The invitation said to dress in your ’super-hero finest’. In January I won the AIDS Activist of the Year Hero Award from Ottawa’s Capital Xtra, after having been nominated three years in a row by the paper, and was having my photo taken for a two page centre spread.
I arrived at Flamingo Bar to have my photo taken with three other activists. Our photos were to be spliced into a larger group shot with another photo taken the day before, through the magic of photo shop. The theme was ‘super heroes’. I arrived, and immediately started to get ready for the shoot. I had decided on wearing a Wonder Woman cardboard mask that still clearly showed my beard, had the photographer and a Capital Xtra reporter help tie me up in Wonder Woman’s ‘magic lasso of truth’ (i.e. a yellow rope), and stripped down to leopard print boxer shorts, which I thought overall was a tad funny, a tad gender-fucked, a tad BDSM, and a tad F.U. to body fascism (this is what a real guy looks like shirtless! Enjoy my gut! lol), and a tad sexy. (Poz guys are often de-sexualized and viewed as undesirable. Couple that with people’s assumptions of what a poz guy looks like, and pow!, presenting yourself as HIV+ and sexual can be very threatening). I quickly noticed as I prepped for the group photo that I was the only one in a costume.
I took my place with the Volunteer of the Year under the hot camera lights and waited to be joined by the Youth Activist of the Year, and the Lifetime Achievement Award Winner. Through the narrow eye slits of my mask I tried to ascertain what the hold up was as I sweated and shifted uncomfortably in my yellow bonds.
From what I could see and overhear, the other two winners had taken the photographer aside and said they were not comfortable posing with me because of my overt sexuality and wanted a finished product they could share with their “straight allies and friends“. The Youth Activist was actually shacking. Capital Xtra approached me and asked if I would consider covering up. I respectfully hesitated and suggested that doing so doesn’t fit my values of sex-positivity and anti-oppression. I then asked, even if I did cover up, how will they feel about being photo shopped next to the Community Activist of the Year, who would be wearing only her ‘Sex Work Is Work’ T-shift, a garter belt, and panties, given their stance? (She had told me the day before her outfit choice during a conversation.)
The photographer shared this with the two, and they asked to see the photo. After viewing the Community Activist of the Year’s photo, they decided it was fine to pose next to her, but not to pose next to a queer man having fun with his sexuality. Finally I got up, waddled over like a penguin, (still tied up and wearing my goofy mask!) and said, “I’m sorry if you’re uncomfortable. I’ve won AIDS Activist of the Year and sex-positivity is an important aspect of my work.” The Lifetime Achievement Award Winner assured me it wasn’t personal.
After further deliberation it was agreed they would pose with me but I could not kneel, I would have to stand (in the back I might add). Both Capital Xtra and the photographer were very apologetic about the experience. In the end, I got my photo, and an illustrative example to share with my readers that perfectly encapsulates homophobia, and the struggle queer men face daily to access, celebrate and explore their sexuality, even from their own community.
Sex-negativity can be silencing, hypocritical, harmful, and ultimately hurtful; as I left the photo shoot I became increasingly angry at the condemnation I had been exposed to by my own community and peers. It was sobering to stand in a circle of ‘winners’ and ’allies’ that day and be made to feel like ‘a bad gay’ because I would not conform, but instead chose to celebrate my diversity and sexuality and champion my cause. Clearly, gay sex is still a very scary thing for a lot of people, even gay people. But it shouldn’t be. Gay sex is super!