Incredibly, considering what a visual people my lavender tribe are, there has been no major photographic survey of gay men in America until now. (Well, at least in book form. I'm not counting Manhunt, here.) Author-photographer Scott Pasfield journeyed around the country for three years, taking some wonderfully enlightening shots of gay men, couples, and more who had responded to his online ads for photographic subjects who were willing to tell their stories. The tally for his "Gay in America" book: 224 pages, 140 men, 50 states.
Scott will be narrating a slideshow presentation of the book ("Not boring like a travel slideshow!" he says) on Sat/5 at 7 p.m. at Magnet in the Castro. I chatted with him over the phone about the project, the men, and the concept of gay "normalization."
SFBG What drove you take on a project of this magnitude?
SCOTT PASFIELD It was a combination of a lot of things. I work as a professional photographer in New York, but as with most things in this economic climate, that work was drying up. My fourteen-year-old dog passed away, and I found myself mourning more than I thought. And I really just needed to get back in touch with my craft, to reignite my passion for what I do, to push myself to do something big. I have an incredibly supportive partner now -- but I was raised in a difficult household, my father had been very conservative and uncomfortable, to say the least, with my sexuality. So in the big scheme of things, I wanted to connect with other gay men around the country and get them to talk about their experiences, to see where we all were at this very interesting period in the gay American journey -- and hopefully learn a bit about myself as well.
I had no idea what I'd find, but the response was pretty overwhelming when I started placing the ads for subjects. People welcomed the opportunity to talk about their lives, where they'd come from and what they were doing. As gay men, we often see each other through these restrictive lenses. I wanted to open that up.
SFBG A lot of your subjects live in places like Oklahoma, Arkansas, or Kentucky that aren't exactly known for gay cheerleading. Did you run up agaiinst any major barriers in getting them to pose for you? Or have attitudes changed in this age of the Internet and niche gay communities?
SP You know, it was the strangest thing. I had no problem finding guys in some of those more "remote" places. Of course, homophobia is still a major thing, but I felt that people in some of the out-of-the -way places really wanted to connect and tell their stories, maybe because they had to be strong to be who they are where they are, maybe just because no one had asked.Maybe there just aren't as many social outlets.
It was in the big cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York that I had the darnedest time finding subjects. I don't know if it's because people are more jaded, or maybe they thought I was going to take advantage of them -- that this was a hoax or porn. [Laughs.] I was blanketing chat rooms and social media for people to open up, and I did eventually find some great guys, but it was work.
SFBG What are some of the things you've taken away from doing this project? Did anyone in particular inspire you?
SP This has been a very emotional journey and I hope I've done justice to all the people who appear in the book. You know, five of the guys have died and I hope Gay in America is a fitting tribute to their lives.
Beyond that, everyone's story was really affecting. I think the one that most sticks with me is Ken from Maryland, who calls himself "a true redneck." He and his best friend Kevin had fallen in love, gone to school together, celebrated their anniversary, but had never come out. Until the night they got in a car accident and Kevin was killed. Ken couldn't see him after they had taken him to the hosital, so he started yelling that he was Kevin's boyfriend until they let him through. That was how he came out to the world. It's such an emotional story.
SFBG In the trailer for the Gay in America, you say, "Feeling normal about yourself -- which we all are -- and that's the whole point of this." With all the advances that gay America has made in recent years, from the repeal of DADT to the continued gradual acceptance of same-sex marriage, many people feel the assimilation and normalization are pushing queer diversity and radicalism under the rug. The people in your book are incredibly diverse, although all men. Now that you've taken this wide view of gay men, do you have any opinions about the push toward mainstream assimilation?
SP I think there is a very valuable contingent, loud if nonetheless small, of people within our community who are raising important points about the cost of assimilation, and I appreciate that they're around. The reason I used the word "normal" was more in a personal sense. I was raised to think that homosexuality wasn't normal, and it took me a long time to accept that I was just as valuable as anyone else. That's what I mean about feeling normal, feeling OK.
With Gay in America I wanted people to see that the people telling their stories may have been through some crazy stuff, but inn the inside the weren't so different after all. And I wanted to upend some stereotypes -- that gay men do and look like all kinds of things, we're not all drag queens and mean twinkie-types like you see on TV. Although there are some drag queens out of drag in the book!
SFBG Now that you've been all over the country, what was your favorite place? Would you relocate if you had the chance?
SP Well , Hawaii's awfully nice [laughs]. So is Alaska, so beautiful. And, surprising to me, I really like Maine. But if I and my partner didn't have our work in Manhattan, I think I'd move to Portland. I love the liberal vibe, how it's so close to nature, and how the city itself is laid out. I'm an architect before a photographer, and the urban planning and regional architecture of portland was fascinating to me. Oh, and of course, I'm looking forward to sending some time in San Francisco -- my partner's flying in and we'll be staying with friends.
GAY IN AMERICA PRESENTATION WITH SCOTT PASFIELD
Sat/5, 7p.m., free
4122 18th St, San Francisco
Followed by a book signing, drinks, and hors-d’ouvres at
Under One Roof
518A Castro Street