I’ve always been a fan of “dressing up.” From growing up with a fashion-loving older sister to drama club in high school, it’s never been a foreign concept to me. Draping yourself with eccentric outfits, transforming your face with paint and powder, adopting extraneous accents- becoming another persona. That was the thrill. Losing myself to explore another perspective.
Yet naturally, as I grew up in a small town in Northern Indiana, I developed a different understanding. The older I became the more minds I saw close. Everyone followed suit of safety- contorting and trimming the excess to fit nicely inside the established box of comfort.
I want to question why, but the answer is obvious: fear. Fear that you would be made fun of, fear that you would be ostracized, fear that you would be injured. Fear that if you allow the person you see in the mirror to see the light of day that the simpleminded fucks around you will then somehow take it from you like they’ve taken everything else.
Most people carry that fear with them their entire lives, letting it guide every decision. I never wanted to be that person.
As a gay man from Indiana, I thought I knew adversity. As a white gay man now living in Los Angeles, I know that I do not. I’m not saying my life has been 100% butterflies and rainbows, but I have seen and met others that have had to overcome so many obstacles in life just to be the person they see in the mirror… How could I compare my lunch-room bully to beatings and death threats?
But the point is not to compare, it is to offer respect and alliance. And, in order to do that, one needs practice in empathy. Step into someone else’s shoes and see life through their eyes. That’s what this post is about.
Our good friend and photographer, Gabriel Gastelum, was over for dinner the other night. We caught up, gossiped, and giggled over bratwursts and wine like the classy ladies we are. I asked about his upcoming projects and trips, and he brought up his self-portrait project that he started over a year ago.
After going through a bad breakup last June, he started this project to keep himself busy. He invested hundreds of dollars into makeup, paint, wigs, press-on nails- anything that he could use to become someone else. But what he didn’t realize was how much he would learn about himself in the process.
Gabriel. Is. Amazing. But what impressed me more than the photos (though obviously FABULOUS) was his candidness. He had no idea what he was doing, but he was loving it. The project wasn’t about becoming a drag queen or really anything definitive. It was about expressing himself as an artist in ways that he never had before- pushing himself outside of his comfort zone.
I was obsessed. As we flicked through more pictures of Gabriel’s portraits, my eyes met with Mark’s. I guess he could tell what I was thinking because a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. We looked back to Gabriel, only to find the same deranged smile staring back at us…
It was our turn.
As soon as we finished our coffee the next morning, we headed over to Gabriel’s apartment.
For a bit of reference, here’s me before:
Your everyday brochella, complete with tribal tank and flatbill. (Embarrassingly, I wear that exact outfit 93% of the time.)
As soon as we walked into the place, I knew we were in for it. Sprawled across the table were a (shit ton) of brushes, palettes, powders, paints, eyelashes, nails, etc. And then there was Gabriel, complete with Panda hat and shit-eating-grin.
I was ready.
I left Ethan in my flip flops as he kicked them off and Anna Ferriswheel took a seat. Not that I was actually creating a drag persona, but it couldn’t hurt to have a little backstory, right?
First step: eyebrows. To create the face, one must first delete the face. That means applying three layers of glue stick and powder to my brows until they disappear.
Side note: take care of your eyebrows. You don’t want to know what you would look like without them.
Once the brows were good and gone, a thick layer of foundation coated my face. And when I say thick, I mean thick. Luckily, I’m not much of a sweater, but Gabriel lamented about the difficulties that being one brought. I started to really gain an appreciation for the efforts that Drag Queens put into creating a face and then maintaining that face as they dance, lip sync, and death drop around the stage.
Next step, the contour. AKA accentuating my non-existent cheekbones with a bit of bronzer and a piece of paper. Remember folks, subtlety is everything.
Watch out, Ms. Delevingne.
At this point, I’m feeling full on Mulan right before she meets the Matchmaker.
All that was left to do was my nose, eyes, and lips. (Yeah, that’s all that was left to do…)
2 hours later, my look was completed. Anna Ferriswheel left the throne and Francesca (Mark’s alter ego) took her place. Now that I was really ready to see.
Throughout my time in Gabriel’s chair, and as I watched my boyfriend disappear, I couldn’t help but think back to that question WHY.
Why is it that most people get uncomfortable when they see a dude in makeup? Why, in our society, is playful manipulation of identity an act reserved for women or “drag queens?” Moreover, not only is it stereotypically reserved for women, but why is it practically mandated of them? Why are we so afraid of grey areas?
Personally, I think the root of the issue pertains to the last question. It’s not that people are inherently homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic, or whatever other word you want to use for “asshole.” It’s that we are conditioned to understand the world as binary- everything is either A or B, black or white, boy or girl. So when something or someone isn’t easily defined as one of two things, it’s not “good,” and therefore “bad.”
But the thing is: that’s not actually the case. Life isn’t binary, life is a spectrum. There is no good, nor bad. There is no black, nor white. Everything is a shade of grey along an infinite continuum. (And there’s much more than 50, girl.)
What I’m saying is it’s not your fault if you get a little uncomfortable when you see this:
You’ve been raised in a world where that’s the normal response.
However, it is your fault if you allow that to affect your or anyone else’s life. There are WAY too many more important things to be concerned with than how another human wants to express themselves. Like war, climate change, or Donald Trump possibly becoming America’s next top Cheetoh - er, I mean president… (OK, honestly, the fact that the words “Donald Trump” and “president of the United States” can even appear in the same sentence is enough to worry about for 3 lifetimes.)
At the end of the shoot, we took off the wigs and washed away our faces. But so many people cannot. Those wigs and those faces are their truths, whether for performance or to simply blend into normalcy. I thought I understood that bravery until now.
If you’ve never experienced something like this, I cannot recommend it enough. You don’t have to buy hundreds of dollars of supplies, you don’t have to take amazing pictures, you don’t have to do it any certain way- just try something. No matter what that “something” is, just have fun with it and MAKE IT WORK.
After all, that’s all anyone is trying to do in life. Make it work.
No one knows the answers; we’re all feeling our way through the dark. But the good news is, there’s a whole bunch of us. And if we work together, learning about the obstacles over which others have tripped and then helping them back up, there’s no way that we can’t all make it out just fine.
Thank you for reading. If this resonated with you, please consider checking out the Los Angeles LGBT Center, the country's first and largest center of its kind, and supporting their efforts. Let's help change the world.