“Why don’t you stop whinging, join the system and change things from within?”
This response to my Facebook comment about Mr Gay Pride Australia 2019 proved to be transformative.
In December 2018, when the Star Observer posted online that applications for the contest were open, I posted a comment stating that the contest promoted a lop-sided, hegemonic image of the Australian LGBTIQ+ community.
Every finalist from previous years was a cisgender, Caucasian male with traditional good looks and a sculpted body.
As a gay man of colour, I wanted to see the rich diversity of body shapes, gender identity, and ethnicity thriving in our community on this public platform.
The Star Observer and why I decided to participate
My comment went ‘viral’.
Many agreed that it was indeed not reflective of the wider LGBTIQ+ community. People asked why all the finalists were young, white and slim. Why weren’t there any people of colour or people of a certain age? Why wasn’t there more than one body type, and where were all the transgender men?
In response, some started asking those who were complaining to join the competition – to compete and change things from within. But several men were sceptical of going that far.
“What’s the point? They would never let me in,” they wrote.
Emboldened, I decided to take the risk and not just be a keyboard warrior. I started this conversation and cared enough to put myself in the line of fire.
Putting my words on Facebook into action
This is my migrant mentality.
I am an Australian citizen of Indian origin. I came to Australia ten years ago as an international student and worked very hard to become a permanent resident in 2012 and then an Aussie citizen in 2013.
Having to start life from scratch without any support system has taught me to not take anything for granted.
So, when I was asked to lead by example, I obliged. Within a couple of hours, I had filled out my application form and attached proofs of my work in mental health, as a speaker for beyondblue and as the co-founder of Melbourne University’s first-ever LGBTIQ+ Policy Working Group, Pride and Diversity.
When I received the news that I’d been shortlisted as a finalist, I was delighted. I was happy that as a gay man of colour I would have a platform to voice our choices and concerns.
I wanted to stand up for the minorities within the minority because I am one of them.
As part of the competition, I started a campaign to end the lateral hate that exists within different subgroups in the LGBTIQ+ community, and to promote respect for everyone, from the L through to the A, and beyond.
I backed down only to rise again
Despite this, I was limited in my reach and connectivity.
I did not have a massive social media following and received limited votes in the public vote component of the contest.
It was very anxiety provoking to see my worthy cause not receiving much support.
Disheartened, I decided to withdraw from the competition.
I wrote and shared an open letter on my social media accounts. Many people, mostly fellow gay men of colour, supported me, and I was ready to move on.
However, three days before the competition, the organiser Mr Tony Richens called and encouraged me to not give up, to step out of my comfort zone and participate.
Sensing the authenticity in his voice, I decided to face my fears and give it a go.
I showed up and participated in every round of the competition wholeheartedly.
I explained my campaign to end lateral hate in the LGBTIQ+ community in my personal interview with the judges, which included previous years’ winners and the President of Mr Gay World.
I shared how I had found it hard to find my own place within the LGBTIQ+ community, and how I’d been diagnosed with depression and anxiety but decided not to give up.
I also shared how I had restarted my life in Melbourne since the diagnosis and completed my Masters in Global Media Communications while managing several roles: as an ambassador for the Faculty of Arts, a representative for the Graduate Student Association and a speaker for beyondblue, creating awareness about mental health in schools, universities, local councils and sporting clubs.
The first, but not the last
I did not win.
In retrospect, the competition for me started as a mission to be a representation of gay men who are a minority within a minority.
I might be the first one but I know I am not the last. I am grateful for this opportunity because for the first time in my life, I got to see real gay men – young and old, men of colour and of different body shapes, come together and be their whole selves.
I am so proud of all the eight finalists in this year’s competition.
For me, the opportunity to walk in the Pride March at Daylesford’s ChillOut Festival was the stand out moment.
Watching everyday Australians smiling and cheering us on with rainbow flags gave me so much joy.
It gave me hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel. We as a community have come this far and our resilience will see us through any challenge that lies in our path ahead.
Prashant Bhatia is a Melbourne based writer who has previously written about mainstream media rhetoric around LGBTIQ+ rights. He is a Masters Graduate in Global Media Communications from Melbourne University and a speaker for beyondblue.