The importance of being Ermis
Chico State ag student Grant Ermis makes good as Mr. Gay USA
Grant Ermis, Mr. Gay USA for 2007, is not just another pretty face. Make no mistake, the 23-year-old Chico State agriculture-sciences student is photogenic, and he looks striking in a low-rise swimsuit. But if that’s all you took away from his victory in the second annual Mr. Gay USA contest, you’d be missing the whole picture, as far as Ermis is concerned.
“I think the perception of our community is distorted,” Ermis explained in a recent interview with the News & Review. “Not all gays are the same as the characters you see on Queer As Folk or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I am who I am, and the fact that I’m gay shouldn’t matter. Essentially it doesn’t matter in my mind.”
Ermis, who was raised in Modesto and resides in Sacramento when he isn’t attending school, describes himself as a “country boy at heart,” and with short-cropped ash-blond hair, green-striped Nautica button shirt, faded blue jeans, western belt buckle and chukka boots, he certainly looks the part. There’s no indication he isn’t exactly who he says he is: a former member of the Future Farmers of America and an earnest student of animal breeding and genetics who hopes someday to teach agriculture to high-school students and who also just happens to be gay.
But despite the progress the gay-rights movement has achieved in the past several decades, in the minds of many folks, those things still don’t necessarily go together in 21st-century America. The idea that some people continue to believe he can’t be both gay and who he is caused Ermis to seek out the Mr. Gay USA contest in the first place.
“About a year ago, I didn’t even know if it existed,” he said. “I Googled ‘Mr. Gay contest’ and found out it did exist. It seemed to stand for everything I stand for. They were looking for somebody who is gay to portray the boy-next-door image to the media.”
The contest is the brainchild of Don Spradlin and Thomas Roth, longtime members of the Bay Area gay-business community who began promoting Mr. Gay USA and Mr. Gay International contests two years ago. Their organization, Community Promotions, invites promoters from cities across the United States to franchise Mr. Gay contests for their communities.
So far, more than 20 cities have signed on nationally; a like number of countries participated in this year’s international competition. Sacramento business partners Jeff Davis and Terry Sidie, who own and operate a gay nightclub, sponsored the first Mr. Gay Sacramento contest in September. “This is not a contest that was set up to be eye candy,” Davis said, noting that the contestants must be over 18 years of age and are prohibited from working in adult films or any other area of the sex industry.
Contestants were judged on physical as well as mental attributes, including a question-and-answer session that considered issues such as moral and ethical values. Ermis bested five other contestants and earned the right to vie for the Mr. Gay USA and Mr. Gay International titles in Palm Springs in October.
Ermis, who also picked up the Mr. Gay USA Fitness title in Palm Springs, claims he doesn’t go to the gym and credits his lean and cut physique to a busy schedule that includes two jobs, a dog, a boyfriend, family and school. He found the interview portion of the competition in Palm Springs more challenging.
“It’s funny. I’ve never been in a competition before,” he said. “I came in thinking there would be deceitful people just out to get the title. I was thankfully relieved of that notion after the first few hours of competition. I was biting my nails at points trying to figure out how I was doing in the scoring.”
He nearly tripped himself up when asked how he planned to carry the contest’s message to the public at large. “My answer was that I wanted to help people realize that if they see someone as a ‘flamer,’ that’s not who we are,” he said. However, one judge asked how that message would go over with those in the gay community who proudly consider themselves “flamers.” Ermis, quick to think on his feet, reconsidered his answer carefully before replying.
“I represent those people, and lord knows I have qualities of those people in me that I don’t want to lose,” he said, recalling his answer. “I’m only human, and although I may not explain things right the first time, I’m not out to dupe anybody. I represent this cause—we’re the guys you’re roping cattle with on the ranch, the guys you’re working with in the shop, the guys flying thousands of people around the world in planes—but that doesn’t mean I don’t represent everybody else.”
For Ermis, winning the Mr. Gay USA title was part of a coming-out process that began three years ago. He first realized he was gay in junior high school and, in retrospect, can recall some signs as early as age 5. But in a heterosexual world, denial is de rigueur.
“Kids are normally raised as heterosexual; there’s nothing wrong with that,” he said. “But that is what stopped me from coming out more than anything else. I expected myself to be heterosexual more than anyone else did.”
For Ermis, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. That goes for being gay as well as being the winner of a pageant.
“The fact that I wear a sash and go to official events doesn’t change the fact that I was nominated by the judges for who I am,” he said. “That’s what people see when they only look at the outside of a competition.”