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Former diver impacts through TV
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2013-05-29

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Jhonmar Castillo has led a wild, roller-coaster life, certainly worthy of a TV documentary—which he likely would produce.

Castillo was an Olympic diver, and once was stranded in a foreign country, jilted by his gay lover. Castillo has been broke and heartbroken. He's been in love multiple times—and proudly walked, hand in hand, to his civil union ceremony with Ryan Witmer on June 2, 2011. Castillo has been a waiter by need, a hairdresser of fame, and an art dealer who flourished and then one who struggled with the economy. He now is a pioneer in the gay media world. He's enduring bullying, though not to himself directly, and admits he himself was a bully.

Castillo never had an official coming-out because, he said, "I never was in [the closet.]"

He is an international sensation, now living in suburban Evanston, often working to further promote the LGBT community into the wee hours of the morning—in an unpaid job that has been his focus since August, 2011.

"I like that [my life] has been a roller-coaster ride; I think I'd be more afraid of a smooth ride," Castillo said. "Just bring it on, whatever comes my way."

The early years

The story starts in his native Venezuela, where Castillo was a competitive diver at age 8 and, by age 12, he won his first National Championship. Castillo eventually won 14 international diving competitions in the 10-meter platform event, and he even represented his native country at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.

When diver Greg Louganis had one of his most infamous dives of his illustrious career, hitting the back of his head on the diving board, Castillo, then 16, was right there, in his swimming trunks, on the pool deck.

While living in Venezuela in his early-20s, Castillo spent a couple years working as a flight attendant for American Airlines, mainly as a route out of the country.

"I didn't see myself as a flight attendant at age 40," he said. "While a flight attendant, I traveled [personally] as much as possible, my way of scoping out the perfect place to live."

Chicago was it. "I found this city to be amazing, wonderful—the people, the architecture, the culture, even the weather," he said.

Castillo eventually had a boyfriend, though living internationally. They talked about their future together and, in early 1992, Castillo was ready to make it a reality.

He quit the airline job and sold most of his belongings in Venezuela. Castillo had $800 cash, the most he could bring at the time. All of his remaining belongs were packed into two suitcases, and he was heading to America.

Castillo arrived at O'Hare International Airport April 12, 1992, and then made his made to his boyfriend's apartment in the Uptown neighborhood. Castillo knocked on the door and was told he could not come in or stay—his boyfriend was with another man.

It was a rainy day and Castillo knew no one else in Chicago.

He sat on a nearby curb for two hours, filled with emotions.

Castillo eventually started walking north along Broadway and spotted a "For Rent" sign at an apartment on Carmen Street. He told the landlord that he was a flight attendant for American and even showed his airline identification and his passport. He went on to say that he wouldn't be getting his first check for two weeks, but would give $800 cash on the spot for the one-bedroom, first-floor unfurnished apartment—and then give the remaining $50 monthly rent in two weeks.

The landlord agreed, and Castillo at least had a roof over his head.

Next, Castillo needed food. So he talked to the owner of a nearby Guatemalan restaurant, and he was immediately put to work as a waiter.

His first day as a Chicago waiter, Castillo left with $12.50 from tips.

"That was enough to buy breakfast the next day," said Castillo, who was given a complimentary dinner after his shift as a waiter.

"I wasn't afraid of the situation at the time," he said.

His next major adventure started the day he walked into a Lakeview hair salon that had a "Help Wanted" sign hanging for all to see.

"I thought I was going to be washing hair," he said.

But instead, the salon manager asked how long he had been cutting hair. In what he then called "survival mode," Castillo answered, "six years," though his next hair cut would, in reality, be his first.

Sure enough, the salon hired him, saying he was responsible for walk-in customers.

Castillo's first customer was a Russian man, about 65, with wild, shaggy hair and even bushy eyebrows.

"I had never cut hair in my life, but just thought [the process] was logical and remember that they often use two fingers [in the cutting process.] I just figured I'd do the best for him, as I would for myself," Castillo said.

That first cut took 90 minutes, "and when he got off that chair, he looked great, like he was 35 years old."

Castillo received a $7 tip.

So started his haircutting career, which spanned two years. He even once was voted third among the Top 10 Chicago Hair Dressers by Chicago Magazine. Some customers waited two months to sit on Castillo's chair and he ultimately charged up to $350.

"As I watched other hair dressers, I was learning. It was a crash, self-taught course," he said, laughing. "The hair cutting was a fun time."

Castillo's next job was coaching at the University of California, San Diego, where he stayed from 1996-2000. He also then coached other area teams.

He returned to Chicago in 2000 and began working in the real estate industry through his partner at the time. He specialized in video production, motion graphics, and more—again, all self-taught. He produced commercials and banners for clients, among other jobs.

In 2003, Castillo accepted the job as diving coach at the University of Kansas, a job he held for one year.

He was back in Chicago in 2004, when he opened Moka Gallery in the Pilsen neighborhood. He moved the art gallery to Roscoe Village in 2005.

Then, in late 2007, the economy swoon hit hard, thus Castillo was forced to switch the focus at Moka, pushing the video production to the fore-front as opposed to art.

Hamburgers, hot dogs and a plan

On Aug. 12, 2011, Castillo had friends over at his home for a bar-b-que, and the talk turned to the popular "It Gets Better" campaign and the videos produced around the world to, hopefully, help troubled LGBT teens.

"We were discussing what might be the next logical step for the It Gets Better campaign, which definitely was/is a good thing that has done marvelous things for our community. But it isn't enough. Heck, I didn't think I could make a video for a 17 year-old with the simple message that, yes, it does get better," Castillo said.

"My answer was, I wish I could open a window to these troubled kids, to show them my community, the way I see it."

The light went on, instantly, inside Castillo's ever-creative mind.

Right then, at that instant, Gay Chicago TV was born.

"The goal initially was to create a network that would show a positive outlook on the LGBT community. It was not going to be sex-driven, or just [feature] shirtless men, or the negative aspects [of LGBT life]," Castillo said. "I just thought it would be a great opportunity to show that [the gay community] is so much larger, so much more complex than just what people might see on mainstream TV.

"I wanted to create content not just for LGBT people, but also for mainstream people and the mainstream media, to tell the stories from our point of view.

"I wanted a clear, clean, positive, responsible portrayal of the LGBT community. We wanted to serve as a platform for creative people who want to have a place to tell their stories."

Castillo's vision for the then-future gay TV station was driven by his past.

"I came from a place where it was a tough, tough country to be a gay, but I never was bullied, even though I was always out—that's because I was the bully. It was who I needed to be in order to survive. If I didn't beat someone [up], they were going to beat me," said Castillo, who tagged himself as the "Robin Hood bully, [meaning], I wouldn't let the other bullies pick on anyone, regardless of the reason why."

Although Castillo wasn't bullied for being gay, he said his parents and younger brother endured anti-gay bullying. "Other ladies would make my mom feel uncomfortable, and my brother got beat up—because I was gay. I felt so bad because I couldn't help them," he said.

"My mom's biggest fear was that I was not going to find happiness, not that I was gay."

So Castillo planned Gay Chicago TV as an outlet to talk to the LGBT community, and beyond.

Gay Chicago TV was officially launched Dec. 1, 2011.

"When people hear what Gay Chicago TV is all about, they get excited. It's a great project, with a very clean mission that we can all relate to," Castillo said.

Gay Chicago TV offered a variety of short TV segments—from news, to personality profiles, to gab sessions and more—for its first seven months, a test-run of sorts to see what viewers liked and wanted.

Gay Chicago TV formally launched on June 25, 2012—the day after the annual Gay Pride Parade—and its website had more than 150,000 visits that day alone, no doubt thanks to the truck in the parade that announced the station's plans for that Monday.

Through last December, Gay Chicago TV had more than 220,000 unique visitors to its website and more than 1.1 millions views on Vimeo. Gay Chicago TV has been seen in more than 150 countries.

On Jan. 14—Castillo's vision, created casually at an informal summertime barbecue—launched its next season, this time as a national station. In addition to Chicago, there are regional gay TV stations for news in New York City, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

"When I first thought of Gay Chicago TV, everything was done with the national network in mind, even the logo," Castillo said. "I want each of the regional stations to be their own, not just a copy of another."

So each has local anchors, produces local content.

Gay TV On The Go is the mother of Castillo's vision, which now has national and international LGBT news meshed with local content.

"It was just not enough for me to do five stations because, let's face it, can the LGBT person in, say, Kansas City truly relate to Gay Chicago TV, or any of the other (regional stations)? So we now are expanding the coverage," he said.

Gay TV On The Go operates on a purse-string budget, but a high-dollar look and feel. The Chicago show, for instance, features three Nikon 5100 cameras, that's it. Many of the shows, including the widely popular Gay Report Chicago, anchored by TJ Chernick, are taped, produced, edited, marketed and released from Castillo's home.

"If you look at what we're doing, and how we're doing this, without any [incoming] money, I think people will freak out," Castillo said.

The current season of Gay Chicago TV offers nine distinct shows on topics ranging from news and opinions to sports, cooking and travel.

"Jhonmar is a true asset to the LGBTQ community," said Brian Felder, a host/producer for the station. "From the beginning, his vision for the network has been to show the breadth of this community in an easily accessible way. He has a deep passion for sharing stories that matter, to those inside and outside of the LGBTQ community.

"Jhonmar shows Mainstream [America] that those of us who are LGBTQ have many more similarities to them than differences.

"Working with Jhonmar over the past year has been an amazing experience. I have met very few people [who] are more passionate in life and work. Whether it's finding and developing talent within the network, promoting local businesses or sharing those stories affecting our world, he has a unique vision and follows his passion every day to better the network and its shows, but more importantly, the LGBTQ community."

Added Waymon Hudson, a Gay Chicago TV host: "Working with Jhonmar has been an amazing experience. He is so passionate about the LGBTQ community and the issues we face. His driving force is always getting information about our collective struggles and triumphs out to a larger audience. Visibility—truly telling the story of our lives as LGBTQ people—has been the focus of our work together and has really inspired me."

Despite the growth of Castillo's LGBT television creation, he isn't making millions—or even pennies. In fact, no one is. All on-air talent, and the limited production staff, are volunteers.

"We're not here for the money [yet], but [rather,] this is a social enterprise, thus, we are doing things that we hope will make a difference within the LGBT community," said Castillo, who estimated he's invested $250,000 into the project, which includes time spent on the station that he could have, instead, put toward money-making projects at his gallery.

Is it worth it?

Definitely, he said without hesitation. "I believe in this [project.]"

Olympic glory

The 1988 Summer Olympics were a difficult experience for Castillo, due to financial turmoil in his native country, which sent 18 athletes to South Korea—Castillo was the lone diver.

He was 16 at the time and two months before he was set to leave for Seoul, Castillo was told he wouldn't be going due to a financial crisis in Venezuela's Olympic sports community.

Castillo was devastated and angry; he then stopped practicing. He was planning to retire from the sport for good. But, behind his back, his mom and his coach were seeking alternative routes, financially, to get to the Games.

Two weeks before the Games started, Castillo was told that, yes, he was going.

In protest, Castillo chose not to wear the Venezuela colors at the Opening Ceremony or while diving. "That was my personal decision, my way of protesting," he said.

Castillo ultimately finished 13th of about 40 in his event, and a first-hand memory of the sight, and long-lasting sound, of, arguably, the most memorable moment from those Summer Olympics. Of course, that was the near-tragedy involving Greg Louganis.

"When Greg hit his head [on the diving board,] that was like God hitting his head," Castillo said in reference to the adulation all divers carried for Louganis. "When he hit his head, it impacted everyone else's dives because there was Greg, and then the rest of us.

"Personally, Greg Louganis was such an inspiration to me."

Castillo's diving career also included winning multiple medals at the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago. He plans to dive next summer at the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland. In fact, Gay TV On The Go is an official media partner for the 2014 Games, and Castillo said the station's on-site coverage will include a nightly recap show a la the Summer and Winter Olympics.

"I'm very excited for the 2014 Gay Games—for the overall event, as an athlete, and to celebrate my community," Castillo said.


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