What it means to be American, and what it means to be gay — these are two questions that manage to be both unanswerable and bursting with millions of different answers. When you put them together to ask what it means to be gay in America, well, that’s even more overwhelming.
Photographer Scott Pasfield’s book Gay in America features portraits and stories of out homosexual men from every state, and of countless ethnicities, backgrounds, and ways of life. Through a series of portraits, Pasfield has taken gay men off of the shiny, superficial stage of stereotype and placed them squarely in the less glitzy, but infinitely more interesting world of reality. The men pictured are farmers, architects, and students; fathers, sons, and husbands. They’re the regular Americans we run into at the grocery store or bank. “I tried to photograph a great collection of men that represent the real gay American that I knew was out there,” Pasfield says.
Pasfield has photographed celebrities like Joan Rivers, Billy Baldwin, Ed Asner, and Vera Wang, but that kind of work just wasn’t for him anymore. He wanted to embark on something truly meaningful. “I was looking for a personal project that would bring me more satisfaction and would make me love photography again,” he says. “I had always dreamed of being handed a job like [Gay in America], you know, for someone to say ‘We want to send you out to photograph gay men around the country.'” So, in the true American spirit of self-reliance, Pasfield sent himself out on assignment to find, talk with, and photograph the faces of gay America.
He began by posting a series of ads on the internet, asking for gay men who would be willing to participate in photo shoots in their homes. “I knew right away from the response I got that I was on to something,” Pasfield says. “People really opened up. It was magical.”
With such an ambitious project involving so many subjects, one would expect to travel a fairly rocky road, paved with red herrings and running into dead ends, but Pasfield says that wasn’t the case at all. The project seemed almost charmed. “Those first men who responded to me were more often than not the ones I ended up photographing. Just like the light bulb went off for me, I think something similar was happening to them … There was something on my side.”
He split up the shoots into two-week road trips, sometimes traveling 3,000 miles in a single trip. He’d drive a looped route when he could, flying if a subject’s schedule necessitated it. When he arrived at a destination, Pasfield says, he’d generally spend about two hours with the person he was shooting, though there were times he was with someone for as many as four or five.
One of the men who responded to Pasfield’s ad was Charlestonian Ken Immer, who in addition to being a chef and yogi is also co-founder and executive director of the group enlightenMEN. “I was intrigued by his project and knew I had a story to tell, so I thought it was a great opportunity,” Immer says. Through enlightenMEN, Immer is bringing Pasfield to Charleston for a discussion and book signing during the Charleston Pride Festival. The event will also feature a panel discussion with Immer and other men featured in the book.
One of the most rewarding things about shooting Gay in America, Pasfield says, was the opportunity to learn from and share so many people’s stories. “It was humbling how honest so many of these guys were with me,” he says. “A lot of [them] said the same thing to me: ‘I’m not what you’d think of as a stereotypical gay guy.'” And of course, that was the most exciting thing Pasfield could hear — breaking those stereotypes is precisely what Gay in America is all about.
To see this in action, one has to look no further than the cover, which shows Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal advocate and LGBT activist Dan Choi in his Army uniform. Pasfield remains proud of his decision to feature Choi on the cover, which was an unpopular choice for some. “I think it was the perfect decision, because he is a soldier fighting for us all, and it makes you stop and think what it means to be American.”
When Pasfield came up with Gay in America, he had personal reasons for wanting to undertake the journey. “I had some residual healing to do as a gay man,” he says. But he was always deeply conscious of how a project like this could help gay youth or men who hadn’t yet found the courage to come out. “I always say I became a kind of accidental activist with this book. I knew it was my responsibility to do this. I knew it in my heart.”
Hopefully, the book will offer young people a realistic vision of what a gay man looks like. Immer echoes this hope. “The book itself is important because it demonstrates exactly what Scott was looking to do — show that gay men in America look, act, and are like everyone else in America,” he says. “We come in all shapes, sizes, ages, and occupations. By heightening awareness about this book, it can be more available to young gay men in need of guidance and inspiration, so I see it as an incredible tool to both help educate everyone on the normalcy of the gay experience, and also as a tool for helping to raise the self-worth of these young gay men.”