During this pandemic, people are doing their best to stay mentally healthy. For some people, that means using the time productively, raising funds, learning new languages and making MacGyver-like PPE equipment for local health workers. These folks who find themselves busier than ever while some of us binge-watch Netflix and exchange streaming passwords.
This week’s Portrait, Michael Rios, is in the former group. He has used his time to work on several projects, including creating a website, Queerantine, to support those in the service industry needing a little extra help.
Where are you from originally?
I was born in Brooklyn, New York.
Both of my parents were New Yorkers, but I don’t know a lot about Brooklyn.
Well, I was only in Brooklyn until I was about 6 years old. Both of my parents passed away from complications due to AIDS/HIV, and I was adopted by my aunt and uncle. We moved with them to the country in the middle of nowhere in upstate Pennsylvania and then later to upstate New York before I came back to go to school in Harrisburg, and now I live in Philadelphia.
What was growing up in the country like for you?
For the most part, it was … secluded. We made the most of it though. We were in a very rural area. It wasn’t on a farm, but it was isolated. We were in a small town called Susquehanna, population 1,500, but then we moved to the city of Binghamton, New York, which was considerably larger.
Who is “we”?
I have two older sisters. Biologically, they’re my cousins, but we were raised together after I was adopted, and I consider them my sisters.
Both parents died of HIV/AIDS. How cognizant of it were you? You were pretty young for something that heavy.
Yeah, so my family is very religious, very evangelical and they used my parents’ story as a cautionary tale to share with others. Even my father, during his last days when he was really sick, used his story to try to minister to others. So I was aware of it, but as you said, that’s a heavy issue for a kid, and I was only able to understand so much. As I grew older, I filled in the pieces here and there, “Oh that’s what HIV and AIDS stands for.” From what I understand, my father contracted it first. He was a drug user and apparently also experimented with homosexuality. That’s allegedly how he got it, but who knows? We’ll never know for sure. Then he met and married my mother, and it was shortly after I was born that they discovered his status.
Wow, that’s a lot of knowledge to handle growing up.
[Laughing] Yeah, it is! It is, especially when eventually you start to discover that you’re gay and then find out that, according to the Christians around you, gay is associated with HIV/AIDS. It was a lot of weight.
How old were you when you started figuring out that you had feelings that were frowned upon by the church?
My first crush was on a substitute teacher in the third grade. It wasn’t anything sexual; it was just a schoolboy crush. It wasn’t until I hit puberty that I started realizing, “Oh, this is something.” That started a whole slew of issues that a lot of young gay Christians have to deal with.
Did you hear a lot of homophobia in the church you belonged to?
Oh yes, it was preached from the pulpit, though when I was young, I didn’t comprehend what was being said. As I started recognizing my attractions, I still didn’t fully understand the concepts of what I was hearing, but I got the gist. Then, when my parents discovered that I was gay, they brought on the whole Christian arsenal — mechanisms for curing it.
Oh boy, did that include conversion therapy?
[Laughing] Yes, they tried reparative therapy twice! Neither time worked!
Thank goodness! What did it entail?
I consider myself fortunate because it wasn’t that bad, especially with some of the horror stories you hear. I wasn’t sent to a camp or anything. The first therapist was pretty normal. We would just sit and talk about school and church, nothing really invasive. The second time, we just spoke over the phone. They splurged for this nationally known guy who was famous for counseling Christian youth who were in danger of homosexuality. He was a little more adamant about it, but he wasn’t aggressive or angry. He was more compassionate instead of fire and brimstones as he tried to guide me to a “better” life. And in the end, I managed to convince him that I was fine with the issue being between me and God. He finally said, OK then, if you’re good with God, then go do what makes you happy.
Yeah, so even though my parents were paying someone to “fix” me, I ended up convincing him that I was OK.
How old were you?
The first time, I was about 12. I honestly don’t recall. The second time, I think I was about 15.
How did they find out?
My journal — she found and read it. It still makes me anxious just thinking about it.
OK, I’ll change the subject! What did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a filmmaker. I have a small wedding photography and videography business, so I’m not far away from that. It’s not my main source of income, but I enjoy it. It’s my side hustle. I also volunteer with the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus. I haven’t been a singing member for years, but I take pictures and videos for them.
Did you make a pitstop at college?
I did. I went to Messiah, which is a Christian college just outside of Scranton. I was there for a year until my parents and I had our big blowout. They wanted me to come home for the summer to work at a Christian camp, which paid like $50 a week. It was just another chance for them to try gay reparative therapy again, and I knew it. They paid for my first year of college, and I knew that I was going to have to get a job to make some money in case they cut me off. My mother told me, “You just want to go and be gay don’t you?” and I basically said, “Uh, yeah. I’d really like to live my life,” and she told me that they couldn’t support that. She hung up the phone and that was the last time we spoke for quite some time. They cut me off completely. In the blink of an eye, I became homeless. I had no place to stay, didn’t know where I was going to sleep when classes ended; it was a struggle. It was the beginning of the next chapter of my life.
You almost didn’t do this interview because you said nothing was interesting about you. I beg to differ! So after a year of film school, you’re on your own. What did you do?
Back then, there was a website called gay.com that had chat rooms. It was my only connection to the gay community. I was seeking out other gay people and met a few on campus, but I didn’t know anyone well enough to ask if I could stay with them. The only offer I had was from a stranger that I met in a chat room who said he had a spare room I could stay in. So I showed up with a suitcase in hand because I had nowhere else to go. That was the start of some very dark days in my life. There are some good people out there who try to help others, and then there are wolves who prey on others’ misfortunes and take advantage of young gay people in need. He was a wolf.
Sheesh! Did any of the hardships help you become who you are today, as tragic as it is?
I think so, but everyone has their own struggles. My story is sadly not unique. There are a lot of people who are abandoned by their families or abandoned by people they thought they could trust in the community. One of my priorities is to always try to keep a positive outlook and to believe that there is good in other people. It’s part of my core.
What helped you turn things around?
It took a while. That man controlled my life and my income, and it took a minute to get out of that situation. Eventually, I was able to meet some people in Harrisburg who were truly good people in the LGBT community who took me under their wings and taught me how to be an adult — how to get an apartment on my own and how to manage my finances, even how to decorate on a dime! I had a drag queen who was my ‘gay mama’ and others who stepped up and raised me in ways my parents weren’t able to. They taught me lessons that I still carry with me to this day. It enabled me to get a good job and go from a homeless outcast, cut off from family to someone who owns their own home. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve been provided.
What is your main profession?
I’m a web developer for an engineering company. I do web development and virtual reality programs, and I love it. I love the job I do and the people I work with.
What’s the most interesting project you’ve worked on?
A few years back, I made a virtual reality program for a trade show, and it was pretty cool. It was a VR experience that put people in different environments from the middle of the ocean during a storm or in the desert high on top of a turbine. It was fun to see people react, sometimes even scream with the headsets on.
Did you go back to school?
I did. After people helped me get back on my feet, I was able to get a job and attend Harrisburg Community College and get a degree in web development.
What brought you to Philly?
Harrisburg was an important part of my life, but there came a time when I wanted to stretch my wings. A lot of my closest friends were moving to Philadelphia, and they encouraged me to come. It was getting a bit lonely there, so I made the move, and I don’t regret it one bit.
Even after the taxi incident?
Oh, well that was handled pretty well. A friend of mine who lives a few blocks down from me and I were sharing a cab back from a club. I guess he said something about running into his ex that the driver overheard. He suddenly hit the brakes and told us to get out. When I asked why he told us he “didn’t want that gay s–t in his car.” I was new to Philly then, and I didn’t know where I was. I was petrified. The good news is that we immediately reported him to PPA the next morning and by 2:30 p.m., they called him in. He lied and said first that we “talked dirty” in the cab. Then he said we propositioned him. Then he said that we refused to pay the fare. So we took him to court. The city helped us hold him accountable, and he ended up getting a fine and a suspension and had to undergo training.
Bravo! How are you handling the quarantine?
It’s rough. I like to be out doing things, but I’m thankful that I have a place to stay and food on the table. I have my health and a job, so I can’t complain too much. I’ve been trying to work on art projects. I’m a big DIY guy. I’m always on Pinterest or YouTube, looking for the next project.
Your current pet project is Queerantine. Tell me a little about that.
When I was at my lowest point, it was people in the service industry that saved me. My first job after my family cut me off was at a gay bar called Stallions. I was under 21, but they let me work at a section of the bar for people under 21. I was basically a soda jerk. It was the staff from that bar who became my family. They helped get me through one of the roughest periods in my life. I can’t stress enough what the bar and service industry does for our community. They’re responsible for these places that become safe spaces for many of us — creating spaces where we can have fellowship with other members of our community. They entertain us and sometimes counsel us, and are essential to the community. One day I was sitting at home and made myself a drink. I started thinking, if things were normal, I’d be at the Tavern tipping my favorite bartender as they mixed the drink. I started thinking about the folks at the bars who are without revenue right now. I figured there are probably other people who would want to support their favorite mixologist or other bar people, drag queens and cabaret performers, wait staff, etc. We could each try to hunt some of them down and ask if they had a Venmo account, but wouldn’t it be easier if there were a directory and website where you could safely get it to them? And so I created Queerantine, which is a virtual tip jar. And it’s been very successful. We’re now doing it in several cities!
What TV family would you like to have been a part of?
The Winslows from “Family Matters!” I’m a child of the ’80s and ’90s, and that was my favorite show. To have Steve Urkel barging in, “Did I do that?” would be awesome. He was a fellow nerd, so we could geek out together and create robots.
What’s the geekiest thing you’ve ever done?
Oh, so many — probably dressing up for comic-con or cosplay. I love any chance to get in costume. Halloween is my favorite holiday!
Best and worst costumes?
Best — last year some friends and I went as Lock, Shock and Barrel from “Nightmare Before Christmas.” Worst — I went as a voting booth to try to encourage people to vote. I had stickers to pass out and everything; people could check different boxes on my shirt, which unfortunately gave some people an excuse to get a little too handsy with my voting block.