Friday, May 21, 1999

From Revival Preacher to Leatherman

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #104, May 21, 1999)

Joshua Smith talks about his community, his kids and his faith

PHOTO: Mr. Minnesota Leather 1999 Joshua Smith

Mr. Minnesota Leather Joshua Smith will be representing Minnesota in the International Mr. Leather (IML) contest in Chicago May 27-30. We talked recently about some of the things he’s accomplished during his title year. We also talked about his experiences as a southern Pentecostal revival preacher; about telling his three daughters what leather means to him; and about his passion for God, for the leather lifestyle, and for his partner and fellow titleholder Thomas Smith (the current International Mr. Rubber, as well as Mr. Kentucky Leather 1996).

One of the most common goals expressed by those aspiring to a leather title is “to bring the community together.” At last year’s Mr. Minnesota Leather contest Joshua Smith did more than say it—his now-legendary contest speech graphically demonstrated the concept by bringing to the stage members of the various clubs and subcommunities comprising the Minnesota leather community. Smith had everyone stand in a circle, join hands, and sing a Sunday-school song he remembered from his childhood: “If we all pull together, how happy we will be.”

The mechanism Smith implemented to bring the community together was the Leather Roundtable. According to Smith, “The Roundtable is about two things. The first is setting a schedule, a simple calendar of what’s going on for the next twelve months, and maintaining and updating it every month. I want to know in advance what’s happening so I can plan to support as many people as I can—if I’m going to need their support one day, I need to be there first for them.” The second function of the Roundtable is to have an open forum for discussion about what help is needed for events and who is available to help.

Smith is proud of his creation. Later this summer he and his partner will be relocating to Palm Springs, California, but the Leather Roundtable will continue under the auspices of Ms. Minnesota Leather Mario and Mr. Minnesota Drummer Gary O’Neill.

Smith is also proud of the work he and Mario have done on behalf of Hope House, The Leather Archives & Museum and the Aliveness Project, and he’s proud of the example that he and Mario have jointly set in the past months. “I loved Mario’s column at the end of last year where she said that our joint New Year’s resolution was that it’s not going to be a men’s leather community or a women’s leather community, it’s going to be our community. And I do see a change. I see some events now that are almost 50-50 men and women, or at least 75-25, and to me that’s a big improvement as opposed to two women and 150 men.”

As he prepares both to represent Minnesota at IML and to relocate to Palm Springs, Smith makes this assessment of Minnesota’s leather community: ”When you’re not lying in a hammock it sits one way, and the threads are open wide. But when you lie down in it, it stretches, and all those threads go together. Sometimes I see the Minnesota leather community pulling apart, but I also see the elasticity or the bond among the community—because once somebody needs something, it goes right back together. The good thing about Minnesota for me has been that when the going has been tough, people have always been there for us, and we appreciate them very much.”

One of the first things you notice about Smith is the way he speaks—quickly, with the southern accent and rapid-fire intensity of the Pentecostal revival preacher he used to be. “I’d been Pentecostal all my life, and at 16 years old I felt like God had called me to be a preacher. There wasn’t any seminary training—you’re ordained, and you’re sent to work under a pastor for a year, and you get your license. So at age 17, I became assistant pastor for a Pentecostal church called the Ark of Safety in a small town in West Virginia.” Smith preached there for almost two years, then served a church in Brockton, New York for almost four years. By this time he and his wife were the proud parents of three girls: Audrea, Sarah Grace, and Megan.

While serving the church at Brockton, Smith “started feeling things, I didn’t know what they were. I talked to my wife and said, ‘I think we need to go home.’ She knew something was wrong but she didn’t know what, and I didn’t know what it was either. So we moved back to Kentucky, I was in the church about another year and a half, and then I went to my wife and said, ‘There’s some feelings that I have to deal with. I can’t fight this any longer, because when certain people come near me I get short of breath.’

I told my wife I was concerned that I could be gay. I wanted to be with a man. My wife and I divorced in 1988, and the separation was very, very difficult. And I didn’t go back to the church for a long time—I didn’t think I could. I’d get angry with God sometimes. Nobody in this world knows what it’s like to go into a bedroom, and there are three little girls side by side—one with blonde hair who looks just like Goldie Hawn, one with long auburn hair who looks just like her mother, and one who is me, who is just a total picture of me—and you reach down to kiss them, and you know that’s the last time you will ever kiss them in that room, in that bed, as their father. It’s heart wrenching.

“It’s always been very, very difficult for my children because of their Pentecostal faith. They know Daddy is now gay and they don’t think Daddy can go to heaven, and that’s been very hard for them. For almost a year or more they would change the phone number or send my letters back, and say, ‘This is tough love, until you find God you can’t be a part of our lives.’ ” Audrea, Smith’s oldest daughter, is currently expecting a child, and Smith says, “It’s kind of like that right now—my daughter’s not sure if she wants her baby to know a gay grandpa.”

After the divorce Smith relocated to Atlanta and then to Florida. One day he heard that Troy Perry, the founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, was presenting a seminar/revival weekend in North Miami Beach. Says Smith, “I went there and found out about MCC, and for the past six years or so I’ve been as faithful as I can be to an MCC congregation wherever I live.”

At about the same time Smith discovered the Metropolitan Community Church, he also discovered the leather lifestyle, and he sees a connection. “The attraction to both was the intensity that is involved—the dedication, the honor, the respect, the love, the dignity, and the pride. This may sound crazy, but in many ways I felt just as ‘leather’ sitting in a church pew as I did in a leather bar, because the feelings were almost the same. Whether I see a man and I want him so bad I can taste that man, or whether I’m in church and I can feel the presence of the Lord and it’s so strong and so intense I don’t know what to do with myself—that’s leather to me, you know? I guess if I had to choose one word that would describe what leather means to me it would be intensity, because it makes me have a passion.”

While Smith’s daughters aren’t exactly happy about their father being gay, they seemed more accepting when he told them about being a leatherman. “I went home to my children about two weeks before I competed in the Mr. Minnesota Leather contest, and I said, ‘Girls, I want to share something with you that you don’t know about Daddy.’ And I went down into the bedroom and came back in my leather vest, a pair of chaps, and a pair of jeans. And they loved it, they said, ‘Oh, this is incredible, can we have this?’ Our family owned a couple of clothing stores, and because of the fashion world in which we have lived and the business I have worked in since leaving the ministry, they thought it was another fashion statement—‘What’s Daddy doing now?’ And I said, ‘You’ve got to understand what this is and what it represents. This represents a lifestyle, it’s not a fashion statement.’

“And then I told them I was competing for a title called Mr. Minnesota Leather, and they were very intrigued and asked what it meant. I told them you wear leather when you go to a leather bar. I said, ‘We’re leathermen, and this is how we identify ourselves. People know you girls are Pentecostal because you have a dress code—you wear long hair, a long dress, and you never wear jewelry or makeup or shorts, right?’ And they said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Well, when I’m getting ready to go to the bar, and I’ve got on my clothes—’ and my youngest daughter said, ‘That means you’re a leatherman!’ And I said, ‘Well, Megan, you can identify that because of the appearance, but the leather’s not what’s going to make me a leatherman. It’s how I conduct myself—with honor, respect, dignity and pride.’”

“They asked me what Mr. Minnesota Leather would do, and I told them about my idea for the Leather Roundtable as a place to coordinate scheduling for leather community events. They were intrigued by how many events we have, all these events and all these places. Then I explained that I wanted to help somebody, and I told them about Hope House and the Human Rights Campaign. They knew Thomas and I had gotten married in December, but I told them I don’t want to leave this world until the marriage is legal, and we can say ‘What God has joined together let no man put asunder.’ So I wanted to do something with the Human Rights Campaign for the cause of gay marriage.

“I told my girls, ‘What this title does is give me a voice. I’ll have an active part in making something happen. I’m not sure what it will be yet, but I want this to be positive so that I can do something good for somebody.’ And the children expressed to me later that learning that Thomas and I are leathermen, and that we’re married, is the only thing that helps them cope with their Daddy being gay.

I know that God has work for me to do. Whether it’s behind the pulpit, or whether it’s doing a fundraiser for people at Hope House who need ceiling fans in their rooms—you never know what it is, but he’s always got something for us to do.”

Upcoming Leather Events (for Calendar section)

Sunday, May 30

Atons present the IML Widow Party
The traditional gathering for those who don’t make the journey to Chicago for the International Mr. Leather contest. At my deadline the location and time were still to be determined; for information call the Atons Hotline.

Thursday, June 3

Leather Family Night: “Swan Lake . . . The Sequel” by Ballet of the Dolls
8 PM, Loring Playhouse, 1633 Hennepin Ave.
You loved Ballet of the Dolls at the recent Minnesota Fantasy weekend—here’s your chance to see them again. Special discount ticket pricing for leather community members. Call Wolf Productions for reservations and information. (Reservations must be made before Wednesday, May 26.)

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