For anyone who knows Karamo Brown beyond his role as the warm, sensitive but strong, tear-inducing culture guru on Queer Eye, they know his most important role in life is dad.
Before the 38-year-old father of two became part of the Fab Five and showed us his smooth moves on this season of Dancing With the Stars, Karamo was introduced to the world as the first out Black gay man on reality TV, on MTV’s The Real World: Philadelphia in 2004. Following some admitted issues dealing with the pitfalls of fame after the show, he took a conscious step away from the spotlight and resumed his pre-TV career path in social work.
Not only did Karamo find sobriety in his new, less glamorous but healthier life, he also found out shortly after leaving TV that he was the father of a 10-year-old Jason “Rachel” Brown.
Karamo says the somewhat shocking revelation helped snap him out of the addiction cycle and forced him to grow up quickly. He soon gained full custody of Jason, and ended up adopting Jason’s younger half-brother Christian, now 19. With newfound clarity and focus, the young single dad set forth to raise the two boys on his own.
Over the next decade, Karamo deflected temptations to return to the entertainment industry and instead humbly threw himself into fatherhood and community activism. The beloved star now credits a somewhat innocent conversation with Christian about a homework assignment as a major motivator for his return to TV.
“He was writing a paper on living your dreams and he asked me if being a social worker was my dream,” he recalled in the Plus interview — which published just weeks before it was announced he’d been chosen as part of the new Queer Eye cast. “I could say ‘Yes,’ which was a lie. I said ‘No.’ He said, ‘Well, why don’t you go after your dreams?’ I quit my job, maybe two months later.”
It does seem this man was destined to be on TV. After making the conscious decision to dip his toe back into the entertainment waters, Karamo soon secured his place on the iconic life-makeover show after landing a string of prestigious panelist and hosting gigs — including on Oprah.com’s #OWNShow and Dr. Drew on Call.
So, with a starring role on a groundbreaking, Emmy-winning reality series, a best-selling memoir (Karamo: My Story of Embracing Purpose, Healing, and Hope), a decade-long relationship with his partner and now co-parent, director Ian Jordan, and two grown sons, life must always be picture-perfect for the happy family these days, right? Well, both father and son admit, not exactly.
When Jason, now 22, recently shared the news with his father that he identified as pansexual, it caused an unexpected, albeit brief, rift between the two men. Most would assume that a father essentially known for his queerness and celebrated for his own queer pride would be the easiest person to come out to, but as Jason explains, family dynamics aren’t always so simple.
“It’s like you’ve got the guy on Queer Eye, and you would think that he would take that information a little bit more lightly,” Jason admits with a laugh, adding that the pressure of his dad’s larger-than-life LGBTQ persona may have actually held him back from sharing his identity for some time.
“We have such a good connection of communication and I never hide anything from my dad, so when he heard this — and he was not the first person to hear this — I could sense that it kind of hurt him,” he says, “and that’s why it transferred to a little bit of frustration.”
Within hours, though, Jason says his dad called him back “and was letting me know how he loved me.” And, Jason ultimately admits, “I should have just been real with my father.”
The senior Brown is equally candid when discussing the experience of Jason’s coming out — and his feelings about the phrase itself. “It’s actually a term that I advocate against,” Karamo tells The Advocate. “I believe that the term ‘coming out’ is a bit antiquated and outdated in the sense [that] it gives the power to someone else to accept or deny you when, in actuality, what the process is, is that we’re letting people into our lives. When you do that, it gives the person the courage to know that you have the ability to set boundaries and decide who you want to let in your life…. I think it takes some of the pressure off. It gives the power back to the person who actually needs it. So it’s something that, as when I worked in social services, I taught my kids.”
“So when Jason let me into his life regarding him identifying as pansexual,” he continues, “there was a myriad of feelings that I had. First, he didn’t let me into his life regarding being pansexual until he was 21. This is a young man who grew up in a household where his father is a career gay. You know, like, I’ve literally been on television, open and proud about my sexuality, worked in social services with LGBT youth, he was around LGBT youth and adults, he’s seen the healthy relationship that I’ve been in for 10 years — yet there was still a fear in his mind of sharing with me. When he shared with me that he identified as pan, I was, first of all, disappointed…. I was a little hurt.”
Karamo is honest about having to face some of the fears that many queer parents have in dealing with ignorant and homophobic stereotypes.
“I also did have a fear of, how am I going to tell members of his family that are still struggling with accepting people who identify as part of the LGBTQI community?” Karamo confesses. “Because there are still parts of my side of the family and his mother’s side that are not as open.”
“When I got custody of Jason, people said, ‘Don’t have your son be raised with a gay man, because it’s going to turn him gay,’” continues Karamo. “And obviously, I know that’s ignorant, I know that’s not true. Someone’s sexuality cannot be determined by their environment, it’s who they are. But when he let me into his life [about his pansexuality], I immediately thought, Oh, here we go. Now I’m going to have to defend this. Here’s another fight. It was hard because, as I shared on my podcast [Karamo, on the audio platform Luminary], I understood to some small degree what parents go through from a different lens — because my initial reaction for the first hour was not as positive as you’d think.” Karamo says that after giving himself a quick attitude adjustment and realizing that, above all else in this moment, his son needed his support, he also did a lot of research and sort of put himself through Pansexual 101.
“I didn’t have education on what pan truly meant,” he says. “I didn’t know what that meant for him. I felt betrayed by him lying to me and I had to go on this journey quickly, really quickly, to educate myself and then to remember this is his journey. He can let me into his life when he wanted, and I had to do all the steps that I teach parents in a quick span so that I could then be there to support him and show him love and acceptance.”
Both men agree the emotional situation ultimately strengthened their father-son bond, and Jason says a great part of that healing process was co-authoring the new inclusive children’s book with his dad, I Am Perfectly Designed, set to release in November. The book, described by MacMillian Publishers as “an exuberant celebration of loving who you are, exactly as you are,” is a fun and empowering ode to modern families.
“I think for me, first off, [the book’s title, I Am Perfectly Designed] was something my dad has always told me since I was younger,” says Jason. “It’s like a mantra at this point for me — it’s something I just live by, and it kind of made sense. Whenever he’d asked me if I wanted to write a book, I had the perfect idea for it… I was like, ‘Dad, we should literally do the lesson you’ve always taught me, which is that I’m perfectly designed.’ And we formatted it as a kid’s book and it came out phenomenally.”
Illustrations by award-winning artist and character designer Anoosha Syed don’t hurt either. “Yes, she’s so good,” says Jason, who is currently studying acting at UCLA. “That was a big part for me that I needed… I’m a visual person, so if this book was not visually stimulating for me personally, I wouldn’t have loved it. She did a great job.”
Karamo adds that he was inspired to create something that “could reach a younger audience” after the success of his memoir and approached Jason about the idea. “So [we] decided to write a book together... [based] off of a mantra that I told Jason as a child, which was that you are perfectly designed. We all get messages from the world around us that tell us we’re not good enough because of our age, because of our race, because of our sexual identity, because of our gender identity, because of our weight, because of — you fill in the blank.
"I wanted to give him something that he could hold on to so that when he hears those messages, he could go to himself and say, ‘No — I am perfect just as I am. There’s nothing wrong with me. Even if there is something I want to change, that is also part of my perfect design and having the ability to do that.’ I thought, What a great universal message that could work for someone young, but also someone old. The book is really catered towards not just kids, but also parents, young teens, teachers. It’s for everyone to have and be able to remember: You are perfectly designed.”