Mr. USA is a gay! – 1997 Mr. USA International winner Gene Kuffel

Brendan Lemon


Kuffel watched his first Miss USA

pageant on television and decided that

winning a beauty contest was the sole

road to happiness. The next morning he

asked his mother whether he could ever

enter such a competition. “She said, `No,

you cant’–that’s for women,'”

remembers Kuffel, now a 33-year-old

who teaches sixth grade in New Jersey. “I

asked, `Is there one for boys?’ And she

said, `Yes, there’s Mr. USA.’ And so I

said, `OK, then I’m going to be Mr.


If you had told Kuffel’s mother that

her son would win the Mr. USA

International 1997 contest and that he

would be the American representative at

the Mr. International competition this

November, she probably would have

visualized her son flexing

his muscles on a stage, acting as

a paragon of heterosexuality. Instead, he

has decided to use the title as a platform

from which to announce that he is gay.

“This title is supposed to be the

search for America’s most outstanding

gentleman” Kuffel says, clarifying the

distinction between Mr. USA

International and the more brawn-based

events such a title might first bring to

mind. “Well, he’s also gay too.” Kuffel

hopes that by disclosing his orientation

before his reign ends he might serve as a

model for other gay people. “Wouldn’t it

have been nice,” he says, “for us to have

known that Greg Louganis was gay prior

to his competing in the Olympics?”

When Kuffel won the second annual

Mr. USA International contest last

October in Los Angeles, he not only

shattered the stereotype that America’s

most desirable man must be heterosexual

but also upended the assumption that a

hot gay man must be

muscle-bound. And he did this primarily

on the strength of his performance in the

interview and evening-wear

events–categories generally associated

with more traditionally feminine parades

of beauty. (Kuffel knows the women’s

contests well, having coached Miss

America-bound contestants from his home

state in the art of public speaking over the

past three years.) He was less successful

in the competition’s third category,

swimwear. “I have inherited my

grandfather’s Eastern European build,”

says Kuffel, a 6-foot 2-inch man with a

darkly handsome face and the beginnings

of a spreading waistline,” and sometimes

that doesn’t come across so well in a

swimsuit.” Taking a tip from TV’s

Baywatch, Kuffel, who was competing as

Mr. New Jersey, eschewed skimpy

Speedos and went with oversize

boxer shorts. “I couldn’t decide on

the color,” he recalls, so he selected five

pairs. “I brought them all out with me.

And at the last minute I decided on lime

green because I figured I’d blind the

judges from any flaws that I have.” The

strategy worked, and Kuffel went on to

win the overall contest by a wafer-thin


Kuffel laughingly says that he knew he

was not the only gay competitor in the

contest when he reamed that one of the

other contestants had sewn beads and

sequins onto his tuxedo vest. He stresses,

however, that Mr. USA International is

not a gay event: It is open to any man 18

and over, and state winners are selected

not through competing in local pageants

but by filling out an extensive

application. Although the contest’s

predominance of straight guys shows

that all sorts of American

men have decided to start owning up to

their vanity, the fact that its present

titleholder is gay, Kuffel says, reminds us

that gay men may still be more

experienced than straights in the art of

competitive display.

“You can go to any club on any night

and see gay men competing among one

another for the attention of a certain

person,” Kuffel observes. In such a

setting, he continues, it is understandable

that outward appearance would be the

first thing to catch one’s eye. But many

gay men’s obsessive reliance on looks still

leaves him feeling ambivalent, even

though he knows that the beauty myth is

deeply rooted in all of American culture.

“I think [gay men] need to feel as though

we have to look our best in order to be

accepted.” The Herculean body, he

suggests, is often a compensation for

childhood slights.

Slights were certainly part of Kuffel’s

early years. He was a friendless

child. He endured the guilt-inducing

tribulations of a traditional Catholic

education. And he bounced back and

forth between his divorced parents,

enduring physical abuse that culminated

when he was 13. “My father threw me

out of his house and gave me the number

to foster care,” he says. In high school,

however, and particularly in college (in

New Mexico, where he received a degree

in communications in 1986),

he began to blossom. And while on his

first job after graduation, as a reporter

for a television station in Grand

Junction, Colo., he won a state

broadcasting award. He also began

indulging his taste, acquired in

New Mexico, for competition based on

appearances. One Halloween he went to

an office costume party as Carmen

Miranda and was named runner-up–to

a gorilla. “I would always come in

second,” Kuffel says. “I was `the best of

the second best.’ In fact, I always said if

I wrote a book, that would be the title.”

While Kuffel was enjoying

professional success and gaining a

reputation as the office cutup, his

personal life was unhappy. He kept his

sexual feelings repressed, convinced

that “people did not want to turn on the

news and watch a gay man.” He had been

attracted to boys since first-grade

summer camp but was still a virgin. On

days free from his second job, in Elmira,

N.Y., he would drive to a gay club in

New Jersey, and one night, outside a

nearby after-hours diner, he hooked up

for the first time with a guy. The pair

drove to a parking lot, where, like legions

of Americans before him, Kuffel lost his

virginity in a car. “Front seat, with the

stick shift between us,” he says.

Kuffel didn’t come out to his family

right away; he says he was too confused.

“I’m 26,” he recalls, “and I am going

through the feelings that most kids go

through at 14 or 15.” Perhaps it was this

delayed adolescence that led Kuffel to

decide to teach middle school. (Tired of

all the negative news he’d been reporting,

he went back to college and received his

teaching certificate in 1991.) In his class

of 12-year-olds–who by all accounts

are proud of their instructor’s status

as Mr. USA–Kuffel says he “goes

through puberty every year.” But

adolescence now, as experienced by his

students, doesn’t seem to be what it was

for Kuffel. For one thing, kids today

seem more curious. His students have

never wondered openly if he is gay, but

they often ask if he’s married. “That’s

followed up,” Kuffel confides, “with the

same exact question: `Aren’t you lonely?'”

If Kuffel does seem a little lonely–at

the moment he’s unattached, a situation

he says he wants to remedy very

much–the current Mr. USA

International seems less concerned by his

students’ queries or by the response of

fellow male beauties at the upcoming Mr.

International contest to his coming-out

than by the possible fallout from his

colleagues at school. Kuffel hasn’t

revealed his orientation to his school’s

principal. However, he jokes, “I’m single,

I’m 33, I never talk about a girlfriend. I

mean, you don’t need to be a great


Still, Kuffel says, the threat of

professional repercussions is outweighed

by the possibility that his disclosure

might make things easier for some

teenager than they were for him at that

age. “I’m doing this,” Kuffel says,

“because I know that there are kids out

there, whether they’re in my classroom

or not, who need to be told and shown

that it’s OK to be who they are.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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