Thursday, June 14, 2018

Memoirs of a Gay Leather Elder 11: I Invented Leather Pride

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Papa Tony:

I have a long, long history of activism and community leadership. So far in this series, I have been trying to tell my stories in chronological order. My heart now calls me to jump ahead to one of the most important parts of my legacy.

A portrait from 1998

I invented Leather Pride, twenty years ago. I'm the guy.

I'm not talking about titleholder contests. I am talking about a coordinated annual, local celebration of artists, artisans, vendors, volunteers and affinity-groups, built by a team of dedicated, cooperative leaders and volunteers. A titleholder contest or two was the cherry on top, for the week leading up to Leather Pride.

I'm sure that there will be folks who will reflexively discount my story for whatever reason. They are welcome to their opinion. I invite everyone to click the links, which prove that my story is true. I was there. I know what I did, and finally, so will you.

The Holocaust Phase

In the late 1990's, the Leather Tribe was horrifyingly traumatized. In my own case, I stopped counting when I had lost 140 loved ones to AIDS. I will go into more detail in later stories, when I talk about holding dozens of dying men in hospitals when no one else (including nurses in hospitals) would come within fifteen feet of our lonely, dying brothers.

I was going to two or three funerals a week, for a long time. As a young man who had found love and intimacy among men for the first time, the losses devastated me, and they kept coming like hammer-blows, for years.

Then the Cocktail arrived, and the endless dying slowed. It was a huge blessing, but it wasn't ENOUGH for the survivors. All of the PTSD, rage, grief and Survivor's Guilt that had built for almost two decades wasn't going away. We didn't know how to handle the pain.

The devastation still lives within the survivors, every day, even now, twenty years later. As many others would agree, the sadness never goes away. We've gotten pretty good at pretending otherwise.

The Early Days of Titleholder Contests

In the 1970's, titleholder contests were just a goofy, fun way for a bar to sell more beer. A "Best Ass Contest" or a "Best Chest" event would bring out the leering, horny men, and the night would be a success. Then, Chuck Renslow and his team created the International Mr. Leather Contest in 1979, and the ultimate titleholder contest became an annual tradition that built up as the years went by.

Then, AIDS happened. The first man in my circle of close friends who died of AIDS was a sweet 22-year-old redhead, in 1981.  At the time, it seemed as though he was fine, fucking like a bunny, then he had a cough, and then three weeks later, he was dead. We had never seen anything like it.

Then, more men died, or disappeared forever without warning, as they fled to Kansas or Arkansas, to try to escape the epidemic that stalked us all, or to die among family. If the family would let them in. Not many did.

And, the avalanche accelerated.

The Second Phase of Titleholder Contests

Calling folks together for a contest became a way to drag new leaders into the community. We kept losing more and more folks who would coordinate AIDS fundraisers and volunteer efforts. Winning a contest was conditional upon doing good works, for the first time. Not many felt called to do so. Most contests had only one or two participants on stage.

Next year, another contest was needed to replace the earlier titleholder, who had burned out, swearing never to return. This happened often, and it kept tearing up our local Leather culture, repeatedly. We were under constant bombardment of bad news. We no longer had reasons to come together as a community in relaxed pleasure. It was every man for himself.

Sex had been a celebration of our liberation from the culture of shame that we had endured as children. Now, sex meant Disease, Disfigurement and Death. Intimacy could kill you, and often did.

There was NO FUCKING POINT in investing in new friends. They were too likely to leave you brokenhearted, like so many others, and the pain and fear were unendurable.

Stepping Up

Then, a friend asked me to get more involved, in 1997. He said "We need you. It's time." He had been one of two contestants for a bar title, and the winner had died a month later. This new titleholder had no support from the community. All that he had received were attacks that had escalated. The toxicity came from all of those intense, negative pressures that never went away, and we had no healthy way to express them.

He knew that I had been a car-club president, and knew how to accomplish things as a leader and team-builder. I was reluctant to step into the spinning blades, but I knew that he was right. I had been sitting back and complaining about things for years. It was time to get my big ass into the game.

I started creating dozens of new initiatives: I created the local Leather Archives, I created a VERY early Leather Resources Web site and an email list of around 3,000 folks called the PT-List, I was the Leather columnist for a local gay newspaper, I won a local and International title (more about those later), I created an intensely popular Leathermen's Dance Party, and on and on. I was a whirlwind of constant innovation and change, but with a specific goal:

I wanted to bring an end to the Holocaust Phase. Worldwide. 

I was ready to put a period at the end of the last chapter, and start a whole new era that included kindness and cooperation. I was dedicated to creating an ongoing series of safe occasions for joy in a Tribal environment.

No little dreams. Ever.

I started gathering together the very best kink, leather and fetish men and women in town for a new group - the San Diego Leather Leadership Coalition (SDLLC). This group included volunteers, not just titleholders or self-important, bossy people, and it made the local "Powers That Be" very uncomfortable. They liked competition. If things went their way, then there would be a field of bloody corpses, with themselves as the only ones left standing.

That's me, on the upper left

I had no interest in that. I prefer cooperation, not competition. So, I chose the very sweetest, most effective folks of every kind, color and body-shape. The folks who had been shut out of power before.

We created our own, separate power-base.

The visitors from Palm Springs

The first year for San Diego Leather Pride was in 1999. Among the attendees were four folks from Palm Springs led by Dale Breunig, who wanted to see how we did it. They asked if I would help them get their first Palm Springs Leather Pride off of the ground, starting later in 1999. Then, I got together with Dave Murdock and George Wong to start up Los Angeles Leather Pride, which began in 2000. Both cities had had a few Mr. Leather titles before, but these were now their first massive, coordinated efforts.

The Underlying Motive

I had seen how terribly mean we could be to each other in our Tribe, and I knew what was underneath. We simply had no tools to deal with that much shared loss. Just a few years before, I had paid for something called the Grief Recovery Workshop. The facilitators kept trying to steer me toward focusing on the death of my parents, but I didn't WANT that. Those two people were merely my genetic family. My Tribe had been my Family of Choice.

I wanted to learn how to mourn for the death of a generation, and then teach others in large numbers. The Workshop staff had no tools for that. It was time for me to take matters into my own hands.

I told folks in each city that we could focus our shared energies for the betterment of all, and USE our grief as a power source. By focusing like a laser, we could stop being "fragmentation bombs" of bitter emotions, that squandered and wasted the times that could have been happier.

No Support From the Larger LGBT Community

Back in those days, folks were TIRED of drag queens and leathermen in assless chaps ruining the Pride parades for everybody else. WE were heavily-featured in the news, instead of the average folks around us. So, we got picked on, shamed and shoved off to the side.

Right around that same time, I was sick of the local Lesbian & Gay Center. I wanted to take a can of spray paint and do this to the front of the building:

If we wanted to have events there, we were given restrictions that no other groups were given - No flyers or educational pamphlets were allowed (what if CHILDREN found them?) Folks followed us around, waiting for us to screw up so that we could be banished, yet again. Each year, the new Board of Directors would find NEW reasons to shame us.

It was tiresome, and we needed our own thing. We were going to be just fine, with just each other.

As I have said elsewhere, the opposite of "Shame" is "Pride." So, Leather Pride was born.

Traveling On My Own Dime

So, I hit the road. I was using up the money that really belonged to my husband and me, that should and could have been making our family life better. 

I was on the road for eight years, traveling from city to city, preaching the gospel of Leather Pride as a way out of our sorrows. I have never received a single penny of Travel Funds, ever. I was also building teams in Las Vegas, Long Beach, Inland Empire and Phoenix. Not all of them got off of the ground, but not for lack of trying on my part.

Our Deaf Brothers and Sisters

Part of what I insisted on, was the inclusion of our deaf brothers and sisters at EVERY Leather Pride event. I wanted to leave no one behind. Our diversity needed a big upgrade, so I took two semesters in American Sign Language. I paid for sign-language interpreters for every major event, until the various cities could budget for their work instead.

Preaching and Exhorting

That's me in the middle, giving a speech, no doubt.

I would arrive early for the big weekend, and give separate, passionate talks to the volunteers and contestants.  My goal was to inspire them so that they would do their best.  Many times, I was the emcee at the weekend opening banquet, and inspire everybody with a variation on this speech:
This is our new tradition.  Our Family Reunion.  We are here for each other, and from many places. We are kind, and we are open.  Let's take a few minutes to introduce ourselves to the people around us.
Who here is from another city?  Shout it out!  Next year, you will be able to re-connect with your new friends, and they will become your regular friends.  Year after year, we will become even closer family, and we will hug, all weekend.
This is a joyous time, and let's be nice to the newest ones among us all weekend, so that they will come back again and again, and make our Tribe richer and better.
400 people would hear this message, and they all co-created the delightful times together, in harmony.

Winding It Down

During this time, I was Master of Ceremonies for around sixty contests for the Bears, the Rodeo and the Leather community. I judged at least sixty contests, and have attended a good 300 titleholder events in my life.  I stopped saying "Yes!" to offers to do such work a long time ago - I felt that my big ass taking up space in a judge's seat meant that some other person wasn't getting a chance to prove their own value.

I finally burned out, and stepped away.  I was thrilled with how things had progressed, and I trusted the folks in charge of our new traditions.  Now, there are Leather Pride celebrations in cities all over the world.  I didn't want glory, and I don't want it now.  If I did, I would have behaved differently.

I am telling this story now, so that it won't get lost, like so much of our history.

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