Gay Games, Paris, Carjackings in St. Louis, and why I needed Le Marais.
I really don't think this is something I need to write. I've been out for many, many years and make no attempt at hiding my sexuality. While my fashion usually gives it away, my mannerisms don't 100% fit the media enhanced stereotype of being gay. I religiously follow professional wrestling, I can change my own oil, and I struggle to name any Beyonce song that came out after "Crazy Love", but I also kiss boys, so I know how confusing this can be for some of you. If we were rating me on a Will & Grace scale, I'm much more Will than I am Jack.
That being said, as a white male, and a child of the American suburbs, I recognize the privilege of subdivisions. I come from a city in the middle of the country. Where I grew up, each restaurant, cafe, shopping mall, or other human you'd actually hang out with takes approximately 40 minutes to drive to, one way. The only reason you would be walking on the street is because either your car was just stolen, or because you haven't stolen a car yet this morning.
As such, my car became my mobile sanctuary. A storage unit, church confessional, and private karaoke room all rolled into one that escorted me everywhere I went. But most importantly, it protected me from the judgement of the outside world.
Albeit growing up more fabulous than acceptable in the "buckle of America's Bible belt" (most of the movie "Jesus Camp" was filmed here) I never felt the heckling, judgement, and threat most LGBT members face on the streets of walking cities. It is much more difficult to heckle someone while they are traveling 100kph in a one ton metal death wagon. But, this also caused me to neglect the positive effect of "minority districts".
The only "Gay District" I had experienced in St. Louis, "The Grove", is coined as such because it happens to have more than one gay bar on the street. Likewise, the only thing close to any sort of Asian district is a church that holds one sermon a week in Korean next to a grocer that imports purple sweet potatoes.
Sure, with a metro area of nearly 3 million people, we could definitely support these sorts of districts if everyone didn't need to drive 40 minutes one way to have a meeting about establishing one. Pro tip, if anyone needs to be "picked up" for the meeting, they're going to steal your car.
This long winded explanation eventually leads to me moving to a city with actual civic planning and public transportation. A city where being a minority is more widely safe, but my elaborate fashion and occasional bursts of, "ooooh guuuurl" are subject to public ridicule without my 1 ton wheeled safety box to hide in. It was then that I longed for some kind of area where other like-minded people could gather, discuss their cringiest Grindr exchanges, and quote RuPaul's Drag Race until it replaced our actual personalities.
This search for a community never seemed necessary until I began photographing for Hong Kong's Gay Games team, and was subsequently sent to photograph the 2018 Gay Games in Paris. I never really photographed sports before, nor really had any interest in them growing up. As a child, I remember during any major sportsball event, pretty much hanging out with all of the uninterested wives in the "sitting room", discussing city council representatives in scandal or "that one harlot working customer service at Marshall's" until Janet Jackson came on at Halftime. I never really considered any sort of recreational physical activity until I discovered the effect having pecs has on your Tinder game. Thus, I was concerned with both my ability and enthusiasm going into photographing these sports that I'd only ever watched in 15 minute recaps.
But even upon entering my first event assignment, I quickly realized that would not be an issue. I was suddenly witnessing being included in a community that I had only surface level engagement with before. I was photographing sports bringing together people, my people, in acceptance and safety that I had not experienced. The comradery, spirit of competition, and mutual desire to prove that, "yes, we can do sports just as well as you", ignited a sort of freedom and sense of pride that I only reserved for parades or whenever a Troy Sivan song plays over a shopping mall intercom.
The other major factor was that of Le Marais, a gay district that rivals in space to some of the districts in Hong Kong. While the "gay districts" I was accustomed to were primarily concentrations of clubs, Le Marais was seemingly entirely LGBT in every aspect of living. Convenience stores, cafes, restaurants were all flying rainbow flags. Having that amount of freedom and ability to completely be yourself openly in an entire area of a world city rivaled the similar magic of visiting Burning Man for the first time.... except instead of suddenly needing to be re-introduced to capitalism at the end, I suddenly needed to be re-introduced to dealing with straight people.
The experience of photographing the Paris Gay Games was more than the event, but a lesson in exploring your own community and background. Having spent most of my life after America trying to explore other cultures and communities, I had not taken time to embrace my own, and to appreciate how in other cultures, my community not only survives, it thrives...