Thursday, July 31, 2008
Activist Starts the Leather Foundation
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Russ Mortenson isn’t exactly one of the highest-profile people in San Diego’s Leather community, but he’s the sort of behind-the-scenes activist that quietly, unobtrusively and effectively gets good things done. The Missouri-born Mortenson, a familiar sight at the Eagle in North Park where he works as a bartender, recently organized the Leather Foundation, largely to raise money to help people recover from the devastation of the 2007 wildfires in San Diego County and also to help prevent sexually transmitted diseases by once again making condoms available in bars. Zenger’s interviewed him in mid-June and his crisp, clear-cut comments are self-explanatory.
Zenger’s: Why don’t you start by telling me a little about yourself, your background, how you got involved in the Leather community and what led you to start the Foundation?
Russ Mortenson: I was born in Missouri, but I’ve been in California since I came here in the Navy in 1972. I’ve lived here and in L.A. and San Francisco. I ran for Mr. San Diego Leather in 1986 and then I moved and didn’t come back to the Leather community until 1997, when I did the Leather Community Awards in L.A. County at the Fault Line. I met my partner and moved back here to San Diego.
The Leather Foundation is a product of outreach. There’s a clear need for a sense of togetherness and belonging within the Leather communities, whether they be Bisexual, Transgender, Gay, Lesbian, or straight. There are a lot of wonderful people and a lot of wonderful organizations. We just need a central focus. It also came about because during the fires, and also from my background working in social services, I noticed that single folks and Gays and Lesbians tend to be at the bottom of the list of people who were getting help, mostly because they are single and families would always go first. So the Leather Foundation was born from what I perceived was that need.
Zenger’s: You mentioned that the Leather community has been well known for philanthropies, but this is the first time anyone in San Diego has tried to pull them together and do an ongoing program from a single organization. What was your involvement in fundraising before this, and what made you see the need for something more ongoing than just, “Let’s do something at a bar”?
Mortenson: Fundraising has always been with me. I just have this love of doing things and being part of things, and watching something I can see in my mind come to fruition, and being able to raise funds for whatever organization needs money. It’s just been a great joy of mine.
I just see a lot of fundraisers going to a lot of different organizations, and it’s piecemeal. I thought that the Leather community, and the general community that’s receiving the funds, would be better off if there was a larger, more focused point, so that everybody could contribute at the same time to different things, and then narrow-focus them down to whatever is needed.
Zenger’s: You mentioned last year’s fires as part of your inspiration. How did you encounter this issue that you mentioned, that Gays and single people in general were the last to be helped? Were there any specific incidents that you remember that made you aware of that?
Mortenson: I worked in social services before, and working with other charitable organizations, large ones, I’ve seen that their primary focus was single women, people with disabilities, single parents, children. There doesn’t seem to be one focused directly on single individuals by themselves. They would help them, but women, children and families go first. The rest pull up the back. It’s sort of a “we’ll get around to it if we have enough funds” mentality. So I thought of the Leather Foundation filling the gap and saying, “O.K., we’ll do that.”
Zenger’s: So what were you guys able to do during the fires? How much money did you raise, how many items were you able to get, and how did you distribute them?
Mortenson: We raised $1,500, and I called the Red Cross and asked them what they wanted. They said they were badly in need of water, so we spent $500 on bottled water and took it over both to Qualcomm and the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Zenger’s: Was it pretty frantic for you during those days?
Mortenson: It was, just wondering what could we do the fastest and who needed the help the most. We did put out e-mail lists and calls to North County and East County, asking any individuals if they needed help to contact us. We wanted to make sure everybody that we could reach had a place to stay, food, whatever they needed. That’s how I saw the Leather Foundation’s job. At that point, I was kicking in high gear. Fortunately, most of our own community had reached out and brought it home to other people, so we were well taken care of. I think that’s indicative of our community at large.
Zenger’s: One of the things mentioned on your Web site is a condom distribution program in bars. What gave you the idea to do that?
Mortenson: When I saw the statistics that San Diego County’s HIV transmission rate was 1,100 percent higher over the last numbers and we’re leading the nation. You just can’t sit by and do nothing. Once before, there was a condom distribution program. It closed for whatever reasons. I think a condom is a wonderful way to cut down on HIV/AIDS resurgence, and also the STD’s, which are outrageous. We need to protect our own, protect our people.
Zenger’s: Why do you think the earlier condom distribution program disappeared?
Mortenson: Lack of funding. Absolutely. Lack of funding.
Zenger’s: I’ve heard a lot about younger people coming into the community who didn’t have the experience of those of us in the 1980’s, having their friends dying right and left, and don’t see this as something that affects them. We’ve had this enormous amount of propaganda about how wonderful the new meds are, and very little information about the side effects, about how horrible a life on these drugs can be. Do you think that’s part of why the rates are up, just a new generation that isn’t as scared as we are?
Mortenson: Correct. I think so. I think that we’ve lost touch with the issue, and the names and the faces. The only way to combat that is for younger people to step up and be part of the whole process, from beginning to end. I also would add that if we don’t help with condom distribution and whatnot in Tijuana, we’re batting our heads against a wall. With this easy-crossing, trans-border partying on both sides, it’s insane to try to stop it on one side and not help the other.
Zenger’s: So you’re saying that we need to get condoms into the bars in Mexico, not only to help save the Mexicans but also because the diseases are being transmitted from one side to the other.
Mortenson: I was in the Navy, and I remember going across. It just makes sense. You have to do it on both sides. And it’s not just bars. Coffee shops, I think. Certainly hotels should have them available. If you could put a Bible in a book drawer, you could certainly put a condom in a book drawer!
Zenger’s: What are the expenses involved in doing something like this? How much money are we talking about to do the kind of program you want?
Mortenson: Total? You mean down the road, or what we’re doing right now?
Zenger’s: What you’re doing now, and what you’re hoping to expand to down the road.
Mortenson: I think that right now it’s running about $500 per month, counting the containers and the condoms, and we just got our shipment of our 10,000th condom since January. I would like to see it move up to probably $1,500 per month, which will take care of all the bars I can see. But I’d also like to do the organizations. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are already taking the condoms around and moving them to where they’re going. I also put them on the university campuses, on the Gay Student Union halls, wherever we can, and find condom-dispensing machines and bring them back into usage.
This is not just a Gay/Lesbian thing or a Leather thing. This is the general public that needs help, and it just happens to be that the Leather community is stepping up.
Zenger’s: What’s been the reaction of the bar owners? Have you gotten support? Has there been resistance?
Mortenson: No one’s said no. Some wanted to leave them behind the bar and let the patrons ask for them. In that case, we put a little sign on the bar saying you can ask the bartender. But there’s very, very few of those. Most of them are welcoming us to put them back in their bar.
Zenger’s: What kind of promotion are you doing to let people know that condoms are available, and persuade them to use them?
Mortenson: By sight. You see them. They’re in almost all the bars in a visible place, and even those that have them behind the bar, you can still see them. Now, if I did a publicity blitz on that, it would mean a lot more funding. Let the word of mouth spread, and sight-see, and allow the money that we have or can gather to get condoms out there first.
Zenger’s: One issue that we’ve been particularly interested in as one of the risk factors for AIDS is drug use. I was wondering if your group was doing anything on that issue as well. Are you raising funding for any of the groups in our community that deal with drug use?
Mortenson: I haven’t, but it’s certainly on the plate of things to do. With our funding, I can only tackle major problems we have now. I think the condoms should be out first, and certainly the drugs, crystal meth in particular, should be the next one in line. But there are already organizations out there working on that. Nobody’s putting condoms in the bars. I certainly would be glad to help anyone raise money that they needed.
Zenger’s: I was also wondering if you’d like to talk about the other funds involved in the organizations, if you could run them down and tell me what they are.
Mortenson: There’s another one called the Small Group Fund. This fund is set up for small organizations in San Diego County who are doing something that would benefit the Leather community as a whole, and if they were short in the budget they could ask for funds for it. The Ms. San Diego Leather contest asked for help, and we were able to help them in this last round.
Then there’s the Emergency Fund, which comes in three parts. One is for emergencies like burial. Again, we’re back to the earthquakes, fires, things like that. If someone is short on their phone bills, we can try to help. Then there’s the Women’s Breast Cancer Emergency Fund, which is doing the same thing. That was inspired by the women in North County.
Zenger’s: How did that happen?
Mortenson: They were doing a fundraiser, and we wanted to do something. The ladies involved had a friend who died of breast cancer, and they wanted to do a fundraiser and establish a fund, but they didn’t wanted to mount it as a fund. So they contacted me and asked if I would hold the funds for them. They’re the ones who set the policies on how the money goes. We’re just the caretakers who take care of the funds for them.
The other fund is called Travel and Education Fund. I think it’s important that San Diego County be well represented — as we have been — in the different functions, whether it be IML [the annual International Mr. Leather contest in Chicago] or Leather Leadership Conferences and all that. So if someone needs and wants to go, we certainly need new leadership to be able to come through and participate, and this is just a helpmate for them. Hopefully we can do something like bring the Leather Leadership Conference to San Diego.
Zenger’s: What are your ambitions for the Leather Foundation? What else do you hope to see it do?
Mortenson: I would like to see education funds established. I would like to see it become something that other communities around the nation would see works, something that the community should be proud of and be able to take their money into good hands and give it to charities that are in need. I just think that it can only grow in whichever direction is needed at the time. It certainly has to be flexible.
Zenger’s: Who else is involved besides yourself?
Mortenson: Robert Boyd is our secretary, and Robert Hopkins is our treasurer. We’re setting up a board of directors of five people. This has been an ongoing process of about three years until we’ve reached this point.
Zenger’s: You said it was an ongoing process of three years, but you also said it was inspired by the fires.
Mortenson: The first fires.
Zenger’s: Oh, the first fires in 2003. Ah. So if there’s another one, which is all too believable on a day like this, will you guys be ready?
Mortenson: I worry. I worry. Every time I go out, especially when it was raining this fall, I go, “Oh, dear. Here we go.” As you can tell on our Web site, our goal is to have food, water, blankets, etc. stockpiled throughout the county, so we can do it. But so far we haven’t had enough money to move that fund yet. It will, it will.
Zenger’s: If people want to help you out, where do they go?
Mortenson: You can donate directly from our Web site, www.theleatherfoundation.com, through PayPal, or certainly you can find me at the Eagle. And if anybody needs anything, there are applications on the Web site itself.