wearing eyeliner, and that’s not common, and I think that it should be. I think anybody that wants to wear it should be able to,” Parshley says adamantly. “We’re going to market [the eyeliner] to everybody, and we’re going to help everybody see that, if you want to wear this product, then it’s for you.”

okjohnnyboy and now polish eyeliner pen

And eyeliner is just the next step; Parshley is already thinking toward the future, looking at eyebrow gels, as well as lip tints that can be used as blush. “There’s a lot of stuff that I think anybody could and should use if it’s going to make them look or feel good.” I agree wholeheartedly – that’s why QUILL exists – and Parshley acknowledges that it’s small brands that are going to make a difference.

“I think the more we can talk about it being for everybody, the more that bigger brands will reconsider how they’re doing it. … It’s not going to happen overnight, obviously,” he concedes. And of course it won’t – the beauty industry has made the concept of gender a controversial statement when paired with lashes and lipstick – but it’s brands like Parshley’s NOW Polish that will change the landscape.

“I’m hoping to force brands to do it, which then will force society to unlearn that these are gender exclusive products, because that’s just not how the world works anymore,” Parshley states.

“Like Johnny said in the last interview, I want to be able to walk into a Target or Sephora or an Ulta and see eyes like mine or hands like mine or lips like mine, and we don’t see that yet.”

I think about how, when I walk into Sephora, everything is marketed toward me. I can’t think of the last time I saw a kiosk with a man wearing eyeliner. When I was younger, I never thought about it, and that realization is the twist of the knife in me.

I cap my interviews at 35 minutes; it’s been 45 with Parshley, and I’ve apologized profusely after he’s answered each question.

But Parshley is quick to say “it’s okay, I’m fine,” each time.

I know he’s busy, so I give him The Final Big Question: what does he hope to see in 2022 and 2023?

“A small one would just be to continue to expand NOW Polish, and to add more colors and more products and build a reputation in the community of the quality. It’s not just a one-off nail polish that we’ve created,” he explains. “We’ve tried to make it the best. And any other products that we will make, we’ll try to make those the best, too.”

Quality is critical to Parshley, but it’s the marketing that he’s most focused on right now – for both NOW and for other brands, especially as Pride Month comes. “I just want to see other companies realize that there’s more to their demographic than they might know. To see some of them utilize them more than just in June. … I feel as though it’s inauthentic,” he says, regarding brands capitalizing on Pride.

black man with afro wearing periwinkle now nail polish by jeff parshley

I comment on how brands throw up palettes in June, then cut the price by 50% the minute July hits. I joke that brands don’t realize the LGBTQ+ community exists for more than 30 days, and Parshley nods in agreement. “It’s insane to me that they get away with it.”

He also hopes that established brands will take steps in the right direction with their advertising. “They’re the ones with the massive influence, and the massive following as far as their products go, and they’re creating the stigma … in society that makeup is for women.”

Parshley believes changing marketing plans won’t just benefit the brands – it will benefit society, as well.

The man wearing lipstick down the street won’t be punched in the mouth, for example. So, while Parshley hopes NOW grows to these brands’ levels, he hopes the major brands will lead the charge no matter what. After all, he says, it’s simple.

“When I’m in [stores], I’m buying women’s products, in my opinion, and I don’t like that. But I do it because it’s not a woman’s product, it’s just marketed that way,” he says, acknowledging the insecurity and the self-assuredness that comes with breaking gender binaries. “I understand that, but not everybody does.” For example, in small towns like the one he grew up in, people can’t imagine makeup being for men or nonbinary people.

nonbinary person holding now's purple polish with makeup on

Then he says the magic words: “All it takes is a picture.”

Parshley continues his thoughts – that by changing advertising with a picture, you’re changing an entire industry. One brand truly can completely turn the beauty industry upside-down without saying a word, just using a picture of a man – and I reflect on how this is exactly where NOH8 started: a picture.

Parshley is many things, but he is the embodiment of a picture speaking a thousand words. Maybe a couple million. Or maybe nothing but the initial thought that spurred his accidental activism: “I hope that changes.”

As the wise Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

I firmly believe that Jeff Parshley is an extremely active part of this change, change that will last – through NOW Polish, through his collaborations, through the NOH8 Campaign, through his determination — and I’m confident it will not be by accident.

jeff parshley wearing black nail polish in front of a pink background

Thank you to Jeff Parshley for his time and insight. You can find Jeff on Instagram and Twitter, the NOH8 Campaign on their website and Instagram, and NOW Nail Polish on their website and Instagram.

All photos, including NOH8 Campaign photos, by co-founder Adam Bouska.

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