Some might equate a small waistline with perfection. But gay writer and activist Benjamin O’Keefe weighs his worth on a scale that’s not based on numbers.
“I think [body image] is an issue that a lot of queer people deal with, especially gay men,” he told NBC OUT. “Queer people look all kinds of ways, but as a whole we tend to see a beautiful white muscular gay [man] as a representation of our community. It’s just not realistic.”
O’Keefe hasn’t always loved his body, or himself. He overcame anorexia in high school. It was an experience that motivated him to launch a Change.org petition against retailer Abercrombie & Fitch when he was just 18 years old. The company’s former CEO Mike Jeffries made controversial comments about excluding plus-sized customers from its brand. O’Keefe’s campaign garnered tens of thousands of signatures and ignited a nationwide conversation about body image.
“Not only did [the company] apologize for [his] harmful comments, they’ve offered plus sizes,” O’Keefe said.
The Orlando native always had big aspirations. He grew up poor and didn’t have the money to go to college. But he worked tirelessly and landed an internship with the progressive advocacy group MoveOn.org when he was only a teenager. Now at 22 years old, he’s climbed the ranks to senior producer. He’s also an actor and an award-winning speaker with a passion for storytelling. But getting there wasn’t easy.
“It’s crazy now that people line up to meet me, because it used to be that I had no friends. I was bullied a lot. Being gay was one of the things I hated most about myself,” he said.
O’Keefe talked about how he was routinely bullied in the eighth grade — even shoved down a flight of stairs. It drove him to attempt suicide.
“There was a real moment in my life where I was like, ‘Would I be better off not being here?’ I know the answer now is no. As cliche as it sounds, it does get better,” he said.
The big-hearted activist is using his platform to inspire conversations around intersectionality. He’s one of the writers behind MTV Decoded with Franchesca Ramsey, a weekly series on MTV News that focuses on race, social justice and popular culture. One of his favorite episodes in the series is called “Does Race Affect Your Dating Life?." It’s a personal topic for O’Keefe, who is black. He said it’s not uncommon to see comments like “No Blacks” or “No Asians” in dating profiles.
“We still see so much stigma and internalized bias even within [the LGBTQ] community … and that really influences the way I express my sexuality and the way that I fight for people who also have intersectionality in their backgrounds,” he said.
The young activist is busy writing a book and traveling to speaking engagements around the country. He said he’s living the life he’s always wanted and that he’s lucky to be living.
“What I’m most happy about is I’m not that eighth grade kid anymore. I don’t hate myself, I love myself, and I’m happy. I know who I am. I know where I’m going. And that part of my life is the coolest thing I can tell you. That I’m proud of who I am.”