These days all it takes is a small spark to fan the flames of what ends up going “viral” on social media. A spark is exactly what happened to popular YouTuber and Atlantan Tarek Ali about a month ago when one of his posts exploded.
Ali, who identifies as a gay man, posted a clip of a video he posted on April 4 that featured his heterosexual friend Richard Lee Jr., and, in just three days, it garnered thousands of views and more than 200 comments.
The video, titled “Making a Straight Guy do Gay things….on camera,” features an unsuspecting Lee being challenged by Ali to answer a series of questions while being asked to participate in a number of supposed “gay” gestures, like having makeup being applied on his face and wearing a wig.
In the accompanying Instagram caption, Ali explained that the video’s message was intended to encourage people to be comfortable with themselves and their own sexuality despite what society or people may think. To date, the video has attracted over 33,500 views on his YouTube page.
“Seeing as a lot of people don’t see a friendship with an out gay man and a heterosexual man, I thought of doing the video,” Ali explained. “We always crossed each other paths and spoke in class. It was always an organic, normal friendship that didn’t feel forced or Richard felt uncomfortable.
Ali and Lee both attend Georgia State University and met in their calculus class. Lee had no idea what the topic of the video would be about. Ali wanted to record his action in real time.
“I never tell people the topic of my videos because I don’t want people to think about what to do or say before they appear on the show, or to say yes or no to my request,” Ali said.
While most people expected the heterosexual Lee to be disgusted or uncomfortable with Ali’s conversations and requests, viewers saw Lee answer Ali’s questions with a coolness and ease that defied stereotypes of hypermasculinity and with an assuredness that indicated just how comfortable Lee was in his own skin.
Further, the response to the video wasn’t surprising to Tarek.
“All of the women on Twitter loved it and thought it was really cute,” Ali shared. “With men, however, the response was 50/50. Half of them said they have a gay friend and he’s mad cool but I wouldn’t let him put makeup on them and the other half said (the video) portrayed two gay dudes in the video and that (Lee) wasn’t straight after all.”
Ali’s upbringing in different environments and communities with alternative narratives made it easy for him to predict audience responses.
“Where I’m from, where you would call the hood, the post’s premise wouldn’t fly with anybody because that’s not an expression a strong Black man would show,” Ali explained.
As far as Ali’s upbringing, he’ll tell you that he is a strong, educated, queer Black man. He hails from Prince George’s County, Maryland but now calls Atlanta home for at least two more years. Ali is in his sophomore at Georgia State, where he is majoring in science with plans to become a doctor.
Even before the post with Lee went viral, Ali was already making waves with his work on social media.
Ali is also one of MTVU Network’s collegiate correspondents. MTVU contacted him in January 2018 and shared they had been watching his YouTube channel for a while and thought I would he would be a perfect fit for the network.
“My segment (on MTVU) is similar to my YouTube production, but instead, I am speaking with millions of students and viewers around the country on what helps me and my experience in college as a queer black man,” he explained. “I may share my quick makeup routine before class, what I may wear to class and when I’m going out, how I manage my time, or how I save money in college.”
The first episode aired on March 5.
Ali hit the social media scene around the age of 16 by making funny vines which garnered him millions of loops and views. “My vines were pretty vulgar and inappropriate, which is something my parents didn’t support,” he recalled.
With the decrease in Vine’s popularity, Tarek switched platforms to YouTube. Once on YouTube, he cleaned up his image and started making videos of his interests and giving advice to college students. Now, he mixes the funny with educational advice and social justice issues.
Ali said that living in Atlanta has made him more comfortable with his sexuality. His living experience has been different here because of the openness that queer people are not afraid to show who they are.
“Atlanta has a large community of gay black man so it’s more comfortable to live here,” he said.
His coming out story isn’t filled with strife. He told me that he’s always been feminine and a bit different my entire life. He noted that while gender expression not exclusively an indicator of sexuality, when he was little, he always wanted to hang with the girls and do “girlie” things.
His mother wasn’t surprised and was actually waiting for him to tell her. “She wanted me to be comfortable,” he explained.
The message of the video was meant to be an encouragement and to let people know who you hang with and what you look like has nothing to do with your sexuality. I asked Tarek how can straight men be an ally to gay men.
“We’re not asking (for heterosexual men) to support us but to be respectful,” Ali said. “People should be comfortable and confident with (their) sexuality.”
When Tarek isn’t vlogging, he’s running a non-profit called Caring Colors LGBTQ Empowerment Organization. He started the club around the same time that he started his vine. Caring Colors started off as a club in his high school.
“I wasn’t bullied in school but my friends were and I noticed that it was my confidence and the way I carried myself,” he said.
Caring Colors is an organization that is a safe space to talk about all the of the things that you can’t talk about with your parents or teachers. Other high schools have become involved and it’s now in at least 10 other high schools in Prince George County.
The organization now has collegiate chapters at Georgia State University and Prince George Community College. What started off as a high school club, has now blossomed into a non-profit.
Tarek lives by the quote, you have to work for everything you want.
“I don’t believe anything is given to you,” he said, in earnest. “Anything you want or desire you have to work for it. It’s not going to come to you.”