Friday, April 23, 1999

Barebacking: Stop The Madness

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #102, April 23, 1999)

It’s not chic, it’s not rebellious, it’s suicide

Today’s specific topic is barebacking. Today’s general topics are AIDS and dying. Barebacking (anal intercourse without a condom) has become a fashionable way to have sex among certain groups of people in the Twin Cities and nationwide, and the resurgence of this practice has inspired heated debate. Proponents of barebacking seem to feel that AIDS is no longer the threat it once was, and the feel of non-latex sex is worth the risk. Opponents argue that unprotected anal intercourse is what fueled the AIDS epidemic in the first place, and it remains a very dangerous way to have sex because of the high risk of spreading the HIV virus as well as a host of other sexually transmitted diseases.

I have been hearing these discussions about AIDS and barebacking for awhile without contributing anything to the conversation. As a firm believer in safer sex, I knew barebacking was something I personally would never do, but it’s a free country—everyone is entitled to make their own choices, and everyone is responsible for the consequences of the choices they make. Who am I to tell people what to do or not to do?

Who am I? I’m someone who sees a déjà vu disaster in the making and cares enough to send up a warning flare. I can’t make everybody’s choices for them, but I can at least point out a few things that people might want to think about as they’re making those choices:

• The semen of an HIV-positive male contains the HIV virus and is therefore highly infectious. The semen of an HIV-positive male who is taking protease inhibitors may contain less of the HIV virus. But any virus contained in that semen is there because it’s been tough enough to resist protease inhibitors—these are the strongest strains, and therefore the most virulent. If you were to become infected with these strains you would probably be one of those people for whom those magical protease inhibitors don’t work.

• HIV infection is not a cumulative process of being bombarded with the virus many times and having one’s resistance worn down. Just one instance of unprotected sex can be enough to infect you. Enjoying barebacking or other unsafe sex “in moderation” is a meaningless and dangerous concept. Just as there’s no such thing as “a little bit pregnant,” there’s no such thing as “a little bit positive.”

• Some people see barebacking as a form of thrill-seeking, like skydiving, mountain climbing or driving race cars, and how dare anyone tell them they can’t pursue their thrills? Consider this: Part of what makes an experience thrilling is an element of high but survivable risk—being in an extreme situation but “stacking the cards” so that we come out of it alive. No one intentionally skydives without a parachute because death would be pretty much certain; what’s thrilling about that? I submit that with what we know today, having anal sex without a condom makes as much sense as jumping out of an airplane without a parachute; both can be temporarily exhilarating but ultimately fatal.

• The death rate for AIDS has fallen in recent years, a fact for which we can all be thankful. The HIV infection rate, however, has remained constant. Do you find this fact mind-boggling? Nonsensical? Infuriating? I do. In the early stages of the AIDS epidemic we knew people were dying but we didn’t know why—and we didn’t know what we could do to stop it. Now we know. AIDS is not yet curable, but it sure as hell is preventable. And yet, even after all the sharing of information and all the distribution of safer-sex supplies, the rate of new infections is the same. What’s it going to take to bring it down?

• To the young, and to those new to our community, please listen to an old-timer. I’ve seen the gay community, and the leather community, decimated by AIDS. I’ve seen an entire generation of gay men and leathermen removed from the face of the earth. I’ve seen many of my friends get sick. Some went quickly. Some endured years of agony before finally succumbing. Some are still here, living their lives around their illness. None of these scenarios has been at all pretty to watch, much less to live through and/or die from. As you think about barebacking, think about whether you’d prefer a quick death or a slow, painful one—not that you’ll probably be offered that choice, of course. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, rich or poor, pretty or average, experienced or virgin, male, female, or whatever—you are not immune. It can happen to you. And sooner or later, unless you take proper precautions, it will. And when it does, you won’t be able to undo it.

• To those in the community who have been living with the epidemic and are still negative: You’ve made it this far—now is not the time to give up. Yes, the battle fatigue is real. The safer-sex fatigue is real. But you don’t have to give in to it. Rather than barebacking, try new and creative sex options that are safer. Be inventive. You might also consider participating in the AIDS vaccine trial to possibly stop HIV transmission altogether. If you really feel tempted to do something unsafe, talk with a friend who’s living with HIV; ask them how they would feel about you taking risks or becoming infected.

• To those in the community who know they are positive: Do you hate the HIV virus? If you pass it on to someone else, that’s a win for the virus—and you’ve just become an accomplice to this thing you hate. But every time you take proper precautions and have sex without transmitting the virus, it’s a victory for all of us—and you’re a hero.

AIDS is often described as having “torn the fabric of the community.” But let’s not talk fabric for a moment, let’s talk leather. Anyone who has ever ripped their leather jacket or pants knows how difficult it is to repair. And even after being repaired, the damage is usually all too evident. In much the same way, the community is still trying to repair the damage inflicted by AIDS. There are some indications that the tribe is reviving, but nothing we can do will ever bring back that entire generation we’ve lost to AIDS. Why in the world would we want to put ourselves through the same nightmare again—only this time, knowing full well what we were doing while we were doing it?

Now, a disclosure: Your humble columnist believes strongly in remaining safe sexually (he doesn’t flag that black-and-white-checked hanky for nothing). As a matter of fact, he is so risk-averse that he doesn’t even suck cock without a condom, a viewpoint which seems to be rapidly going the way of the buggy whip. Perhaps the jury is still out on some things, so we can agree to disagree. But as far as I know, “safer barebacking” is an oxymoron. It cannot be done without being extremely dangerous.

Maybe that danger is what some people are looking for. They characterize barebacking as Russian roulette, gambling with your life. I say it’s not even gambling, it’s just plain suicide. Science has extended the lifespan of those infected with HIV, and the pharmaceutical companies and their advertising agencies have (almost perversely) glamorized living with HIV. Some people say it’s become a “manageable” disease like diabetes. But keep in mind that the drugs don’t work for everyone, and there’s still no cure. People keep dying—the AIDS Quilt has grown so big it no longer fits on the Mall in Washington, D.C. That should tell you something.

If you think barebacking sounds attractive or enticing, I mean this in the kindest and most caring sense: You should have your head examined. Literally. You have a death wish, my friend, and unless you do something, sooner or later it’s going to come true. Run, do not walk, to your nearest physician, psychotherapist, STD clinic, HIV prevention program or counseling center. Or call the Minnesota AIDS Line toll-free statewide at 1-800-248-2437 (all calls are held in strictest confidence). Another resource is the Centers for Disease Control’s National HIV/AIDS Hotline, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-800-342-2437 (English), 1-800-344-7432 (Spanish) or 1-800-243-7889 (TTY).

In gay camp parlance from years ago, if you wanted to indicate that something or somebody was really great, you said that either it or he was “to die for.” As the AIDS epidemic grew, the awful, uncomfortable reality of that phrase became apparent. Today, each of us has the power to make sure that sex can be great without being “to die for.”

PHOTO: Mario & Joshua with winning ticket

On April 11 Ms. Minnesota Leather 1999 Mario and Mr. Minnesota Leather 1999 Joshua Smith held their “Family Reunion” fundraiser at The Saloon to benefit Hope House and the Minnesota Leather Travel Fund. One of the highlights of the evening was drawing the name of the winner of the 1982 Suzuki motorcycle that was being raffled off; the winning ticket was sold in Chicago and the lucky winner lives in the Chicago area. Above left is Mario in dress, heels and makeup for the first time ever. Above right, holding the winning ticket, is Joshua Smith in not much more than his birthday suit (which was fitting, since the event was held on his birthday).

Mark Your Calendar

For events in the next two weeks, see the Out & About Calendar. Here are some other events planned for the weeks ahead:

May 8: Leather/Levi Dinner presented by the Atons, open to all. Location and time to be announced. Call the Atons Hotline for more information or to make a reservation.

May 16: Black Guard fundraiser. Put it on your calendar now, and check the next issue of Lavender for location and time.

May 21-23: Knights of Leather present Tournament 11, a pansexual run held at a private camp within a park. Workshops, demonstrations and fantasies will be presented. Call The Knights or e-mail for more information.

May 28-31: International Mr. Leather contest weekend in Chicago. Joshua Smith will be representing Minnesota, and the tenth anniversary of the Leather Pride flag will also be celebrated. Visit or call 1-800-545-6753 for more information.

May 30: The Atons present their traditional gathering for those who don’t make the journey to Chicago.

Upcoming Leather Events (for Calendar section)

Friday, April 23

Mr. Minnesota Drummer/Minnesota Drummerboy Welcoming Beer Bust
7-10 PM, The Minneapolis Eagle
Meet the contestants and judges. $7 at the door.

Saturday, April 24

Mr. Minnesota Drummer/Minnesota Drummerboy Contest and Show
Club Metro Underground, St. Paul. Doors open 7 PM, contest starts at 8:30 PM, title awarded at 10:30 PM
Show features leather comedienne Ms. Michelle Balan. A fundraiser for the GLBT community produced by Minnesota Leather Productions in association with The Black Guard, The Imperial Sovereign Court of the Ice Castle, and members of Sober Leather. $15 at the door.

Saturday, April 24

Atons Road Trip to the Cell Block in Chicago
For more information call the Atons Hotline.

Sunday, April 25
Mr. Minnesota Drummer/Minnesota Drummerboy Victory Party
6-9:30 PM, The Saloon
$5 at the door.

Friday, April 9, 1999

Fantastic Fantasy Weekend

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #101, April 9, 1999)

Miss Jennifer, David Page win Fantasy sashes

Sometimes fantasies come true. After months of planning and preparation, this year’s Minnesota Fantasy Weekend, which took place March 26-28, exploded out of the minds of its creators into splendid, breathtaking reality. Three committed producers and scores of other talented individuals took an empty parking lot, erected a tent, and filled it with a full weekend of leather magic unlike any I’ve ever experienced anywhere else—and which I can’t adequately describe on a printed page. But I’ll do my best.

On Friday night, the weekend started with the Party Bus Bar Cruise II, which left the Minneapolis Eagle and visited The Brass Rail, Over The Rainbow, Trikkx, The Town House, and The Saloon. Then it was back to the tent set up next to the Eagle, where the Fantasy Dance Party was already in progress. State-of-the-art lighting, a fabulous sound system and a great mix of music got the crowd warmed up for the introduction of the weekend’s contestants and judges. After that, it was time for a performance by Savage Aural Hotbed, the local “industrial percussion” group that makes loud, pulsating, hypnotic music using everything from drums and a bass guitar to circular saws, grinders, and steel pipes. The effect of the music was amplified by a spectacular light show, and the combination resulted in a marvelous endorphin rush and altered state of consciousness. How appropriate, I thought to myself. I was being topped by these four musicians, and I was loving every minute of it.

Saturday night brought rain and strong winds—not the weather you want for an event in a tent. But in spite of the weather the show went on, starting with an opening tableau in which co-emcee (and contest co-producer) Dale Willman introduced the three male contestants (C.C., David Page and Scott Kelley) and two female contestants (Viper and Miss Jennifer). Then co-emcee Tiffany Cartier got the crowd in a playful mood with a song about the joys of “making love alone.”

In the first on-stage category, “Fantasy Wear,” Viper appeared as Xena, Warrior Princess. (Overheard in the audience: “She looks more like Xena than Xena!”) C.C. appeared in a costume that was part leather and part wild animal. Miss Jennifer sported a witch’s hat, sunglasses, a cigarette holder, and the ultimate fashion accessory—a boy on a leash, obediently crawling on his hands and knees. David Page was a gladiator, and Scott Kelley was the first person ever to be naked at the Minneapolis Eagle—underneath his towel, that is.

Other on-stage contest categories were question-and-answer and the Mystery category, in which the contestants had to improvise a fantasy performance using circus props (in keeping with the “Big Top” tent theme). And, of course, there were fantasies—lots of them. In addition to contestant fantasies, performances were given by current International Mr. Fantasy Tim Kernan and current Mr. Michigan Fantasy John Tatum. Contest co-producer Michael deLeon performed a brilliant pas de deux with dancer/choreographer Mary Ann Smith-Johnson of Ballet of the Dolls. And the entire Ballet of the Dolls troupe, accompanied by Savage Aural Hotbed, performed a piece specially choreographed for the evening by Dolls founder and choreographer Myron Johnson.

Then it was time to announce the winners. Ken Flanagan, Mr. Minnesota Fantasy 1998, passed his sash to David Page, who became Mr. Minnesota Fantasy 1999, with C.C. taking first runner-up honors. Miss Jennifer took the first-ever Ms. Minnesota Fantasy sash.

But, as everyone in that tent knew, by this time the event had transcended its status as a contest. As one of the contestants told the judges during the contestant interviews, “This weekend is about more than who wins—it’s about getting the community out and involved and celebrating itself.” And that’s exactly what was happening all weekend. Hats off to producers Dale Willman, Michael deLeon, and Gary O’Neill—they presented an event as good as or better than those I’ve seen in places like Chicago, San Francisco or New York. Hats off to the contestants, the performers, and the staff who shared their talents with the community. Hats off to The Minneapolis Eagle and the bars on the Party Bus Bar Cruise for their support. And hats off to everyone in the audience who enjoyed the weekend and whose support made it economically feasible to present a weekend of such scope and quality. The crowd was large, and it was the most diverse group of people I’ve yet seen at a Twin Cities leather function. That’s important because, as Tiffany Cartier put it, “If we’re alone they’ll pick us off one by one. If we’re together, we’re unbeatable!”

It was such a great weekend I really, really didn’t want it to end. If you were there and felt the same way (or if you weren’t there and are sorry you missed it), keep in mind that Miss Jennifer and David Page will be representing Minnesota at the International Mr. Fantasy contest, which takes place August 20-22—right here in the Twin Cities. That means we’ll all get another chance to produce some more of that magic.

Tiffany Cartier and Ken Flanagan: Alabamy-Bound

Tiffany Cartier (aka Mitchell Nash) and Ken Flanagan have for years been actively involved both in the leather community and with the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Ice Castle. By the time you read this, they will have relocated to Birmingham, Alabama. (A farewell party was held on Tuesday, March 30 at the Brass Rail.) Thanks for everything, and best of luck to you both.

Personality Profile: Tim Forte, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle

PHOTO: Tim Forte, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle ’99

There’s another new titleholder in town: Tim Forte, who is proud to be the new (and first-ever) Mr. Minneapolis Eagle. He was one of five finalists to come out of the Feb. 7 preliminary contest; he won the title at the finals on Feb. 21.

Forte was born into a family of four boys, two straight and two gay, and he counts his parents and brothers among his many mentors. He has lived in Minneapolis most of his life, although he spent a few years in Palm Springs and Milwaukee. He currently works in the computer training department at Best Buy’s corporate offices, but he is also trained as a nurse aide and has worked in AIDS hospices.

He describes his leisure-time activities as “going for walks around the lakes, bike riding during the summer, and playing bingo” (you’ll see him Wednesdays at the Eagle for bingo nights). He also cooks, does catering, works with watercolor paints, and crochets (“a little hobby I picked up from my mama”). He’s also a gardener and a handyman who loves to spend time remodeling, repainting, and fixing up old houses. He lives with John, his lover of five years, and a roommate, leather artist Damon.

His duties as Mr. Minneapolis Eagle will be to represent the bar. He will be on the Minneapolis Eagle float in this year’s Twin Cities Pride Parade, and he also plans to attend the upcoming International Mr. Leather contest in Chicago—not to compete, but to represent and publicize the bar. And, he says, when he’s finished with his duties as Mr. Minneapolis Eagle you just might see him entering another contest someday.

Wanna Win a Motorcycle?

Mr. Minnesota Leather 1999 Joshua Smith and Ms. Minnesota Leather 1999 Mario have teamed up to present “Family Reunion,” a fundraiser for Hope House and the Minnesota Leather Travel Fund. For the last few weeks Mario and Joshua have been selling raffle tickets for a 1982 Suzuki GS650L motorcycle complete with helmet. (You may have seen the bike on display at the recent Minnesota Fantasy Weekend.) Raffle tickets are $10. Only 399 tickets will be sold, and it’s no wonder that with odds like that they’re going fast. If you haven’t bought your ticket(s) yet, call Joshua or Mario. The winning ticket will be drawn at the “Family Reunion” event on April 11 at The Saloon (see the Out & About Calendar for complete details). You needn’t be present to win, but wouldn’t it be more fun if you were there and they happened to draw your ticket as the winner?

The Leather Flag’s True Colors

ILLUSTRATION: (Leather Pride Flag graphic—with BLUE bars this time)

Due to a printer’s error, the Leather Pride Flag illustration which appeared last issue was incorrect (the stripes that should have been blue turned purple). Here is a correctly-colored Leather Pride Flag. Lavender and this columnist regret the error and humbly ask Tony DeBlase, designer of the flag, not to flog us too hard.

Mark Your Calendar

For events in the next two weeks, see the Out & About Calendar. Here are some other events planned for the weeks ahead:

April 23-24: Minnesota Mr. Drummer and Drummerboy Contest weekend. To be a contestant, call Minnesota Leather Productions.

April 24: Atons Road Trip to the Cell Block in Chicago. Call the Atons Hotline for more information.

May 21-23: Knights of Leather present their Tournament 11 run. This year’s theme: “Make ’em Heel!” This is a pansexual run held at a private camp within a park. The weekend will feature workshops, demonstrations and fantasies. Call or e-mail for more information.

Upcoming Leather Events (for Calendar section)

Saturday, April 10

Leather/Levi Dinner
Cocktails at 7 pm, dinner at 7:30, Little Jacks, 201 Lowry Ave. NE, Minneapolis
Presented by the Atons, open to all. Call for reservations or info.

Sunday, April 11

Minnesota Leather “Family Reunion”
6-10 pm, The Saloon
A fundraiser for Hope House and the Minnesota Leather Travel Fund, presented by Ms. Minnesota Leather Mario and Mr. Minnesota Leather Joshua Smith. Highlight of the evening: some lucky leatherperson will win a 1982 Suzuki GS650L motorcycle complete with helmet; chances are $10, assuming they’re not sold out (need not be present to win). You’ll also see the first-ever Gay Celebrity Newlywed Game. $10 at the door.