Federico Villalobos & Rene Elgüey sit down with photographer Rakeem Cunningham to discuss working out, dating white dudes and learning to love yourself in the internet age. Photographed by Rakeem Cunningham. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Rakeem: You know what’s funny is that the first person who actually told me they noticed any kind of change in my body after I started going to the gym was you.
Federico: Oh yeah, I remember that.
Rakeem: I’ve been going to the gym now since like, December. And when I saw you you were like, oh you look a lot different than when I met you. When you see yourself every day you don’t necessarily notice it. Sometimes I notice it when I take a picture of myself or make a self-portrait or something, I’m like oh, my arm looks notably bigger. Like, even now my arm fills this sleeve out when it didn’t before.
Rakeem: I’m not bragging, it’s an observation.
Rene: No, but I mean like, ooh, look at her.
Rene: Not like that!
Rakeem: [Laughs] So it’s like that’s the kind of stuff that I notice, but what I was telling Rene in the car is that like—and I don’t really like to admit this—even though I started working out for myself, I assumed that one of the reactions to my body would be that men would be more receptive to me.
Federico: Oh, definitely.
Rakeem: What I’m learning though is that that’s not really the truth. I mean, I’m dark-skinned so that is like the first thing that people see. It’s not like people say that, but I know what it is. There’re just telltale signs. Before when I was...I don’t want to say heavier, but I had a bit more weight on me, I could identify with people who were like ‘Oh, I’m like a bear’ or, ‘I’m a chub.’ Whatever categories the white gays put themselves in, I could sort of identify with that because my body sort of looks similar to that. Now it’s like, I’m not really in a category.
Federico: Are those categories important to you?
Rakeem: No, they’re not. But they factor into how people receive me. For example, gay men. I feel like the reception to my body is almost worse than it was before because I’m not toned enough for the jocks, but I’m not big enough for the bears, you know?
Federico: I see what you’re saying. You’re in like, gay purgatory.
Rakeem: Yeah, but I find that kind of empowering. I’m just doing my own thing. I find those categories to be super limiting. They’re not just describing your body type but they tend to describe people’s personalities...
Federico: And desires. Often I think they serve as explanations for desires. But yeah, it’s kind of an interesting thing. Like you I’ve noticed that these changes [when I work out] don’t necessarily add a lot in terms of my attractiveness to other men. At least I’ve found that for myself. Which is fine.
Rakeem: I feel like the people that get idolized and thirsted after, the people that represent an ideal, they don’t have to do anything but look good. White guys can look like they were born and massaged with a brick in the face and it’s like, fine. He could be the shittiest person but people are just going to thirst after him. And I feel like for me to compete with these people I have to be twice as good. And not just like, oh, he takes pictures. The pictures have to be twice as good, I have to be twice as smart, I have to have all of this stuff just to compete with a basic white guy that has a beard or puts on a harness. I don’t think that that shit’s fair. It’s kind of annoying to me because I work my ass off.
Rene: And you’re gorgeous.
Rakeem: Thank you.
Federico: So you’re talking about white mediocrity and these systems for rewarding it.
Rakeem: Well, there’s white mediocrity and then there are people of color who buy into white mediocrity and try to be around that, and that’s even more annoying to me. I get the idea of kind of not being comfortable with who you are, like I understand that, but I feel like it comes to a point where you need to be like, no.
Federico: Yeah, I agree with you there. It’s like the conversation we were having a few weeks ago. In certain social spaces there’s always that one POC around and then there’s no space for anyone else, right?
Rene: Like they’ve laid claim to that place. They know that there’s very little space in an all-white space for somebody who’s POC. So once they get there they’re like, ok, this is my spot. I don’t want any other POC taking over this spot.
Federico: And so sometimes I’m like, can I blame you for playing the only game that you feel has been made available to you? You’ve been made to feel self-loathing and so you constantly desire some sort of affirmation from your peers—peers who are mostly white. You seek acceptance in these spaces and these scenes that are overwhelmingly white. But at some point you’re no longer this 18-year-old faggot partying, at some point you need to be aware of what happens and what it means politically to engage in these spaces in the way you have been, especially when there’s so much made available to you via social media and the internet. This gets me into another conversation that I’m constantly having with Rene, about what happens when we POCs make our own spaces, but then those social hierarchies are replicated within them.
Rakeem: But, ok, so I have two things and I’ll get to that. I think you can hold people accountable. It’s one thing if it’s your workspace and this is how you have to make money to survive, I think that’s one thing. I really do. But I feel like the gays now do this shit for Instagram likes. That’s my issue.
Federico: Yeah, the values are misplaced.
Rakeem: It’s a social hierarchy, that’s what I have an issue with. There’s a social value placed on white people with muscular bodies that might look like gophers for all anyone cares but there’s this kind of prestige that comes with that. It doesn’t come with circles that include people of color. And then I think in Los Angeles we don’t have spaces for that. I can’t tell you right now a gay bar or a gay place that’s made for black people. I can’t.
Federico: No, no, the same thing goes even for Latino bars to some degree. Like, what do we have? The new Jalisco bar? Which is great to a certain extent, but like, it’s not...
Rakeem: Even then it’s infiltrated by white people who like to fetishize. The Cobra bar is supposed to be like a Latino bar, but the one time I went there? All white people. And you know why? Because they wanted some spice in their life.
Rene: I’m sure.
Rakeem: And I heard that shit at the bar. I guess my issue with people is...it’s tricky because when you say it out loud you sound like an asshole, but there are people of color that know damn well what they’re doing and they don’t speak out about issues that affect people. Like I was telling you before about someone who invalidated my experiences because they didn’t go through the same thing. But it’s like, I still deal with this so why are you telling me that what I’m feeling isn’t real? Like when I sit in the bathroom crying, holding my stomach because a guy told me something or whatever. It’s sad because I let some guy have that control over me, but at the end of the day people like companionship. Especially for me. When you’re dark, in order for you to even be considered you have to have a six pack.
Rene: Right. You’re required to overcompensate for other people’s misplaced social values and prejudices.
Federico: Well that’s what I mean when I say those values are just replicated, right? When you take this idea that we’re going to go make our own spaces, what does that look like? Are those social values still there? I see it happening when you think about certain gay Latinos that are propped up like, look, there’s someone in the scene! It’s like, of course they are, look at them.
Rene: A lot of these Latinos are light-skinned so they read as white. Or they’re super fit, or they play to the stereotype of the Latin lover. All these white boys flocking to BiLatinMen.com, they’re just like...
Rakeem: Wait, is it wrong to like BiLatinMen?
Federico: I don’t think it’s wrong in and of itself, no.
Rene: I don’t think it’s inherently wrong, but if you are fetishizing Latino men…and I’ve had this experience before, where I’m dating somebody and it becomes very clear that they were only attracted to me because I look a certain way. But at the end of the day they don’t give a shit about me.
Federico: At the end of the day there are guys who totally find you attractive and are so into you but when politics surface...like.
Federico: Like I told you guys I was on a date with a guy who ended up telling me that I reminded him of his trip to Peru and that I resembled his tour guide. And he was so curious.
Federico: Yes. I’m like, oh, let me see a picture. Something tells me this guy looks nothing like me. And lo and behold it’s just some mestizo-looking guy with like, dark hair.
Rakeem: Was the guy you were on the date with white?
Federico: Oh yeah, he was this like, older white guy. I mean, who the fuck can afford to go to Peru?
Rakeem: So how does that energy and that culture around dating, and app culture, how does that affect you?
Rene: It’s funny because if you’d asked me six months ago I was in a really dark place. And that’s because I had surrounded myself with people, and one person in particular who I don’t think did it intentionally, but multiple times implied that I’m not as attractive as I could be. He basically in a lot of different ways let me know that I was not valuable. Physically, but also just as a person. And that took a really big toll on my self-esteem. If I were to look at Scruff, and I’ve never been on Scruff—
Rakeem: Really? Girl don’t.
Rene: I’ll try not to. I’m not good at that shit—and for this reason. But if I were to look at the apps and see the kinds of people there, [there was a time when] that would’ve broken my heart. Because I’d think, oh, if I looked like that maybe the person I’m with would love me. And since I’ve cut ties with that person, and like we were talking earlier about going to the gym and does that change your perception of yourself, I don’t think I’ve changed physically since I cut ties with that person, but me then and me now, emotionally? If you were to ask me how I feel about myself it would be a completely different answer.
Rakeem: And what’s your answer?
Rene: Fucking amazing. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that I’m surrounding myself with people that value me.
Rakeem: Sometimes, though, it doesn’t even get so far as dating. Like the guy I told you I went over to his house and he was like, ‘Oh you’re not attractive like at all, actually. I’m just going to ask you to leave.'
Federico: That’s so weird, you very much look like your photos.
Rakeem: Thank you. But I went to my car and I cried. And I remember thinking, if my body was a certain way he wouldn’t have said that. And I didn’t really have these issues until I started dating. I came out thinking the community was going to be so accepting and I’ve had to learn so much in the worst ways. It’s insane to me because I’ve seen people in whole year-ass long relationships and they don’t talk about shit, they just think that they look good together. I mean, you do you, but how are you going to build a life with someone that’s purely based on how toned your abs are?
Federico: That’s where people’s values are.
Rakeem: I don’t even know if I would call those values.
Federico: It’s a poor value set, but a value set nonetheless.
Rakeem: You could cure cancer tomorrow but someone would look at the guy next to you and be like, ‘Well, he’s skinnier.'
Federico: For me it wasn’t until I carved out a new social circle that I began to peel away from those values and define my own.
Rakeem: Were you doing that consciously?
Federico: Yes and no. There were things about my body that I didn’t like and that I changed. Like, I didn’t like how hairy I was because I couldn’t approximate the figures on the covers of gay magazines. My style was so informed by that. It wasn’t until college that all of that changed and critical theory made me aware of what was informing these ideas and how confined I felt to Eurocentric ideas of sexuality, masculinity and homosexuality. I let my queer identity be informed by things that were not very queer, right? They were very conformist and homonormative. I let capitalism shape who I was and it wasn’t until I was able to disconnect from that that I felt more at ease. I love fashion too much so I’m a bad Marxist, but still.—