Mr Gay Hong Kong 2012 Benjie Caraig vows to support local community
By Matthew Leung
To the beat of the music and the endless cheers from the audience, five muscular young men walk confidently on stage and introduce themselves one by one. They are taking part in a beauty pageant with a difference. In addition to sculpted bodies, great personalities and the desire to make the world a better place, the contestants in this beauty pageant are proud to be gay and parading in the Grand Finale of Mr Gay Hong Kong 2012.
The man taking home the title on the night is Benjie Caraig, a 30-year-old fitness and dance instructor who came to Hong Kong from the Philippines almost seven years ago. With his tanned complexion, muscular build and sunny smile, Caraig lives up to the image of a pageant winner. But there is more to him than a pretty face.
Caraig has a passion for contributing to the local gay community, a passion he attributes to his strong connection to Hong Kong. He first came here to work as a parade performer at Disneyland, a job he did for five years. He says they were the most unforgettable years of his life and the experience shaped the person he is today.
“I’ve learnt to be independent, strong, brave, creative and to always be happy, trust my instincts and stand for what I believe is true,” Caraig says.
For Caraig, Hong Kong is “the place to be”, a place full of opportunities which has given him the chance to explore himself. But his mind is also never far away from the Philippines because that is where his parents are.
Today Caraig is very close to his parents and sisters but he remembers a time when he became a self-imposed “outcast”. Caraig says he first realised he was gay at the age of 18 and after that he isolated himself from the family, fearing they would find out.
Caraig was raised in a devout Catholic family. When he was in the Philippines, his family, including himself and his three sisters, took part in voluntary church work to help people with drug and alcohol abuse problems. Even today, he adheres to his mother’s teaching that he should put God first in everything he does. It is a message he takes to heart and he says he is grateful about everything he owns today, including the title of Mr Gay Hong Kong 2012. “When they announced the winner, I just shouted, looked up and said ‘Thank You Lord’,” he says.
Looking back on his childhood, Caraig recalls his parents would tell him how to live his life properly almost every day. But he says he was a rebellious kid who never listened to their advice. “I always ignored their opinions about me and their advice. I thought I can live my life on my own,” he says.
Caraig’s decision to come to Hong Kong to pursue dancing as a career was a turning point for both himself and his family. That same year, his sisters moved to New Zealand and the family was split into three. It was after this that he finally realised family was the most important thing and everything his parents had told him was true.
Today, Caraig still constantly reminds himself to “keep my feet on the ground no matter how high I get.”
Because he loves his family so much, it was a huge decision for him to participate in Mr Gay Hong Kong. Despite coming out to his friends in his college days, he had never come out to his family because he was worried about how it might affect their reputation.
“But somehow, I think it’s time to embrace and accept who you are. If you don’t accept and embrace who you are, they will never accept you as well,” Caraig says of his decision to enter the competition.
Although he did not tell his parents about the pageant, his mother eventually learned about it from media reports. In the end, there was no face-to-face coming out but an emotional acknowledgement. Some time after he won Mr Gay Hong Kong, Caraig received a text message from the Philippines. It was from his mother.
“I’m so proud of you, never ever forget the Lord,” Caraig recounts the message. “I told your dad about it. At first, he didn’t say anything. The first thing that came out of his mouth was, the Lord had a plan for my child.”
Other family members were supportive too. In fact, Caraig’s younger sister idolizes him for what he has achieved. As a lesbian, she understands the courage needed to come out not just to close relatives or friends but to the whole world.
So now Caraig is at peace with his sexual orientation and with his family. He is also at peace with his faith. He says it was never much of an issue to be gay and living in a country where 90 per cent of the population is Christian, of which more than 80 per cent are Catholic.
He found his church in the Philippines, in his experience, did not seem to care much about gay issues any more. “They are already used to it,” he says, although issues like gay marriage are sometimes brought up and argued over.
Although he is away from home, Caraig is active in his church in Hong Kong and now also in the gay community. Taking part in the pageant has helped him develop a strong sense of commitment to the gay community. He is surprised to see how gay issues have become more prominent in Hong Kong and the number of groups supporting gay issues has increased. There are organisations working on gay rights, on homophobic bullying and on HIV/AIDS education among other things. “I am really thankful that Hong Kong has embraced the gay community,” he says.
He confesses that, at first, he thought Mr Gay Hong Kong was merely about a good-looking man with a great body being recognized and desired by other people.
This view changed after he met some of the organisers, contestants and sponsors. One example is the Pink Alliance, a local group that aims to link up the various “tongzhi” organisations in Hong Kong and help them with their work.
Caraig remembers thinking: “How come I never met these people? They are trying to make a difference in this community.” This was when he realised that being Mr Gay Hong Kong was like being the spokesperson of the gay community, that he could really reach out to help others and fight for their rights.
Apart from a magazine cover, free haircuts, and an all-expenses-paid trip to Mr Gay World in Antwerp, Belgium next year, the title involves being the ambassador for a campaign against homophobic bullying in schools.
In fact, Caraig has been making good use of his creativity to raise money for a local charity that supports the gay community. One of his projects this year is the “BITCH Shirt”, which is the acronym for brave, independent, trendy, caring and a hero. It is a collection of sport shirts designed by Caraig and the project’s proceeds will go to Elements, a local organisation that strives to promote “Quality Gay Life” through education and social services.
Although he is impressed with the strides made by the gay community in Hong Kong in recent years, he still believes organisations need more support and publicity. He says, for example, that when he was helping to promote Pink Season in Lan Kwai Fong, some people just ignored them. “I think it’s time that we should go hand in hand and fight for our own rights,” he says.
Asked to define what gay rights should encompass, Caraig points to the right “to live our lives freely without any rejection, discrimination and fear of society disowning us as human beings.”
For those who are too scared to come out because of pressure from society or any other concerns, Caraig reminds them that they can always find the support and love they need from the expanding gay community. He knows it is a difficult process to go through, but he thinks this is a good time for them to accept and embrace their sexuality.
For him, the thing that is missing in the world, and which could solve many of its problems is respect. “There is discrimination against race, sex and even physical appearance because we are not even reminded of the word respect,” he says.
His motto for life is “Love Plus Respect Equals Peace.” It is a motto that he will be repeating many times in his work as Mr Gay Hong Kong in the coming year, a year that will be busy with interviews, publicity events, advocacy and fund-raising. But it is also a motto he will be repeating long after his reign is over.
“Forever, I’ll be Mr Gay Hong Kong 2012. This is just a platform for me to do whatever I wanted to do. I’ll continue until the day I die to support the gay community.”