Benjamin O’Keefe: The young social activist is making his markEntertainment News, Feature Story, Section 4A, Top Highlights Thursday, January 19th, 2017
Social activist, writer, public speaker and a host of other possible epithets barely begin to do justice to Benjamin O’Keefe. At 22, this Orlando native is making his ascent at a clip few others will experience in their lifetimes. O’Keefe has already become the youngest senior producer in the history of MoveOn.org and the social campaigns he envisions and executes – including the #UnitedAgainstHate campaign letter that over 100 celebrities signed on uniting against the racist, xenophobic and misogynist values of Donald Trump – are templates that queer kids, or any other marginalized children, are now growing up on and internalizing and will someday ask: Why the fuss? Why couldn’t you all just accept people for their differences? And they will have Mr. O’Keefe to thank.
One of the most visible campaigns Benjamin has worked on is the campaign targeting Abercrombie & Fitch. Over 70,000 people signed a public awareness campaign demanding a de-escalation in the sexualization of their youngest teen models, a recognition and normalization of plus-size models and an effort to promote ‘inner beauty.’ His success caused former (and openly gay) CEO Mike Jeffries to apologize and has arguably furthered the conversation in the fashion industry about these very same issues.
So it’s no surprise that San Diego LGBT Weekly has named Benjamin one of our top people to watch in 2017. We caught up with this change agent to find out where he came from, his views on his accomplishments and a few other choice morsels to help us understand the driving force that is Ben O’Keefe.
San Diego LGBT Weekly: During public speaking engagements, I know you’ve talked about your growing up, so I want to start there. What were you like? If I were in your fifth-grade class, would I like you? Were you the class clown? The coquette?
Benjamin O’Keefe: I was the fat, gay, poor kid, so it goes without saying that I didn’t exactly fit in. I was bullied and put down, but I also used humor as a defense, usually self-deprecating. I wanted to be the first person to attack me so that folks lost the power that it brought. I really started grooming myself for my performance career in elementary school. Every day, I was putting on an act; putting on a smile, excelling academically, chatting with teachers at recess about politics instead of chatting with fellow boys about bugs (or whatever it is that young boys talk about). But to answer your question, would you like me? I think so; I’ve always been a nice guy. I love to make people smile. Did I like myself? The answer to that question is definitely no.
Would you be willing to share anything about your first boyhood crush? What attracted you to people sexually or emotionally as a child? Are those qualities the same now only more developed?
I’ve dated guys, I’ve dated non-binary people, I’ve dated trans people, so I won’t pretend I have a “type.” But, I do have a current boyfriend who I love more than anyone I’ve ever loved before. He finds me beautiful on the days I don’t. He laughs at my jokes that aren’t funny. He talks me through an anxiety attack. He knows the way I take my coffee (and just about everything else about me). He loves me unapologetically. That’s all I’ve ever wanted; someone to love me for me with no shame and no regret. That’s what he does and I think that’s what everyone should look for in a partner.
Looking back now on the Abercrombie & Fitch campaign, are you happy with the changes you’ve seen? Do you feel that, despite CEO Michael Jeffries’ apology, the thing(s) you wanted changed have changed resolutely?
My viral campaign to take on Abercrombie & Fitch was always about more than Abercrombie & Fitch. We made huge strides. Mike Jeffries apologized and stepped down, the company began making plus-sizes, they stopped sexualizing young shirtless boys, and honestly they started making cuter clothes (not that it was a demand). But if they hadn’t done anything, we still would have won. Think about four years ago. Did you see a plus-size model in an ad anywhere, or an untouched photo campaign from a major brand or campaigns pushing inner beauty campaigns? Of course not. That’s because the movement that the Abercrombie campaign began had impact that reached so much farther than simply Abercrombie and instead started a conversation that is ultimately changing the fashion industry. So I guess you could say I’m pretty happy with that.
[For the record, Mr. Jeffries stepped down as the result of 11 consecutive quarters of sagging sales, a failed expansion into Europe and the launch of two costly and fatal branding expeditions, according to Forbes.]
Do you see yourself as a change agent? If so, how? And how do you measure the change you’ve affected?
It’s interesting when people ask me to reflect on the work that I do. Whether it was helping to launch an international conversation about body positivity, working to take down the Confederate flag, making a video that tens of millions of people view, or any of the other work that I’ve been able to do, it’s clear the activism that I’ve led has definitely made real change in the world.
I used to want to make the most impact. I wanted to be Oprah (I won’t pretend that I don’t still do) and to be known for the work I do. I don’t need that fame anymore to feel that I’ve made a difference. Now I measure the change I’ve effected in the conversations I have with real people. But I truly just want to impact real people. I want to know that I helped one queer kid love themselves more or one black person feel more beautiful or whatever the cause may be. I don’t really need to keep a tally of the work that I do. It’s not about me, it’s about the work.
You live in the moment, and the moment seems to live in you. How do you advise the less sure of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters who struggle to find their better selves?
I say this: It’s a journey. I’ve learned more about myself and my sexuality in the past six months than I have in the past 10 years of identifying within the LGBTQ community. It takes time, and we can’t expect to have it all figured out overnight. The key is to not be afraid, to let yourself discover the person you truly are. Surround yourself with people who love you and will be with you on the journey. And most important, know this: It’s OK not to be OK, because it’s only when you understand your weaknesses that you can grow stronger.
For more on Benjamin O’Keefe visit benjaminokeefe.com
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