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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
No little dreams. Ever.
That's me, on the upper left
We created our own, separate power-base.
The visitors from Palm Springs
The Underlying Motive
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
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.