by Chris Cedroni. Photos by Ryan Welch.
The stereotype of gay men who are obsessed with their physical appearance is alive and well. While rarely mentioned in the media or even well understood by society, it is not uncommon for members of the LGBTQQ community to have self-destructive body images and form unhealthy relationships with food. In fact, there is good evidence to suggest that the gay community encourages it.
So says Joe DiMauro, Mr. Gay Rhode Island 2016. He is using his crown to raise awareness of eating disorders in our community, and in his own words, “start a very important conversation.”
DiMauro, 21, first became aware of the RI Pride Triple Crown Pageant a few years back when a friend of his entered as Mr. Gay Rhode Island. “I saw that it was really supportive and affirming of the community, and I thought about it as a way of getting a message across,” he tells me.
And he’s right. Winners of the Triple Crown Pageant – which names a Mr. Gay Rhode Island, Miss Gay Rhode Island, and Ms. Lesbian Rhode Island (and other titles when there are contestants) – are encouraged to champion an issue of their own choosing, and use their year-long exposure to drive it home.
In the past, winners have championed HIV/AIDS-related issues, substance abuse, homophobia, and other weighty issues that require an all-hands-on-deck response. I wondered why this year’s Mr. Gay Rhode Island chose a seemingly “quieter” issue as his own.
In Joe’s case, it’s personal. Not long ago, he was in the grip of anorexia, and dangerously thin. “I was down to 113 pounds.” He had had unexplained hair loss. When he pinched his fingertips, they did not bounce back into shape. Finally, an unrelated trip to the doctor’s office revealed that he had an unhealthy condition that would cause catastrophic health issues. Joe took the doctor’s advice to heart, and over the next few months, began to mend his ways. His weight reached a healthy level, and through frequent follow-up visits he was able to overcome his condition.
He and the people around him are grateful that he had the conversation with his healthcare provider but, according to Joe, the roots of the condition run much, much deeper. “When we are talking about eating disorders we are talking about depression. We are talking about societal pressure inside and outside the LGBT community. We are talking about how to demystify a life-threatening issue.”
It wasn’t long before Joe realized that others might not be so receptive to his message. “Eating disorders are kind of a joke in parts of the gay community,” he tells me. According to Joe, with the ultimate goal of conforming to a common gay ideal, many community members are quicker to envy the super-slim than they are to raise concern. “It struck me as an unhealthy but glorified condition,” he remembers.
So when the chance to become Mr. Gay Rhode Island presented itself, he saw it as an opportunity to bring his message to a larger audience. “I made eating disorders the centerpiece of my involvement in the pageant,” Joe says. He used the Alice in Wonderland theme to his advantage, dressing as Lewis Carroll’s hookah-smoking caterpillar. On the runway, he transformed into a butterfly, on whose wings were written “Anorexia Kills 40%,” a stark reminder that four out of ten people with eating disorders will eventually die of them.
Since being crowned, Joe has joined Miss Gay Rhode Island Neoki Feytal and Miss Lesbian Rhode Island Ally P. Sha in raising awareness for Rhode Island Pride’s many events, and he has also been busy having conversations – some coming from sources that are surprisingly close.
“I have been talking with a lot of people via social media,” he says. “So far, three people have reached out to me looking for help in dealing with their own eating disorders. Also, a friend confided that he was bulimic, and that he developed the disorder, in part, ‘just to fit in.’”
While he is happy to share his personal narrative and help guide individuals or concerned friends and family members to appropriate health services, Joe freely admits that he isn’t an expert on eating disorders. He wants his contribution to be more intimate. For Joe, starting a conversation is key, and reaching out to help those in need individually is the important work. That’s not to say he doesn’t have big visions for the future. “I’d like to see Pride-certified doctors who could recognize the early signs of anorexia and bulimia, who were also able to address specific health issues and concerns of the LGBT community. Or even a center for issues centered around body image,” he says.
Of course, to get his wish list fulfilled, he is going to need help, but he has a plan for that, too. Joe has reached out to former winners of Mr. Gay Rhode Island to form a “Kings Coalition” that could instantly provide support for the causes of future winners, connecting them with a much-needed network of connections, fundraisers, advisors, movers, and shakers.
“I’ve already reached out to all 20 past winners,” he said. And they are all eager to get on board.