‘Queer Eye’ star Karamo Brown coaches students on authenticity, inclusivity, personal development

As one of the Fab Five on the Netflix reboot “Queer Eye,” Karamo Brown was paid $22,000 by the Center of Student Involvement to talk to students about inclusivity, self-reflection and growth at Wednesday’s University Lecture Series. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/MICROSOFT TEAMS

Whether he’s on or off screen, star of the Netflix reboot of “Queer Eye” Karamo Brown uses the love and support he receives from his community and challenges encountered throughout his life to tell his story and help others tell theirs.

“One of the big things for me as I tell my story, fully and transparently, [is that] I try not to hide anything,” Brown said. “The reason I do that is because I think it’s really important that people know if I can make it through the struggles that I’ve been through, to have the success and happiness I have today, then anyone else can do it.”

Brown shared his expertise on helping others be vulnerable as well as find their true purpose within themselves at Wednesday night’s University Lecture Series (ULS). From a reflection on inclusivity to discussing internalized homophobia, Brown’s personal development series gave students a fresh look at the complexities and challenges marginalized groups are still facing.

During the lecture, which started 15 minutes late, Brown advocated the importance of telling people’s stories and bringing more inclusivity onto the big screen. While he considers it an honor to be cast as the first openly gay Black man on a reality show back in 2004, Brown believes the entertainment industry still lacks representation.

“That’s crazy that there was no representation at that time,” he said. “It’s an honor that I can be the first, but I think about how much more representation we need now, how many more stories need to be told now. And … we see so much growth in the fact that so many people are coming forward.”

Representation was also an issue during the first season of “Queer Eye,” in which all the “heroes” selected to receive a makeover were white, straight men. Seeing the issue, Brown emphasized the need to feature diverse stories on the show.

This change, however, must reflect all sides and give space to tell stories that have been often neglected, he said.

“Everyone needs to be representative, everyone needs to be seen,” Brown said. “There’s a lot more work to do, but I’m appreciative that I could be a part of that small history in some way … I don’t represent everyone but if I get into a room, I’m going to do my best to keep the door open so you can come in behind me.”

When discussing his own personal experiences dealing with internalized homophobia, Brown said he was affected by toxic masculinity from his own community when growing up. For Brown, people should not have the belief that in order to uplift themselves, they must put down others. This same train of thought is consequently neglecting issues, such as homophobia and racism, within the LGBTQ community and not addressing them, he said.

“There is still rampant homophobia and rampant racism within our community, a rampant transphobia. … [the] transphobic things I hear gay men say that I have to then correct them. … And so I think we just really need to continue to challenge ourselves and bring these things up,” Brown said.

During the lecture, the moderator focused on a series of questions relating to the pandemic and how it’s affecting the overall college experience as well as one’s mental and physical health. Brown emphasized his admiration for the current class of graduates and acknowledged the challenging season of attending college and finding a job amid a pandemic.

“Take a deep breath and give yourself a pat on the back, because you’re doing it,” Brown said. “You’re in a space right now where it’s challenging, and you are rising to the occasion. So, congratulations.”

He said students and recent graduates should remember to be patient with themselves and keep a positive mindset to avoid falling into the trap of self-doubt and self-destruction. In addition to keeping faith, Brown also emphasized the importance of asking for help during challenging times.  

“The thing that I encourage people to understand is that you’ve made it through 100% of the challenges in your past,” he said. “How do I know that? Because you’re standing here today, because you made it through. And it might not have been the ideal that you wanted, but you made it through.”

To the surprise of many, Brown revealed some history he has with USF and the memories he created around campus back when he was a student at Florida A&M University.

“I love USF,” he said. “I used to come down there and hang with friends all the time and have a very good time. So, this brings me back very fond memories.”

With Brown’s outgoing personality and straightforward answers, he wasn’t afraid of bringing truth and wisdom to his lecture. One of the things he criticized was that many people pretend everything is fine while going through a difficult situation. Suppressing someone’s feelings and real emotions is a disservice to their own selves, he said.

Brown talked about the importance of expanding one’s emotional vocabulary. For him, people need to express how they are truly feeling by using more emotional language and writing down their feelings to attain clarity on their mental health. 

Once one’s emotions become clearer, the process of figuring out what kind of support one needs can begin.

“I don’t think we do a good enough job. We have so many words in the English language and usually when we talk about what we’re feeling it usually is just happy, sad, mad, angry,” Brown said. “There are so many other words that you can express to really get to the clarity of what you’re going through.”

Brown also provided insights into the challenge of breaking from one’s self-doubts and how to erase the preconceived notions about living an authentic, unapologetic life.

“Go back, try to be introspective and try to figure out what it was when you were a child that stopped you from feeling as if this moment right now is not making me feel comfortable and start to heal that moment … And then once you go out there … every experience is going to allow you to have a better feeling about the situation,” Brown said.

Brown encouraged those dealing with trauma to ask for help and use the mental health resources available on campus, including the counseling center. He also highlighted the importance of writing down one’s feelings during a specific moment in their life to obtain more clarity on the issue.

“The problem is that we have these feelings and these thoughts and we keep them trapped in our minds, and then it starts to get jumbled and we never are able to make sense of what exactly it is that’s bothering us, that’s causing us anxiety, that’s causing us depression,” Brown said. 

“You have to be able to stop, write it down, look at it and then see how often you’re experiencing it … because that will lead you to more clarity of what it was from your past that could be haunting your present right now.”

If traumas are not addressed, Brown said it could potentially lead to trauma-bonded relationships, which could continue to trigger that same memory.

“As you’re doing the work, either with a professional or writing it down yourself, make sure you check in who you’re hanging out with, or who you’re dating, because trauma bonding is real and you will find yourself in a relationship with somebody who had the same trauma as you, and you’re just gonna be in a traumatic situation over and over and over again,” he said.

The lecture lasted about 40 minutes before the moderator rapidly transitioned to the Q&A section of the event. Of 88 questions asked in the Microsoft Teams chatbox, Brown was only asked two.

One of the questions touched base on Brown’s experience being the only Black man in the Fab Five in “Queer Eye.” While on the show, Brown said he was thankful to have someone like Tan France, the fashion expert, in the cast as well to add a new perspective to the show, as France is Pakistani, Muslim and British.

“It makes me feel so good that Tan is there because there’s a lot of things that we can connect on,” he said. “And so there are moments when microaggressions happen that I can look at him and he’d be like, ‘Girl I saw it,’ and I’m like ‘OK, great, now I have some other eyes so I don’t feel crazy.’” 

While his identities have put him through unideal experiences in life, Brown said that he’s still trying to make strides toward realizing how valuable they are in who he is and in speaking up for their communities. 

“I think the next step is that I have to find early on the courage to understand that my stories, my life and who I am and all of my identities have value,” Brown said. “So when I walk into a space … I don’t have to be worried about losing a job because I want to be my authentic self. 

“By understanding the power of my value, understanding the power of my identities and what I learned creates a space for me to say ‘No no no, I belong here, and I also belong to speak up against things that are wrong.’”

Ending his lecture with a quote on growth, Brown encouraged students to keep moving forward with their goals and making small progress to reach their happiest state of mind.

“One of my favorite quotes is ‘Be afraid of standing still, not afraid of growing slowly.’ The reason I love that quote is that it says to people, no matter what you want in life, as long as you’re constantly making small moves to get there … that’s all that matters,” Brown said.

“Keep practicing going after your dreams, even if it’s slowly, and just know that life will be good because there are people who love you and want to help you. That’s it.”