"The winner of the Mr. USA pageant is..."
Picture the stage lined with Ken doll clones all fitted in black tuxedoes and strategically placed eagerly waiting to hear results. What you cannot see inside Mr. New Jersey's unique white blazer is a man's heart pounding with anxiety and the burning secret he's about to unleash. Up until this point Gene Kuffel remained silent afraid of revealing himself to judges limiting his chances in early phases of the competition, coincidentally the Garden State beauty was crowned Mr. USA International 1997 and stepped into his reign as the first gay man to accept the honor. He walked down the runway waving to empty seats where uninvited family members would have assembled; since this Fort Lee native applied in total secrecy he shared this moment with a sea of unfamiliar faces instead. Using his new platform as an opportunity to share his story, Gene Kuffel joined Ellen DeGeneres, Annise Parker and many more that year as they paved the way for the LGBT community by speaking up for the first time. Ellen's infamous same-sex kiss premiered on primetime creating a rare opportunity for those seeking an outlet to take advantage. Controversy covered the media as celebrities revealed their sexuality opening a window for Gene to take advantage of. Now opening up about his sexuality, Kuffel's mission is to tackle the rising teen suicide issue and encourage people to feel comfortable with whatever their sexual preference may be.
Born and raised in New Jersey, Kuffel always knew he was different... he just didn't know how. His childhood memories are filled with quaint tree lined streets, chaperoned school yards, traditional Irish/ Italian neighbors and the naïve association that everything related to being Gay was bad. His early years working at the local five and dime, morning newspaper routes and frequent trips to Palisades Amusement park set the tone for children in the 60's, the life when gay couples were still not publicized. I sat down to speak with him in a 6th grade classroom, here Kuffel teaches math and where his sexual orientation does not apply. Students have single filed into his classroom for over 20 years and states "My students are incredibly respectful and have never asked me anything, in fact they just see me as the guy who gives homework." Kuffel is one of four children, shadowed by two brothers who served in the U.S. Navy, they all accepted his decision easing him into his new lifestyle. Initially he hid from his family for months, allowing him to transition into the public eye and avoid embarrassment. It wasn't until after the pageant that he received a phone call from a family member who bluntly asked him if he was gay and he jokingly replied "Yes." Coming out to his mom was his final step and he intentionally took her out to eat so she could listen before reacting. Lucky for him after sharing a few concerns she simply replied, "You can't choose your eye color and you can't decide on your lover. Grandchildren were in your future, not mine. Your happiness is what matters to me." With his new crown in place and support from his family, Kuffel was ready for the world.
Revisiting moments from the pageant, he told me how he found himself alone in Los Angeles, simply titled and highly self conscious. He questioned himself constantly throughout the competition as the weight of his secret crushed his soul. He laughed as he remembered the extreme dieting and exercise regimen he adopted after receiving his application for the pageant. Proud of his rapid 50 pound weight loss, the actual moment when his name was crowned he thought, "I can never eat ice cream again, that's for sure!" The competition itself was much to be desired. A glimpse at his fellow states men led him to believe his chance was slim and allowed him the rare opportunity to actually soak up the experience. Surprisingly he tied the interview segment with Mr. New York and Mr. Utah, still certain they were walking away with his crown. This laid back All -American boy set himself apart from the typical contestants who were polished and tanned by opting for swim trunks over Speedos, apparently this was not in his favor landing him fourth in the swimsuit competition. Now sweeping the votes during formal wear he thought "they preferred me with my clothes on apparently." Thinking back, there was never a question of him winning, it was about proving to himself that he could even enter. Imagine a teacher, silenced about his relationships due to economic foolishness now crowned with a prestigious title. The truth is he hadn't feared losing but the fear of the unknown concerned him.
Although society has accepted the reality that being gay today is less about making a statement and more of a normal, healthy way of life, we still seem to stereotype, misjudge and question the LGBT community. Since that memorable walk down the runway, Kuffel has come across old friends who have sheepishly asked if they ever offended him throughout the years. He knew that he was not the first to keep quiet in order to secure a job, please a family, or lie to avoid a hate crime, so when approached by The Advocate journalist he took a leap of faith and told his story. His emotional struggles and childhood passion for a pageant crown was now in simple text. The first contestant not only to open up but win this contest was now exposing his journey as a gay man. Peering out from behind the American flag, Kaffel's cover was hanging on newsstands for everyone to see. Kuffel expressed his satisfaction with how the media has covered the LGBT community making it more mainstream and socially accepted. Creating the role of Jack on "Will & Grace" introduced a gay main character to homes across America and lifted stereotypes associated with being homosexual. Images of leather whips and chaps were Kuffel's first glimpse of gay men in the media while watching the 1984 Blue Oyster bar scene in Police Academy. He recalls his initial thoughts after watching that "If that was what it meant to be gay, I wanted no part of it!" Celebrity exposure aided the fast growing community by making their stories count. Ricky Martin and Anderson Cooper stood up, confessed their secrets and encourage friends to take the step with them. Neil Patrick Harris casually mentioned in an interview "my talent makes me popular, not being gay."
Over 16 years have passed since Mr. USA was crowned and came out; yet this is still a hot topic. Gene's first article and taboo controversy of revealing his true feelings was not a scheduled publicity stunt nor was it intended for fame, it was for you the reader to come to your senses and realize this is real. Today in 2013 we have a steady increase of teen suicides of those afraid to come out and hate crimes victimizing innocent people is a repeated headline. I asked Kuffel for his words on the topic as he has grown into a man who now accepts himself and lives free with his partner of 10 years. He made it clear that the future of the LGBT community lies within the younger generation. Casually going about our business and making less of a fuss will create a sense of normalcy for them. We were raised with our mothers working, diverse political faces and mainstream success for all races, all topics once forbidden by society.
Today we are living in a world where woman vote, interracial couples are finally accepted and our president is African American! The classroom we sat in was about 20 miles away from NYC, a favorable location open to experimentation and questioning, but there are those locked in a room ashamed and alone in small towns across the country. For those hiding their identities Gene asks, "What are you doing in your everyday life?" He follows with "Be a responsible human being and do your part. Find your niche and be good at it" Interestingly enough, this blue eye gentle giant is humbled more by parents and his love for his students then the details in this story. The contest was verification solely for him; on the other hand his concern for those still finding themselves is real. He offers a last bit of advice that I found to be incredibly raw and true. Apply this to life regardless of what issue you are battling, "This is not a dress rehearsal. This is real life. Find what gives you oxygen for your soul, than do it."