Friday, September 30, 2005

Missing New Orleans

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #270, September 30, 2005)

PHOTO: New Orleans in happier times: Decatur Street in the French Quarter

“Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?” I do—now more than ever.

Over the years both leather culture and gay culture have been among the many that have benefited from the spicy influence of New Orleans. That influence sends the despair and destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina far beyond the Gulf Coast region.

For me, amid the shock and horror of the news, it was memories that came flooding. The first time I visited New Orleans was in the mid-1980s at Christmas. My partner and I stayed at a hotel on Canal St. at the edge of the French Quarter. The holiday atmosphere was charming. They even had some snow for us Northerners.

For several years New Orleans hosted Pantheon of Leather, and the New Orleans leather/fetish community showed Pantheon visitors the most gracious kind of southern hospitality. The event was always the first weekend of Mardi Gras, when things were festive but still manageable. The Barkus parade (dogs and their owners in costume) became a Pantheon and Mardi Gras tradition for me.

I remember the food—beignets at the Cafe Du Monde, country French comfort food at La Madeleine, grand dinners with other Minnesota leatherfolks at the Palace CafĂ© on Canal St., Paul Prudhomme’s Cajun specialties at K-Paul’s Restaurant, burgers cooked under a (real) hubcap at the Clover Grill, and pralines from Aunt Sally’s to take home. My midwestern palate always appreciated the way New Orleans chefs are able to make food spicy yet flavorful (as opposed to just burning hot).

I remember the fascinating architecture—the iron lace balconies in the French Quarter; the floor-to-ceiling shutters on the houses in the Faubourg-Marigny district; the old-South quaintness of the Garden District; the new-South suburban tract homes on the drive into town from the airport. Those homes, I was told, were built on slabs—the water table was too high for basements.

I have taken Amtrak—yes, the train is still called “The City of New Orleans,” made famous by the Arlo Guthrie song—to New Orleans several times. The ride on the train across Lake Ponchartrain was breathtaking. Those tracks are gone now, and it could be months before they’re restored.

On one trip I remember the porter serving freshly-made lemonade, “like we make it in N’awlins.” If that wasn’t the best lemonade I’ve ever tasted, it was mighty close.

Another New Orleans train trip, that was supposed to continue to Florida, was interrupted because our connecting train was eight hours late. We wound up overnighting in the lounge at the New Orleans Union Station, which is now the site of a makeshift temporary New Orleans jail.

When the delayed train (the Sunset Limited) arrived the next morning, our trip continued eastward from New Orleans through Gulfport, Biloxi, Pascagoula—places that bore the direct impact of Katrina and, for all intents and purposes, are no longer there.

I have stayed in big hotels, small hotels and many B&Bs. One room I stayed in was the former slave quarters for the house (there was only room for one twin bed and no bathtub). Probably the strangest was a B&B in the Garden District run by, I swear, Blanche Dubois come tremblingly, neurotically to life. I wonder if that particular B&B is still standing.

The last time I was in New Orleans was for Leather Leadership Conference 8 in April, 2004. After the conference I had the great pleasure of acting as New Orleans tour guide for then-International Mr. Leather (and London, UK resident) John Pendal. As I was showing John around I was surprised at how much New Orleans lore I had absorbed over the years.

My partner and I were visiting Canada (Toronto) when the news, and the levee, broke. In shock, we followed the daily developments in both the Canadian and American newspapers. I kept remembering people I knew in New Orleans, and hoping they were okay.

When we arrived home I was touched to find a phone message from John Pendal, and his partner Dave, calling from London to express their concern for me because they knew how fond I was of New Orleans.

Checking e-mail, I heard from several New Orleans leathermen who had evacuated. I saw lists various New Orleans-area leather/BDSM clubs, businesses and organizations had put together to account for their members, employees, and friends. Even though people were listed only by first name and last initial, I was surprised how many last names I could fill in and how many faces I could put to names.

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans just before Labor Day weekend, which is normally the time for Southern Decadence, an annual New Orleans gathering unofficially billed as “gay Mardi Gras” (as if the regular Mardi Gras wasn’t gay enough).

Southern Decadence was canceled for the most part (and I know several friends from the Twin Cities area who had planned to attend). There probably won’t be much Halloween celebrating on Bourbon Street, and even next year’s Mardi Gras is tentative.

The shout traditionally heard throughout New Orleans, especially around Mardi Gras, is “Laissez les bon temps roulez!”, which is the Cajun way of saying “Let the good times roll!” It will probably take a long time, but I hope and pray that les bon temps will eventually roulez again.

When you’re again ready to receive visitors, New Orleans, I’ll be there.

Friday, September 16, 2005

The Leather Agenda: 2005 Edition

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #269, September 16, 2005)

PHOTO: Michael Egdes, International Mr. Leather 2005

What is the current state of the leather nation, and what’s our agenda for the coming year? Many people look upon IML Executive Producer Chuck Renslow’s annual speeches at the International Mr. Leather contest as the leather community’s “state of the union” address. But every International Mr. Leather titleholder develops an agenda for his title year, and that agenda is based on the state of the leather community at the time.

Last issue I introduced you to International Mr. Leather 2005 Michael Egdes. Here is how Egdes described to me his agenda for his title year. It’s a good snapshot of the issues and politics that are front-and-center for the leather community right now.

What do you want to accomplish during your title year?

Issues such as HIV/AIDS, the fight for equality, the fight for freedom of speech, and the repeal of a lot of archaic laws both here and in other parts of the world, are all very important.

I truly believe that this is a nation founded on the principle of freedom, and that’s one of the reasons I chose to move here, particularly from a country and a society [South Africa, where Egdes was born and raised] where oppression was the order of the day. To me it’s really important to fight for those freedoms.

We need to fight for the rights that come automatically with marriage. I don’t care if they’re called civil unions or life partnerships or marriage or whatever—the name is not important, but the rights that go with them are extremely important.

I also think it’s important that the nation and the courts and the government recognize that we make parents as fitting as heterosexual parents.

I’m very alarmed at the passage of the recent bill restricting freedom of speech on the internet. Books are being removed from shelves—anything that portrays homosexuality in a positive light is seen as evil and decadent and is being yanked from school libraries. There are small incremental steps taking place which, if one looks at what happened in Nazi Germany, follow a very similar pattern.

As the radical right becomes more vocal, more powerful and more organized, it terrifies me to think where they might go with this. I think we’re living in very dangerous times right now, and we don’t have time on our side.

It’s really vital that everybody in the community take a role and do what they can to try to bring about change. It might be as simple as making a donation to a cause fighting for freedom, or making a call to a senator or congressman, or writing a letter to an editor. Everybody that does a little something will be helping to stem the tide of oppression that is enveloping us at the moment.

It’s important to acknowledge the progressive changes that are being made. It’s wonderful that Canada has had the third reading of its bill that will legalize gay marriage. There are many European nations that are following suit. I think the address given by the Spanish prime minister at the end of June was a wonderful address, and I think our government would be well advised to read it and consider it.

There is a very important issue that needs to be addressed within the community—in addition to respecting each other, we need to respect ourselves. That involves eliminating or reducing the number of self-destructive behaviors that are unfortunately far too prevalent in our community—for example, sex without regard to safety, or the abuse of chemical substances, particularly crystal meth.

But people must know by now that unprotected sex is like Russian roulette with five of the six chambers loaded, and that crystal meth is very addictive and very destructive. Why do people keep doing these self-destructive things?

I would say when it comes to HIV/AIDS, the advances in treatment and pharmaceuticals have changed the way people perceive the disease. Rather than seeing it as a death sentence they’re seeing it as a disease that is manageable, and therefore the alarm factor is reduced. But it still puzzles me why people would expose themselves to a lifetime of treatment and care of a chronic condition.

I think people in many cases start using crystal meth recreationally and don’t believe it’s going to become an issue for them. But it’s a highly addictive drug and many people are addicted from the first use. Statistics available to us have shown that only 8% of those people that have become addicted to crystal meth have been able to eliminate their dependency on it.

Another issue—there are voices in the leather community asserting that we need to put sex back into politics after downplaying it prior to the last election.

I don’t think what we do behind closed doors is really relevant to anybody else as long as it’s between consenting adults. Focusing on that makes it easier for the radical right to tear us down and criticize us.

Which is not to say that I don’t believe that oppressive laws that are still on the books shouldn’t be removed. I think freedom is a very broad concept, and you can’t pick and choose your freedoms—you’re either free or you’re not. If that means we have to take a more aggressive approach to achieving those freedoms, then that’s what we’ll have to do.

Friday, September 2, 2005

The Leather Life Interview: Michael Egdes, International Mr. Leather 2005

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #268, September 2, 2005)

PHOTO: Michael Egdes

For Michael Egdes, serving as International Mr. Leather 2005 is just the latest chapter in a very intriguing life.

Born and raised in Santon, South Africa (just north of Johannesburg), he moved to New York in his mid-20s, where he worked in advertising and discovered leather bars.

In 1990 he moved to Ft. Lauderdale, where for five years he ran a five-star South African restaurant with his partner James. They now are both in the real estate business.

Egdes is now blessed with two partners—two years ago, he and James added Todd to their relationship.

What was it like growing up in South Africa?

I came out shortly after my eighteenth birthday. I was serving in the South African military at the time. The atmosphere in South Africa was very conservative, but even during my time in the military I was openly gay.

My leather journey has not been well defined in the sense that I can’t tell you really where it began. I can tell you I tied up a school friend when I was fourteen years old. I didn’t know that I was gay at the time, but he was staying over for the night, and it seemed like a fun thing to do.

I went through a very authoritarian type of school system. It was not uncommon, when homework wasn’t completed correctly or for any other minor infraction, to be sent to the headmaster’s office for caning. I’m not sure I particularly enjoyed it then, but looking back this might have been my true introduction to S&M.

Talk about your restaurant. What does a South African restaurant serve?

South African cuisine is truly a fusion cuisine. There are eleven or twelve indigenous tribes who cook tribal recipes. When the Dutch East India company settled in the country in the mid-1600s they brought with them their Dutch cuisine, and many of those ships had chefs from Indonesia or Malaysia. Subsequently the French Huguenots arrived in South Africa and brought with them the vineyards, and a very strong French influence in the cooking. When South Africa was under British Colonial rule, a lot of the traditional British dishes became integrated into South African cuisine. South Africa also has the largest population of Indians outside of India. So it’s a hybrid cuisine.

What kind of real estate do you sell?

Primarily residential real estate, single-family homes and condominiums. When I’m traveling I’m still involved with the business on an ongoing basis, either by phone or by laptop. My partner James is physically present to deal with the clients, and show the properties and get the signatures on the contracts.

Has your head stopped spinning yet since winning IML?

It’s still in a little bit of a fog. James, Todd and I live a very busy life—we work seven days a week. We try to get to the gym five days a week when we can. We’re involved in producing a weekly event, a leather tea-dance for the leather curious, on Sunday evenings at a bar called Elements in Ft. Lauderdale. And on top of that, to try to get up-to-date on all the e-mails I received since IML, and the invitations, and book the travel, and plan my calendar and get my web site up and running—it’s taken an extraordinary amount of time. Right now free time and sleep are rare commodities.

But I’m very blessed, you know. I have two partners, and they’re both exceptionally supportive. James has taken over a portion of my workload, and Todd has picked up some more of the household tasks and errands, and has worked on my web site [<>]. So, that affords me a little more time to focus on my IML duties.

Can you talk a little bit about your trio relationship?

I met James almost fourteen years ago. For the first eight or nine years of our relationship we were entirely exclusive and monogamous. We were very vanilla. Out of the blue one morning, an acquaintance called and asked if we had ever had a threesome. He said he had wanted to try one, but wanted to do it with somebody he knew. James and I discussed it and decided we would give it a try. We thought there would be jealousies, but in fact it was quite a turn-on for both of us. So, very slowly we began to open our relationship to a minor extent. But we certainly weren’t looking to add anyone to our relationship.

One day James was showing some properties at a new townhouse development. Todd arrived and wanted to see some units there, but he wasn’t with a realtor and he didn’t have an appointment. So James said, “Well, if you like, you’re welcome to tag along with us.” Todd was very newly out of the closet, so James said to him, “If you like we’ll introduce you to our group of friends, and we’ll show you around.” So he and Todd stayed in touch.

Sometime later James called Todd to say that we would be going out dancing on Saturday night, and invited him to join us. Within five minutes of meeting him I knew he was going to be a very significant part of our lives—there was instantaneous chemistry between the three of us. I’m very cautious in what I say and who I say it to, but five minutes after I met him I said to him, “You know, if we were ever to expand our relationship and include another person, it would be someone just like you.”

He came home with us that night and has been with us ever since.