Marlon and Me

Marlon and Me

[June 4, 2017]

In 2008, I graduated with my bachelor of education degree from Queen’s University. I was enrolled in a unique program called Artist in Community Education (ACE) specifically designed for practicing artists in visual art, music, drama and creative writing. In order to graduate from ACE, I had to complete not only the typically required practicum—a real-world, experiential learning placement— for any B.Ed. degree but also an alternative practicum that was community-based and outside of a regular classroom.

To meet this requirement, I chose to work with an inspiring woman named Marney McDiarmid, an amazing ceramicist and passionate LGBT activist and champion. At the time, Marney was working at Kingston’s HIV Aids Regional Services (HARS). Because I had been a contributing illustrator for a number of U.S. gay lifestyle magazines prior to teaching, Marney thought it might be fun for me to begin my practicum by doing a presentation of my work to an LGBTQ youth group in Belleville that she helped facilitate.

So, for this presentation I decided to concentrate on the editorial illustrations—works that accompany text to visually interpret the key themes of an article— that I had created for %Instinct% and %Genre% magazines, gay greeting card company 10%, various personal pieces from my portfolio, as well as work created for self-promotional purposes.

I have always been particularly proud of the work that I created for the gay community via these magazines. I think it is important for gay people to tell their stories and I have always felt honoured to help tell stories that celebrate the gay experience.

One of the first professional contracts that I ever did was for the gay lifestyle magazine called %Instinct%. At the time that I did the contract, I was deeply closeted and— to be completely honest— not entirely sure that I would ever have the courage to come out. That contract, however, helped me test the waters with my friends. Showing them the work, I was able to keep up the pretense that I was straight; insisting that I had only taken the contract for financial reasons, but all the while watching their reactions and looking for any signs of disapproval. To my relief, no one questioned my intentions or even gave me a hint of disapproval, which went a long way to helping me begin to accept myself. Looking back now, despite the fact that those first images were rough, they were probably the most real, honest and grounded work that I have ever created, and though they were meant to illustrate someone else’s story they probably served a much greater purpose fleshing out my own.

Needless to say, I am very connected to the gay images in my portfolio and I was overjoyed to have the opportunity to curate my work and share it with the LGBTQ youth in Marney’s group. One of the things that I pride myself on as an illustrator is being inclusive, and throughout my career I have striven to show diversity in my work as much as possible. So, when putting together the PowerPoint for this presentation, I was careful to include works that represented individuals from various ethnic backgrounds. Confident in what I had to show for my talk, I believe I was relaxed, well spoken, and engaged.

After the talk was finished I opened the floor up to questions. During the question period I answered questions about my process, where my ideas come from, how I insert my personality into each contract, and how much I get paid. Just before I was ready to wrap up, a young man in the back of the hall put his hand up to ask me a question. “Why is it”, he began with a slight tremble in his voice, “that I don’t see myself represented in any of your images?”

Taking a moment, I quickly took stock of the young man before me. As my father would say, he was “a big boy”. I have to admit that I hadn’t seen him at first, as he had been tucked way in the back of the hall. In that pause, I realized his question didn’t come from a place of anger nor was it accusatory in nature. He was just frustrated and earnestly wanted to know why his body type had not been included in any of my work.

I wish I could say I had a good answer for him, but his question stumped me. I had been so sure that I had been as inclusive as possible, but illustrative diversity should mean more than just representing different ethnicities or sexual orientations, It should also be, as this young man was rightly pointing out, inclusive of multiple body types.

Schooled by this young man, I am not proud to say I hid behind the excuse that my art directors insisted on me portraying gay men in a certain way and that they were not open to me offering varied body types. Although this was true, the whole truth was that not only had I bought into the unhealthy and deeply pervasive gay body stereotype that you have to be white, thin, with a hairless torso and six-pack abs to be desirable, but that I was also one of the people perpetuating this body image standard through my work. Graciously accepting my defensive answer, however, the young man let me off the hook. But I was shaken by his question and I quickly wrapped up my presentation.

Looking back on that moment, the educator in me wishes I had talked about why I felt compelled to only represent certain body types in my work and why gay magazines only published those types of images. But I guess I was just embarrassed that I hadn’t put myself in his place before and I didn’t want to admit to being so ignorant. The truth is, at that time, the gym-bunny physiques heavily promoted by Calvin Klein in the 1990s – and today by 2(X)IST — were the only types of images I wanted to see because I had been acclimatized to believe that they were my only options. I may not have been that perfect body type but as a gay man those were the images that I was supposed to aspire to. The young man from the session's body type, sadly, was just not an option and because of that way of thinking I began to ignore that it even existed. It’s hard for me to believe that I was ever that shallow but looking back on that time in my life I have no choice but to admit that I was.

I wish I would have gotten that young man’s name, or at least thanked him for opening my eyes that night, but I suppose at the time I had no idea how much his words were going to continue to affect me. Because of him, I took a hard look at my graphic novel and realized that I was not being as inclusive as I thought.

Though there are some characters that conform to standard gay body stereotypes, including the main character Justin, I decided to create meaningful characters that clearly do not. To honour this young man, I crafted the closet monster Marlon—a polar bear with tiny bat wings—and Corey Anders—a portly, young Black man trying to find a place for himself in the gay community. Both characters exist outside of the norm in mainstream gay culture and their journey to finally accept themselves and find a place within gay community is, I hope, one of the most touching moments in the book. In the end, Marlon introduces Corey to the "bear” (husky, large, gay men with lots of body hair) community where their size is not discriminated against but accepted and cherished. I have learned a lot from the "bear" community about self-acceptance and I am proud to have them represented in my book.

On a more personal note, as I get older I have found I continue to feel the pressure to live up to that unhealthy gay body stereotype that hung over me in my 20s. Now don’t misunderstand me- there is nothing wrong with having something to aspire to as long you don’t beat yourself up for not measuring up to a standard that few can achieve and maintain.

As for myself, I am 46 years old, and I do not have the “perfect” body. I do not have a six-pack or enviable arms and I certainly do not have a hairless chest and back. What I do have, however, is a husband that loves me for what I am. I am a real man who is sexy despite not being the over-manicured gay Adonis we so often see portrayed in the media (both gay and straight) and I hope I am the type of husband who does not by words, actions or attitude impose those unrealistic expectations on my spouse.

With all that said, though, I still struggle with having a healthy body image and at times wish I looked like the men with the hairless chests and perfect abs that I see on the cover of magazines and in the movies and TV shows. Luckily for me, I no longer see that body type as my only option, and though there are some that ignore that I exist, thankfully I am surrounded by people who love me for who I am and not merely what I look like.
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