‘The Infiltrator’

Happy talk: Blake Hayes, a DJ for Mix 96.5, judges contestants for the sixth season of Pride Idol, a vocal competition held at South Beach each Thursday through June 21.

Radio DJ Blake Hayes finds a comfortable new home in Houston
by David Goldberg

Mix 96.5’s Blake Hayes moved to Houston from New York City four months ago, and has already made quite a name for himself in the LGBT community. The radio personality now serves as host for the 2012 Pride Superstar competition. “I feel like I’ve been embraced by the gay community of Houston,” Hayes said. “Hosting Pride Superstar is like the welcome party.”

The competition, which started its sixth season on May 3, will choose one singing champion out of 12 finalists to earn $1,000 in studio recording time, as well as a place on the Pride Superstar parade float. This year’s first-time host has been mostly impressed with the competitors. “The competition does have a couple of great singers with good personalities, and a lot of diversity too, which speaks to Houston’s diversity,” he said. “This city feels more diverse than New York City did.”

Before becoming 96.5’s afternoon on-air DJ, Hayes worked at New York’s 95.5 WPLJ, where he gained fame in the press after surviving a gay-bashing attack in Hell’s Kitchen in 2009. Air Force Sergeant Benjamin Ford assaulted Hayes and a friend on an average night on Ninth Avenue. After reporting the incident to the NYPD, Hayes was horrified that they took no action, and started a media campaign for justice that was picked up by such media outlets as The New York Post, ABC New York, and NBC New York. Ford was eventually detained and stripped of his rank, and the NYPD’s carelessness was brought to the public eye. Looking back, Hayes is proud of how it played out. “It demonstrated the power of what speaking up can do,” Hayes said. “The biggest aftereffect of that incident was a positive one. There was a surprisingly high number of people who found the story and reached out to me to say thank you, or that our action had inspired them to come out. It started a lot of really powerful conversations.”

Now that he is in the spotlight for less traumatic reasons, Hayes seeks to bring positive gay attitudes and perspectives to his audience, so long as they are relevant. “I’m 150 percent out at work. At Mix 96.5 I was never told I could never be that gay. They let me do whatever I want to do. But, as far as the audience that I need to relate to goes, gay stuff is not the priority. It’s more about thinking about stuff in Houston that women who are 25 to 50 are concerned about.”

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy an opportunity when he sees one. A gay caller recently requested Jason Mraz’s “I Won’t Give Up” to be dedicated to his boyfriend. “I ran it on the air, and I thought, Okay, Texas, let’s see what happens.” Hayes was pleasantly surprised to only receive one phone call, from a woman who had never heard a same-sex dedication on the radio, and who was proud to listen to the station. “I thought to myself: I love it here,” Hayes said.

“If that 15-second phone call can make people think differently about something, then I am being politically active in my job,” he said. “And being politically active and making a difference in gay rights doesn’t require being involved in politics. There could have been even one gay teenager sitting in the car with a parent and that [dedication request] may have ignited a conversation. Unfortunately, I don’t get to see it. The thought that our signal could be picked up by someone who needs it in that moment is pretty powerful. I’m like an infiltrator.”

As for his new surroundings, the lapsed New Yorker admits that Houston has far exceeded his expectations. “I am really pleasantly surprised by the level
of activism and political participation—how out and how accepting so many people are here. I thought it would be a lot different than New York, and it’s actually not,” he said.

But he still believes Houston’s LGBT community has work to do. As election season looms, he has become more aggressive about his political opinions. “I’ve met a fair amount of straight allies or gay people in Houston who vote Republican and don’t have a second thought about it,” he said. “It baffles me that there are some people that are gay who lean to the right in Texas who don’t see that equality is greatly lacking, even here.”

After only a few months in town, this public upstart has already made his way on to the city’s radio waves and its parade floats. If he stays in town much longer, there’s no telling how far his influence will go.

Pride Superstar runs live at South Beach Nightclub, Thursdays at 10 p.m. until June 21. Details: pridehouston.org/events/superstar.

David Goldberg also writes about Anat Nir in this issue of OutSmart magazine.



David Odyssey

David Odyssey is a queer journalist and the host of The Luminaries podcast. His work is collected at davidodyssey.com.

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