It was a cold and blustery day in Toronto. I hadn’t left my apartment and the Sun had long since set. With the wind screeching through the cracks of my windows, and the -15 degree weather, it was hard to leave the warm comfort of my bed. But, I am so glad that I did.
Raf Antonio and I met at the Aroma Café on King St., about a block or two East from Spadina. We both ordered an almond milk latte, which I found amusing because we came in at separate times. Most of the tables were filled with those clacking away at their laptops or friends chattering over a hot beverage. Raf and I sat ourselves at one of the red leather booths at the far corner of the café, behind a couple of gaggling girls catching up on the latest gossip.
Their loud chatter did not seem to bother Raf, and so we delved right into the conversation without falter.
Raf grew up in Saskatchewan and absolutely hated it. Everywhere he wanted to get to wasn’t within walking distance. Since it was in the thick of the prairies, Raf felt cut off from the rest of the world. A change of space was inevitable, especially since he had the desire to pursue a musical theatre career.
Raf moved to Toronto five years ago, and has loved living in its chaotic city centre. On top of increased access to queer spaces, there were also increased opportunities for Raf’s career path. But, his idea of a dream job changed.
“Somewhere along the way I got interested in writing,” said Raf.
Every now and then the desire to be a musical theatre performer still “nips at his heels”, but Raf admits that his true passion lies behind the scenes of the rehearsal space. Or, as he phrased it, “the process of it.”
Raf is in his first year as a resident playwright at the Cahoots Theatre Company in downtown Toronto, where he’s currently developing a piece entitled “The Effeminates: A Queer Tale of a Bloody Vengeance.”
“It feels like a really big step, but at the same time, what does this mean for my career? I’m still such an emerging artist,” laughed Raf. “I’ve had a show produced professionally and now I’m a playwright resident, which technically should be a big deal in my career. But, then I’m also like, ‘I’m a nobody.’”
When Raf isn’t writing away, you can see him work at his “Joe job” at the National Ballet Theatre. Or, you can see Raf showcase more of his artistic talent in his creative project on social media.
“I’ve been doing this Instagram project where I’m trying to explore a feminized male beauty, a different less-Eurocentric Latin American beauty that I feel doesn’t get seen enough,” said Raf.
Though the project started after a show Raf worked on early summer of last year, he thinks it comes out of his exploration of what gender means. On top of growing up in Saskatchewan, Raf also grew up with a relatively traditional El Salvadoran family. Raf admits that his father wasn’t “super accepting” of the more feminine aspects of his identity.
“I think because of that I wasn’t really able to understand [gender], so I wanted to dig into that and see what that meant to me and what it meant to feel beautiful in a different way,” said Raf. “Instead of trying to fit into that box that comes along with being a queer man, which I think tends to be – especially nowadays – to be white, have a beard and have abs.”
We met up a couple days before the photo shoot for the brand, and when I asked Raf how he felt about it, he shared his true excitement to be part of it. Raf thinks the designs for the debut line are finely tuned and exquisite, and loved the way the pieces looked on his body when he tried them on. He also loves how Panther Daze Designs is presenting their lingerie too.
“They’re trying to get it away from the male gaze with feminist images, and also, it’s gender inclusive,” said Raf. “I found that to be a beautiful message, especially right now.”
Though incredibly excited for the shoot, Raf revealed that he was not initially on board to do it. Raf admitted that he’s not in a place where he feels “super great” about showing his body off.
“I used to be much more intense about my fitness but in recent years, I sort of let that go and focussed on my work,” said Raf. “So, the first thought that went through my head was ‘shoot, my body.’”
But because of his Instagram project, Raf reconsidered and said "f*ck it."
“This will be fun and I will just have to accept this body the way it is,” said Raf. “This will, I think, bring me a new kind of confidence, it's like a new step in my life.”
Raf has had a tumultuous relationship with his body and sexuality for most of his life, which seems to be largely consequential from being surrounded by conservative values and his parent’s disapproval and lack of acceptance of his sexual identity.
“In the last couple of years I had to break through some of those walls,” said Raf. “It’s been really frustrating, but it’s also been beautiful in it’s own way because you realize how much you’re able to share that pleasure with yourself and also with another person in that way.”
When I asked Raf about the kind of advice he would give those who also struggle with their body image, he said something truly poetic: “I think there’s something really beautiful about being able to see yourself and your body as a piece of art. Whatever shape and form that is, and to adorn is as a piece of art, appreciate it as a piece of art, and the knowledge that not everybody is going to understand that piece of art.”
It is a common struggle to accept the skin that we have all been born in. The media constantly bombards us with images of what we are all supposed to look like, and if you don’t fit that mould, it can be discouraging. Like Raf said, we are all pieces of art and not everybody is going to understand or appreciate our masterpieces. But, that doesn’t mean we are any less beautiful.