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Mr. Gay World wants to make sure you're OK

Mr. Gay World wants to make sure you're OK


<p>Mr. Gay World wants to make sure you're OK</p>
photo by Jay Ryco

photo by Jay Ryco

Troy Michael Smith has survived some dark places, and has now made it his mission to help other gay and bi men find healing.

Beauty pageants get a bad rap, Troy Michael Smith believes. As the most recent winner of the Mr. Gay World competition — produced by a 15-year-old nonprofit that aims to “identify the best spokesperson for the LGBTQI community” — Smith is excited about the platform his victory provides. The Alaska-based realtor and pageant consultant hopes to spread the word on mental health and fighting suicide; he points out his state’s queer community is disproportionately prone to self-harm. While Smith’s victory at the October competition in South Africa included old-school categories like swimwear and formal wear, he was also required to ace an LGBTQ+ history test and a 10-minute presentation on social responsibility. The public speaking may have been the easiest aspect of the competition for Smith, who has ran for public office and worked for Senator Lisa Murkowski. Smith shared with Plus his plans as Mr. Gay World, as well as details on his fitness regimen, a possible return to politics, and his suggestions for defeating HIV in the Black community.

Troy Michael Smith giving golden god vibes at the Mr. Gay World pageant.photo by Rudi Du Toit

Congratulations on winning the Mr. Gay World crown. What is the competition like and what does it take to win?

The overall experience is life changing. You get to create lifelong relationships with incredible guys from all around the world. The competition is brutal because there are so many areas of competition and you have very little room for error if you want to make the top 5. In a competition like this, you need to understand the scoring system and how much each category is worth. For example, the social responsibility campaign challenge was 25 percent of the overall score. If you don’t do well in that challenge, you have no chance of winning and very little hope of making the top 5.

The general rule should be to prepare yourself to do well in every single category. That’s what I did. I studied gay history and current events because I knew that the written exam was one of the major categories. That’s another very important area. If you don’t know about our gay history, you won’t stand a chance on the written exam. If you don’t do well on the written exam, you can’t win either. It’s a heavily weighted category.

In order to win Mr. Gay World, you need to score in the top 3 in every single category, especially in the categories that are the highest scoring — written exam, public vote, and social responsibility campaign. If you win one or more of these categories, there is a little wiggle room to place out of the top 3 in a category that’s only worth 5 percent of score.

For me, I won the three major categories that weighted most in score: the written exam, social responsibility campaign, and the public vote. That’s most likely what won me the title. Most importantly, this isn’t a beauty pageant about who is the hottest gay guy in the world. It’s a competition searching for LGBTQ leaders who are established and have active plans to take their advocacy to another level. Everyone in the top 5 had incredible platforms and were very deserving of the title. I couldn’t have asked for a better top 5 to be holding hands with. I will cherish this moment forever.

What will being Mr. Gay World entail for you over the next year?

My goal is to continue advocating and spreading awareness for suicide prevention. The gay community is 4 to 5 times more than likely to attempt suicide than any other demographic. These statistics are continuously rising within our community and that’s a problem. As a member of the Board of Directors of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) in Alaska, I plan to hit the ground running to recruit volunteers, advocate for public policy, and fundraise for this incredible nonprofit organization. Moreover, I was recently invited to attend the AFSP National Leadership Conference this January in Orlando.

My goal is to share my story through public speaking engagements, be more involved in the community, and serve as a certified volunteer crisis counselor. My team and I are in the talks of launching a “Mr. Gay World Tour” so I can travel and partner with various organizations and celebrity mental health advocates to help save lives. There are so many different ways to be involved in suicide prevention and I would absolutely love to launch a tour … I would love to work with Bravo, OutTV, or Netflix on a documentary or show of some sort. I think the more vision we can spread, the more we can move closer to reducing that stigma. We always ask the question, “How can we end the stigma around mental health?” One of the top answers you’ll hear is, “By talking about and normalizing it.” What better way to talk about it than to create a show regarding the subject?

You’re the first Black man crowned Mr. Gay World. Tell us how that feels.

I grew up in an area that was challenging being a person of color. I was often called racial slurs in school from late elementary through high school. It was saddening because if you ever had the courage to stand up for yourself, you were the one who was considered a “trouble-maker.” The system has been fundamentally flawed from the very beginning, and I’ve witnessed white privilege and racism firsthand. However, I took that hurt and pain and turned it into a life of activism. To this day, as a Black man, I won’t let any racially motivated bigotry affect anything that I do. My favorite quote of all time is by Michelle Obama — “When they go low, we go high.” This has been my credo ever since she first spoke those words at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Of all things I’ve accomplished in my life thus far, becoming the first Black man to win Mr. Gay World in its 15 year history sits at the very top.

Smith revels in his winning moment as the new Mr. Gay World. photo by Rudi Du Toit

Black gay and bisexual men are still disproportionately affected by HIV. How can we change the paradigm on this?

First of all, this all comes down to systemic inequalities. Gay Black people are still experiencing racial disparities in health and are more prone to broader social and economic barriers than any other demographic. We need to do better as a country to ensure that health care is more equitable for the Black community. The best way that we can make change is through public policy. This means we need to continue electing officials who understand the extreme importance of addressing racial disparities and how that affects the overall health of Black communities.

Moreover, one of the most important ways that we, as gay Black men, can do our part in preventing HIV is to ensure that we only practice safe sex, combined with PrEP, regardless if we are in a monogamous relationship or not. Oftentimes, couples in monogamous relationships link infidelity to PrEP and that’s a huge stigma we need to overcome. PrEP is a necessary precaution to prevent the spread of HIV. I like to break PrEP into two different categories: protecting yourself and protecting others. Making a decision to take PrEP to protect your own health is 100 percent valid. Your partner shouldn’t question your loyalty for choosing to protect your own health. In my opinion, I think monogamous couples opting to use PrEP together could be very beneficial to help inspire others that precautionary measures are extremely important in preventing HIV.

We should make it a top priority to ensure that the Black community is educated and encouraged to use PrEP. PrEP combined with safe sex has proven to be extremely effective in preventing the spread of HIV. Statistics show a very large percentage of the Black community is aware of what PrEP is, but there is still a very low percentage who actually use this preventative drug. Our [Black] community has a much lower usage of PrEP than any other demographic. If we can encourage our community to utilize this preventative drug, that will play a huge role in helping prevent the spread of HIV.

Why is the issue of mental health especially important to you?

I’m a suicide survivor and I’ve lost friends to suicide. A few years ago my best friend from back home lost her father to suicide. This really hit me hard. Her and her brother are dear friends of mine and it was heartbreaking watching them go through this.

I’ve also lost a very close family friend to the opioid crisis. Addiction isn’t a choice. It’s never a choice. The misconception around this puzzles me. Stigmas often portray a negative image of our loved ones. Our focus needs to be on ending that stigma.

Aside from that, I was diagnosed with clinical depression in 2019. I don’t have any shame in that. Through therapy, medication, and self-care I am able to live a normal life. Often times it’s harder than most to smile, but I make sure to take care of myself and surround myself with positive people.

I would encourage people to be more vulnerable. My vulnerability is my greatest strength. When you find the courage to let people in, they’ll get a better understanding of what you’re going through and how to help you. Also, don’t be ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help. It can be uncomfortable at first, but therapy saved my life. Being able to talk to a person, confidentially, who doesn’t know you takes a huge weight off of your shoulders. Therapists are able to help you immensely if you open up and be honest.

You’ve also been candid about your weight loss and fitness journey. It’s often hard to take that first step when it comes to exercise and diet. Can you offer any recommendations?

It is very hard to get started, but once you do it, it’s well worth it.... I don’t work out for my physical appearance. I stay active and workout because it gives me a clear mind. Anytime that I work out, I feel a significant increase in my mood after. Pairing that with a healthy meal is golden.

But of course your physique improves with healthy eating and exercise. I’d say that’s my secret. I don’t really focus on my fitness. I specifically work out and eat healthy because it boosts my mood and always gives me a positive mentality.

Also, intermittent fasting is my go-to. I only eat between 12 noon and 8 p.m. There is so much research that proves the significant benefit of this type of fasting. You have to be careful though. You need to make sure that if you fast you plan your workouts accordingly. Your body needs nutrition to survive and feeding it after a workout is pertinent.

Taking the first step is always rough. I like to give myself something to look forward to. For example, my little cousin is getting married in March 2024. I want to look and feel my best for her wedding, so that’s something that keeps me inspired to stay on track. Pick anything to look forward to — vacation, wedding, class reunion, etc. I think that’s a little trick that helps ignite the process. It gets easier to start on track once you make it a routine.

You previously ran for public office in your home in Alaska. Do you still have political aspirations?

Absolutely. I ran for local office for City Assembly in Juneau. There is so much to be done at the local level and it would have been an honor to serve, but I think everything happens for a reason. The woman who prevailed is an amazing person and I’m sure she’ll accomplish great things during her time as an assembly member.

For me, the picture is bigger. It always has been. Simply put, the answer to your question is “yes.” Public policy is something that is extremely important to instill change and make a difference in this world. I’ve been involved in politics for many years and I’ve worked for both Democrats and Republicans. Most recently I served as the Coordinator of Southeast Alaska for Senator Lisa Murkowski’s successful re-election campaign. Being able to stand by her side was an incredible experience. She’s an admirable woman and she is an icon in the United States. She’s exactly who I aspire to be like. She doesn’t let her party define who she is as a person. She votes on issues with heart and refuses to be influenced by party pushers. I’m a Democrat. She’s a Republican. The most important thing I’ve learned from her is from something she said to me when I hosted her at my home. She said, “I’m not running for office to represent Republicans. I’m not running to represent Democrats. I’m running to represent Alaskans. All Alaskans.” I don’t think she gets enough credit from our community. Senator Murkowski is one of the strongest allies in the United States to our LGBTQ community. I’ll say this — if anyone can become the first female president of the United States, it’s Michelle Obama or Lisa Murkowski. Either of them would win in a landslide victory.

Having that said— I will run for senator in Alaska, but never against Lisa. Either after she’s retired, or I will definitely challenge our other Alaskan Senator, Dan Sullivan. Lisa is the heart and soul of Alaska, and I would be honored to be her successor or colleague. Many people think it’s a wild fantasy to run as a gay, Black, liberal man because Alaska has always been a “red state,” but my response has always been “don’t underestimate Alaskans.” Alaskans have proven to elect effective leaders. It’s time that we elect more leaders who place mental health at the forefront. Alaska is a state with one of the highest suicide rates per capita, a large homeless population, and suffers from the effects of the opioid crisis. A political affiliation doesn’t matter when voting to improve the quality of life for all Alaskans. No matter the difficulty, I accept that challenge.

Cover image by Jay Ryco

If you are having thoughts of suicide or are concerned that someone you know may be, resources are available to help. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 is for people of all ages and identities. The lifeline also provides resources to help with other crises, such as domestic violence situations. The Trevor Project Lifeline, for LGBTQ+ youth (ages 24 and younger), can be reached at (866) 488-7386. Users can also access chat services at TheTrevorProject.org/Help or text START to 678678.

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Ryan is the Digital Director of The Advocate Channel, and a graduate of NYU Tisch's Department of Dramatic Writing. She is also a member of GALECA, the LGBTQ+ society of entertainment critics. While her specialties are television writing and comedy, Ryan is a young member of the LGBTQ+ community passionate about politics and advocating for all.

Ryan is the Digital Director of The Advocate Channel, and a graduate of NYU Tisch's Department of Dramatic Writing. She is also a member of GALECA, the LGBTQ+ society of entertainment critics. While her specialties are television writing and comedy, Ryan is a young member of the LGBTQ+ community passionate about politics and advocating for all.