Andrew Shayde, who entered the public spotlight in 2002 at the age of 21 on Season 3 of the reality show The Amazing Race, loves comic books. But, for him, they're not just about magical fantastic superheroes in tights.
"I don't want comic books to be just explosions and Bigfoot," says Shayde, "I want them to tell a real story." Now 35, Andrew grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, and competed on the show with his conservative dad. He now lives in Corvallis, Oregon, and works for Portland's Cascade AIDS Project.
Telling a real story is exactly what he's tried to do with Monsters Among Us, an online graphic novel he's written with art by Levi Zimer, which was published in March by TidalWave Comics, which is owned by openly gay and HIV-positive Darren G. Davis. Available on e-readers from iTunes, Kindle, Nook and other platforms, Monsters Among Us is definitely not your typical comic book.
Related: HIV Meets the Comic Book Universe: 10 Notable Moments
"I want to talk about the things that are scary to us," says Shayde, and that's why Monsters Among Us is about beasts of urban legend that are being targeted as minorities by those in power. They include Bigfoot, a chupacabra and the Mothman, who are singled out and demonized by Solomon Kane, a billionaire religious zealot who believes his family has been charged by God to rid the world of these mysterious creatures.
"My monsters represent trans people and gay people and HIV-positive folks, and that's why they're Bigfoot and Lizard Man and not, like, me," laughs Shayde, who himself is HIV-negative. "Not everyone can relate to a 35-year-old nerdy white guy, but anyone can look through a character that's fictional and maybe connect like I did when I was a kid."
He continued, "Monsters Among Us is geared toward gay people and trans and HIV-positive people, you know, because they're so often demonized in the name of God."
Shayde first became fascinated with comic books as a six-year-old boy growing up Southern Baptist. While his "uber-macho" brother was at baseball practice, Andrew's father would take him to a comic book store.
He says that one of his first favorite characters was Nightcrawler. "He had a pointy tail and pointy ears and looked scary, but he believed in God. Even though the world around him despised him, told him, "You're a devil, you're a monster, you're a demon," he was the opposite of that.
"It makes complete sense to me now looking back why I was so drawn to that character as a six-year-old boy," Shayde continues. "I knew I was gay then! And I knew that in this world of the church, I was this monster, this creature that was different from all the other boys in my Sunday school class. I knew that I was the freak and that there was something wrong with me. And so, I followed that character forever, and he's certainly still one of my favorites. That meant a lot to me to have something that I related to that I was reading."
He, too, wanted to write a story sympathetic to those who are oppressed. Shayde based Solomon Kane, his villain, on the religious extremists from The Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, notorious for their anti-LGBTQ hate speech and protests at the funerals of gay people.
"I've seen religion do really terrible things through bad people," says Shayde. "We've all seen it, whether it's Westboro or extreme Islam or any group that's producing violence and hatred. Among the things that Solomon Kane says is a certain Bible verse that gets thrown at at queer people all the time."
And yet, Shayde says he enjoyed growing up religious. "I loved my faith; I loved going to church. I loved the people I met there." Despite the challenges with religion he's faced as an out gay man, he's remained a man of faith and struggles to reconcile his LGBTQ community with religion.
"I realized that I'm more nervous nowadays to say on Facebook that I'm a Christian than I am to say that I'm gay!" The latter, he explains, feels like "not a big deal: I'm gay, I'm out, I was out on reality television. Now it seems like I get more heckles when I say, 'Oh, I'm going to church this Sunday.'"
"I want people to understand that there's so much good in religion, too," he says. "We as a queer community are so quick to understand the awesomeness and importance of diversity, and we say 'stop Islamophobia and protect [Muslims],' but then we turn right around and say 'Christians are jerks; Christians are idiots.' We don't want people who are against us to pick and choose the Bible verses that they throw at us, so let's not pick and choose the diversity that we're willing to understand, or at least have patience and compassion with."
In Monsters Among Us, one of the characters, Mothman, is a fallen angel. "He's kind of like the voice of reason," says Shayde. "Kinda like I feel like I am a lot."
The character, much like Shayde himself, defends God and encourages relationships with the Creator. "Mothman says, like, 'Guys, I met God. I've talked to him! And he is not a jerk, I promise you! He loves all of us and is totally cool.'"
Yet, for all that the book has clear parallels to real-life political and religious dynamics, it definitely takes place in a fantastical world that, according to Shayde, is geared for anyone from ages nine to 99. He is currently working on a new, untitled comic book series. "It's set in the same world" as Monsters Among Us, he says. "There's an overarching character, President Graves, and he's absolutely Donald Trump."
When he's not writing comic books, he works as the special events coordinator at Cascade AIDS Project. "I literally have the best job in the world," he says, "planning parties that help people." His most recent event, the Cascade AIDS Project Art Auction, raised $650,000 to support the organization, which works to prevent HIV infections, support and empower people living with or affected by HIV, and eliminate HIV-related stigma and health disparities.
"I've worked in HIV for about 13 years," he says. "I worked at a camp for kids with HIV for many years, and I worked for AIDS Resource Center in Ohio. I was asked to do a lot of cool things after Amazing Race, like New York Pride and the Gay/Straight Alliance," he says, "but HIV work is where my heart is."
Whether in his creative work as a comic book writer or in his work in the LGBTQ and HIV activism circles, Shayde's mission in both arenas is the same: "I just want to take all this experience and help other people," he says.
It seems that wherever his HIV work might take him next, his love of comics is here to stay. "Comic books were my escape as a kid, and I want all kids -- gay kids, minority kids, all kids -- to connect with a character in the book," he says. "There's a part of me that really hopes there is magic and mystery left in this world."
Find Andrew Shayde on Twitter @andrewshayde or on Facebook.