Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ryan Brown is Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2013

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #458, December 20, 2012)

Year after year, the Mr. Minneapolis Eagle contest has been a fun and hot event that packs the bar to capacity. This year’s version continued that tradition with four great contestants, seven judges (including out-of-town judges from Indiana and Iowa) and a big crowd that was ready to have fun.

The action started on Friday night, Nov. 9, with a meet-the-contestants event in the Minneapolis Eagle part of the bar complex, followed on Saturday afternoon (Nov. 10) by the judges’ private interviews with the contestants.

Saturday evening’s contest and show was held in the Bolt Underground. The contestants were introduced during the traditional Keg Walk: holding a beer keg above his head, each contestant worked his way through the crowd from the back of the bar to the stage at the front of the bar. Once they reached the stage they were introduced by emcee Brent Fourre, who was assisted by ASL interpreter Richard Herod.

The contestants were Jake Jacobson, a sandblasting artist who sported a pair of jeans with the image of a chain sandblasted on them; Karri Plowman, leather crafter and co-owner of Twin Cities Leather; Tommy Rosengren, photographer and writer; and Ryan Brown, businessman and bicycle aficionado.

Next to be introduced were the evening’s judges: Sam Carlisle, representing the Atons of Minneapolis; Dan Beach, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2007; Jayson Glynn, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2011 and also a member of the Atons; Derek Harley, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2012; Ron Kautz, Mr. 501 Eagle 2012, from Indianapolis; Jeremy Morris, Mr. Iowa Leather 2012, from Des Moines; and your humble columnist.

(The evening was, to a certain extent, a Mr. Minneapolis Eagle reunion of sorts. In addition to the past Mr. Minneapolis Eagle titleholders who were judging, the contest coordinator was Gregg White, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2003 (assisted by Nick Pavlik as contestant coordinator/Den Daddy), and the evening’s DJ was Todd Leek, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2000. The contest was sponsored, of course, by EagleBoltBar owner Ed Hopkins.)

The judges returned to their tables and the contestants were again brought onstage for the Q&A portion of the contest. This year’s questions included serious political questions about the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, marriage equality and access to health care, as well as lighter questions concerning dungeon equipment, experiences at past International Mr. Leather weekends, and leather Christmas trees.

The final judged portion of the contest, the Erotic Fantasy, included a description of the various types of men needed for the perfect fantasy orgy, as well as tales of sex in a dungeon, at the office and in a storage unit.

While the judges’ scores were being tallied, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2012 Derek Harley gave an emotion-packed and heartfelt stepping-aside speech. At one point Harley was joined by his partner, Josh, who had been literally carried above the heads of the crowd and lifted onto the stage. The emotional high of that moment was later countered by a bit of mischief: At the end of Harley’s speech, some of his titleholder brothers held up signs that spelled out “W-U-Z-Z-Y,” a term of endearment for someone who is no longer a current titleholder.

It was right around midnight when the contest results were announced: Karri Plowman was named first runner-up, and Ryan Brown was named Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2013.

Brown will represent The Minneapolis Eagle and Minnesota’s leather community in the 34th annual International Mr. Leather competition (<>), May 24-27, 2013 (Memorial Day weekend) in Chicago.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thank You, Allies

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #456, November 22, 2012)

This column is being written before Election Day, Nov. 6. You won’t be reading it until after the election has been held. That doesn’t matter, because whichever way the election turns out, the message of this column is the same:

Thank you, allies. Thank you from the bottom of my very gay heart.

I wrote a column in 2005 (Lavender #265, July 22) about the importance of having allies. The column was based on a song, “Not In Our Town,” that I had heard sung at a recent Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus concert. The song told what happened in Billings, Montana, in 1993: the town responded to anti-Jewish hate crimes by displaying paper menorahs in a window of almost every home, whether the people who lived there were Jewish or not. The song’s chorus ended with “No hate/No violence/Not in our town.”

In that column I wondered “what would happen if large numbers of people everywhere—gays, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people and allies alike—all started wearing pink triangles” as a show of solidarity. Then I made a proposition:

Wear a pink triangle. Wear it all the time. Wear it proudly. When people look shocked and say, “I didn’t know you were gay,” either tell them, “Well, I am” or tell them, “Well, I’m not — but I have a lot of friends who are, and I don’t like seeing them discriminated against.”

I could never have envisioned that, in Minnesota at least, that symbol of solidarity would be neither pink nor a triangle. It would be orange and blue, or blue and orange. It would take the form of lawn signs, buttons, stickers, t-shirts, billboards and even automobiles wrapped in the “VOTE NO” message.

The orange and blue symbol would be worn and displayed both by members of the GLBT community and by people who do not consider themselves members of that community, but who have nevertheless risen to the community’s aid. They saw injustice for what it was and refused to accept it without a fight. And every time I saw one of those orange and blue markers, I felt a little more hopeful about the future.

So much was so different when I came out in 1974. It was five years past Stonewall. The first Gay Pride celebration in Minneapolis had been held only two years earlier, in 1972. And, in 1971, Minnesota’s own Jack Baker and Mike McConnell had been the first same-sex couple anywhere to attempt getting married.

Nevertheless, for much of my time as a gay man, marriage was something that was for other people but not for me. In my mother's book, My Son Eric, she writes of my reaction to my older sister’s wedding (which, unbeknownst to her, took place shortly after I realized I was gay):

Eric had said after [the] wedding, “It made me sort of sad.” “Why?” I had asked. “Because it will never be that way for me.”

At the time she thought I was referring to the church where the wedding had been held, which was something of a family tradition. When she later found out I was gay, it suddenly dawned on her what I had meant.

What a difference 38 years makes. I have lived through an epidemic, one that is still claiming lives. I have marched against Anita Bryant, both in Minneapolis and in St. Paul, when she came to town. I've seen the Pride celebration grow and have seen many more allies show up for it in recent years than I saw years ago. I’ve seen Minneapolis dubbed the gayest city in the country. I’ve seen the progress toward equality the GLBT community has made in so many areas. And I’ve seen the backlashes against that progress, among them bullying and, this year, the marriage amendment.

I suspect there are as many reasons for taking a stand against the Minnesota marriage amendment as there are people who have taken that stand. Some are themselves members of the GLBT community. Some have children in the GLBT community. Or parents. Or aunts or uncles. Or friends. Or coworkers. Or, perhaps, none of the above—just a sense of basic fairness.

Whatever the reason, many, many folks have come forward and said that they felt the Minnesota marriage amendment was uncalled for, and they have backed that assertion with their dollars, their volunteer efforts, and their votes. It has been truly amazing, and a more than a little humbling, to watch.

Now that at least this phase of the struggle for marriage equality will have concluded by the time you read this, there is only one thing appropriate to say when you have been the recipient of the kindness of so many thousands—hundreds of thousands—of people across the state. It’s something that perhaps our allies don’t hear often enough: I feel such gratitude for all your efforts and support. Thank you. Thank you so much.

(Update: The “Vote No” forces won, and the Minnesota Marriage Amendment was voted down. Minnesota was the first state where this type of amendment lost at the ballot box.)

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Exclusive “Leather Life” interview: Barbara Nitke, author of American Ecstasy

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #454, October 25, 2012)

Photographer and activist Barbara Nitke recently published her second book: American Ecstasy. The book is a memoir in photographs and text of her years as the on-set staff photographer for many of the porn films shot in New York in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Kiss of Fire, Nitke’s first book (published in 2003), is a collection of photographs of couples involved in BDSM scenes.

In 2001, Nitke (along with co-plaintiff the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom) initiated a lawsuit against U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft seeking to overturn the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA), which many people felt was unconstitutional.

When I recently had a chance to interview Nitke by phone, we discussed her new book, her previous book, the lawsuit, and much, much more.

How did you get into photography?

I took up photography as a hobby when I was in my late twenties. I was married to a guy who was a porn producer. He was an entrepreneur type, and in the 1970s there was a lot of money to be made in porn.

I was a housewife. I used to play tennis a lot. I took up photography as a hobby. One thing led to another and I was able to turn it into a profession.

Actually, I originally wanted to be a writer. I took a lot of writing classes and found I don’t like the process of writing. I don’t like sitting down and, you know, looking at the blank page, or the blank computer screen. So later on in my twenties, when I picked up a camera, I was so happy, you know?

No blank page.

No blank page! You’re out in the world. You’re relating to people. You’ve got your camera, you take pictures. It’s very immediate. It’s spontaneous. It just felt right, almost from the beginning.

I must say, though, I very much enjoyed the writing in your new book—the way you tell the stories that go with the pictures.

Oh, thank you! I think if I had enjoyed writing, I probably could have been a decent writer. But I’d so much rather be hanging out with people with my camera, you know? I think the reason I wanted to be a writer is because I love observing people, and I thought originally if I could be a writer I would make these insightful, penetrating observations of people. And I find that’s where I want to go with my photography. I just found a better medium for what I want to express.

Did you have any training, or are you completely self-taught?

I have taken three photography classes in my life, and other than that I’m self-taught—the irony being, I teach photography at the School of Visual Arts here in New York. And I once admitted to my class that I was almost all self-taught, and two guys in the back of the class stood up and said, "Yeah, what are we doing here?"

I hope they were joking.

Well, they kept coming to class sporadically, but they were brothers, and they eventually got in the car with their cameras and crossed the country—which is what they should have done.

Who would you say were your influences? Did you have any influences?

Oh, yeah! Robert Mapplethorpe, of course, of course.

Did you know him?

No. I went into a bookstore one day and I saw a really compelling front cover of a book, and I picked up the book, and on the back was an image—it was a very kind of butch, tight image of a guy in a leather jacket. And I turned the book over, and on the other side was the same guy in drag. And I just was like, Do Not Pass Go. I bought the book immediately, took it home and fell in love with it. And it was Robert Mapplethorpe! I mean, I didn’t even know who he was. And when I really looked at his work and realized what he was shooting, it was just—I can’t even find the words—I was just awestruck that this guy could be recognized as an artist, and actually get to take the pictures that he was taking. So, he was probably my big first influence. And then there are a lot of them, I could name a whole long list. But he was big.

How would you describe yourself as a photographer?

I think I’m always evolving and changing. But I started out as a social documentary photographer, which would be like a Mary Ellen Mark or Diane Arbus. You’re uncovering moments, you’re finding moments, but you’re not directing what people do—you’re capturing something they’re already doing.

I started out that way, but as my career goes by, I’m changing over to the other side where I set up a scene and people act it out. Kiss of Fire was kind of a hybrid, because we would discuss what we were going to do upfront, and then I would come in and light it and stage it, pick the location, look at wardrobe—so it was a lot of planning. But then I would step back and not direct as people did their (BDSM) scene. Whereas the earlier work, American Ecstasy, the book I’m coming out with now—that’s pure documentary. I haven’t picked where we are, I haven’t done any lighting. I’ve blended in enough so that people would reveal themselves with me present with my camera, but I’m not really staging and lighting and doing any of that stuff.

Let’s talk about what you photograph. Why do you photograph kink/sex/porn? What draws you to it as a photographic subject?

Wow! You know, I’ve been in therapy for almost thirty years, and I don’t think I can answer the “why” part of that question.

What happened was, as I said before, my ex-husband made porn movies. I eventually asked him to let me shoot stills on one of his shoots. And then the director of that shoot hired me to work on his next shoot, which wasn’t my ex-husband’s movie. So it was on the second porn shoot, I was there with my camera—I’ll never forget—I was back in the makeup room, and everybody was getting dressed, made up, and complaining and gossiping and whatever. And I looked around and I thought, wow, here I am, I have my camera here, this world is completely open to me, and I get to shoot anything I want. And I realized in that split second that I had found my subject. It was like, wow, it just came to me—this is what I’m supposed to be shooting.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m drawn to sex for some reason—maybe you could say sex is the subject. Or maybe you could say that really it’s the people that are my subject, not so much the sex acts. I don’t know. I had more clearly defined goals for Kiss of Fire. That book was about people who were couples, who were expressing love through sadomasochism. I really had a better definition of what I wanted to shoot at that point.

Maybe it’s the most intimate part of people, and that’s what draws me to it. I don’t know. There have been so many moments in my life when I think I would have been better off with a different subject—I mean, certainly career-wise, it would have been better to have subject matter that was more widely accepted. And I’ve often felt that the subject picked me more than I picked it. You know, whatever it is, however it happened, I’m proud that I’ve always followed that inner voice that tells me I’m on the right path.

The photos that are now in American Ecstasy—what were they originally shot for? What use would they have been put to back when they were shot, when the films were in production?

The shots you’re seeing in that book are shots I shot for myself. But the way it worked was that I was always hired to work on the porn movies, and my job was to shoot publicity shots that would sell the movies.

What we’re seeing in the book is not those?

No. What happened was, I was shooting on slide film. And once I realized on that second shoot that I wanted to shoot this for me, then I was easily able to shoot what the producers needed, what I was hired to shoot. And then when I saw my moments, I would shoot those, and I would pull those slides out. So I gave the production the shots they had specifically asked me to shoot, and I kept my shots for me.

The images in American Ecstasy were shot from when to when?

Starting in 1982, and American Ecstasy goes up to 1991, so it’s a nine-year period.

And why are we just now seeing the images? What’s taken so long?

Well, that is a very good question, because I have been looking for a publisher for that work since 1985.


I know. My first literary agent took on my book in 1985, and then could never sell it. And then I went through another bunch of literary agents. And throughout all those years, some publishers would be insulted, but others would say, wow, this is good material, but we wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. I mean, they would compliment me on it, but no one would publish it.

So, I’m self-publishing American Ecstasy. I raised the money, or most of it, on And what’s cool about that is there’s no filter of an editor or publishing house or anything. It’s not edited, it’s unabridged, it’s exactly the book that I wanted to have. So maybe things happen for a reason, you know what I mean?

When did you give up trying to find a publisher for the book and decide to self-publish it? How recently?

I never gave up. I never ever gave up. The first three or four agents eventually gave up, but then I would go find another agent. I mean, I just never gave up.

So when did you decide that, okay, this is not going to happen, I’m going to self-publish it?

I decided that this past year.

So, even as recently as this past year, your book was considered too hot for publishers to touch?

Well, there’s a longer story. In 2005, my literary agent, Jane Dystel, actually got a publisher, and that was Judith Regan—


I don’t know if you know who that is—

Oh, yes!—

Judith was at Harper Collins, and she was the most powerful editor—she had her own imprint, and she really had carte blanche, because she was just really successful. She took the book on. And I was beyond thrilled—I mean, she appreciated the book, totally understood it. She really liked the book, and she was all set to publish it. Literally, I was just trying to FedEx the model releases out to LA where her office was, when she got fired.

I mean, it was the most bizarre thing! I had all kinds of trouble that day, and I couldn’t get the model releases into FedEx before 9:00 at night. And I think it was right after FedEx closed that I got the news that she had been fired. It was just the weirdest thing.

So, Judith got fired. I didn’t want Harper Collins to do my book without her, but we had to wait a year for them to release it, and then my agent went back out looking for another publisher. God bless that woman! And no one else would touch it.

So, then, two and a half years ago, I got a call from this young couple, they were publishing a small, kind of a soft-porn magazine. They had published some of my work in the past, and they said, you know what, we’re gonna publish your book. So I got all set for them to publish it. We had some disagreements over how the layout should be but we were heavily involved in getting it published, when all of a sudden they disappeared. No one would answer my calls, nobody would answer my emails, I didn’t know what happened to them. But by then I was so far along in the process that I decided to do the campaign and just publish it myself.

I found out that the couple suddenly started going through a divorce, that’s why they disappeared. But because of that— You know, the layout they were going to publish was not the layout I would have wanted, so again, things happen for a reason.

So what you’ve got now is the layout that you wanted.

Yeah. And I used the book designer that they had onboard—who’s amazing! We just revamped the layout to the way it is now. They didn’t like the idea of blending the text with pictures. They thought all the text should be in the front of the book and then all the pictures in the second half.

I like it the way it is.

Oh, me too! By far! I know it’s better this way. I had their designer do it my way, and she agreed with me, and, you know, it just turned out to be perfect.

So that’s the long saga of getting this book published. You have no idea what a great moment this is in my life!

What, to you, makes a good photograph?

To me, a photograph has to tell a story. I mean, you know, it has to draw you in. I think there has to be some depth. I also think a good photograph leaves you wanting a little more. It doesn’t, like, give it all away, there’s maybe a little bit of mystery to a good photograph. That could just be based on the person, the subject of the photo, or some gesture that they’re making. Composition matters, I think all the technical things matter, but I think what really makes a good photo is beyond the technical stuff.

What’s your favorite kind of subject to shoot?

People, people, people! The subject has to be able to talk. I can’t do still-life stuff, or animals. I can do other stuff, but photographing people is what I want to do.

What do you want your photos to do or to accomplish or to communicate?

I want my photographs to make people think, or to ask questions. Ideally, I want to go beyond just simply entertaining someone with my photos. And I want to open their mind if I can.

That’s a perfect segue into the final topic I want to ask you about: the lawsuit. Talk about opening people’s minds—that’s what that lawsuit was trying to do. Was it Ashcroft v. Nitke or Nitke v. Ashcroft?

Nitke v. Ashcroft—we sued them.

When you say we, it was you and who else that brought the suit?

It was me and the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom. And our lawyer, who ended up pro bono, doing it for free, was John Wirenius. John is a constitutional scholar who has written a book about the First Amendment.

Here’s the story of the suit. I’ll try to keep it simple—because if you ask my lawyer, it’s extremely complicated.

Basically, there is a law called the Communications Decency Act, which makes it a felony crime to post obscenity on the internet. And the problem with this law is the way they define obscenity. First of all, nobody knows what obscenity is. The way it’s legally defined in the Communications Decency Act is by community standards. So, if you post something on the internet that is patently—I forget their words, but appeals to the prurient interest, is completely lacking in artistic merit, scientific merit, based on the values of a specific community, then it’s obscene.

So it goes community by community. So what would probably be fine in New York, for example, might be considered obscene in a small town in Mississippi. And this definition worked fine until the internet came along. Now, if I’m in New York, and I put something up on my website, I can’t control who goes to my website, where they’re coming from, where they live.

So the only way for me not to commit a felony crime is to really not have anything sexual or nude on my website, if you took it to an extreme. We felt that law was unconstitutional because it chills everyone’s right to free expression, so we sued the government to try to overturn that law. And, to make a long story short, after years we lost, and we lost it at the Supreme Court level. And I really think we lost it politically because the Bush administration was in power then, and I think the Supreme Court just didn’t wanna go there. They didn’t want to start overturning laws like that when the Republicans were in power.

If the political tide turns, might someone try again to overturn the Communications Decency Act?

The Democrats are usually a little more reasonable about allocating their resources—for instance, when Clinton was in power and Janet Reno was the attorney general, they didn’t do any obscenity prosecutions because they cost a lot of money and take up a lot of time, so it was not a priority. Then they started doing prosecutions when the Republicans came back in. If the Democrats stay in power they probably just won’t enforce that law, and everybody will probably be okay. But our thinking was that we didn’t like having the law on the books, because you can always get Republicans back in, and you can always have the religious right go nuts again. So we just felt the law was a dangerous tool that they could use.

But the law is still on the books, and what I’ve done is just gone on with my life, and put my images up on my website. But I know that there’s always the danger—the way it works is, it could be one prosecutor in one tiny small town somewhere out there in the middle of America that decided that they don’t like you or they don’t like your work, and they can start an obscenity prosecution against you. So everybody’s vulnerable, really.

There is certainly no shortage of sex and nudity on the Web. How does everybody get around that? Or is everybody just living dangerously?

Well, everybody’s vulnerable. Realistically, from the government’s point of view—we found this out during the course of the lawsuit—the religious right puts a lot of pressure on the Department of Justice to go after all that porn that’s on the internet, because they would really like to see it go away. But from a realistic point of view, when the government mounts an obscenity charge against someone, they usually lose. You know, if the person fights it the government loses. So it’s hard for them to mount the cases. From a defendant’s point of view, though, it’s very expensive to fight the case. The porn industry will tend to fight them—they will find a way to raise money, or they have money, and they will fight back.

So the people that end up being vulnerable, really, are people like me that don’t have those means. Over the years, there have been some people who have gone to jail. I think the religious right keeps the pressure on, so the government has to keep those laws on the books—the government has to look like it’s doing something.

It’s a complicated situation. I know of an entire company that went out of business overnight—a hundred people lost their jobs in New York, overnight. This happened a number of years ago because a guy was running for mayor in a small town in Alabama. This company had satellite dishes that beamed all over the country, and this guy, in his run for mayor, said, I’m gonna get rid of that obscenity that’s coming into your homes from this horrible New York company. He mounted a prosecution that put them out of business. So, even with all the porn that’s out there, I say again, everybody’s still vulnerable.

What’s your day job now? You’re a staff photographer for television shows?

Dr. Oz is one of my clients. I love working on his show! I mean, I love him! He’s amazing. And I’ve worked on every season of Project Runway, which is a lot of fun to work on. I’ve worked on a lot of narrative shows, like Damages with Glenn Close. There’s a new Kevin Bacon show called The Following that I worked on. I’ll be on Gossip Girl next week. There are a lot of television shows shot in New York. That’s my day job, just going from show to show.

How can people find out more about American Ecstasy?

The website for the book is On the site there are excerpts from the book, and there’s a “buy book” link there, too. Or go right to and search for “American Ecstasy.”

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Meet Mr. Friendly: Interview with Derek Harley, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2012

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #452, September 27, 2012)

Allow me to introduce you to Derek Harley, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2012. Allow him to introduce you to Mr. Friendly, the new face (literally) of HIV stigma awareness. Harley is the team captain for Team Friendly Minnesota.

Tell me about Mr. Friendly.

Mr. Friendly is the new face of reducing HIV stigma. His face is a positive and a negative sign, so someone who wears this symbol is saying, “Positive or negative, I’m here for you. Regardless of your HIV status, we’re all in this together.”

How did you get hooked up with Mr. Friendly?

I was introduced to Mr. Friendly at the International Mr. Leather contest three or four years ago. I have a lot of very close friends who have tested positive. They needed support, and we’ve been there for them all throughout their journey of acceptance. I’ve seen some stigma-related incidents happen with them, and I just think this is a conversation that our city and our community needs to have. Speaking openly and honestly about HIV and reducing stigma is going to make our community better.

How did Mr. Friendly get started?

It was started by Dave Watt, a former Mr. Michigan Leather titleholder. He competed and won his title in September, 2008, and during his title year he started the Mr. Friendly program.

Why is the Mr. Friendly program needed? What does it hope to accomplish?

Reducing HIV stigma will make the world a better place for those living with HIV. It is going to increase testing, decrease transmission, and just overall make the world a friendlier place.

Give me an example of HIV stigma.

I think a lot of people don’t realize that they might be inducing stigma in conversations they have. They might think they're open-minded to individuals who are positive, but when it comes down to it, maybe they’re not so much. An example I like to use is the question, “Are you clean?” On its face it doesn’t seem offensive, but if you look at the opposite side of that, you’re implying that someone who is not negative and has a positive status is somehow dirty. And that doesn’t make that person feel very good.

Mr. Friendly is needed because we have to put it out there that the way you interact with someone who is positive can have a deep impact on how they feel about themselves. If we make them feel dirty or unwelcome or that they’re outcasts, we are degrading them as a person.

And, really, the status is just a part of who they are. They’re living with HIV, but it’s not necessarily what defines their lives. Many people I know who have HIV don’t go around every day thinking about the fact that they have HIV and don’t wear a big sign that says, hey, I have HIV. But that’s how they’re treated when they disclose their status.

For years I’ve seen phrases in online profiles such as “DDF/UB2” (“drug and disease free, you be too”).

In phrases like that there’s stigma attached all over the place, and not necessarily just referring to HIV. If you start dictating exactly what your terms are, you close the door to a conversation. Mr. Friendly is about having that conversation, having an open and honest conversation about statuses. Why can’t I just ask, “Hey, are you positive or are you negative?” and from there have a conversation about that, and define what’s safe for a particular person? But if you initially shut down the conversation by stating a demand of “drug and disease free, UB2,” it closes the door to having that conversation.

How can people get involved with Mr. Friendly and Team Friendly Minnesota?

We had a launch party on Sept. 15, and we’re doing a second one to reach out to the 18+ crowd on Sept. 20. From there we’d like to see the program do something along the lines of monthly outreach at different bars. And we want to get Mr. Friendly pins into the bars, so that even if we’re not doing an outreach event people can get an information card that talks about Mr. Friendly, and a pin they can wear to show that they are status-friendly folks.

(Visit the Mr. Friendly website at <Mr.>. There is also a Facebook page for Team Friendly Minnesota—search for “Mr. Friendly” on Facebook.)

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Atons Celebrate 40 Years

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #450, August 30, 2012)

The Atons of Minneapolis recently celebrated “40 Years of Devotion” in high Egyptian style at their Gopher XX run. In addition to celebrating a milestone anniversary, the Atons hosted a semi-annual meeting of the Mid-America Conference of Clubs (MACC), an organization that coordinates activities among member GLBT leather clubs.

The actual event took place Friday through Sunday, July 20-22, but many members of the Atons had been at the camp setting things up since the previous Tuesday. The amount of detail the club put into planning and presenting this run was staggering.

On Friday afternoon the registration table was set up in a portion of the camp’s main lodge which had been turned into a breathtakingly elaborate simulation of an archeological dig. One entire cabin was turned into an ancient Egyptian burial chamber, the better to host an almost continuous series of cocktail parties. The ceiling of the chamber appeared to be held up by some impressive-looking columns that one Atons member just happened to have in his basement. (Or was it his garage?)

Friday night’s opening ceremonies featured an epic pageant drama (narrated by your humble columnist) about the three kingdoms of ancient Egypt, their panoply of gods, and how the pharaoh Akhenaten sought to replace them all with one god: the Aten, or sun god, from which the Atons take their name.

For the ceremony, members of the Atons wore elaborate headdresses, masks and costumes as they portrayed some of the more notable ancient Egyptian gods. Then, a mummified Aton (Kyle Truss), representing both the pharaoh Akhenaten and the sun god, was carried to the front of the ceremonial area and was cut out of his mummification wrappings. He was seated in a place of honor and surrounded by the other gods, who then removed their costumes and stood before the crowd as the modern-day Atons.

On Saturday morning, breakfast was followed by the MACC meeting, which was followed by games: horseshoes, where the horseshoes were clothes hangers and the post was a full-size Egyptian mummy that was losing its wrappings; a how-fast-can-you-piece-together-these-ancient-Egyptian-ruins jigsaw puzzle; a radio-controlled toy dune buggy drive through an obstacle course of obscene ancient Egyptian ruins, along with both male and female Sphinxes; and a large-size Pachinko game.

Lunch was, appropriately, mid-eastern gyros and pita, along with fine American sweet corn. The afternoon was leisurely, a perfect time for a nap in the hammock or a dip in the swimming pool that the Atons had installed for the weekend.

For Saturday evening’s banquet the main lodge was turned into an Egyptian temple whose walls were decorated with embossed hieroglyphics. (Somebody had to measure the dimensions of the lodge, design the wall panel layout to fit those dimensions, design the inscriptions on the panels, fabricate and decorate the panels, haul them to the site and install them in the lodge. What did I say about how much planning was involved in this run?)

Banquet entertainment after dinner was provided by Nina DiAngelo, from the Gay 90s show lounge, who performed first as Judy Garland and then as Liza Minnelli. Also after dinner, a surprise: In appreciation for his many years as a member and leader of the club, as well as for his leadership of the leather and GLBT communities, the Atons presented Sam Carlisle with a Leadership Award.

After the banquet, the Atons presented more entertainment: In a romp through the music of the decades of the Atons’ existence, six Atons members performed as the Village People in “YMCA,” did an exercise tableau to Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” shook their pompoms to “Mickey,” and, inevitably, had a go at the Go-Go’s “Walk Like an Egyptian.”

Sunday morning’s breakfast included the traditional awards and recognition ceremony. The award trophies were all Egyptian-themed, of course, and were some of the best-crafted awards I’ve ever seen presented at a run. Then another surprise: The Atons announced that they were making Angel Rodriguez, a former Atons member who has remained heavily involved with the club’s activities, an honorary full member of the club.

After 40 years, the Atons of Minneapolis are now one of the longest-running gay leather clubs. But more than that, they are now one of the oldest GLBT community organizations of any type. That’s something to celebrate.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Leather and Politics, 2012

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #448, August 2, 2012)

It’s an election year. And Chuck Renslow, founder and executive producer of International Mr. Leather and co-founder of the Leather Archives & Museum, would like to have a word with you.

On Sunday, May 27, at the beginning of this year’s International Mr. Leather Contest and Show, Renslow made a speech in which he first implored audience members to document their personal history for the Leather Archives & Museum: “If it’s not recorded, it cannot be saved.”

Then Renslow’s speech turned to politics: “A few weeks ago during an election year, when it could hurt him the most, President Obama became the first president to champion gay marriage.” This statement was met with over twenty seconds of wild cheering and applause from the audience. Then Renslow continued:

“As you can imagine, the right wing conservatives are energized. And the only way to offset them is to become energized ourselves. More than any other time in your lives, you need to become active and involved in the campaign for the President of the United States.

“We need to re-elect President Obama this year. This year, the choice is between a history-making man who stands up for the gay community and tells the world we must have civil rights, or—or, if he is defeated, we will live under Mitt Romney, a self-[described] Mormon conservative who believes that marriage is for one man and one woman—even though at one time his religion espoused [marriage between] one man and several women.

“Now, in general, I support religious freedom and the freedom of choice. But when your freedom is used to deny me my freedom, you no longer represent me or my people.

“If you are not actively involved in helping to re-elect President Obama, you absolutely need to do it. Nothing less than the future of our civil rights [is] at stake.”

Thursday, July 5, 2012

International Mr. Leather 2012

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #446, July 5, 2012)

Your humble columnist has traveled to Chicago for the International Mr. Leather (IML) contest every Memorial Day weekend since 1994. Every year brings a new group of contestants and judges, and new vendors in the Leather Market, mixed with long-standing traditions and longtime friends. Here are my notes on the 2012 edition of the International Mr. Leather weekend, which ran from Thursday, May 24, through Monday, May 28.

Thursday: The weekend has its unofficial kickoff at the Leather Archives & Museum with a roast of Eric Gutierrez and Jim Deuder, the men who, respectively, held the International Mr. Leather and International Mr. Bootblack titles the past year. This is the first year the Bootblack titleholder is being roasted along with the soon-to-be-former International Mr. Leather.

Friday, noon: The Leather Market opens—over 100 vendors, many of them occupying bigger spaces than they have in previous years. The Market is packed, and many people are carrying purchases. The economy must be improving.

Friday evening: At the IML opening ceremonies we meet the weekend’s 48 contestants representing nine countries (a 49th contestant is unable to compete due to illness). Two contestants represent Minnesota: Derek Harley, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2012, and Jared Collinsworth, Mr. Twin Cities Leather 2012. We also meet the five contestants in the concurrent International Mr. Bootblack contest; Minnesota is represented by Bootblack Mike.

And there’s much more: Scavenged bricks from the recently demolished Gold Coast Bar (501 N. Clark St.), for many years the home bar of IML, are presented to former Gold Coast owner (and IML founder) Chuck Renslow. The Jeffrey Payne Lifetime Achievement Award is presented to Dave Rhodes, publisher of The Leather Journal. Mona Noriega, a commissioner with the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, welcomes everyone to Chicago and congratulates the two couples who will be “civil unioned” (!) during the IML weekend. The co-emcees for the weekend, Karen Ultra and John Pendal, International Mr. Leather 2003, keep things moving at a brisk and entertaining pace.

Friday evening, later: The hotel is in full party mode, and major eye candy is everywhere. One ballroom is filled with men in singlets and other athletic gear, while in another ballroom the dance music pounds and the crowd sweats at the San Francisco party.

Saturday: On the schedule are caucuses and receptions for Windy City Boys Troop, Chicago Hellfire Club, Leather Archives & Museum, International Ms Leather, People of Color in Leather, and one of several Leather Recovery meetings. And there’s always shopping at the Leather Market.

Saturday evening: It’s time for Pecs & Personality, where the contestants wear as little as possible while being as funny, sexy and entertaining as possible. It’s fun watching co-emcees Ultra and Pendal put the contestants through their paces, and the surprise questions asked of each contestant elicit some great answers. But I notice more than a few of the contestants looking back at the emcees while they answer their question instead of addressing their answers to the audience, which would be more effective. Future IML contestants, take note.

After Pecs & Personality, more parties: a bootblack reception, the Onyx dance party and, for puppy-play enthusiasts, Woof Camp 2012.

Sunday afternoon: It’s the weekend’s big event, the 34th annual International Mr. Leather Contest and Show. After an opening number by talented cabaret artist Sharon McNight (among her many CDs is Songs to Offend Almost Everyone), the contestants are introduced; the judges and tallymasters are introduced; there is a touching tribute to the late RJ Chaffin, who for many years ran the IML Leather Market; and then leather columnist Vern Stewart (taking over from the late Marcus Hernandez, also a leather columnist) announces the Top 20 Finalists. Derek Harley, Mr. Minneapolis Eagle 2012, is the nineteenth finalist announced, and there are loud cheers from the large Twin Cities contingent in the audience.

The finalists then present 90-second speeches and strut their stuff in the physique competition to the wild enjoyment and approval of the audience. While the judges finish their duties and the tallymasters total the scores, the winner of the International Mr. Bootblack competition is announced: Nick Elliott, from Portland, Oregon. (Bootblack Mike, representing Minnesota, is first runner-up.) Then McNight and surprise guest Bruce Vilanch present an over-the-top reading of an excerpt from the “mommy porn” bestseller 50 Shades of Grey.

At last, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Second runner-up is Kevin Jordan, Mr. DC Eagle 2012, from Washington, D.C.; first runner-up is A.C. Demidont, Mr. Eagle NYC 2012, from New York, N.Y.; and the new International Mr. Leather is Woody Woodruff, Mr. Michigan Leather 2012, from Farmington Hills, Mich.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Atons of Minneapolis—40 years of leather brotherhood

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #445, June 21, 2012)

Forty years ago, in the spring of 1972, a group of Twin Cities leathermen got together and formed the Atons of Minneapolis.

Things were a lot different in 1972. What was then known as the Gay Liberation movement had caught fire after the Stonewall uprising three years before, in 1969, but was still in its infancy. The first Gay Pride celebration took place in Minneapolis. And 1972 also was several years before the start of the AIDS crisis.

Before the formation of the Atons, there was no place for leather culture in the Twin Cities. The few men who were into leather were for the most underground about it. Jim Courtney, one of the founding members of the Atons, recalled recently: “I was told you don’t wear your leather in town. You go out of town [to wear it]. Nobody seemed to want to have their friends know that they were interested in that sort of thing.”

Larger cities like Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York were seeing an influx of military personnel returning from World War II who, while serving in the armed forces, had discovered they were attracted to others of their own sex. These men were banding together to form the first gay leather clubs and motorcycle clubs. The oldest gay motorcycle club still operating is the Satyrs of Los Angeles, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. The Atons are not a motorcycle club, although many members over the years have owned and ridden motorcycles.

Courtney’s partner at the time, Larry Daniel, had been visiting some friends who were part of New York City’s leather community. He had returned to Minneapolis wanting to host a leather “run” (party) in Minneapolis, and a group of men came together to put the run together.

The run became Aqua 1, the group became the Atons, and Daniel became the club’s first president. Aqua 1 was an in-city run (as opposed to the club’s current camping runs in the country), and visitors were lodged in Atons members’ homes rather than at a hotel. About thirty people attended Aqua 1, including many members of the Second City Motorcycle Club of Chicago, with which Courtney had been involved when he lived in Chicago before relocating to Minneapolis.

From that beginning, the Atons, for forty years now, have been a part of the Twin Cities GLBT and leather community. The club’s life can be described in terms of its events and activities.

The club’s year starts shortly after New Year’s Day with an Officer Installation Banquet, a relatively formal gathering at which the club’s officers for the year are sworn in and other awards and recognitions may be given. In spring, the Atons hold a smoker and rush party at which people from the community can meet the members of the club and find out more information about either Associate or Full memberships. (Disclosure: your humble columnist is an honorary full member of the Atons.) Candidates for full membership first go through a period of being a Pledge.

Also in spring, the club for many years hosted Eros, one of their two major semi-annual parties.

July brings two major events. Every other year the club presents their Gopher run, an elaborate camping weekend with games, parties and a banquet. During non-run years, the club hosts a more informal camp-out weekend at the same campground.

Themes of previous runs have included Gopher U, an academic-themed run; a Close Encounters alien-themed run; and a Trailer Park run. The club’s 25th-anniversary run was unusual in that it was held in the fall, in town, and in a hotel. In keeping with the theme of that run, “A Renaissance—Renewing the Ties that Bind,” the highlight of the run was a trip to the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. This year’s run, Gopher XX, will be the high point of the club’s 40th-anniversary celebration. (See below for more information.)

In addition to hosting a run every other year, members of the Atons travel to runs presented by other clubs, both in the Twin Cities area and by clubs in other areas of the U.S. and Canada. Over the years, club members have traveled to runs in Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and elsewhere.

The club’s other major semi-annual event historically has been a Halloween party held in late October or early November.

At the beginning of December, the Atons host an annual holiday fundraiser, which historically has included has included both a food drive and silent and live auctions benefitting a nonprofit charity, often an AIDS-related organization such as The Aliveness Project, Open Arms of Minnesota, or Every Penny Counts. Besides the auctions and food drive, the holiday fundraisers have featured the services of bootblacks and barbers, as well as holiday photos with Leather Santa.

In addition to these annual events, the club has a monthly meeting for business and fellowship. It also hosts monthly Leather/Levi Dinners that are open to the community.

There also are the spur-of-the-moment social opportunities—members might get together for brunch, dinner, a movie, a motorcycle show, or an art exhibit. Sometimes club members gather to offer help to another member or to a friend of the club.

Finally, the club’s 40 years of brotherhood have taken Atons members through the AIDS crisis—caregiving, supporting, fundraising, and attending funerals and grieving together.

Over the years the Atons have sent members to compete in leather contests, and have sponsored other contestants as well.

For many years, the Atons have worked cooperatively with other local leather clubs including the Black Guard of Minneapolis, the Knights of Leather, the Minnesota Storm Patrol, and an early Twin Cities leather club called the Norsemen. The Atons also are members of the Mid-America Conference of Clubs (MACC), an organization that coordinates activities and events among many leather clubs. Members of the Atons also have been involved in Minnesota’s annual Leather Pride celebration since its beginning.

Why have the Atons lasted, while many other leather clubs in the Twin Cities and elsewhere have come and gone? A Lavender cover story in 1997, on the occasion of the club’s 25th anniversary, branded them “tenacious as hell.” My explanation, based on observing and interacting with the club since 1993: they are a group of intelligent, friendly individuals who maintain high standards. Because of this, they have been continuously able over the years to attract new members who keep renewing the club and perpetuating it and its spirit of brotherhood. That brotherhood has been strong enough that it has lasted and stretched unbroken over 40 years.

The Atons will be celebrating their 40 years of brotherhood July 20-22 at their 40th-anniversary run, “Gopher XX: 40 Years of Devotion.” For details, or to register to attend the celebration, visit <>.


Why is the club called the Atons? The name refers to the ancient Egyptian ruler Akhenaten, who was so distinctive that in 1983 composer Philip Glass wrote an opera about him. Akhenaten, who ruled for only seventeen years, was a revolutionary figure in several ways: First, he attempted to convert the Egyptian religion of the time from the worship of many gods to the worship of one god, the Aten, symbolized by a golden disc representing the sun. Second, while Akhenaten had a wife named Nefertiti, he also had a male lover named Smenkhkare.

In recognition of both his introduction of monotheism and his being one of the first gay historical figures, the club decided to call themselves the Atons. The club is one of the few, in the whole universe of leather clubs past and present, whose name is derived from an Egyptian source.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Your Humble Blogger

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #444, May 24, 2012)

Here’s an announcement I am thrilled to make: Every previous installment of this Leather Life column—the complete works, the entire corpus, the whole enchilada—is now available on the Web in blog form.

Yes, your humble columnist has also, at long last, become Your Humble Blogger. Every Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine since 1995 (when both the magazine and the column started) is now available at <>. At this writing that’s over 430 blog posts, so there’s plenty of material to explore.

The new blog supersedes a former Leather Life website, <>, that was started in 2005 but went mostly undeveloped. The former website’s address now redirects to the new blog, at least for the time being.

Articles are presented as originally published in Lavender—more or less. Most of the addresses and telephone numbers, especially in the event listings of the early columns, have been deleted. Some email addresses and website URLs have been left intact, mostly as a matter of historical interest.

All of the text of previous columns is now contained in the blog. Photos that were originally published with the columns will be added in the weeks ahead. Future columns will be added to the blog after first appearing in the print and various online editions of Lavender.

Commenting is enabled for each blog post, so feel free to comment. (I’m sure I hardly need to ask everyone to keep their comments civil, and to not post spam.)

Because the columns were originally published in Lavender, and Lavender is considered a family magazine, the blog is not restricted to readers over the age of 18. If you’re looking for porn, therefore, you will need to look elsewhere. On the other hand, if you’re looking for information and entertaining reading about the life, history and culture of the gay, lesbian and pansexual leather/BDSM/fetish community, I hope you will be happy with what you find at <>.

Finally, the inevitable shameless self-promotion: Your humble columnist’s first book, Life, Leather and the Pursuit of Happiness, contains some of these columns in expanded form, with updates, cross-references and even footnotes. So if you like what you read in the blog, you will certainly want to own the book.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Teachable Moments

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #442, April 26, 2012)

While the Minnesota Marriage Amendment is an unfortunate and unwelcome development, it nonetheless is creating teachable moments—like the following conversation I had recently with a (non-Lavender) co-worker.

This person is very supportive of GLBT people and causes, so I was surprised to hear her say, “I was just walking behind a guy in the skyway, and—why do some gay guys behave like that?” Like what, I asked. “Well, he was swinging his hips and flipping his wrists—you know what I mean. There are some gay men who act like that, and then there are the rest of you, who just act normal.”

I explained that there might be many reasons why someone would act “like that”: Maybe that’s just the way he is. Or he might have been “camping it up” either for fun (perhaps inappropriate in public) or to deliberately upset onlookers (generally not appropriate in public—you won’t get people to sympathize with your cause by antagonizing them). Or he might have been exhibiting learned behavior—when he was young he was told this was the way gay people acted. (All these same possibilities apply also to masculine women.)

Or he might not have been gay. Many effeminate heterosexual men and boys are assumed to be gay and are even sometimes bullied as a result. Too often people assume that one’s gender presentation (masculine women, effeminate men) is connected to one’s affectional preference (lesbian or gay) when, in fact, they’re not always connected.

I also explained that, in my experience, younger people tend to make these assumptions less often than older people, and younger people also grant themselves and others both more freedom and more fluidity in whom they love and how they present their gender image to the world.

I finished by explaining that I hope to see a society that lets everyone be who they are and express themselves authentically, as long as they are being civil and appropriate. An opposite-sex couple flaunting their heterosexuality in the skyway would not be appropriate public behavior, either. But there’s a difference between making out in public and simply holding hands.

I felt I had accomplished something when her response was, “Well, thank you for explaining. Now I’m going to go home and tell all this to my husband—because that guy in the skyway really would have bothered him!”

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Clark Bufkin, 1947-2012—An Appreciation

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #440, April 5, 2012)

Clark Bufkin (early 1980s photo)
Clark Bufkin, a notable GLBT-community activist, publisher, and former member of the Atons of Minneapolis, passed away suddenly on Jan. 13 in Palm Springs, Calif. Bufkin leaves an enduring and many-faceted legacy to the Twin Cities GLBT community.

Clark Cato Bufkin was born May 29, 1947, in Dallas, Texas, and was raised in Port Royal/Beaufort, S.C. by his mother, Mildred, and by his grandmother, who ran the guest quarters at Paris Island Marine Corps Depot. At age 11 Bufkin told his mother he was gay, and at age 14 he was picking up Marines at Paris Island.

As a young adult Bufkin lived in Savannah, Charleston, Atlanta, Norfolk, New York and Washington, D.C., working first as a hairdresser and then as a corporate manager of beauty salons in department stores. His corporate position eventually took him to Des Moines, where he moved with his partner Joe Miller. In 1977 the two men moved to Minneapolis.

Once in Minneapolis, Bufkin changed careers and in 1980 became the area’s first openly gay real estate agent who actively marketed to gay/lesbian clients. For many years he remained a prominent and successful real estate agent, and eventually he opened his own brokerage.

Much of Bufkin’s considerable social and political activism dovetailed with his career as a businessman. In 1981 he co-founded the Northland Business Association (NBA), the area’s first “gay chamber of commerce,” which was active until 1988. Bufkin later wrote that he co-founded NBA because his clients “would ask me who they could contact for other professional services. Gay and lesbian business people needed to talk to each other, and I found we could help each other.” He was also on the board of the National Association of Business Councils, an umbrella organization of local gay business associations.

Building on his Northland Business Association contacts, in 1982 Bufkin was instrumental in starting Equal Time, a GLBT newspaper that was published until 1994. Bufkin convened a series of community meetings to see what role the community wanted a GLBT newspaper to play, and he also reached out to underrepresented GLBT subcommunities to ensure they had a voice in the new publication.

Ten years later, Bufkin became involved in publishing again: In 1992 he bought Gaze, another Twin Cities-based GLBT newspaper, from Brad Theissen. Bufkin transformed the publication into Gaze Magazine, which he published until May, 1995. (Before being published in Lavender Magazine, your humble columnist had several articles published in Gaze.)

While never running for public office himself, Bufkin worked on the election campaign of his friend Brian Coyle, who in 1983 became the first openly gay city council member in Minneapolis. In the words of his former partner, Steve Johnson, “At a time when many in the gay community were either highly closeted or in-your-face radical activists, Clark was often sought out by local political leaders as someone you could have effective dialogue with; he was also frequently quoted by the mainstream press as a spokesperson for the gay/lesbian community, and did numerous television and radio interviews.”

Bufkin was a board member of the Minnesota Committee for Gay and Lesbian Rights (MCGLR) in the early 1980s; was the first board chair of the (reorganized) Gay and Lesbian Community Action Council (GLCAC, now OutFront Minnesota) from 1986 to 1989; and was a founding co-chair in 1987 and 1988 of the Twin Cities Gay/Lesbian Pride Committee, the organization known today as Twin Cities Pride. Bufkin was one of the Twin Cities Pride Parade’s Grand Marshals in 1992, an honor he shared that year with human-rights activist B.J. Metzger.

Bufkin was a proud leatherman, and was involved with the bear community as well. He was a member of the Atons of Minneapolis from 1981 to 1993, serving as the club’s president in 1988 and 1989. He also held the title of International Mr. Daddy Bear 1995, awarded at the International Bear Rendezvous in San Francisco. He was an active member of All God’s Children Metropolitan Community Church in Minneapolis and served on its Board of Directors.

Bufkin relocated to California in 1995, moving first to San Francisco and later to Palm Springs/Cathedral City. He worked in the mortgage banking industry until his retirement two years ago. He is survived by his older brother Rusty and his nephew Emmitt, former partners Shawn Janes, Steve Johnson and Jack Gilmer, and by his canine companions. He was preceded in death by his mother in 1981, and by Joe Miller in 2009.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Visit to Leather/Gear Night

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #438, March 2, 2012)

A monthly “Leather/Gear Night” has been part of the Twin Cities leather scene for several years now. Promoted on Facebook by several younger leathermen, the event has been drawing big (and mostly younger) crowds. I decided to check it out.

The evening starts at 9:00 p.m. but doesn’t really get going until 10:15. Since the event is about leather and “gear,” I start to keep an eye out for what constitutes “gear” among this crowd. I see a few wrestling singlets. A uniform shirt. A kilt. Latex. Neoprene. Spandex. A black jock waistband peeking above low-cut jeans. Cadet cap. Muir cap. A leather Civil War cap that turns out to have a built-in blindfold.

Although the crowd is predominantly younger, there also are some older—excuse me, I meant to say more mature—men (including your humble columnist). Standing at the bar is someone I used to see when I first came out. We’re both still around, all these years later.

Lumberjack shirt. Leather armband. Mirrored aviator sunglasses. (Is there anyone who doesn’t look good in mirrored aviator sunglasses?)

Two guys at the edge of the crowd are making out. Someone sees I’m taking notes and asks, “Got any good recipes in there?” Very funny. For your information, sir, I haven’t heard a single recipe exchanged this evening. Yet.

Chain collar with lock and leash. Leather puppy paws. Blue jeans. Black jeans.

One of the bartenders estimates there are 100 people in the bar. It seems like more. I see people checking their cell phones—these guys are connected and tech-savvy, and many of them have really interesting wallpaper on the screens of their phones.

Leather harness. Chain suspenders. Tattoos. Mechanic’s shirt with patches. A porn star. A female—one of two I see this evening.

House music is pounding on the sound system and the lights on the dance floor are pulsing. Nobody’s dancing.

At midnight I think it’s starting to clear out, but am told people are just going upstairs to smoke. There’s a gentleman in contemporary sport-bike gear next to a gentleman in classic black biker leathers—a nice picture, and a perfect summation of the evening.

I hadn’t known what to expect tonight. I was afraid it might all be different, but what drew me to the leather scene years ago is still here. A companion says, “A lot of it has to do with the energy. The energy is good tonight.” I’m happy to see that, judging by this crowd, leather’s culture and legacy are in good hands.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Letter to EricJames Borges

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #436, February 3, 2012)

Dear EricJames,

I didn’t know you, but I wish I would have been able to. I wish I could have given you hope by telling you what we have in common, how things worked out for me, how things could work out for you too.

You were a nineteen-year-old filmmaker. You were an intern with The Trevor Project, the nationally known GLBTQ youth suicide prevention hotline. On December 10, 2011, you posted an “It Gets Better” video in which you told a heartbreaking tale of being raised in an “extremist Christian” household. You spoke of being bullied from kindergarten through high school as well as at home. You told how your mother had performed an exorcism in an attempt to “cure” you.

A month later, you killed yourself.

Hearing your story brought me up short, because I, too, have been the subject of an exorcism. When I was nineteen, my mother discovered I was gay. She started fasting and praying that I would be cured. One evening she and her Christian fundamentalist friends held an exorcism in absentia in her living room to cast the demon of homosexuality out of me. (The exorcism was unsuccessful.)

My mother started writing a book which she thought would be about how her son had been prayed straight. But she later wrote: “As I watched him living his life, I was the one who began to change my ideas.” As it turned out, her book was subtitled “A mother struggles to accept her gay son and discovers herself.” That book, by Mary Borhek, was My Son Eric, and for many years she spoke out as an activist for GLBT rights.(Since my mother wanted to use pseudonyms in the book, I chose “Eric” for mine. So we also share a first name, sort of.)

I was very lucky—I was blessed with other supportive people who helped me deal with my mother’s initial reaction to my gayness. But as an intern at The Trevor Project, you certainly had supportive people around you too. Tragically, their support and love evidently was not able to overcome the years of painful bullying and other assaults you endured.

I cringe at some of the hateful things I hear about GLBTQ people from the mouths of supposed Christians. The words hurt. They wound. Sometimes they kill. They are the opposite of Christian love and charity. They are not the gospel that Jesus came to offer us.

How many more of our young people will have to be sacrificed on the altars of, in your words, “extremist Christian” hate before we as a society say, “No more”? I hope not too many. I would prefer none.

EricJames, wherever you are, I hope you are at peace and I hope you can forgive your tormentors. Truly, they knew not what they were doing.

Sincerely and sorrowfully,
“Eric Borhek”
(a/k/a Steve Lenius, a/k/a Your Humble Columnist)

P.S. You made a short film titled “Invisible Creatures” that showed such potential. The lighting, camerawork and composition were beautiful. I'm so sorry you won’t have a chance to make any more films. I would have wanted to see them.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Altered States

(Published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #434, January 6, 2012)

Sometimes your humble columnist is startled to see concepts, ideas and practices associated with the modern-day leather/BDSM/fetish community appear in other communities, places and times. Throughout history, humans have yearned for altered states of consciousness. And they have arrived at similar ways to reach those altered states.

Example: Many descriptions of ancient “mystery” initiation ceremonies, whether in Egypt, Greece, Rome, the middle east or among the Celts and Druids, contain many similar details. The ceremonies supposedly took places in dark chambers, often underground. The initiate often had to undergo some kind of suffering but was able to transmute it into spiritual knowledge and enlightenment. One account of these ceremonies on the Web likened them to a crucifixion—except the initiate was lightly bound to a table “shaped like the Roman numeral X.” Sounds to me like a dungeon with a St. Andrew's cross.

According to The Way of the Shaman by Michael Harner, aboriginal native people and tribes throughout North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia arrived independently at practices and concepts for healing that had many similarities. In their earth- and nature-based worldview, illness was seen as a loss of a person’s spirit, soul or power. With the help of hypnotic drumming (and sometimes plant-based hallucinogens) the shaman was able to enter an altered state of consciousness, journey to the spirit world and, often aided by “power animals,” retrieve their patient’s lost or stolen power, thus making the patient a whole being again.

Many people today say they find BDSM experiences have helped them “reclaim their personal power” after incidents of serious illness or domestic or sexual abuse. The repetitive sound of a flogger hitting a person’s back can induce the same kind of consciousness shift as a shaman’s drum. And it would appear that many in our community resonate with either puppies or ponies as their personal power animals.

The fact that our community’s archetypes have so many similarities to the archetypes of so many other communities in other places and times points to a conclusion: perhaps, based on history and human experience, kinky people are more “normal” than some non-kinky types might care to admit.