In 1854, showman P.T. Barnum thought it a good idea to ask women to line up and have a panel of judges decide who was the fairest of them all. The ever-entrepreneurial Phineas Taylor Barnum was no stranger to judging contests – he regularly organised competitions featuring babies, dogs, poultry or flowers. This time, however, he went too far. The high society of the 1800s was not amused by the suggestion of a procession where women got judged based on their looks, and heavily protested the contest.
A couple of months ago, my company was approached by the organisers of the Mr. Gay World competition to offer social media marketing services in the run-up, and during the 2018 event. Somehow, I found myself in the same ethical debacle as the protesters of 1854. The services of my business would be a pro bono offering, done in the name of philanthropy, for the greater good of the LGBTQ+ community, and to say I had reservations, would be a grave understatement!
Everyone knows that the easiest way to mentally control a large group of people is to cause a divide among the members of the group. Turn the oppressed into the oppressor. The biggest injustice done by decades of homophobic rule, is the way in which they managed to turn us against each other. They worked so hard to convince us that being different is wrong, that even when the homophobes are on vacation, we will still find a way to chase members of the LGBTQ+ community back into the closet. We like the “+” behind the acronym when fighting for equality, but when the enemy is not watching, we quickly turn the plus into a minus. Minus fats, minus femmes, minus this skin colour and that body type.
Frankly, I’ve never understood how a gay version of beauty pageants could in any way help to liberate LGBTQ+ people from the discrimination within our own community. If anything, surely the standards set by models in speedos are only going to divide us more, and continue to enforce the idea that we should all fit a very specifically-defined mould.
Ultimately, the entrepreneur in me convinced the activist to take a chance and put my business up as sponsor, in exchange for (hopefully) some publicity at an international event. Despite my initial concerns, it was a decision I do not regret.
My team and I met the delegates of Mr. Gay World 2018 the night before the official competition kicked off in Knysna, South Africa. Upon meeting the young men, it was immediately apparent that, unlike other competitions to which Mr. Gay World is often compared, there is no set standard for physical appearance. Ricky Devine-White (New Zealand) and Ricardo Tacoronte (Spain) are physical wonders – tall, tanned and ripped like Thor. Abercrombie and Fitch did, however, not write the participation requirements for the competition. Quite the opposite! If you are the type to label people based on appearance, then you will quickly run out of descriptive words at this event.
What struck me during a swimwear photoshoot on the beach was the level of comfort that each delegate felt in their own skin. The philosopher Confucius said that everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it. Well, that day on the beach, Confucius would have been proud. There was beauty in every delegate, and everyone saw it. Each delegate, regardless of skin colour, body type, or physical traits stood proud and looked directly at the camera, knowing that somewhere out there, there is a person just like them, who deserves to feel handsome, too.
Sadly, during the event, one of the delegates, Pakkarapong Khuaikoen (Thailand), experienced the most barbaric bullying and body-shaming insults from spineless internet trolls: trolls from within our own community, our own rainbow flag-bearing brothers and sisters. I saw Pakkarapong being consoled by Gleeko Magpoc (Philippines), another delegate who almost pulled out of the competition early on, because of online hate. Yet, both of these men did something most of us would never be able to do. They raised their hands and said, I want to inspire, I want to be part of the change, I want to help carry the flag to true equality and acceptance.
After a gruelling week of interviews, tests, physical exercise and charity work, we attended a party hosted by gay social networking service, Hornet. Somewhere between a fabulous rendition of Super Bass by one of the Wigstock drag queens and a remixed version of Forever Young, I found myself deep in conversation with my new friend Jordan Bruno (Australia), passionately speaking about the LGBTQ+ projects he is involved in, and his zealous desire for global collaboration on human rights issues with his fellow competitors. (Yes, in case you missed it, I am now friends with Mr. Gay World.)
Throughout the week we heard similar calls from all the delegates. Each one as hungry for change as the next. From cancer research to sex education, each of the delegates has found a way of contributing towards a better, equal and fair society for all.
Not one of the delegates at the 2018 Mr. Gay World competition entered a beauty pageant – they competed for a title that would grant them the opportunity to be a role model, and they competed in the hopes of providing the necessary exposure to the social campaigns they are involved in.
South Africa’s Steve Biko famously said; “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”. Bob Marley echoed this sentiment when he sang; “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds”.
While following the delegates between photoshoots, beach clean-ups and sightseeing trips, these renowned words kept sweeping through my mind. Only time will tell the impact of their individual social campaigns and humanitarian activities, but in their own individual ways, each of the 2018 Mr. Gay World delegates have already started chipping away at the stereotypes and labels that so often divide our community. They have already taken the brave step towards being a role model for young LGBTQ+ minds that so desperately need to be freed. Now, that is something I can definitely get behind!