KARAMO BROWN

Queer Eye’s res­i­dent cul­ture ex­pert opens up about fa­ther­hood, men­tal health, and break­ing down stereo­types around mas­culin­ity.

Gay Times Magazine - - CULTURE - Pho­tog­ra­phy Ryan Pfluger Fash­ion La­teef Thy­na­tive Words Otamere Guoba­dia

“I know so many of us suf­fer from men­tal health is­sues,” Karamo says speak­ing to the cam­era with con­vic­tion, in a video to his near 2 mil­lion strong In­sta­gram au­di­ence. “And we just don’t know where to turn. And ev­ery day seems darker and darker, but I want you to know that things do get bet­ter. If you get help and you do the work daily your life can change. I’m liv­ing proof.”

When Karamo Brown speaks, one gets the un­canny sense that some­where un­der the re­cesses of his im­pec­ca­bly cho­sen bombers and cin­na­mon grin, a seis­mome­ter is work­ing it­self off the charts; this is not to suƒest his voice ever con­veys any­thing less than a calm, con­fi­dent surety, but rather in his col­lected, au­thor­i­ta­tive tone present through­out the time that we have to speak, the man is much more akin to a force of na­ture than any­thing else.

Karamo is af­ter all one of the vir­tu­ally wor­shipped Fab Five, stars of the hugely suc­cess­ful, re­cent Net­flix re­boot of Queer Eye — a team of life­style gu­rus tasked with makeovers that move beyond merely the fluff and gloss of the aes­thetic, and into the realm of some­thing more deeply and truly transformative. Whilst he was no stranger to the small screen spot­light hav­ing com­peted on mul­ti­ple series of MTV’s Real World for­mat, hosted their 2017 Love Is­land ana­logue ‘Are you the One?’ and a num­ber of other tele­vi­sion spots, the vi­ral pop­u­lar­ity of him and his fel­low five have cat­a­pulted them to that uniquely and much sought af­ter 21st cen­tury new-school fame — a kind of canon­i­sa­tion for the dig­i­tal age — whilst si­mul­ta­ne­ously cre­at­ing that pe­cu­liar fa­mil­iar­ity that so of­ten peels away any tra­di­tional par­ti­tion be­tween fan and star.

“It’s funny, of all the peo­ple who sup­port us I don’t call them fans I call them ‘friends’ — [I feel like] we all can be friends we con­nect — when friends come up to me, I’m the one out of all the guys that we could be in the mid­dle of a club, we could be in a post of­fice, we could be any­where and peo­ple tell me their life sto­ries and cry on my shoul­der. And I love it!” he en­thuses. “The other guys are al­ways like ‘I couldn’t deal with it…’ and I’m like, ‘No [it’s good], be­cause a lot of the time peo­ple don’t feel like they have an out­let to talk’. So I don’t mind be­ing their out­let.”

In­deed, be­ing madeover by the Fab Five bor­ders on the nu­mi­nous. We’ve seen love af­fairs mended and seem­ingly un­traversable po­lit­i­cal di­vides crossed. The idea of the one-hour re­al­ity TV show break­through arc might strike peo­ple as nec­es­sar­ily con­trived, but a lot can be ac­com­plished with suf­fi­ciently sur­gi­cal pre­ci­sion and enough get-upand-go. Lis­ten­ing to Karamo and see­ing the post­show im­pact of Queer Eye on its sub­ject’s out­looks, self-es­teem and the full breadth of their lives lends an un­ques­tion­able mea­sure of au­then­tic­ity to their trans­for­ma­tions.

“A lot of peo­ple don’t un­der­stand how how hard it is to meet some­one on a Tues­day and have to get to their emo­tional is­sue by Fri­day, so they can have a break­through,” he ex­plains of the show’s week long jour­ney.

That some Queer Eye fans all but re­cline onto a chaise longue when they see Karamo is com­pletely em­pathis­able; both on the show and in con­ver­sa­tion, Karamo ra­di­ates an un­mis­tak­ably sooth­ing aura. The his­tory of the world is in­ex­tri­ca­bly bound up in our search for panacea, the next cure, for proven relief in as lit­tle time as pos­si­ble. In times long past peo­ple of­ten trav­elled far and wide in search of cures known only by word of mouth — but whereas th­ese peo­ple of­ten delved head­first and un­guar­an­teed into the dis­tant

and shamanic, mil­lions have wit­nessed the proven ef­fi­cacy of Karamo, a trained psy­chother­a­pist and ex­pe­ri­enced so­cial worker with over a decade of prac­tice un­der his belt, deal in his now in­fa­mously life-chang­ing break­throughs.

“So for me,” he muses, “[I have an] un­der­stand­ing that my goal, one of my pur­poses in this world is to sup­port peo­ple and to be able to help them to get to a place where they feel as if they can re­lease the trauma, start heal­ing.

“But it’s also un­der­stand­ing,” he caveats about his own ac­ces­si­bil­ity, “that I have a limit.” The self­care ques­tion is a big, im­por­tant one.

“For me, as a Black man, but also as a gay man,” he con­tin­ues, “there were cer­tain bound­aries that I felt like I had to be loose with so I could be liked. And I think we all are af­fected by that to some de­gree. Where we’re like ‘I know this is my bound­ary, but be­cause I don’t want to stand out, or be­cause I want to be liked, or be­cause I want my fam­ily to ac­cept me or be­cause I fill in the blank, I’m go­ing to let my bound­aries slide.’ But for me, I’m very clear on my bound­aries and I’m okay with them… And for me I can say to peo­ple: ‘Right now I want to sup­port you, but I’m not able to’, so I ap­pre­ci­ate you open­ing up, I ac­knowl­edge it, and let me give you some other re­source of some­one who can help. And that’s how I pro­tect my­self.”

As some­one con­stantly con­fronted with the trauma of oth­ers as well as his own, pre­vent­ing burnout and pro­tect­ing his own men­tal health is non-ne­go­tiable in Karamo’s role. Not just on Queer Eye, but in his wider mis­sion, and Karamo is un­doubt­edly on one.

Karamo’s re­la­tion­ship with men­tal health, self­es­teem and well­be­ing ad­vo­cacy has al­ways long stretched beyond the one hour Net­flix for­mat. He re­cently took the rad­i­cally bold step of dis­cussing his sui­cide at­tempt of 12 years ago, to his mil­lions of so­cial me­dia fol­low­ers.

“We need to get to a place where we feel very con­fi­dent about talk­ing about this,” he be­gins to ex­plain when I ask why he thought it was im­por­tant to share the ex­pe­ri­ence. “Be­cause the lack of dis­cus­sion, and the lack of open­ness is what’s killing us.”

Karamo’s point can­not be em­pha­sised enough. In the United King­dom, sui­cide is the sin­gle biƒest killer of men aged un­der 45. The Of­fice for Na­tional Statis­tics re­ported that 75% of all sui­cides in 2015 were com­mit­ted by men, a tragic prod­uct of a lethal cock­tail of toxic mas­culin­ity, stigma around poor men­tal health, and a cul­ture of si­lence — all of which Karamo is fight­ing to trans­form.

“Me shar­ing my story is to save some­one else,” he con­tin­ues. “So that some­one doesn’t feel like they’re lost, like they have to over­dose, that they want to com­mit sui­cide, be­cause I am a poster child… I’m a men­tal health pro­fes­sional, who lost his way. Any­body can lose their way. Be­cause men­tal health is some­thing you have to con­stantly work on and get sup­port on. So if I can lose my way and feel like life is dark and there’s no im­por­tance of liv­ing, then I also can find my way. And I wanted peo­ple to know that they can find their way as well if they’re go­ing through it.”

While the world at large might just be get­ting to know him, his ded­i­ca­tion to solv­ing men­tal health crises doesn’t end when the cred­its roll. As I’ve writ­ten pre­vi­ously, in a white su­prem­a­cist, het­eronor­ma­tive so­ci­ety that vis­its vi­o­lence upon queer bod­ies — those bod­ies that de­vi­ate from its own en­trenched stan­dard — the men­tal health of LGBTQ peo­ple is nec­es­sar­ily dev­as­tated. Re­cent stud­ies show that Nearly 50% of trans peo­ple un­der the age of 26 have at­tempted sui­cide. Such are the ef­fects of slurs and phys­i­cal vi­o­lence, and the pro­found ef­fects de­nial of per­son­hood, com­mu­nity and rep­re­sen­ta­tion bear upon the men­tal health of queer peo­ple; it is the in­abil­ity to en­vi­sion a fu­ture with­out vi­o­lence and re­jec­tion; a frus­trated de­sire for space in which one’s life, loves, and body is a not a thing to be de­meaned or ridiculed, but rather nor­malised, and even cel­e­brated. For QTIPOC, the in­ter­sec­tion of our marginalised iden­ti­ties, cre­ate a per­fect storm of ex­pe­ri­ences that de­cline our men­tal health at a more pre­cip­i­tous rate than our white queer sib­lings. There are a mul­ti­tude of ways in which queer­pho­bia and racism com­pound and ex­ac­er­bate each other in our ex­pe­ri­ence of mov­ing through through the world.

Black queer men are of­ten vic­tims of this dou­ble dis­lo­ca­tion — alien­ated by racism within the LGBTQ com­mu­nity, and faced with the ho­mo­pho­bia by black com­mu­ni­ties who view queer­ness as white/western de­viance. They are crit­i­cally over­rep­re­sented in HIV/AIDS statis­tics, and yet vir­tu­ally in­vis­i­ble in aware­ness and pre­ven­tion cam­paigns. It was in a re­sponse to wide­spread era­sure, and faced with the apathy of larger so­ci­ety and our own fel­low LGBTQ peo­ple, and a crim­i­nal lack of tar­geted re­sources that Karamo founded 6in10.org (now sub­sumed into the Black AIDS Project). It was a re­sponse to a grow­ing cri­sis of new trans­mis­sions, of whom black gay and bi men were dis­pro­por­tion­ately rep­re­sented in, and the im­pact of stigma on those al­ready liv­ing with the disease.

“I’ve had too many friends be di­ag­nosed,” he starts, “Many of them [go on to] live very happy lives, but then as many who aren’t able to get over [the low] self es­teem and men­tal is­sues that come with be­ing di­ag­nosed, and even­tu­ally de­cide to stop seek­ing care.” Karamo finds it a trav­esty that in this day and age we are we still watch­ing peo­ple pass away from some­thing not only pre­ventable, but im­por­tantly that with proper care is no ob­sta­cle to a long, happy and healthy life. His epiphany came in the wake of a can­celled Amer­i­can ra­dio in­ter­view he was lined up to do. “I wanted to talk about this epi­demic, and they can­celled me, and I asked why and they said ‘Be­cause we don’t care about this topic,’ and so my first thought was: Do you not care about Black peo­ple? Do you not care about peo­ple in­fected with HIV? Or do you not care

I’m con­stantly hav­ing to fight against th­ese stereo­types of what peo­ple think it is to be a father

or to be a strong man.

about LGBTQ peo­ple? And ei­ther way I’m go­ing to cuss your ass out!” he says, the bite au­di­ble in his voice. “And they got re­ally un­com­fort­able and hung up the phone, and I started the or­gan­i­sa­tion a day later.” For Karamo again, the work of their men­tal health team took cen­tre stage: “[We wanted to pos­i­tively] af­fect their men­tal health and their self es­teem…it was all about how do we help you to see your­self in the best light pos­si­ble, how do we help you to fight against the stigma whether you’re in­fected or af­fected by the disease — and I say af­fected be­cause we’re all af­fected,” he ex­plains. “If one us has been di­ag­nosed, then we’ve all been di­ag­nosed.”

He is aware of the priv­i­leged over­rep­re­sen­ta­tion that cis gay men have within the black queer com­mu­nity, him­self in­cluded, and is con­stantly work­ing to open that door for our less rep­re­sented sib­lings. “I like to strate­gi­cally make sure that when I have con­tracts or op­por­tu­ni­ties that the peo­ple that are be­ing hired are black LGBTQ peo­ple,” he tells me. “When I’m do­ing this, I want to make sure that I’m help­ing out [not just my] gay brothers, [but] my les­bian sis­ters, my bi sis­ters and brothers, my trans sis­ters and brothers! Part of the whole male priv­i­lege [is] that we’re not look­ing at be­ing like ‘Yo! What about our sis­ters right here?’ They’re dope as fuck and they’re not get­ting op­por­tu­ni­ties!”

In spite of the heavy top­ics we’ve spent a lot of the phone call dis­cussing, Karamo is still able to tap into light­ness and a silli­ness that I find de­light­ful. He kindly hu­mours me when I ask what things make him hap­pi­est in life.”Junk food,” he starts, reel­ing off one by one. “Roller­coast­ers and ad­ven­ture; Mu­sic; Mu­sic Videos; a good Bey­oncé melody will get me go­ing; Chi­nese food that’s a lit­tle cold be­cause I let it sit for a while,” he laughs. “Fast cars, when I’m not driv­ing but I’m in the pas­sen­ger seat; be­ing the lit­tle spoon! Peo­ple don’t know this about me be­cause I’m [over] 6 ft 2, 200 pounds, mus­cu­lar guy, [be­cause I’m aƒressive in life],” he ex­plains. “But when it comes to cud­dling I want to be the small spoon ev­ery sin­gle day! I also like heat be­cause I’m al­ways cold, put four­teen blan­kets on me and I’m in heaven — th­ese are the things that I love.”

It would be im­pos­si­ble to write about Karamo with­out talk­ing about his ap­proach to fa­ther­hood.

“I’m rais­ing my boys as fem­i­nists,” he ex­plains en­thu­si­as­ti­cally about his two sons, when talk shifts to what world he’d like to see them grow up in. “I hope to do that, be­cause I want them to un­der­stand that fem­i­nism is about equal­ity, and when they un­der­stand the [need for] equal­ity for women, it’s eas­ier for them to un­der­stand equal­ity with other marginalised groups. And it’s work­ing!” he con­tin­ues. “The re­spect and love they show women, it also bleeds into the re­spect and knowl­edge they have of other cul­tures and [com­mu­ni­ties].

“I just want them to be ex­am­ples of what other peo­ple should be, [and] how they should act, be­cause that’s the key — the only way that we ac­tu­ally see change is if a gen­er­a­tion starts to shift.” It would ap­pear that Karamo is al­ready start­ing to see the fruits of his ap­proach. “What I love most about my sons,” he re­counts ef­fu­sively, “is when I see them around their friends, they fight against so much toxic mas­culin­ity.”

Karamo is a new gen­er­a­tion of pos­si­bil­ity model: A house­hold name that is a Black gay man, an ad­vo­cate, a father — not merely sur­viv­ing in Hol­ly­wood, but con­quer­ing it. As for the fu­ture, Karamo is plan­ning to re­lease a line of bomber jack­ets, get into pod­cast­ing, and has set his eye on some­day hav­ing a talk show of his very own. He gives us a taste of what to ex­pect in the up­com­ing sea­son of Queer Eye: “You can guar­an­tee I’m mak­ing peo­ple cry!” he jokes, ex­plain­ing that peo­ple of­ten have shed a tear or two to move past their demons. “I be­lieve be­cause now peo­ple re­ally know my back­ground, they know my skill set,” he con­tin­ues, “the net­work has been way open with me go­ing and div­ing deep into that, and I think peo­ple are go­ing to be very ex­cited about the things they learn.”

No mat­ter what the fu­ture holds for Karamo, I have no doubt that it’ll in­volve at its heart, nur­tur­ing in­di­vid­u­als. “I’m con­stantly hav­ing to fight against th­ese stereo­types of what peo­ple think it is to be a father or to be a strong man… Black [queer] folk have been rais­ing your chil­dren, and rais­ing the chil­dren of the world for­ever. I just do it with a lot of love and com­pas­sion.”

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