Victor Ongpin isn’t someone who approaches things halfway. He even belongs to two gyms: one for Crossfit, and a second (Gold’s Gym) for the “vanity muscles,” he says. It’s a quality that’s characteristic of someone who has his level of drive. And it’s that sort of drive that has led to the creation and, ultimately, success of JAKE Talks, an event turned movement Victor founded, that seeks to “create a platform for diverse voices in the LGBT community.”
He’s also an excellent host. I haven’t made it even halfway through the door before he’s offered me something to eat or drink while I’m there for our interview.
Victor is effectively a lifelong resident of Seattle, moving here with his mother and siblings from the Philippines when he was two years old. He’s been here ever since, growing up in the Lake City area before attending UW.
For him, Seattle is definitely a good place to call home.
“I think I like the pace and the mindset of folks here. We’re a little bit more outdoorsy. We’re kind of doing our own thing. No one’s trying to compete and be like New York or San Francisco,” he explains. “I love the causal nature of the city. We’re more about comfort than trying to look good.”
He first moved to Capitol Hill, where he still lives, within 3 months of coming out, in December of 2005. Which means he’s coming up on his ten-year anniversary of being out and proud, I mention.
“Yes,” he exclaims. “I think I’m gonna have a party! I think I should do a party, because I’m looking for more reasons to have people over,” he adds with a chuckle.
While Victor did spend some time with his friends in the bars initially, exploring his newly public sexuality, the gay bar scene lacked the feeling of community that he was looking for.
“After visiting different bars for a couple of weeks,” he admits, “I said: Are there other things to do? And so my friend said there’s a place called Gay City and you can volunteer. For me, being in a space with other queer folks, I just wanted to be there. It didn’t even matter what it was. So I started volunteering at Gay City.”
Soon after he started volunteering, he also joined Quake Rugby, a primarily gay rugby club in Seattle.
“That’s kind of like its own, built-in, recreational activity and social club,” he tells me, “and other people who are just having that sense of community right away, which was really nice.”
Victor’s passion for community, though, extends beyond the need to belong into the need to create. The first community he created, then, would be My Boyfriend Wears Flannel, a blog inspired by the first time he was in love, where he writes about sex, dating, and relationships.
“He wasn’t my first boyfriend,” says Victor of his blog’s inspiration, “but he was my first love. When you have that first love, you have a lot of first-time emotions that you’re experiencing. That person can contribute to you a lot because of who you are and who you make them to be.”
It was the desire to process those emotions, along with the feelings and experiences that came from that relationship, that pushed Victor toward the idea of blogging.
“My Boyfriend Wears Flannel is really a metaphor,” he tells me. “When I say ‘My Boyfriend’ it could be that guy you’re just dating, it could be that long-term relationship. Maybe you’re not defining it yet.”
“Wearing flannel is a metaphor too,” he continues “for, kind of, that Seattle attitude, where we are kind of a little bit more to ourselves. Because we’re not necessarily talking to each other, we’re more focused on looking inward, asking ourself questions, and then we’ll blog about it. We won’t talk to you about what we’re doing, but we’ll blog about it!”
Victor’s most recent community, though, is JAKE Talks, the series of gatherings, forums, and videos he founded with the vision of sharing “ideas that build bridges in [the] LGBT community and the rest of the world.”
“I feel that, in a way, JAKE Talks is really an evolution of what that blog was,” he explains. “There was this perspective that you’re bringing, and you’re never really telling someone what to think. You’re looking at your experience, and you’re perceiving your experience, and you’re making these assumptions for yourself, and you’re creating something that your experience is about.”
His original idea for JAKE Talks was to partner with a gay psychotherapist friend and put on a seminar about sex, dating, and relationships.
“That’s what I wrote about,” he says, “and that’s what I knew.”
The idea grew, though, into something modeled on TED Talks, where folks of a queer persuasion would share their stories with the hope of imparting some of the wisdom of their experiences on a queer audience. The first JAKE Talk, held in May of last year, didn’t have much more of a theme than that, though.
“Really, in the beginning, it was just saying: who would be willing to talk,” he shares. “Who’s willing to show up at this day of talks that we’re doing? At the time, it was still just coming up with the name JAKE Talks too.”
Self expression is really the highest value that we hold as an organization along with being able to give a voice to the community.”
I recalled that first event, with its gay male line up of speakers. That, and a name that stands for Joyfully Awaken to Knowledge and Empowerment, I shared, felt a lot more like a gay men’s health and spirituality movement than an a broader LGBT event.
“While it was being conceived,” Victor admits, “the target was gay men because that was the audience I wrote for, my friends, the people that I knew. In the first talks it was just six gay men.”
Since then, though, the subsequent events, as well as the written and video stories shared online, have grown into a more expansive representation of the queer community.
“Even while we were conceiving it,” he agrees, “we wanted to make sure that we had other representative voices. Since then, since we’ve brought more folks onboard. We’ve brought Elayne Wylie from Gender Justice League. She’s one of the folks on the speakers bureau, so she has some say, and helps to define who would be part of the line up. Also, our organization is predominantly minority and women. We didn’t have, until recently, not even a single white male.”
Later JAKE Talks touched on more universal subjects such as gender identity and modern expressions of love. The upcoming event, happening next Saturday, November 14, tackles the increasingly complicated, and long wrestled with definition of what home means to members of the queer community. Heady stuff, indeed.
The speakers are chosen to, and are encouraged to speak from their personal wisdom and experiences, and speak from their hearts.
“Self expression is really the highest value that we hold as an organization,” explains Victor, “along with being able to give a voice to the community.”
“They should have a sense of self-expression, authenticity, lifelong learning, and empowerment,” he continues, explaining how the events and online contributions can align with the JAKE Talks values and mission. “There should be a sense of community connection, and that should be relevant at all the events. Since the very first one, we strived to make sure people feel like they’re included.”
If you haven’t yet had a chance to check out what JAKE Talks is all about, the upcoming event is your best opportunity. Advance tickets are $19 through Monday, November 9, and go up to $25 after that. Get them in advance if you can, because the last event sold out. Advance tickets can be found online here.
Visit jake-talks.com for more information.