Interview by Jeffrey Guard
Telling Our Stories is a new series that began as a Pride event copartnered with The Generations Project. It involved members of our community sharing their stories around a "first time" experience. It was so successful that we decided to make it a recurring series on our platform where we collect and share the stories of the people in our community.
It also spoke to our mission to advocate, educate, and celebrate. We firmly believe that by providing a space to tell and record our stories we can provide future generations of the LGBTQ+ community a history from which they can learn and build upon.
Aside from the video narrative, we also conducted an interview with Flame, the very first of our storytellers!
JG: Hi Flame! We love the story you put together--thank you for sharing it. You had a pretty tough childhood, knowing what you know now and if you could suddenly time travel to deliver a message to the 13-year-old version of yourself, what would you want them to know?
Flame: Brace yourself, baby, it's gonna be a bumpy ride!!!
There's going to be moments where you feel hopeless and want to give up. DON'T. You will take what people consider your weakness and learn to turn it into your strengths.
You will find your tribe and together you will learn to navigate this crazy world.
You will eventually know what it feels like to be loved, not just by others but most importantly yourself. You can't control the deck of cards you are dealt in life, but you can be creative and resourceful with them and make the best of what you have and still win! Just follow your instincts and always be yourself.
JG: Tell us a little bit about your passion for hair and make-up. A lot of artists talk about a new kind of world opening up when they discover a particular craft--is it that way for you too with hair styling and make-up?
I was fortunate to be born with the gift of creating beauty how I see it. As a toddler, I would take my friends' Barbies and color their hair with food coloring, magic markers, or anything I could get my inventive little hands on.
I would get into my mom's makeup and beauty products too. My mother was always very glamorous and put together. I admired her beauty and wanted that for myself.
I started coloring my own hair at age 11 dipping into my mom's Sun-in hair color. When I discovered bright neon hair colors at age 13, it was a whole new world of possibilities for me, and I've never looked back.
Of course, I was punished severely by my parents for it, and discriminated against at school and just out in public. People would tease me and call me horrible names for my bold bright colors. On more occasions than I can count, people would throw rocks and empty glass bottles at me on my way to school.
On two separate occasions, I even had a kid walk up to me while I sat on the ground and he stood over and peed on me. Once, on the 1W bus on the way from Yonkers to White Plains, likely on my way to The LOFT, some random guy walked by and spit at me as he was getting off the bus.
The worst occasion was in my late teens where I was queer bashed by a gang of five or six guys who chased and beat me with a padlock and hammer. I needed 16 stitches to the scalp on 2 separate areas. The degradation was horrible, but the joy and empowerment of being able to express myself as I saw myself made it worth it to me.
By the time I graduated high school, becoming a licensed cosmetologist was a no brainer. I've made a pretty lucrative career of it which was allowed me to buy my own home at age 26 and travel the world. So far, by age 38 I've visited 106 countries and counting all thanks to following my heart despite push back and using my natural creative talents.
JG: There's a lot of hard-earned wisdom in your story and what we really appreciated was the level of inward peace you seem to have. How important is/was forgiveness in your journey, it seems to have given you an incredible level of freedom to be you!
The freedom to be me came long before I found peace as I never knew how to be anything or anyone other than myself, but it came at a price. As a small child, I was a lonely and sad one. In my teens, it manifested to hate and anger.
I resented living in a world that was so hostile towards me for simply living my truth and I felt hopeless and trapped. The anger and hate later turned to indifference as a survival mechanism. That negative energy was tearing me up from the inside so eventually, I learned to pick and choose my battles.
I stopped caring and putting so much weight on how other people saw me or treated me and learned that the only opinion that mattered was my own. I started treating myself with the love and respect I deserve. Like RuPaul once said, "What other people think of me is none of my business." Although, I discovered this long before Ru put it so eloquently. I had to in order to survive.
Forgiveness did play a vital role though in finding peace. I know some people in my situation don't always get a second chance with making amends with family so when the opportunity came I welcomed my mother back in my life with open arms and we are best friends now.
My father is another story but I realize now whatever problems he has had with me are HIS problems, not mine. I have done more than fine without him and some things are just unforgivable.
It's taken me my entire adulthood until now to even be able to speak about him, and honestly, I could probably write a book on just his abuse alone, but I would rather keep it positive and focus more on love and joy than toxicity. Maybe one day I will be able to forgive though, my journey is still not over yet.
JG: Ok, Flame, last question! Tell us something about yourself that wasn't in the story, and that also makes you feel fulfilled or happy!
My favorite movie is the Naked Civil Servant, the real-life story of Quentin Crisp, a nonbinary person who grew up in 1930s London.
They wore bright red hair, nail polish, makeup, and was quite the snappy dresser (sound familiar?).
Despite getting attacked and beaten regularly, they found their tribe and persevered. I met Quentin in my teens. They were a motivational speaker when I attended the Harvey Milk School.
I knew them as a New York City nightlife performer and queer icon but did not discover their movies until I was in my 20's. I loved them so much more after seeing those movies. A true inspiration. The sequel is An Englishman in New York which takes place in the '80s and '90s when Quentin lived his final years here.
My favorite book as an adolescent was Entries From a Hot Pink Notebook by Todd D Brown.
It's the story of a 14-year-old boy discovering his queerness despite backlash from friends and family in his small town. When I first read it I was the same age as the main character and it gave me the strength to read his journey.
What makes me feel fulfilled and happy is knowing that though the world isn't perfect by a long shot, we have the power to change it for the better in our words, actions, and how we treat each other and ourselves.
Every morning when I wake up I think to myself, "OK, what can I do to make myself feel happy or proud today?" Then I do it. It can either be something for myself (maybe a pedicure, a nice meal, a day with my doggies, bike ride, etc) or something for my community.
I work part-time at The AIDS Center of Queens County (ACQC) as a peer educator at an LGBT center here in Queens, NY. We do meet up events and promote mental and sexual health.
Since COVID shut that down I have been doing a weekly Facebook live show every Thursday at 2 pm discussing topics that affect the LGBT community, if you want to watch or join I'm always looking for guest speakers who want to share their story. Just add me or message me on Facebook Kleber Enrique Vera or Instagram @flamehairnyc
As of last month, I have been volunteering with Love Wins Food Pantry which is predominantly run by trans women. We give out free food to anyone who needs it every Friday at 11:30 am.
I could go on and on about things that bring me joy, and fulfillment, but I won't.
The moral of the story is, find what you love to do and go do it! Life's too short not to!
Thank you, Flame!
All photos and permission to use photos were provided by Flame. To learn more about Flame, you can visit their Instagram account @flamehairnyc
Would you like to be featured in Telling Our Stories? Send us an e-mail with a small description of a story you'd like to tell us and send it to [email protected].