Pic by DuyVoLap Photography
Cape Town’s Charl van den Berg was crowned Mr Gay South Africa late last year amid a flurry of controversy, thanks in part to some solo porn pictures published on a local gay adult site. The 28 year old Bloemfontein-born restaurant manager has been unrepentant, but the furore has led some to ask, is Charl a role model or is the entire Mr Gay SA pageant irrelevant? We got to know more about the man behind the fuss…
When did you first come out?
I first came out about four years ago, but I obviously knew that I was attracted to guys a while before that, even though I tried to deny it. It was pretty tough for me as it took me a while to come to accept myself for who I am. Coming from a religious Afrikaans background, it’s not the easiest thing. I just got tired of living a double life, straight to some people and gay to others. When I moved to Cape Town [after living in Bloemfontein and then Jeffreys Bay] it made it easier for me to simply just be who I am, right from the start.
Why do think so few gay men of colour took part in the Mr Gay SA pageant?
I know the invitation was out there. I also know that the organisers went out of their way to attract more entrants of colour as they wanted the competition as representative of the entire LGBTI community as possible. I think it boils down to the fact that it’s still tricky to be a gay man of colour in Africa and to be out in the open. I have personally spoken to a few gorgeous men of colour and they were not prepared to get themselves so out there in the public arena. We can just look at the recent events in Uganda, and also some of the hate crimes in our own country towards gay women of colour. Even though we have come a long way in SA, being gay is still a big taboo in some cultures, which makes it difficult. Hopefully the success of this year’s event and the fact that Iggi Mnisi [the 2nd Runner-Up] did so well and stood proud as an African man will change this in the future.
What would you do to help things along in that regard?
I think that the Mr Gay South Africa pageant has already taken a huge step forward. The second runner up is a man of colour. I told Iggy after the finale that I was so proud of him and that he had broken down a wall by simply being who he is and entering the competition. Who knows, maybe next year we will have a Mr Gay South Africa of colour!
How do you think you are able to represent such a diverse community?
It’s most definitely a big challenge. You could never fully understand a person’s experience unless you have actually lived it yourself, but you can try to gain some insight. I worked for a NGO for a few months while I was living in Jeffreys Bay, called The Joshua Project. We worked with kids on the street, to rehabilitate them back into their homes. So being based in the township and seeing life from that perspective you do gain some sense of what it must be like living in the townships, although not the whole picture I guess. The only way for me to represent the entire community is to live and learn, be honest to myself, my beliefs and to draw from the experiences of other greats such as Zachie Achmat, Judge Cameron and so on. But one thing is for sure, I am committed to this challenge and I will do my very best to make a difference for us all.
In your opinion, what are the most pressing issues facing the gay community in South Africa?
Most certainly HIV/Aids. Even though steps have been taken to help the situation, a recent survey shows that South Africans are dying younger and in greater numbers every year. We are far from having a victory over HIV/Aids and I don’t think there can ever be enough said and done to help promote responsible sex and sex education in our country. Thank goodness our new government is doing something more drastic about it – a step in the right direction. Other issues such as homophobia, hate speech, violence against gay men and women are all important. We have a long way to go and I’m looking forward to tackling some of these issues.
There’s been some negative publicity about your nude pictures. Do you regret having done them now?
No. I have made a public statement to present my side of the story.
Would you ever consider doing hardcore porn?
No. I never considered it.
Some question if you are fit to be a role model for the gay community because of those pictures? How would you respond?
I would say that they should try to get to know me better before they judge my character or ability to be a role model. I proved to them that just because I did a nude photo shoot, it didn’t make me less of a person. My heart is in the right place, my commitment is known and the coming year will prove that I am willing and able to play an important role in the community. I will represent the entire LGBTI community as far as possible.
How does your family feel about the pictures? Did they know about them before this all came out in the press?
They are my family and family stick together – no matter what. They might have been a bit surprised, but they respect my decisions as a grown man. I’m still their grandson, son, brother, cousin and friend.
Did you learn anything from the experience?
What I gained from this experience was a wider perspective and greater understanding about a section of our society which is often misunderstood, and therefore pre-judged by those who feel they know better. I have learned in my life that you cannot judge unless you have walked in the same shoes as those whom you judge. And if you do judge, then it is usually out of your own insecurities or fears.
Do you think gay men are too obsessed with sex, pornography and hooking up on dating sites? Are we too promiscuous?
I think too much emphasis is put on GAY men here! It’s part of that prejudice that put us in a bad light. Yes, gay men like having sex, and yes they like watching porn and yes they are on dating sites etc, but so is the straight community! It’s not as if there are no straight dating sites or no straight sex happening. Goodness, that’s how gay men are born! [Laughs] Maybe we are a bit more outspoken about it because we have gained the confidence to speak out, but I definitely do not think it’s because we are gay.
How much competition was there between the contestants? Was there any bitchiness?
Well, from the beginning there was such a great sense of brotherhood instead of competition. We all got along from the start and I think we all realised that just being there was such an honour. Obviously, after the cruise and the rehearsals and photo shoots and lack of sleep you do tend to become a bit edgy, but that’s natural.
Give us some gossip! Are you aware of any of the finalists hooking up with one another? Did you?
I plead the fifth! [Laughs]
What does it mean to be Mr Gay SA?
I think for our community it means a lot. Mr Gay South Africa is someone that can relate to everybody within the greater gay and lesbian society, no matter what your situation, or background or status. I believe that he should be somebody who speaks without condemnation, and who chooses to uplift and support those around him in whatever their endeavours.