“Naked Boys Reading”: Because Reading Makes You Intelligent… and Intelligence is Sexy!


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The first question you may ask when you hear about a show named “Naked Boys Reading” is “Are the guys really naked?”  The answer to that one is a definitive “Yes!”

The next question is, “How can I see it?”  Well, first buy a ticket!  But if you are reading this article in the United States, you’ll also need a passport: Naked Boys Reading is currently only a thing in London, England and in Toronto and Ottawa in Canada.  The man behind Naked Boys Reading is Ottawa native Rick Telfer, a multi-hyphenate (journalist-activist-nonprofit manager-researcher) who is very involved in Ottawa’s vibrant burlesque and theater communities.  Telfer is also a burlesque artist, performing under the stage name “Tricky Ricky”, and occasionally reading in his own show as well.  Naked Boys Reading features a rotating cast of readers each month, featuring a varied cast of all sexual orientations, ethnicities, ages, and body types.  Each month features a different theme, with a Special Guest Curator who selects the readings for the cast.

Telfer admits that the selling point of nude men reading books on stage may initially attract the attention of potential audience members, but that there’s much more to the show than the promise of skin.  For Telfer, it’s about bringing communities together. He tells me: “Some may call the show ‘lowbrow art’– a ‘lower’ kind of art form. I’ve heard it described that way before. But for me, it’s also kind of a ‘gateway drug’ (Laughs) in the sense that it really lures people in and then introduces them to the power of live performance on a stage– especially because it’s such an intimate setting. Our show is not a play or a musical, but there are parallels. You have a person on stage telling a story, but also using emotions to convey a reading– in a very vulnerable. way. I think that it gets people interested in the performing arts. The people who come to our show may not necessarily be regular theater-going people, but it’s an opportunity for them to see something like that. It opens up their eyes and their horizons to other forms of performing art. That’s why we always say at the end of the show, ‘Thank you for coming. Thank you for supporting the performing arts on a local level. Be sure to check out other kinds of performing arts– because if you like this, you may like that too.’ We’re anchored in that tradition.”

In anticipation of the upcoming Naked Boys Reading show on March 18th, Telfer took the time to speak to me about the history and future of the show, what makes a naked reader, and why so many people are still afraid of seeing a penis on stage…

JR: Hi, Rick! Thank you for speaking with me! So, how did the idea for a Naked Boys Reading chapter in Ottawa get started?

RT: Naked Boys Reading itself was started in 2012 by Justin Hunt and Alex Karotsch. Now, my understanding is that Justin is from New York but moved to London, England to pursue academic endeavors in the area of theater. While he was there, I believe the other fellow Alex started up Naked Boys Reading around 2012. They had a presence online. I had not heard of it, but in 2016, the local queer community theater group in Ottawa, Toto too Theatre Company, put on a production of Naked Boys Singing. You may be familiar with that show. It originated in New York and ran off Broadway for something like 13 years.
JR: Yes, it’s still running!
RT: Yes! So, we did a little community theater production of it. It was a two week run, and it was very popular. It nearly sold out every night. I auditioned to be in the show, and I got cast in the lineup– which was a fairly easy feat because they needed, I think, seven or eight guys to do the show. And they only got seven or eight at the audition! (Both laugh.) They said, “We’d love to have you.” And I said, “Cool!” I started to just Google “Naked Boys Singing” to learn more about the history of the show. And of course, Googling “Naked Boys Singing”, I stumbled upon “Naked Boys Reading”. And I thought, what the hell is this? Is this something related to Naked Boys Singing? It wasn’t! Interestingly enough, I didn’t know if Justin and Alex’ inspiration came from Naked Boys Singing at all, or even if they knew about that show. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had, given their background in theater and the fact that Justin was based in New York at one point in time. But in fact, Naked Boys Reading got its inspiration from Naked GIRLS Reading, which originated in Chicago! It goes back even further. I don’t know exactly what year it goes back to, but it was some female burlesque performers in Chicago who started up Naked Girls Reading. My link to Naked Boys Reading was because of my research into the show Naked Boys Singing. So, I just sort of arrived at it. Anyway, I have always enjoyed being an event planner and organizer. Most of my other planning and organizing was in politics and activism over the years… but I’ve always enjoyed theater, especially musical theater, and things like that. So when I’d seen Naked Boys Reading after Google, I decided, “You know what? That’s a really cool thing. I’m going to put a pin in that and circle back to that.” (Laughs)

nbrNaked Boys Singing wrapped up, and a few months later I contacted Justin in the UK by email through their websites. It was hard to pin him down. He’s a very busy guy, so it actually took almost a year before I got to say, “OK, you know what? Like, dude, this is getting ridiculous! We really want to launch Naked Boys Reading in Ottawa and I just need to know the basic nuts and bolts of how you do it, and what sort of branding you would require: you know, sort of permission from you and so on, because I don’t want to just launch it without your blessing.” I also didn’t want any legal trouble. (Laughs) It turns out we had a nice informal Skype chat. We hit it off very quickly, personality wise. I think his brain is kind of speedy like mine! And so it was a very quick, probably a 15 minute Skype chat, at which point I had everything I needed. Now of course, there were various little e-mail follow-ups, questions, and things. And, you know, I just wanted to know things like: What works on stage? How long does the reader read for? Who hosts? Et cetera… So he said, “This is how we do it. It’s not some big enterprise. It’s just a thing we do for a hobby!” But they did appreciate out asking for permission to use the name and the branding and so forth. In fact, Naked Boys Reading already existed in Toronto, but in a very simple, basic way. In Toronto, there’s a bookstore on Church Street called Glad Day. It’s a very famous, well-known bookstore for queers in Toronto that has been around forever. It had moved to a new location a few years ago with a bar and a coffee shop… and books of course! And so this fellow, Michael, started to do Naked Boys Reading in that venue. But it wasn’t really a venue. It was a hangout within that bookstore. It didn’t have the sort of theater production values that we put into it in Ottawa. Justin had told us: “Finesse it. Do it however you want. These are the basic parameters. This is what has worked for us, and you know, you’re going to have to decide what works for you and your context.” Of course in London, England, and in Toronto, Naked Boys Reading is pretty much run entirely by gay men and their audiences are pretty much entirely gay men. And I said, well, Ottawa is not that big. So I don’t think I could make this show such a success if it was just all gay men in the cast and crew ,and all gay men in the audience.
nbr4JR: Why?
RT: For a couple of reasons. One, our population is smaller. Two, it’s a much more diffuse, sort of scattered community. In Ottawa, there’s no real central “village”. We all pretend that a part of Bank Street is our “village”, but it’s kind of ridiculous. It’s really not. It’s just an intersection where historically there used to be a clustering of gay bars and bath houses in that area. But they’re pretty much all gone, with the exception of one. We don’t even have a single bar that everybody really goes to anymore. It’s become more sort of segmented and siloed. There’s a bar for older gentleman who are essentially Leather daddies and Bears. And then, there’s really nothing for anybody else except for occasional monthly dance parties that shift venues from time to time. So, all that was sort of the context in which we are operating. Adding to that is that Ottawa is… I don’t like using the word, but it’s a “conservative” city. In terms of its political culture, it’s a very liberal city. Ottawa is per capita the most educated city in all of Canada. It is the seat of our government, and we have two universities and two colleges, and so on. So really not a big surprise there. But it is a “reserved” city. The idea of nudity on stage isn’t exactly shocking to people, but they would probably shy away from it. So I thought a lot about that, and decided, “You know what we’re going to do? We’re going to build a Naked Boys Reading show that is much more mixed in terms of the cast and crew and in terms of the audience that’s going to make this a success!”

nbr11JR: Damn!
RT: I decided to use LIVE! on Elgin because that is the same venue where we ran Naked Boys Singing. The owner of that bar, Lawrence, is himself a gay man and he is a theater guy too. He started that bar around 2014. There are no pool tables, there are no TVs, and it’s not a sports bar-type environment. It is a performing space environment. And he recognized that what Ottawa had were a number of bigger stages for a community theater and small band shows and things like that. But he wanted to create a space that was small or medium, so that people who are just getting their start or people who want to try new things had a venue for that too. I approached Lawrence and said, “This is the idea I have. What do you think?” And he said, “Sure! Let’s give that a try”. It’s a very good arrangement there. We keep 100% of our ticket sales. They sell booze at the bar and they keep all the revenue from that. The very first show we did was in July 2017, and as I said, I wanted it to be marketed more to a mixed crowd. As somebody who had dabbled in burlesque as a hobby, I had a pretty good network in the local burlesque scene, which is quite vibrant in Ottawa– and it’s mostly women. And so I invited Rhapsody Blue. I invited her to be the curator for the very first show, because I knew she would have the right sort of perspective. I already knew she was one of the best burlesque performance in Ottawa and probably in all of Canada… but what I didn’t know at the time was that she also had a degree in literature. Anyway, in July of 2017, we did the very first show. I invited everybody from the burlesque and local community theater scenes that I knew. Rhapsody was curating the readings, but then I was thinking, well, I need a host. I thought, maybe I’ll just get a local drag queen to host, cause that’s what they do in London. And I thought more about that and I concluded: First of all, I’m not really sure I know any drag queens well enough to be able to sense whether they would be good host for this show. It’s entirely possible that person exists. I just have never been that immersed in local drag culture. Secondly, I do want to have a broader audience, and I want to be able to draw from the burlesque scene in particular. So I contacted Rhapsody again and said: Not only would I like you to curate it, but would you be interested in hosting the show? And she replied, “I would be absolutely delighted.” It felt as though SHE was almost asking ME, as if she was waiting for me to ask her. The very first theme was called “Wet”. She selected a bunch of readings that were related to the concept of being wet, or water. So, we had some really fun and interesting readings. It was a bit of an abstract, broad concept– but it went over very well. She hosted brilliantly. At first, I thought it was going to be a flop. Advance ticket sales were only about a third of the capacity of the venue. I know that the venue could hold between 60 and 70 people in the audience, and we’d only sold about two dozen tickets. But then, there was a huge line at the door! We ended up selling out or coming close to it that night. That was July, 2017. Ottawa pride is in August every year. We call it “Capitol Pride”. That sold out. I thought, let’s do it again. And then I thought, we’ll give September to try and we’ll do the theme of “Back to School”. Why not? And, again, it sold out. October was a Halloween show with the readers wearing nothing but makeup. It sold out. For November, the theme was “Love and War”. That sold out too. And then December rolled around, and December was a near bust! Very few people showed up for the December show. It was very small. I thought we had run our course. Everyone said, “Don’t worry about it. You know, winter is hard in Ottawa, and January will probably suck too. So I thought, “Well, let me try it again.” And so I tried January, and it sold out, and it sold out in February, and it sold out in March… (Laughs) So, it became a thing. We’re going on Year Two as of July of this year. Just about every show has since sold out in advance, or came very close to it. So it’s been quite a phenomenon.

nbr8I originally thought I’d never get more than a handful of guys to be readers. How was I going to keep it interesting if it’s always the same guys? But people just started coming out of the woodwork. I really struggled to get seven or eight guys the very first show, and that was including myself and my partner Cameron in the mix. But people just started coming to me and saying, “Yeah, I want to do this!” and now we have a roster of over 60 guys who are always on deck waiting for another chance to read. The strategy of making sure it was a broad audience and a diverse cast and crew has really worked, and it’s built an interesting community that cuts across gender and sexuality lines. It’s been fun! I actually do like hosting, but only if that’s my only job. I’ve enjoyed standing back and watching the show unfold, but you know how it is: If you produce a show, by the time you get to the venue, the show should be pretty much be produced upon your arrival! You oversee, set up, and take down of course… but in terms of the actual show coming together, after you’ve done it a few times and people know the drill, basically everybody shows up and does their thing, and I get to sit back and enjoy the show. I also observe it and interact with the audience, and talk to them, and figure out what they liked and didn’t like, and tweak it accordingly. After every show, I also send out a little survey to anybody who purchased the tickets online. It takes probably 60 to 90 seconds to complete. I ask, “What did you think?” I ask them their opinion on the duration and the content of the readings. I ask if any particular reader really stood out. I ask if there was anything about the venue they didn’t like. About 25% of the people who bought the tickets through the online system usually reply. It gives me a really good sense of what worked and what didn’t, and it enables me to provide feedback to the readers, the curators, the host, and to the venue. So, we just continually improved and modified it.

nbr9JR: Wow! That’s great that you have so many guys who want to be readers. I was going to ask if it was hard to find naked readers, but it looks like the naked readers found you.
RT: It wasn’t hard to find the first seven or eight guys. I imagined it to be difficult beyond that. The first seven or eight guide guys I initially enlisted– and again, two of them were me and Cam– were people that I knew from the burlesque scene. They were guys who are already used to be mostly naked on stage, and probably always wanted to be naked completely on stage, frankly! (Laughs) The others were guys who had appeared with me in Naked Boys Singing, who worked from the burlesque scene. So I worked it from those two areas, and that was pretty easy. After that, I really didn’t have to actively recruit. People came to me and said, “That was awesome. I want to try that!” They come from all different walks of life. You know, at some point I would be interested in digging a little deeper into their psyches to figure out what the common thread is between them all. We have guys who identify as exclusively heterosexual, guys who identify as exclusively homosexual, and then a whole array of guys in between who walk the Kinsey scale, so to speak. So, isn’t strictly a sexuality thing. We have guys who are super-confident in their body and love to show it off. We have guys who have a major body issues, and who have struggled with eating disorders and such who have participated.  So again, the common thread doesn’t seem to be sexual orientation, or confidence in one’s own body image. It’s quite possible there isn’t a common thread at all. It’s possible that people do it for different reasons. But I do think there are some underlying reasons why people do it. Or, it may be the case that the common thread isn’t INITIALLY doing it, but rather that the common thread emerges AFTER they’d done it the first time, because they sort of realize the enjoyment of doing it and the sort of benefits of doing it, and that’s what binds them all together… if that makes any sense.

JR: It does! I get it. A few of the guys that I spoke with had said that they were nervous at first. They didn’t think that they could do something like this, or they didn’t know how they would feel about it, or didn’t know how the audience would react. But then afterwards, the words that I heard were usually “liberating” and…

RT: “Empowering”?
JR: Yes, “empowering”!
RT: I can honestly say that some 60 to 70 guys later, I’ve never had a single one say that they regretted doing it, or that they hated it, or that it was a bad experience for them. None of them have ever had that. Even the ones who had declined to return– and there’s only been a couple of them–had said that it was because it was a bad experience. In fact, everyone has said that it’s been a positive experience.
JR: Wow! So, how has the response been from the audience so far?
RT: Before every show, we ask the audience who has never been to the show before. And on any given day, on average, about half the audience has been there before, and half of the audience hasn’t. It changes. Sometimes it’s 80-20. Sometimes it’s 60-40. But I would say on average, roughly speaking and judging from a show of hands, it seems that about either half or just under half of the audience tends to be people who’ve never been before. So that suggests to me is that the other half of the people are loyal, returning audience members. I do ask them, of course, what they like about the show. The survey can’t always tell you exactly why they are there. Clearly, if you’re coming to see a show called Naked Boys Reading, it’s self-evident that you’re there either for the naked men, or for the books, or both. But why do they keep coming back? I think for the most part there are some common reasons why people come back to the show. Somebody had written a story about Naked Boys Reading and their reflection on participating in it. And they said that people aren’t there because they’re necessarily looking for hot bods– whatever definition that might be– but they’re there because the sexiness arises from the confidence, vulnerability, and courage of the people getting on stage. It sort of like the appreciation we have for anybody who can get in front of a crowd and be charismatic, or who can perform in wild and crazy ways, right?  We just find them attractive. If you were walking down the street and you were just passing by somebody, you might not really give him a second look.They might not be your cup of tea or the thing that turns your crank. But, when you see him completely naked on a stage, doing a reading in a dramatic or charismatic way, suddenly, they’re so sexy! I think that’s why people return. I think that’s what they’re into. But also, people are really just into the books and the literature. The mainstream media, student press, and arts magazines have contacted me and they always want to know about the nudity. It’s almost always their first line of questioning. The nudity is the hook. I always think that’s funny. Yeah, the nudity is kind of cool. It’s unique, it’s novel… but this is a literary salon. We read literature. Fiction and nonfiction. Funny and sad. We take you on a ride. I don’t think people are necessarily expecting that upon first arrival, but when they get that, it’s an experience they haven’t really had before. I mean, who ever previously has attended a literary salon? I’m an academic and somebody who enjoys traveling and culture and things. And I had never really heard of a literary salon beyond the historical ones in France (Laughs): the old Enlightenment tradition and the early modern French novelists hanging out, smoking cigarettes, running ideas past each other, and reading passages and things! A literary salon in a contemporary setting? I had no idea that that was anything that anybody ever did! When I decided to launch the show, I thought, it’s going to be all about the nudity. But I think that actually for most people, what they love isn’t the nudity– but rather the vulnerability, the courage, and the confidence that they see in the readers– which is sort of derivative of the nudity. And then, the thing that brings them back over and over again is legitimate, genuine interest in the readings: enlightening themselves, expanding their horizons and their minds, and introducing them to books. We’ve had this effect of getting people interested in all kinds of things that we read. People often ask afterwards, “Can I get the title of that book?” And we’re only reading a few pages– like, two to three pages from a novel. Very often it’s sufficient to get people interested in buying that novel. So, I think those are the reasons why people return. It’s not because a flaccid penis is really all that interesting. (Laughs)  I don’t think anybody could believe that a series of flaccid penises over a two hour period is sufficient reason for anybody to return over and over and over again.
nbr10JR: Oh no? (Laughs)
RT: I mean, there may be a couple and that’s okay. (Laughs) I think for the majority of people, that’s not why they come back. That’s why I call the show “the ultimate dick trick”… because we lure them in. (Laughs) We put those little worms on a hook and bait people into the venue with a penis– and then they get hooked on the actual performance dimension, and the vulnerability dimension, and the literary dimension to it. I think that those are the reasons why people keep coming back!

JR: What was the most unusual reaction, whether good or bad, that you ever got from an audience member? Was there any moment which was particularly memorable?
RT: Hmmm… I can’t pinpoint any one thing. I’ll say some things that have been surprising. I’ve seen the audience reduced to tears because of some really emotional reading: something that really moved people on a personal level. I’ve seen a guy at one of the very first show up with his cell phone and trying to sneak pictures of the readers…
JR: Not surprising!
RT: I put measures in place to stop that! (Laughs) I’ve had someone write about the show in a local community newspaper who hadn’t even attended it– but had a strong opinion about it: that it was a pointless, silly thing for people to be exposing their “manhood” onstage while reading books. That it was “ridiculous”. And they hadn’t even come!
JR: Well, O- K then! (Laughs)
RT: Yeah! And I responded to that. It was a publicly distributed opinion piece by a young student journalist in a local community production paper produced over the university, I believe. I didn’t go too hard on them, but I said that I was also a freelance writer and journalist, and Rule Number One is that before you have an opinion about something, at least check it out. It was pretty strange to me. So, yeah, that was a bit weird. Oddly, it was pretensive to reduce the whole show to “penis” (Laughs)… but I think in some ways it really reflects wider cultural norms and stigma taboos about male nudity. Another reaction I’ve had, again, from people who had never come to the show: I’ll ask them, “Why don’t you come and see the show?” They’ll say, “I don’t know. I have questions.” I say, “What’s your question?” and they ask, “Is it sleazy?” Again, I’m surprised. Maybe it’s surprising that I’m surprised. But I want to ask them, “What gave you that impression? It’s not a porn show!” Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that’s not what this is. (Laughs) It’s not a peep show. Why don’t you just come and see it for yourself, and make your decision? The show can’t be reduced completely to being a literary salon where people get up and read. It can’t simply be reduced to naked guys. It’s something bigger than those two things. When you combine those things, the intersection is something much more than just naked guys or just people reading. It’s odd to me. What we’re really talking about is male genitalia. We do see men bodies, right? We see them shirtless and we see a lot of men’s bums these days in movies and things. We see male genitals a bit more often nowadays, with Netflix and the rest pushing the envelope a little bit. But it’s still from a distance, kind of fuzzy, and you can screen cap it and zoom in all you want. You’re never really going to be satisfied! But it tells us a lot. It tells us a lot about the fear of the phallus, but also about the stigmatization of it. It’s just odd when you think about it because– well, I’m not sure about lesbians, but doesn’t everyone else love dick? (Both laugh.) I don’t really get the apprehension– and I include straight men in that because they may not love other men’s dicks, but they love their own! The vast majority of people love dick… and so why not? Why not enjoy it and celebrate it, without it becoming some kind of competition or some kind of measuring contest, or something that’s associated with toxic masculinity. Why don’t we demystify this organ and have fun with it for what it is? Why is it regarded as something that needs to be censored, or thought of is dirty, or something that should only be seen in the dark? So, those have been interesting reactions. But I find, as I say, that it’s usually people reacting in a way that speaks to their lack of actual witnessing or engagement with the show. I don’t think I’ve ever had anybody say in any strong terms that they were never coming back after they’d seen the show. Surely there have been people who came once and it wasn’t their cup of tea. But I think those people were sort of curious about the nudity aspect, but literature really isn’t their thing. And at the end of the day, they show is fundamentally more about literature then it is about penis.

nbr12JR: Oh, I get it! While we are on the subject of literature: In this day and age, reading books has changed. The whole process has transformed from the fact that we moved from reading a physical book to reading an e-book on a phone or notebook, or listening to an audiobook. Do you think that the physical, paper book is going to make a comeback, or is it a thing of the past?
RT: I have my own personal opinions about what I like. Personally, I read physical printed paper books, and I also have an e-book reader that I use. I still prefer the kinesthetic aspect of a book. I like the way books feel. I like the way they smell. I like the temptation of turning the page. There is something about a book, right? But also, for the purpose of traveling, it’s a pain in the ass– especially for a bibliophile like me– to carry that many books in your luggage. So having an e-book reader means that I can still read, but on a different medium. I find that this show sort of lends support to the idea that humans prefer reading from books. The reason I say that is because given the option of reading from a tablet, reading from a printout, or reading from a bound book, the readers nearly always prefer an actual book. Audiences come to the table and they say, “Do you have that book? I want to hold it and I want to look at it.” There’s something tangible about it. Also, sometimes you want to go back to your books, even if it’s just for a particular passage or a particular quote. I hold onto books that I’ve had, in some cases books I’ve had for 20 years– because that novel moves me in some way. For example, I’ve got books on my shelf, and the only reason they’re on my shelf is to remind me that I read that book and how it made me feel; not necessarily because I’ll ever read it again! It’s a sentimental value in a very real way. It evokes feelings and memories and helps you to remember different points in your life. They are memories and little bundles of emotion. You don’t get that from a non-tangible electronic data file. Once you’ve read that e-book, it disappears into the ecos and you never think about it again– or you don’t think about it in the same way, I should say.
JR: Agreed! There’s just something about holding the book in your hands and turning the pages. I still believe in the printed book as well. And it’s also worth mentioning that a lot of the books that were read at the last Naked Boys Reading show that I went to were probably only available at this point in the original paper format. So, if people were really moved by it and want to read it, that will really make them seek out that book. Yep! So… what’s the next event coming up?

nbr13

RT: Our next show is “Naked Bears Reading: Out of Hibernation”. The readings are going to be relatable to the theme of hibernation, but the concept also speaks to the lineup of readers that are going to be in the show. So in some ways, we’re shifting the focus away from the readings and more on the men who are reading in the show: specifically, their bodies and their body types. We’re celebrating those body types. Every single one of those guys getting on stage are hot in their own ways and in different people’s eyes. We want to showcase that. We have always had that philosophy at the root of his show, but for the first time we’re rolling on a theme that is really putting a spotlight on them. I feel confident about that because I feel established as a show that celebrates body positivity and diversity and representation on the stage. I think if we had started with a focus on the bodies and the body types, I think it would have seemed like a gimmick. At this stage in the game, I feel like it really a true reflection of what the show in all about in the philosophy that underlies it. So, that’s something that we’re doing. Inevitably, you know, people always have suggestions for me. I truly, genuinely welcome suggestions. It’s cute because I’ve often already thought of those things (Laughs), but also get suggestions that I HADN’T thought of yet: I’m like, “That’s a great idea!”. So I love getting suggestions, but inevitably after the Naked Bears Reading, the next thing I get from people is, “Well then you could do a Naked Twinks Reading, and then you can do a Naked Otters Reading, and then you could do a Naked Daddies Reading”!… and then I said, “OK!” Obviously, I thought of it, but I don’t want that to be a gimmick. I don’t want the show to be focused entirely on bodies and body types. But it’s something to throw in, to add a little bit of spice every now and then. And it does excite people. Early indication in terms of expressions of interest in the next show suggest to me that this is going to be very successful. I have never had so many people respond to a Facebook event so quickly and responded so many weeks in advance of the show! A local burlesque performer who has on one or two occasions stood in for Rhapsody literally wrote on our Facebook wall, “Fire Rhapsody! I want to host the show!” (Laughs) They’re very good friends, so he can get away with that. I was on the airplane coming to Toronto yesterday for work very early in the morning, and the woman sitting beside me– a lovely woman around my age– said, “Oh, you know, I just wanted to chat.” And I’m a chatty person, even though I prefer to sleep. But she seemed lovely. She asked, “What do you do in your spare time?” I said, “I run a show called ‘Naked Boys Reading'”. And then I got into the fact that the next one was actually “Naked BEARS Reading”. Her face lit up and she said, “I’ve never heard of that show! My partner is a big hairy guy. I might have to come!” So that to me was a really interesting little consumer study. It was interesting because I wasn’t even really thinking about the appeal of the show to a woman who is in a heterosexual relationship with a man who body type fits in the category of “Bear”. We normally think of Bears as a gay thing, as a part of gay subculture, but there are straight Bears too. And there are women and men who loved them and who really appreciate their body type. She was indicative of that and I thought to myself, “You know what? We might have a very winning show here!” (Laughs).
JR: I don’t doubt it! (Laughs)
RT: So, I think we’ll play a bit more with the themes and how those relate to the actual men doing the readings. It won’t become then new formula, but it will be something to roll out once in a while when we want to add a little twist. It’s a bit of a luxury to live in a very, very big city like Toronto or London, England, where you can pretty much rely on a sufficiently sized audience to put the show on every month or whatever. But in Ottawa, we have to be a bit more creative in terms of drawing and maintaining a loyal audience. So out of necessity, we had to appeal beyond just gay men. The serendipitous outcome of that is a bridging of the art worlds, and making new friends, and having so much fun together, and learning from one another, and realizing that we’re not so different.

JR: Ain’t it the truth! So, one last question: There was controversy about the London “Naked Boys Reading” Facebook page being targeted. What happened with that?
RT: Yeah! Naked Boys Reading in London, and in Ottawa, and elsewhere — in Facebook in particular, but also sometimes on Instagram– has experienced censorship by those social media giants. In the case of the original Naked Boys Reading in London, they went to promote their show one day and their Facebook page was deleted– completely deleted, without warning. They contacted Facebook to try and figure out what was going on. It was mostly a futile effort. Considering the show has been around since 2012 and the Facebook presence a only a little bit shorter than that, it came as a big surprise. Why now? What’s going on? I think anybody who’s in the world of adult entertainment– whether you want to call that soft, or hard, or adult entertainment, or PG-13, or burlesque, or whatever– I think we’ve all been experiencing increasing censorship on Facebook in particular. It won’t come as any surprise to people, but that’s happening. You still can’t have a woman with a nipple exposed on Facebook, except for a few exceptions that Facebook has rules about. It’s just that the lines are not very clear. The so-called community standards of Facebook are actually quite general, and open-ended, and open to interpretation. It’s also not clear that the censorship that occurs from time to time is actually being done by the software itself through some sort of algorithm, or if a human is making the decision– making it very unclear as to what’s happening. It has happened to us. We had our Facebook page banned. Not deleted, but suspended and taken off from public view. My suspicion is that there was a campaign by some hateful people to try to get rid of our page. But I was successful in reaching Facebook and explaining the show, and they reinstated our page. The other frustration is that I’ve spend $20 or $30 every month to promote each events as a sponsored event. That shows up in people’s feeds, and for the first 20 shows or so, it really hasn’t been a problem. They always approved those ads. We do make an effort to observe those community standards. We’re not trying to push the envelope. We’re trying to work within them. There’ve been a few times where they said they wouldn’t approve an ad. And I revisited it and said, okay, I can see why it doesn’t fit community stands. I don’t agree with this interpretation, but I can see why it’s reasonable to conclude that we did “cross the line”. What I noticed in the last few months is that the ads have been getting rejected outright or had been rejected after they’ve already been approved and running for some time. And then they’re suddenly disapproved. And then I have to have very lengthy back-and-forths. Again, it’s not always clear if it’s a human or a computer that I’m talking to. And then we had an ad approved by Facebook, and then at the midpoint for whatever reason, all of a sudden you’ve gotten a notice: “We’ve re-looked at it, and now we’re not approving it.” So I had to have a very lengthy back and forth, and eventually human brains properly assessed it and they reinstated the ad. Then this month, I advertise “Naked Bears Reading”, and it was rejected immediately. I replied and said, very nicely, that we’ve been doing this show now almost two years. It’s been about two dozen shows. Ninety percent of the time there had been no issue. We have made every effort to operate within the community standards that Facebook has laid out. Could you please revisit this ad?… and, you know, this is getting kind of ridiculous! They re-examined it. They approved it. So that was only one appeal. But last month I must have written to them literally six times, and they just kept coming back with a boiler plate reply. So then I tried to engage with Facebook via Twitter and other venues. I don’t know if that had an impact, but it resolves after I took that option. “Pink News” did a story about what happened to the Facebook page in London, UK. So, yeah, so it does seem to me that Facebook is censoring with greater frequency. It also seems to me that it’s probably driven by software and algorithms. I think it’s a real problem in terms of queer culture in particular. It’s not that we’re all hedonist, sex starved people. The problem is the association with the human body with those things. It’s that culture and so-called “mainstream” society looks at the human form as something to hide and to be ashamed of. I’m not one of those people who believes that the human form should be absolutely visible in every imaginable way on a social media platform like Facebook. I don’t think pornography has a place on Facebook. I think a space could be potentially carved out for us that is accessible– only to adults and things like that. But then you get into the dicey issue of defining who’s an adult and what kind of porn is acceptable! I think that stuff that’s pornographic or truly “adult entertainment” can be defined. I do think there are other avenues for those things. I don’t think Facebook would necessarily one of them. But I think things like modeling, things like life drawing, things like burlesque, and things like Naked Boys Reading absolutely have a place on Facebook, which is dominated by adults. The justification that Facebook offers for its community standards and for rejecting our ads is strange to me, because the initial reason they always give you is “We didn’t approve it because it’s the kind of thing that might offend some people.” I’m probably paraphrasing slightly, but what struck me was this idea that we need to censor this because SOME people might be offended? Well, the important question is “Which people? Are they reasonable people or are they religious zealots?” I don’t think we should establish community standards according to some lowest common denominator of a conservative worldview. I think that ultimately what Facebook is doing, when it’s worrying about some people being offended, is potentially capitulating to groups like the Christian right. Why do we accept those standards as the common denominator? Fuck that. The beauty of queer culture is that it invites the mainstream to rethink about the human form and expressing sexuality, and to move beyond the pre -established categories of thought about the human form and sexuality. That’s something that should be encouraged and celebrated, not censored because some wingnut is afraid of seeing a penis!
nbr5JR: (Laughs) Well said! So… anything else you want to tell everyone. Besides, of course, to get your tickets for “Naked Bears Reading” this month?
RT: Yes! Tell the queer community in New York. City to get its shit together and launch Naked Boys Reading there!
JR: (Laughs) That’s our next conversation! Until then, thanks for speaking with me!

Naked Boys Reading is a monthly event at LIVE! on Elgin, 220 Elgin St, Ottawa, ON K2P 1L7.  The next Naked Boys Reading will be Naked Bears Reading on Monday, March 18th, at 8PM.  You can buy tickets here.

(Photos by Zac Emery of Handsome Zac Photography.  Photo #7 by Andrew Meade.)

 

 

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