This is my favorite picture from the Gay Men Project. Two Frenchmen, Eric and Jérémie, with their son Virgile in their apartment in Brussels.
People always ask me why I started the Gay Men Project, and why I continue to do it, and I always give a variation of the same answer. I’m trying to create a platform and a safe space online where gay and queer men can come and share of their stories. Which is true. But that’s only part of the reason of why I’m doing the work. Because really, I’m doing the Gay Men Project for myself.
When I started the Gay Men Project four years ago, I was in New York City, living as an art student, struggling to pay my massive $160,000 art school tuition and my massive $1,300 a month rent. I was living in a city that seemed to be steadily breaking me down every day, where everything I had once loved about the city–the constant ebb and flow of millions of people confined in a giant metropolis–well, it was all starting to wear on the sensibilities I had developed as a kid growing up amongst the fir trees and mud puddles of the Pacific Northwest. I was starting to hate New York. The crescendo of car horns, the constant smell of urine on the street, the cat-sized rats in Chinatown–everything that I had once tolerated, or even found intriguing, was suddenly a giant albatross around my neck, a symbol of every reason I didn’t fit in.
And the sense of not belonging extended beyond the physical confines of my 11225 Brooklyn zip code. I didn’t fit in any of the aspects of my life. I went to an art school with eighteen-year-olds, and I was twenty-seven. I was having dinner with men who made six figure salaries, and I was working as a photographer for an after-school program that paid me $800 a month. I was going to gay bars in Hells Kitchen and feeling as uncomfortable then as I did the first time I ever went to a gay bar, as a closeted twenty-two-year-old tourist in Chicago’s Boys Town.
And it was this disconnect to being a gay man that I found the most disheartening. I had worked extremely hard get to a place in my life where I finally felt comfortable in my identity as a gay man. In fact, it was something I’ve worked on since I was thirteen, when I watched my first straight porn and realized I was spending more time looking at the guy than the girl. That’s nearly two decades of me trying to accept myself. Two decades of coming out to all my friends and family, two decades of me realizing I wasn’t broken, I wasn’t a disappointment, I wasn’t destined to be alone.
And yet, there I was, in New York City, at the age of twenty-nine, going to gay bars in Hells Kitchen and feeling like I just didn’t fit. There I was falling in love with men who didn’t love me, there I was feeling empty after anonymous and meaningless sex, there I was lacking in my faith–there I was wishing I wasn’t gay.
I was wishing I wasn’t gay. And I felt ashamed for wishing this. Because I wasn’t some teenager in the closet in Oregon anymore, I was a twenty-nine-year-old art school student living in New York City, after having lived almost my entire adult life as an openly gay man. And if there is ever a place in the world where being gay is OK, an art school in New York City is it. And yet, there I was still telling myself that my life would be so much easier if I wasn’t gay. If I wasn’t gay, I’d be happy, content. Instead I was alone, dumped by another man who never loved me, like all the other men who never loved me, because gay men don’t deserve to be loved. That’s what my Catholic upbringing taught me. And my life had only proven that assertion right. That’s what I was telling myself.
There are times in life when you’ve reached such a low point that you need to reach out and ask for help. Before I started the Gay Men Project I was at one of the lowest points I had ever been in my entire life, where I was spending unhealthy amounts of time staring at the subway tracks and trying to imagine how fast the train would come. It took me being at my very bottom, to finally be humble enough to reach out my hand with the hope that someone would help pull me up. And with the Gay Men Project, hundreds, if not thousands of people have pulled me up.
I started the Gay Men Project as a way to reach out to individuals who have gone through similar experiences as myself. To make myself feel less alone.
Having had the privilege to be welcomed by over seven hundred gay and queer men around the world–who have invited me into their lives and shared their stories–has helped me resolve issues in my own life regarding my own identity as a gay man. Meeting people like Eric and Jérémie, and their son Virgile, in their apartment in Brussels, being a witness to the absolute love I found in that home–gives me a glimpse into the many different experiences that are possible in my own life, if I so choose to pursue them. Sometimes we need reference points, very clear images and words to show us the possibilities that exist for all of us.
Last week I asked all of you if we should continue the Gay Men Project, and if so, how. The overwhelming response was yes, we should continue the project. But there was also a clear understanding that I have never once made any income from this work (I was able to fund the expenses and costs of the around the world trip from the Kickstarter, but when I was finished I ended up with a massive tax bill), so if this project is to continue I can no longer be the sole pilot of this ship.
So on my end, I’ll continue to post pictures, and shoot new ones when I can, as well as share in my own personal stories of what it has been like to travel to thirty-seven countries around the world and have conversations with over seven hundred gay and queer men. But I also ask that you submit your own stories as well, along with your own pictures. I’ll do my best to curate and then publish everything I receive, and together, I think we can continue to give life to this massive endeavor we’ve all worked hard to build.
A couple notes. One of the questions I’ve often struggled with is whether to open up the project to the broader LGBTQI community. I have in fact photographed the entire spectrum, lesbians, bisexuals, trans and queer individuals, but as you all know my focus has been gay men. Ultimately, the decision was based on my desire to focus the work on a population of people of whom I can strongly identify. As you can imagine, having the shared experience of being a gay man has created an almost instant camaraderie with the individuals I’ve photographed, which proves useful considering I photograph these individuals the first moment I meet them. That said, I encourage everyone to submit stories and pictures that you feel are relevant to this body of work and its purpose, which is to create more kindness and understanding in this world.
Also, feel free to write about anything. I won’t spend much time editing the writings, but more so curating the pictures (it’s the photographer in me 😉
And rest assured that this work is in fact serving a purpose. A few weeks ago, an old classmate from high school wrote to me to let me know her eighth grade daughter was writing an essay on marriage equality, and was using the Gay Men Project as a resource for her paper. That honestly was one of the coolest honors I’ve ever received from this work. I’ve always believed that history is nothing more than the stories told by those who take the effort to tell them. And I’ve always believed from the bottom of my heart, that a hundred years from now, people will be reading the stories from the Gay Men Project, and looking at these pictures, to learn of what it was like to be a gay man in a very specific part of our shared history. So I hope that all of you will help me in continuing to ensure that our stories be told.
And as always, thanks for your continued support.
With love, kevin