When I first met Kevin Reader, I thought he didn’t like me. At the very least, he seemed like a busy man who wasn’t to be interrupted.
It was during Southern Hibearnation 2011 in Melbourne when I was in town for the first time, filming some material for a documentary about my friend Arthur Milne, who was competing in that year’s Mr Australasia Bear.
I was pleasantly surprised when Kevin grabbed me for a photo in the street one night (the one at the head of Wednesday’s post) outside an event he was volunteering at. It was the first time we’d really spoken properly, and I went on to record an interview for The Cubby House Project, a radio show he co-hosts, that weekend.
I later discovered that part of the reason he was a bit aloof towards me at first was that he’d overheard me slagging off a series of health promotion posters he’d designed for Hibearnation that year as I stood in front of them at the Laird. Whoops.
Luckily, he forgave me.
But people sometimes assume Kevin is standoffish. It’s not out of arrogance or elitism. He’s often terrified.
“Generally I don’t feel comfortable around other people,” he says, feelings that are at odds with the public role he’s assumed as a radio host and as a Vicbears committee member. Selling raffle tickets at events, for example, is a particular challenge. “Sometimes I don’t have an issue with it, sometimes I’ll be physically shaking just at the thought of having to go and talk to people.”
I can understand his social anxiety. It’s a classic symptom of someone who’s brain runs at a million miles an hour and always imagines the worst possible outcome in any scenario, no matter how innocuous.
“Most of the time I’m just incredibly worried that I’m going to say the wrong thing,” he says. “The first time I meet people I usually do say the wrong thing and end up having to either quickly make a joke about it, or say, ‘well, that’s that friendship written off, I’ll just go and bury my head in the sand now thank you’.”
He ended up on the radio after being gently nudged by his friend David Cooke (Cookie) who had started The Cubby House Project initially as a podcast. He had retreated from social life into self-described “hermitude” after the breakup of a four-year relationship and had lost confidence in his own voice and opinions.
“You can thank Cookie for coaxing me out,” he says. “In the early podcasts he would just set microphones up in the lounge. We would get one or two guests to come in and have a chat with us about random subjects like moving house. If you listen to the first couple of ones that I’m on, I hardly talk at all.”
The duo became a trio with the addition of ginger menace Jack Chapman and the show moved onto Melbourne’s gay radio station Joy FM, going live.
“We were on live radio and I absolutely shat myself for the first couple of weeks,” he remembers. “Then something happens, you make a tit of yourself, you do something that’s completely wrong, and your heart stops. Everyone starts laughing, and then all of a sudden you start laughing too. Something inside you just kind of loosens and you realise I can survive this, even if I fuck up, even if I do the worst most imaginable things I’m still going to be here, it doesn’t matter.”
Being part of the show, and then moving onto the Vicbears committee gave him a tremendous confidence boost, but the social anxiety still nags him at times, particularly when he remembers that he actually does have a public profile in the bear community.
“It’s the weirdest thing to just be somewhere and people walk up and start talking to you as if they know you,” he says. “I’ve learnt to deal with it now, but the first couple of times, when you’re not really good socially and all of a sudden you’re thrown into the situation where you have to deal with other people and they know your name, you think – how much do they know about me? What do they know? That totally freaks me out.”
When you’ve had decades of reinforcement that you aren’t a good person, that you’re weird, strange, unworthy of attention, your brain’s default setting can be paranoia. It never occurs to you that people may want to talk to you because they are interested in you and – god forbid – might even like you.
During his time on the Vicbears committee, Kevin was involved with the organising of many social events and along with other committee members was devastated when two gay men in the bear community committed suicide within the space of a year.
“I got really angry when we lost them. Gay men in general are one of the highest risk groups for suicide, and we were part of a group that was supposed to accept the fringes of the gay society, supposed to be incredibly accepting, take people for who they are, be down to earth.
“I know it’s weird that you take things like that personally because obviously they’d been going through a lot of their own problems, but I felt we’d failed as a community in providing a supportive environment.”
In 2011, he decided he wanted to do “at least one thing” that could help prevent suicide in the bear community, and with the full support of the committee, he organised the first open forum for RUOK Day with Jack Chapman, which I was privileged to be asked to speak at.
Kevin still has his own bad days, and credits his partner of three years, Michael, with helping him through his rough patches.
“He grounds me. Even though I think some small, insignificant little thing is the most important thing right now, he subtly reminds me that there are other things I can be thinking about which are more important. He helps put things back into perspective. I would not have gotten through the last two years if it weren’t for him.”
Providing perspective and gently stating what may seem to be the obvious is one of the most powerful things a partner can do for their man if he is experiencing depression or other forms of mental distress.
“He’s incredibly patient. He balances me out. He sits there and listens to me rant. He encourages me when I take on way too much, when I just want to give up. It’s the small things like when I’m sick and I haven’t been eating, and he comes all the way across the city just to make me breakfast.”
With the hive of activity that was Southern Hibearnation 2012 behind him, Kevin is looking forward to a well-deserved break, thanks to a surprise European trip that Michael has organised.
“I am so looking forward to it, to the point where I’ve downloaded maps of cities onto my iPad, I’m plotting where I want to go to do photos.”
Sigh, once the nerd…
[Written on my Macbook Pro]